GIS Free-For-All

Using free and open source GIS programs and data platforms can eliminate costs associated with data processing, making Earth Observation data more profitable for all.

With only 3 million acres left in the U.S., longleaf pine habitats require careful management. Image Credit: Dave McAdoo

With only 3 million acres left in the U.S., longleaf pine habitats require careful management. Image Credit: Dave McAdoo

Clyde A. Brooke purchased 140 acres of land in Hancock, Mississippi, in 1952 to begin a timber operation, and what began as a humble operation has grown to more than 4,000 acres today.

The Brookewood Farm emphasizes sustainable management and harvesting in the Longleaf Pine ecosystem. These pines are in high demand due to their height, straight form, and resins. Historically they have been used to make masts for sailing ships, lumber and pulp for various paper products.

However, like most 60-year-old businesses, it was time for an upgrade. Michael Brooke, grandson of the founder, spent many of his childhood weekends on the family farm before leaving to studying meteorology and geology in college. He returned to work on the farm after Hurricane Katrina devastated more than 70 percent of their valued timber.

Unlike crop farmers, timber farmers cannot buy crop insurance.

“You can’t even claim it as a loss on your taxes because the basis is nothing (or next to nothing) since it costs so little to plant trees,” Brooke explained. The family farm projected their losses in the millions.

Ten years later, things have returned to normal on the farm. Now the family proactively keeps their timber thinned to better manage the timber inventory at any given time. Brooke’s father Judd Brooke decided that he wanted to manage his business digitally to improve his output and manage the needs of the Longleaf pines; he approached his son for a solution.

After discussing how they would like to manage the farm they both agreed that using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) was a smart solution.

GIS data and programs are used in many arenas such as scientific research, governmental decision-making, and basic utilities management. GIS is critical for processing data from Earth Observation satellites (EOS). When GIS interfaces are combined with EOS data, the information can be displayed in user-engaging applications such as Global Forests Watch and earth.

GIS data has become so vital to some organizations that they share their data in online libraries called clearinghouses. This data is often freely available for people to download and use for their own purposes; however, the data can only be used in GIS programs.

But access to GIS in today’s world can be an expensive endeavor; the most familiar GIS programs are licensed by the large corporations that designed them. These corporations often charge fees to use the software, which are frequently too expensive for individuals or small organizations to purchase. Consequently, most users get access to licensed software through their work or university for a variety of applications such as research.

Licensed GIS software often has additional perks that users love. The software licenses may include other services the company offers such as online mapping applications, mobile data collection services and software support. The many different existing GIS companies have strengths and weaknesses that differentiate their products; for instance, some specialize in elaborate tool boxes, data display, or various forms of images processing.

For the Brookewood Farm, the cost for licensed software was too great. Brooke’s father could not justify spending more than $1,500 on commercial GIS licensing fees. Brooke opted to look for alternative programs to address the farm’s challenges, and his coworkers recommended a popular open-source GIS program called Quantum GIS (QGIS), which is the leading open-source GIS desktop application.

While open-source GIS programs tend to be a few versions behind their incorporated counterparts, recently a few of the platforms have surged forward thanks to public interest and dedicated volunteers. There are many open source options available.

Brooke’s choice, QGIS, supports vital tools for geospatial analysis. The software has often been a fair alternative for individuals, organizations, or institutions that did not purchase a license for a GIS program. In some cases using open-source software is preferred because the resulting methodology or product can be recreated and used by anyone with whom it is shared.

Sami Rifai, Ph.D. candidate at University of Florida and a NASA Earth and Space Science fellow, is enthusiastic about open-source GIS for the same reasons as Brooke. Rifai began using GIS as an undergrad in 2005. Like most college students, after graduation Rifai was no longer able to access the institutional GIS software license. Instead of abandoning the implementation of GIS in his research, he decided to try his hand with QGIS. Since then, he has used GIS systems countless times for academic and professional research.

Abhijeet Singh Baghel, an applied science research consultant, has a similar story. Baghel began using QGIS in the last year because he still wanted to learn and conduct research outside of academia. He started experimenting with proprietary GIS software, but could not gain access to free trial software. He eventually found the open-source GIS programs and chose QGIS for it support on multiple operating systems.

“I love QGIS because it’s free and open source,” Baghel said. “I can easily watch videos online on how to use QGIS and learn at my own pace, anytime.”

Brooke, Rifai, and Baghel were able to find resources to learn QGIS online in blogs, written tutorials and video webinars. “The step-by-step video tutorials online was the key to making it very easy to learn,” Baghel said.

There are other resources available to investigate the natural world. Google launched the Google Earth Engine (GEE) platform in 2010 after successful environmental studies were carried out with Google Earth. This is a more challenging option because the user must know the programing language JavaScript. The user’s efforts will probably be rewarded because GEE has included a free catalog of EOS data, which includes Landsat, MODIS, terrain, land cover and atmospheric data. This eliminates a timely step in most applications: Acquiring the data and possibly the initial data corrections the EOS data may require.

GEE works from the cloud so it can be accessed on almost any device with an Internet connection. GEE runs tools and programs in a matter of hours; a stand-alone computer would take days, but GEE divides the work among multiple Google computers making processing incredibly fast.

GEE has produced success stories and been intergraded into some college programs. Many people and organizations using GEE, including the Jane Goodall Institute and the HALO Trust, have found the platform to be an incredibly powerful force for change.

Rifai also used GEE in his work studying forest blowdowns in the Amazon. Due to the enormous requirement for processing power, Rifai recommends beginning a workflow in GEE, and, if necessary, exporting the results into QGIS for curating spatial data, visualization, or mapping.

The open-source GIS programs and free GIS platforms are developing at rapid speeds and have caught up to, and in some areas, surpassed the purchased licensed software. Their popularity has spread through some universities and professional domains, and taken root in different areas including Earth observation data management, local government applications, and graduate level research.

Map of Brookewood Farm timber areas and attributes created in QGIS. Image Credit: Michael Brooke

Map of Brookewood Farm timber areas and attributes created in QGIS. Image Credit: Michael Brooke

Brooke was able to use QGIS and free imagery from the National Agriculture Imagery Program (NAIP) and Mississippi Geospatial Clearinghouse to digitize the Brookewood Farm at no cost to his family. Data on the Brookewood farm will be gathered over multiple years as the trees grow in order to determine if this system works. Brooke feels the initial results will lead to a positive growth in the business.  

“We divided the farm up into different management areas so that harvesting, planting, control burning, and fire breaks could be more effectively managed,” he said. “The maps of Brookewood farm I created using QGIS are currently being used to educate private landowners and government officials on conservation and land-rights issues” 

User interfaces for GIS systems have improved over the years and are now useable by almost anyone. With the increasing number of products that use open-source software or publications that use free platforms for research, these tools are gaining the attention of public. In the future, it is easy to imagine even more people trying their hands at the tutorials and use open-source GIS Earth observations to investigate the region they call home.