Gathering data for a geographic information system (GIS) project?
You're going to need the right GIS data collection tools.
The good news is that when it comes to field data collection you have plenty of hardware options. The bad news is the sheer number of options can be overwhelming.
Find tips on implementing GIS in our quick guide Intro to GIS: What It Is and How to Get Started.
To help you out, we’re covering the best GIS hardware for the field, including digitizers, GPS units, and mobile devices. As a bonus, we'll also explore the office hardware you'll need to utilize all the data you collected in the field.
Note: This post only covers GIS hardware. To learn more about GIS software, be sure to check out this page.
Best GIS data collection tools
GIS data collection hardware can be broken into three basic categories: digitizers, GPS units, and mobile devices. With a broad range of capabilities and price points, each type of device has it's own ideal use case.
To determine which device is right for your organization, be sure to begin with the end in mind. Good questions to ask include:
What kind of projects will this device be used for?
What are the deliverables?
What degree of location accuracy is required?
These questions are fairly broad, but can be a good jumping off point for determining what kind of device will be most effective for your GIS data collection projects.
Many devices are considered digitizers: digital cameras, digital tablets, scanners, and more. As defined by Computer Hope, a digitizer is:
“[A] hardware device that receives analog information, such as sound or light, and records it digitally. Usually, the information is stored in a file on a computing device.”
In the context of GIS, digitization refers to converting coordinates, text annotations, or analog maps into digital form, so as to be read by a GIS software.
In terms of digitizers for GIS data collection, tablets are the primary tool. GIS professionals can use digitizer tablets to easily capture, store, analyze, and manage data while in the field.
For our money, the best graphics tablet is the Wacos Intuos Pro.
Wacos Intuos Pro (Large)
According to a review on CreativeBloq, this graphics tablet features a "pen that feels as close as possible to the paper equivalent."
That combined with the large active drawing area (16.8" x 11.2") makes the Wacos Intuos Pro an ideal option for mapping, drawing, and taking notes while out in the field.
With the large screen, superior pen sensitivity, and affordable price point when compared to similar devices - this tablet is a truly solid option for GIS data collection.
You likely use some form of GPS in your daily life, but do you actually know what it is or how it works?
A GPS unit is any device capable of receiving information from GPS satellites and calculating your geographical position. According to Physics.org:
The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a network of about 30 satellites orbiting the Earth at an altitude of 20,000 km. The system was originally developed by the US government for military navigation but now anyone with a GPS device... can receive the radio signals that the satellites broadcast.
Remarkably, wherever you are on the planet, there are at least four “visible” GPS satellites.
These satellites transmit information between each other at light speed, and can pinpoint your location based on how long it takes messages to move between them. This process is called trilateration.
GPS units today can be broken down into three categories: recreation grade, mapping grade, and survey grade.
Garmin GPSMAP 64az [Source]
Recreation grade GPS
These units are the least expensive and are most-often purchased by the general public. For a reliable recreation grade GPS unit, we recommend the Garmin GPSMAP 64sx.
A handheld GPS unit with navigation sensors, the Garmin GPSMAP 64az features a rugged, water-resistant design, button operation, and a 2.6 inch sunlight-readable color display.
Preloaded with TopoActive maps in the U.S. and Australia, this device offers readable maps for roads and hiking/biking trails.
Transferring data from this unit to a GIS software does require the DNRGPS app, which can be downloaded from the Department of Natural Resources.
If you'd like to splurge or want the newest tech, you could purchase the Garmin GPSMAP 66st for improved durability, memory, and connectivity features.
But there's an argument to be made for sticking to an older product to save on costs.
Ultimately, you need to understand your budget and precise navigational needs before buying the newest, greatest, and most expensive tech.
Here's an excellent resource for comparing Garmin GPS Map products.
Mapping grade GPS
Most often used by government agencies and researchers, mapping grade GPS receivers are more expensive than recreation grade.
That said, the increase in price does yield a significant increase in positional accuracy. For any project requiring highly accurate coordinates, mapping grade GPS is definitely the way to go.
In terms of mapping grade GPS devices, you can’t go wrong with the Trimble Geo7x.
The Geo7x offers sunlight-optimized displays and allows you to stay in touch with the office via integrated communication systems.
Further, Trimble's handheld data collector offers a high degree of accuracy and, when augmented with an external antennae, can actually be used for survey grade projects.
Depending on your needs, Trimble also offers the TDC150, which is as accurate as the Geo7x but offers an Android-based user interface, smoothly connecting the office to the field.
Survey grade GPS
Most often used by professional surveyors, survey grade GPS receivers are by far the most accurate. Accuracy for these units range from 1 meter for lower end devices, down to within 1 millimeter for higher end.
Devices of this grade are often used in conjunction with an external tripod-mounted antennae, such as the Trimble r10, which helps increase location accuracy.
Because these devices are so advanced, they are also the most expensive: starting in the deep thousands and going from there.
To learn more about GPS devices and identify which is right for your specific project, check out this detailed breakdown of GPS data collection devices.
As mobile technology has evolved, smartphones and tablets have become useful tools for GIS data collection.
Smartphones specifically offer unparalleled convenience. They are versatile, fit in your pocket, and most people already have one.
Though smartphones don't offer the same level of accuracy as GPS receivers, accuracy can be approved by connecting to a broadband network or GPS device.
Though tablets aren't as ubiquitous or portable as smartphones, they have one huge advantage: screen size.
Bigger screens make it easier to view large data sets or create detailed maps - both of which are significant components of GIS work.
As with all GIS data collection devices, the choice between smartphone or tablet depends almost entirely on budget, personnel, and the project itself.
GIS Hardware for the Office
Once you’re done in the field, you'll need the right office hardware to get the most out of your data. The devices below will help connect field and office, ensuring that your GIS data transfers seamlessly.
For your desktop computer, you’ll need a large-display monitor, lots of RAM (more than 4 GB recommended), and plenty of extra space on the hard drive. For an in-depth breakdown of specific computer hardware requirements, check out this guide.
You may also want to consider a plotter i.e. a printer for large scale GIS maps. Plotters are incredibly useful because they allow you to bring your digital map into the physical world.
Once you print a map you can hang it on the office wall, distribute to your teams, or simply keep as reference.
This article from Business.com provides a great breakdown for the best wide-format printers of 2022. For printing maps, they suggest the HP DesignJet T830: citing hi-res printing capability, fast printing, and mobile device compatibility.
As you can see, there are many GIS data collection tools available. When combined, these tools can form the perfect system to execute your project with ease. Whether you’re collecting data in the field or making maps in the office, getting the right hardware will help you every step of the way.
Interested in leveraging the power of Mobile GIS?
Back-office GIS requires specialized training and often is siloed from the field or relegated to counterintuitive apps. And yet, robust maps are critical to contextualizing work in the field and streamlining communication.
For this reason, Unearth developed OnePlace - a mobile mapping solution for simple mapmaking, multimedia geolocation, and intuitive data collection. As an added bonus, OnePlace enables real-time communication and progress tracking.
Get started in GIS by mapping the data you already have - spreadsheets, photos, and more - with 30-day free trial.
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Plus, check out our white paper on collecting field data more efficiently with cloud GIS.