Discover GIS

Geographic Information Systems
A Geographic Information System (GIS) is a computer system (hardware, software, data, and operator) that stores and analyzes geographic data. Features on the Earth (such as roads, buildings, vegetation, soil types, slope, etc.) are represented as points, lines, or polygons, and each feature has a database record attached to it. With GIS, maps are easily updated and re-printed as information changes. The power of GIS, though, is really in its ability to easily and quickly analyze information that would, using paper maps, be tedious and difficult.

Remote Sensing
Remote Sensing (RS) is the science of obtaining data and information about objects or areas from a distance. Historically this has been done using passive sensors mounted on weather balloons, airplanes, and satellites and focused on spectral and thermal signatures. The imagery from the satellite and airborne systems is an increasingly important data source for monitoring land cover and condition across the planet, including in National Parks.

New types of sensors (lidar, sonar, multi-beam) and advances in platforms (Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), terrestrial/aquatic based systems, Space borne) variously use other portions of the electromagnetic spectrum, rely on active sensors, or are capable of more targeted data collection (both spatially and temporally). The widening use and growing importance of traditional and new remote sensing methods assures that appropriate resources are available to ensure scientifically defensible inputs into NPS decision making.

Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS)
GNSS stands for Global Navigation Satellite System, and is the standard generic term for satellite navigation systems that provide autonomous geo-spatial positioning with global coverage. This term includes GPS (Global Positioning System), which is a constellation of about 25 Department of Defense satellites that orbit the earth approximately every 12 hours. The position and time information transmitted by these satellites is used by a GPS receiver to trilaterate a location on the earth. GPS was developed to provide a continuous, 24 hour, 3D (position and elevation) coverage anywhere on the earth. It provides reliable, repeatable information that is unaffected by rough terrain and bad weather, and is highly resistant to multipath errors and interference.

Out in a park and need mobile data collection support? Use the Mobile Data Collection Support email and someone will get in touch with you.

Cartography and Mapping
Cartography is the art and science of making maps. The cartographic field blends disciplines to display complex geospatial data in a clear and understandable way. Cartographers use expertise in both the responsible handling of geographic data—the foundation of geographic information science—and in visual design to make maps that illuminate, inspire, and serve as a call to action. NPS cartographers work in both print media and web technologies to create maps for a variety of audiences and purposes, and are found in several offices across the agency.

The cartographic team at Harpers Ferry Center produces maps for a wide array of products including park brochures, waysides, exhibits, and park films. Cartographers with the Resource Information Services Division produce public-facing web maps for and mobile applications. GIS professionals across the agency produce print maps and web maps for a variety of public-facing as well as internal applications for management and analysis.

The Land Resources Division is responsible for preparation and maintenance of the Service's land status maps/plats that identify ownership of land and acreage within authorized boundaries of each park unit. It is also responsible for preparation of all legislative boundary maps referenced in bills creating new units to the Park System or revising boundaries of existing units of the System. NPS employees can access the internal version of the Land Resources Division at (NPS-only) while connected to the agency’s network. The publicly available application is called TractsNet AGOL Public.

For more information on how GIS in used by parks, programs, and regions in the National Park Service.

Last updated: April 13, 2023