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Finding Geospatial Data


Purpose: To help students locate a map for a given topic and use it in a document.

⏲ Estimated time to complete: 40-50 minutes

Prepared by: Joshua Sadvari, Geospatial Information Librarian, The Ohio State University (

License: Except where otherwise noted, content in this tutorial is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

Note for Instructors

This introductory tutorial can support class and research projects in any discipline where students are expected to use geospatial data but may be less familiar with how to locate and access potential sources of those data.

The tutorial is divided into two activities that can be used separately or in conjunction with one another depending on course- or assignment-level learning objectives. These activities may be appropriate for students at both the undergraduate and graduate level.

The tutorial was designed to allow for use in in-person, hybrid, and fully online instructional contexts, and instructors could assign the activities to be completed individually or in small groups depending on course structure and goals.

Learning Objectives

Through completing this tutorial, students will:

  1. Frame a search strategy for geospatial data based on their research question and anticipated data needs.
  2. Perform a search for geospatial data in the BTAA Geoportal using the text, map, and facet searching features of that system.
  3. Determine how to access relevant geospatial datasets using the BTAA Geoportal based on the results of their search process.


  • Geospatial data are any data referenced to locations on the earth. Geospatial data provide information about the locations and shapes of, and relationships between, geographic features.
  • Geospatial data can be found in various types and formats. For a brief overview, see this tutorial about “Types of Geospatial Information.
  • The search for geospatial data will often be driven by a particular research topic or question.
  • As with other types of information sources, the search for geospatial data can be a complex and iterative process. This process can include brainstorming potential sources, selecting and exploring specific sources, and refining both strategies and needs depending on search results.

As you get started, one way to frame your search is by asking yourself some What, Where, When, and Who questions. Your answers to these questions will help you to determine the initial scope of your data needs in relation to your research question and to brainstorm some potential sources to begin your search.*

*Questions adapted from Kellam, Lynda. 2013. “Data Reference Interview.” Available at:


  • What is my research question, and what types of analysis am I planning to carry out?
  • What data will I need to address this question or carry out this analysis?
  • What types of data am I seeking (e.g., vector, raster, tabular)?


  • What geographic area(s) am I studying?
  • What spatial scale/resolution am I planning to use for my analysis, and is this realistic?


  • What time period(s) am I studying?
  • Is my analysis based on a single point in time, or am I planning to compare data across multiple time periods?
  • What is my desired periodicity for data collection (e.g., monthly, annually, every decade), and is this realistic?


  • Who is likely to care about this research topic and associated datasets?
  • Who has published on this topic, and what data did they use?
  • What government agencies, educational institutions, non-profits, research centers, commercial entities, or other organizations might collect and distribute these data?

Activity 1

Use the worksheet provided to take some notes related to these questions to help frame your search strategy for geospatial data.

Searching the BTAA Geoportal

Geoportals are systems designed to facilitate the discoverability and accessibility of geospatial information resources. They are generally organized around specific agencies, regions, or themes, and often aggregate data from many sources.

Geoportals can serve as a good starting point when searching for geospatial data for a project, though no single geoportal can be considered a “one-stop shop” for meeting all data needs.

On the BTAA Geoportal homepage, users can find items by:

  • entering keyword
  • browsing categories
  • searching with the interactive map

These options are good for an initial search in the BTAA Geoportal. Once you are on the search results page, you can refine your search using the available facets, such as place, year, subject, or creator. See here for a description of all available facets.

Notice how many of the facets align with some aspect of the What, Where, When, and Who questions used to help frame your search.

When you select a record in the search results, you’ll be taken to its item page. This page displays additional information about the item, as well as some options for accessing the data, such as:

  • Direct download (generally as a shapefile)
  • Visit source (for possible downloads in other formats)
  • Open in ArcGIS (for use in ArcGIS Online)
  • Web service (to use in various desktop or online applications

Activity 2

Use the worksheet provided to perform a search in the BTAA Geoportal and determine how to access relevant datasets based on your search results. Activity 2 Worksheet

Wrapping Up

Once you’ve located relevant data for your project, ask yourself some How questions:

  • How were the data created or collected? Is information about the methodology used accessible and from an authoritative source?
  • Are the data GIS-ready? If not, how will I prepare them for use in my project? Are there any other steps related to data preparation that will be required (e.g., cleaning, extraction, transformation) before I can use these data?
  • Are there limitations on how the data can be used in my work?
  • How can I appropriately cite the data if I use them in my own work?
  • Based on my answers to all of the preceding questions, will these data be appropriate for meeting my project needs?

Not sure how to best evaluate a geospatial dataset to determine if it is appropriate to use in your project? Learn more in this tutorial on “Evaluating Geospatial Information”.

A few additional resources for finding geospatial data: