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Finding and Using GIS Data

The AGS Library's Guide to Finding GIS data and working with it for your specific project needs

Natural Earth


Natural Earth


About: Unlike many datasets which were designed for measurement and analysis, Natural Earth was made for cartography.

Data Available: Shapefiles of the world, individual countries, states, communities, railroads, airports, parks, physical features, raster imagery, and much more-- all of which can be easily stylized to make any map look visually stunning. Many of the features come paired with corresponding attribute information.

  • Vector downloads are available in ESRI Shapefile Format
  • ​Rasters are downloaded as TIFF files, with TFW world file


How to get GIS data

Step 1) Decide which scale you want to use.

Natural Earth offers their data in three scales: 1:10,000,000, 1:50,000,000, and 1:110,000,000.

You should make this decision based on how “zoomed in,” or detailed your want your map to be. For example, the top three images to the right are from the Natural Earth Countries layer zoomed in on the Aegean Sea at the three available scales.

When depicting smaller areas, the more detailed 1:10,000,000 scale displays features better.  

On the other hand, the 1:110,000,000 scale can be better for mapping larger areas.

Observe the Countries layers at each scale when zoomed out on the entire world:

Most of the detail in the 1:10,000,000 and 1:50,000,000 scales is unnecessary. These details make the map look too busy and like it lacks neatness. To represent larger areas, the 1:110,000,000 scale works better.

Step 2). After deciding which scale to use, decide what kind of data you want.

Natural Earth organizes its data into three categories:

  • Cultural Vectors
  • Physical Vectors
  • Raster Data

Cultural Data Examples:

  • Countries
  • First Order Admin (Provinces, Departments, States, etc.)
  • Populated Places
  • Urban Polygons
  • Parks and Protected Areas
  • Water Boundary Indicators
  • Roads
  • Ports
  • Timezones 

Physical Data Examples:

  • Labels for major physical features
  • Antarctic ice shelves
  • Glaciated areas
  • Bathymetry
  • Geographic lines
  • Graticules

Raster Data Examples:

  • Coastline
  • Reefs
  • Ocean
  • River and Lake Centerlines
  • Lakes and Reservoirs
  • Cross-blended Hyspometric Tints
  • Ocean Bottom
  • Shaded Relief
  • Gray Earth

Descriptions of each feature are available on Natural Earth's Features Page

The Contents of Finding and Using GIS Data may be reused with attribution for Non-Commercial purposes.

Finding and Using GIS Data by Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License