Have you tried Open Source GIS Software?…Why Not?…

As I write this, I can hear a million IT technicians holding their head and groaning…why? Because they will tell you that open source isn’t safe, it crashes all the time and it’s not supported so what do you do when it has corrupted your hard drive.

It’s this kind of scare mongering that has held QGIS back from being the definitive GIS and why ESRI has flourished. So lets quickly cover those issues briefly;

  • Open Source isn’t safe – Maybe, it has been put together by someone passionate enough about GIS to make it available to the wider community rather than charge them thousands…Considering how I have had software costing thousands crashing my machine, it is hardly a fair statement.
  • Open Source Crashes All the time – Not true, it doesn’t have any more issues than some of the bigger software out there, it’s just that you are more likely to hear when QGIS has a bug than ArcGIS due to the method of support…
  • Open Source isn’t supported – Oh yes it is, this is what makes open source far superior to off the shelf software! If I have a problem with open source software, I get on the internet and there is a huge community ready to help, eager to not only solve the problem but to make it a more efficient software. If I get a problem with off the shelf software, I have to contact their customer support and wait a week for a solution, if there is one, if not then you have to wait until the next “bug release” or fix….

You may be sat there thinking I am bias , that I am an open source advocate or developer, but you’d be wrong, I am just like you, in fact I have been a strong advocate of commercial software until the last few years….Until I found that there were things I needed to do that I could do for free in open source, then as I used open source more and more I found that it was actually pretty flexible and when I asked “why doesn’t it do this?” I would find that it would suddenly appear, thanks to an amazing community.

I’m not saying throw your FME out the window, what I AM saying is download QGIS or GRASS and give it a go, have a look at some of those tasks you find tricky in MapInfo or ArcGIS….You never know, you may like it 🙂

To get you started I put together a little list of Open Source software:

FlowMap is a freeware application designed to analyze and display flow data. This application was developed at the Faculty of Geographical Sciences of the Utrecht University in the Netherlands.
Platforms: Windows OS

GMT Mapping Tools
GMT is a free, public-domain collection of ~60 UNIX tools that allow users to manipulate (x,y) and (x,y,z) data sets (including filtering, trend fitting, gridding, projecting, etc.) and produce Encapsulated PostScript File (EPS) illustrations ranging from simple x-y plots through contour maps to artificially illuminated surfaces and 3-D perspective views in black and white, gray tone, hachure patterns, and 24-bit color.
Platforms: UNIX, Macintosh

Geographic Resources Analysis Support System (GRASS) is the public domain GIS software application originally developed by the US Government. GRASS is probably the most well-known open source and original GIS software applications. GRASS is a raster-based GIS, vector GIS, image processing system, graphics production system, data management system, and spatial modeling system. GRASS can be downloaded for free.
Platforms: Linux, Macintosh, Sun Solaris, Silicon Graphics Irix, HP-UX, DEC-Alpha, and Windows OS
Further ResourcesGRASS

gvSIG is an open source GIS application written in Java.
Platforms: Windows, Macintosh, Linux, UNIX

MapWindow GIS
MapWindow GIS is open source GIS application that can be extended through plugins.  The application is built using Microsoft’s .NET
Platforms: Windows

OpenJUMP GIS is an open source GIS written in Java through a collaborative effort by volunteers.  Formerly known as JUMP GIS, the application can read shapefiles and GML format files.
Platforms: Windows, Macintosh, Linux, UNIX

Quantum GIS 
Also referred to as QGIS, Quantum GIS is an Open Source Geographic Information System (GIS).
More: Getting Started With QGIS: Open Source GIS
Platforms: Linux, Unix, Mac OSX, and Windows.

SPRING is a GIS and Remote Sensing Image Processing system with an object-oriented data model which provides for the integration of raster and vector data representations in a single environment.
Platform: Windows, Linux, UNIX, Macintosh

TNTLite MicroImages, Inc. provides TNTlite as a free version of TNTmips , the professional software for geospatial data analysis. The free TNTlite product has all the features of the professional version, except TNTlite limits the size of Project File objects, and TNTlite enables data sharing only with other copies of TNTlite (export processes are disabled). Can either be downloaded or ordered on CD.
Platforms: Windows

uDig GIS
uDig GIS is a free, open source GIS desktop application that runs on Windows, Linux and MacOS. uDig was designed to use OGC’s OpenGIS standards such as WMS, WFS and more. One-click install allows you to view local shapefiles, remote WMS services and even directly edit your own spatial database geometries.
Platforms: Windows, Linux, Macintosh

uDig GIS

uDig GIS

Open Source Web Mapping

Written in java, GeoMajas is an open source GIS framework for the web.

Java based open source server software that allows users to edit and share geospatial data and uses open standards to spublish GIS data.

MapGuide Open Source
First introduced as open source by Autodesk in 2005, MapGuide Open Source  allows for the development of web based mapping.

An open source mapping development framework for web mapping applications based on the Pylon Pythons web framework.

MapServer is an Open Source development environment for building spatially enabled Internet applications. The software builds upon other popular Open Source or freeware systems like Shapelib, FreeType, Proj.4, libTIFF, Perl and others.

Javascript library that is open source for displaying GIS data within a browser environment.   OpenStreetMap uses OpenLayers for its main map display (aka the “Slippy Map“).

Built on open source libraries (Mapniknode.jsbackbone.js,express and CodeMirror).  The Chicago Tribune included TileMill in a series entitled Making Maps using PostGIS, Mapnik, TileMill, and Google Maps.

Open Source GIS Components and Packages

EDBS Reader
A free (GPLed) reader software for the EDBS format has been released: EDBS_extra 2.0. This open source utility is written in ‘C’. The page is mostly in German.

GIS/RS application for Linux and Gnome platforms. Open source code is available for downloading from this site.

GeoTools is an open source, Java GIS toolkit for developing standards compliant solutions. It’s modular architecture allows extra functionality to be easily incorporated. GeoTools aims to support OpenGIS and other relevant standards as they are developed.

MITAB is an Open Source (i.e. Free) C++ library to read and write MapInfo .TAB (binary) and .MIF/MID files. It is based on the OGR library which is an implementation of the Open GIS Consortium Simple Feature specification.

OpenEV is a library, and reference application for viewing and analysing raster and vector geospatial data. Download for Windows 98/NT/2000, Linux, Irix or Solaris systems.

OpenMap is a FREE JavaBeans open source software component for viewing spatial data. JavaBeans is a component specification for software written in the Java language. In contrast to other GIS software components which offer both data viewing and analysis capabilities, OpenMap is primarily for data viewing and offers very little in the way of analysis functionality.

rmap is a package that will allow you to generate images of the earth from a distance or fairly zoomed in. The code is a small C binary that reads a datafile of vectors to generate the image.

Tkgeomap is a set of extensions to the Tcl/Tk scripting language for manipulating and displaying geographic data.

Topology Framework .NET (TF.NET)
TF.NET represents a managed topology manipulation API capable of handling managed objects representation of topological entities based on other popular APIs, exposing it’s JTS-based common topology manipulation core to them. Supported external managed APIs include: OSGeo Feature Data Objects (FDO) geometries, OSGeo MapGuide Server (FDO-based) geometries and Autodesk ObjectARX geometries (a.k.a. entities) and, most recently, Oracle’s ODP.NET.  Functions provided include: Spatial predicates (based on the DE-9IM model), Overlay functions (intersection, difference, union, symmetric difference), Buffer, Convex hull, Area and distance functions, Topological validity checking, Coordinate systems manipulation (transformations), Topological graphs manipulation, and more. TF.NET libraries are free, licensed under GNU LGPL and available for download from Google Code page.

Vhclmaps is a package of map viewers and spatial data servers that work with map databases.


  1. “Because they will tell you that open source isn’t safe, it crashes all the time and it’s not supported so what do you do when it has corrupted your hard drive.”

    So really, ESRI is no different than open source mapping tools.

  2. When I was more active as a GIS tech in the early 2000s, I found Open Source more challenging to work with due to the need of a number of the packages to be assembled or compiled from various sources. Things may have changed much since, but I suspect that many techs are going on experiences from around the same time that I had mine.

    1. Ethan,

      I agree. Not just open source GIS software was tedious to use, pretty much all open source software seemed archaic. Today is a much different story.

  3. No Leaflet, huh? Also, the OpenGeo Community Stack can get you up and running quickly for webmaps.

  4. Hi! Thanks for the information on open source. It is your writing which convinced me to use open source GIS rather than proprietary ArcGIS. I have used ArcGIS server to serve data (mapservices and featureservices) which I show in my widget or add some data through the widget. Will you guide me by showing correct path that how should I replace my dependency from ArcGIS?

    1. As a n00b to open source I would look at OpenGeo and Geocat Bridge. The Geocat Bridge will enable you to translate your data to formats readable by most open source server systems & the OpenGeo system is a one click all in one solution with commercial support if required

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