Introducing QGIS

Over the last few years there are a growing number of universities who offer workshops and instruction for faculty and students in the use of GIS (Geographic Information Systems) software. Most of us in the humanities, to be sure, are probably still hitting up our map librarians for a quick map for that book manuscript, scanning or photocopying maps we find in books around us—or even worse—trying to draw something by hand for our lectures and handouts.  However, I suspect more than a few of us find ourselves looking on in envy at those social science PhD students we see working late in the campus computer labs who appear to be doing wondrous but complicated looking things with maps in some kind of program called ArcGIS.

I have personally faced two major frustrations with learning geographic software:

1) The leading software package out there, the ArcGIS suite, is expensive and, in my humble opinion, ranks as one of the most user-unfriendly pieces of software I have ever come across.

2) The workshops and online tutorials I have come across, while often very well thought out and presented, usually assume that my goal as a student of GIS is eventually to carry out data analysis; that is, that I would want to plot geographic data from multiple layers of information and then solve some problem I have posed through an analysis of the available spatial data.

While the analysis of spatial data is a wonderful addition to the quantitative toolbox of the scholar, I’m just not there yet and, given the sparcity and irregularity of data for my area and time period of study, anything produced through these methods is likely to be more misleading than helpful.

Instead, I just want to make some cool maps. Perhaps a clean topographical map of the areas I am writing about, maybe listing just ta few cities and other locations I wish to highlight. Or, at a slightly higher level of complexity, a few maps with, say, treason cases per province. While it is possible to do some of this on Google Maps or Google Earth, we are stuck with the base layers underneath that display information we may not want (more on another alternatives, including WorldMap and MapBox, in an upcoming posting).

Since my demands for GIS are relatively limited, and I neither want to assume I’ll always have access to school licensing for ArcGIS, or want to payout for expensive software, I was delighted to find that an open source application QGIS that, while as frustrating to learn as ArcGIS, is free and works on Windows, Linux, and the Max OS X. Even in the year I have been using it, the software has improved considerably, and the community of users and online resources behind it has also exploded.

After attending a few workshops on GIS and then retooling what I learned on ArcGIS for QGIS I gave a bootcamp presentation at THATcamp New England last year in which I showed how you can use QGIS to create simple maps. It is unfortunately a little too much to fit the tutorial given then into a single Profhacker posting. I have posted the slides for the presentation and the crowdsourced audience notes in a Google Document, but looking back, they don’t really stand alone as a tutorial. I hope, however, that the many links provided in it can serve as a starting point for those that are interested.

With a little time investment, I believe that becoming comfortable in an open source GIS environment like QGIS can go a long way for those of us in the humanities. Increasingly, prepared layers of geographic information, or at least tables of easily geocoded data can be found downloaded from various locations online. Being able to take any of that data and project it on a map for use in a classroom setting or in our publications, even without employing more advanced analysis does not require more than a few hours of investment in a GIS education.

Have you ever given QGIS a try? If so, what was your experience like? Do you have any favorite online tutorials specifically targeting the beginning GIS user who is using QGIS, as opposed to ArcGIS?

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