These days, mobile apps can provide a list of coffee shops near you within seconds. They can do that because they’re powered by a geographic information system (GIS), which is any system that allows for storing, editing, analyzing, and displaying spatial data. As you can imagine, GIS has many practical applications today, from helping city planners decide where to build schools based on population patterns to finding the best detour around a traffic jam.

Spatial data refers to information about the location and shape of objects, which can be two and three dimensional. For example, the spatial data we’ll use ...

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