Open GIS for educators and students


Teaching GIS is quite an important part of the general process for nature resource management education. The training curriculum for various specialties now includes learning the basics of professional GIS.

But unfortunately Ukrainian universities face an ever relevant problem in GIS education:  lack of funds. Software prices reach up to several thousands USD per user. For instance, an ArcGIS might cost from 4000 to 20000 USD depending on capabilities, or the popular at the moment Map 2011 Pro costs 1500 USD. Clearly, these prices encourage Ukrainian educators and educational institutions to look for alternatives.

In this case open GIS software comes in handy. This is a kind of software that can be used during an unlimited time period, has an open source code that can be modified, and most importantly it is free of charge.

Some of the most popular open GIS softwares are Quantum GIS, GRASS, gvSIG, SAGA and a few more. The functionality of these programs is quite similar to that of proprietary software, many of them have Ukrainian or Russian interface, making them easy to use and understandable to Ukrainian users.

Open GIS software is constantly improved and developed. There is a great amount of experience in the world in using open software for education, science and business. During the “Open GIS” conference held in Moscow on 21-22 November more than 40 talks were given about a variety of open software aspects. So, the possibilities available from open source GIS are more that enough for beginner students to get a grasp of geo tools.

One of key features of working in nature specialities is having to deal with cartographic materials. At the moment a big number of traditional paper maps still used  are made digital. This requires the students to acquire skills of working with GIS to create and work with digital maps.

To correctly select the suitable software package for educational purposes the main stages of map making need to be kept in mind. Mind that here we are talking about educational purposes. Here are several approaches used during a map creation:

scanning a paper map

geodetic survey results  processing

digital photogrammetry

vectorizing raster images

A quite common way of digital mapping is still connected to paper map digitizing. Here are the main stages:

scanning the map

image processing


vectorizing the raster image

creating a digital map as a interactive data base with a graphic interface

During this process a set of intermediate cartographic products is created. They have different data representation models. After scanning a paper map we get a rasterized image, after digitizing – a vector map. After further work new transformations are possible. For example, digital terrain model data is used for relief representation.

So, for creating a digital map we require GIS software that can be used for digitizing raster data, manage vector data efficiently, as well as raster data, convert one into the other, creating geodata bases. Additionally, remote sensing data is also used for nature resource management, ant it also has a raster format.

So, the following set of software is optimal for educational purposes:

digitizing software, that lets pass raster data type into vector

GIS software that forms a geodata base and manages it

image processing software for raster analyses

As a result of own teaching experience and experience of our colleagues we can recommend the following tools. This works for us in teaching students of agricultural specialties, as well as geoecology.

They are Easy Trace Pro, QGIS, TNTmips.

These products are open source and have comprehensive and extensive user guides.

EasyTracePro enables quick and quality digitizing of various cartographic materials. It has a good toolbox of utilities for extracting data from raster images, and correction of existing vector data (figure 1).


Figure 1. EasyTracePro interface – automatic topomap digitizing

Digitizing is possible in both manual and automatic modes. There are several procedures for digitiizing, that enable increasing the speed and quality of the process. Topology rules help to check the vectorized data for errors. The software supports import and export in the most popular data types (ArcINFO, ArcView, AutoCAD, Credo, MapInfo, MicroStation). EasyTracev7.99 ProFREE is an freeware that can be used for educational puposes.

QGIS is an open GIS software that is distributed under NU General Public License. The main purpose of the product is geospatial data analysis and cartographic output preparation. QGIS does as good any proprietary GIS in terms of functionality. There is a variety of plugins and extensions that can be created using С++ and Python. Various vector and raster data formats are supported, including ESRI Shapefile and GeoTIFF. QGIS is presently the most functional and easy to use desktop GIS that is dynamically developing.

The main feature of TNTmips is raster data processing (figure 2).


Figure 2. Image georeferencing in TNTmips – one of our practical exercises

However, the functionality is constantly updated and the product can have various applications:

analysis, processing, automatic classification of remotely sensed data

digital cartography

photogrammetric image processing

creating and editing maps

geophysical and geological applications

automation of land management and building land use databases

storage, collection, visualization and analysis of various cartographic information

creating electronic atlases and guides in various industries, science and education

Thanks to constant updates the possible applications don’t run out here.

During the educational process these products are used as a complex. This enables the student to execute the tasks with high quality results, assess the accuracy, learn the specifications of several software packages. As the software is accessible, the students are no longer limited to class work, but can learn the processes on their personal computers. This increases the students’ skills and their educational successes.