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Finding Inspiration for GIS Project Ideas that Boost Your Portfolio

Amazing GIS projects are always the result of work that was inspired. You don’t have to be passionate about every part of your geospatial project but if you are not really interested in at least one part of it will be obvious in the final result. Before starting your GIS project you should take the time to consider these few questions. They will help you clarify the why and how.

What do you want to learn? What GIS tools do you want to work with?

This could be a great opportunity to focus on learning a specific skill such as python or another relevant programming language. So even if you are doing work that has been done before or you have chosen a topic that you are not particularly passionate about, using new tools and learning new skills to complete the project and recreate the spatial analysis and produce some sort of cartographic output of your work, might just give you the drive you need. If you are not inspired by a particular spatial problemgeographic topic or spatial dataset just pick anyone and add your own twist by using different GIS tools

What are you passionate about? What are you interested in?

If you are passionate about a particular environmental issue now is your chance to take a deep dive and try to make a difference. If you already have knowledge of a particular niche, this could be a geographic area or a topic area such as urban planning, try to find some data that relates to that and start asking questions!

  • Why are things located where they are?
  • Are they in the best location?
  • Can you calculate attributes for the objects based on their locations? Or the spatial relationships between other objects?
  • If you had to move features where would they go and why?
  • What will get you where you want to go ( GIS job, GIS internship)

GIS projects should be seen as a chance to gain experience so if you don’t have any ideas of what you want to work on try asking yourself where you want to be and if doing a specific kind of project on a specific topic could help you get there. For example, if you want to work for the local municipality or get an internship with a particular government organization, contact them and ask if there is something you could help them work on. It might be a really good idea to already have an understanding of what they might need or the projects they might already be working on where you think you can add value. Getting your foot in the door with an organisation that you one day hope to work for by combining your GIS project with their needs is a smart move!

If you are doing this as part of your final project at a university or college, consider asking one of your lecturers if they need help with anything they are working on. The opportunity to work closely with a staff member might give you some real work experience which would look great on your resume and it might also increase the likelihood of a favourable testimonial later on. Don’t limit yourself to just the staff members in your own department, you might be able to add more value to another staff member in another department. This is also a great opportunity to apply geographical knowledge to different disciplines.

What Geospatial Problem Needs Solving?

  • Is there a geospatial problem that you can solve? This could be an analysis problem such as 
  • Where is the best place for the ….?
  • Why is this not a good location for the …?
  • This could be a process problem:
  • How can this be done? Perhaps the specific function doesn’t exist for your specific problem?
  • How can I do this faster? Is there something you can improve? 
  • How can I make this repeatable? Can you model the process, add different variables, repeat?
  • Once you have considered these questions it’s time to find some data and think about what the primary output or result of your GIS project needs to be. 

Ideas for visualizing your GIS project

Do you have to create static maps? If not consider creating a web map will visualise your results differently depending on the scale

Maybe it makes sense to display our findings as a 3D map by either adding elevation into the mix or by extruding your results based on a numerical attribute in the data.

Perhaps it maps sense to show change over time? In this case you could output your results as animations.

Maps are not the only answer when visualizing results of spatial analysis, so think about your audience. What message are you trying to get them to understand? Is a map the best way of doing this? Here is a podcast episode that talk about this in more depth

Tips and tricks – spatial analysis for you GIS project

Oftentimes you won’t get the spatial analysis right the first time or you might want to recreate the analysis again just with other parameters to see how this affects the results. This can be a time consuming process and without good data management practices you will quickly lose track of the exact steps in your process. 

Consider building a model of our process right from the start. Many GIS desktop environments offer built- in graphical model builders. If you are not already familiar with them it may take you more time at the start but the ability to quickly rerun a process based on new information or parameters plus the fact that the model in itself is documentation of the process far exceeds the perceived disadvantages of having to learn how this graphical programming interfaces work. Not only will you be learning a valuable skill, how to automate workflows, but you will also be able to export the graphical model to a programming language ( probably python ) and include the resulting script as documentation in your final report.

Most GIS desktop applications have the ability to create a map book or atlas. Basically what this does is export maps at different locations and scales based on parameters that you define. For example, let us imagine that you needed to map a wind farm. Displaying the entire wind farm, the position of each wind turbine, on a map gives context to the wind farm as a whole but because of the scale we lose the detail of what is located around each individual wind turbine. This is a great use case for the map book or atlas function. Using this tool you can export a map of the entire area and a separate map of each wind turbine location at the push of a button. This offers all the same advantages of the building graphical models in that if something changes you can easily run the process again and recreate all your maps without needing to spend hours and hours creating individual maps.

Still, no idea what your GIS project should be?

What is the most interesting spatial analysis you have seen?

  • Can you recreate that? 
  • Prove it wrong or confirm that it is correct? 
  • What about using the same data and just looking at it from a different perspective? 
  • Can you take the same methodology and apply it to another data set? 
  • What other variable could you take into account? 

Have you looked in your spatial toolbox lately?

Try looking through the tools you have available in your desktop GIS application. Click on the ones that sound interesting and read the description. These tools often have detailed descriptions and examples of how they should be used and what the end result is. Perhaps you will find some inspiration here.

Access to elevation data is becoming easier and easier and adding topography to geospatial data makes your maps and visualizations more realistic. Once you have an elevation data set you can calculate different attributes  for vector features which might lead to some interesting analysis ideas.

If you are still stuck for ideas for your GIS project check out our podcast. It might just give you the inspiration you need as well keep you up to-date with what’s happening in the geospatial industry. 

About the Author
I'm Daniel O'Donohue, the voice and creator behind The MapScaping Podcast ( A podcast for the geospatial community ). With a professional background as a geospatial specialist, I've spent years harnessing the power of spatial to unravel the complexities of our world, one layer at a time.