Project design

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In any kind of research project, one of the first steps (that is often overlooked) is to plan the various steps that will be involved. Taking the time to prepare a detailed work plan will most likely save you time overall. We present here five steps that you can follow to be better prepared to face your own research challenges.

5 steps to design a GIS project

A GIS project, like any research project, requires good preparation, and the time spent preparing might save precious hours along the way. The realization of a GIS project can be conceptualized in 5 main steps: definition of the research question, the design of the methodology, the data gathering, the analysis, the presentation of the results.

1. Define your research question.

This will be the basis of all the subsequent steps of your project. This question should lead you to define goals and objectives specific to your own project. The more interesting you find the question, the more exciting you will find your project.

Inspiration for research questions can come from very different, and sometimes unusual sources. Take the time to browse on-line, find scientific articles related to a topic you like, explore datasets that you find intriguing.   Sometimes inspiration for your research questions can come from your day to day life, sometimes it can comes from a question raised in a class. Take the time to seek out different options if you are having doubts about your interest or the feasibility of the project.

If you think your research question and objectives are clear and concise, and that they fit under the umbrella of your class project or the timeline you need to meet, you are ready for step 2.

2.  Design an appropriate methodology

Once you are settled on one research question and the subsequent objectives, the design of the methodology is your next step. One way to work on your methodology is to create a flowchart (or a model) of the various steps required to answer your question. You can think of this as the logical flowchart of the operations required to solve the problem.

You will need to identify the type of operations you will need to perform (spatial statistics, creation of new shapefile, raster analysis, etc.) and the expertise you will need (do you know how to work in specific software? do you know how to work with different projections, which particular tool you will need?).

At this moment of your project, you should be able to identify what data you will need in your project.

 3. Find the right data

Finding data is a crucial part of your project. Depending on the data available you may or not have to modify your research objectives or your methodology.

When looking for data, starts by identifying the 3Ws:

  • WHAT? What are the different layers you will need: road network, urban plans, deforestation, watersheds? Are you looking specifically for vector or raster data?
  • WHERE? What spatial extent are you looking for? A city, a country, a continent?
  • WHEN? Do you want to do an analysis about past, current, or future conditions

Data is available both freely on-line and, for the McGill community, through the McGill Library. This is a time consuming step of the project, prepare in advance.

 4. Perform the analysis

Now that you have the objectives ready, the methodology defined (and refined based on data), and data in your possession, it is time to use you skills as a GIS analyst and apply your methodology. When facing problems, there are many resources available online via blogs, university websites, and software help documents. Do not hesitate to consult them. For the McGill community, the GIC team is there to help you. Come see us on the fifth floor of Burnside Hall or email us at

Remember that this process can be filled with hick-ups and that you might have to start over (many times!). Remember too, that it is not the number of mistakes that matters, but what you accomplish at the end.

5. Present your results

At the end of your project, you will need to present your final results. Depending on the nature of the research project, different options will be more effective: final report, poster, PowerPoint presentation.

Any GIS project will most likely present a map of the final (or intermediate) results. An effective map should be able to be read independently from the wider presentation of the project. Have a look to our Cartography section for more tips and resources to create a map.

If you have more questions, come see us at the GIC on the 5th floor of Burnside Hall, McGill University, or email us at