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GIS Data Resources


Introduction to GIS Data at HWS

GIS, or geographic information systems, are digital tools used to visualize, analyze and interpret geographic information around the concepts of location and place. GIS is a powerful tool for revealing and examining geographic relationships and how they affect the world around us. In simple terms, think of it as a digital mapping system that allows you to explore, visualize, and make sense of data related to places on Earth.

At Hobart and William Smith, the ArcGIS Suite is available to all community members. ArcGIS lets you create maps by combining different layers of information, such as roads, buildings, rivers, or even demographic data like population density. You can add your own data to these maps, such as locations of customers, land parcels, or environmental features.

To request access to ArcGIS, please email the Information Technology Helpdesk at

Introduction to Finding GIS Data


When looking for GIS data we need to keep two things in mind:

  • It must be mappable: longitude & latitude, boundaries, borders, depth, height, or a picture of a physical map.

  • What you are measuring needs to be specific and quantifiable.


Most freely available data can be found with a Google search. It is built out of three primary parts: keywords, data type, and website.


Keywords are derived from how you chose to define your topic. Some keywords tend to work better than others, so it’s always good to have a list of examples on hand. For example, if I am looking for information on "Climate Change" I could also try the following synonymous terms: "Global Warming", "Global Heating", "Greenhouse Gases", and "Carbon Emissions." When searching keyword phrases, make sure to use quotes to keep the words together: "Climate Change."

Data Type

  • Use the terms 'datasets' or “GIS data” instead of the term 'data'

Data has become very broadly defined as any form of information, so you may get articles rather than datasets.

  • Use the term “Open Data” instead of  “Public Data” or “Free Data”

“Open Data” is freely usable, commonly produced by government entities or organizations, and tends to have a high level of provenance and reliability. “Public Data” or “Free Data” is free, but often is unruly and unreliable, with no way to define where it came from  

You can also search by file type. Some of the best for ArcGIS are .xls,.xlsx,.csv, and .rst. You can search for a specific file type in Google by using filetype: in Google, followed by the format you want to find, for example, filetype:.csv to find CSV files.


It is best to search websites that produce trustworthy and reliable information, most commonly government agencies or international organizations. 

Governments: .gov, .it, .fr, .do, .es, .lk,,

Organizations & International Agencies: .int, .org, .eu

To search by website in Google use site:, for example, to find U.S. government websites. 


It is important to use credible reliable information:

  • Who collected made the dataset? – Is it a trusted source of information?

  • How was the data acquired? – Was the information ethically acquired? Is it consistent?

  • How is the data defined? – Is the data clearly definable, via a data dictionary or standard intake procedure outlined by the collectors? 

How to find GIS data in ArcGIS

  1. Login to ArcGIS Online

  2. On the home screen, select content

Display of the ArcOnline@HWS menu, highlighting the content section

  1. On the content page, on the top right, select “Living Atlas”

In ArcOnline @ HWS under the content section select Living Atlas

  1. From here, you can use the search bar to locate GIS information in relation to a wide variety of topics. For instance, searching “USGS” in the search bar yields you are presented with a collection of GIS rasters and layers that have been pulled by Esri, from USGS and turned into usable data. This can be done for any organization, government agency, or even topic!

Helpful information for using Living Atlas!
  1. BE AWARE: Sometimes individuals using ArcGIS can publish their work directly to the Living Atlas. Make sure you know who owns the content being viewed. Information published by Esri is considered scholarly, all others are down to the discretion of your professor.

  2. If the content is labeled with a green check mark, this means Esri has deemed this a reliable source that is regularly updated with added information. If a source does not have a green check mark, it does not mean it should not be used; but it should be used with the understanding that it has not been updated or republished since its initial publication.

List of Multidisciplinary Databases

Datasets include those related to climate, energy, infrastructure, earth-remote sensing, and hygrography. Information is provided by organizations in the Americas, which can be found here

Created by the Conservation Biology Institute (CBI) as part of an environmental conservation effort, this multidisciplinary database hosts biology, agriculture, conservation, energy, geological focal points, and hydrographic data. Over 22,000 datasets in total. 

The central hub for all United States government data. 

Database information comes from a myriad of repositories, which can be found here, on ecological and geological data. 

A European Union database for their datasets and statistics. A list of EU members can be found here

This international organization hosts several databases that hold global social and economic datasets. 

Information provided by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) on agricultural, environmental, financial, government, innovation and technology, job, and society data. 

Developed by the International Development Association (IDA) and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), WorldBank provides information on agriculture and rural development, aid effectiveness, climate change, economic growth, education, energy & mining, external debt, financial sector, gender, health, infrastructure, poverty, the private and public sector, science & technology, social development, social protection & labor, trade, and urban development. 


The development of this guide was informed and inspired by Rob Beutner's previous guides to GIS spatial and thematic data.