Misadventures in Open Source GIS

When most ecologists conceptualize “GIS” we often think of a desktop GIS program, most likely ArcGIS. When we want to not use ArcGIS (or can’t), we most likely say “is there an R package for that?” In many cases, there is, and the repository keeps growing! The ever-growing number of R spatial packages reflects the general trend in GIS right now: it’s booming in lateral growth. Everywhere you turn, there’s something new, and actually my motivation for writing this post is just to try to keep up.

Going back “old school,” perhaps the most famous and long-running (i.e. older than I am) open source program is GRASS GIS. Here’s where the open source movement GIS movement fails, though: the point-and-click functionality and friendliness of interfacing with the program stops before you even get to the gate. If I go to the Ubuntu software center, it points me to an outdated version of the program that won’t even launch, so I had to remove it before installing the newer version (where the version number is in the command name). Luckily, though, it points me to a broader repository whereby I can access the “Ubuntu GIS” suite.

# Add Ubuntu Unstable PPA when running LTS Ubuntu release
sudo add-apt-repository ppa:ubuntugis/ubuntugis-unstable

The real problem I’ve had with GRASS from the beginning, though, is the beginning: you can’t just open the program and try to open some spatial data like you can in ArcGIS. You have to start by selecting a home folder, defining a “location” which must have uniform spatial reference, and then making a map set with spatial reference info. It’s where I admittedly gave up trying with GRASS long ago, in favor of the ease of just launching ArcGIS and adding a shape file.

QGIS solves more of this problem, but there are again some hangups on the install: it’s not in the Ubuntu software center, and installing it “the old fashioned way” seems to get an older version of the program (and the terminal errors will tell you so if you launch it from the terminal).

I’m thinking about finally trying to learn PostgreSQL in conjunction with PostGIS. I’m trying to retrace my thoughts on that to last year, and I think it was because I found out that SQL was a solid way to build my own GIS tools. I remember settling on that PostGIS was probably my best bet to learn open source GIS, and ironically I just saw a post-doc advertisement that specifically requested PostGIS knowledge.

Want to keep up? I compiled a certainly-not-exhaustive-but-pretty-comprehensive list of people I could find tweeting about open source GIS

Let me know if you should be on that list!

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