Let's begin with a story, from some time around the early 1990s in the north of Scotland. I used to go to a church in Inverness with my Mum when I was growing up and although I've forgotten lots of things, one of the things I do remember is the minister asking this question at the start of a sermon:
- "What's the shortest way to London?"
He didn't say from where, but of course most people thought of the question in relation to where they were at the time. I can't remember exactly what the rest of the sermon was about, but since we were in Inverness, I was thinking maybe either the shortest route to London was the direct train from Inverness to Kings Cross, or maybe the Sleeper from Inverness to Euston or perhaps a flight from Inverness Airport to London Heathrow or Gatwick.
The answer, of course, was that the shortest way to London was 'good company'. Cliché 101, but of course it's true. Oh, by the way, if you type 'shortest way to [city of your choice]' into Google then you should see a result straight away with a map preview on the results page - like in the example below that appeared when I typed 'shortest way to Amsterdam' into Google just now.
What have we learned so far? That a) Inverness to London is longer than Sheffield to Amsterdam; b) there's always more than one way to get from A to B; and c) sometimes the answer to a question is more abstract than you'd think. But also d) people often remember weird stuff.
If someone asked the "What's the shortest way to London?" question online, today, I imagine the answers would look something like this:
- "Which London? London, England? London, Ontario? London, Kiribati? You need to be clearer and not make assumptions!"
- "Where from? What's your starting point? Please clarify!!!"
- "Why don't you go to Norwich instead of London?"
- "The UK is finished, don't bother with London."
- "Why are you so London-centric? Not EVERYTHING'S about London you know."
- "Actually London is bad."
- "You're taking the train? Communist!"
- "Why are you not already IN London?"
My favourite geospatial file format
"The GIS format most often compared with GeoPackage is the ESRI-defined shapefile. Shapefile is the most shared GIS format on the planet and its encoding of vector features is published. Note however the publication date — 1998. At the time the shapefile was designed, the components available had limitations that can frustrate today’s advanced workflows. These include file size limit, attribute field count and name width limits, dates not supporting time, complexity in handling character encodings and lack of null value support for most field types. Shapefile has been spectacularly successful for handling simple vector features, but it can be limiting."
- GeoPackage - reliable new friend. Unlikely to throw a wobbly, even when you're having a meltdown. You've not known them for that long but they've very quickly worked their way up through the roster and are now the go-to for all your mapping needs. Sharp dresser. Good company. Anagram of go page cake.
- Shapefile - reliable old friend that doesn't like own company so always brings their friends along for the ride, and sometimes their cousins too. But you don't mind this because they're pretty easy going, very loyal, and you know that they won't throw a wobbly either. You've heard mean people say bad things about them, and you leap to their defence, but silently and internally because you know in your heart that arguing about geospatial file formats on the internet is a bad idea. First entrant to the GIS File Format Hall of Fame. Certified Legends. The Golden Girls of geospatial (Getty as prj?).
- Geojson - you've not known them that long but they seem okay, even pretty cool. They're always online and are pretty logical. Some of the bigger geojsons move a bit slowly offline, but online they are usually fine. Addicted to the internet though, so don't expect a close relationship.
- KML - our old Google Maps friend. A friend that lots your our non-geo friends like too, and may even know well. Hard not to like, if you're most people. You're never more than 6 degrees from a kml. The Kevin Bacon of geospatial file formats. Is first cousin of someone known as G (ML), who you also know, a little bit.
- NetCDF - a friend that you like but can't understand why your other friends don't seem to like them. Unfairly maligned, though you sometimes wonder if you weren't already friends with them if you'd actually like them if you met them again for the first time. A rumour, almost certainly true, is that netCDF was specifically designed to create geospatial beefs online. But you don't care because they are your pal even if, sometimes, they do weird things.
- GPX - your friend that likes to exercise, post about it online and likes to upload their activity data to social media. But that's fine. It makes them happy and it does no harm. You're not best friends but you know where to find each other if you need to. Wears lots of tight clothes.
- GeoTIFF - loves detail. Loyal. Doesn't like to leave any gaps in a conversation. But they are pretty solid and they don't let you down, unless you forget to invite their friends (Lempel, Ziv and Welch) to the party too. Make that mistake and you can expect a bit of trouble from time to time.
- FlatGeobuf - new friend who you haven't actually spent much time with yet but who you've heard only good things about, from people you trust. It's just that you've got so many other friends and not much free time for another relationship. Has purple hair. You wish you could be this cool, but don't want to admit it. Rides a fixie.
- MapInfo TAB - ah, such happy memories! They live overseas now and you never see them but you remember the good times. A real powerhouse, but kind of retired now, we think. The Stone Cold Steve Austin of geospatial file formats.
- All other geospatial file formats - no longer want to be my friend because a) they are not in the list above and b) they have been lumped together here under a single heading alongside CLEARLY INFERIOR formats. SQLite is thinking of taking legal action because of this blog. MIF is super miffed. DXF is thinking about bespoke wooden furniture and didn't want to be on this list anyway and resents any suggestion of equivalence.
So which GIS software is best?
|Worldwide GIS software search trends|
|Trends in GIS software search over time, by country|
The best things about QGIS
There are lots of great things about QGIS, but I can probably highlight a few here for anyone thinking of getting into GIS software but not totally sure about what one to choose.
- Works on any operating system - Windows, Mac, Linux (and I have it installed on each of these operating systems, and previously had it on my Chromebook too)
- You can make GREAT maps with it, just like the newsrooms of major global media organisations do (e.g. New York Times, Washington Post, BBC, the FT, and so many more)
- It can handle any geospatial file format
- It can export to any geospatial file format
- I can automate the mapping process with QGIS Atlas and output thousands of different maps at the click of a button
- I can get all fancy with expressions, filters, queries and little bit of code and combine it all to create lovely maps
- It's already great but keeps getting better
- Cartographically it's a powerhouse - so many options and shortcuts mean it's super-efficient
- The Print Layout (which can seem fiddly at first) is super-powerful and adaptable
- The Processing Toolbox - an absolute powerhouse of geoprocessing
- Plugins - because it's open source we have so many great extensions developed by people across the world
- Python integration - I'm still terrible at all this but click the Python Console button and you can go far
- The user community - this is not niche orphan software, QGIS is a huge collective of users and developers
- It's super-easy to add web map layers to QGIS (e.g. XYZ or WMTS format or suchlike) - this is so useful
- Your niche problems are often solved before you even knew you had them - this is because someone else probably had that problem first and then either a) created a Plugin to solve the problem or b) wrote a tutorial to help you and the rest of the world solve the problem - this can happen super-quickly in open source software in a way that it cannot always happen for proprietary tools
- Multi-language support - you can use QGIS in so many different languages, thanks to the international nature of the user and developer community (see below)
- It's free - this is WAY down the list of reasons for me, because I don't mind paying for good software and I donate to the QGIS project anyway (currently at least £500/year but hopefully over £1000/year soon)
|Klingon? Not yet|
What might I change about QGIS?
No software is perfect, even if it is (cliché alert) perfect for you. In fact, I believe nearly all software is very far from perfect, but some come close. So, with this in mind, here are all the things about QGIS that I would change, if I could.
- Fewer updates - I saw a post on Twitter commenting on QGIS that it was software 'by devs, for devs' or something like that and while I don't agree I can at the same time see where this view comes from and have some sympathy for it. And anyway it does no harm to think about these things.
That's it really. There are small things I'd tweak due to my own personal tastes if the software was only being used by me, but from the perspective of a trainer and something of a cheerleader for QGIS I would perhaps like to see a two to three yearly long term release (LTR) schedule and if the regular development versions (release candidates) are still made available (but given much less prominence on the download page) that might be good for new users and even more established users like me. I have had a lot of feedback from users when installing that the LTR vs RC thing can be confusing, as difficult as this may be to believe for those well-versed in the software.
This 'fewer updates' desire is a bit like the job interview question where you're asked if you have any faults and you reply that 'I work too hard and am such a perfectionist' because it's basically a positive disguised as a negative in that I install and enjoy the frequent updates but at the same time the timetable does make my head spin sometimes.
Overall, though, I mainly want to thank the large and generous QGIS development team for what they have produced since Gary Sherman's initial release in July 2022. It really is remarkable that QGIS has reached the point where we have millions of users, across all types of organisation and national contexts and for many people across the world QGIS is now their desktop GIS of choice, and good company too.
I try to contribute to QGIS myself by being a sustaining member (£$), by offering free tutorials on my blog, helping people via email and DMs, as well as offering training to individuals and companies. The plan is to move up to the next financial category of sustaining membership, and hopefully that will happen soon.
But what about making maps in R, Python and suchlike?
A good question, but not one I really mean to get into here because I'm talking about software specifically for GIS. But of course R and Python are great tools for map making, as well as lots of other things. And what about tools like Mapbox, CARTO, UrbanSDK, Felt and so on? Again, all great but these are not desktop GIS software, which is what I'm talking about here. I've used them all to varying degrees and had lots of fun doing so, but I remain rubbish at R and Python. But here's my Greggs steak bake spider map anyway (info page).
|Where is the nearest Greggs?|
"Which GIS software is best?" This is actually the second question, or even the third or fourth. The first question is "what do you need to do?", the second is "what do you need to do it on?" and the third might be "in what setting or context?".
I tried not to go too hard on the 'QGIS is amazing' vibe here, and I probably failed. But I do hope that readers who have come this far will take my point that 'best' is very much context-dependent and that the solution for one person may not be the same as it is for another. And that is totally fine.
Oh, and the shortest way to London on land is 8h 46m on the Inverness to London King's Cross train from 07:55 to 16:41 or a 1h20 flight if you want to mess around in airports for half a day and then find your way into central London.
Just make sure you don't sit next to someone talking about GIS software or geospatial file formats because that would make it THE LONGEST JOURNEY ON EARTH.