Today's big news is that ESRI is expanding its donation program to include four new products (ArcGIS Publisher, ArcGIS Network Analyst, ArcPad, and ArcEditor) and an updated version of its ArcView software. ESRI is also letting us loosen its donation restrictions: qualified organizations can now request two donations of ArcView and ArcPad a year, with no limit for other products.

In case you're not familiar with ESRI, it's a software company that makes professional geographical information systems (GIS) software. Broadly defined, GIS refers to the use of a map format to collect and analyze data. GIS has existed for centuries, but it's recently become a major topic in the nonprofit world. Every day there are new stories of nonprofits using GIS to advocate for social change, aid workers using mapping software to organize their disaster response, and environmentalist groups using interactive maps to educate people on the effects of climate change. GIS is a powerful tool for education and advocacy: it's not just about presenting data more attractively; it's about illuminating the real story behind the facts.

If you're trying to decide whether ESRI meets your nonprofit's needs, you can start with this recorded TechSoup Talks! webinar in which Steve Spiker of Urban Strategies discusses his experience with ESRI software and ESRI's Charles Convis points out features of interest to nonprofits. Ask your questions in the followup discussion.

The ESRI website also has a wealth of great information. ESRI offers in-person classes, online training, and self-led courses both in using ESRI software and in general GIS competencies. You can buy some classes, but many are also available for free. My favorite part of the ESRI website is the ESRI Map Book, a publication that ESRI has provided annually for over 25 years. There's a lot of inspiration in these great examples of GIS from around the world. GIS layers are even available for some of the maps on display, allowing you to reuse and customize them. (Warning: This site is very dangerous for map geeks who have work to do.)

Tactical Technology Collective and MapTogether have both recently published free, downloadable guides to GIS for nonprofits. Check out Tactical Technology Collective's Maps for Advocacy and MapTogether's Illustrated Guide to Nonprofit GIS and Online Mapping.

Here are some more great resources about mapping and GIS:

TechSoup Learning Center

TechSoup Blog

TechSoup Forums

Image: Mojave Desert Vegetation from ESRI's Map Book Gallery

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Elliot Harmon
Staff Writer, TechSoup