Where, but also why and how

This is the first post of the blog, so I suppose I should say what I think it is going to be about.  Initially, I was going to begin writing a series of tutorials for using open source GIS products to mimic the functions of ESRI’s ArcGIS software suite.  The more that I have started using free, open-source software though, the more that I realize that is much to high a level for where my capabilities currently are.  That requires far more expertise and experience than I currently have with the software.  For this reason, I am going to slightly change my plan for the site, though it may turn out similar in the end.

Initially, instead of doing specific tutorials to describe a function from the open source function in terms of the corresponding ArcGIS function, I am going to simply start to document my experiences with installing and starting to use the various software.  The software is all going through pretty significant development, and people are trying to add functionality to them.  Where they seem to be lacking, though, is in the area of documentation.  This is going to be my focus.  Using the software, and breaking it down as I use it, with comments about what works, and what doesn’t.  At the same time, if it fits, or there are similarities, I will provide comparisons to ArcGIS.

There are a number of programs that I have used so far.  Here is a breakdown:

  • Desktop Software:  Quantum GIS is the primary package that I am using.  I also have uDig installed, but have not used it as yet.  I have also used the GUI of the SpatiaLite database referenced below.
  • Database:  I am using SQLite for smaller functionality.  This database is an open source, single file database structure similar to Microsoft Access.  It however, complies with SQL querying standards to a large degree.  There is also a spatial component for SQLite, called SpatiaLite.  Quantum GIS is able to write directly to an SQLite database.  At this point, I see it being my data storage format of choice, since it is easy to use and install.  The other database that I am using is MySQL.  I am using this one because it is so widely installed on web hosts, and thus is a good choice for web-based mapping.  I know that a lot of people use PostGreSQL/PostGIS, and I am not knocking that software at all.  I have it installed as well and will be working with it too.  I feel that it is important to become familiar with both RDBMS.  With the ease and ability of these systems to store spatial data, I see no point in having spatial data on a website, in a format other than a database.
  • Programming Languages:  PHP, Javascript, Python.  I list all of these because from what I have seen, anyone getting involved with open source software, is going to have to do some programming.  I will be clear in saying that I am not a programmer, yet.  I think of the 3 listed, that Python is the one language that all GIS professionals should probably learn, whether or not they are using open source software.  ESRI is adopting it more and more as their language of choice as well.  PHP is a key language for accessing databases, and thus attribute data, from a web site.  It is obviously useful for many other things, but this has been my primary focus.  Javascript is the web-mapper’s customization gold mine.  The open source map serving software mostly uses javascript for implementation, and thus customization.  Fortunately, all of these are object oriented, and once you learn the syntax, the theory is pretty similar.

I have started to investigate some of the web-based GIS products, but that is a topic for another blog.

I am interested in finding other software that people are utilizing, so feel free to make comments with ideas on other software and your experiences with the ones listed here.  Future posts will have more in depth discussions of them, as I talk about installing, setting up, and eventually using the software.  This will definitely include challenges that I have encountered, as I believe that reinventing the wheel is pointless.  If I have had a problem with something, and figured out a solution, or process by which the given task was accomplished, then I will share it.  The big drawback of free and open source software, is the lack of documentation.  I think this is mainly due to the fact that development is progressing rather rapidly, and documentation is difficult, though necessary.  Hopefully this blog will help draw the curtains back and show that it is not as hard to use as people think.

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