Skip to main content


As previously identified, two types of data are input into a GIS, spatial and attribute. The data input process is the operation of encoding both types of data into the GIS database formats.

The creation of a clean digital database is the most important and time consuming task upon which the usefulness of the GIS depends. The establishment and maintenance of a robust spatial database is the cornerstone of a successful GIS implementation.

As well, the digital data is the most expensive part of the GIS. Yet often, not enough attention is given to the quality of the data or the processes by which they are prepared for automation.

The general consensus among the GIS community is that 60 to 80 % of the cost incurred during implementation of GIS technology lies in data acquisition, data compilation and database development.

A wide variety of data sources exist for both spatial and attribute data. The most common general sources for spatial data are:

hard copy maps;
aerial photographs;
remotely-sensed imagery;
point data samples from surveys; and
existing digital data files.

Existing hard copy maps, e.g. sometimes referred to as analogue maps, provide the most popular source for any GIS project.

Potential users should be aware that while there are many private sector firms specializing in providing digital data, federal, provincial and state government agencies are an excellent source of data. Because of the large costs associated with data capture and input, government departments are often the only agencies with financial resources and manpower funding to invest in data compilation. British Columbia and Alberta government agencies are good examples. Both provincial governments have defined and implemented province wide coverage of digital base map data at varying map scales, e.g. 1:20,000 and 1:250,000. As well, the provincial forestry agencies also provide thematic forest inventory data in digital format. Federal agencies are also often a good source for base map information. An inherent advantage of digital data from government agencies is its cost. It is typically inexpensive. However, this is often offset by the data's accuracy and quality. Thematic coverages are often not up to date. However, it is important to note that specific characteristics of government data varies greatly across North America.

Attribute data has an even wider variety of data sources. Any textual or tabular data than can be referenced to a geographic feature, e.g. a point, line, or area, can be input into a GIS. Attribute data is usually input by manual keying or via a bulk loading utility of the DBMS software. ASCII format is a de facto standard for the transfer and conversion of attribute information.

The following figure describes the basic data types that are used and created by a GIS.

The basic data types that are used and created by a GIS (after Berry).