Decorative photo.

What is GIS?


GIS is not any one thing, but, as the abbreviation suggests, a system that integrates hardware, software, skilled users and data. GIS gives users the ability to view, store, edit, inventory, manipulate and analyze large amounts of geographical data for a variety of extremely useful purposes.


  • A geographic information system, or GIS, is an integrated system of computer hardware, software, data and trained personnel for analyzing and displaying all forms of geographically referenced information.
  • GIS can also be thought of as a method to visualize data from a variety of sources in ways that reveal relationships, patterns, and trends. By combining the query and statistical analysis capabilities of a database with the visualization and geographic analysis benefits of maps, GIS helps to answer questions and solve problems by presenting your data in a way that is quickly understood and easily shared.
  • Software is an integral part of a GIS, Global Positioning System (GPS) technology may be used to capture data for a GIS, and maps may be an output from a GIS, but none of these things by themselves is a GIS.

How is GIS used at public gardens?

Today public gardens use GIS mapping systems for curating their living collections, performing and tracking research, managing their facilities and landscapes, designing and planning their grounds, educating and orienting their visitors, and even fundraising and donor stewardship.


Curating living collections

The adoption of GIS can help gardens to standardize work flows and save staff time across all departments. With well-designed reports and maps produced by a GIS, curators can discuss alternatives and make decisions based on accurate collection inventories, summaries, and quick analyses of the current status of the collection and critical work pending.

Performing and tracking research

GIS can be used to help connect biology and biodiversity researchers with the plants maintained and documented by public gardens.  Once research is underway, the GIS can be used to track the project and the reports and journal articles associated with the specimens being researched.

Managing facilities and landscapes

Facilities managers at public gardens use GIS for maintenance scheduling, work tracking, and emergency management, and to track in a single system all the information they maintain about the current condition of structures, irrigation and water systems, roads, paths, utilities, benches, drinking fountains, restrooms, and more.

Designing and planning

The accurate and detailed map information in a GIS can be used by landscape architects and site engineers to assess current conditions, evaluate opportunities and constraints, develop conceptual site plans, and then compare design alternatives.  Once a project is finished, the as-built drawings can be quickly integrated to update the GIS.

Educating and orienting

GIS helps to integrate the work of curators with the work of garden educators: plant lists, maps, photographs, publications, interpretive signs, audio and video podcasts, and links to online educational resources can all draw information from, and in turn be stored in, the geographic information system.

Fundraising and donor stewardship

GIS can be used to manage the many dedicated objects in public gardens such as trees, structures, and benches, and has begun to be adopted for targeted fundraising within the community in a fashion similar to that of other non-profit organizations.

Case Studies

One of the most basic things that we can do with our GIS is to see where plants are visually.  Seeing results is one thing when you are looking at a spreadsheet, but being able to look at a map and see results is really gratifying.


Missouri Botanical Garden

Rebecca Sucher, Living Collections Manager of the Missouri Botanical Garden, outlines the uses of GIS at the garden. She discusses the process they use to map features in the garden and the inventories they produce for their staff and the public.


San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Cary Sharp, Director of Horticulture at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, discusses the applications and benefits of using GIS at the park. He outlines what features they map, what kinds of products they produce with their data, and their GIS emergency plan in use at the park.


Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University

Kyle Port, Plant Records Manager, and Michael Dosmann, Curator of Living Collections at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University discuss how they utilize GIS at the garden. They outline the history of map use as well as current applications of GIS and the products they create to increase efficiency.