Bargain GIS – ArcMap alternatives and other tools

QGIS: A screenshot of QGis with parcel layer and attribute table.

by Wells Williams, AICP, City and Borough of Sitka, Alaska

Introduction to a few software tools that even the casual GIS user may find useful

Planners tend to generate lots of maps. Zoning maps, address maps, base maps, and flood zone maps are essential tools to communicate with the public we serve and the agencies we work with.  While the maps are often fairly basic, the information they provide is heavily used and the maps are time consuming to create. There has been, and may always be, an effort to find more effective ways to distribute the data so that it will get used by a wider audience.  This article provides an introduction to a few software tools that even the casual geographic information system (GIS) user may find useful.

GIS map viewers, housed on municipal websites, have emerged as the primary mechanism for distributing the information.  As more and more applications are based in the cloud, this irreversible trend will continue. Maps have become so dominant that there will always be benefits to complementing the online sites and giving our customers better ways to both view and manipulate the data.

Electronic maps have made the transition from being computer-aided design (CAD) based to GIS- based. Complicated AutoCAD software, that only an engineer can love, has been replaced with ESRI’s ArcMap that most are capable of learning. 

ArcMap is a very good GIS program. It excels in labeling, has a constantly expanding toolset, and has a very familiar interface. However, due to the sophistication of the program, acquisition and maintenance costs make it expensive for the casual user.

Two open source software packages, MapWindow and QGis, now provide credible options for professionals to customize maps.  EzPDF Reader and RepliGo Reader are tablet-based apps that further enhance the use of maps in the field when an Internet connection is not available.  While ArcMap will probably always be the industry standard, these tools can fill a niche.

MAPWINDOW: A screenshot of MapWindow with parcel layer and attribute table.

MapWindow and QGis offer planners, engineers in the Public Works Department, and local surveyors the ability to work with your data without investing in expensive software. 
MapWindow was designed by the Geospatial Lab at the Idaho State University Idaho Falls Campus.  The software now has an international following.  Professor Dan Ames, who recently joined the faculty at Brigham Young University, spearheaded the development of MapWindow when he was at Idaho State University.

While originally intended to be a platform for developers of GIS tools, MapWindow now has an easy to use interface.  Like ArcMap, it works with standard .shp files, raster files such as aerial images, and vector files like a parcel map. Since the software uses a relatively modest amount of computer resources, it is fast to download and install. 

MapWindow can be downloaded from the website, www.mapwindow.org. A printable copy of a user manual is also available on the site.  The program works a bit differently from ArcMap, so even seasoned GIS users may wish to keep the manual handy.  The program is built for the Windows environment.

QGis, or Quantum GIS, has a European lineage.   Unlike MapWindow, it was designed from the start to be a fully operational ArcMap alternative.  It has been around for several years and appears to be getting more noticed as its set of features improves.  QGis also has a broad range of functionality.  Its footprint is larger than MapWindow so the initial download takes a bit longer and it may require more system resources.

QGis can be downloaded from the website, www.qgis.org. There is an online manual that may not be easily printed out.  Like MapWindow, the icons on the top toolbar are clearly labeled and work just a little differently than ArcMap.  The software is somewhat unique since it is available for a number of operating systems.  A former intern uses it on a Mac. Linux and Android versions are also listed on the site.

Our experience has been that both of these open source programs are stable.  The programs effortlessly process the native GIS .shp files and compressed .sid and .ecw image files. New users can quickly build basic maps with both.  The more advanced features may take a little time to get accustomed to since they are organized differently than the tools found in ArcMap.

We encourage users to try both packages and see which one meets their needs.  It’s possible that one of the packages will not install on a system due to a variation in hardware configurations or a conflict with an anti-virus program.

A distribution channel for GIS-created maps quickly opened up as use of tablets became increasingly common.  The use of tablets allows staff to obtain zoning, addresses, base maps, and flood maps on devices that can be used anywhere.  Two inexpensive apps are available for Apple and Android users.  Just as MapWindow and QGis allow users to increase the use of raw GIS data, ezPDF and RepliGo allow us to reach a broader audience that benefit from static maps.

The GIS section of the City and Borough of Sitka website has PDF maps that are available for download.  These maps were generated in ArcMap and exported as PDF’s. Tablet owners, using a Wi-Fi connection simply connect to our website, download the maps, and have them at their fingertips wherever they go. This flexibility, for example, allows developers to have zoning and flood maps immediately accessible in the field.

EzPDF and RepliGo are available on iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon app stores.  Users can view maps that are larger than the PDF viewers that come with most tablets.  Experimentation with various file sizes suggests that a five-megabyte map file loads fairly well.  Municipal employees can often complement these map files with a PDF or HTML version of their municipal code. 
When we highlighted these applications during the 2012 Western Planner Conference in Billings, MT, the current crop of tablets were also showcased.  Since new offerings appear on the market every week, the best place for up to date reviews is the website, www.cnet.com

C/Net started as a geek site and was bought out by the CBS media network.  More detailed reviews of tablets and other electronics are available at the websites, www.engadget.com and
www.gizmodo.com.  While these two sites focus on sniffing out products that are in the pre-development stages, their irreverent tone makes them more entertaining.  Individuals who
want Windows-based freeware and shareware can check out the website, www.filehippo.com.

All of these applications and websites are, as Professor Ames once said “another tool in the toolbox.”  The hope is that one of these proves useful in complementing the software you currently use. 


Wells Williams, AICP, has served communities in Wyoming, Nebraska, and Alaska for over 31 years.  He is a member of the Western Planner Editorial Board.


Published in April/May 2013

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