Open Source Desktop GIS: Let's Get Started

November 16, 2011

Sharing is Caring

A few years ago, a colleague at another institution asked my advice about offering a GIS class at his campus. He wanted to teach students the fundamentals of GIS and spatial analysis, both concepts and applications. The caveat was that he had no money to purchase software. He asked me if there were any worthwhile free applications that could be used for the class. At that time, the only free resource with which I had experience was Esri ArcExplorer Java Edition for Educators (AEJEE). AEJEE is a lightweight GIS tool for exploring geographic data. With AEJEE, you can classify and symbolize shapefiles, integrate image data, project on-the-fly shapefiles and use data over the Internet. A GIS course that relied exclusively on AEJEE would reach its ceiling very quickly.

I knew of other free products such as Google Earth but Google Earth, albeit a wonderful visualization tool, was quite limited in analysis. In defense of Google Earth, the product has evolved significantly over the past few years, allowing users to import KML files, GPS data points and a variety of other useful variables.

I called my very knowledgeable friend, Dr. Ming Tsou at San Diego State University (SDSU), and asked him if he had any recommendations. Ming said, "There are some nice open source GIS desktop programs available."

I said, "Open source? Does that mean free?"

"Yes," he said, "and much more."

What is Open Source?

Open source software can be freely accessed, freely used and freely modified by its users. The software ranges in price from free to relatively low cost. The beauty of open source software is that it often works across multiple operating system platforms. Most open source GIS desktop programs will work on both Windows and Mac systems (in addition to Linux). So, if you have students using a Macintosh, they would still be able to download and use the open source product. For those institutions that don't have a dedicated GIS computer lab, or for those institutions seeking to create an online course, the ability of students to download and use software regardless of their operating system is a huge benefit.

Who Uses Open Source?

The interest in GIS software has increased markedly over the past decade. This increase can be attributed, in part, to the increase in spatial awareness. "Geospatial" is all around us - in the maps we see on TV, in our cars with their navigation systems, in our phones with their embedded and/or Web accessed maps. Spatial literacy, although always important, is now overtly present in our lives. Today, more businesses are recognizing the power of spatial awareness than ever before. And if they didn't know to start with, when they hear about it, they want to know more.

As I write this article, I'm flying home from Washington, D.C., writing on my iPad. The person sitting next to me was intrigued by the technology and we started talking about our respective professions. It turned out that he was a small business owner in upstate New York. He designs and builds portable swimming pools. He's owned the business for three decades -- inherited it from his dad -- and he's done well, well enough to make a living. Most of his advertising has been by simple word of mouth and decades of referrals. The environment for his business, however, is changing. What worked for him in the past is no longer working, and his business is struggling. I told him that I'm a professor at a college, specializing in geospatial technologies. I described to him how a GIS could be beneficial to his company. Moments later, I was biting into the sandwich that he'd purchased for me on the airplane.

This person is a great example of an individual who could use open source software. He has limited financial resources, with a business model well-suited to GIS. In addition to businesses, more and more colleges and universities are recognizing the need for students to be not only computer literate and proficient in language and math, but also spatially literate.  In fact, in higher education today we are seeing more geospatial-as-general-education course offerings, and more "spatial" classes (such as geography, geology, anthropology, business, etc.) augmented with a geospatial technology component. Access to software such as open source GIS has become a cost-effective, viable alternative to proprietary packages.  As Dr. Tsou has determined, the use of open source in the following situations makes a lot of sense:

  1. TTeachers who would like to explore the possibility of teaching GIS, but do not have immediate financial support from schools or software vendors to purchase GIS software
  2. Students who would like to install and try GIS software on their home computers
  3. Schools with computers that are using non-Windows operating systems, such as MacOSX or Linux
  4. Teachers who would like to highlight a certain aspect of GIS functionality, such as database management, Web mapping, remote sensing or spatial analysis
  5. Teachers who would like to demonstrate some unique GIS functions to students tomorrow. (Most commercial GIS software will require more than one week to finalize the licensing with vendors. You can download and use open source software immediately.)

Basic GIS open source programs can provide basic GIS functionality, including data input, map display, spatial query, attribute query and spatial analysis. There are also open source programs for remote sensing and 3D visualization. Some of the better-known and more advanced open source GIS desktop titles today are: uDig, KOSMO, gvSIG, QGIS, GRASS, and OpenGeo.

So, which open source GIS software package best matches the needs of your classroom, your research, and/or your business? Over the next few months I'll explore this very question with an in-depth, technical analysis of each of the titles listed above (in no particular order) and possibly a few more. In the meantime, now that your open source juices are flowing, visit and enjoy the following resources:

  1. GISVM Desktop - GISVM is a free "and ready to use anywhere Geographic Information Systems Virtual Machine" (quoted from the GISVM website)
  2. The 2011 FOSS4G Conference website. FOSS4G is "Free and Open Source Software for Geospatial.” The FOSS4G conference is global, and focuses on free and open source geospatial software. Open source is becoming so popular that the list of FOSS4G sponsors grows annually. Sponsors today include names such as ESRI, Google, MapQuest and USGIF.

Up next: An in-depth look at....uDig.

Ed. note: The next installment will appear in mid-February.


Sharing is Caring

Explore more: Open Source

Geospatial Newsletters

Keep up to date with the latest geospatial trends!

Sign up

Search DM

Get Directions Magazine delivered to you
Please enter a valid email address
Please let us know that you're not a robot by using reCAPTCHA.
Sorry, there was a problem submitting your sign up request. Please try again or email

Thank You! We'll email you to verify your address.

In order to complete the subscription process, simply check your inbox and click on the link in the email we have just sent you. If it is not there, please check your junk mail folder.

Thank you!

It looks like you're already subscribed.

If you still experience difficulties subscribing to our newsletters, please contact us at