April 10, 2020

An introduction to GIS, GIS software, and its uses

​Maintaining data and delivering maps is a unique combination of science and art. The science is ensuring your data is accurate and up-to-date. The art comes into play as more and more software is created. New GIS software all solves a need, sometimes beautifully. 

GIS data is shaping the world around us. It’s important we understand the history of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) so our technology can continue to grow and support the work we do. This month, we want to cover the evolution of GIS, what’s next with GIS technology, and explore several GIS software solutions for the modern cartographer.

The Evolution of GIS

From paper to desktop, to the cloud and now on mobile phones, GIS technology has evolved immensely over the centuries.
The use of paper maps expanded when blueprinting became available in the late 1800s, allowing maps to be reproduced as cyanotypes (cyan-blue colored copies) of their originals. Diazonium salt improved reproductions through a less-toxic process called whiteprinting. Finally, in the mid-1900s, and still in use today, xerography, the process of dry photostatic representation of an image, led to widespread use of maps. 

The problem: maps were outdated as soon as they were created.

In the early 1980s, responding to the need to more easily update maps, the US Army Corps of Engineers commissioned new software: the Geographic Resources Analysis Support System (GRASS GIS) to aid in land management and environmental planning. At about the same time, Jack Dangermond used his former experience at Harvard and his company Environmental Systems Research Institute ‘ESRI’ to launch the first commercial GIS software.

By the mid-1990s, GRASS continued to be used by government agencies and some universities. In 1995, it became licensed as a fully open-source geospatial analytical tool as more and more institutions recognized the insights derived from working with geospatial data. However, open-source tools were not then widely supported by a large community of engineers, and, after a decade of use in the commercial industry, the graphic user interface (GUI) for ESRI’s products had outpaced GRASS in ease of use. ESRI expanded to overtake GRASS’s place in universities and government agencies to become the most adopted GIS desktop software.

Unfortunately, the cost of ESRI coupled with the lack of GRASS education left many geospatial users without good options for GIS software. This lack of access spawned a field of numerous micro GIS tools created to accomplish one of the hundreds of GIS tasks. 

The landscape of uncoordinated GIS principles and standards created a very complicated professional workflow as users desired more and more functionality. Additionally, other companies (ie. AutoCad, Manifold, MapInfo) also sought to own a slice of the GIS market share and further added to the complexity of the GIS field. 

In the early 2000s, the Open Source Geospatial Foundation (OSGEO) recognized the importance of geospatial technology to the greater public—that access to and the analysis of geospatial data should not be proprietary—and set out “to foster global adoption of open geospatial technology by being an inclusive software foundation devoted to an open philosophy and participatory community driven development.”

The OSGEO initiative defined standards of GIS file formats, data transfer protocols, and other works (including the maintenance of GRASS) with the intention to unify the geospatial field and to empower every-day desktop GIS users. OSGEO defined a set of standards still in use today.

Many of the GIS software options have intertwined development cycles. ESRI’s software products have always relied in part on GRASS’s software modules, and GRASS forms the core of QGIS. Likewise, ESRI and Google created a number of GIS principles that became integrated into the OSGEO standards; for example, OSGEO has recognized the shapefiles format and the ‘web-mercator’ worldwide map projection system that almost all web-based GIS software tools use to display maps today (EPSG:900913 - ‘Google’ spelled out in numbers), respectively.

By the 2010s, GIS technology really fractured into professional, desktop-based software, and simple, web-based software. ESRI had dominated the commercial GIS space but was too slow to keep pace with GIS expansion online. Users began to express stronger needs for updated maps and current aerial imagery. MapQuest, Google, and several other companies recognized this massive potential, and created systems to automate and distribute geographic information in a race to grab the online GIS market share.

Desktop-based software was soon found to have its disadvantages over web-based GIS software, including: 
  • Web-based GIS technology allows GIS techs to update fewer data sources, which means quicker updates and nearly instant distribution.
  • Desktop-based GIS keeps one-off copies that are hard to maintain and distribute.
  • The best GIS relies on a system of both the analytical power of a processor and the ability to distribute data to any number of users, forming a new generation of cloud-based GIS software solutions.

Today, GIS professionals are responding to cloud-based growth. We’re increasingly adopting OSGEO’s QGIS desktop-based software, an open-source alternative to ESRI, which combines the power of desktop-based analysis with an easy-to-use graphic interface. QGIS also leverages consistent standards and the ability to connect to online data sources without the burden of proprietary data formats.


What’s Next with GIS?

“There have been three big shifts in what people are asking online. The first was ‘what’–Google won that battle. The second question was ‘who,’ and Facebook won that. The next big question is ‘where’”.
-Hans Peter Brondmo, 2013, Project Lead of machine learning at Google[x]

Growth in GIS technology is driven by our desire for real-time insights. The race for real-time, up-to-date maps spawned a wide array of companies seeking to grab and profit from current data. Having the most recent and accurate roads, trails, and navigation-based information has been the battleground of MapQuest, Google, Apple, and other GIS companies for years.
Within the aerial imagery arena—including photogrammetry-based elevation and image-recognition software to derive geographic and navigation intelligence—a number of new companies are finding ways to compete with the behemoths:
  • Planet Labs launches hundreds of satellites each year- like spores- into Earth’s low-orbit to constantly capture updated aerial imagery;  
  • Digital Globe maintains larger satellites in a higher orbit to grab real-time imagery at visible and non-visible spectrums; 
  • Google (and its partner, Woolpert) use satellites and fixed-wing planes to keep their imagery current over the globe and highly populated areas; and 
  • Hexagon, uses a government contract to supply the USA Department of Agriculture with imagery of the contiguous 48 states under the NAIP program (free public access) and retains the highest resolution for commercial resale.


Exploring GIS Software Options

A variety of GIS software options exist today to solve most user’s needs**, ranging from very simple options to very complex such as data analysis and manipulation.

Apps like Google Maps that have the most up-to-date information and basic editing are great for the public. And for approximately half of the professional market, the ease of ESRI’s complete integrated stack is worth the cost. For others, the flexibility, low cost of maintenance, and the capabilities of open source alternatives outweigh the technical acumen required for use like with QGIS. For certain industries, specific software provides advanced analytics and the option to create 3D data and models.

**Note, a complete geographic information system is also no longer a single piece of software, but a suite of products (a ‘stack’) that combine the intake, analysis, and distribution of the data- only select desktop and mobile options are described here.

So what software is available? Here’s a brief overview of the GIS software in use today

1) Free & Simple

Google made GIS available for widespread use with Google Earth. This GIS software works on most computers and phones and is easy to use. It gives you high quality imagery, road and information overlays, the ability to create your own content, and it’s free.

2) Open Source & Professional

If you learn QGIS, you are becoming part of an open source geographic information community that engineered and maintains a system capable of everything most people need.  Though often confused with free- the software costs nothing- open source relies on a community of engineers who develop and implement new features.

3) Paid & Professional

ESRI’s option is a complete and largely proprietary geographic information system. As many universities use ESRI’s products in their GIS teachings, ESRI has become synonymous with GIS for a large number of young GIS professionals. Several other software options such as MapInfo or Manifold try to be competitors with ESRI by offering seamless integration with other application-specific workflows or at a lower cost.

4) Paid & Professional, Mining-Specific

Few GIS software options can handle advanced 3D modelling. For the mining community, 3D mine modelling is important in estimating volume calculations, developing mine plans, and other works of engineering. Mining software that can handle complex 3D graphic editing and display is relatively expensive and requires more advanced GIS experience.

The following tables list attributes of several common GIS software options. The list is incomplete- biased by our own use of GIS software over the last two decades- but represents a good foundation for the options available for mainstream, amateur, and professional GIS software users.

GENERAL USE- Consumer and Professional Desktop GIS Software
  Price* Ease of Use Features 3D Mobile? Era of Prominence Community Adoption
Google Earth Free Easy Simple 3D Yes 2000 + High
GRASS GIS Open Source Difficult Professional 2.5D No 1982 + Minor
QGIS Open Source Fair Professional 2.5D QField+ 2010 + High
Manifold $ Fair Professional 2.5D - 2005 + Minor
ESRI $ - $$ Fair Simple $
Professional $$
2.5D ArcPad+ 1995 + High
Encom MapInfo $ Moderate Professional 2D Discover+ 2000 + Moderate
MINING SPECIFIC- Professional Desktop GIS Software
  Price* Ease of Use Features 3D Mobile? Era of Prominence Mining Community Adoption
MineAR $ Easy Simple 3D Yes 2020 + New!
Surfer $ Easy Moderate 2.5D   2000 + Minor
Encom Discover $$ Fair Moderate 3D     Moderate
Autocad $$ Difficult Professional 3D   1990 + Waning
Gems $$ Fair Professional 3D   2010 + Minor
Leapfrog 3D $$ Easy Professional 3D Aspect+ 2010 + High
MineSight $$$ Fair Professional 3D MiPlan+ 1990 + High
Vulcan $$$ Difficult Professional 3D   1980 + Waning

*Price:  $ <100/yr,  $$ 100-1000/yr,  $$$ 1000+/yr
+ = Requires separate extension


Flat Maps Are A Thing of the Past (At Least with MineAR)

The development cycles of desktop and web-based GIS didn’t evolve with great access or interaction with elevation data. As a result, GIS technology that leveraged elevation in combination with geographic information was wildly expensive as a professional tool (mainly for the mining, engineering, and architecture communities) and wildly popular when first introduced to the general public in the mid 2000s as Google Earth.

Today, many GIS software options now offer limited support for the visual interaction with elevation data (called 2.5D. It’s better than 2D, but not quite 3D). 

True 3D options that provide visual interaction, especially with data extending below and above the Earth’s surface, remain in the domain of speciality software and have yet to break into mainstream mobile distribution (as shown by our chart above). That’s why we’ve created MineAR, to allow any GIS user the ability to visualize their data in real-space
3d maps gis maps


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