The Myth of Free GIS – A Lesson from Nelson

Car broken down
Like a car, GIS needs to be fueled and maintained to keep it running smoothly.


S everal years ago, while attending a small regional GIS conference, I happened to overhear a snippet of a conversation between two local government officials:

“How much did your town pay for its GIS?” asked the first. “Nothing. We got it for free” came the reply.

Much as I wanted to interject myself in the exchange, decorum prevailed and I was left to mull over how a functional spatial data management system can be established and maintained with no monetary outlay.

I was reminded of this experience early last year when my son turned 16 and, in what is apparently a rite of passage for today’s youth, informed me that he needed a car. Bear with me, there’s an analogy coming here. Several weeks scouring Craigslist eventually turned up a 2000 Hyundai for which the asking price was only a few hundred dollars. This inevitably led to the price verses cost discussion.

“While the purchase price might be within your budget,” I reasoned, “how much will it cost to keep it on the road? You have to consider insurance, fuel, maintenance, and the inevitable and unforeseen repairs that a well-used car will need.”

We bought the car anyway. More on that later.

In a similar vein, a GIS needs to be fueled and maintained to keep it running smoothly and while upfront cost savings might be appealing, the long-term productivity of the system needs continual investment. That’s right, investment.

According to Wikipedia, an investment is, “… an allocation of money (or sometimes another resource, such as time) in the expectation of some benefit in the future.”

GIS is, by its very nature, an investment in which the return on the initial and ongoing disbursement can be seen in many ways: increased productivity, improved efficiency, or in some cases, financial rewards from the sale of GIS derived products or services.

I have to assume that when the aforementioned conference delegates inferred that their GIS was free, they were factoring the initial price of the software and not any of the prerequisite or subsequent cost considerations. Had I decided to join their discussion, I would have suggested that they consider the bigger picture.


While many GIS fundamentalists might argue that a functioning Geographic Information System can be developed without computing technology (location-based data management predates the advent of the personal computer by several centuries if not millennia), in today’s world, GIS is a computer-based discipline. Specific hardware requirements will vary depending on the volume of data and degree of processing required and there is a fairly consistent correlation between the capability of the hardware and the performance and efficiency of the system. For most applications, however, the requirements are relatively modest and in most cases, an off-the-shelf computer will suffice.


GIS software runs the gamut from freeware to highly complex data processing applications costing tens of thousands of dollars. The decision on which level of investment to make will obviously depend on budgetary constraints but must also factor the value that the software provides. An assessment of the options must consider the minimum functional requirements, ease of use, and the support for appropriate data formats. More expensive software will typically offer more robust processing and analysis tools but these high-end functions are often not necessary or applicable to basic GIS workflow. In this light alone, it is entirely appropriate that the two officials whose conversation I overheard had selected an open-source alternative. Why pay a premium price for tools that you will never need.

Parcel data in Global Mapper
Working on parcel data in Blue Marble Geographics’ Global Mapper software.


Over recent years, there has been a significant increase in the availability of public domain data, usually administered by government departments or agencies. High-resolution imagery, elevation data, vector files, and even LiDAR data are often readily accessible on public data archives or through online data portals. While these sources provide a solid foundation for many GIS projects and workflows, they seldom offer a complete data solution in a local, project-specific context. To bridge this data void, GIS administrators must have the wherewithal to collect or create the requisite layers for a specific situation. Furthermore, maintaining data currency and ensuring accuracy and quality is a time-consuming and often a financially burdensome process.


Application Specialist Katrina Schweikert leads a Global Mapper training class at the Blue Marble Geographics office in Hallowell, Maine.

Usually the single most expensive component of a GIS is the person or people that are required for the development and maintenance of the system; the human resources. Larger agencies or departments may be able to afford a dedicated GIS technician to perform the day-to-day GIS tasks however an organization with more modest means will usually have to depend on existing staff or may be forced to outsource certain GIS operations, which ultimately costs more. Training can also incur a considerable financial outlay especially when the software requires an extended period of instruction before it can be effectively used.


In a perfect world, which conventional logic dictates, is an inherently unattainable fallacy, software never fails. In the real world, in which you and I reside, it does. The cost saving derived from open source software is a boon until the point at which something goes awry and without a structured support system, a project may come to an inglorious halt. At the other end of the GIS spectrum, annual maintenance fees that are designed to ensure the smooth operation of high-end software, usually add a considerable amount to the overall cost of the system; much like the cost of maintaining a car.

Ah yes, the car. In what would turn out to be the final eight months of its life, Nelson, as it was inexplicably christened, needed a new radiator, several hoses, and an exhaust overhaul. And in what may have been a prophetic attempt to convey its impending demise, the check engine light appeared just a few days before the Bureau of Motor Vehicles inspection service concluded that it would cost three times as much as the original price to maintain its roadworthy status.

Does this sound like your GIS?

When considering the implementation of a GIS, emphasis should be placed on the letter S in the acronym. The system is more than software and consequently, the cost of the system extends beyond the upfront price of the chosen application. Ultimately, a more important consideration should the value derived from the investment. Low-cost commercial GIS software such as Blue Marble’s Global Mapper maximize this value by balancing cost, functionality, and usability.

David McKittrick is a Senior Application Specialist at Blue Marble Geographics in Hallowell, Maine.  A graduate of the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland, McKittrick has spent over 25 years in the field of GIS and mapping, focusing on the application and implementation spatial technology. McKittrick has designed and delivered hundreds of GIS training classes, seminars, and presentations and has authored dozens of articles and papers for a variety industry and trade publications.

4 Replies to “The Myth of Free GIS – A Lesson from Nelson”

  1. And yet Blue Marble will be at the FOSS4G conference in Boston this August–that’s Free and Open Software for Geospatial, the #1 conference for free GIS software and associated open standards.

  2. A good article David; excellent analogy. You lay out the key GIS ‘success’ elements nicely. Much of this is about education. I find myself focused here more than anywhere else when working with customers. You’ll see a similar emphasis in our blog. Cheers.

  3. Very interesting piece. Although I agree that there is no such thing as a true free GIS (always need the computer and the Internet connection to download all that freeware and “free” data, which is not free), QGIS for example I think there is a good case for the shareware space. It is a nice tried and a very robust application. It surely lacks all the polished look and perhaps the stability of commercial packages, but is a decent entry level platform to get public that cannot afford a thousand dollars per seat solution (like students in schools with limited budget). Blue Marble with Global Mapper has made a terrific effort to maintain an excellent product at reasonable prices, I wish other vendors would consider a cost adjustment to their flagship products (ESRI are you there?).

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