There is no shortage of GIS software available to journalists whether desktop applications or online variants, free and proprietary, and ranging in the depth of analysis capability and in complexity.
The industry standard is Environmental Social Research Institute’s (ESRI) ArcGIS and it is the most sophisticated GIS software available on your desktop and the favourite of the majority of CAR journalists.
It has the advantage of greater spatial analysis capabilities and comes with support and training provision.
It has the further advantage that it is used by most agencies and sources that journalists may approach for data so any data from them is almost certainly to be compatible with ArcGIS.
It is also the GIS software that many journalism teaching organisations such as Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), National Institute of Computer Assisted Reporting (NICAR) and the Investigative Centre of Journalists (ICJ) teach their students.
Unfortunately it is also the most expensive with licences running into thousands of dollars for professional use. At the moment ESRI is offering ArcGIS Desktop on a month’s free trial.
For $100 a journalist can download ArcGIS for Home Use package for one year. This makes GIS available to anyone who wants to use the; “same powerful software at home to expand their GIS skills, conduct non-work related research, or put their mapping expertise to good use doing volunteer work or supporting their favorite cause”.
There are also a number of open source desktop versions of GIS available for download for free online. The three most prominent are Quantum GIS (QGIS), GRASS and Post GIS.
QGIS, a little less complicated than GRASS which is aimed at the hard-core GIS user, is the GIS tool of choice for many leading investigative journalists such as Gregor Aisch of the Open Knowledge Foundation.
Writing in the Data Journalism handbook, a collaborate collection of ideas and practices of the world’s leading data journalists, Aisch stated:
“I also used QGIS (available here), which is an open source toolkit providing a wide range of GIS functionality needed by data journalists who deal with geo data every now and then. If you need to convert geospatial data from one format into another, then QGIS is what you need. It can handle nearly every geodata format out there.”
Other notable enthusiasts of QGIS include Brian Boyer of the Chicago Tribune and Nick Evershed of the Guardian.
Steve Doig, a professor and the Knights Chair in Journalism specialising in CAR methods at the University of Arizona, and member of the IRE, feels that QGIS offers a viable and cheaper alternative to journalists but that it may lack the capabilities of the higher end ArcGIS.
He said: “A number of reporters are using Quantum GIS (QGIS) which is an open source free one but which is not as well featured as Arcmap… many of the things the journalist does with mapping is not as technical as some of the high end industry uses of Arcmap, so [for journalists] something like QGIS does work well for many of those kind of uses.”
A number of online GIS services are also available. They are best described as GIS light or hybrid GIS/ web mapping services (WMS) programmes.
They operate midway between the more powerful desktop GIS software, bringing in certain GIS features and the more user friendly WMS such as, Google Maps, Bing Maps and Tableau, with less GIS functionality but with more internet interactivity.
The most well-known online GIS services are Geo Commons, Geo Server, Geo IQ and Map Box. These have underlying databases in which to share, filter and edit geo data and perform to varying degrees of GIS functionality such as carrying out queries on the data and performing spatial analysis such as merging data, creating buffers and carrying out temporal analysis. They are also integratable into WMS which provide base map mapping though users can import their own data.
Traditional desktop GIS companies such as ESRI recognise the threat that online GIS services pose to their desktop versions so are also bringing their software online as a long term strategy.
Clem Henriksen, ESRI’s senior marketing analyst, says:
“What we have found most useful to journalists is the cloud-based product that uses the web browser to create maps to be of most interest to the journalist. … GIS Online no longer require as much of a learning curve as the desktop product, so the GIS technology is more accessible to the journalist.”
Many of the features of this product are available for free with the option of buying more advanced features.
However Henriksen accepts that ArcGIS Online does not have the same functionality as the desktop version:
“At this time I can’t say that we have the same functionality but that is obviously the long term trend.” he said.
Though this software and similar online variants are cheaper and easier to use they do not as yet have the same functionality as the GIS desktop versions and are currently more for publishing than for conducting in-depth geographical analysis.
Their capabilities are also reduced dramatically when working off-line.
However WMS backed by internet technological giants such as Google and Yahoo are advancing their analysis capabilities at a tremendous rate as GIS companies are coming online. Slowly the distinction between the two is closing as each seeks to adopt the advantages of the other. The two will probably soon meet in the middle though who gets there first is moot.
The issue is summed up by Shane Gorman on the Esri DC Development Centre blog titled is ‘Is Google Maps GIS?’ where he states:
“The truth is likely somewhere between the two, but I think the more important point is that the gap between the two is shrinking at an incredibly rapid pace. I’d predict in the next few years there will be little that differentiates the GeoWeb from GIS other than the names identified with their past like ESRI, Google, Microsoft, MapInfo etc.”
Many more GIS functions will be coming online in the near future which will make it easier for journalists to use this technology.
Currently online GIS services are still behind desktop GIS software but offer a good starting point for journalists looking to familiarise themselves with GIS if the desktop version is unavailable or too daunting.
However at the moment the advanced spatial analysis associated with GIS remains on the desktop versions and this is where journalists should be looking to gain the greatest benefits of GIS.