Using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to Find Demographic Information

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  • 0:00 Geographic Information System
  • 1:02 GIS & Demographics
  • 2:45 Proximity
  • 4:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

When dealing with numerical data, GIS can make a major difference. Explore the use of GIS isn demographics and test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Geographic Information System

A good treasure hunter knows that success is often determined by using the right tools. If I'm looking for scrap metal on the beach, I'm bringing a metal detector. If I'm looking for pirate gold, I need a treasure map and a talking parrot.

But what if I'm looking for the greatest treasure of all: knowledge? Okay, the greatest treasure of all would probably still be that pirate gold, but knowledge is important, especially for social scientists. Our research is based on data, and sometimes finding the right data can feel like searching for buried treasure.

So, if I'm looking for demographics, statistics on a population, what tool do I use? A geographic information system, or GIS, is a program that geographically organizes and analyzes numerical data. Basically, it creates a map of statistical data, but for us, it might as well be a treasure map.

GIS and Demographics

So, what exactly does GIS do, and how can we use it for demographics? At its most basic, GIS creates a spatial analysis of data, meaning that it presents data in terms of physical space. Every statistic that we use in demographics, from birthrates to population density to voting patterns, occurs within physical space, but the raw numbers themselves don't necessarily reflect that. Understanding what this looks like spatially can often help us better understand the statistics we're studying.

Take a look at this example. Say that we are looking at voting patterns. From our statistics, it looks like the majority of people in this neighborhood support the political party that's currently in power. But let's see what this looks like on the map. We'll plot areas that support this political party in red and areas that don't in blue. At first, this area is all red, because the majority of people here did vote for that party. But if we zoom in to get a closer look, we notice that there is quite a bit of blue as well, so the red party won, but not by much.

Now, the statistics alone could tell us that. But what they don't tell us is that almost everybody who voted for the blue party lives over here, in this same neighborhood. This neighborhood is the newest development in town, and the people who live here generally only arrived within the last one to two years. So, thanks to our GIS map, we can see that the people moving here have different political views than the people already here. This could be an important predictor of things to come.


GIS mapping creates great visual data to help us see what statistics look like in the real world. However, it's not just about creating a simple map. What GIS is really all about is the spatial relationships between data, which we call proximity. How do these two sets of data interact in physical space? How does this change over time? GIS maps track demographic change over time, letting you watch statistical trends unfold. This is a complex form of spatial analysis, because it lets the researcher compare several variables at the same time.

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