How to Go from GIS Novice to Pro without Spending a Dime

Sid Feygin


I have only taken one formal course in GIS; however, I consider myself a confident practitioner of the software and am constantly learning more despite not having access to a costly software licenses for ArcGIS or similar desktop software. In order to enhance my GIS skills while transitioning from a job in environmental engineering to a career in geospatial web design, I’ve been taking advantage of freely available software and resources. While doing so, I have found that advances in the design of open source GIS programs have made acquiring GIS expertise achievable for someone without the cash to plunk down for expensive software and training.

For those who are unfamiliar with the term, open source software is developed by programmers who make their program source code freely available for those who wish to use or edit it under the condition that it never be commercialized.

Why Open Source?

In addition to the benefit of reducing cost, there are many other reasons to learn about and how to use open source GIS software:

  • Bolster Your GIS Skills: Many advanced techniques in GIS are covered in costly classes, tutorials, and webinars, and are mostly aimed at practitioners employing commercial software. For those with lack of access or budgetary restraints, freely available courses and resources in open source software are available. Read on to find out more about these.
  • Give GIS a Test Drive: Perhaps, you aren’t sure if you need to use GIS software at work. Open source GIS software will give you the opportunity to learn all aspects of GIS, so you can make an informed decision.
  • Customization: Although one can integrate additional functionality into commercial software through scripting languages, having access to the source code allows GIS practitioners with programming experience to customize the software in any way they can think of.
  • Business Solutions: For organizations with limited budget for software licenses, open source GIS software can be implemented in order to reduce overhead costs.

Five ways that you can jumpstart your GIS career, or take it to the next level

1. Introduce Yourself to GIS from an Open Source Perspective:
While there are plenty of websites that will provide information and tutorials (paid and free) about the principles, business, and history of GIS, if you are going to take an open source approach, it’s good to learn about these topics in the context of the software that you will be using. One of the most useful resources for the uninitiated is the eBook, “A Gentle Introduction to GIS”, which was introduced in another post. This short, but complete guide provides enough information and examples to take a beginning GIS student from software installation to creating maps and performing complex geospatial analysis using the user-friendly Quantum GIS software platform (discussed further below).

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2. Learn About the Different Types of GIS Software:
GIS applications take many forms and serve a variety of purposes in GISystems. Some software providers offer enterprise-wide fully-featured desktop solutions that rival the functionality of ArcMap and ArcInfo, while other focus on specific aspects of GISystem software architecture. Your choice of software will largely depend on how you want your knowledge of GIS to augment your career. The following are examples of popular software providers for some of the main components of a geospatial software system:

  • Desktop GIS: Quantum GIS (QGIS) is one of the most popular and fully-developed desktop applications. It’s easy-to navigate user interface makes it a breeze to import data, query databases, and create gorgeous maps. QGIS interfaces with a number of other popular open source software including PostGIS, GRASS, and MapServer.
  • Geospatial Database Design: PostGIS is a spatially-enabled implementation of the PostGRE SQL database software. PostGRE SQL is a fully-featured database management software with a powerful set of advanced enterprise features. Post GIS takes this free software into the realm of GIS with the inclusion of spatial data type storage capabilities and added functionality that allows users to perform spatial queries, indexing, and much more.
  • Web Mapping Solutions: MapServer is a web server-based application that functions as an interface between local, online, and remote spatial databases and web browsers, providing a highly customizable platfor for the design and implementation of web-accessible GISystems. MapServer is a CGI application that processes requests from browsers and relays them to these databases to create maps based on end user inputs. Map Server integrates ell with PostGIS as well as other data sources based on OGC and GDAL specifications.An implementation of the Xubuntu operating system containing many open source software solutions, including all of those mentioned above can be downloaded as a Live DVD from this link. This DVD can boot directly into its own operating system, so you can try out the software regardless of what type of primary OS your computer is running.

3. Learn interactively:
Free video tutorials and online classes are great resources for those of us who are visual learners and enjoy more of a classroom instructional setting. Learn immersively while using real data sets and software. Some excellent resources that I’ve used are:

4. Learn socially:
Increase your career options and learn about other developments in the world of GIS through Linked in and Facebook groups, and by attending open source GIS conferences and meet-ups.

5. Don’t forget about the Library:
It has never been easier to take advantage of public resources in your local area. You don’t even have to go to the library to check out a book anymore! I found several useful eBooks while browsing my library’s online collection:

More Open Source GIS Resources:

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Sid Feygin