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How to Utilize Open Federal, State and Local GIS Data

Parker Dinkins
Parker Dinkins GIS

When you think of a geographic information system (GIS), you probably think of maps, charts and other visualizations. But there's more to GIS than just imagery—it can also be used as a tool for data discovery. In this post, we'll discuss how to unlock the potential of open federal, state and local GIS data by uncovering free federal data resources, exploring free state and local sources and learning how best to use them all together. 

Uncovering Free Federal Data Resources 

There is a wealth of open source GIS data available that can help with your work. Federal agencies are required to make their data open and accessible. Some of the best sources for open federal, state and local GIS data can be found open and available online in a format easy to view and download for processing. The following list highlights some federal, state and local sources of open GIS data and tools.

The federal, state and local governments all make available a wide variety of spatial data (that is, information that has a location associated with it). To help you find this valuable resource, the US government maintains an open data portal at that allows users to search for and download geospatial datasets from across the country. The site also offers links to other important resources such as the National Geospatial Program (NGP) and National Map Viewer. 

Tips for Using Open Source GIS Data

Know your data. Before you use open source GIS data in your project, take the time to understand the data and its limitations. Understanding the source of the data will help you determine what is and isn't a good candidate for your project, as well as how it can be used (or if it should even be used at all). While many open source datasets have metadata attached that describes their origin and quality, this information may not always be available or easy to find.

Understand copyright restrictions. Just because a dataset is made publicly available doesn't mean that anyone can do whatever they want with it immediately! You'll always want to pay attention to any copyright statements or licenses associated with an open source dataset before using it in your project. Be aware of whether there are any restrictions on how much money you can charge for any products created using their information, how many people are allowed access at once (with limits on concurrent users), whether commercial companies need additional licensing agreements before they use certain materials from these datasets, etcetera—these kinds of things exist within most of today's licenses governing digital content creation - so make sure they're not being overlooked while planning out future projects involving GIS software/data sets!