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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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Online Course QGIS for Hydrological Applications

QGIS Hydrological Applications Course

Learn GIS for catchment hydrology and water management supported by two experienced certified QGIS lecturers. After successful completion you’ll receive the official QGIS certificate. The course uses the Rur catchment as a case study. The recent floods in this catchment makes the course extra relevant.

Lecturers are also the authors of the QGIS for Hydrological Applications book by Locate Press – Hans van der Kwast and Kurt Menke. The course is through IHE Delft Institute for Water Education and delivered online from 4-8 October, 2021.

While the course is online, it is self-paced and online live support is given by the instructors. Ths cost is reduced from previous course at € 355.

The course is designed for professionals (engineers and scientists) that active in the water or environmental management sectors, especially those involved in using simulation models for water management and GIS analysts.

Topic covered include:

  • Georeference scanned maps
  • Digitize vectors
  • Import tabular data
  • Join attribute tables
  • Interpolate points to a raster
  • Apply map algebra
  • Delineate streams and catchments
  • Find and use Open Data
  • Calculate the percentage of land cover per subcatchment
  • Design beautiful catchment maps   

Apply here.
Read more details in this post.