Adding Open Source to your Geography Curriculum

We’re planning a webinar to help train educators to add open source GIS to their curriculum. In this post, I introduce the general idea and share some of the topics we’ll discuss.


In the 90s, many schools were lucky if they had any GIS in their geography eduction. My geography program didn’t offer it, but I could learn PC Arc/Info through the Forestry department. A lot has changed since that time when PC software was just taking off.

In the decade that followed, I used HP UNIX Arc/Info before our company tried to use ArcView and finally landed on ArcMap for Windows. However, I’m sure the company today would be trying to integrate more open source GIS tools that analysts picked up on their own. The most valued professionals can learn what they need and bring that value to their work or businesses regardless of education. How, then, should institutions be helping to increase the value of their students in a similar way.

Many universities and colleges treat GIS training as a technical skill that will help them get a job. While this is certainly true, the dependency on using a single product that students will not have free access to in the future has made it difficult for some academics to feel comfortable with this approach. It’s a huge business and many marketing dollars are spent to continue this approach. Incidentally, that’s fine with us, it’s a big market and we serve a growing group of professionals that are well beyond ‘niche’ status.

Regardless, there has been a continual and increasing push for decades toward using more open software solutions, including open source GIS, in education.

Spreading the word

We started OSGeo to help spread these tools around the world, developing local user groups to support peer groups who weren’t familiar with the options they had. However, it was much more than just a marketing effort, professors and teachers needed solid training material to use in their courses. They weren’t familiar with the options either and it is extremely time consuming to make dramatic changes to an existing GIS course. We helped them find their peers and learn new tools.

This is also why we started Locate Press – to produce material to help courses and trainers teach an open source software approach. Half of our books are geared toward educational users and are designed as workbooks and guides that are used in colleges and universities.

So, if the books, software, and international support groups exist, why isn’t everyone learning, say, QGIS at university?

Because there are several other challenges that make it hard to adapt to these new approaches.

How to add open source GIS to courses

Rather than gloss over those issues in this post, we will dig into them through a webinar instead.

The 90 minute event will cover case studies from teachers who integrated open source GIS training approaches. Our roundtable of speakers will share their varied approaches to making their courses successful. We will identify the issues that remain and need to be addressed going forward. We will discuss what makes a good GIS course in general as well. Here is a rough outline of the topics we are planning to cover:

  • Top 5 challenges to adding open source to a GIS training program
  • Who is already using open source GIS in their curriculum?
  • Why is it difficult to adapt to today’s educational climate?
  • How did our panelists make the switch?
  • What standards/curriculums need to be addressed by any course?
  • What materials are hardest to find and need more focus?
  • How can cross-product integration help students get the best of both worlds?
  • How can this tie in to certification efforts, like, GISP?
  • How can we keep extending the reach of new teaching options?

What questions are we missing? Let us know @locatepress. Or use the Q&A channel the we will have open throughout the webinar.

We hope this will be valuable to any trainer, educator, or professor who has the challenge of leveling the playing field while providing optimal training for their students.

More information is to come. If you want to be informed about the webinar (and our other initiatives), please subscribe to our mailing list and select the “Education” interest checkbox. More information will be shared there when things are finalized.

Further Reading

Here are some of our books that are used in university courses around the world.

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QGIS Map Design – Free Christmas DLC

It’s that time of the year again. When it’s dark and cold on the northern hemisphere, let’s grab a warm beverage of your choice and get mapping.

Inspired by the latest QGIS Open Day Freestyle Mapping Challenge, I set out to explore the Quantarctica project dataset. Today, I want to share with you the resulting map series. Like all recipes in QGIS Map Design, this blog post walks you through the process of creating these maps and provides all the resources to reproduce them yourself.

The historic Antarctic expedition of Roald Amundsen is one of five expedition routes mapped by the Quantarctica project which provides the data for our Christmas DLC maps.

This recipe assumes familiarity with QGIS styling, labeling, and layout creating basics, so we can focus on exciting new tips and tricks.

Base Map

Our map uses six layers of the Quantarctica dataset. The geographic context is provided by the ADD Simple basemap and Overview place name layers together with the South pole and Antarctic circle layers.

The two fonts used on this map are Arial and Steelfish.

The historic context is provided by the Five historic expedition routes and Historic stations layers. To show the travel direction of the expedition routes, we can create a trail of small arrow symbols by combining a simple line with custom dash pattern and a marker line:

So far, the map is pretty crowded because we see all five expeditions at once.

Let’s set up the Atlas map series, so we can create a dedicated map for each expedition.

Atlas Map Series

The historic expeditions have been digitized as ten line features in order to be able to distinguish between sections of the routes traveled by sea, land, and even air:

Counting the distinct leader values, there are actually six expeditions in this layer, however only five of them include sea routes.

Focusing on the five earliest expeditions, all of them contain sea routes. We can therefore set up the Atlas by filtering the route features to get only the five sea routes:

This setup will ensure that our Atlas will generate a map series with one map per expedition leader.

Make sure to activate the Altas preview mode now.

Filtering Routes & Stations

Back in the main QGIS window, we now can access the @atlas_feature to filter the routes layer accordingly. We want to show the sea route feature, as well as any other route feature that belongs to the same expedition leader:

Fun With Labels

So far, our map only shows basic labels for geographic features. In the following steps, we will add labels to the expedition routes and historical stations. Finally, we’ll use a rule-based labeling hack to put the finishing touches on our map.

Smooth Route Labels

Many of the expedition routes are anything but straight. They twist and turn and so do the letters of any labels we try to put on them. This effect becomes particularly prominent, when using large label fonts.

To create smoother looking labels, we can use the Geometry Generator (in the Label Placement tab) to create a smoother base line for labeling using an expression like:

smooth(simplify($geometry, 100000), 2)
The map in the background shows the generated simplified line geometry for illustration purposes.

Multi-color Labels

To show the station names and operating years in different colors, we can use HTML label formatting. To do so, we need to enable “Allow HTML formatting” (in the Label Text tab). Then we can build our label expression.

For this label, we combine three column (name, year_start, and year_end). Since year_end is empty (NULL) for some stations, it is important that we use the concat function (instead of the || operator). Otherwise, stations with a NULL value would not be labeled at all:

       '? <span style="color:#307f7f">(',
          "year_start", '-', "year_end",
       ')</span>' )

The ? character is used to insert a line break using the “Wrap on character” setting (in the Label Formatting tab).

Snowflakes *❆❅*

Last, but not least, for some (completely optional) Christmas spirit: let’s make it snow!

The snowflake styling trick used in this map is based solely on Unicode snowflake symbols and rule-based labeling.

As shown in this screenshot, the preview label color is red but it is over-ruled by the project variable flake_color.

By creating multiple rules that all apply to the same (land) polygons in our base map, we can create a random snowflake pattern. Randomness is introduced on different levels:

  • The label font size is randomized, e.g. rand(15, 60).
  • The label rotation is randomized by using the “free (angled)” placement mode.

Different rules have different priorities, with higher priority values assigned to label rules with larger font sizes.

The snowflake color can be adjusted by changing the project variable flake_color (in Project Properties | Variables). This way, we can change the color of all snow flakes at once, without having to edit every individual rule.

So Much More

There’s much more to discover in this project. For example, the label substitutions used to shorten the island labels or the decorations added in the layout:

So go grab the project and happy mapping!

Please ensure that you acknowledge or cite Quantarctica and the Norwegian Polar Institute if you use their dataset in your work.

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!

What is Geospatial Technology?

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:

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