Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some answers to things I get asked a lot, and I’ll keep adding to it as people ask me questions. Can’t find the answer to your question? Feel free to ask it via the contact me form!

1) I want to take a GIS class. Where should I look?

If you’re a currently enrolled at a university, there are a bunch of options. You can look at course listings in Geography, Natural Resources, and Agriculture/ Ag Engineering. Sometimes you’ll see applied GIS courses in social sciences, city and regional planning, and meteorology. A lot of the GIS content and computer skills translate across all these disciplines, so don’t worry too much if it seems like the labs are on topics you’re not familiar with.

There are also options for folks looking for more flexible options that don’t require a semester-long commitment or a university affiliation. I really loved Charlie Hadley’s Tidyverse class on LinkedIn Learning, and other instructors on LinkenIn Learning have classes on QGIS and ArcMap. Esri also has their own free Massive Online Open Course program available here. There are also free, official QGIS training manuals available in a few different languages on the QGIS website here. I highly recommend getting started with some sort of structured class or training manual instead of building your own from a set of shorter tutorials or videos, since longer form materials will be set up in a way that helps you learn fundamentals and improve problem solving skills for GIS.

2) Spatial stats is cool. What should I read?

Statistical Methods for Geography: a Student’s Guide by Peter A. Rogerson is shockingly readable for a stats textbook. A Practical Guide for Geostatistical Mapping by Tomislav Hengl is incredibly detailed and includes some great breakdowns of different interpolation methods. The QGIS training manual is worth skimming. I have also learned a lot about cartography from the blog somethingaboutmaps.

3)  I’m new to statistics. Where can I learn more?

If you’re looking for a formal class, there are a lot of options. You can look at course listings at universities in math and statistics departments, especially if you’re interested in a statistics course that will help you understand the math principles that form the foundation of most statistical tests. For more applied statistics courses, many departments in fields such as biology, agriculture, environmental sciences, or engineering offer classes at both the undergraduate and graduate level.

Free, self paced options are also available online through tutorials or massive online open courses. I have a blog post about Teacups, Giraffes, and Statistics that highlights some features of their learning modules. I’ve taken some data mining classes at Stanford Online, and their free stats class looks like a great place to start if you’re looking for a self-paced class that assumes very little background knowledge.

As an aside, many graduate students and researchers who ask me about improving their statistics knowledge would also benefit from learning more computer programming or data processing skills. I learned basic computer programming in Matlab when I was at Ohio State, but there are a ton of free and self paced options at Coursera, LinkedIn Learning, or Stanford Online. If you’re an R user, I highly recommend Charlie Hadley’s Tidyverse class on LinkedIn learning– the way she describes fundamentals of packages and data structures was so incredibly helpful for me. If you’re interested in learning more about writing scripts and managing data, taking a basic class in a programming language you have no background in is also a great learning exercise.

4) I’m new to GIS and/or spatial statistics. What software should I learn first?

Your optimum combination of software and other tools will vary based on your workplace, budget, and goals. For most users, I think either QGIS or R is a great place to start. I’d recommend QGIS as a starting point for folks interested in building maps or visualizing data from multiple sources at once. It’s also a point-and-click program, which might be more accessible for folks that haven’t used command-line programs before. R is better if you’re looking to model spatial data, but it can be clunky if you have lots of data in different projections or want to make complex maps.

Other free options: SAGA GIS is good for terrain analysis and other raster data manipulation, and i use both the stand alone version of SAGA and the SAGA plugin for QGIS on a regular basis. GeoDa is a nice point and click software that makes Moran’s I and LISA maps really easily, and can be a good choice if you’re not comfortable doing those things in R.

Other options that aren’t free: MatLab is a great place to make graphs, especially in 3D. ArcMap is a great alternative to QGIS, and depending on where you work you may want to learn ArcMap instead of QGIS. ArcMap and most of Esri’s other programs cost money, although they have some web-based GIS tools available for free these days. I like Esri’s mobile platform a lot, especially Survey123. SMS is great if you’re working with agricultural machinery data, but it’s very pricey and only offers basic statistics tools.