Why Open Source GIS Software Is Not For Me

The November 2013 issue of Fisheries had a great article, and some interesting findings, on the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in fisheries management agencies (Eder and Neely 2013).  I wasn’t surprised to find a listing of mature open source GIS projects, nor was I surprised that the overwhelming majority of survey respondents are aligned with ESRI, a commercial GIS software provider.  But the article got me thinking and on the heels of the Quantum GIS 2.0 (QGIS) release in September 2013, I asked a colleague why we weren’t looking to QGIS to support our field biologists?  A couple weeks later, after some thought, research and testing the following arrived in my Inbox.  Enjoy!

Why Open Source GIS Software Is Not For Me

An Essay by a GIS Specialist, GISP

Several free and open-source software (FOSS) GIS projects have been developed and improved upon by their user community input and altruistic programmers’ code in the ongoing pursuit of creating GIS software for the masses that is comparable to commercial packages.  The nascence of some FOSS was coincident with industry giants like ESRI and ERDAS and they are used today by private industry, universities and governments throughout the world.

FOSS GIS also include spatial enterprise database management, geographic data server and web GIS software which has improved exponentially over the last few years. Rent some cloud server space and you can have a full enterprise GIS including web mapping services for a fraction of the $80-100K that it would cost if using proprietary software and your own server(s). The savings persist in subsequent years in license renewals, maintenance fees and hardware upgrades.

However, the wide use and cost savings does not easily sway me to switch to open source solutions or to convince my coworkers to do likewise. I rely greatly on the complexities of commercial software to keep GIS novices in the dark and afraid of the technology, thus increasing my own job security.

What the neophytes do not know is that mature, open source GIS software is user-intuitive and provides a suite of tools that are commonly needed because it was created for users by users of the software without any commercial-driven pressure to throw in everything but the kitchen sink. I count on obfuscation in proprietary software where it can be a challenge just finding the tool; therefore, my assistance may be required. Once found, it may not cooperate for some arcane reason and would again inevitably require my intervention.

What if the tool didn’t work because there is a bug? Well, that’s what paid maintenance is for. I get to spend a lot of time on hold or emailing back and forth with a tech that may know even less than I do about the tool’s functionality. With many FOSS products, if you need help with a tool or would like to see an improvement, you can directly contact the programmers. This is too touchy-feely for me; I’d rather burn my time reading canned email replies that suggest trying things that I already told them I’ve tried.

To help light GIS users complete their tasks, their processes can be automated. “But wouldn’t automation free up your time”, you may ask? In the near-term yes, but as soon as the commercial software is upgraded my tools might be dead as a doornail and I’m back in business. Discarded objects, changed object parameters and deprecating a common, still-extant programming language have caused GIS professionals to reprogram their customizations at their vendor’s whim. And it has occurred more than once – anyone ever heard of Avenue or VBA?

Of course, you usually cannot have two versions of the same commercial software simultaneously installed on a machine. To salvage the programming, at least one computer must be left behind to run the older version – until lack of support and system changes forces an upgrade. Generally, with open source packages multiple versions can run on a single machine and for as many years as your operating system will allow. This is not good because it makes my tools usable for a very long time – and easily sharable outside of my own office. That is way too productive; I’d rather reinvent the wheel every three years or so.

So…..please ignore the several mature, open source GIS solutions out there that can rival their commercial counterparts – the longer the general user is oblivious to the alternatives, the more work I will have on my plate. More open source training opportunities, increasing documentation in trade and academic journals, web manuals and forums are making it harder to keep the converts quiet though. I may be relegated someday to making the casual GIS user – (gulp) productive at a low cost.  (M. Riley, personal communication, January 24, 2014)

While I don’t expect QGIS or another open source GIS project to supplant the industry giants any time soon – open source GIS may prove to be an option for some of your workforce;  particularly when facing  some of the obstacles identified by Eder and Neely (2013) on the use of GIS at the agency level.


Eder, B.L . and B.C. Neely.  2013.  Use of Geographic Information Systems by Fisheries Management Agencies. Fisheries 38(11):491–496.

Melanie Riley, GISP is a GIS Specialist for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources – Fisheries Management Section. She holds a BS in business administration, BA in anthropology with a concentration in geomorphology, and an MS in geographic information science. Before her recent appointment at the DNR, she was the GIS Specialist and geomorphologist for the Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist which included conducting archaeological GIS projects for other agencies throughout the Midwest. One of her research foci was using free, publically available LiDAR data for archaeological prospection. Riley continues to explore low-cost/FOSS GIS, remote sensing and database management options for fisheries management at the DNR.



This blog post has been adapted from Jeff Kopaska’s Digital Revolution column, which is featured monthly in the AFS Fisheries Magazine.  Continue the conversation here by leaving your comments or you may contact Jeff directly via email.

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