How to search for GIS data

Geospatial data is often not easy to find - sometimes it doesn't even exist - so here are some tips that should help.

1. Determine your area of interest

What is the location you're interested in? It can be a neighbourhood, city, province/state, region, country, continent, etc.

2. Figure out what kind of information you want to find about that area

For example, you may want a road network, 3D surface model, geological information, air photos, provincial boundaries, parks, etc. The possibilities are almost endless but you should have an idea of what you'd like to find.

If it is information outside your subject(s) of specialty, try to find out the terminology used by specialists in the field. For example, many geospatial datasets of water features are called hydrography or hydrographic features.

3. Think about who cares enough to collect the data you want

Ask yourself "who cares?" or "who might be responsible for gathering this information?" and start there. Some options would be municipal, provincial/state/regional, or federal governments; international organizations; or interest groups.

Also consider that the data you want may not be geospatial. Things like composting rates in Canadian provinces and territories, radiation levels in Europe following the Chernobyl disaster, or crime rates in New York City may not be in GIS format. However, you can often find tabular data that includes geography (e.g.: Canadian provinces, European countries, or NYC neighbourhoods) and joining it to geospatial boundary files.

4. Your search should include the following resources:

  • Our library GIS search
  • A website or data portal for the government(s) or organization(s) you think might collect the data
    • Also search above your geography (e.g.: if you're looking at a provincial level and can't find anything, check at the national level)
  • Open data portals for the area you're interested in. We've collected Canadian and some US & International open data portals.
  • See if a university or college in your area of interest has a GIS department in their library. If so, they probably list local/regional/national data providers or have a data catalogue to search.
  • Google or another search engine
    • Be specific and use terms like GIS or shapefile as keywords

5. Be flexible

You'll probably need to go back and forth between #3 and #4 a few times unless you get lucky. You might learn a few things along the way, like terminology and data providers you hadn't though of, which will help your search.

6. Still can't find anything? We'll help: gis@carleton.ca

Keep in mind that sometimes the data doesn't exist, isn't in a workable format, or isn't freely available but we'll do our best to find it.