Four (Free) Online GIS Programs

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Need a GIS program but don’t have access to ArcGIS for Desktop? Check out four GIS programs available online. You can be using mapping software within minutes!

Why GIS? A GIS (geographic information system) allows you to study relationships between different layers and detect causal relationships between different variables. Using a GIS, you can create dynamic maps that show change over time, and you can create predictive models. GIS has been used in many industries for decision-making and policy formulation. It has been prominent in the environmental and agricultural sector (how does climate change affect crops?), but has recently flourished in the business sector (i.e.: where to open a new bakery?) and is rapidly expanding into new sectors such as conflict management (i.e.: crisis mapping).

Google Earth

Google Earth maps the Earth by using superimposed images obtained from satellite imagery and aerial photography. You can explore layers created by other Google Earth users or create your own layers to display data and other information on the Google Earth maps. Using the place mark feature, you can pinpoint a location on the map and edit information about a specific location, even add an image or video to your place mark “bubble”.  Likewise, you can create polygon shapes, paths, and image overlays to represent areas on the map.  You can save your work as a .jpeg image or as a .kml or .kmz file (special file formats by Google Earth).  Use the history tool to go explore past satellite imagery available for a location, or create a tour of all your place marks while recording your voice.

Open Street Map

OSM creates and provides free geographic data and mapping to anyone around the globe. It’s the Wiki of maps. OSM was created to allow people around the world to share and create maps in creative, productive, or unexpected ways OSM includes more detailed maps than other sites, however, it does not offer the ability to analyze data. For example, you can find an address in a small town of Thailand and you can edit the map to add your favorite restaurant, but you cannot add a layer that shows robberies in that city (even if you have that layer saved somewhere).


GeoCommons is the public community of GeoIQ users who are building an open repository of data and maps for the world. The GeoIQ platform includes a large number of features that empower you to easily access, visualize and analyze your data for free.


Crowdmap is a tool that allows you to crowdsource information and see it on a map and timeline. It does not require software installation and allows you to visualize information on a map in a quick and easy way. Crowdmap works in three simple steps: 1) Collect information from cell phones, news and the web; 2) aggregate the information collected into a single platform; 3) visualize the information on a map and timeline. For example, Crowdmap is often used to monitor elections or for crisis mapping.

Which one do you prefer?


“I never took a geography class. Can I use GIS?”

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GIS (Geographic Information Systems) is about making maps, but you do not have to be a geographer to use GIS technology. There are actually many easy-to-use and free applications that will allow you to make maps. It all depends on what you want to show, who you want to show it to, and what message you want to give. Maps are like images: they worth 1,000 words….but only if they convey the right message.

There is a lot that goes into creating a map before you even start designing it. You have to know why you are creating the map (purpose), who you are making it for (audience), and how you are going to present your story (data). The same map can be interpreted differently by various audiences, so you must take time to think about what you are going to map before you actually start mapping it.

Once you have thought about the what, how and whom, you can start thinking about the best technology to use for making your map. There are several ways you can create maps without being a bonafide cartographer. Let’s say you are just trying to map an event about how many people ate at a food truck today in Washington DC. You can try using Crowdmap, which allows you to crowdsource information and visualize data on a map.

If you wanted to calculate the shortest distance between your house and the nearest hospital, you may need to perform distance analysis using Arc GIS (examples of maps created by ArcGIS below), which allows you to create layered maps and view spatial data.  ArcGIS is available in the Hurst lab.

Then there is the free and popular option, Google Earth, that allows you to create placemarks and add data to specific locations.

Bottom line: Then answer is YES, you can use GIS even if you haven’t taken a geography course. These are only a few of the names out there that will help you map data.  Once you know what you want to map, you just need to choose the right tool to get started.

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