Great new, open-source GIS tools have emerged in recent years. These allow you to take advantage of the extensive, free data sources you can find online, which are typically available only in “professional” formats and require a GIS workstation to manipulate.
Virtually all of the map data we present here (and much we don’t) is available in the de facto professional standard called a “shape” file.
Inevitably, however, 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.
The question is whether you want to take it on. The open source world has made full-functioned GIS software available, for free, to anyone who bothers to download it (which is easy) and learn how to use it (which requires some skill).
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 as “shapefiles”, 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 if you can query it using database tools (which most web-viewers don’t provide). You just need to download the data, and manipulate them using GIS software on your computer.
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 what’s out there.
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. If you know what you’re doing, you can also link new datasets to existing shape files, or even create new data from scratch. 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. I was able to download it, open up some of the project directories I’d saved from my old ArcExplorer projects, and display usable maps within an hour or so. It took me a few hours more to figure out how to query datasets and save the results in a new shape file. For most users, if you’re on a Windows box, this probably the way to go.
- 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, is relatively easy to use, and yet offers incredible analytical power because it absorbed all of the GRASS analysis library. Check out qgis.org.
Which should you use? If you’re on a Mac, start with QGIS 2.0. If you’re on Windows, it’s a closer call though I’d probably lean towards MapWindow. Most of the work on this site was completed using MapWindow. It’s slightly easier to use than QGIS but not quite as slick. On the other hand, the QGIS community currently seems a little more active than MapWindow, and more focused. MapWindow 4.0 seems to be at the end of its life, and MapWindow 6 (what happened to 5?) is stuck in alpha as of November 2013. QGIS just released 2.0 and seems to have a lot of “momentum”.
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 is a pain, however. You’re warned!
Export as KML Files
The pro version of Google Earth, which costs $399/year, will read shape files and save KMLs. For those of us who don’t have a license to GE Pro (and I certainly don’t) you then have the issue of how to export the data. There are a few solutions available.
A nice feature of QGIS is that it will read and write KML files. Bad news is you don’t get much control over the output formatting, though you can then load them into Google Earth (free editions) and make some changes.
For $29 you can pick up Shape2Earth and use it with MapWindows. 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.
If you don’t want to spend the money, the best free tool I found (and part of the fun of this website is to see how far I can go using free tools), is using a website called GeoCommons. You can upload a shape file (unfortunately limited to a maximum of 10 MB). Once it’s up, GeoCommons processes your file (basically converts the local projection of your file to the standard projection used by GE), and lets you download the result. There may be other “free” resources out there, but I’ve been pretty happy with GeoCommons.
If you’d be interested in my creating a tutorial on how to do this stuff, please comment on this site or send me a message. I’m not going to do it unless I hear there’s strong interest.