Monday, November 17, 2014

The quest for GIS in the classroom = QGIS


Image above: An animated map of global wind and weather.


The quest for a GIS solution for the classroom: QGIS

Over the years the introduction of GIS into the classroom has been impeded by a range of factors, such as cost, software complexity, network compatibility and the general hassles for teachers in getting to know a new software. From 1996-2006 schools were engaging with ESRI's ArcView 3x  and all was going well until the inevitable next generation of programs was forced upon schools. ESRI's updated ArcGIS program was just too complex for many classroom teachers, especially with the cheap school price not coming with technical support. The classroom teacher was dependent on a co-operative and GIS savvy techie in their school - somewhat problematical in many schools. As a result the uptake of using GIS in the classroom has not progressed in recent years, if not gone backwards. This posting is dedicated to the free GIS software called Quantum GIS or QGIS. The software is user friendly and does most of what a classroom teaching with basic GIS skills would need to use. The following links and information will help you decide if you also want to embark on the QGIS learning curve. I am using the software in my workshops with teachers and with my students and it seems to be a really good option to introduce GIS into the classroom in a cheap and achievable way. Over the next few months I hope to translate some my GIS skill development course using ESRI ArcGIS into the program. With the use of spatial technology written into the Inquiry and Skills Strand of the Australian Curriculum: Geography, it is important that teachers of geography are able to access a simple, meaningful and achievable GIS software to use with their students. I hope to use QGIS in a more coordinate fashion with teachers next year during ICT workshops to ensure students are exposed to 21st Century geographical technology when they study the Australian Curriculum Geography.

You can download QGIS for free at

QGIS background

QGIS is a free user friendly Open Source Geographic Information System (GIS) licensed under the GNU General Public License. QGIS is an official project of the Open Source Geospatial Foundation (OSGeo). It runs on Linux, Unix, Mac OSX, Windows and Android and supports numerous vector, raster, and database formats and functionalities.  QGIS provides a continuously growing number of capabilities provided by core functions and plugins. You can visualise, manage, edit, analyse data, and compose printable maps. Get a first impression with a more detailed feature list.

* Go on the tour of QGIS at

There is some excellent background on the capabilities and capacity of QGIS on the Boundless blog

"QGIS is easy-to-install, integrates with OpenGeo Suite, and has reliable support offerings, making it a viable alternative to proprietary desktop GIS software such as Esri ArcGIS for Desktop."
Gretchen concludes that QGIS is "easy and straightforward to create maps with".

Here are just some of Gretchens writings on QGIS - scroll down on the Boundless blog and read all of these really useful contributions on QGIS.

Creating Shapefiles

To start off with, the simple act of creating a new shapefile is actually a bit easier in QGIS than in other software. For example, in ArcGIS the typical workflow is to open a folder catalog to locate a folder, then right-clicking and choosing New > Shapefile. The workflow in QGIS is to simply click the New shapefile layer button (a), put in some of the details, and then save it in a standard Save As dialog. Adding new features to the new layer is straightforward in QGIS. When the new shapefile is added you click the toggle editing button (b) and then add a new feature with the Add feature button (c).


Once digitizing of the new feature is complete, you must right-click to finish the feature. This triggers a pop-up window that displays the attributes of the new shapefile and allows you to fill in the attributes. This prompting for attributes after each completed feature could be cumbersome for some workflows, especially those that involve many features that will all have the same attributes, but it is more intuitive for smaller, simpler jobs. A little sleuthing, however, uncovers a setting for suppressing this pop-up under Settings > Options > Digitizing.


Working with Vectors

In proprietary GIS software, converting lines to polygons is typically only possible in advanced versions of the software but QGIS makes it easy to accomplish. It is fairly straightforward to use the Lines to polygons tool that comes out-of-the-box in QGIS under the Vector menu. Tracing existing features is also possible via the QGIS plugin called AutoTrace.


Conclusion on editing capacity of QGIS

QGIS editing capacity has been outstanding. If the basic tools aren’t enough, the plugins come to the rescue with advanced functionality. As  with visualization, cartography and  analysis, it’s clear that the QGIS developers are cognizant of the demands that GIS professionals put on software in terms of needing exacting, fool-proof, and robust editing tools and they have made great progress in meeting those needs.

Text and Image Elements

Placing text and images is as easy as finding the Add new label and Add image buttons on the left-hand side of the print composer (a). Once you add a text box or any other element, the Item properties tab on the right-hand side of the print composer gives you most of the complex options that you’d find in any layout or commercial GIS software such as alignment, display, and rotation (b). You can also align these elements by using the Align selected items button in the main button bar (c).

 Map Elements

Adding the map to the layout is a little more difficult if you are used to commercial GIS software. You have to use the Add new map button (the wording of which I found to be confusing since it somehow implies a new map rather than the existing map in your project), which adds the map from the main QGISItem properties: one to update the preview and the other to set the map extent. The former updates the map if a new map layer has been added or the symbology has changed but only the latter updates the map if it has been panned or zoomed. These, however, are minor quibbles.

Conclusion about the cartographic capabilities of QGIS

The cartographic capabilities of QGIS are sufficient to produce almost all the common map layout components with an adequate amount of advanced capabilities and even some options, like the color blending modes, that aren’t typically found elsewhere. Cartography is where many people think that QGIS falls short.  The QGIS Map Gallery is worth a look for some great map examples using QGIS. Gretchen goes on to say that "her experience with QGIS has been that the visualization and cartography functions of QGIS have matured to the point where GIS professionals of all types can’t afford not to strongly consider adopting it."

Some final things to know about QGIS

* Your techie would like to know that QGIS has no associated licensing costs as it is licensed under the GNU General Public License. QGIS is an official project of the Open Source Geospatial Foundation (OSGeo).

* The latest release of QGIS version 2.4 is now available for download from the QGIS website. 

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