Assessing open source GIS software for use with Forest Research tools

An alternative to commercial GIS packages

News from Forest Research: April 2009

Ecological Site Classification analysis viewed within Google Earth

Geographic Information System (GIS) software is essential in order to use a number of Forest Research’s landscape-scale spatial modelling tools, such as Ecological Site Classification (ESC), Forest Gales and the forthcoming Biological and Environmental Tools for Landscape Ecology (BEETLE). These tools help forest planners manage the opportunities and risks associated with species selection, habitat networks and wind hazard.

However, many commercial GIS packages are expensive - prohibitively so for some users. Forest Research recently conducted a study into the viability of using ‘open source’ GIS software, i.e. software that is generally freely available on the internet, as a low-cost alternative for using these tools.

Apart from its obvious cost savings in terms of licensing, open source GIS software offers other advantages - for example, its authors strive towards making outputs compatible between systems. High-quality open source software exists for desktop use (e.g. QuantumGIS), serving data over the internet (e.g. Geoserver) and data management (e.g. PostGIS). Some packages have already been employed in large-scale projects in UK spatial data centres, demonstrating that their maturity and usability are comparable with commercial products.

The study then looked at integrating site-based tools, such as ESC, with web-based mapping software such as Google Maps. There are some issues to consider with these tools (e.g. licensing) but it was found that they could be easily combined with Forest Research models to provide outputs in a spatial context. An example showing ESC used with Google Maps can be viewed at:

Overall, the study concluded that viable open source alternatives to commercial GIS packages now exist and that web-based mapping objectives can be achieved using third-party tools such as Google Maps.

For further information contact Stephen Bathgate 


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This and other news stories can be found in the April 2009 issue of FR News, our online newsletter.

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