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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A Phd Candidate Argues Against ArcGIS

Konrad M. Lawson is a PhD candidate in East Asian History. I'd never had learned of him had he not written about open source QGIS at his blog at the Chronicle of Higher Education. (Thanks to Gary Price for pointing me to the piece.) Lawson's post is titled Introduction to QGIS thought in fact it's more of a statement of "what I as a humanities researcher want from GIS."

What does he want? Software that

1) is inexpensive and easy to learn and use - ArcGIS fails in his opinion on both counts
2) will make cool maps - analysis is nice but beyond his needs
3) will allow the maps to look the way he likes
4) will allow maps to be created for use in presentations and publications

He goes on to explain that learning QGIS was as painful as learning ArcGIS but the former is free and runs on many platforms. Further, he notes that he would not like to be tied to a school for access to Esri software in the future. Lawson concedes that Google Maps/Earth can do some his required tasks but include busy basemaps which limit the value of the final products.

He concludes:
With a little time investment, I believe that becoming comfortable in an open source GIS environment like QGIS can go a long way for those of us in the humanities. Increasingly, prepared layers of geographic information, or at least tables of easily geocoded data can be found downloaded from various locations online. Being able to take any of that data and project it on a map for use in a classroom setting or in our publications, even without employing more advanced analysis does not require more than a few hours of investment in a GIS education.
I think the article is an honest description of the type of mapmaking many people want to do. I agree that ArcGIS may not be the right tool for them.

The commenters are quick to note that ArcGIS is far more user-friendly now than in the past. They fail to mention the new $100 Home Use Version nor ArcGIS Online, both of which might be helpful to Lawson and those in his shoes.

This article paints a picture of the current state of GIS with but two players: Esri on one side and open source on the other. The former is seen as expensive and complicated, while the latter is seen as free and complicated.

I can't fault Lawson for this vision, for I believe this is what he sees. I can fault us, the geospatial community, for either not providing him the tools he needs and/or not communicating to him that those tools exist.