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QGIS -An Open Source Geographic Information System

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The QGIS logo

Today I want to take a look at QGIS, a free, open source Geographic Information System. So, what is a geographic information system? The U.S. Government Accountability Office (February 2015) defines a geographic information system as “a computer system for capturing, storing, checking, and displaying data related to positions on Earth’s surface. GIS can show many different kinds of data on one map, such as streets, buildings, and vegetation. This enables people to more easily see, analyze, and understand patterns and relationships.” Imagine the kinds of classroom activities that you could develop for Science and Social Studies classes with this kind of software. It’s comparable to ESRI, but without the rather hefty expense that often comes with proprietary technology.

QGIS is actually comprised of several components. The first is the QGIS Desktop. This component allows users to create, view, analyze and share geospatial information. The QGIS Browser allows users to review and organize their data. QGIS Server allows users to share data and to choose which aspects of the data are viewable by others. The QGIS Web Client makes publishing maps online a breeze. They can also be enhanced with symbols and labels. The final component, QGIS on Android, is at the beta level of development, but experienced users are welcome to try it out.

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A QGIS session

So what can you do with QGIS? You can create, edit, manage and export data using a variety of tools such as OpenStreetMap integration. There are digitizing tools that support OCR and GPS. Spatial data can be analyzed in terms of vectors, geoprocessing and geometry, among other criteria. QGIS also integrates 400 tools from GRASS GIS. Additionally, QGIS can share your work online as a WCS (World Coverage Service), a WMS (Web Map Service) or as a WFS (World Feature Service). In short, virtually anything that a user would want to do with a map, he or she can do with QGIS. Imagine the projects students could complete.

QGIS owes much of its functionality and versatility to the wide variety of plugins that are available. The core plugins installed by default include, but are by no means limited to, GPS Tools, Raster Terrain Analysis, interpolation and a Road Graph plugin. Furthermore, a real strength of this software, especially in terms of expandability, is the integration of the Python programming language. Python has been used to develop many of the external pulugins available through the QGIS community. As part of this integration, QGIS offers a Python console through the use of which new plugins can be developed. How’s that for growth potential?

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QGIS displays information about the habitat of the Asian Lynx.

Python and QGIS combine with OpenLayers, an open source mapping library, and APIs (Application Program Interface) to create some incredible maps. Maps can be generated that, with a click, can move from one location to another. Maps can be developed that zoom in and out as needed with a mouse click. Users can even toggle between different types of maps for the same regions. For example, QGIS was used recently by undergraduate students to analyze the habitat of the Asian Lynx in the Carpathian mountains. you can view some of their findings in the screenshot at left.

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QGIS running on Linux in GNOME

You’re thinking, ‘This is great! But how long does it take to learn to use QGIS or become proficient in it enough to teach my students?” The good news is that there is a large amount of documentation available to help new users install and learn to run QGIS. Most of the literature is available on the QGIS Web site and I have provided links directly to some of them below. Regarding the Python programming language, it is fairly easy to learn to use and there are plenty of free tutorials available online. As to using this application with students, you could argue that, because of Python integration, QGIS will grow with your learners.

QGIS is available for Linux, Microsoft Windows and MacOS X.

Thanks to Charles Cossé for suggesting this topic. All images have come from the QGIS home page.

Resources

QGIS Web Site

A Gentle Introduction to GIS

References

Dichte, A., Ehrminger, L., Garcia Travesi Reyes, S., Hoppe, T. and Winger, D. Gnilke, A., Hiltunen & Mund, J.P. (August 2015). Lynx habitat analysis in the Southern Carpathians. Creative Commons. Retrieved from http://www.qgis.org/en/site/about/case_studies/europe_lynx.html.

QGIS user guide. Release 2.8. (14 November 2015). The QGIS Development Team. GNU Venereal Public License. Retrieved from http://docs.qgis.org/2.8/pdf/en/QGIS-2.8-UserGuide-en.pdf.

U.S Government Accountability Office. (February 2015). Progress Needed on Identifying Expenditures, Building and Utilizing a Data Infrastructure, and Reducing Duplicative Efforts (Publication No. GAO-15-193). Retrieved from http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/668494.pdf.