Geographic Information Systems Resources


Geographic Information Systems (GIS) connects many different types of data to real world maps, and it is a crucial tool for everything related to land and nature. For conservation organizations, utilizing GIS can help to unlock the potential for public outreach, land management, eco-tourism, and much more. But for many land trusts and smaller NGOs without specialized GIS expertise, dealing with necessary spatial data can be a challenge. The following section provides a basic introduction of GIS, some FAQs, and some useful resources for everyone interested.

What is spatial data and how to view it?

Spatial data refers to data that contain information on where it is physically located on the planet: this location can be a point, a line, or a polygon. There are different types of formats for spatial data to be stored. The most common formats are shapefiles or geodatabases, but they need specialized GIS software to be displayed or used. If you do not have access to GIS software, the easiest way is to ask someone to convert it to a kml file. KML can be displayed on google maps using the tutorial below.

Import KML map data into Google Earth


Geography Awareness Week and GIS Day

Every November, organizations, educators, and GIS professionals get together to celebrate Geography Awareness Week and GIS Day. These celebrations focus on the importance of geography and the use of mapping to understand issues in our interconnected world. 

In 2023, the theme of GIS Day in Canada “Celebrating the GIS Professional” highlighted the contributions of Canadian GIS users working to create a positive change in their communities through geospatial approaches. Here are some of the amazing projects that happened across Canada:  

These projects’ keys to success include the sharing of accurate and relevant data, cultivating a digital mindset with staff and partners, and implementing the Government of Canada’s digital standards throughout the project phases.  

GIS in the land trust context

All land trust properties involve surveys that outline the exact boundaries of a property, but survey maps are hard to read or present. Transcribing a survey map to a custom-made thematic map can present precise boundaries, notable features on the property, as well as important locations in close proximity.

OLTA provides the service of Baseline Documentation Reports for newly acquired properties; our staff first use the GIS software to see where the boundary of a property is, collect data about features on the field, and then they are processed back into maps, statistics, and reports with GIS software.

Evaluating a property this way allows land trusts to assess the ecological and financial value of each property. After spatial data is stored, a land trust can then continue to monitor the property and track the changes on it.

Finally, GIS enables long-term planning. Land trusts can use open-source statistics from sources like universities and federal, provincial or municipal governments to inform their decision making on acquiring future properties and managing existing ones.


Where can I get open source data?


Many important data are collected by government agencies and released for free. This includes datasets critical for land trust operations such as census data, municipal boundaries, geological profiles, and more.

Statistics Canada

Canada federal government

Ontario Geohub

If a land parcel is located within a municipality, zoning map is another key resource stored by the municipal governments, either open for download or available upon request.

A particularly useful open source dataset for the land trusts is the land parcel shapefile. It is maintained by the government of Ontario and covers all subdivisions in the province where land surveys have been performed.


What GIS software are out there, and are they free to use?

The most popular GIS software is ArcGIS suite by Esri. The advanced ArcGIS Pro desktop application can be licensed by purchasing an ArcGIS subscription.  

An ArcGIS public account is a free ArcGIS Online account designed for non-commercial use. With a public account, you can create, store, and share maps and other geospatial content. Technical support for ArcGIS Online can be found here. 

The Esri Nonprofit Organization Program provides grants of Esri software to nonprofit organizations that focus on environmental and humanitarian initiatives. Esri Canada reserves the right to determine the eligibility of an organization’s candidacy for the program.  

If you want to make a simple map to be shared with the general public, a simple option is to make a custom map in Google Maps: Create or open a map – Computer – My Maps Help ( 

Google Earth Pro is also free for browser and desktop. It contains more advanced functions than Google Maps and you can create and share customized maps.  

Last but not least, QGIS is a free and open-source software by OSGeo that has many similarities to the popular ArcGIS system. The software requires a high degree of computer proficiency to use. The QGIS User Guide can be found here 

What do the coordinates on a survey mean?


There are several types of coordinates commonly seen in Ontario. The first is the standard longitude-latitude system, but be aware that some may be denoted in decimals while other in degrees/minutes/seconds. They can be converted at Degrees Minutes Seconds to/from Decimal Degrees | Federal Communications Commission (

The other common coordinate system is Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM). It projects local areas onto a Mercator map, making it suitable for surveying. Each coordinate starts with a zone code (like 17N) followed by eastings and northings towards the reference point of that zone.

(Picture credit –

Where can I learn more about GIS?

A series of relatively affordable online courses offered by the University of Toronto can be found on Coursera: at an approximated cost of $180 assuming completion within 3 months.  

Seneca Polytechnic offers a GIS microcredential with online courses fully funded by Canadian Colleges for a Resilient Recovery (C2R2) and the Government of Canada. These courses are part of a training initiative to provide workers with new skills needed to support a clean economy.   

ESRI GIS Resources: 

Consider checking with your local public library to see if they offer access to LinkedIn Learning courses, where you will find a number of self-paced workshops for GIS software like ArcGIS Pro and QGIS. 


YouTube Links

ArcGIS Pro Quick-Start Tutorials –

ArcGIS Pro: Tips and Tricks-

ArcGIS Pro: Mapping and Visualization –

How to Create a polygon in Google Earth Pro –

How to Organize, save and tour placemarks in Google Earth Pro-

*OLTA is not affiliated with any external resources aforementioned