In the world of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), where ESRI is the king, these GIS suites are also used for storing, analyzing, and displaying spatial data. The following list contains some free and low-cost alternatives to the ArcMap suite.
GRASS (Geographic Resources Analysis Support System) is a free GIS developed in the early 1980s by the US Army. Originally developed for military applications, it’s is still in use today by other agencies as well (NASA, USDA). It’s available for Mac, Linux, and Windows operating systems.
This is a full-featured GIS system with data management, analysis, visualization, and image processing capabilities. It comes with over 300 modules for map rendering and data manipulation.
Many people find the ‘Cartographic Composer’ to be limited when it comes to designing and producing maps. GRASS can, however, be integrated with other open-source software for both analysis and cartographic output.
JUMP(Java Unified Mapping Platform) also known as OpenJUMP, is a Java-based GIS software developed and maintained by a group of volunteers from around the world. This easy to use desktop GIS comes in CORE and PLUS editions. The CORE edition allows users to display, edit and analyze GIS, while the PLUS edition has all CORE capabilities plus additional useful plugins.
OpenJUMP can handle large datasets and works very well as a viewer. It has limited supporting tools, especially for raster data.
MAPWINDOW-Is the primary GIS platform of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This window-based open-source GIS with an extensible architecture. It has all the standard tools for geospatial data visualization, editing, analysis, and composing printable map layouts.
The EPA developed BASINS(Better Assessment Science Integrating Point and Nonpoint Sources), to assist in watershed management. It adopted MAPWINDOW as the core GIS platform for it to allow local and state environmental professionals to perform watershed analysis and modeling.
QGIS is the leading free and open-source desktop GIS software. It’s available for Windows, Mac, and Linux OS users. Its hundreds of plugins add to its wide range of spatial analysis capabilities. It also offers plugin support for development with a Python-based support system.
QGIS interface is fairly similar to that of ArcGIS allowing for a smooth transition to experienced GIS users.
SAGA(System for Automated Geoscientific Analyses) is a free open-source GIS originally developed by the University of Gottingen, Germany. Programmed in object-oriented language (C++), it includes a large number of modules for analysis.
It is an excellent tool for terrain and hydrological analyses and geo-statisticians use it for prediction techniques.
SAGA is portable software. It can be run from a USB drive without the need for installation.
WHITEBOX GAT(Geospatial Analysis Tool) is a desktop open-source GIS software developed in 2009. Although it specializes in terrain analysis, it’s still a highly capable GIS tool. It can be used for image processing, data visualization, and analysis as well as map production.
Its most unique feature is the ability to process LiDAR data.
IDRISI (also known as TerrSet) is a PC based integrated Geographic Information System and Remote Sensing software. It provides special graphical environments for dynamic modeling and decision support. IDRISI GIS analysis tools are primarily oriented to raster data.
It also provides a scripting environment for customization.
IDRISI is not well suited for professional map productions. It lacks support for advanced map layouts and has limited options in symbology and labeling options.
XMAP is a low cost, web-based GIS software primarily used for field data collection. It can be fully integrated into the ArcMap, bridging the field and office staff.
XMAP Editor has tools for creating, editing, and querying data in the field. This data can then be synchronized with a central database.
XMAP also has the capability to collect data using user-created forms.
MAPTITUDE is a unique GIS software in that it comes as a package with demographic, networking, and location data. The data is geared towards identifying customer bases and business opportunities. It’s mostly suited for the banking, real estate, and insurance industries.
MAPTITUDE also works with external data and has cartographic, analysis, and editing capabilities just like any other GIS software.
MAP INFO Pro, developed by Pitney Bowes, is a powerful GIS tool for visualizing, editing, and analyzing location-based data. This desktop software focuses on location intelligence to optimize the positions of retail stores.
SMALLWORLD is the global market leader GIS software used by utilities and telecommunication companies. It offers a comprehensive network connectivity model, an essential feature for these industries.
It delivers core functionality right off the box for the water, gas, and telecommunication sectors. It also has an open development environment for customization.
Another standout feature of SMALLWORLD is its unique version management mechanism. It allows thousands of applicants, a characteristic of telecommunication and utility industries, to concurrently access the central database. This works for both desktop and mobile users.
This list is not exhaustive by any means. It, however, shows what else is available. If you want to dip your toes in GIS, grab one of the free software and play around. This list, together with all the available resources, in terms of tutorials and data, should be enough to answer most of your basic questions.
Let me know what you think of the list. Have you used any of these?