Great new, open-source GIS tools have emerged in recent years. These allow you to set up the “ultimate” trout-finding workstation, as well as take advantage of extensive, free data sources.
What makes these platforms so powerful? Probably the biggest single reason is that they can take advantage of Web Services to merge multiple base maps and data into one powerful working enviroment. Here, for example is a screenshot of my personal QGIS workstation in the heart of PA. It shows a screen detail as I was working on a new dataset of Class B wild trout streams. It’s currently set to show the National Map’s NHD layer as background, which for a trout fisherman is probably the single most useful view on the planet. But scroll down to look just below. You can also view it using the NHD Image Topo Layer (shown), which allows you to judge ground cover and see elevations. Alternatively, you can setup all of the other views available on the National Map (imagery, hillshade, topo) as well as Google Maps, or Bing, or conventional USGS Topo Maps, and many, many more. Just by checking or unchecking a box! All for free.
Yes, you can do the same thing using a browser-based service like Google Maps or the National Map Viewer: but you need to set it up each time and probably load some KML datasets before you can use it. Here you can set-up “PA Trout” once and save it as a “project”. The next time you load the project, all of the web service connections get re-established, and all of the local datasets you normally use are pre-loaded and formatted the way you like them automatically. All of the views are available to you from a single environment: no need to log-in separately to different browser windows.
In addition, all of these views now reside in an infinitely flexible tool. Want to print out a map to take with you on the stream? Dead easy… Want to view the information on your screen in Google Earth? No problem: click one button and your current screen image shows up as an image overlay in GE. Dump a custom map to your GPS? A plugin happily talks to your Garmin GPS and lets you load and unload tracks, waypoints, and custom maps.
Free GIS Workstation Software
Free GIS Workstation Software? That didn’t exist in 2006 when we started this site. You had to buy it from a commercial vendor, and it was very expensive. For example, the simplest, entry-point commercial GIS workstation software from ESRI still costs $1,500/seat, and high-end systems are several times that.
However, in recent years a bunch of open-source tools have emerged. A number have come and gone, but we can now recommend two tools. These are fully functioning GIS workstations. In the new environment, you can take a dataset, run queries on it, and then actually save the result in a new shape file or export as a KML. You can also automate all kinds of analysis and create maps that you use yourself or format beautifully to share with others on paper or as a pdf.
In the old days those were capabilities you had to pay a lot of money to get. Today, if you use an open source tool, they’re free.
We managed to create most of the datasets you find on this site using two different open source tools.
- MapWindow is a windows-only tool available from mapwindow.org. It is targeted at the non-professional user, and is relatively easy to use. If you’re on Windows, and find you don’t like QGIS for whatever reason, you might check it out.
- QGIS is an open source project that develops and distributes for free a full-function GIS workstation which runs on Linux, Windows, and Mac OS-X. I tried it about 18 month ago, and felt it wasn’t ready for prime time. But I recently checked out QGIS 2.0, and it’s a beauty. It now has a slick UI, which makes it more fun than MapWindow, and it handles massive datasets with ease. Check out qgis.org.
Which should you use? I’m recommending QGIS on all platforms (of course, if you’re on a Mac or Linux it’s a no-brainer). The QGIS community is a LOT more active than MapWindow. The good news is that if you have a problem, you can probably find the solution on Google because there’s such a big community of users. The same isn’t necessarily true for MapWindow.
QGIS just released 2.0 and seems to have a lot of “momentum”. In release 2.01 at the date of this review, it’s still a bit buggy, but it’s definitely usable. I find myself rebooting my iMac occasionally when things stop working right and that usually fixes the issue*.
Export as KML Files
If you want to share your data with others, the best way to do it is with KML files. QGIS will save any vector layer (e.g. a shapefile) as a single layer KML. Unfortunately, it gives you very little control over the output formatting.
There’s a free plug-in to QGIS called MMSQGIS that’s definitely worth installing. Among its many tools, there’s a converter that generates much more user-friendly-formatted KMLs.
Also, you can then load the layers into Google Earth where you can combine layers into a folder, and then save the folder as a single, multi-layer KML or KMZ (which is just a zipped KML).
Or for $29 you can pick up Shape2Earth. This first came out as a plugin for Mapwindows, but now there’s a stand-alone version. It’s a great little tool, and if you plan on exporting a bunch of these things, well worth the money. It gives you a great deal of control on how your KML will look, and does a nice job of rendering your data. Unfortunately it’s Windows only (I run it in Parallels on a virtual machine on my Mac), though the developer tells me he’s working on a Google Chrome plugin version that will be platform independent.
Unlimited Data Sources
We make a lot of data about trout streams available here, but inevitably, there’s a lot more data which we’ll never get to, which you might find useful. It might be a detailed town map published by a municipal agency; it might be a park map which shows a trail system that goes near your streams. It could be any number of other things: hundreds of organizations, including most universities, are creating GIS data every day and making them available for free. It’s one of the last bastions of academic freedom/professional courtesy left in the world. Some of this stuff is published as KMLs. But a lot of it is still available only in professional formats such as “shapefiles”.
Sources for GIS data include the US Federal Government. You can use the National Map to specify an extent, and then download from hundreds of different databases including the NHD database. Virtually every college and university (from community college on up), every state government, and every medium-sized or larger city has a GIS department. MOST post the results of their work on the Internet, which can be freely downloaded by anyone who cares to find them.
There’s simply much more data available in shape files than there is for web viewers or tools like Google Earth, and the data is much more useful when you can query it using tools provided by a GIS workstation.
Do a Google Search on “[Subject] GIS data download”, substituting the topic of your choice for [Subject]. I think you might be shocked by the depth and breadth of the data sources out there, all for free.
I’m putting together some notes on how to set up a QGIS “trout workstation”. This is not a step-by-step tutorial. You need to be a pretty sophisticated computer user to make it work, so be warned. but it should save you a ton of trial and error once you get your system up.
*QGIS on Mac is a complex installation because QIS is really a UNIX application (the Windows installer appears to be simpler). On Mac, you have to install about a dozen UNIX libraries before QGIS. It’s a pain, though all of the software is easily available from the Mac download page and each is simple. The sheer number of installations takes time to install. You’re warned!