Information Needs and Information Seeking Behavior Within the Geographic Information Community

Caitlin Dempsey


As part of the Professional and Occupational information community category (Hansen 2014), members of the geographic information community can be found working in a variety of industries and subject areas.  Urban planners, emergency management professionals, conservationists, academics, epidemiologists, and crime analysts are just a sampling of professionals that use geospatial technologies and geographic information as part of their work.

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) involves the creation, editing, analysis, and mapping of geographic information using a set of computer tools or software.  GIS as a technology is only about fifty years old and studying this information group is a case study in how information seeking support for a relatively nascent technology has helped mature GIS to make it a more accessible tool for those seeking geographic information.

To understand commonalities in the information seeking needs and behavior of GIS users, I interviewed five different members of this information community: a female policy analyst, a female GIS technician working for a local government agency, a female journalist who covers trends in GIS, a male education manager for a commercial GIS company, and a female researcher for a university.  Each person was asked about his or her typical information needs as well as strategies and frustrations in finding information.

There are many parallels that can be drawn between the different information seeking theories and how GIS users search and find information. Most GIS user’s information search processes can be accurately described by Carol C. Kulthau’s Information Search Process (ISP) model (1991).  During Stage 1, “Initiation”, GIS users are presented with a task that ultimately leads to a recognized need for information.  For example in this hypothetical scenario, an urban planner is tasked with presenting a report on a new ordinance prohibiting the location of tobacco and alcohol billboards within 1000 feet of schools.  During the Initiation stage, the planner must deconstruct the requirements of the report in order to assess his or her information needs.  This leads to the second stage, “Selection” in which the information needs are more clearly identified.  The urban planner, during this stage, will list out what geographic information is needed to complete the report such as the location of schools and billboards in the study area.  During the third stage, “Exploration”, the urban planner is then tasked with locating possible sources of geographic information which then leads to the fourth stage, ‘Formulation” during which information collections strategies are developed.  The fifth stage, “Collection” would involve information gathering tasks such as acquiring school locations from the local school district. Finally, in the sixth stage, “Presentation” the urban planner would ideally consolidate all of the acquired information in order to be able to complete the required report. Accompanying these stages are different emotions as outlined by Kulthau; particularly at the end stage, the urban planner may exhibit elation or disappointment depending on how easy or challenging finding the required geographic information was. (p. 368).

Free weekly newsletter

Fill out your e-mail address to receive our newsletter!

By the nature of their work, GIS users fall within the description of “super-encounterers” which Erdelez (1999) describes as people for whom information is encountered regularly and is an “important element of their information acquisition” (p. 26). All GIS users interviewed reported that seeking information is done on a regularly basis and is a critical component of their work.  Those interviewed were also more apt to be described as “deep-divers” (Heinström, 2005, p. 242) meaning that the search for information was “quality-conscious”. GIS searches involve a lot of investigation and can be accompanied by frustration due to a lack of centralized databases to search within as reported by the policy analyst (personal communication, February 18, 2015).  Successful searching involves a casting wide net of search techniques from peer support on GIS forums, government data warehouses, to personal connections (GIS journalist, personal communication, February 16, 2015).

Across the board, the Internet plays an essential role in finding and retrieving information.  Each interviewee reported that search engines such as Google were used as a primary strategy for finding geographic datasets and information about spatial analysis techniques.  Searching data portals (e.g. for United States government data) was also reported as essential for locating needed data and GIS specific support sites such as GIS Stack Exchangeand Reddit/giswhere peer support in finding information is offered (GIS journalist, personal communication, February 16, 2015). Acquiring accurate, current, and complete information was described repeatedly in these interviews as important to the search process and new resources are often stockpiled for future use. The GIS journalist noted, “I’m also quick to try out any new resources and evaluate them as “keep” or “forget.” (personal communication, February 16, 2015).  Accessing older information that has not yet been digitized and made available online was a cited challenged described by the GIS technician (personal communication, February 17, 2015).

The most common frustration voiced by the interviewees when searching for information is the lack of metadata accompanying geographic data.  Metadata is ancillary data that helps a user assess whether a geographic dataset meets their information needs.  Metadata contains documentation about the geographic data such as when it was created, who created it, how accurate it is, what the data contains, and what map projection the data is in.  Without metadata, it can be challenging for GIS users to know if the data will work for their needs or how to decode some of the descriptions found with the data.  Along with access to metadata, being able to preview the data before downloading it was another information search strategy that helps GIS users assess and find appropriate information (Fabrikant and Butterfield, 1997).  Not enough centralized of information in database to search within is another frustration cited by the policy analyst (personal communication, February 18, 2015).  Issues with access to open data and data that can be downloaded online were also reported as challenges to information seeking by the GIS technician and the researcher.


Erdelez, S. (1999). Information encountering: It’s more than just bumping into information. Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science 25(3). Retrieved from

Fabrikant, S. I. and Buttenfield, B. P. (1997). Envisioning user access to a large data Archive. Proceedings, GIS/LIS ’97. Retrieved from

Hansen, D. (2014). Lecture on Information-seeking and information communities: A study in diversity. Personal collection of D. Hansen.

Heinström, J. (2005). Fast surfing, broad scanning and deep diving: The influence of personality and study approach on students’ information-seeking behavior. Journal of Documentation, 61(2).  Retrieved from

Kuhlthau, C. C. (1991). Inside the search process: Information seeking from the user’s perspective. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 42(5), 361-371.  Retrieved from;2-%23

See Also

Photo of author
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.