Open Source Mapping Platforms

Studying Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in college, I had taken a special interest in the famous premium ESRI products for creating maps and doing spatial analysis. In fact, one of the first geodetic engineering companies I considered joining for my career was ESRI’s official ArcGIS software distributor in the Philippines. I was that drawn to ESRI’s product. In hindsight, I find it fortunate that I ended up working in a firm that uses their product but is not tied to learning from a single type of software. Why go for a huge apple alone when you can have a frigging fruit basket of options?

It was only in my recent transport stint and my present work that I learned more about numerous open source platforms that make shapefiles of maps, aside from the famous Google Maps. Google Maps made people feel like anyone can make maps. In a way, that’s true.

Although hobbyists are rising in number, I maintain that there are still some mysteries uncovered exclusively by those who delve deeper into hardcore spatial software and its accompanying programming languages. No pain, no gain.

Up until my transport stint, I thought that making maps can only be done decently by ArcGIS. Sorry for the ditziness of this assumption but I had ArcView and ArcGIS synonymous to the acronym GIS for years.

Fortunately, I had this exposure to the open source counterpart for GIS software: QGIS. Closely coming in second are other free GIS tools like SAGA and MapWindow (or was it MapGuide?!).

As free software types available for download easily if your computer specs are in the right range, these new GIS toys I tinkered with are awesome in its functionality. Sure, ArcGIS owns a premium suite of customizability and a distinct flavor of user-friendly interface. More recently, they are aiming for more world mapping domination with some subtle attempts to phase out the .shp file and replacing it with the concept of geodatabases, .mxd file extension, and layer classes. And they also made it more expensive by adding function-based customizable add-ons that will only work in an ArcGIS platform. ESRI has gone from mere mapping to dipping their fingers in every pie. They now have packages for utility companies, transport and infrastructure, and many others. Their marketing’s solidly aggressive. I respect what they have become here in the country while being equally astounded with the free versions that were erected after them.

If you cannot shell out an easy 200,000 pesos or $4,000+ for a basic single license (this price not including the add-ons I mentioned previously) and training for Php 20,000-ish per module, you can do a fair amount of digitizing and spatial processing in QGIS with only the requirement of time, programming, and practice.

For this heightened appreciation for open source GIS software, I have to thank Dr. Deo Leo Manalo (doctor of engineering and former vice president for Northrail), my good friend RK Aranas (MS Geomatics student), and Prof. Ranel Padon (UP DGE). They were living examples of resourcefulness, rising to the occasion of battling budget constraints by making the most out of QGIS capabilities. And well, they are also showcasing the lofty levels of their spatial intellect by doing what they do. They’re kickass like that. As far as mapping is concerned, these are my idols.

At least with their example, more people can become GIS specialists without having to resort to bootlegged versions of an insanely expensive license or selling an entire leg (or keeping the leg but landlocking one’s self by slaving away in institutions with formal ArcGIS licenses) just to get a legit version to play with.

And yes, Google is kind of rising up to the occasion with their crowdsourcing benefit. It’s a different facet of mapping altogether. But it’s free and quite friendly in the client-programming side of a rendered satellite image-tiled geoportal. I had the privilege to meet one of the officials of Google in Asia. What they do seems pretty exciting as far as non-techie mapping enthusiasts are concerned.

Well, this is a land of maps. And maps are sweet when they cost a fortune to make… I find it even sweeter when you don’t spend a dime but gain greater returns with the use of programming smarts and open source software.