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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

Cartographic Data


Bringing together the art and science of mapmaking

You've worked tirelessly gathering your data and conducting your analysis. Now it is time to present your findings. For spatial information, a map can be invaluable for conveying your message. And a well-crafted, good looking map is likely going to be most effective as a communication tool.

Data in this category can be useful for:

  1. Creating base maps on which you can display your analysis.
  2. Adding points of interest to your map to provide spatial context.
  3. Making maps at an appropriate scale to be both useful and attractive.

Who has this data? Where can I find it?

Many resources are available for finding the data necessary to create base maps and other cartographic content. For example, you may find political boundaries, cultural points of interest, and elevation data from a county GIS data portal. However, when you need to make maps at a national or global scale, or you are looking for flexible data tailored to the particular needs of cartographers, sites are available that may meet your needs.

Cartographic data of the type described here is typically provided by nation-wide organizations which may be public or private. Recently, this has begun to include crowd-sourced data sources. In many cases, this data is found in large repositories which require time to sift through, but which may provide the best chance at finding the specific data you need for your project.

In this section

You will find tutorials for using two frequently used data portals where cartographic data can be found:

  • Natural Earth - Built by volunteers and supported by NACIS (North American Cartographic Information Society)

Includes: World, individual countries, states, communities, railroads, airports, parks, physical features, raster imagery, and more

  • The National Map - Hosted by USGS (United States Geological Society) and built in collaboration with volunteers as well as federal, state, and local partners.

Includes: US topography, historical US topography, boundaries, elevation, place names, transportation, woodland tint, and more

Most commonly requested cartographic data

  • Political boundaries
  • Continents
  • Elevation contours
  • Lakes, rivers, and streams
  • Place names
  • Digital orthophotos
  • Buildings
  • Transportation features
  • Satellite imagery
  • Physical features
  • Ocean floor
  • Coordinate grids
  • Topographic data
  • Forests


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