Geographic Names Information System (GNIS)


Need “official” and/or alternative or historical names of geographic places in the US? Need a unique identifier for them to use in your database application (as we’ll as a map centroid)? This is the place to go.
The GNIS is national repository of every named geographic feature in the United States and that is tracked by the US Geological Survey (USGS). It covers everything from States and Counties to cemeteries.

Last time I counted, it identified 2,258,764 “features.” It’s a downloadable dataset and is updated multiple times per year.

The unique identifier in the dataset is named Feature ID. It’s an integer value that uniquely identifies every feature, and therefore can serve as primary key in database table. As an example, Deschutes County, Oregon has the Feature ID value of 1155130.

If you work with US counties (or even places), you might be familiar with FIPS Codes. These still exist, although they are no longer considered the “standard” identifier of counties and places. In fact, the acronym itself FIPS now means Federal Information Processing Series instead of Standard to reflect the demontion of the FIPS Codes. If you use FIPS Codes in your database applications, you should consider migrating to Feature IDs when feasible.

(Note that due to Federal budget cuts, USGS is no longer able to update regularly some of the minor features, such as cemeteries.)

Topics Covered: