Working as a professional within the GIS discipline, I often find it challenging to describe to people what GIS is (in a face to face conversation). Telling them that GIS stands for Geographic Information Systems, which encompasses a set of technologies that can be used to analyze, map, and organize spatial data is a bit over most people heads. On the contrary, telling people that GIS can be used to make maps on a computer falls far short of its many potential uses. With this, I'm looking for some effective video examples that one could show somebody that explain both in words and visually what GIS is, and how the technology is utilized (something your Mom could understand :))?

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    I tend to use the "I make maps" line because trying to explain it is over peoples heads most of the time.
    – Nathan W
    Commented Oct 10, 2011 at 3:55
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    I put together apower point presentation called 'What is GIS', about 5 years ago as I was so fed up explaining to people what I did. I now get asked to present it to clients as it clearly demonstrates what it is, and what it isn't. I'll try and get it to dropbox and you can have it, and add to it if you like - Having just moved house, it may take a day or two as it is stored on a hard drive of mine.
    – Hairy
    Commented Oct 10, 2011 at 6:56
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    +1 It would be great to see a GIS in plain english similar to the Google Docs in Plain English. The cut and paste they use reminds me of what cartography lab was like in pre-computer days. Commented Oct 10, 2011 at 17:48
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    Watched that Google Docs in Plain English video then read the comments. Why I do I always fear for the world when I read youtube comments.
    – Nathan W
    Commented Oct 10, 2011 at 21:45

6 Answers 6


I love the Geospatial Revolution series of videos from Penn State University.

It's a beautifully produced set of videos showcasing some everyday uses of GIS.

  • that's the one I like!
    – Brad Nesom
    Commented Oct 10, 2011 at 19:08

What is GIS by ESRI: Short and informative, with understandable images and use cases, and a groovy introduction music. Otherwise, just say: "GIS technology is kind of like Google Earth, but beeetter".

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    +1 Heh. That's what I do. "You know Google Earth? It's like that, but usually more specific. And you can do more stuff with it." Usually I get "Oh. Huh. Okay." (Meaning "I don't really get it, and you're probably a nerd.") If they really want to know more, I list some examples of specific systems or studies using GIS. Just keep it concrete and practical and most people will get the general idea. It's not rocket science, it's just not the way people usually think about the world.
    – R Thiede
    Commented Oct 10, 2011 at 13:27

Perhaps it doesn't show exactly the current state of GIS (at least it doesn't look like that in my organisation so far ;]) but I really enjoyed video from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory on Precision Information Environments. Quite a lot what is happening there is either directly or indirectly related to geospatial technologies (of the future). (via @IJHGeo)

For more rigorous approach to definitions and concepts have a look at Defining a GIS: Essential GIS functions from users presentation from FOSS4G2011 conference.


Also see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wDVNBDIVUZo -it explains what it is, what people do and what the world would be without it.

I am working on one for aboriginal children. See https://gis.stackexchange.com/questions/112545/what-is-gis-for-indigenous-peoples


The 2014 version of ESRI's "What is GIS?", part of the E380 series, is presented in an up-beat, easy to understand way, with relevant examples that "Mom" can understand.

And it's only 1 minute long, so you won't lose their attention.

Video link available at: http://video.esri.com/watch/3623/what-is-gis_question_


My 2 cents;
'governmental' videos from the Swiss Federal Office of Topography, with a slightly wider coverage and oriented toward national cartography, but done in a way almost everyone can understand:

[EN] : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2xLQHE7fKI8
[DE] : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r9x_y0_w-OM
[FR] : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qJg3XVJHhV8
[IT] : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gEsRNmpuqQ4

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