I’ve been exploring the open source GIS alternatives, and have been pretty overwhelmed by the number of choices. For an overview of what’s out there, you can check out The State of Open Source GIS (a large pdf) from Refractions Research, and a series of comparison tables assembled by a geography prof at the Univ of Calgary. You can also search the web for “Open Source GIS”, and you’ll find a number of blogs, forums, lists, and sites that cover it in some detail.
There are a lot of alternatives, and many of them are geared to a particular purpose: raster vs vector, viewer vs map making vs analysis, etc. I’m looking for something that’s cross-platform that I can use for vector-based thematic mapping, and something that I can easily introduce and teach to novices. I need software that allows me to: work with common formats like shapefiles, transform projections, add data tables and join them to shapefiles, symbolize data with a good selection of color schemes, classify data with several methods including natural breaks, add labels, and produce maps as pdfs, images, or in print. Preferably, I want something that has strong map layout capabilities. I don’t want to use a graphic design package for final map creation.
I’ve looked at five options that are all great, but there isn’t one that covers everything I’m looking for :
- GRASS – an established and powerful GIS. Setting up the environment for working with files takes some getting used to (you can’t simply open a window and start adding files), and the native graphic interface is complex. GRASS only works with it’s own native file formats, so you have to import everything into that format first. GRASS was really designed for analysis and modeling (tasks for which it excels), but is not the best choice for basic thematic mapping, or for novices.
- QGIS – one of the strongest attributes of QGIS is that it harnesses the power of GRASS in a more user friendly environment. If you use the GRASS plug-in and work with GRASS datasets, you can do table joins and have access to several classification methods. If you use QGIS on it’s own (working with shapefiles or raster images), you won’t have these capabilities. It seems that projection transformations are limited to a certain subset of projections, and common global thematic map projections like Robisnon or Winkel Tripel are missing (you would have to create them manually). QGIS does have a print layout screen bu color schemes are limited, and labeling isn’t good – it automatically labels every single polygon in a multi-part layer, and the only way to turn it off is via a hack. QGIS is a great viewer (particularly for rasters) and is a good alternative GRASS front end, but probably won’t be your choice for making high-quality thematic maps.
- gvSIG – billed as an alternative to the old ArcView 3.x, gvSIG lives up to this reputation. A map project has separate, defined areas for data views, maps, and data tables. You can do projection transformations and it does support EPSG and ESRI, but the process is a little confusing. The map window has a default projection, but when you add a layer it uses the layer’s projection but keeps the windows projection, and it’s difficult to figure out what projection the layer is in (if this makes any sense!) You can do table joins, and there is a good selection of color schemes for classification and several classification methods. It is the only one that I’ve seen that has natural breaks as an option. It also has the best map layout compared to the other software I’ve looked at and you can export maps out to a number of formats. The biggest weakness is labeling, which is very rudimentary. It doesn’t place labels in the center of polygons, but offsets them slightly (appropriate for points but not polygons), and has no conflict detection. It does allow you to create annotation layers, and improvements are in the works for the next version. Since the software was created in Spain, you’ll occasionally find a menu here or a button there that was missed in translation to English.
- uDIG – the windows and toolbars are not as GIS-like as the other software options, which makes findings things a little tougher. Udig has good projection transformation support, great selection of color schemes for symbolization, and excellent label placement (the best, by far), with conflict detection and different placement options. Like QGIS, the map layout screen is located under the print option. The templates are rudimentary but are easy to use and get the job done. The detractors here are data classification (natural breaks is not a choice) and table joins – there is no option for adding and joining attribute tables to spatial files whatsoever.
- OpenJUMP – has a great interface, particularly for working with attribute tables, good selection of color schemes for symbolization and good label placement features. Table joins are supported for text files (no DBFs). Equal Intervals is the only data classification method available (no natural breaks), and projection transformation is only available via a plug-in. The bigger issue is that there is no print option or map layout. These are available through a plugin as well, but I haven’t tried installing it yet. Plugin installation requires altering or over-writing some of the program files, and I was dubious to try.
There are always work-arounds to fill in the features that are missing. For file and projection transformations, you can always use the GDAL / OGR tools, which I would recommend (although annoyingly I can’t seem to get the projection transformations to Robinson or Winkel to work). The NCEAS at UC Santa Barbara has a nice wiki with examples of commands. Table joins can be accomplished outside the GIS using a database package. You could use a spreadsheet or stats package to figure out break points for data, and change the breaks manually in the GIS. For labels, you can export labels out as annotation, or you can convert polygons to points and use the points layer as a label layer (just make the points invisible but turn the labeling on). Then you can edit that file and move the labels around to get them in the right position. If you make lots of thematic maps for the same area, you can use the same label file over and over again.
This isn’t an exhaustive overview and I haven’t created a consistent procedure for testing all the options. There are a few other elements that I would also want to explore (How good is the support for legends? Can you normalize data or calculate new attribute fields? Can you add a graticule? Change the background color for a view? Convert a table of XY coordinates to a point layer? Is there a geoprocessing tool for generalizing layers?)
If pressed, which option would I choose? I’m inclined to go with gvSIG, which really reminds me of the old ArcView, and would hope that label placement improves with the next version – each of these software packages are constantly improving works in progress. Perhaps it’s best to regard these software options as different tools in one toolbox. If I need to make a thematic map of the world, showing population by country with only a few labels, then I’ll go with gvSIG, where I can easily do table joins, use natural breaks, and have lots of colors at my disposal. If I need to make basic reference maps, say ZIP codes of the NYC metro area, then I’ll go with uDig, as I’ll be able to quickly label them all and still have good color scheme choices. If I need to do geoprocessing or analysis, I’ll also have to evaluate the options – maybe look at plugins, or hunker down and learn GRASS.
In the end, I’m certainly grateful that there are solid, open, and free choices out there and that people are freely giving their time and talent to everyone’s benefit. Why consider these alternatives? I’ll cover that in my next post.