An introduction to the fundamental tools

You can think of geoprocessing as a language, where nouns are geographic data, such as features and tables and TINs, and tools are verbs, such as clip and join and viewshed. Like any language, there are a handful of nouns and verbs that you need to know in order to communicate, and this section (and those that follow) introduce you to these common geoprocessing verbs (tools). If you are unfamiliar with the nouns, such as feature classes and rasters, a good place to start is the Getting Started topics, such as How GIS represents and organizes geographic information.

Most of the common tools automate tasks that were historically done manually using paper maps, such as measuring the areas of polygon features, changing the map projection, or compiling new maps by overlaying one on top of the other. Some of these manual tasks were so arduous and complex that they held back the dissemination of geographic knowledge and data, and were the primary reason for the invention of GIS.

Overlay and Proximity

The first two sets of tools answer two of the most basic questions in geography: "what's on top of what?" and "what's near what?". The first set of tools is discussed in Overlay analysis and the second set is discussed in Proximity analysis.


Geographic phenomena are not limited to discrete points, lines, and polygons, but includes data that varies continuously across the Earth's surface (or whatever planet you're studying), such as elevation, slope, rainfall, and temperature. Such continuous data is called a surface, and is modeled with rasters and TINs. There are a set of tools to create and analyze surfaces, which are discussed in Surface creation and analysis.

Spatial and non-spatial statistics

One of the axioms of geography is that things that are close together are more similar than things that are further apart. This axiom forms the basis of powerful spatial statistics tools that allow you to discover and characterize geographic patterns, and are described in Statistical analysis, along with standard non-spatial statistical tools, such as minimum, maximum, sum, frequency, mean, and standard deviation.

Table management

ArcGIS stores data in easily accessible tables, and the majority of workflows involve some sort table management, such as adding or deleting fields, creating relationships between tables, or creating features from columns containing coordinates. Table analysis and management describes the basic tools for managing tables.


GIS data sets often contain much more data than you need, and a common set of tasks is to reduce or extract data from larger, more complex data sets. Tools for these tasks are discussed in Extracting data.

See Also