In this blog post I’ll give you an overview four data input techniques in GIS (ie. four ways to create a GIS map).

Let me show you how to digitize in QGIS, how to shade a GIS map, how to geocode, & how to think like a GIS analyst. Follow this link to my 2+ hour FREE HD video QGIS tutorial series.

 There are Four Data Input Techniques in GIS

The four most common data input techniques in GIS

Fig 1: The Four Data Input Techniques in GIS

The four common data input techniques are shown in Figure 1. Which technique you choose will depend on the application, your budget, and the type and complexity of the data involved.

  1. (a) Manual digitizing – digitizing tablet:

A digitizer is a special table with a grid of fine wiring behind the face.

  • You place your map on the digitize and then secure it with removable sticking tape.
  • In your digitizing software, you then specify a coordinate system
  • Then you digitize the bounding coordinates of the map.
  • After the setup phase, you trace the map features using a magnetic pen (puck). The map features get sent to your computer as a GIS map.

Digitizing using a digitizing tablet can be carried out in the following modes:

  • Point mode: single points are recorded at one time.
  • Stream mode: one point each is collected at regular breaks of time and distance.

Digitizing can be very time-consuming and so its expensive.  However, once digitized, GIS maps can be used over-and-over. That’s one way digitizing becomes cost effective.

Digitizing can take time to learn and to master. It can be a real pain!

1. (b) Manual digitizing – onscreen heads-up

A second manual digitizing technique is known as heads-up digitizing. To be honest, the other digitizing techniques in this post are geared towards industrial-scale digitizing. For example, whole-of-country map bases. For small digitizing projects, heads-up digitizing my preferred option. I use this technique all the time in my GIS consultancy. It is where you…

  1. Scan a map to create a digital version of it. For small maps, the flatbed scanner sitting on the desk next to you is good enough. You will need to scan bigger maps at an office centre.
  2. Place the scan into a coordinate system. You do this using a GIS process called georectification. Simplistically this involves matching features on the scanned map to identical features on a GIS map.
  3. On-screen digitize using the georectified map as a backdrop. Use the georectified scanned map as a backdrop on your computer screen and then trace the features on the scan with your mouse. The features will automatically be in a coordinate system, and so, once attributed, a GIS map.

Sounds simple, but there are many tricks that you can use to shortcut the process while at the same time improving the quality of the end product. Tricks like ensuring you’re using the correct coordinate system, copying features from other GIS maps, setting up your scan so that the georectification process is quicker and more accurate, and giving yourself a tidy edge to digitize against.

I show you how to use the qgis georeferencer to georeference a scanned paper map and then on-screen digitize from it
Fig 2: LEFT: A scanned photo map. RIGHT: After using the QGIS georeferencer and QGIS digitizing functionality

I show you all these tricks and more using QGIS in my QGIS 3 georeferencing and digitizing course…

1. Watch my 25 minute studio quality HD video about how to use the QGIS georeferencer to georeference a paper map and on-screen digitize from it (free).
2. Download the practice dataset (free).
3. Download the 86 page Georeferencing and Digitizing Work Book (free).


  1. Automatic scanning:

This is where a scanner captures the spatial data automatically. Scanning devices can capture spatial data at a very high speed. However, these scanners are often quite expensive and are rarely able to recognize text and symbols. Scanned data also requires a large amount of editing, which is done manually, therefore it can be more time consuming.

Automatic scanning can also be very quick when the map being scanned is a single map theme eg. just roads or just watercourses (but not a map with a mix of themes such as roads, rail, watercourses, etc.)

Scanners are expensive and its better to outsource this task. The final scans are only as good as the original map. Low quality scans might need to be on-screen digitized rather than going through feature auto-recognition.

3. Entry of coordinates via coordinate geometry:

Coordinate geometry is a means of entering explicit measurements of features from some known monument. This data is entered based on surveys. It involves manually entering X & Y coordinate information, and distances, can be very expensive in terms of labor. It is rarely used for natural resource applications in GIS and is mostly used for producing detailed cadastre maps.

  1. Conversion of existing digital data:

This involves the process of converting data from CAD systems to a GIS or topological form. Most software vendors of GIS provide a data exchange format where users can write their own data conversion routes.

GPS is also another means of data conversion.

Data Cleaning

The elephant in the room… Just because you have a map in a coordinate system, that does not mean its a GIS map. GIS maps need “clean” data. Linework with overshoots or undershoots, or polygons that are not closed are of little use in a GIS. So, while its important to have data input techniques, often the ones I’ve talked about here are only the beginning of the journey.

See also what is spatial data.


There are four main data input techniques in GIS. Which method you choose will depend a great deal on the volume of digitizing you have to do, and the format that your data is in. Each method has its own advantages and disadvantages which clearly differentiate one from the other. It is up to the user to choose any mode of data input based on his requirements. For the specialist projects I work on I mostly use the on-screen digitizing technique.

You might also be interested in this post about GIS data sources