Category Archives: FOSS4G

A Busy Summer with a QGIS Conference in Denmark and FOSS4G in Boston

This summer Kurt Menke first attended the 3rd Annual QGIS User Conference, Hackfest and Developer meeting in Denmark. From there he traveled to Boston to attend the Free and Open Source for Geospatial (FOSS4G) International Conference. 


Trip Map Created in QGIS using Live Layer Effects

The QGIS conference was small and intimate and a lot of new information was shared by the developers about the future of QGIS.


QGIS Conference

There was so much presented that this will be a separate future blog post. While there Kurt conducted a full day workshop on Data Visualization and Cartography in QGIS.


Kurt Menke teaching about Data Visualization & Cartography in QGIS

He shared many of the new sophisticated and powerful data styling tools now found in QGIS including: 2.5D, 3D, Live Layer Effects, Inverted Polygon Shapeburst Fills, Blending Modes, and some plugins such as Time Manager. Perhaps this could be a workshop shared with CHM partners at a future date? Some examples are shown below:


Use of Blending Modes to highlight road density


Lower Manhattan displayed in 3D via the QGIS2ThreeJS plugin


Cyclones Annually from 1950 – 2015 in QGIS with the Time Manager plugin

In Boston Kurt presented the Community Health Maps project. The talk was well attended and there was a lot of interest. Fulcrum was a sponsor of the conference, and Kurt was able to meet with several of the Fulcrum representatives. While there he learned about Fulcrum Community. This is a new initiative designed to help humanitarian agencies, non-profits, NGOs, or Government entities. To begin you need to request a Fulcrum Community account. One important caveat is that data collected via a Fulcrum Community account is anonymized, free, and open to all by default. It is essentially an initiative that will help in larger crowd sourcing efforts. More details will be forthcoming as Kurt explores this and how it may apply to Community Health Mappers.

This month (September), Community Health Maps will be travelling to the University of Connecticut (Community Medicine and Health Care) and to Miami to teach workshops. The workshop at the University of Connecticut will be to a large diverse audience. The Miami workshops will be focused on showing community members how to map damage and issues related to King Tides.

Stay tuned for blog posts on: 1) the future of QGIS, 2) Fulcrum Community, 3) experiences in Connecticut and 4) Miami.

Community Health Maps Presenting at FOSS4G

This years international conference on Free and Open Source Software for Geospatial (FOSS4G) is in Boston from August 14-19th.


Community Health Maps (CHM) will be presenting a talk covering the CHM program along with some case studies. Come and join us! It is a fantastic venue for people of all skill levels. There are usually around 1,000 in attendance. There are keynote speakers, paper sessions, and workshops. Many are suited for beginners while some are targeted at “power” users. Not only can catch up with the latest CHM news, you can also learn a lot about Fulcrum, QGIS, Carto and other useful mapping tools, and what people are doing with them.  In fact there is a co-located event hosted by Fulcrum called Fulcrum Live. This is an all day event (Tuesday August 15th) and is free for conference attendees. It will be a great learning opportunity.

We hope to see you there. If you have any news on your mapping projects, please share it with Kurt or John. Perhaps we can include some slides highlighting your work at the conference!



So What is Open Source Exactly?

This term ‘Open Source’ pops up in discussions about Community Health Maps and the blog and I realize many may not really know what it means. That’s OK, I’m going to explain it here. From both licensing and software development perspectives, there are two broad categories of computer software: proprietary and open source. The figure below shows some examples of both types.


Examples of Open Source & Proprietary Software

Proprietary Software 

Proprietary software is created and sold by a corporation. They create software and sell it to make a profit. When purchasing it you may also be paying for the privilege to get help and support using the software. Or you may have to pay extra for that privilege. Two examples of proprietary software are Microsoft Office and Esri’s ArcGIS. There is also a license that accompanies a proprietary software package. When you purchase software, you are actually just buying a license that gives you the rights to operate the software. You never actually own the software itself. That software license will restrict use in some way:

  1. the number of computers you are allowed to install the software onto,
  2. the time period that the software will operate, and
  3. the number of features you are licensed to use.

Open Source Software

Open source software (OSS), on the other hand, is created by a community of software developers (programmers). It is created to solve a common problem and is made available freely for everyone’s use. Open Office, Android and QGIS are examples. Open source software also comes with a license. That license tends to grant rights to users. For example:

  1. The freedom to run the software for any purpose.
  2. The freedom to study how the software works.
  3. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
  4. The freedom to improve the program.

Access to the source code may not be important to most, but the freedom to use the software as you see fit very well may be.


Why Give it Away for Free?

To many it is counter-intuitive for something of value to be given away for free.  However, open source software development isn’t entirely altruistic. Most of these programmers work for companies providing services with the software. Those involved in an open source project simply feel that this is a better way to create software. There are several reasons for this:

  1. there are a lot of “eyes” on the code and bugs can be spotted and fixed quickly,
  2. having access to the source code let’s you understand how the software is working, it’s not a ‘black box,’
  3. you are not locked into a particular vendors system, licensing scheme or software release schedule,
  4. you have the freedom to create any missing functionality that you need
  5. you benefit from the contributions of others and vice versa.

Making Money with OSS

Obviously you can provide services using OSS. However, there are other ways to make money with open source. Companies like Facebook, IBM, Sun, and Google are all heavily involved in open source. Let’s take the example of Google. They may be the world’s largest open source company. One of the keys to their business are vast server farms, which include several million servers. Google never would have been able to get their company off the ground if it weren’t for the Linux operating system. The cost of putting a proprietary operating system like Windows on all those servers would have been prohibitive. Now their open source Android operating system is the most popular on the market with a 66.5% market share. In another example, even Esri’s ArcGIS includes some open source software components ‘under the hood.’ This is because some open source software licenses allow that software to be bundled with proprietary software and sold for profit.

Any given open source software is considered a ‘project’ and they aren’t all user friendly and useful. You still have to determine if the software will meet your needs. An important aspect is getting help and support. Things to look for include a good online manual, ‘how-to’ books, and an active listserv.


Let’s take QGIS as an example. It has fantastic support. It has a great online manual, training material, case studies, sample maps, commercial support, email listservs, plus a number of ‘how-to’ books written by people who use QGIS. The QGIS project does not have a corporation behind it. It has about 30 independent but dedicated core developers. They work in a democratic fashion, voting on new features to be implemented. As an end user you can provide input with feature requests! With QGIS, if there is a feature you need that doesn’t exist, you can hire (sponsor) a programmer to create it. It then may become part of the core program or it may be written as a standalone plugin. That feature then becomes part of the software and everyone benefits. As a user of the software, you can easily contact someone involved in developing the software and ask questions and request features. With proprietary software you never have such direct access to the development team. You can also donate to the QGIS project. Your donation will pay for developers to fix bugs and implement new features. Beyond programming there are many ways people can contribute to a project like QGIS. You can report bugs when you encounter them, write and translate documentation, contribute a case study, and write books.


Open source is both a development methodology and a software license. In the end it is really impossible to say that a proprietary software like ArcGIS is better than the open source equivalent like QGIS or vice versa. You must decide if either works for you, and freedom and monetary cost may be part of that decision.

End Note:

There are a lot of acronyms in GIS and specifically open source GIS. Here are some you may encounter:

FOSS = Free and Open Source. Historically there were two similar software movements, Free Software and Open Source software. They are so similar that they now are lumped together, and people simply use this acronym when talking about them.

FOSS4G – Free and Open Source for Geospatial. This is free and open source software specifically for mapping. OsGeo (below) holds annual open source GIS conferences called FOSS4G. The next is coming up later this month in Bonn, Germany.

OsGeoOpen Source Geospatial Foundation – this is a non-profit organization whose mission is to foster global adoption of open geospatial technology by being an inclusive software foundation devoted to an open philosophy and participatory community driven development. To be considered an OsGeo project a software must meet certain requirements. QGIS is a project under the OsGeo umbrella.

How Does Esri Software Fit into the CHM Workflow?

Community Health Maps (CHM) necessarily focuses on low cost and open source tools. This is because our goal is to find mapping tools that can be used by any community group, no matter the budget or resources. However, that doesn’t preclude people from using Esri software or other proprietary mapping tools too.


One benefit of using Fulcrum for data collection, and QGIS for analysis and cartography, is that they both support a wide range of common GIS formats. This means that the data you’ve created via these two platforms can be easily brought into Esri’s ArcGIS software. Similarly if you have data you have created with Esri tools they can be brought into QGIS or Carto. This feature is known as ‘interoperability’ and QGIS is highly interoperable. For example, QGIS can work with shapefiles, Esri personal and file geodatabases, KML and over 100 other formats!

From the outset we knew there were many scenarios for mapping software being used in public health and community organizations.  For instance, there are larger organizations who are already using tools such as Esri’s ArcMap, ArcGIS Pro or ArcGIS Online. With this scenario there are still several reasons the CHM mapping tools could be useful.

  • It might be that the organization doesn’t have enough Esri licenses for everyone in the office who’s interested in doing mapping work. In this case Fulcrum, QGIS or Carto could be used to fill the need.
  • An organization may find that their Esri license doesn’t give them access to certain tools they need. They could use comparable tools in QGIS to fill the need, without having to pay extra license fees just for one or two extra tools.
  • There may be smaller affiliated satellite groups that don’t share the same access to the software. In this case, these groups could use CHM suggested tools. Because of good interoperability they would then be able to provide data back to the central hub, where they could be incorporated seamlessly with the rest of the organizations data.
  • There may be certain tasks that are easier and faster to do in one piece of software and others that are easier in another. For example, I use both ArcGIS and QGIS daily to do different things. Many beginners also find QGIS to be more intuitive. GIS is simply a tool and by incorporating QGIS you are giving yourself a bigger toolbox.

If you are in an organization using another software package don’t worry. The tools we are promoting as part of this project can be integrated quite seamlessly with your current tools. It doesn’t have to be Coke or Pepsi, or Ford or Chevy. You can have both!

Discover QGIS – A new QGIS workbook!

Two years ago, myself and several colleagues authored the GeoAcademy which is the first ever GIS curriculum based on a national standard – the U.S. Department of Labor’s Geospatial Competency Model (GTCM). The GTCM consists of the knowledge, skills and abilities needed to be a working GIS professional.  Our team was honored with the 2015 GeoForAll Educator of the Year award for this effort. The GeoAcademy consists of 5 complete college courses.

  • Introduction to Geospatial Technology Using QGIS
  • Spatial Analysis Using QGIS
  • Data Acquisition and Management Using QGIS
  • Cartography Using QGIS and InkScape
  • Remote Sensing Using QGIS and GRASS

This winter I converted the curriculum to fit into a convenient workbook format with Locate Press. The workbook is called Discover QGIS.

As you may be aware, QGIS is evolving rapidly. A new version is released every 4 months!  Due to this rapid development pace each spring a long-term release (LTR) is created. The LTR version is supported for a calendar year and is better for production environments. Originally written for QGIS 2.4, the GeoAcademy material in this workbook has been updated for use with QGIS 2.14 LTR. It therefore represents the most up-to-date version of the GeoAcademy curriculum. In addition to working with QGIS, it also includes exercises doing analysis tasks with the powerful GRASS GIS software, both alone and via the GRASS QGIS plugin. The cartography section includes exercises with InkScape. Here you’ll learn how to begin a map in QGIS and use InkScape to finish a publication quality map.

At the moment the digital version of the workbook is available as a Preview Edition for only $24.99. Purchasing this preview entitles you to the full version when it is released. There are just a few formatting issues to resolve.

This book will be a great resource for Community Health Mappers wanting to build their skills. The 470 page workbook comes with exercise data, challenge exercises and solution files!

Discover QGIS

Discover QGIS

A New Version of QGIS v2.14 Has Been Released!

Currently a new version of QGIS is released every four months!  To help users deal with this rapid development pace, the version put out each spring is designated as a long-term release (LTR). This means it will be supported for one calendar year. After that, new stable versions continue to be posted quarterly and any bug fixes associated with those quarterly versions are applied to the LTR. The LTR is recommended for production environments. It has a slower release cycle, and receives regular bug fixes throughout the year. Monday February 29th QGIS 2.14, the next LTR was released. It is nicknamed ‘Essen’ after the town in Germany where a recent developer meeting was held.


QGIS Essen

Essen has a lot of new features. You can visit the Visual Changelog to read about all the new features in detail. You can also see who developed and sponsored each new feature. Community Health Mappers might be especially interested in these new features:

  • the new 2.5 D renderer which allows you to extrude features into space.

Example of 2.5 D Rendering by Nicholas Duggan @

  • improved labeling
  • better control over map elements in the Print Composer
  • an improved Processing Toolbox
  • the new widget you get by right clicking on a layer in the Layers Panel and choosing Style. It allows you to change the color for a symbol without having to open a single dialog box!

Style Widget

If you are using QGIS you should visit the download page and install the latest version! Note that the Mac installer takes a little longer to assemble and may not be available for several more days.

Happy GIS’ing!

Using CartoDB for Beautiful Online Maps

CartoDB is an online cloud based platform for storing and visualizing spatial data. It is the perfect tool for the third part of the workflow (outlined in the Introduction). You can sign up for a free account, which gives you 50Mb of storage space. Data can be collected with a smart phone or tablet with iForm, and brought directly into CartoDB.  It is a very intuitive platform. You can literally drag and drop a spreadsheet onto the CartoDB page and have the data upload to your account.  It will accept the most common geospatial file formats including: spreadsheets and comma delimited text files with addresses or coordinates, KML/KMZ, GPX, and shapefiles. Below is an example of a spreadsheet of Baltimore Dialysis Centers in CartoDB. This shows the spreadsheet in Data View .

CartoDB Data View

CartoDB Data View

After telling CartoDB which columns contain the latitude and longitude values, the data can be viewed in Map View (below). Here the default Positron basemap is being used. There are a variety of basemaps to choose from including imagery, Stamen maps and Nokia maps.

CartoDB Map View

CartoDB Map View

Once multiple data layers have been uploaded you can create a visualization. Below is a map focusing on Balitmore Diabetes. It includes Baltimore neighborhoods classified by the number of diabetics, food deserts and dialysis centers.  CartoDB provides wizards and other tools for styling your data. The dynamic map can be accessed here:

CartoDB Visualization

CartoDB Visualization

Visualizations can be shared via hyperlinks and embedded into webpages.  CartoDB also has great documentation including:

Sign up for a free account and take it for a spin. On a related note Community Health Maps is almost done with a complete curriculum for community health mapping. It consists of six labs. The final lab shows you how to work with CartoDB from setting up an account to sharing a visualization. Stay tuned!