What Is GIS Mapping? A Beginner's Guide


In your job as a planner, we know you're often fielding basic questions about public transit. We hope this Remix Primer blog series offers another resource as you educate your constituents.

You’ve certainly heard of geographic information system (GIS) mapping before. It’s become a buzzword in many industries, from real estate to business strategy.

However, the term on its own isn’t very descriptive. If you’ve ever wondered what GIS mapping is and how to use it, this article will walk you through everything you need to know about GIS and how it can be useful to your business.

What Is GIS Mapping?

The days when a map was nothing more than a piece of paper with detailed illustrations are long gone. Today’s maps are interactive, internet-connected programs that take the confusion out of navigation.

GIS mapping is what makes that possible by combining data and maps. GIS is a type of technology that allows you to connect spatial information to geographic locations in different layers and combinations. With GIS mapping, you can look at customizable data sets in different configurations and combinations organized by geography.

GIS mapping can help you spot patterns and trends that you wouldn’t notice if you were looking at the data in tables or through other analytical methods.

What Is GIS Mapping Used For?

GIS can be used in any industry where geography matters even slightly. The combination of different types of spatial data into a single interface allows organizations to identify temporary hotspots — regularly busy areas — and low-traffic locations, easily.

For example, GIS mapping is used by rideshare companies to help direct drivers to busy areas and to match riders to the nearest possible driver. Public transportation services can also use GIS to better plan resource management, routes, times, and schedules for the entire system. Instead of using physical trial and error to serve the public, everything from bus to train public transport can be planned entirely online to improve resource management.

What Are the 5 Components of GIS?

Every GIS mapping service involves five unique components that make all the difference. Keeping all five in mind is important to make the most of what GIS mapping can offer.


Every program needs to run on some kind of hardware. Depending on the GIS solution in question, it may operate locally on a desktop computer, or it may run “in the Cloud” on centralized servers. Today, most high-powered GIS options are run at least partially through the Cloud to take advantage of more powerful data analysis.


The software of a GIS is the actual program itself. The difference is similar to a phone that runs Google Maps and the Maps app itself. Every GIS solution is its own piece of software.

GIS software includes features like:

  • A database management system to collect and manage data
  • A graphical user interface that allows users to work with that data
  • Tools to connect data to geographic locations
  • Tools to help users investigate and manipulate that data to find answers

Without these features, a piece of software isn’t actually a GIS mapping tool. Great GIS systems will include extra features like collaboration, functionality in web browsers, and in-depth design elements to help meet the needs of the users.


There are two kinds of data that are essential to a GIS.

First, a map is essential. GIS maps are the most important part of the graphical user interface — it’s what’s represented by “geographic” in “geographic information system.” Second, there needs to be geospatial data or details that are connected to geographic areas. This can be data from geological surveys, or it can be industry-specific information — like where purchases are made, when and where a bus was boarded, or where accidents occur.

Any type of data that has any connection to a location in space can be fed into a GIS. This is the GIS data that will be processed and displayed on the map.


A well-designed GIS will have a solid set of rules and methods keeping things organized behind the scenes. A traffic design GIS will include methods that keep track of traffic laws, for example. Part of the purpose of any GIS is to make life simpler for the people who use it, which brings us to the final component.


There’s no point in any system unless there’s a person who can use it. Modern GIS mapping solutions are designed to make it simpler for people to do their jobs. Transit GIS mapping is intended to improve planning and transit management by streamlining the design and implementation process. Without people to use these tools, even the best GIS is useless.

How Is GIS Mapping Data Analyzed and Used?

Once GIS mapping data has been collected, it’s time to analyze it. The analysis takes data and organizes it into patterns and trends. Your GIS can look at commuter data, for example, and identify the busiest stops and times on a transit line. It then creates data visualizations on the map with helpful symbols and colors, so you get an immediate visualization of what needs work.

An analysis is only half the process, of course. A truly great GIS can also help you design solutions right on the platform. For example, with Remix’s state-of-the-art transit planning GIS, you can set up different scenarios right in the software and see how different solutions will play out. Instead of taking your best guess as to what will work, you can run simulations based on your dataset and make informed decisions.

Analyzing and using mapping data can also be a collaborative endeavor. More eyes on the data and maps can help you come to better conclusions. A good GIS helps multiple people work together on the same dataset to analyze and create the best possible plan.

How Can GIS Mapping Help With Transit Plans?

GIS mapping is much more than just a way to find routes from Point A to Point B. It’s a method of using geography and data together to make better decisions. For any industry that’s tied to geography, using a GIS mapping solution can improve outcomes dramatically.

There’s no industry that’s more heavily connected to geography than transit. If you’re working to improve the public transportation experience in your municipality, working with the right GIS can make all the difference. Learn more about how Remix can help you understand and improve your transit plans today.