Ain’t No Party Like A Free And Open Source GIS Party

I have taught geographic information systems (GIS) for over a decade and used these tools for even longer. The analysis of geospatial data is a big part of what I do and ESRI’s ArcGIS suite is among the most familiar and reliable tools that I use. However, I am torn about exclusively using this software in the classroom and in my research for a couple of reasons.

What happens when students graduate? Current students at my institution can download a renewable, one-year license for free. For many urban planning students, they will take jobs that also provide access to the ESRI software after graduation, but for those that do not, what options are out there and how much of a learning curve will there be to transition away from ArcGIS?

Without the backing of an educational institution or employer, ArcGIS is expensive and pricing is increasingly difficult to understand. The cost of the standard ArcGIS Desktop product depends on whether you opt for a “term” or “perpetual” license with specialized extensions adding to the final bill. This business model makes sense as the array of applications and customers has exploded over the past two decades, but in addition to overwhelming those of us without a background in procurement, it feels very much like being nickeled-and-dimed.

QGIS (formerly known as Quantum GIS) has emerged as a viable alternative. It is close enough to the familiar ArcGIS Desktop software in the way it looks and in the way it functions. Building some degree of competence with an open-source GIS seems like a good investment, and so I have started to introduce QGIS in the advanced course that I teach.


QGIS is an excellent option if you just need to create maps or if you are engaged in very specialized, scientific analysis because chances are, there is a plug-in built by QGIS developers or someone in the user community that does what exactly what you want.


The fact that SAGA (System for Automated Geoscientific Analyses) and GRASS (Geographic Resources Analysis Support System) are part of the base installation enhances QGIS’ capacity to support more sophisticated analyses, but in my view ArcGIS is better for “mid-range” needs like geocoding addresses. This recent piece offers a more systematic comparison of the capabilities of QGIS and ArcGIS.

If you’re interested in checking out QGIS, you can access documentation and tutorials in multiple languages on this page, but you can also take a look at the short exercises I put together by clicking the links below.

Exploring QGIS Exercise 1 (Instructions) Exploring QGIS Exercise 1 (Data)
Exploring QGIS Exercise 2 (Instructions) Exploring QGIS Exercise 2 (Data)

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