The purpose of this paper is to provide an overview of free and open source (FOSS) geographic information system (GIS) software within the broader contexts of the open source software movement and developments in GIS, and pose the question of whether libraries and academic departments should consider adopting FOSS GIS.
The process of creating a basic thematic map was used to test six FOSS GIS software packages, as it is a multi‐step process and a good example of a common task GIS users would want to perform. The test demonstrates what the process of creating a thematic map using FOSS GIS involves and how it compares to proprietary software like ArcGIS.
Each of the individual FOSS GIS packages had their own particular strengths and weaknesses and some performed well for thematic mapping. The FOSS packages generally were weaker compared to ArcGIS in terms of support for various projection and coordinate systems, joining attribute data to GIS files, and automatic labeling, but their advantage is that they were free in terms of cost and licensing restrictions. When coupled with plug‐ins and helper applications the viability of the FOSS GIS packages increased.
There is little published research to date on the capabilities and applications of FOSS GIS despite the fact that it is a growing movement. This research provides a practical, application‐based overview and critique of FOSS GIS.
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