GIS Software... or,

"Any smoothly functioning technology will have the appearance of magic."

~ Arthur C. Clarke

How to Pick a GIS

"I am easily satisfied with the very best."

~ Sir Winston Churchill


The Evolution of Geographical Information System Software

1. Programming Language


2. Early Mapping Software






3. Software Libraries

      Graphic Libraries

4. Platforms

      Database Manager

      Operating Systems 1

      Operating Systems 2


Current System Software



        ArcGIS 9


Arc View

Arc Explorer

Map Objects

Atlas GIS




4. Map Info

5. Maptitude

Selecting GIS Software

1. Research

2. More Research

3. Test Drive

Additional Links

The Evolution of Software for Geographical Information Systems

1) Programming Language

FORTRAN - FORTRAN is not a mapping package or mapping software like the other topics in this section. It is an older programming language like COBOL or PASCAL. FORTRAN's connection to GIS is simply that it was the dominant computer language at the time (early 1960's) when people began to write programs to direct computers to manage a map or perform calculations on the underlying data. These programs may have allowed a map to be printed or plotted out on a particular device. A program might also project a map into another coordinate system, but each program could only be used for one specific task. Many languages have gained in popularity since then, only to be replaced by a different language or by an improved version of the original. From about the mid 1980's on, the major programming language has been C, C+, and C++. In reality C and it variants became the most commonly used language by the early 1990's, though languages like FORTRAN are still being used today.

2) Early Mapping Software

Evolution of the various GIS systems in use today has taken place over quite some period of time. Perhaps GIS's direct lineage can be traced back to the nineteen fifties, with the publication of a chapter entitled, "Surveys for Planning" by Jacqueline Tyrwhitt (1950) which utilized 'true map overlay'. Waldo Tobler closed out the decade, in 1959, with the publication his model for applying computers to cartography. While the historical roots of GIS components extend back thousands of years, as the art and science of cartography, the software of modern geographical information systems has grown from infancy within the last forty or so years.

SYMAP - This is an example of an early software package for computer mapping. Even though many of these early packages may have been coded in FORTRAN, they differ from the language in that they are an integrated product (a set of programs for common tasks like digitizing, plotting, etc.). SYMAP was developed at the Harvard Laboratory for Computer Graphics and Spatial Analysis in the mid 1960's. Although the program performed fairly refined analyses, it had a few drawbacks such as only running on mainframe computers and producing line-printer hardcopy. The advent of the workstation and the microcomputer throughout the 1980's led to SYMAP's demise, among many other similar systems.

CALFORM - This software package's main claim to fame was its thematic mapping ability. This program did utilize plotters to yield hardcopy maps. Originally produced during the 70's, it has apparently been left to the archives, since a web search on the subject only produced one hit - the online glossary to the text book for this class.

CAM - The Central Intelligence Agency carried out the development of CAM (for Computer-Assisted Mapping). Like SYMAP, CAM evolved during the early to mid-sixties and was used on mainframe computers. The program retrieved information from the CIA's World Data Bank, and would display the various political boundaries, rivers, and other available features at a user-selected projection and scale. The World Data Bank was one of the first examples of a systematically organized mapping database. The WDB and CAM are still being utilized at this time.

SURFACE II - This early computer-mapping program mostly dealt with the mapping of surfaces and contour lines. Its origins extend from the Kansas Geological Survey, who produced this software package during the 1970's and 80's. SURFACE II could interpolate a surface grid from point data, and then project contour lines onto that surface. The program was also capable of map algebra, or the addition, subtraction, multiplication, etc. of corresponding grid cells on overlying maps. SURFACE III is available in the Cartography Laboratory.

SASGRAPH - SASGRAPH is a statistical graphics package similar to Harvard Graphics. This program has evolved into a set of procedures for creating maps, graphs, charts etc. Initially, these types of packages took the active spreadsheets from an early program like VisiCalc and gave the user the ability to graphically represent and print the data. As of 1996, release 6.11 of SASGRAPH was available. SASGRAPH would be a forerunner of present-day programs like Excel, Lotus 1-2-3, or Quattro Pro.

3) Software Libraries

            Software libraries are routines created in different programming languages.  Users can link these routines to perform specific functions.  Software

            libraries are used in equation solving, graphics and screen layout.


Graphic Libraries - The concept of graphic libraries is actually the outgrowth of format standardization. The most important component of standardization is device independence. This eliminates the need to write your own programs to output to a certain make/model of printer, or display the graphics on a particular monitor (remember FORTRAN above?). You can simply pick your particular device from a list and let the computer set up the configuration. An example of standards in computer graphics programming would be G.K.S. (Graphics Kernel System). GKS is an ISO (International Standards Organization) standardized basic graphics package. It is capable of providing graphic output primitives like polylines, area fill, markers, etc. PHIGS (Programmer's Hierarchical Interactive Graphics System) is very similar to GKS-3D. It is also a three dimensional computer graphics standard. PHIGS is utilized in mechanical CAD (Computer Assisted Design) and molecular modeling because of the need to visualize objects in the third dimension. CORE is also another computer graphics format standard. Like GKS, CORE has also expanded out into the realm of 3-D graphics libraries as Core79.

4.) Platforms

Database Managers - Database management has undergone rapid advancement from the device-specific systems of twenty or thirty years ago. Improvements have been made 'in ease of use', and in flexibility when it comes time to update or retrieve data from the database. An easy way to understand the concept of DBMS (Database management systems) is to ask the question "How much was my power bill for this month last year? You might have stuck the old bill in an envelope in a drawer of your desk. Thinking of this example in terms of querying a database, you would first search through the drawers of your desk like the records in a database. Once you found the right drawer, you would need to look through the envelopes in that drawer, just like a database manger searches through the folders in a record. If the envelope from this time last year turned up, then you would still have to locate the power bill. A DBMS would consider the bill to be a file. Finally, looking at the dollar amount of the bill is analogous to finding the right field in a database. The most significant advance in DBMS, relational databases, took the lead during the eighties and is still dominant today. With a relational database you can 'relate' text, numbers etc. from a field in one file to other fields in the same file, or to different files through the database. In the example described above, a field is related through the hierarchy of file, folder and record. By comparison, this is a very rigid and harder to manage method of structuring data.

Operating Systems #1 - Again, like everything pertaining to computers; much has changed over the past three to four decades. Many operating systems have an origin in JCL (Job Control Language). Under this method, a device would punch holes into cards in a certain pattern to tell the computer to perform a certain task. A series of the cards were run through a device to ensure that the command sequences were in the correct order. Finally, the cards were run through the actual computer, which would return an answer. Things then progressed to the point of command line interface (CLI) where individual commands were typed one by one into the computer for processing. While some systems still utilize pure CLI, most software that was originally based on CLI have evolved into a hybrid between CLI and the next topic, GUI. The Graphical User Interface is by far the most popular type available today. These systems use a WIMP (Windows, Icons, Menus, & Pointers) configuration to allow the operator to select from a wide variety of commands, without the drudgery of retyping line command after line command. Common examples of generalized GUI interfaces are Windows operating systems and the Macintosh Desktop. In reality, most GIS programs that incorporate GUI still retain a type of background CLI environment, called scripting, to allow for custom commands, or to actually customize portions of the GUI itself.

Operating Systems #2 - The introduction and widespread acceptance of workstations and microcomputers during the 1980's essentially standardized the most popular operating systems. The IBM and IBM-Clone market went with MS-DOS starting in 1982. This combination dominated the market by the end of the decade, and is still widely used today. During the late 1960's AT&T's research lab developed a compact and efficient operating system known as UNIX. Because UNIX supports networks extremely well, it came to control the workstation market. Another benefit associated with UNIX is the fact that many GUI's exist as shareware or freeware; the most popular of these is X-Windows. Additionally, many UNIX systems thrive in a microcomputer environment, which has certainly helped to increase its popularity. Apple's development of its popular unified user interface with exceptional graphics and desktop publishing capabilities lead to the firm establishment of its operating system. The Macintosh Desktop revolutionized the development of GUI systems.

Current Systems

Jack and Laura Dangermond founded ESRI (Environmental Systems Research Institute) during 1969 in Redlands, California. From an initial investment of 1,100 dollars, ESRI has grown to be widely considered as the world's leading provider of GIS software. Mr. Dangermond studied landscape architecture at Harvard University in the 1960's, and developed ESRI's GIS applications through contract work in the 1970's. It wasn't until 1981 that ESRI began marketing its first software product - ARC/INFO. The rest is, as they say, history. ESRI has emphasized the vector aspect of GIS, though most of its popular software packages contain raster modules. Today ESRI continues development of GIS and related software as a private company still owned by the Dangermonds.

ArcGIS is a family of products offered by ESRI.  The products allow you to author, analyze, map, manage, share, and publish geographic information.  It offers some of the products below and many others not mentioned.  It is a powerful system that is the industry leader in GIS software.

The ARC/INFO software package is a fully functional, high-end, analysis-oriented GIS. It can be run on mainframes, UNIX platform PCs and workstations as well as DOS-based PC's. The first version for UNIX was released in 1981, and the first PC version was released in 1986. Originally composed in FORTRAN, ARC/INFO has been subsequently rewritten in both C and C+. UNIX based ARC/INFO is still mostly command line driven, with some GUI integration. ARC/INFO comes standard with a variety of modules such as ARCEdit and ARCPlot. Additional extension modules such as ARCNetwork, ARCTin and ARCStorm are available to 'add-on' for customizing ARC/INFO. To date, more than 30,000 people are using ARC/INFO.

Compared to ARC/INFO, ArcView is a GUI driven, lower-end GIS package designed primarily for graphic map display. It is available for use on UNIX, Windows and Macintosh based platforms. According to ESRI, ArcView is the most popular GIS and desktop mapping software, with more than 100,000 copies in use worldwide. While not a powerful as ARC/INFO (~70% of its capabilities), ArcView costs substantially less, and also has extension modules that include 3-D Analyst, Network Analyst, and Spatial Analyst. Like ARC/INFO these 'add-ons' enable the base price for ArcView to be kept, yet offer the needed flexibility if additional capabilities are needed. ArcView also has a scripting language, Avenue, to allow for customizing both command functions and the GUI.

ArcExplorer is ESRI's 'Data Viewer' and is available free over the Internet. Download the final release by clicking on the graphic to the left, and following the instructions. ArcExplorer was produced using MapObjects. ArcExplorer allows viewing of SDE Layers, ARC/INFO coverage and ArcView shapefiles. Additionally, ArcExplorer can be used to download shapefile data from the Internet, and it can be used as a Web (only wrote it once, Dr. Peterson) mapping client. Apparently ESRI is making ArcExplorer available for high schools.

MapObjects is ESRI's collection of useful 'ingredients' to add to its product line. It contains items for automation, as well as for GIS and computer mapping. MapObjects can be used to view or manipulate ARC/INFO coverage, ArcView shapefiles, ESRI's SDE (Spatial Database Engine) layers and relational database/SQL queries. The software also allows for geocoding and address matching, spatial queries/analysis, and real time tracking of GPS units.

The Atlas GIS software was originally developed by Strategic Mapping Incorporated but had changed ownership once before it was bought by ESRI in 1996. ERSI is marketing the package as GIS for business applications. It was designed so that a relatively inexperienced or non-experienced user should be able to produce quality desktop maps after only a short introduction to the software. The operator can use Atlas GIS to access and query database/spreadsheet files or to perform geographic queries. The package also can be utilized for geocoding street addresses as well as for producing presentation-quality reports. MapObjects can be run in Windows '95/NT and is available in a 'light version'. Additionally, an extension called MapObjects Internet Map Server is available for Web-based (used it twice now) mapping/data applications.

ArcCAD allows AutoCAD to implement the useful components of a geographical informant system while mapping or conducting drafting and design work. With ArcCAD spatial modeling and analysis is possible, as well as thematic mapping. Raster images can be imported into the working environment, buffers can be created and neighborhood analysis is possible with ArcCAD. The software is available for PC's running Windows NT, '95, or 3.X as well as DOS.

GRASS (Geographic Resources Analysis Support System) is a raster-based GIS that was developed for UNIX by CERL (Army Construction Engineering Research Laboratories). Grass is now part of the public domain and is available free over the Internet. Clicking on the icon will take you to the download site. This software was the first GIS package designed for the UNIX platform. CERL had provided support, enhancements, and upgrades from 1985 until it discontinued its use of GRASS in 1996. Commercial vendors still work with CERL to maintain support of GRASS and for further incorporation of GRASS components into marketable software systems.

Clark Labs at the Clark University Graduate School of Geography in Worcester, Massachusetts is where the IDRISI project was born. The lab introduced its low-cost GIS software, IDRISI in 1987. IDRISI was only available for DOS until the GUI version for Windows was released in 1995. IDRISI is raster-based, and it is capable of both image processing and geographical analysis. The affordability factor weighs heavily in IDRISI's favor, in addition to its low purchase costs; it also doesn't require high-end graphic cards and other expensive components. This is the most widely distributed raster GIS system with over 20,000 registered users throughout the world. Currently a full, single-user license is $990 with full-time student licenses ranging from $95 to $250.

MapInfo was one of the first GIS packages to incorporate desktop mapping into its software. This product is vector-based and appears to be intended for mapping applications in the business world. While its data analysis and retrieval capabilities are somewhat limited, it can be customized through use of its MapBasic scripting language. These "mapplications" are written in Basic and can be used for a wide range of functions, including updating the GUI. MapInfo is available in configurations that can be run on UNIX, Macintosh, DOS, and Windows platforms.

Maptitude, like IDRISI is based in Massachusetts, but the city is Newton in this case. Caliper Corporation is the developer of Maptitude and other GIS based products like TransCAD. Maptitude is currently in its fourth version, which was released in 1997. Caliper Corp. bills Maptitude as a desktop mapping GIS product that runs under networks and all the DOS-based Windows platforms. Under these systems Maptitude supports the 'drag and drop' function of Windows, which allows files and objects to be directly placed either in the Maptitude environment, or taken from the environment into another program like Illustrator. Additionally, Maptitude comes with two CD-ROMs that contain geocoded information on every street in the United States. The CDs also have a variety of worldwide information.

The Intergraph Corporation of Huntsville, Alabama produces MICROSTATION MGE. Like many of the other vendors mentioned above, Intergraph appears to be expanding into the realm of business based GIS. The corporation has a long history of developing 'GIS/CAD' products for technical, engineering, and industry based applications. They have evolved into the industry leader in 32-bit GIS applications for Windows NT, since moving to that platform in 1994. MGE is interoperable with Windows and UNIX platforms and incorporates a graphical user interface. Like ArcView, MGE has a wide variety of 'add on' components to extend its range of useful applications. Intergraph is an advocate of OpenGIS; that is, they are working to develop non-proprietary industry standards for the exchange of spatial data.

Selecting GIS Software

1) Research - After reading through these descriptions of what is available, you probably realize that there are many more systems available out there. You can rest assured that some are just as good as the examples listed here, while others are not nearly as good, or adequate for the job at hand. As long as GIS is a big business more systems will continue to appear on the market. We have successfully used Map Factory in some of the labs, and it didn't make the top 'whatever' list. Certainly, staying with a popular choice has many advantages like user groups for support and advice. However, there may be a small company out there that produces a reliable, specialized system that would be better suited for your application, taste, ability and the list goes on.

2) More Research - Once you have read many magazine articles and gotten a feel for what you want out of your geographical information system, then you must consider (unfortunately) your limitations. These limits could be financial, experience, or your current computer platform. Or, perhaps the platform is fine, but the configuration is lacking. Do you have adequate memory and graphics cards? Again the list goes on... Once you have identified a few potential systems, you will have to dig even deeper. Check out the documentation and training that is available. Does the vendor (or another organization) offer regular courses for all levels of training? What is the distributor's policy on upgrades, and 'patches'? How easy is it to install the software, upgrades and etc. onto your computer? What kind of technical support will you receive? Will you have to pay for every phone call that you make when 'their' software has apparently caused a nuclear meltdown inside your computer? With so many similar products offered, different answers to only a few of these questions could be the final deciding factor.

3) 'Test Drive!' If after all your research is done you are still interested in a few of the offerings, take them for a spin! You will be able to evaluate for yourself if all the articles you read were right. Is the software really easy to learn how to use? You might get lucky and find a system that almost feels intuitive to you. Compare the packages you are considering. What impressions did you get, did you feel comfortable enough using the software to give it a shot on your own?

Additional Links  A link to a review of many GIS packages available.

"... it is important to realize that any lock can be picked with a big enough hammer."

~ Sun System & Network Administration Manual

Submitted by Steve Harmon on 12 April, 1998

Edited and updated by Dara Slaven, fall 2004