University of Alberta


Getting Advice

Data Acquisition, Conversion, and Printing Saving and Transferring Files What is…?
Getting Advice

How can I learn more about GIS? (BACK TO TOP)

If you are new to GIS, you are in luck because there are many resources available - a lot of them free - to help you learn the technology. The most valuable way to learn is to enhance your Education through the variety of credit courses offered at the UofA. Check out Are You New to GIS? from the ESRI web site for some useful tips. And finally, take some ESRI Virtual Campus courses available for free to the UofA community.

How do I access the computers in the GIS Lab (B418)? (BACK TO TOP)

Log on to the computers in the GIS Lab (B418) using your usual Bio-sci network user ID and password. Grad students may consult their advisors for a generic lab ID. Anyone having difficulty logging on should consult the BioSci network administrators: Lorne LeClair and Igor Sinelnikov (or click here for the BSCS Help Desk).

The GIS lab is open to graduate students, faculty, and staff in the Department of Biological Sciences for GIS use only. Entry is through B418 Monday-Friday 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Swipe card access after hours.

How do I ... using GIS software? (BACK TO TOP)

There are a multitude of resources available within the BioSciences GIS Facilities and on the internet. As well as consulting the GIS Analyst, you may access help from:

  • ArcGIS user manuals available in .pdf format on the Bio-sci network gisserver/Shared_GIS/Documentation (many have tutorial chapters)
  • Archived instruction sets on the Instructions web page
  • The ESRI Online Support web page

How do I make an appointment with the GIS Analyst? (BACK TO TOP)

Contact Charlene by e-mail or 492-9397 to make an appointment. Check out Office Hours for appointment times.

What are my responsibilities to ensure I get the exact help I need from the GIS Analyst? (BACK TO TOP)

To ensure efficiency in getting the help you need for research project support or teaching assistance, please have a good idea of following information:



Project Definition

research topic or course subject matter

Contract Details

consultation/instruction needs, data acquisition/conversion, programming, documentation

Final Product(s)

what is required - analysis results, maps, instruction documentation

Data Details

available files, metadata (e.g. coordinate systems), availability of additional data


when you need the product or instruction

Who do I contact when I need help with the GIS software? (BACK TO TOP)

Contact Charlene, the GIS Analyst in B414 (next to the GIS and DiTRL labs), for any questions related to the GIS software. I am available for general drop-in (see Office Hours) and by appointment. Contact Charlene by e-mail at or phone 492-9397.

Who do I contact when there is a problem with the computer hardware/networking? (BACK TO TOP)

The computer gurus in our Department are available for help with the technical stuff: Lorne LeClair and Igor Sinelnikov (or click here for the BSCS Help Desk).

How do I get ArcGIS for my computer? (BACK TO TOP)

There are a couple of things to consider if you want to use ArcGIS software on your personal computer: your computer system and whether you want to access it off campus. Consult the Instructions page for "GIS Computer Wish List" to view specifications on the best computer system for GIS applications. The links below list the hardware requirements:

ArcGIS 10.0                    ArcGIS 10.1

  • Free student one-year license for your personal computer - just show your ONECard at the IST helpdesk.
  • For post-docs or other students wanting off campus use on your personal computer, you will need a stand alone license. ESRI has education priced software available for an annual license around $250 for ArcGIS(ArcInfo/Advanced) including all extensions (Spatial Analyst, 3D Analyst, and Geostatistical Analyst). Contact ESRI Canada's Edmonton office for current pricing and to purchase.
  • For professors' labs on campus, you can purchase seat(s) through the departmental server license. The annual cost is around $160 per seat, which includes all extensions, and is renewable in December of each year. Contact Charlene for current pricing and the policy guidelines.
  • For any University-owned computer (must have the UofA barcode sticker on it) you may contact IST software site license administration for current products and pricing of stand alone licenses for University-related purposes only.

Data Acquisition, Conversion, and Printing

How do I get a big map or airphoto into digital format? (BACK TO TOP)

There are a couple of options available to convert paper maps, aerial photographs, and other hardcopy images into digital format...


To directly convert map features into digital vector format you may use the large-format digitizing table (currently in storage - inquire if you need it) 


You may use the flatbed scanners in DiTRL to scan maps up to 12" X 17".

  • Consult the DiTRL web pages for information on using this lab.
  • Generally, scan at 300 dpi to 600 dpi to balance adequate detail with file size.
  • The file formats that ArcGIS software can work with include: recommended TIFFs (*.tif), JPEGs (*.jpg), and bitmaps (*.bmp).

If you need to convert something larger you may inquire if there is still a large format scanner in IST, otherwise you'll have to search for a company outside the University.

Once in digital format, consult the Instructions page for "Georeferencing an Image" and getting it into the GIS.

How do I print? (BACK TO TOP)

Color laser printing and large-format plotting is available from the computers in B418. Simply connect to the appropriate printer on the network, ensure that the page properties of your map document or project conform to the printer standards, and send the print job via the network. Printing requires an authorized speed code. Fill out the printing log for the printer/plotter you use. If you need more information refer to the "Printing to the Print Devices in B418" on the Instructions page.

You may also print to alternate network printers (e.g. a printer in your office) or refer to the DiTRL web page for additional printing information.

All large-format printing can be done through IST or try

How much does printing cost? (BACK TO TOP)

You need an authorized speed code to charge to. In DiTRL color laser printing (letter-sized) is $1.00 per page. Please record your print job and speedcode on the forms in the lab.

Where can I get digital spatial data for my study area? (BACK TO TOP)

Two good leads to help you get started in your search for GIS data can be found at:

What file format can I use to export a map from the GIS software? (BACK TO TOP)

Check out the handy download entitled "Types of File Formats that can be Exported from ESRI® Software" on the Instructions page.

In my opinion, TIFF is the best format. Although extremely large in file size, it is visually of high quality and can be read by many programs, including MS Word (great for publications and the ol' thesis) and MS Power Point. Use 300 dots per inch (dpi) or higher for publications. JPEGs and BMPs are useful for web pages because of their smaller size (and most browsers can't read TIFFs - you may also convert any of these to the small GIF format using MS Paint or other graphics application). I really, really like the vector-like look of EMFs and prefer this format as long as there are no special fonts or symbols (e.g. point symbols often get corrupted when the EMF is read by a computer that doesn't have ESRI fonts installed on it.

For publications or slide show quality, I suggest exporting your map to an EMF first, open it in MS Word or MS Power Point ON YOUR COMPUTER, inspect for errors, and if you see switched fonts/symbols or other problems, then go back to the GIS cimputer and export as a TIFF. Set the dpi via the OPTIONS button. For websites, export as PNG, JPEG or BMP.

Saving and Transferring Files

How long can I store files on the computer? (BACK TO TOP)

The hard drives in B418 are cleaned each semester, so make sure you back up your files to an alternate storage device (e.g. external drive, DVD, or network transfer). Remember that you are not the only one with access to the hard drives and equipment has been known to get toasted, so transfer your files to an alternate storage backup before leaving the lab every day!

How do I access the Shared_GIS server? (BACK TO TOP)

Anyone in the Department of Biological Sciences using GIS and who has log on access to the Bio-Sci network can utilize the GIS Server.

  • In addition to housing free storage space of 10 Gigabytes for each lab, the server also contains data, documentation, and an FTP site. The Data folder is where generic data and metadata are stored, and the Documentation folder is where manuals and instructions are stored... ArcGIS MANUALS in .pdf format are available here!!!
  • The USERS folder contains sub-directories that have read and write access. This is the only place you can store data within your lab's folder. This is a semiprivate folder. Only others in your lab with the generic user ID and password will have access to the folder.
  • See the topic "Where can I temporarily FTP my GIS files?" below for information about the GIS-FTP folder.
  • Simply log on to your computer with your generic lab ID and password to access the Bio-sci domain. Click START >>> RUN and type gisserverShared_GIS to access (in MS Windows)
  • Detailed instructions on "How to Connect to Data on the Network" within ArcGIS and "Accessing the GIS Server on the Bio-sci Network" are posted on the Instructions page.
  • Any files not related to your GIS work will be removed.

Where do I save my files? (BACK TO TOP)

The GIS Lab is equipped with DVD/CD writers and access for network transfer and FTP. Always save to an external and backup to a network server that you have access to. Note that the hard drives in B418 are cleaned each semester. You can save your files to the local hard drive while you are working, but remember that you are not the only one with access to the hard drives and equipment has been known to get toasted, so transfer your files to an alternate storage backup before leaving the lab every day!

Where can I temporarily FTP my GIS files? (BACK TO TOP)

An FTP site is available on the Shared_GIS server for GIS users in the Department who need to transfer large amounts of spatial data.

  • Access the FTP site using an FTP client software program (e.g. WS_FTP) using the same address as for FTP-ing to the GIS server (i.e., your generic lab User ID and Password, then change the directory (ChgDir) to /gis-ftp.
  • If you are tapping into the licensed government spatial data through the UofA Library or a company is kindly providing you with data for your research, then you may give them a special User ID and Password so they can FTP the data to you. Contact Charlene for the required information. Although it only gains access to the GIS-FTP directory of the Shared_GIS server, please use discretion when providing it to others who will be uploading/downloading spatial data for you. It does not allow entry/viewing of any other folder on the Shared_GIS server.
  • This is a semi-secure site. Anyone and everyone with the generic lab user IDs and passwords have access to the FTP site. If you have sensitive data then this is not the FTP site for you.
  • This is the only site on the Shared_GIS server that has FTP access.
  • It is for transfer purposes only and NOT for storage.
  • Be warned, the GIS-FTP directory will be cleared of all files older than one week and any non-GIS files will be promptly deleted. Please remove your files A.S.A.P. to a more secure storage site (e.g. general lab folder in the Shared_GISUSERS directory, burn to CD, etc.). It's good practoice to delete your files from GIS-FTP once you have downloaded them.

How do I transfer GIS data so the files don't corrupt? (BACK TO TOP)

The two primary file formats you will encounter with GIS data are the shapefile and the coverage (vector or grid). Both require care when copying/moving from one location to another (e.g. CD to hard drive; hard drive to server). It is strongly suggested that you COPY the data, rather than merely move it; this ensures you will have a backup of the originals just in case!





a vector data storage format that stores the location, shape, and attributes of geographic features in a set of related files having the same prefix

a "folder-based" data storage format for vector OR raster data that stores geographic features in a self-named folder and the associated attribute tables in an info folder


Three required files:

  • Main file (stores feature geometry): rivers.shp
  • Index file (stores file lookup index): rivers.shx
  • dBase table (stores attributes: rivers.dbf

Two required folders:

  • self-named folders: rivers, elevation
  • info folder: one folder for all interrelated coverages in the workspace

Copy all three required files to your working directory so the GIS software can read the data properly . Using ArcCatalog dummy-proofs this process!

You must use a program such as ArcCatalog when copying coverage files to ensure that the complete data structures are kept intact. Using Windows Explorer may result in the all-important info tables being overwritten!

Additional Notes

Additional files (e.g. .sbn and .sbx) may be present, but the most important defines the spatial referencing: rivers.prj

Vector and raster coverages appear to be similar in file structure (both have self-named folder and info folder) but store data in very different ways (arcs, nodes, polygons, and label points OR grid cells).

REMEMBER! Your shapefile is useless if you are missing either of the .shp, .dbf, or .shx Your coverage is useless if you are missing or overwrite the info folder

*** See the related downloadable document on the Instructions page.

How do I email GIS data? (BACK TO TOP)

Probably not the greatest idea given the huge file sizes of most GIS datasets! You may want to use FTP for most transfers. However, for smaller shapefiles and coverages you can make life easier for the email recipient by zipping or exporting the data first.

Shapefiles: Use 7-Zip/WinZip or comparable program to compress the required files (*.shp, *.shx, *.dbf, and ideally a *.prj) into an archive (.zip) file prior to attaching to an outgoing email.

Coverages: Use ArcToolbox (see ArcGIS Desktop Help) to export the coverage to an ArcInfo Interchange (.E00) file prior to attaching to an outgoing email. You may want to check that your recipient knows how to import the .E00 and provide instruction if they require it. Alternatively, use ArcCatalog to copy the coverage to its own folder, and zip it.

What is…?

What is metadata? (BACK TO TOP)

Metadata is the all-important ancillary information associated with a GIS layer or coverage that characterizes the data set content, quality, condition and other characteristics, and generally includes:

  • date of production and creator
  • data type (raster or vector)
  • instrument type
  • coordinate system: projection and datum (very important)
  • subject content
  • attributes (a.k.a. database fields)
  • minimum mapping unit or cell size (scale/resolution)
  • ...and much more

*** Always ask for this information from the provider of your spatial data. Also, see ESRI's whitepaper on Metadata and GIS.

What software is available in the GIS Lab? (BACK TO TOP)

The GIS Lab in B418 has ArcGIS 9.x (ArcInfo license of ArcMap, ArcCatalog, and ArcToolbox) with extensions. See GIS Lab (B418) for more information. ArcGIS 9.x (ArcView license) is also available in the BioComputing Centres B118.

What ESRI Virtual Campus courses are available for free to the UofA community? (BACK TO TOP)

As a UofA student, faculty, or staff member, you have free unlimited access to select online courses at ESRI's Virtual Campus in conjunction with the University of Alberta's ESRI Educational Site Licence. You must have a valid email address to access the free courses and you may also receive 40% discount on other courses not listed here.

1. Choose the course title(s) you want from the list (recommended courses below - see website for complete listing):

  • Creating and Integrating Data for Natural Resource Applications
  • Geoprocessing with ArcGIS Desktop
  • Learning ArcGIS - excellent starter course!!!
  • Learning ArcGIS Spatial Analyst
  • Understanding Map Projections and Coordinate Systems

2. Register for the courses through UofA's ESRI Site Licence Administrator:

Submit your UofA e-mail address, course number(s), and number of seats to in IST.

3. Receive your course access codes:

Once Cindy Stewart has emailed your course access codes, visit the website and follow the instructions to start your courses.

What is the appropriate citation format for software/data? (BACK TO TOP)

The makers of the software and the creators of the data work hard to provide you with the best available products for your research, so please acknowledge these sources. Of course, just as there are formatting specifics for scientific journal articles and books, the following offers some guidelines for citing software and data:

GIS SOFTWARE: Author. Title: Release number [software]. Place of publication: Publisher, dates.

  • ArcGIS 10.2.2:
    Environmental Systems Research Institute. ArcGIS: Release 10.2.2 [software]. Redlands, California: Environmental Systems Research Institute, 1999-2013.

To find out the current release and dates of your software, choose HELP >>> ABOUT from the pull-down menu of the software interface.

DIGITAL DATA & MAPS: Author. Title from series [format]. Edition. Scale. Series, sheet number. Place of publication: Publisher, date.

  • NTDB data:
    Natural Resources Canada. "Athabasca" [computer file]. 2nd ed. 1:50,000. National Topographic Database (NTDB), NTS map sheet 083I11. Sherbrooke, Quebec: NRCan Digital Topographic Data, 1998.
  • ESRI data:
    Environmental Systems Research Institute. ESRI Data and Maps [computer file]. Redlands, California: Environmental Systems Research Institute, 2013.

To find out the particulars of your dataset, consult the metadata or contact the organization that provided it.

What is a good all-purpose reference book for learning about GIS? (BACK TO TOP)

There are many good references available on the market, but one that I highly recommend is "Geographic Information Systems and Science" by Longley, Goodchild, Maguire, and Rhind (2001, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.). This book presents up-to-date concepts, technology, and applications of GIS as an interdisciplinary science and has even been used in a series of ESRI Virtual Campus course modules.

Definitely check out the excellent online text: "Geospatial Analysis: A Comprehensive Guide to Principles, Techniques, and Software Tools" by de Smith, Goodchild and Longley - it is the most up-to-date reference on GIS resources available.


Last Modified: 2014-05-27