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MapWindow GIS : More than a Viewer

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MapWindow GIS is a user friendly desktop geographic information system for Windows that offers both novice and expert users all the tools necessary to visualize, modify and analyze geospatial data. Created by Idaho State University, and released as an open source program in January 2005, it provides users with a product supporting standard GIS data formats such as Shapefile, ASCII, MrSID, JPEG 2000, PNG and others. More than a viewer and editor, it is an open source programmable GIS product as well, offering organizations and individuals the ability to customize the software using the GIS application programming interface (API), building a product for their exact needs.

Every few months or so I come across a desktop GIS product that is even better than the Ďbestí that Iíve discovered in freebies. I judge a product based on its map-making ability, its user-friendliness and the extent of how editable the data is. No question, the program needs to be able to produce a customizable, cartographic map. This refers to user-selected layers in the legend with appropriate symbols and colours, scale bar or scale text inserts, inset map, and ability to add additional text. Maps should have print and save options as well, otherwise the entire map-making activity becomes futile. A unique feature in MapWindow is the option to save every cartographic element to the clipboard, allowing it to be pasted into another document. This includes the map display, the legend, north arrow, and scale bar. This feature offers users the ability to customize the layout of their final map in any program they choose. Figure 1 shows a map created in MapWindow using three layers. Each map element was copied and pasted into Photoshop to create the final product. Many other programs that Iíve worked with have phenomenal map maping features but when it comes to print options, the programs fail to produce a cartographic output.

Figure 1

MapWindow GIS offers users the tools necessary for viewing and manipulating data in both tabular and spatial formats. With common GIS tools, ESRI users can dive right into the product and start using it. In fact, for many of the spatial functions, users may choose to work with MapWindow over ESRI desktop mapping products. With the ability to easily create, delete and modify Shapefiles with literally just the click of one button, users will quickly see benefits of using MapWindow for data manipulation and creation. New Shapefiles can be created from selected attributes, or spatially, users can reshape features, clip by using masks, merge files, edit attribute tables, select by using buffers and/or queries and more. MapWindow offers tools beyond basic viewing and editing, such as georeferencing, contour creation, and exporting maps with georeferencing tags. Because it is an open source programmable software program, developers are continuously adding beneficial features to the program that are available to everybody. Users can download additional tools off the internet, such as plug-ins, and install them onto MapWindow. An extremely useful tool which doesnít come with the original program is the Shape2Earth plug-in. With the popularity of Keyhole Markup Language (KML), especially in free online mapping programs such as Google Earth, this tool converts Shapefiles, which are not readable by Google Earth, into readable KML files. These KML files can be draped on top of Googleís existing imagery. Figure 2 shows Google Earthís interface with KML files draped on top of the imagery. The KML files, garages and sheds, have been converted from Shapefiles using the Shape2Earth tool in MapWindow. The tool is actually a trial copy and may be purchased for more consistent usage.

Figure 2

MapWindow certainly wasnít created for just programmers and advanced GIS users. Those new to GIS will quickly find their way around the program and will be able to view their data easily. Users can add data without projection information and it will be accepted by the program by giving it the same projection as the map extent. This of course can be changed to a different projection if need be. The Help section explains every menu component for the users who need support. If the new GIS user wanted to create a simple map and save it or print it using the simple template that is offered, then this can be done. The template isnít overly attractive though and I would encourage users to opt out of using that and consider copying all the map elements to the clipboard and work in a different program to create the final output. Itís an extra step, but at the very least the map will look the way the user wants it to look.

If I had to pick one downfall of the program, it would be its quality of image output. When the map is saved as an image, only lower resolution image formats are supported Ė jpg, gif and bmp. The resulting image is low quality and pixelated. For users who need high resolution imagery, they may want to consider working with TatukGIS or fGIS, two free GIS programs that provide outputs at the same resolution as the input. With so many free viewers and open source software products now available, we find ourselves in a fortunate position to be able to pick and choose products based on their specific strengths and functionality. Thereís no need to work with only one product - three or four may be needed to accomplish our specific tasks. MapWindow GIS is certainly one of the three that I use regularly for my geospatial mapping needs and its one of the top open source software programs that I recommend to novice and expert users.

- Published April, 2008

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