Library:HSS GIS Data

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GIS Data Sources

Free Data on the Web

To download commonly-used datasets, check out UBC's Geomatics website, which has links to web pages with downloadable data.

Some common data sources:

City of Vancouver data: Vancouver Open Data Catalogue
BC Provincial data: DataBC Catalogue
Canada national data: GeoGratis

Census Data and GIS

See our guide on downloading census data from Abacus, formatting the data, and bringing it into GIS to join with census boundary shapefiles: Census Data and GIS

UBC Library's Data Collection (Abacus)

We've paid the fees and/or signed the licenses for you. Datasets are available to UBC students, faculty and staff through Abacus.

For help with Abacus, see the "Using Abacus" tab.

GIS datasets include:

Census of Canada data and geographic boundaries
Esri base map data (political boundaries, cities, rivers, roads, etc.)
CanMap Route Logistics and Streetfiles (detailed base map and transportation files)
1995 Orthophotos of the Lower Mainland
And more...

Using Google

Freely downloadable GIS data is typically found on government or non-profit organization websites.
Common tricks for Google searches include:

Add 'GIS', 'shapefile', or 'spatial data' to a search.
Add '' to limit your search to Canadian federal government sites
Add '' to limit your search to BC provincial government sites

Find advanced search tips on Google's Search Help page.

Search Tips

Searching for GIS data sets online can be frustrating and time-consuming. Here are some things to keep in mind as you go through the process.

Finding Data

  • Allow enough time to find data.
It can take quite a few hours or days of searching to find the data you need
  • The data may be within a greater data set that covers many topics.
For example, glaciers may be in a land cover data set or grocery stores may be within a points-of-interest data set
  • Data sets may cover a larger area than you are looking for.
Although your study area may only be around one municipality or landform, the data may exist at the provincial, state or national level

Downloading Data

  • Data sets may be compressed.
Large files may be distributed in a compressed format with extensions such as .e00 or .tar.gz. Specialized software may be required to uncompress the files. If you need help with this, the GIS Librarian can assist you.
  • Data sets may not be free.
Some government and many commercial data products may require a fee to access the data. Most Canadian and American government data sets are free. Outside of North America it is difficult to find detailed data sets at no cost. Check for open or crowd-sourced data, as this is becoming more popular in developing countries. (See the International Data Sources page of the Geomatics website for a list of major open data sites.)
  • Data sets may not be GIS-ready.
The information you are seeking may be in tables or reports. You may need to put the data into a format that can be read by GIS software (such as by adding columns for latitude and longitude coordinates).

Evaluating Data

  • Check the level of detail.
At what scale was the data created? The Vancouver coastline will not be represented well in a shapefile created at 1:1,000,000 and covering all of Canada. If metadata is present, check to see how the data set was created and what error might have been introduced in its development.
  • Check the attribute table.
Does the data set include the information you need? Can you interpret the values in the attribute table? Is there a metadata file to describe the attributes?
  • Check the time period.
Does the data set's creation date correspond with your project? How does it correspond with other data sets you are using?

Three Key Tasks to Remember

  1. Download the Metadata
  2. Document where you downloaded the data sets as you go
  3. Review the data set's licence (if applicable) for use restrictions and citation requirements

Using Abacus

The UBC Library hosts geospatial data on a server called Abacus.

You should login to Abacus using your library bar code/PIN or your CWL login so that you can download UBC licensed data sets. Public datasets require no login.

Abacus Home Page

To find GIS data, enter a geographical area or topic in the search box. Expand either the Licensed data or Public data trees by clicking the plus sign icon, then selecting Geospatial (GIS)

Browsing for GIS data

If you cannot find appropriate data after entering a geographical area in your search, enter a larger geographical area covering that region. For example, data covering the City of Vancouver may be found under British Columbia or Canada.

Some major datasets in the UBC Library collection include:

  • ArcCanada 3.1
Basemap data at the provincial level for all of Canada
  • ESRI Data and Maps 9.3
Basemap data at the national level for Canada and the USA, and at the continental level for the world
  • CanMap RouteLogistics
Key features include significant roads, local streets, speed limits, address range data, land use, major waterways and rail lines for Canada
  • CanMap Streetfiles
Similar to CanMap RouteLogistics, but with less variety of datasets
  • Census of Canada, Road Network File
Canada's national road network, containing street names, types, direction and address ranges

Citing GIS Data

The following are some recommended sources for ways to cite geospatial data, maps, and imagery:

ACMLA Recommended Best Practices in Citation of Cartographic Materials [PDF]
Compiled by the Association of Canadian Map Libraries and Archives

Guide to Citing Geospatial Data, Maps, or Atlases
Provided by the Arthur H. Robinson Map Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Content Standard for Digital Geospatial Metadata (FGDC)
The Federal Geographic Data Committee's standards for citation information within FGDC metadata

Get Help

The UBC Library provides access to GIS resources, including data, hardware, software and tutorials.

We can assist you with:

  • locating and acquiring geospatial data
  • incorporating data into research projects, including format conversion
  • learning GIS software and analysis techniques

We also provide technical support for Data/GIS Lab users.

Contact Us:

Paul Lesack, Data/GIS Analyst
Koerner Library 218C
Kelly Schultz, Data & GIS Librarian
Koerner Library 219G