Companies all over the world use expensive, proprietary, GIS software to complete their mapping and analysis needs. These needs range from the simple display of some basic GPS data to complex multi-criteria analysis, among other tasks. This software has been developed over a long period of time and offers robust and powerful options for geospatial work. The very advanced and expensive nature of this software has created an atmosphere around GIS which is “out-of-reach” to the casual person.
I think there’s a threat here that GIS as an idea has become proprietary. As if it’s only for the people lucky enough to be able to learn it in schools and pay for the expensive software. Clearly, this isn’t true but the power of an expensive price tag on software is the same power that makes us buy Tylenol brand acetaminophen rather than the department store brand. It just feels like it’s better, doesn’t it? Looking at the ingredients, you’ll find 500 mg of the exact same stuff, but a big number of people are willing to shell out the extra money.
There’s a bit of a parallel you can draw from the above example and ArcGIS and QGIS. Don’t get me wrong, they are not exactly the same “under the hood.” But for a huge amount of people, what QGIS can do is way more than enough. With QGIS you can georeference images, stream google satellite basemap imagery, digitize, create heatmaps, load and edit GPS data, buffer, clip, and many, many more things.
The beauty of QGIS, other than the free price tag since it’s open-source software, is that it’s actually beautiful. Aesthetically speaking, the program just makes sense. It doesn’t bog you down by combining every tool, vector or raster, into countless toolboxes which open up only to reveal… more toolboxes. Here’s an example of a very simple and common task involved in GIS, the Clip:
On the left is QGIS, 2 clicks later and you’re clipping those vector files. On the right is ArcMap, Open the toolbox, try to decipher which toolbox is right for you, open that toolbox to find more tool boxes, and then eventually you get to the clip tool. I’m well aware that you can make a custom toolbox with the most commonly used tools available at the ready, but I don’t like the idea of a program that isn’t accessible to anyone who wants to jump in. It’s a really excluding feeling, like if you don’t already know what you’re doing, then you shouldn’t be here.
Not only does it look good, but it looks good on MORE THAN ONE operating system. Windows, Mac, Linux – you name it there’s a version that will work for you unlike the very Windows-only ArcGIS.
GIS is incredibly powerful, and the only real limit is human creativity in finding more and more ways to use it. Fostering an accepting environment and telling more people about GIS is the only way it will grow. Extremely expensive software with complex menus that require customization and a large learning curve only helps to exclude people from GIS.