Screen shot of Google Earth Interface

Data Representations: Data Standards and Interface Capacity

Module adapted by Jane Thaler from materials created by Alison Langmead from the School of Computing and Information at the University of Pittsburgh

In this module, you will create and manipulate geospatial map data to examine how interfaces can aid or impede aspects of GIS data manipulation and representation. While many of the concepts here apply to all data and interface relationships, we ask you to explore GIS data, particularly in KML format, because it is specifically built to be displayed and visualized.



This exercise will ask you to create a geospatial dataset, examine that dataset, then re-present that dataset in a different mapping interface. For the attached exercise, you will need access to the internet, an internet browser (Chrome preferred), and the ability to download files and applications to the computer you are using. The attached exercise will take between 20 and 30 minutes to complete.

Download Exercise Document:


Part 1: Different Mapping Applications

Using your KML file or another dataset of interest (see below for places to find these), explore mapping applications outside of Google’s domain.

Think About…
  • How does the interface change the visual representation of the data?
  • What can you do differently with the data in different applications? How do the capacities of manipulation change?
Online Mapping Applications:
Part 2: Different GIS Formats

Download an open GIS dataset in a non-KML format, look at the file to see how it compares to KML, and upload it to the mapping applications of your choosing. 

Think About…
  • What do you notice about the different formats when looking at the text in the files? How are the encodings different? The same?
  • How do they get represented differently? The same? 
Some formats:
Open GIS Datasets:


  1. The underlying data structure stays the same even as it looks different across different interfaces. 
  2. Once the data is represented by an interface, the capacities of the interface shape that data.
  3. Interfaces assert a world that isn’t necessarily the totality of your options when it comes to data standards. The user interface determines to a large extent how usable and useful that system is for a given task for a user, but just because the interface you are working with doesn’t give you the option to do what you want, doesn’t mean it isn’t possible.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.