Introduction to open source geospatial tools

While the following tools are not scenario planning tools in their own right, they could grow into frameworks that allow us to do scenario planning with open source tools.  This is a general introduction and roundup of those tools.


CartoDB is a web-based framework for dynamic, data-driven visualizations.  It is an open source tool with a paid hosted version available to users that don’t want to get under the hood or worry about hosting infrastructure.  CartoDB is based on some pretty powerful online geospatial software including PostGIS and PostgreSQL, which together are arguably the open source standard for storing, querying and manipulating geospatial data on the web.  It is primarily built to make visualization of your data super simple and beautiful, but has analytical capabilities as well.  For the novice user, get a free basic account, load some of your own shapefiles and try putting it on a map.  You’ll get some simple embed options and can style the map without touching code (see some examples in the map gallery).  More enterprising users who are comfortable with APIs, SQL queries, javascript and some CSS can take a look at the developer documentation and examples.  Want to really geek out?  Check out the source code of the framework itself and give your hand at installing it yourself.  It’s a bit of an endeavor, so get caffeinated.  You really only need to do this if you are interested in hosting your own CartoDB instance and/or contributing to active development of the framework.


OpenGeo packages together a number of open source geospatial products into a framework that is useful for the display and analysis of geospatial data on the web.  Each piece of software in the OpenGeo bundle is available as its own open source product.  The benefit of OpenGeo is in the bundling to enable the simple sharing, creation and publishing of geospatial data on the web without configuring all the independent pieces separately.  OpenGeo is available as a free, community product or as a supported enterprise product at varying levels of support and features.  This is useful for larger applications within cities where dedicated support is expected or required.  OpenGeo has been used by a number of public agencies including Portland’s TriMet, NYC’s department of IT, and MassGIS among others.

Quantum GIS (QGIS)

QGIS is a fairly user friendly desktop based GIS software.  It runs on Windows, Mac and Linux with very little configuration (just install the right software and any software it depends on).  QGIS is not as full-featured as its proprietary counterpart ArcMap (although it’s getting there), but it does give you the ability to edit Esri shapefiles.  It also imports and exports to a variety of open formats.  Basic editing, querying, analysis and symbolizing of data is pretty straightforward.  QGIS is also extensible via plugins.  There’s no real scenario planning capability right now, but in theory, plugins could enable QGIS with familiar functionality like dynamic formulas, attribute (land use or placetype) painting and dynamic charts and graphs.


Not as user friendly as QGIS, GRASS, however, is strongest in its analytical capabilities.  While it can handle vector and raster data, many of its applications are on raster based data for environmental analyses.  It is a powerful alternative to the spatial analyst extension in Esri’s ArcMap, but does not offer the full functionality of say ArcGIS for Desktop on its own.  Not explicitly a scenario tool, it has been used to look at habitat and other potential environmental outcomes based on different development assumptions.  You can definitely do analysis on a set of assumptions and inputs, but GRASS lacks the full set of features associated with many modern scenario planning tools that would allow a user to capture and represent those scenarios quickly.

These tools, both desktop and web-based, offer a glimpse in to what’s possible in the open source context.  Open source geospatial software continues to mature and become more relevant to planners and GIS professionals every day.  We will continue to track development in the open source geospatial world, particularly as it relates scenario planning and planning generally.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, so please use the comments to highlight other tools that have been or could be useful to planners.  Want more information on open source geospatial tools?  Check out OSGeo, the non-profit organization that supports the collaborative development of open source geospatial software.


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