Tutorial Information



This guide will get you ready for GIS—mapping!—and computing in the department. Of course, it will skimp on a lot of the details of MIT’s computing environment which is both elegant in its way and slightly arcane. If you want an in-depth survey of the MIT computing environment, it is exhaustively documented on the cron website.

GIS and Spatial Analysis at DUSP

In your DUSP coursework, you will often find yourself using a GIS—a geographic information system. This document is not the place to provide a substantive introduction to these technologies, but suffice it to say that they store, analyze, and visualize spatial data; in other words, they make maps. As a planner, GIS enables you to ‘think spatially’ and provides robust tools to do so. Learning to ask spatial questions and answer them is an important component of your planning education.

Introductory Courses

GIS is central enough to contemporary planning that DUSP makes it a required part of the curriculum. There are two GIS courses offered this fall, each occupying half of the semester. Taken in sequence, these are a seamless full-semester introduction to GIS that includes the opportunity to design and carry out a project from start to finish.

  • Introduction to Spatial Analysis and GIS (11.205) is required. It is offered over the 7 (ish) weeks of the fall semester. It covers foundational topics in GIS and spatial analysis, such as data management, map design/cartography, table joining, and basic geoprocessing (e.g., buffering, selection by location).
  • GIS Workshop (11.520) is strongly recommended, but not required. It is offered in the last 7 (ish) weeks of the fall semester. 11.520 focuses on developing a research project using GIS, while also introducing students to additional mapping methods.

Technically, MCP students can elect to enroll in 11.205 in either the Fall or Spring semesters. However we strongly suggest that incoming MCP students take the course in their first Fall: you will likely find GIS skills very useful in many of your spring courses.

“But I Already Know GIS!”: Testing Out

Great! If you have previous GIS experience, you can try to test out of Intro to Spatial Analysis (11.205) to satisfy the GIS requirement for the MCP degree. Topics covered in the test out include:

  • Map Design
  • Basic Geoprocessing (e.g., Buffers, Clips, Intersects)
  • Geometric Calculations (e.g., Area, Length)
  • Tabular Joins

You will be able to complete the test-out using any software that can process and visualize spatial data. (Usually QGIS or ArcGIS, though if you’re an extremely fast R or GeoPandas programmer be our guest!). If your skills are a bit rusty there will be a review session that will primarily focus on working through spatial questions using geoprocessing workflows.

Okay, but Should I Try to Test Out?

Maybe! You know your experience. Again, there will be a review session; this is the best way to gauge your preparedness. The Intro to GIS course taught in DUSP is tailored to applications in planning, research, advocacy, and activism, and you will be introduced to useful critical theoretical frameworks for thinking about the role of mapping in practice. Furthermore, we teach using the free and open-source QGIS—this means that even if you’re familiar with the Esri ecosystem, you could take this opportunity to learn an increasingly common, powerful set of open-source tools to complement your existing skills.

GIS at DUSP: What’s Available?

You’ll have three primary choices:

  • Esri’s ArcGIS Pro, which is an industry standard, proprietary, 300-ton gorilla;
  • Esri’s ArcMap, the slightly older (but probably more familiar) precursor to ArcGIS Pro; and
  • QGIS, which is a free and open-source alternative that is extremely stable and feature-rich. To give you a sense: in my own work, I haven’t had to use an Esri product in years.

In the 11.205/11.520 sequence that introduces GIS and spatial analysis to DUSP students, we will only be teaching QGIS. Our reasons for this are many: Esri software only runs on Windows, and QGIS is crossplatform (including Linux). Esri, as a company, is deeply entrenched in the military-industrial complex and in racialized predictive policing. Many students prefer QGIS. However, if in the future, you find yourself needing some tools that only Esri can provide, we do have the technology and the expertise.

Getting Set Up

QGIS 3.28

You don’t need any help from us! It’s available for macOS, Windows, and Linux at and straightforward installers with acceptable defaults are available for each of these platforms. We recommend that you download version 3.28 (the current long-term release, or LTR). The most recent version is not considered fully stable, so we don’t advise that you use this version.

ArcGIS Pro

ArcGIS Pro is a substantial interface and architecture update to the Esri GIS ecosystem. If you’ve worked in ArcMap before, you’ll be delighted by the improved interface and vastly sped up spatial processing. You can download the software from Note that MIT certificates are required.


If you’re a Windows user, you can simply navigate to in a browser with MIT certificates installed and follow directions. Note that also means that if you want to make use of ArcMap off-campus, you’ll have to be logged into MIT’s network through a VPN. But you—yes, dear reader, you!—are entitled to an ArcGIS license as an MIT student.

Using a VPN

Some software licensed by MIT—ArcGIS included—requires that you be on an MIT network. How, you may ask, can one be ‘on an MIT network’ when one is generally learning and working remotely? Magic is real. Thanks to a technology called a Virtual Private Network (VPN) you don’t need to be on campus to ‘be on an MIT network.’ MIT provides a VPN client called GlobalProtect for free to affiliates. Once you’ve signed in to the VPN, all of your internet traffic will be channeled through MIT’s servers; for all intents and purposes, you’ll be accessing networked resources and the internet as though you were on campus. Virtual machine users should install the VPN client on the macOS side: your VM will send its traffic through the VPN. As long as you’ve signed in through this VPN, you should have no issues running ArcGIS.

You can—and probably should—use this VPN when you’re using public wi-fi! It turns out that being on public wi-fi is not especially secure. Someone with the know-how can read what your computer is sending back and forth over the network and get into all kinds of mischief. Logging in through a VPN can make you much more secure: all a would-be hacker will be able to see is that you’re sending all your traffic through a server at MIT.

Get an External Hard Drive!

Your life with data will be much, much happier if you get a large, portable hard drive. We recommend that all incoming students acquire a bus-powered external hard drive (a drive powered by the USB port rather than a separate power cable), as opposed to a ‘thumb’ drive. The latter are easily lost (or washed), and many are limited to very dated USB 2.0 technology. We recommend the following specs:

  • USB 3 with Type-C connector and Type-A connectors. Many hard drives include cables with both connector types - this is because recent Macbook Pros only support Type-C, which is a fairly recent specification.
  • 120 GB capacity, minimum.
  • If you can spare the cash, a solid state hard drive (SSD) will be much faster and (more importantly) quite a bit more reliable.