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What Are the Five Components of GIS?

June 01, 2021

From global climate change to regional virus outbreaks, geographic information systems (GIS) are used to analyze and answer an entire spectrum of issues associated with geographic space. The researchers and analysts addressing these issues typically have academic degrees in Geographic Information Science (GISc), providing the scientific knowledge, skills and training in specialized computer-based GIS apps.1 Tech-based careers requiring degrees in GISc include a wide variety of fields such as national defense, meteorology, climatology, marine sciences, earth sciences, energy production, biotech, agriculture, healthcare, law enforcement, real estate, logistics, infrastructure and disaster risk management and relief.

Although the range of fields benefitting by GIS is amazingly diverse, the list of components essential for a successful GIS is strikingly simple. In this article, we explore in detail the five components of GIS that form the basis of all top-notch geographical information systems.

A Brief Overview of GIS

Prior to the rise of GISc, very few people had the specialized skills for manually performing statistical analysis on geographic data to help explain events, plan problem-solving strategies and predict future outcomes. Today, these tasks are greatly facilitated by running computer-based GIS apps that quickly integrate maps with data, perform broad-ranging analyses and provide state-of-the-art maps, reports and other visualizations.2

Key GIS functions include data input via automated and manual digitization, data editing, manipulation and management via database management systems (DBMS) and queries, analyses, reports and visualizations via integrated menu options.2

When collections of geographic data are input, records are categorized, linked according to geographic reference and stored in databases. The actual geographic reference stored in a record may be explicit, such as latitude and longitude, or implicit, such as a census tract name, street address or zip code. Implicit geographic references may automatically undergo geocoding to generate explicit references facilitating cartographic visualization and statistical analysis.2

An explicit geographic reference such as a school's latitude and longitude is an example of spatial data. The school's name and type are examples of attribute data. In response to users performing "why" and "what if" queries, the GIS analyzes relationships between spatial and attribute data and quickly produces globes, maps, charts or reports enabling users to easily visualize, understand and share their query results.3

What Are the Five Components of GIS?

The five components of GIS establish a fundamental framework upon which all types of geographically referenced information may be logically assembled and scientifically explored. Consisting of people, methods, data, software and hardware, the five components of GIS form a foundation that empowers users to analyze, visualize and improve an incredibly diverse spectrum of real-world issues.2,3 In the following paragraphs, the five components of GIS are explored in greater detail.


Logically, the most fundamental component of a successful geographic information system is people. Without a personal need for solutions to real-world problems provided by GIS, there is little purpose served by GIS technology. Fortunately, GIS technology is critically important and valuable to nearly every industry on earth and keeps a broad range of people employed. Personnel who work with GIS include analysts and others who access GIS to do their jobs every day, as well as teams of technical specialists who design, program and maintain geographic information systems.2,3


To successfully integrate a GIS into an existing IT framework, every organization requires an overarching and methodically considered business plan. However, although a well-designed plan is a basic component of a top-notch GIS, the methods by which it is integrated and utilized will be unique to the business model and specific operating practices of each organization.2,3


An equally important component of GIS is data, including spatial or geographic data and attribute or related tabular data. Integrating spatial data with related attribute data is the basis for the powerful analytic, problem-solving and visualization functions of GIS. Data used by organizations may be collected and digitized in-house. Commercial data resources are also available for purchase from 3rd-party providers. An organization's GIS data is typically stored in and managed via a DBMS.2,3


Computer software is another essential component of geographic information systems. Without GIS software programs or apps, the ability to store, analyze and visualize GIS data would be impossible. Key GIS software applications include the DBMS, and a graphical user interface (GUI) or dashboard with menu options enabling users to digitize, store, manage and query GIS data, perform complex analyses and produce reports, charts, maps, globes and other compelling data-driven displays.2,3


The final component forming the basis of GIS is the computer hardware within which the GIS data and computer software applications are stored and accessed. Hardware requirements may vary widely based on organizational needs. Secure facilities may utilize intranet connections between centralized servers and laptops or desktop computers, scanners, printers, etc. Other organizations may utilize a GIS via high-speed internet-connected devices facilitating communications and collaboration between headquarters and remote locations.2,3 Smartphones, tablets and other mobile computing devices are increasingly utilizing GIS technologies, as well.4

Strategic & Economic Benefits of GIS

Awareness of the strategic and economic benefits derived from geographic information systems is rising with industry-wide adoption and innovative use of GIS applications and solutions.5 Across the board, GIS technology offers benefits to organizations in nearly every industry and field of endeavor.

Analyzing and optimizing logistics operations, for example, significantly increases cost savings and efficiency regardless of field or industry. Improved site selection greatly benefits all decision-makers in the early stages of development. Standardized data collection and reporting benefit geographic accounting, dramatically improving authoritative and administrative record-keeping and some forms of inventory control.5

Finally, visualizations produced by GIS are game-changers, powerfully impacting communications between stakeholders in ways that are enabling and facilitating positive changes all around the globe.5

Become a Top-Notch GIS Pro

If you're a current GISc student, a professional with a working knowledge of GIS apps or a creative thinker with a passion for analyzing and solving complex problems with tech-based tools, consider how an online Master's of GISc can enhance your professional problem-solving skills and career.

A convenient and affordable, 100% online master's degree in Geographic Information Science from Kent State University offers you the scientific knowledge, skills and training to master leading-edge GIS technologies. Our world-class curriculum can help you become a top-notch GIS problem-solver bringing data-driven, innovative and positive changes to the widest variety of fields and industries imaginable.


1. Retrieved on April 14, 2021, from discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10053533/3/Longley_version%202.0_Manfred%20geocomp_PAL.pdf
2. Retrieved on April 14, 2021, from highpointnc.gov/DocumentCenter/View/1900/What-is-GIS-PDF?bidId=
3.Retrieved on April 14, 2021, from arcweb.com/blog/geographic-information-systems-gis-defined
4. Retrieved on April 14, 2021, from researchgate.net/publication/281838395_Mobile_Geographic_Information_Systems
5. Retrieved on April 14, 2021, from gisandscience.com/2009/09/14/top-five-benefits-of-gis/