Resources regarding an (OS) "mid range desktop GIS"

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Resources regarding an (OS) "mid range desktop GIS"

Postby KarstenVennemann on Wed Jan 28, 2009 7:52 pm

Recently (January 2009) I replied to a post on the CPS-GIS user group list asking about (low cost) alternatives for a "mid-range" desktop GIS. I thought this might be useful for other folks searching for alternatives too. So here it goes.

Basically the alternative solution should enable the user(s) to replace the old ArcView 3 and have the following functionalities:
    add and remove layers from the table of contents, and to change the drawing order
    symbolize or re-symbolize layers
    label features from attributes
    save the current "view" so that the user can return to their work at a later time
    select features and operate on the resultant select set
    view spatial data in tabular form
    launch other applications
    add graphic shapes and text ("redlining")

----copy of post below---------------------------------------
Hi All,

ok - take a sip of coffee or tea ...this is going to be a long one :)

First I have to note that I am a GIS consultant and that I am not in an organization involved in the deployment or use of the software I will be talking about. Nevertheless I think the information below will be useful - together with the links to software, documents, and the (written) experiences that other organizations have made it will be a good starting point to determine whether this could be something that you or others would like to explore in more detail.

Having used ArcView 3, ArcInfo7.X and ArcGIS.X and 9.X for years I always felt that there is a gap with the new structure of products ESRI came up with when the shift to ArcGIS 8 was made. I am involved in a wide variety of GIS work for my clients - including cartography, spatial analysis, and web mapping. While in web mapping I usually use open source solutions (because those are going very strong and easily can complete with proprietary solutions) the choices for open source alternatives desktop GIS have been less obvious and admittedly to some degree disappointing, especially for cartography. Regarding analysis this is not the case because desktop GIS solutions such as GRASS are complete and powerful systems that hold up to the functionality, quality, speed and accuracy that any version of ArcInfo. There was even a thesis written about the comparison of ArcGIS and Grass: Comparison Of Geographic Information System Software (ArcGIS 9.0 And Grass 6.0): Implementation And Case Study MS Thesis by Todd R. Buchanan, Fort Hays State University. 89pages. . Basically the conclusion is that functionalities in both GIS systems are comparable, GRASS exceeds in remote sensing (since ArcInfo does not include that anyway) and that ArcGIS on the other hand has a slightly more user friendly interface. However, that can be mediated when using OpenSource GIS viewers such as QGIS or uDig as front ends to GRASS and remote control GRASS from there. Note that the newest version of Grass is also available for Windows (QGIS , uDIG and all other software quoted here anyway !). More information about this and other programs quoted can be found here: Open Source Geospatial software - A Brief Overview (by Karsten Vennemann) - prepared for a web seminar on Open Source Software, including web and Desktop GIS.

So why should we consider open source desktop systems ? Are there any that are falling into the "middle range" of capabilities ?
Actually yes there are. One very important thing to realize is (when thinking of GRASS or ArcGIS) that one does not necessarily needs one (GIS) product that can do it all - all the GIS tasks you'll ever need (or never need). One big mega program like ArcGIS does all the tasks at once, "kills them all" - and consequently becomes very complex. Honestly after intensively using it over the course of the last 8 or 9 years I still didn't touch half of it's functionalities...(at least true for me - and I am working on a lot of different things using it).
In short words: especially in the open source world smaller, more specialized programs can do the trick and often offer better functionalities for the tasks they where built for (how surprising...). This is true for example for OpenJump which has extensive editing and QA capabilities (of shape files for example) which one easily can claim to be superior and more user friendly than it's proprietary counterparts (but then of course it doesn't come with all the complex functionalities that GRASS or ArcGIS have...).

But where is the ideal "mid range" GIS ?
No ideals here - but one program I would recommend seriously looking at is gvSIG It is a project supported by the Generalitat of Valencia (Spain) and has one major (unofficial) purpose for its existence - replacing ArcView3. After 5 years of software development this is basically accomplished. The official goals of the project are:
to provide an open source GIS that is platform independent, based on open source standards, and whose capabilities are comprehensive enough to replace ESRI’s ArcView 3 desktop GIS.
When you look at the user interface of gvSIG you will discover that its layout and functionalities are pretty similar to ArcView 3 (even the buttons are in the same places to some degree), but in addition it has added modern functionalities, such as connecting to PostGIS, MySQL, ArcSde (via plug-in), or loading Web Map services (WMS) and Web feature Services (WFS). The integration of a new labeling library "PAL" enables better labeling and brings gvSIG closer to having the same labeling support that is available in proprietary software such as ArcGIS. In short (and to my knowledge) gvSIG can do all of the tasks you listed on your short wish list of functionalities of a "mid range GIS. In addition there is an extension to gvSIG, called SEXTANTE which is a set of free geospatial analysis tools (120 I think) that can be used directly from within gvSIG.

So where is my support for this product you will ask?
Well you can go to (the site is at supported by the "The Open Source Geospatial Foundation") and locate commercial support for it. Or you have people that are trained in house to do that. Commercial training will be available when you ask for it, as well as free Mailing lists, user groups, Conferences, and IRC chat channels, along with free software updates :) . Or you use a combination of all of the above options...

User experiences
One organization that has been using gvSIG (among other OS GIS tools) is Oxford Archaeology which is Europe's largest provider of archaeology and heritage services with over 400 regular members of staff. A document they wrote for the last FOSS4G (Free and Open Source for Geospatial) conference in Cape town/ South Africa can be downloaded here ... d_FOSS.pdf (the conference website was down today so I copied the document there). The document highlights some of the pros and cons they had and includes email contacts for further question about their experiences.

So are there any limitations? Sure there are - as with any product...
Most quoted are
- missing support of label conflict detection (which is planned functionality)
- even though the software User Interface comes translated into a dozen or so supported languages some parts of it seem still to be to some degree "in Spanish" (as somebody quoted)
- others reported a certain buggyness of the product which has to be tested for your purposes.
However, these are all issues being worked on right now and significant improvements can be expected very soon (especially fixing the UI and language issues) once the code repository will be opened (very soon) to software developers to contribute directly from organizations other than the original developers (contractors working for the Government of Valencia).

Return on Investment Study
published by NASA is basically saying that you can save 25% of IT implementation costs by using OS tools: Geospatial Interoperability Return on Investment Study, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Geospatial Interoperability Office, April 2005. 80pages.

More excellent documents - for those I couldn't wear out with my long post ;) are here:

The State of Open Source GIS (by Paul Ramsey, 42pp) ... rceGIS.pdf. This is an excellent Introduction to Open Source Geospatial Software Projects.

An Overview on Current Free and Open Source Desktop GIS Developments (by Stefan Steiniger and Erwan Bocher 24pp) ... erview.pdf. This very resent article includes tables of comparison among capabilities of various OS Desktop GIS softwares.

Feel free to contact me with any questions you have about this.
Karsten Vennemann

2119 Boyer Ave E
Seattle, WA 98112
Posts: 14
Joined: Wed Oct 17, 2007 1:03 pm
Location: Seattle, WA

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