GIS Software

The 7 Best Free and Open Source GIS Software

The 7 Best Free and Open Source GIS Software

The Geographic Information System (GIS) forms the backbone of numerous applications that both businesses and individual users encounter every day. A GIS combines geographic data (also called geospatial data per location) with further tabular-form location information (known as Attribute Data). It provides a detailed representation of the characteristics of a particular ‘spatial’ complex. GIS forms the framework for organizations to create maps of various locations on the globe, perform spatial analytics at places, and provide tools for data collaboration through in-built statistical tools.  

GIS software helps businesses solve complicated geospatial problems, provides ecological and process sustainability insight on specific locations, predicts and derives value from trend analytics, and integrates various data types. Today, GIS applications, software, solutions, and technologies increase every aspect of business decision models. It paves the way for a self-reliant, agile, and efficient organization to adapt and grow as the geo-specific conditions change. 

This blog on free and open source GIS software helps prospective users of the GIS system (both corporate and independent) understand the features, benefits, technological flexibility, and many implementations of the software which powers maps in the digital era. The GIS will help businesses effectively plan and execute projects keeping geospatial factors in mind. So, what are you waiting for? Dive right into all the GIS Software information you need.  

History of GIS

GIS was a mere concept just 50 years ago. The evolution of accumulating data into maps and expanding the use of cartography began earnestly in the 1960s. The progress of GIS into the ubiquitous software we know today happened gradually and through sustained effort. 

historical timeline of GIS software 

Applications of GIS

GIS solutions find widespread application in nearly every industry or division of an organization. A combination of intelligent spatial algorithms, accurate data, and path-breaking statistical and analytical modules make GIS tools an unavoidable must-have for businesses with regular spatial interaction. 

The most critical applications of GIS are:

Applications of GIS software

What is a GIS System?

GIS software is a suite of digital tools and solutions that stores, analyzes, interprets, retrieves, and displays graphical geospatial information - a combination of geographic information and attribute data. GIS software has the necessary modeling and statistical tools that can help businesses generate hidden trends in the spatial data and interpret it to make adept business decisions that result in profitability and environmental sustainability. 

GIS systems store images in raster or vector format, using a phenomenon called spatial indices, which makes it easy to identify geographic locations by their unique features. GIS solution software finds primary use in digital maps and the execution, and presentation, of digital on geospatial data.  

Types of GIS Software

GIS software’s deployment is on the basis of its usability and efficacy for different organizations. The most important types of GIS software, which help extract value from geospatial information, are as follows: 

  • Desktop GIS - One of the most fundamental types of GIS Software, Desktop GIS is fashioned to create, analyze, extrapolate, label, and share geographic data through maps and other tools. 
  • Web GIS - These GIS software solutions use an internet browser to help users connect with a GIS system over the internet to help remotely solve queries and problems. These GIS systems are low cost, easy to use, and accessible over the cloud in a click.   
  • Server GIS - Used primarily in complicated, wide-ranging, and information-heavy mapping efforts, a chief example of Server GIS is the spatial database. 
  • Specialized GIS Systems - As the name suggests, a Specialized GIS provides specific functionality or addresses a niche requirement for organizations or institutions. E.g., HAZUS-MH. 
  • Image Classification - This type of GIS involves deconstructing real-time images of the earth into separate spectral bands on maps generated from the software. These spectral bands are color-coded in the visible and non-visible spectrum. They are used to provide more in-depth insight into land parcels.  

Types of GIS software    

Who uses GIS Software?

GIS Software is ubiquitous. Not only will an explorer navigating the rocky slope of a mountain avail of its services, but companies with an interest in geographic data for processes will avail of GIS services. One of the foremost GIS software users are companies that prospect for natural resources using the strength of GIS software solutions. Also, government and nonprofit organizations that keep track of the total natural resources within a specific territory deploy GIS Software. At an intra-organizational level, the GIS software is usually undertrained Geospatial programming experts, programmers, analysts, and managers. 

It is not just them, however, who have sprung to deploy GIS software. Some of the essential businesses using GIS software are as follows: 

  • Hospital and Healthcare 
  • Fire and Rescue Departments
  • US Census and Survey Bureaus  
  • Public Health Services
  • Residential and Commercial Construction Organizations 
  • Natural Resource Management and Preservation Institute
  • Navigation Mapping Firms 
  • Tourism-Dependent Businesses
  • Banking and Financial Services (Including Insurance)
  • Outdoor Sports and Recreation Companies
  • Transportation organizations 
  • Telecommunication companies
  • Supply Chain and Logistics  
  • Weather and Climate Information Centres      

Challenges of not using a GIS Software

Organizations risk a fair few factors while considering opting out of the service of GIS Systems. Some of the biggest challenges arising out of not using GIS software are as follows: 

Challenges of not using a GIS software

Trustworthy Features of GIS Software

Features of GIS software

Are there any Free and Open Source GIS Software?

There are a plethora of options available for users of GIS Software. The best and often industry-standard solutions are free and open source GIS software, some of which are in the section below.  

Top Free and Open Source GIS Software

Comparison table of GIS software

#1 gvSIG

gvSIG is a free and open source GIS software suite with enhanced technological solutions to represent, manipulate, and analyze geographic data. gvSIG offers three versions - Online, Desktop, and Mobile. The Desktop version of the GIS mapping software promises fast, efficient, and easy to use management tools. Whether the task is generating 2D or 3D maps, using geospatial data in vector or raster formats, safe and secure storage of sensitive information, or easy integrations with multiple extensions - gvSIG’s free GIS software can do all of the above. The mobile version of the software can also collect information on android devices, making it useful for logistics and survey projects. The Online GIS system is deployable via a SaaS or on-premise model and has a Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) functionality vital for organizations. gvSIG Roads and gvSIG Educa are versions of the GIS software offering niche solutions using geospatial data. At the same time, one can limitlessly generate geographic portals. 

gvSIG GIS software

Source - gvSIG

The best features of gvSIG are as follows: 

  • 3D Visualization
  • Colour Coding
  • Data Analysis
  • Image Management
  • Mapping Tools
  • Navigation Services
  • Remote Sensing
  • Spatial Analysis

#2 QGIS

QGIS is a free and Open Source GIS software. It allows one to store geospatial data in raster, mesh, and vector file types, while the analytics dashboard allows manipulation of OGR-type and geospatial data formats. The GIS solution enables easy sharing, while easy integrations increase the functionality of the software. One of the software’s core features includes storing screenshots as georeferenced images. Spatial bookmarks, easy to use and access browser, annotation, and reprojection tools, as well as copyright labeling, make it a go-to GIS tool for organizations. The database handler is sufficient to host data securely, and several functions help present changes to the data as user customizations. 

QGIS software

Source - QGIS

The best features of QGIs include:  

  • 3D Visualization
  • Colour Coding
  • Data Analysis
  • Geo-coding
  • Image Management
  • Labeling
  • Mapping Tools
  • Spatial Analysis

#3 GRASS GIS

GRASS GIS is a free and open source GIS software. A founding member of the open source Geospatial Foundation, the Geographic Resources Analysis Support System (GRASS) is a suite of digital geographic information system (GIS) functions that help users in various roles. Using the GRASS GIS software solution, users can perform point cloud analysis, terrain analysis, temporal framework analysis, and 3D raster visualization. The advanced database used in the software is SQL-based, while the entire GDAL-OGR library formats find support in the GIS system. The software has multiple interfaces - a GUI, a command-line access portal, or a web portal. GRASS is implementable as an online SaaS GIS system and an on-premise one. The latest version is 7.8.5.     

Grass GIS

Source - GRASS GIS

The critical features of GRASS GIS are:      

  • 3D Visualization
  • Colour Coding
  • Data Analysis
  • Geo-coding
  • Image Management
  • Mapping Tools
  • Spatial Analysis

#4 SAGA GIS

SAGA is another popular free and open source GIS software. Its deployment coincided with the need for GIS systems to be easy to use, have multiple geoscientific methods and modules for implementation of spatial algorithms, and be platform-independent. Using SAGA’s unique Application Programming Interface (API) is essential for users to access its powerful construct of geospatial and scientific functions. The software allows users to conduct statistical analysis (Zonal, covariance, etc.) of raster-format maps, detailed digital elevation/terrain analysis, and image analytics functions. SAGA’s GIS system supports many map formats via Dynamic Linked Libraries (DLLs). The latest update is SAGA-7.  

Saga GIS software

Source - SAGA GIS

The core features that enable SAGA to be a fantastic GIS software are:  

  • 3D Visualization
  • Colour Coding
  • Data Analysis
  • Geo-coding
  • Image Management
  • Labeling
  • Mapping Tools
  • Navigation Services
  • Spatial Analysis

#5 MapWindows

MapWindows is another free and open source GIS software that needs a mention. Composed of three interconnected software suites (MapWindow4, MapWindow5, and MapWinGIS) that provide geospatial analytics functions. MapWindow5 is the latest version - providing geospatial database support and a repository browser besides other module improvements. A traditional GIS system, MW5 uses the DotSpatial library for mapping functionality, while extensions and plugins are easy to integrate into the software. 

MapsWindow

Source - MapWindow

The essential functions of MapWindows are as follows:   

  • Colour Coding
  • Data Analysis
  • Geo-coding
  • Labeling
  • Mapping Tools
  • Spatial Analysis

#6 ArcGIS

ArcGIS is an open source GIS Software created by Esri. The software helps businesses conduct location-based analytics and provides contextual data visualization software. ArcGIS is one of the best GIS software that combines spatial analytics, machine learning, artificial intelligence, data modeling, scripting, and Big Data operations to provide a unique insight into geospatial information. It is achievable through Esri’s geospatial cloud, which combines geographical data with special analytics functions to help companies derive decisions from hidden patterns. The geospatial cloud supports access and implementations in Jupyter Notebooks, R, and Python. Another incredible feature is the availability of real-time dynamic maps and 3D flybys of important geographic centers. The software manages data securely and supports integrations from various sources. The GIS mapping software finds use in organizations’ field operations, allowing cohesion through quick creation and sharing of maps.     

ArcGIS

Source - ArcGIS   

The well-rounded software has the following features:       

  • 3D Visualization
  • Colour Coding
  • Data Analysis
  • Image Management
  • Labeling
  • Mapping Tools
  • Remote Sensing
  • Spatial Analysis

#7 DIVA-GIS

DIVA is a free GIS Software used predominantly in biodiversity mapping. DIVA supports multiple file formats and helps create large or small-scale maps, with references to state boundaries or geographic elements to help determine ‘point distribution.’ Furthermore, the GIS system allows businesses to create raster maps of biological diversity and provides tools to analyze and compare these clusters. Functions such as BIOCLIM help model species spread. The latest version of the software is v1.4, and it also supports climate modeling for a specific region(s).

DIVA GIS software

Source - DIVA-GIS    

The critical features of DIVA-GIS are as follows - 

  • Colour Coding
  • Data Analysis
  • Geo-coding
  • Image Management
  • Labeling
  • Mapping Tools
  • Spatial Analysis

The GIS Software solutions market is widespread in the depth and scope of solutions offered. Some of the best GIS software is available on both clouds and as on-premise solutions. The proliferation of free and open source GIS Software added another dimension to the software’s widespread use and expansion. However, premium service GIS tools like Maptive, MapInfoPro, and GeoMedia are ideal solutions in their own right. One such software that is popular in today’s globally connected network is Caliper’s Maptitude. Let us take a closer look at the software below. 

Maptitude

Maptitude is a GIS mapping software that combines accurate geographic and demographic information to create data-rich maps. The software offers a free trial of its GIS system. The GIS software solution intends to replace spreadsheets of customer information in an organization with impressive 3D data visualization techniques and other spatial analytics functions. The software promises to help users find hidden trends and other consumer metrics. The MapWizard in the GIS software helps you create dot-density, color-coded, and scaled-symbol maps with ease. Further, it is also easy to share JPEG, HTML, or PNG versions of the charts for publication. 

Maptitude

Source - Maptitude

The best features of Maptitude are as follows:    

  • 3D Visualization
  • Colour Coding
  • Data Analysis
  • Geo-coding
  • Image Management
  • Labeling
  • Mapping Tools
  • Navigation Services
  • Remote Sensing
  • Spatial Analysis

Conclusion 

GIS systems and GIS Software solutions’ evolution has been something that analysts would not have predicted, as to the scale and scope, even two decades ago. Since the commercialization of the GIS software solutions, the GIS market grew exponentially, with it expected to be worth $14.5 Billion in 2025, with a CAGR of 12.5 percent (estimated). Interestingly, experts believe that the GIS industry will be positively influenced by IT and robotics/UAV implementations the most. The same study revealed that over 50 percent of companies were planning to invest more in laser scanners (aerial and terrestrial) to increase the effectiveness of GIS systems. 

With such great scope for the GIS software industry in the future, organizations and professionals have the opportunity to create a better world for businesses on the economic and environmental sustainability front. If you used any of the software mentioned earlier in the past, please leave us your feedback. Give us your review and opinions on the article in the comments section below. 


Are you planning to purchase GIS software? Be sure to check out our Buyer’s Guide. We cover all the bases you need while choosing free and open source GIS software or premium service GIS Systems. Get all the information you need about various kinds of software in our exhaustive Software Directory.  

Jason Adams
Jason Adams

Jason Adams is a writer with a keen interest to continue learning and develop his research abilities. Avid reader and an eye towards growth, he is associated with GoodFirms, a frontline, and evolving reviews and rating platform.

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