What is the Difference Between GIS and Geospatial?

Caitlin Dempsey


The terms GIS (which most commonly is an acronym for Geographic Information Systems) and geospatial are often used interchangeably.  There are differences in what the terms GIS and geospatial mean.

What is GIS?

GIS refers to a system where geographic information is stored in layers and integrated with geographic software programs so that spatial information can be created, stored, manipulated, analyzed, and visualized (mapped).  GIS is a system for performing geospatial analysis and analytics.

For more detail visit the “What is GIS?” page.

What is Geospatial?

The term geospatial is a term that has only recently been gaining in popularity and is used to define the collective data and associated technology has a geographic or locational component.  

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A search using Google’s Ngram Viewer shows that the term only entered literature during the late 1980s and has rapidly been rising in frequency ever since then.

Frequency of the term "geospatial" in publications.  Source: Google Ngram Viewer.
Frequency of the term “geospatial” in publications. Source: Google Ngram Viewer.

What is Geospatial Data?

The word geospatial is used to indicate that data that has a geographic component to it.  This means that the records in a dataset have locational information tied to them such as geographic data in the form of coordinates, address, city, or ZIP code.

GIS data is a form of geospatial data and can be found in either vector data or raster data formats.  Vector data is stored with Points, lines and polygons that spatially represent geographic data.

Other geospatial data can originate from GPS data, data from satellites such as imagery and remotely sensed data, and geotagging. More and more forms of geographic data are being developed such as high-resolution satellite imagery, LiDAR data, inSAR data using geospatial technologies.

What is Geospatial Technology?

Geospatial technology refers to all of the technology used to acquire, manipulate, and store geographic information.  GIS is one form of geospatial technology.  GPS, remote sensing, and geofencing are other examples of geospatial technology.

What is the Difference Between Geospatial and Spatial?

The term spatial comes from the Latin word spatium which means ‘space’. Spatial, therefore, refers to anything that occupies space or the study of the distribution of things in space.

Spatial can refer to the study of any types of features be it outer space, the world, the spatial layout of the human body, the spatial layout of a room.

Geospatial, is a concatenation of ‘geography’ and ‘spatial’. The addition of ‘geo’ is to indicate that the focus is on features relating to Earth. Geo stems from the Greek “geō” which means the Earth.

This article was originally written on January 14, 2014 and has since been updated?

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.