A Free and Open Source Geographic Information System

There are many thousands of users1 around the world choosing to use QGIS for mapping and GIS analysis. Originally known as Quantum GIS, this “user friendly Open Source Geographic Information System”2 is “developed by a team of dedicated volunteers and organisations.”3 It is desktop software that runs on “Linux, Unix, Mac OSX, Windows and Android”4 computing devices.

For those familiar with the history of Esri’s proprietary GIS software, QGIS has a look and feel similar to the old ArcView 3 or the current ArcMap. It has a large selection of plugins thanks in part to its integration of the Python programming language.


An open QGIS window
Paul McCombs CC BY 4.0


As a founding member of the Puget Sound QGIS User Group (PSQGIS), I am often asked why one would want to use QGIS in place of the ubiquitous5 Esri GIS software. I have two responses to this question, the first based on the ideology of software freedom and the second based on value for the dollar.

The idea of “free software” is that “users have the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software.”6 Free-software ideology advocates for the use of the GNU General Public License (GPL) and opposes any use of non-free software. QGIS is the most advanced and capable desktop GIS among a growing selection of free and open source options.

The more practical answer is that QGIS is distributed for no cost. While Esri does provide low-cost licensing for nonprofit organizations and personal use, this is no help to the independent contractor or to the small consultancy with a tight budget or the need to deploy a solution for a small business. Clients operating in developing nations can be especially cost sensitive. With the GPL terms, QGIS can be deployed for any number of users on any number of devices without legal concerns. Additionally, there is no need to agonize between a cheaper license level or the full suite of “professional” tools. Professional training and support are available as an optional expense but otherwise there really is no cost for QGIS. Enthusiastic amateur support is available as well from such sources as PSQGIS and GIS StackExchange.

New Version 3.0

A new version of QGIS was released earlier this year, with a lot of promising new capabilities. It has added 3D features and moved from Python 2 to Python 3 for scripting plugins. Because of the latter, there are currently many useful features available for QGIS 2 that have not yet been migrated to QGIS 3. For this reason I would advise against moving production work to QGIS 3 unless you have completed testing of all needed functionality. Testing QGIS 3 has been a topic of discussion at all the PSQGIS meetings since late last year.

Give it a try!

I hope I have given you some idea of what QGIS is and why you would want to use it. Whether you are a free software crusader, or simply need a cost-effective GIS that will work on your MacBook, QGIS is worth a download.7

Join us

All are welcome to the PSQGIS monthly meetings. We meet on the second Tuesday of the month at InterIM (map) in the International District, a short walk from the ID transit tunnel station and right along the Seattle Streetcar First Hill Line and numerous bus routes. Sign up at Meetup.com.

1GIS StackExchange: How Many Active Users

2QGIS.org: Discover QGIS

3Ibid., Get Involved in the QGIS Community


5at least in municipal government

6GNU.org: What is Free Software

7Believe me Mac users, KyngChaos is entirely trustworthy.

Paul McCombs is a GIS analyst in the KCGIS Center.

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