13 Free GIS Software Options: Map the World in Open Source

A List of Free Open Source Mapping Software

Free GIS Software

Last Updated: Jul 23, 2017

Your search for free GIS software is now over

You don’t have to pay a king’s ransom to map the world.

This is because you can do it all with free GIS software.

The best part is:

These free GIS software give you the firepower to get the job done as if you’re working with commercial GIS software.

We’ve mapped out the GIS software landscape , but these 13 (out of 30) reign supreme for free mapping software.

1 QGIS – Formerly Quantum GIS

QGIS (Quantum GIS)

After running the most epic GIS Software battle in GIS history of ArcGIS vs QGIS, we illustrated with 27 differences why QGIS is undoubtedly the #1 free GIS software package.

QGIS is jam-packed with hidden gems at your fingertips. Automate map production, process geospatial data, and generate drool-worthy cartographic figures.

There’s no other free mapping software on this list that lets you map like a rock star than QGIS.

QGIS Plugins boost this mapping software into a state of epicness. If the tool doesn’t exist, search for plugin developed by the QGIS community.

Volunteer effort is key to its success. The QGIS Stack Exchange support is impressively great.

You’d be insane not to download the free GIS software QGIS. Here’s your beginner’s guide to QGIS to get your feet wet.

2 gVSIG

gvSIG

In 2004, the gvSIG project emerged as a free, open source GIS software option in Spain.

We illustrate in this gvSIG guide and review why we like it SO much:

gvSIG really outperforms QGIS for 3D. It really is the best 3D visualization available in open source GIS.

The NavTable is agile in that it allows you to see records one-by-one vertically.

The CAD tools are impressive on gvSIG. Thanks to the OpenCAD Tools, you can trace geometries, edit vertices, snap and split lines and polygons.

gvSIG Mobile brings GIS to your mobile phone. This extension is perfect for field work because of its interface and GPS tools.

3 Whitebox GAT

WhiteBox GAT

Yes, Whitebox GAT (Geospatial Analysis Toolbox) is #3 on the list of open source, free GIS software.

Unbelievably, Whitebox GAT has only been around since 2009 because it feels so fine-tuned when you see it in action.

There’s a hydrology theme around Whitebox GAT. It actually replaced Terrain Analysis System (TAS) – a tool for hydro-geomorphic applications.

Whitebox GAT is really a full-blown open-access GIS and remote sensing software package.

Where it shines is LIDAR!

With no barriers, Whitebox GAT is the swiss-army knife of LiDAR data.

The LiDAR toolbox is a life-saver. LAS to shapefile is an insanely useful tool. You may need a Java update to go in full throttle though.

The cartographic mapping software tools are primitive compared to QGIS.

But overall Whitebox GAT is solid with over 410 tools to clip, convert, analyze, manage, buffer and extract geospatial information.

I find it amazing this free GIS software almost goes unheard of in the GIS industry.

Get more useful knowledge from the Whitebox GAT Open Source Blog.

4 SAGA GIS

SAGA GIS

SAGA GIS (System for Automated Geoscientific Analyses) is one of the classics in the world of free GIS software.

It started out primarily for terrain analysis such as hillshading, watershed extraction and visibility analysis.

Now, SAGA GIS is a powerhouse because it delivers a fast growing set of geoscientific methods to the geoscientific community.

Enable multiple windows to lay out all your analysis (map, histograms, scatter plots, attributes, etc). It provides both a user-friendly GUI and API.

It’s not particularly useful in cartography but it’s a lifesaver in terrain analysis.

Closing gaps in raster data sets is easy. The morphometry tools are unique including the SAGA topographic wetness index and topographic position classification. If you have a DEM, and don’t know what to do with it – you NEED to look at SAGA GIS.

Overall, it’s quick, reliable and accurate. Consider SAGA GIS a prime choice for environmental modeling and other applications.

Read More: SAGA GIS (System for Automated Geoscientific Analyses) Review and Guide

5 GRASS GIS

GRASS GIS Desktop

GRASS GIS (Geographic Resources Analysis Support System) was developed by the US Army Corps of Engineers as a tool for land management and environmental planning.

It has evolved into a free GIS software option for different areas of study.

Academia, environment consultants and government agencies (NASA, NOAA, USDA and USGS) use GRASS GIS because of its intuitive GUI and its reliability.

It has over 350 rock-solid vector and raster manipulation tools.

Not awfully useful in cartographic design, GRASS GIS excels primarily as a free GIS software option for analysis, image processing, digital terrain manipulation and statistics.

6 MapWindow

MapWindow GIS
MapWindow GIS

With MapWindow, you can do GIS without the dependency of commercial GIS software.

Once commercial GIS software in 2000… since 2004 it’s become open source GIS through a contract with the US EPA called ‘Basins’. The source code was released to the public.

MapWindow does about 90% of what GIS users need – map viewer, identify features, processing tools and print layout.

It has some higher level tools such as TauDEM for automatic watershed delineation.

Sometimes, it’s unstable, unsmooth…

When you start separating the winners from the losers, MapWindow surprisingly has some serious punch.

It’s being re-architected with a model builder tool, tiling, table editing and a ribbon style menu for version 5.

7 ILWIS

ILWIS

Free GIS software users rejoice.

Once commercial GIS software, now turned into open source GIS.

ILWIS (Integrated Land and Water Information Management) is an oldie but a goodie.

The extinction-proof ILWIS is free GIS software for planners, biologists, water managers and geospatial users.

ILWIS is good at the basics – digitizing, editing, displaying geographic data.

Further to this, it’s also used for remote sensing with tools for image classification, enhancements and spectral band manipulation.

READ MORE: Integrated Land and Water Information Management (ILWIS)

8 GeoDa

GeoDa Software
GeoDa Software

GeoDa is a free GIS software program primarily used to introduce new users into spatial data analysis.

It’s main functionality is geostatistics.

Perform autocorrelation, descriptive and regression statistics with GeoDa. See GeoDa’s complete list of features for everything.

It’s an exciting analytical tool which includes lab users from Harvard, MIT and Cornell universities.

This free GIS sifted serves as a gentle introduction to spatial analysis for non-GIS users.

It’s used in a range of areas such as economic development health and real estate.

9 uDig

uDig

uDIG is an acronym to help get a better understanding what this Free GIS software is all about.

  • u stands for user-friendly interface
  • D stands for desktop (Windows, Mac or Linux). You can run uDIG on a Mac.
  • I stand for internet oriented consuming standard (WMS, WFS or WPS)
  • G stands for GIS-ready for complex analytical capabilities.

When you start digging into uDig, it’s a nice open source GIS software option for basic mapping.

uDig’s Mapnik lets you import basemaps with the same tune as ArcGIS

Easy-to-use, the catalog, symbology and Mac OS functionality are some of the strong points.

But the limited tools and the bugs bog it down.

10 OpenJump

OpenJUMP GIS

Formerly JUMP GIS, OpenJump GIS (JAVA Unified Mapping Platform) started as a first class conflation project.

It succeeded. But eventually grew into something much bigger.

A large community effort grew OpenJUMP into a more complete free GIS software package.

It handles large data sets well. Rendering is above-grade with a whole slew of mapping options like pie charts, plotting and choropleth maps.

OpenJUMP GIS Plugins enhance its capabilities. There are plugins for editing, raster, printing, web-processing, spatial analysis, GPS and databases.

Conflate data and do a whole lot more.

11 Diva GIS

Diva GIS Free Software

Biologists using GIS unite!

Diva GIS is another free GIS software package for mapping and analyzing data.

This one specializes in mapping biological richness and diversity distribution including DNA data.

It’s possible to extract climate data for all locations on the land.

From here, there are statistical analysis and modeling techniques to work with.

Diva GIS also delivers useful, every day free GIS data for your mapping needs.

It’s worth a long look for biologists around the world.

12 FalconView

FalconView GIS Software

The initial purpose of FalconView is to be a free and open source GIS software.

Most of FalconView’s users are from the US Department of Defense and other National Geospatial Intelligence Agencies. This is because it can be used for combat flight planning.

In SkyView mode, you can fly-through even using MXD files.

Georgia Tech built this open software for displaying various types of maps and geographically referenced overlays.

It supports various types of display like elevation, satellite, LiDAR, KMZ and MrSID.

13 OrbisGIS

Orbis GIS

OrbisGIS is a work-in-progress.

Its goal is to be a cross-platform open source GIS software package designed by and for research.

It provides some GIS techniques to manage and share spatial data. OrbisGIS is able to process vector and raster data models.

It can execute processes like noise maps or hydrology process without any add-ons. Orbis GIS Plug-ins are available but are very limited for the time-being.

The developers are still working on the documentation. You may want to look elsewhere until this project gets sturdy up on its feet.

Free GIS Software List

As we have shown, there’s a bucket load of free GIS software that can:

  • Perform hundreds of advanced GIS processing tasks.
  • Generate stunning cartography and mapping products.
  • Manage your company’s geospatial assets efficiently.

Now you have 20/20 vision of free GIS software available to you.

Did we miss anything? Let us know with a comment below:

32 Comments

  1. Another option is R. Because it does not rely on a GUI, some people find it tricky to get started. But once you figure out the syntax and command-line workflow, it is undoubtedly one of the most powerful GIS systems going. Regarding gestatistics, it simply trounces competitors due to the vast array of contributed packages provided by statisticians: https://cran.r-project.org/view=Spatial

    A great introductory resource on R for spatial data is provided by James Cheshire and myself and is free to download here: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Robin_Lovelace/publication/274697165_Spatial_data_visualisation_with_R/links/55254f220cf24fc7fdeecf7c.pdf

    Note the opening quote by Gary Sherman who created QGIS:

    “With the advent of ‘modern’ GIS software, most people want to point and
    click their way through life. That’s good, but there is a tremendous amount
    of flexibility and power waiting for you with the command line. Many times
    you can do something on the command line in a fraction of the time you
    can do it with a GUI.”

  2. Nice article. A few comments about FalconView. FalconView was originally part of a flight planning software suite developed by Georgia Tech for the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA, the predecessor to NGA). It allowed military pilots to use digital versions of NIMA flight planning charts, including taking their flight plans and overlaying the plans on the charts. Pilots could also overlay multiple point symbols on the charts. Others soon discovered it was useful for making and printing basic maps quickly. I haven’t used it in years. It looks like GT continues to add functionality to the software.

  3. You won’t be able to get the full functionality that you can from a desktop GIS. gvSIG and QGIS have mobile apps for data collection.

  4. This is a great article. I use Badger Maps for my mobile phone. I can transfer all my data from laptop and have it right on my phone.

  5. Hi. I am looking for something really simple. I’d like to send out an email survey that includes a local map. I’d like the recipient to drop a pin on their residence. The goal is to map all the recipients’ residences. Ideas?

  6. Maybe someone else might chime in for web mapping options.

    Something open with the customized functionality of Tomnod (http://www.tomnod.com/) would be ideal. They openly hold campaigns to map out islands, buildings, disasters and even the search for Malaysian flight MH360.

    I don’t have any experience with Ushahidi but it’s also been used for crowd-sourcing and citizen engagement.

    Let me know what you come up with.

  7. Hello. I am a single individual looking to map a woodland which I have just purchased. Using GIS I would like to create maps of the woodland including the locations of individual tree species,their health,ground type,animal holes etc, so that I can make informed decisions on sustainable forest management. I currently have an iPad with gps capabilities to use on the site to collect the data, and will be buying a new computer soon, but am having difficulty finding the right program to use. Could you please help me with any suggestions about software and if it is Apple compatible many thanks John

  8. Here are some of your options:

    • Collector for ArcGIS
    • Fulcrum Data Collector
    • QField Experimental (Not sure if Apple compatible)
  9. Thanks for your reply. Arcgis and fulcrum require high annual subscriptions which is not desirable. Qfield is for android only. Sorry to keep asking but are there any other options?

  10. Thank you for putting this list together.

    We are a Land Surveying Firm that needs to input 40 years of jobs into a basic spatial format (AutoCAD is not user friendly for everyone). We would like to use client data like address and parcel numbers to create a map showing the location of all of the jobs we have done. Which GIS system do you recommend?

  11. Could you perhaps help me with some advice?

    I’ve been typesetting an annual South Africa wine guide for 17 years and, more or less by default, have been drawing the maps that show the locations of the wineries. I’ve been doing these in CorelDraw, usually tracing an image of a map imported into a layer reserved for that. There are 20-odd maps showing the locations of several hundreds of wineries.

    I would love to be able to do this properly, using real-world co-ordinates, and showing the topography. I would like to add all the wineries, and output windows showing specific regions at different scales (some maps cover large areas; other cover much smaller areas densely populated with wineries).

    Where should I start? I’d like at least to begin with free software, to see whether I get the hang of it. Can you suggest what would be the best to start with?

    Many thanks
    Gawie du Toit

  12. I should probably write a whole article how to do this, but I’ll go ahead and list the steps below.

    Step 1) You’ll need to download GIS software and data. My suggestion is to use QGIS and Natural Earth data. The reason why you’ll want to use Natural Earth is because it’s completely public use and they give permission to modify, disseminate and use the data in any manner. Here’s how to download – http://gisgeography.com/natural-earth-data-free-gis-public/

    Step 2) The next thing you’ll have to do is go into the ‘Quick Start’ folder in Natural Earth and open up the .QGS file in QGIS by double clicking it.

    Step 3) I don’t know if you have coordinates for each winery or not. Either way, you’ll have to create a shape file with each winery. This might take some time, but once it’s created you will always have that data to work with as a layer. There’s a button on the left panel ‘New Shapefile Layer’. Make sure you choose ‘Point’. Give the shape file a name. You can add fields to your shapefile, which are like columns in a spreadsheet. For example, you can add the field ‘NAME’ as TEXT 100 length, which will be each winery name. Click ‘ADD FIELD TO LIST’ and save your shape file somewhere.

    STEP 4) Now, it’s time to add point locations on the map. You’ll need some imagery to see where each winery point should go. Go to Plugins > Manage and Install Plugins > Search for the Open Layers plugin and Install it. Under Web > OpenLayersPlugin, you can add Google, Bing or OpenStreetMaps imagery to QGIS.

    STEP 5) Finally, you can add points to your shape file. In the Digitizing Toolbar (usually at the top), click the pencil icon to toggle on editing. Click the ‘Add Feature’ button to add points to the map.

    Keep on adding points until you have all the wineries. To create a professional looking map, you can use the Natural Earth data as you’re basemap. Using QGIS Composer, you can add cartographic elements like a scalebar, north arrow, title, etc… Export as an image file or PDF.

  13. I’m looking to install​ on my mac and to be honest, the installation directions concern me. Is the QGIS stuff actually Mac friendly?

  14. Gawie du Toit – I may be able to do the maps for you. Sounds like a fun project.

    Nathan – QGIS works great on a Mac

  15. I am looking to do a project to map Naturalization Records, to show where people originally immigrated from and where they ended up (I want it to show the trail\line). What I want to be able to do is, when you click on the originating spot, have an image instead of a dot and when you click the image you will see the data that I input to come up. Does anyone know which one or if any of these programs would work for this? Thank you!

  16. Hi! For purposes of my thesis, I plan to use qgis to map a spatial data layer of average agricultural yield of different crops in Colombia (such as coffee, sugarcane, oilseed, etc.) over a shapefile of Colombia divided in all its 1105 municipios and 33 departments (states).

    At the end, I would like to obtain a complete picture of the agro-climatical suitability of different crops per municipio in Colombia. However I have some problems. Firstly, I have some problems finding the needed data in the right format. Does somebody knows a database where I can find such shapefiles as I need from Colombia?

    For the data on average agro-climatical yield, I was told to look at United Nations FAO’s website for GAEZ maps (http://www.fao.org/nr/gaez/about-data-portal/agricultural-suitability-and-potential-yields/en/#), however I only seem to obtain .jpeg images from this site, not really useful… Does somebody has some experience in this field and knows where I can find the data?

    Lastly, I am a beginner with qgis, or gis software, so a short tutorial on how to map different spatial data layers on each other would be very welcomed! Thanks in advance! Sophie

  17. Hi Sophie

    The first link is just an image. You are going to need the GIS dataset found at the FAO GeoNetwork. You’ll find it in the search by typing “crop suitability”. Each crop (maize, cereals, vegetables, etc) has its own data set. Values in it range from 0 as very marginal to 100 as very high.

    For the Colombia municipalities, go to the Esri Open Data Hub and search for Colombia sub regions or municipalities. It should turn up there, or directly contact Esri Colombia. These links are found here: http://gisgeography.com/best-free-gis-data-sources-raster-vector/

    As for the analysis, it depends on what you want to do with it. A common analysis is measuring suitability per municipality by creating a pivot table report. Here are the steps to do this:

    1. Open QGIS. Add the two data sets by dragging the .SHP and GRID files in.
    2. From here you can work with the crop suitability raster data as is, or convert to vector.
    3. If you have a vector, the GroupStats plugin will help you summarize by municipality.
    4. If you are working with crop suitability as a raster, then you can use the “Grid Splitter” plugin with the municipalities as the cut layer.
    5. Calculate the area in hectares for each municipality. In Excel, take the average ‘suitability value’ per municipality.

    Now, you might have to do this for a lot of different crop types and their suitability. In this case, you might want to create a ‘Processor Model’ to automate the workflow for each crop suitability.

  18. Hi, I’m a mature student doing A level geography, and want to use GIS software for my fieldwork study, investigating the carbon matter versus drainage on areas of peatland. Which GIS software would you recommend for that? Many thanks, Jo

  19. Since you are going to be out in the field I would recommend two applications.

    The first I’d suggest is QGIS. The reason is because it has a good field app for Android called QField for QGIS Experimental. Basically, the app helps you get data from the field to the office efficiently in a minimalist way. I’ve heard good things but haven’t tried it myself. It has 4.2 stars out of 5 so it can’t be too bad.

    Another option is using Collector for ArcGIS in combination with ArcGIS Online. It has an app for Android and Apple. It does give you a certain amount of credits where you can use it for free, or a free trial for a period of time. Collector is solid, but Esri is a commercial software company that eventually wants to make you a customer. It’s a good way to test out the product, but you have to realize that you don’t get the full-blown thing with a limit.

    Hope this helps

  20. Which would you recommend for live streaming data. We need to be able to process and display millions of dynamic moving points at a time. We also need to be able to string them together and create tracks, etc.

  21. Not sure if there are any free options but ArcGIS Online’s GeoEvent Server might help with this. ArcGIS Online is free until you surpass credit usage

  22. Hi
    I am an obsessed fisherman and would like create a map showing plot depths, changes in water parameters, currents, features and fish catches of a waterbody. Which GIS software would you recommend?

  23. Which would you recommend for live streaming agricultural data. We need to be able to process and display millions of dynamic moving points at a time. We also need to be able to string them together and create tracks, etc.

  24. I would recommend QGIS. However, obtaining this type of data can often be challenging. Best of luck for your project.

  25. You might also try Cloud GIS. You can do a lot of your basics with its free account and it doesn’t depend on you to have a processing monster for a computer – giscloud.com

    Boundless has also developed a great comprehensive package using all sorts of free software. The best thing about Boundless is that their primary is consultation so there is almost endless support through blogs, documentation and videos. They have a great community – boundlessgeo.com

  26. Hey. From a given map, if I want to extract only the roads that are present in the map, is there any method that I can use to do so?

    Since I want to get the shortest routes from one point to another, I need only the routes but I am not able to know how can I do this…So it would be great help if someone can help me out with this

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