Open-Source GIS Ideas

I’m still not happy with how much I rely on closed-source software like ArcGIS. Yet, I don’t do enough GIS to feel like I can invest the time to learn something new. Also, open-source alternatives are hard to get started with IMO. That sense comes from dabbling, and admittedly not a concerted effort. But, it’s intimidating enough that it’s surely not something I would get into for a “quick fix” I already know how to do otherwise. Where’s the time? This is a classic first world problem: rich American universities, that also have killer deals with ESRI I’m sure, provide this software all over campus. Further, all their classes that teach intro GIS (and beyond) use it. My colleagues from other countries don’t have this luxury, so they’re forced to learn open source alternatives. How much better would those alternatives be if we had to use them?

That, of course, is a general “open source” problem. What if we couldn’t afford expensive licenses for OS’s, and had to use Linux more? We’d develop better, freely available tools that people around the world could use. For example, Ubuntu is sort of known for its “charity” of providing free platforms to connect the world’s poor with technology. What if we joined in this collective effort?

I need a Windows machine because of my current situation on campus. My advisers only want to work with Windows products, and most of our lab servers run Windows. So, for now, I need to be able to interface easily with all those things. Beyond that, though, because there’s so much money in development and so many users at research universities, some things have come along with e.g. Arc products that haven’t been developed in open source. So long as I remain an end-user, I’m stuck with doing things “fastest” by using tools in closed-source that already exist.

I like the idea of an open-source GIS competitor that can go toe-to-toe with Arc. Honestly, the best ideas and solutions will probably come from those most ingrained in the open source GIS world, i.e. my colleagues overseas who don’t have campus licenses for big, expensive programs like ArcGIS. Many people have already done great work, but great solutions seem to be scattered over a number of different programs and initiatives.

Today, I was thinking back over what I found most confusing when I started using Arc. Here are a few things I remember…

  • what is a “shapefile”?
  • what is a layer, and why am I adding them to the map?
  • why am I saving the map, and what does that mean?
  • why do the shapefiles save separately?
  • why do the shapefiles save changes when I don’t ask them to?
Growing up Windows, I wanted to “open” everything. Some of these things now have a place. For example, I’m fine with knowing my collection of layers as a map, with each layer being its own separate and reusable thing. Still, I really don’t like permanently altering what I know as the “shapefiles” unless I mean to do so. I think there’s no excuse for a GIS program not making and working off of a copy.

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