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QGIS – what is it and why should I try it?

An open source GIS software project

When people first start to use open source GIS software, they almost always land on QGIS. It may be only for a test period but it has become so pervasive in the market and educational ecosystems that we have no less than eight QGIS books in our catalog! It is impossible to ignore.

Because there are so many new users looking at QGIS, similar questions tend to pop up when evaluating it. This blog post looks at some of the common questions that surface in online searches.

Is QGIS software free?

Part of the allure is that it is free to download, use, and share with others. It has enabled a whole generation of budding cartographers and analysts to flex their muscles without having to pay for access to their vocational tools.

Yes, QGIS is free. There is no cost to access it and you don’t need a license manager or online service to allow you to use it as much as you want.

To understand the ecosystem better one might ask, “Why is QGIS free?” as well. This gets to the heart of the open source software movement. Often, independent users and developers collaborate to create new software, share it, teach others about it, and build a community to maintain and care for it. QGIS is a great example of this kind of communal approach. It is important to know that it is free because the creator of it wanted to share it with the world.

Our own author and former publisher Gary Sherman needed a tool. So, he built it and shared it with the world. Well over a decade later dozens of developers help add features, while thousands of power users and educators help build momentum in the user community. Everyone has a way to contribute, because it is free and their personal investments of time and energy don’t go into a corporate black hole.

What is QGIS used for?

Anywhere there is a GIS need, QGIS can be used. Okay, maybe not everything, but all the basic functions of geospatial analysis, mapping, and data conversion are well supported. Connectors to many data sources and plugins with thousands of advanced functions help support a wide range of users. Earth observation users, water managers, agriculture planners, forest managers, and more, all use QGIS to design and communicate about their projects.

QGIS is not designed for just one industry or use case. At Locate Press we are being asked to produce more books and training events that target specific domains with QGIS and other open source products. For example, our QGIS for Hydrological Applications is a domain-specific title for those in the water management space. Expect more books, courses, conferences, and tutorials that will look at other domains.

Is QGIS easy to learn?

QGIS can be very easy to learn. Any GIS user could start using it in very quickly as the concepts and methods are very similar to other approaches. QGIS is being used to teach younger students as well, so age is not a barrier. The GIS education domain benefits from books like On the Way with GIS to teach young students GIS concepts.

In some cases you may just need a self-paced book to teach you. Others need a trainer or teacher, so they opt for a workshop environment. Regardless, you do not have to be a developer or super-geek to learn these tools. Just the basics of GIS and you should be fine.

How is QGIS different from ArcGIS?

As proprietary software, ESRI ArcGIS is not free (without cost). In certain circumstances, for students or developers, it can be possible to get a free version, but it is often very expensive to a small business or single user. It is also limited from a freedom perspective. You cannot copy, share, or distribute the product. And you can definitely not examine the source code or contribute to fixing bugs or adding extensions to the core product.

If the company changes their terms, increases their annual fees, or can improve the software to match your needs, then you are somewhat held hostage unless you move to an open source environment like QGIS.

Which is better, QGIS vs ArcGIS? ArGIS has many sophisticated cartographic and analysis tools and is very popular for corporate and government users. QGIS does not match all these features directly and a comparison matrix would be helpful to find. But in the end, many powerful maps and analysis are done every day using QGIS. What it may lack in polish compared to a billion dollar company, it makes up for in plugins, openness, and freedom-loving communities.

Can QGIS replace ArcGIS? It depends on your needs – you should try both. I suggest starting with QGIS because it is free, open, and won’t lock you in for profits in the future. Maybe it’s not for you and your company or school requires you to use ArcGIS – that is fine, but at least you have the option to learn and study at home if you ever want to.

How can I learn QGIS at home?

There are many trainers that teach QGIS in workshops, at conferences, both online and offline. The QGIS project also has a page of QGIS training materials that include user tutorial guides.

Locate Press also sells books (print and DRM-free e-book PDFs) that teach you about QGIS at your own pace (links at end of post). Introduction to QGIS is an entry-level introductory book. Discover QGIS 3.x looks at the latest features and dives even deeper. QGIS Map Design teaches specific cartographic techniques that GIS users will appreciate. On the Way with GIS and Open the Door to GIS use QGIS to provide a GIS education to students (including student and teacher guides). QGIS for Hydrological Applications, we mentioned above. And The PyQGIS Programmer’s Guide teaches developers how to write applications and plugins using Python. As you can see, these cover a widd range of users from cartographers to developers.

There are many other videos, blogs, books, and websites dedicated to QGIS training – a simple search finds many of them, especially watch for sessions from the FOSS4G 2021 event which was online.

Which version of QGIS should I download?

One of the biggest draws to open source is that there are free downloads of GIS software like QGIS. Downloads are available through the QGIS project website. They always have at least two versions available for download: a “latest release” and a “long term release (LTR)”.

What is the best version of QGIS? It depends on the user – for most users, the latest release will be fine. It includes all the latest improvements and features. Sometimes those new features cause bugs and you need to update when fixes are available.

On the other hand, the LTR version is focused on avoiding new bugs. There are still fixes made but new functionality is saved for other releases to keep this one as stable as possible for a longer period of time.

What computer specs do I need for GIS?

Note, I didn’t specifically call out the size of processor or how much RAM do you need to run QGIS specifically because all GIS software generally requires a modern computer to run efficiently. That said I often run QGIS on a 8 year old Macbook Pro.

Consider what you plan to do with it. Ultimately, your required specs will depend on how you want to use it. If you will be storing and analyzing data on a server using PostGIS, for example, you may not need a beefy machine just to draw the maps.

If you want to crunch a lot of data, it might still work on an older machine but just take a longer time. There are many tips, tricks, and best practises to make a GIS run more efficiently regardless of computer specs. So if you are trying something on QGIS, be sure to ask in the community forums if there are workarounds for your older or slower PC.

QGIS resources

I hope you enjoyed this quick walk through some of the more popular topics and questions about QGIS that are asked online. Here is a list of links to the various sites I referenced above. If you end up trying QGIS, let me know what you think on Twitter @locatepress. Good luck on your journey!

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What is Geospatial Technology?

Geospatial technology started with photo interp and GIS

Geospatial technology brings tools and data together to describe, map, and analyze the world around us and worlds yet to be discovered.

The term geospatial is a relatively new invention at least in the parlance of mainstream developers. Geospatial can refer to types of data or to types of technology. The word itself is a combination of geographic and spatial – indicating an alignment between geography and the general idea of spatial/locational properties. Spatial concepts (think geometry and statistics) do not necessarily represent a place on a planet until they are combined with ideas of geography in general.

Built on the history of Geographic of Information Systems (GIS)

GIS is a technical domain, usually for geographers, that allows users to make digital maps and subject them to various types of analysis. Sources of GIS data may include satellite or aerial imagery (raster data) or line map data (vector data) delineating points, lines, or regions of interest – created by surveyors, engineers, photo interpreters, etc.

While many GIS projects output maps, their primary goal is to develop observations about a project area and overlapping properties and values. For example, land-use planning typically requires a GIS process to compare/contrast all the competing values – economic, social, environmental, etc. These are thought of as layers of spatial data that overlap one another and can be combined to show different management priorities or scenarios.

Where do deer live in the winter compared to a planned highway development in a popular tourist corridoor – many values in one location often need advanced tools to build a complete picture.

Geography made digital

While GIS helps bring geography into the digital domain, geospatial technology helps bring it to life for more people. Beyond specific GIS projects, there are many more data sources, cartographic products and ways to output maps for different consumers . Collectively, these fall into the region of geospatial data and technology.

Web-based mapping really helped propel the generalized use of geographic data into the mainstream. Before Google Maps was introduced in 2005, there were only a handful of common web-based mapping tools available for the public to use. Developers started to build their own open-source platforms to share information and collect input.

This required a whole stack of technology including geographic data, web servers, spatial databases, rendering libraries, web-interaction libraries (zoom/click/pan), and the internet itself. Geographers or GIS users may only be a small part of the overall project or not involved at all.

In the end, a handful of different technologies are needed to bring digital geospatial data to life.

Broader than just spatial analytics

Building new geospatial web-mapping tools was one part of the journey. Naturally, the more people use mapping tools, the more questions they want to answer. For example, consider how popular Google Maps became due to its driving directions. This level of spatial analytics was profoundly useful for those driving in a new location. But only a small set of built-in analytics was really ever possible with this platform – or so it seemed.

Data analysts and GIS users are used to running specific types of routines on data to get an answer. For example, calculate an optimal route from A to B. Or what is the expected water course derived from this elevation model?

However, with modern geospatial technology, the user may view and interact with the data in a more real-time approach to build understanding before they ever run an analytical routine.

They may never click a “analyze” button but can use a 3D map view to get a sense of where water will flow, or look at the streets around them to compute their own driving path in their head. In this sense, geospatial tools help them leverage geographic data in a context that is intensely personal.

Collection of mapping technology

So what tools and technology are considered geospatial in nature? As noted in the “stack” of technology above, it is a wide-ranging set of technology. It can be helpful to look at the two types of end-users that typically leverage geospatial technology: software developers and data analysts.

Geospatial developers take data of interest, depending on their domain, and create applications that allow their target audience to interact with the data in a meaningful way. This may mean taking data that is not always spatial in nature – like a list of addresses or stores running sales – and turn it into a component on a map for viewing and querying.

Location-based applications using GPS tracking on a device are also used by developers to give localized awareness of nearby data or attributes the developer wants to expose.

Geospatial analysts – often work more behind-the-scenes and provide types of data analysis outputs that get used by application developers, GIS users, or even in reports or web sites for general public consumption.

Geospatial analytics for all

Analysis with geospatial data components is not limited to one domain of analyst anymore. Data scientists or business analysts may combine data from many sources – spatial or not – to provide a common operating picture of a business or project.

Therefore, libraries and processes for analyzing geospatial data have become ubiquitous or are at least a common subset of analytical routines that many have access to. Both desktop and web-based approaches to sharing data along with analytical tools continues to grow in popularity.

Locate Press sells books for learning and applying geospatial technology, written by experts in their field: