Free GIS Data and Where to Find It
Many governments and non-for-profit organizations have a desire to be transparent with the information they collect. As a result, you’ll find much of their data freely available online. Using free, open-source data is going to save you time and money- You just have to know where to look for it.
It’s important to note that while most of the sources listed host a wide array of data, there is no one source with it all. You’ll likely end up using data from a variety of these sources for most projects.
Don’t Forget Local Providers Of GIS Data!
Most local governments and counties will have their own open-source datasets available to the public. There are simply too many to list here. So, if you’re looking for a very specific local dataset, check if your local county has GIS data available for free download. It is easiest to find by Googling the city or county’s name, + “GIS”.
After much digging and searching, here is a selection of our recommended, open-source data collections:
Esri is by and large the main player in GIS software and technology. Since developing ArcGIS Online, they have enabled easier sharing of data. Through the use of the ArcGIS Hub, organizations using ArcGIS Online can make their data public for others to use.
You don’t need an account to download data, but you do need an ArcGIS Online account in order to share data. The data available is fact checked by ESRI, so you can be sure of the high accuracy standard. It is easy to download the data offline, and you can download into a variety of file types like CSV, KML GeoJSON, File Geodatabase, or a Shapefile.
Living Atlas can be considered separate from ArcGIS Open Data because the data is curated by ESRI, ESRI partners or other authoritative organizations, and not the broader GIS community like with ArcGIS Open Data. The data available is all fact checked for accuracy by ESRI, and is guaranteed to meet their high standards. Note the “Authoritative” tag on these data items.
In terms of ease of use, it’s very easy to search the data which is grouped into categories like basemaps, boundaries, infrastructure and environment. You can also very easily preview the data by using their Map Viewer without having to register or log in. There is one catch, you can’t download the data to use externally, it’s designed to be opened and used in ArcGIS Online or ArcGIS Desktop. You can open it with ESRI products and extract the layers, but if you do not have an ESRI license, that would be impossible. So, while this is probably the biggest source of data and the easiest portal to navigate, it has limitations. Note that when running analysis or exports on Living Atlas data, you are limited to a 5,000 x 5,000 pixel area per request.
While the website itself is not the most aesthetically pleasing, it’s super easy to filter and find the data you want by country using a drop-down menu. You can find a range of general spatial data, like administrative areas or boundaries, elevation, land cover and transportation networks (roads and railroads). Diva GIS is only a portal for spatial data collected by others, they do provide references for the source of each data selection.
OSM is a classic core means of downloading files displaying things like roads, building footprints, or points of interest. You simply zoom to the area you want this data for, and hit export. Files are downloaded in OSM format and you can then open this as a vector file in your chosen mapping program. This option is severely limited by scale, you cannot download large areas of data directly from OpenStreetMap. If you use Geofabrik or another third party app, you can select and download the same OSM data, but at country or continent scale.
Provides simple Shapefiles of a variety of essential data, as well as vector and raster datasets in 1:10m, 1:50m and 1:110m scale. The datasets are grouped by cultural, physical, and raster. The cultural vector data includes things like country boundaries, cities, urban area polygons, and national park boundaries. Physical vector tiles show coastlines, physical features like rivers, lakes and glaciers, as well as geographic lines like the equator and international date line. The physical raster data illustrates landform and elevation. As with many of the other websites mentioned, this is a really simple website with no fuss downloads.
The US Census Bureau offers TIGER data, which stands for Topographically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing. It contains spatial data related to roads, railroads, census boundaries, rivers, buildings, counties and zip codes. It’s all free to download in KML, Shapefile or geodatabase. The data often requires quite a bit of cleaning, but it’s a great starting point.
Satellite and Aerial Imagery
Specifically directed at earth sciences, you will find data related to fire, water vapor, and other atmosphere related data. Aerial imagery, land data vegetation, land surface temperature are available, in addition to many others. It’s easy to filter and find the data you want.
The USGS Earth Explorer is another popular source for satellite data, the portal is easy to use, and you do need to create an account to access it. You’ll follow a similar process for selecting and downloading data. You need to identify the area you want data for, as well as the timeframe.
A similar USGS database is The National Map (TNM Download), but this resource only covers the US.
The team in charge of the Sentinel Hub provide high-quality, continuously updated satellite imagery from their many satellite missions. Their aim has been to remove the complexity of processing and storing large amounts of satellite data, so that it can be freely and easily available for use by the public. You have to register to access data, but it is free.
Simply select on the map the area you want the satellite imagery for, and then complete the filter form to search for relevant data to download.
Climate data can be particularly confusing unless you really know what you’re looking for. These sources are the easiest to search and download for those that are not climatologists.
WorldClim provides a collection of global climate and weather data, with both historical and future predictions. It’s a simple, no fuss website, that provides high-quality data.
This is probably one of the most comprehensive climate-based datasets out there. Many other climate related datasets are clunky and difficult to navigate, but not NEO data. All data is collected from the many NASA satellites orbiting the globe. NEO gives the ability to download CSV or GeoTIFF files.
The Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security data portal provides regional and global climate datasets for the benefit of a variety of industries.
Intuitive system for searching for a wide variety of climate data. Files types available are ASCII, CSV or GeoJSON.
Human Geography and Humanitarian Data
Fairly comprehensive collection of humanitarian and disaster related datasets available for free download. Everything from recorded avalanches, to access to education and healthcare facilities. It’s easy to filter and find the data you want, however, note it is mostly in CSV format.
The World Bank provides access to their global development data. It’s easy to navigate to, and download the data you want. The Data is mostly in CSV or XML format.
The Food and Agriculture Organization within the UN provides a wide-ranging collection of datasets covering the topics of farming, society, health and so much more.
A small, but specific collection of data available relating to natural disaster risk assessments. You can find data like volcano hazard frequency and distribution, or the global flood hazard distribution. You need to register to download data.
The IUCN collates data on hundreds of thousands of species of plants and animals on earth, with spatial data for over 120,000 species. Shapefiles in polygon or point format can be downloaded directly from this page, after creating a free account.
A neat website to find global protected area boundaries. It’s easy to find the areas you want by region or country, and you don’t need to register to download the files. Files can be downloaded in CSV, Shapefile or Geodatabase file types.
Soil grids displays a global compilation of soil data from the International Soil Reference and Information Centre (ISRIC). The data is downloadable in Shapefile format.
The UN Environment Programme has GRID, a platform with links to various high quality geospatial datasets, including their own. There are environmental datasets from Ramsar, and other natural resource and natural disaster monitoring datasets.
Other Notable Sources – Outside the US
This resource has a range of high-quality raster or vector basemaps for download. You don’t need an account to download anything, making it even easier.
If you’re looking for UK specific data, the UK Government website has an open data portal. There is anything and everything on there, and it can be a little difficult to find exactly what you want, but it’s probably there, somewhere.
Much like with UK government data there’s a wide range of data available to download. There’s so much data that it requires some serious filtering to find what you want, but it’s all of the highest standard.
This is a collection of data from a range of Australian government agencies all in one place. A very convenient approach which means you can reduce search time, and get to work sooner.
This collection is actually only a small selection of the available open data sources available online. We’ve done the hard work researching them, and believe these to be the best quality, easiest to navigate, and entirely free.