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Alternatives to ArcGIS

Google Earth / Google Maps

ArcGIS is a powerful tool that can do many things, but may be overdesigned for what students/faculty need in terms of geospatial analysis. For simpler user needs, it may make more sense to provide an easier-to-learn tool.

For basic map visualization or simple spatial analysis (measure area/length), or even querying/extracting tabular data, you may be able to work with some tools from Google.

Google Maps

Google Maps can carry out some number of relatively simple functions, including drawing shapes, lines, measure distances, and label a map.

Users will need a Google account to access Google Maps tools. To start a map, first activate the tools you're like to use in Maps Labs [link near bottom-left of Maps page]. Then click “My places” and the red “Create Map” button. Depending on what tools you've enabled, you'll be able to mark places, draw shapes, measure distances, etc.

Google Earth

It is possible to do some basic image manipulation within Google Earth, which may be sufficient for some projects. For more in-depth work using Google Earth, which will allow you to work with ESRI (and other) format shapefiles, etc, see this tutorial from Google Outreach on GIS work in Google Earth Pro.

If you are looking to do an analysis-heavy project, Google Earth likely will not provide what you need. For some educators its functionality may be sufficient, and in fact, preferable to a full-blown GIS analysis.

Open-source Alternatives to ArcGIS

Quantum GIS (qGIS)

Quantum GIS (qGIS) is an open source and cross-platform system for GIS analysis, compatible with raster, database, and vector formats. Unlike GoogleMaps or GoogleEarth, you can edit the underlying information/layers to be more specific to your research question.

Some resources


TileMill is an open-source tool that works with datasets from openstreetmap as well as data added by users. Data input in TileMill is modeled on CSS/style sheets, so users with experience in CSS may find this an easy-to-approach product. To stay updated on TileMill and other exciting developments from MapBox, sign up for their newsletter.

5 July 2012 - MapBox Static API is out of private beta! Check it out!

Introductory Resources

Reviews and Write-ups


GRASS GIS (Geographic Resources Analysis Support System) is another widely-used open source GIS tool. Note: GRASS tools can also be run within qGIS.

Additional Open Source Tools

Since Reed has access to ArcGIS, I won't go through more than the Google applications, qGIS, and TileMill. Know that there are more options if you're interested in open source programs, though. Here are a handful. (For a summary of open source tools in GIS [there more than 250], see this summary of tools, a presentation given in 2009 to WA-area GIS user group.)

  • gvSIG, GIS analysis with interfaces similar to ArcGIS 3.x with mobile and desktop applications 
  • Mapnik, intended for C++/Python developers
  • OSSIM, a high performance engine for remote sensing, image processing, geographical information systems and photogrammetry offering command line and desktop GIS analysis applications
  • Osmium, a tool for working with OSM data using C++/Javascript
  • OpenJUMP, a desktop tool for GIS analysis
  • SAGA GIS (System for Automatied Geoscientific Analysis) SAGA GIS is GIS software with the purpose to give (geo-)scientists an effective but easily learnable platform for the implementation of geoscientific methods
  • WorldMap, a project at Harvard that “attempts to fill a growing niche between powerful desktop-bound mapping applications, and lightweight web map solutions with limited capacity”

Links: Data and other resources

Coming soon! - updated GIS resources and links. [3/2013]

Support contact and upcoming events

To learn more about upcoming GIS events at Reed, subscribe to the gis-announce mailing list.


If you have questions, comments, or suggestions about GIS at Reed, please contact Kristin Bott, Instructional Technologist for Quantitative Applications.