Thursday 2 February 2023

QGIS at 21

This post contains a few GIS related thoughts, offered in the spirit of sharing that's at the core of open source. A bit like QGIS itself, I hope. My goal is not to convince anyone that they should be using QGIS but rather to convince potential GIS users that QGIS is now, at 21 years old, a mature, robust, powerful product used by millions of users and thousands of major corporations and universities worldwide - as well as lots of small companies like my own

Like most open source software, it is free to download but for me that is very far down the list of reasons why I use it (see my list of 'Reasons I use QGIS' at the bottom of the page). Also, on the topic of free, I'm not going to explain how nothing is really 'free' because as we know everything has some kind of cost and with open source it is often in relation to training, maintenance and things like adoption friction, but I'm not going to talk about that here.

On the topic of 'which GIS software is best?' I've written before. I like to leave that to the end user, and there isn't one answer that is always correct. The answer will vary from person to person and from organisation to organisation, but in the past few years I'd say my experience working with lots of different people and organisations reflects what we see in these Google Trends charts. below. I first used GIS software as an undergraduate in the UK, using MapInfo. Then I got into ArcView in the United States as I continued my studies, and then continued with ArcGIS when I moved back to the UK. When I set up a MSc in Applied GIS in 2013/4 I taught using both ArcGIS and QGIS and now I only use QGIS. I think the QGIS line on the chart is a reflection of the maturity of the QGIS project at 21 - it's fully grown up!

This matches my own experience quite well

The situation is quite different in the US compared to the rest of the world, at least in terms of the Google Trends data (this also mirrors my own experience from working in this area over the past 15+ years). I've worked with lots of Google Trends data over the past decade - on a variety of news stories - and it's often a very close match with reality even if it's not perfect. 

But is this US chart a bad thing? Well, no. It's just different and it reflects different contexts and organisational structures and things like that. But it does also mean that perhaps there is an opportunity for lots of people to take a look at QGIS with fresh eyes, and that's never a bad thing. I think many people will be very pleasantly surprised. But really here I'd say if you're using the software you want to, it does what you want it to, and you're happy with it - that's all you need. I have noticed that some of my US colleagues and collaborators in large governmental organisations are very much embedded in the ESRI ecosystem, but equally I have worked with a lot of QGIS-only users across the private sector and academia in the US. There is plenty of room for a wide variety of GIS software, and indeed none at all. 

This seems to match my experience, perhaps others can comment

When I look at the desktop GIS landscape in the UK and nearby countries, it does feel very much like over the past decade - and past five years in particular - that things have switched more in the direction of QGIS. Again, the data here matches what I'm seeing on the ground and indeed what I'm seeing when I'm delivering training and advice to people across hundreds of organisation over the past decade, including well over 100 councils in England. But that's another story! Anyway, I really loved MapInfo when I first used it as an undergraduate so there's a bit of sadness here seeing its relative demise. I also very much enjoyed using the old ArcView (goodbye, old friend) and ArcGIS.

Early adopter?

Big recent QGIS jump

These are trends, not hard facts, but still useful info

Okay, so QGIS is on the rise, MapInfo has been on the wane for a while - if we go by the charts above and the experience of people on the ground, like me. And ESRI products have been changing and developing during this period and it seems like QGIS has filled a gap in the market. 

So, from a humble software project begun by Gary Sherman in 2002 to the GIS software of choice for newsrooms, corporations and governments worldwide, QGIS has truly come of age.

See below for a list of things I can't do in QGIS and then for a list of reasons I use QGIS.

QGIS is not 'free' in the sense that it costs money to produce, maintain and develop, of course, so that's why I encourage anyone who benefits from it to either contribute to the project directly or via their organisation. My own company (Automatic Knowledge) is a Sustaining Member of QGIS and we give money each year to the QGIS project, and I also try to contribute to the community in other ways - e.g. free tutorials, helping people directly with one-to-ones, and suchlike. Thousands of others do this too and that's part of why it's great software.

Exhaustive list of things I want to do in QGIS but can't


Reasons I use QGIS

1. Because it's powerful

2. Because it's fast: to download, install and use

3. Because it's cross-platform (I use it mainly on Windows but also on MacOS and Linux)

4. Because it's easy to get the job done with QGIS

5. Because it's regularly updated (okay, sometimes it feels like it's too regularly updated)

6. Because of all the great plugins that add extra functionality

7. Because when things go wrong a fix is never far away 

8. Because the documentation is great (and so many contributors help solve problems)

9. Because you can make stunning maps with QGIS

10. Because it can handle any data format I throw at it


99. Because the logo is nice

100. Because it's free and open source