Map and Analyze Field Data with QGIS

After community field data collection, the next step typically involves bringing the data into a desktop GIS. This is the middle step in the workflow outlined in the Introduction. Here the data can be viewed against basemaps such as Google or OpenStreetMap, and combined with other organizational data. This is where analyses can be conducted. Presentation quality maps can also be generated in this step.

The software we found to be the best fit is QGIS. This is an open source desktop GIS software. It has many strengths:

  • It can consume many kinds of data, including all the data that would come out of the field data collection apps.
  • It is both intuitive and robust.
  • It has a large suite of geoprocessing tools for analyzing data.
  • It will run on Windows, Mac, or Linux.
  • It is free to download and install.
  • It is well documented.
  • There is a large user community.
  • New functionality is being continuously added. New stable versions are being released every 4 months!

 QGIS Browser:

QGIS has two main applications: QGIS Browser and QGIS Desktop. Browser allows you to preview your GIS data. It is similar to Windows Explorer, or Mac Finder, but is designed to work with GIS data. It has a File Tree, a main Display Window, Database Connections and Display Tabs (See figure below). It allows you to view basic information about a GIS layer and preview both the spatial features and the attributes. Data can be dragged and dropped from QGIS Browser to QGIS Desktop.

QGIS Browser

QGIS Browser

QGIS Desktop:

Desktop is the program for conducting analyses and making maps. It comes with tools for editing and manipulating GIS data. The main interface is similar to well known proprietary GIS packages with a Table of Contents along the left side. This shows your data layers and the symbol applied to them. The majority of the space is taken up with the Map Window (See figure below). Buttons along the left side allow you to add data to a map. Buttons along the top allow you to pan and zoom into the map. There are additional editing and data analysis tools available from menus.

QGIS Desktop

QGIS Desktop

With QGIS Desktop you can perform analyses such as calculating distances to resources, characterizing communities with socioeconomic data from the U.S. Census (NOTE: you will need to obtain data from the U.S. Census to do this), or generate new data like density surfaces.  The sky is the limit.

QGIS Desktop also comes with a Print Composer (See figure below). This opens in a separate window and allows you to craft a publication quality map. Common map elements such as a title, legend, scale bar, north arrow, logos, and text can be added. The final map can be exported in a variety of common image formats such as: jpg, png or tif. Maps can also be exported as pdf’s. If you want to do additional design work in a program like InkScape or Adobe Illustrator the maps can also be exported as svg files.

QGIS Print Composer

QGIS Print Composer


While fairly intuitive, GIS work can still be rather complicated and full of jargon. There is a learning curve involved. To help with this we have resources that explain how to install QGIS and bring in data from the three recommended field data collection apps.

For more complete GIS training with QGIS there is the newly created FOSS4G Academy. This is a five course curriculum teaching GIS principles via QGIS. The material is available for free here: The courses include:

  • GST 101 – Introduction to Geospatial Technology
  • GST 102 – Spatial Analysis
  • GST 103 – Data Acquisition and Management
  • GST 104 – Cartography
  • GST 105 – Remote Sensing

QGIS also comes with thorough documentation.

Download it today and try it out!

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