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GIS for Communities – Questions and Answers

A brief introduction to geographic information systems

What is GIS?

A geographic information system (GIS) is a system to manage and to display digital mapping. A GIS stores the shape of individual map features (a street segment, a parcel of land) along with descriptive information (often called feature “attributes”).  In a GIS map of streets, the shape of each segment is stored along with the street name, and the segment can be located, queried or labeled using that name; a parcel of land will be linked to one or more tax records which can tell you the owner, valuation, use or any other attribute.

It’s important to think of a GIS as a whole system including the following:

  • hardware (computers, printers, plotters, scanners, GPS units, etc.);
  • software (programs like ArcGIS, MapInfo, Maptitude, AutoCad Map, GeoMedia, QGIS, etc.);
  • data (files that may be loaded into the software programs, to represent features such as roads, town boundaries, parcels, etc., and may also imagery like aerial photographs, as well as traditional tables);
  • staff (trained analysts, technicians, programmers, etc., who manage the system and support end-users)

GIS technology can provide cities and towns with significant benefits: greater transparency and access by citizens; more effective asset management; improved delivery of services; the ability to visualize current status and to plan for future projects.

Does the state have a GIS?

MassGIS is the state GIS – officially called the Commonwealth's Bureau of Geographic Information, part of the Digital Services Group of EOTSS. The state legislature has designated MassGIS as the state agency responsible for the collection, storage and dissemination of geographic data. The MassGIS home page has many links to resources. MassGIS has built a comprehensive, statewide GIS data warehouse which is used by state agencies, cities and towns, businesses, schools, non-profits and by the general public.  Mapping currently available from MassGIS includes streets, surface water bodies and wetlands, elevation, aerial photos, schools, tax maps, roof outlines for all structures and much more.  In addition, MassGIS has the mandate to coordinate GIS activity within the Commonwealth and to set standards for geographic data.

Learn more about MassGIS...

How are cities and towns using GIS?

Many municipalities in Massachusetts have incorporated GIS into their daily operations, supporting assessing, public works and other departments.

Additional Resources for

How can my town get a GIS up and running?

Right now, without any investment, municipal staff and the general public can access mapping information through an on-line GIS “viewer” called MuniMapper (think Google Maps, but with dozens of map layers of interest to municipal staff).  MassGIS will create a MuniMapper for any community at no charge, and the link above brings you to a town that has posted their MuniMapper on the town's website, and has provided some local zoning data that has been added to further customize their MuniMapper.

Please contact to sign up. The next level of use would be a trained user with actual GIS desktop software – MassGIS manages a statewide master contract for procuring ESRI ArcGIS software, which is the state standard.  Starting with available data from MassGIS, a GIS staff person can create new layers, geocode town lists (pinpoint geographic locations from addresses), produce customized maps and perform analyses that combine the power of mapping and other data. One person can provide basic GIS maps and services to multiple departments.  In many cases, setting up a GIS will initiate a process of data sharing between departments that can dramatically increase productivity and improve the level of services to the public.  A more comprehensive strategy integrates GIS into municipal software for permit tracking and assessing; this approach can greatly enhance municipal government workflows.  Finally, putting a community’s GIS on-line is a cost-effective and user-friendly way to provide citizens access to GIS information either from the state or additional community-specific mapping like permit locations, municipal infrastructure or zoning maps. MuniMapper can accomplish this or there are several commercial outfits that perform this work, as well.