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How maps convey geographic information

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Last modified October 27, 2007
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Fundamental GIS concepts are closely linked to maps and their contents. In fact, map concepts form the basis for understanding GIS more fully. This topic explores some fundamental map concepts and describes how they are applied and used within GIS.


A map is a collection of map elements laid out and organized on a page. Common map elements include the map frame with map layers, a scale bar, north arrow, title, descriptive text, and a symbol legend.

The primary map element is the map frame, and it provides the principal display of geographic information. Within the map frame, geographical entities are presented as a series of map layers that cover a given map extent—for example, map layers such as roads, rivers, place names, buildings, political boundaries, surface elevation, and satellite imagery.

The following graphic illustrates how geographical elements are portrayed in maps through a series of map layers. Map symbols and text are used to describe the individual geographic elements.

A map frame contains a series of map layers for a given extent.

Map layers are thematic representations of geographic information, such as transportation, water, and elevation. Map layers help convey information through:

Map Layout and composition

Along with the map frame, a map presents an integrated series of map elements laid out and arranged on a page. Common map elements include a north arrow, a scale bar, a symbol legend, and other graphical elements. These elements aid in map reading and interpretation.

The map layout below illustrates how map elements are arranged on a page.

A map layout is a set of map elements arranged on a page.

Often, maps include additional elements such as graphs, charts, pictures, and text that help to communicate additional critical information.

Spatial relationships in a map

Maps help convey geographic relationships that can be interpreted and analyzed by map readers. Relationships that are based on location are referred to as spatial relationships. Here are some examples.

Within a map, such relationships are not explicitly represented. Instead, as the map reader, you interpret relationships and derive information from the relative position and shape of the map elements, such as the streets, contours, buildings, lakes, railways, and other features. In a GIS, such relationships can be modeled by applying rich data types and behaviors (for example, topologies and networks) and by applying a comprehensive set of spatial operators to the geographic objects (such as buffer and polygon overlay).

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