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The main method of identifying and representing the location of geographic features on the landscape is a map. A map is a graphic representation of where features are, explicitly and relative to one another. A map is composed of different geographic features represented as either points, lines, and/or areas. Each feature is defined both by its location in space (with reference to a coordinate system), and by its characteristics (typically referred to as attributes). Quite simply, a map is a model of the real world.

The map legend is the key linking the attributes to the geographic features. Attributes, e.g. such as the species for a forest stand, are typically represented graphically by use of different symbology and/or color. For GIS, attributes need to be coded in a form in which they can be used for data analysis (Burrough, 1986). This implies loading the attribute data into a database system and linking it to the graphic features.

Maps are simply models of the real world. They represent snapshots of the land at a specific map scale. The map legend is the key identifying which features are represented on a map.

For geographic data, often referred to as spatial data, features are usually referenced in a coordinate system that models a location on the earth's surface. The coordinate system may be of a variety of types. For natural resource applications the most common are:

geographic coordinates such as latitude and longitude, e.g. 56°27'40" and 116°11'25". These are usually referred by degrees, minutes, and seconds. Geographic coordinates can also be identified as decimal degrees, e.g. 54.65°.
a map projection, e.g. Universe Transverse Mercator (UTM) where coordinates are measured in metres, e.g. 545,000.000 and 6,453,254.000 normally reference to a central meridian. Eastings refer to X coordinates while Northings refer to Y coordinates.
a legal survey description, e.g. Meridian, Township, Range such as the Alberta Township System, e.g. Township 075 Range 10 West of 4th Meridian.

Geographic data is distinguished from attribute data in that it is referenced spatially by a coordinate system, e.g. it has a spatial extent. Natural resource applications commonly use a Legal Survey system, e.g. the Alberta Township System (ATS), which identifies feature's locations as being a Meridian, Township, and a Range; or a projection such as the UTM coordinate system which identifies features by an Easting coordinate (X) and a Northing coordinate (Y) in a particular UTM zone.

In the UTM projection the area of the earth between 80 degrees North and 80 degrees South latitude is divided into north-south columns 6 degrees of longitude wide called zones. These are numbered 1 to 60 eastward beginning at the 180th meridian. Within each zone the central meridian is given an Easting value of 500,000 metres. The equator is designated as having a Northing value of 0 for northern hemisphere coordinates. Coordinates are recorded relative to the central meridian in metres in a particular zone. The basis of the UTM projection defines that the coordinates are duplicated within each UTM zone. Accordingly, use of the UTM projection is only appropriate for certain spatial extents and scales of data. It is not appropriate to use this projection if your area of interest crosses UTM zone boundaries.

For example, the province of Alberta is located in UTM zones 11 and 12. The central meridian for zone 11 is 117° longitude. The central meridian for zone 12 is 111° longitude. The UTM coordinate system is the most widely used projection in the mapping industry and consequently is becoming an de facto standard for use with geographic information systems. This is particularly true for regional data in Canada. The State Plane coordinate system is widely used in the United States.

Maps are the traditional method of storing and displaying geographic information.

A map portrays 3 kinds of information about geographic features. The:

Location and extent of the feature
Attributes (characteristics) of the feature
Relationship of the feature to other features.

Geography has often been described as the study of why what is where. This description is quite appropriate when considering the three kinds of information that are portrayed by the traditional map;

the location and extent of a feature is identified explicitly by reference to a coordinate system representing the earth's surface. This is where a feature is.
the attributes of a feature describe or characterize the feature. This is what the feature is.
The relationship of a feature to other features is implied from the location and attributes of all features. Relationships can be defined explicitly, e.g. roads connecting towns, regions adjacent to one another, or implicitly, e.g. close to, far from, similar to, etc. Implicit relationships are interpreted according to the knowledge that we have about the natural world. Relationships are described as how or why a feature is.

The geographic information system distinguishes between the spatial and attribute aspect of geographic features.

The identification of relationships between features, within a common theme or across different themes, is the primary function of a GIS.