Take the 2-minute tour ×
Geographic Information Systems Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for cartographers, geographers and GIS professionals. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Note: This question is specifically about installed, desktop software. There is another question specifically about free cloud-based software and services.

I'm not necessarily referring to ESRI extensions or open-source products, but others that increase your productivity and ability to handle GIS tasks.

For example, Notepad++ for writing code snippets or editing XMLs. Paint.NET or GIMP for quick graphic editing.

share|improve this question
This thread is already better because everything is free/open source. –  blah238 Jul 12 '11 at 23:14
I think the "free" qualifier makes this question sufficiently different. –  blah238 Jul 12 '11 at 23:23
Most of the mentioned tools revolve around GIS dev., rather than GIS tools that I haven't heard of but should've. For the most part and except for one or two niche programs, the listed tools here and in this other Q revolve around "Creating GIS", rather than "Using GIS". They're also tools that you should know about anyways if you were involved with another type of development or GIS. My last gripe is the disconnect between GIS Tools for different OSEs: Arc vs. Else. –  dassouki Jul 13 '11 at 12:14
@Petr, I think the value is that it exposes people both experienced and inexperienced to free and open source apps they may have never heard of but which their peers use in their everyday GIS work. I don't think it would be the question of the month if it didn't have value! –  blah238 Jul 28 '11 at 5:37

56 Answers 56

up vote 103 down vote accepted
  • Google Earth, for viewing and creating KMZ/KML files
  • Trimble Sketchup, for creating 3D models
  • PointVue LE, Fusion/LDV, LAStools, for viewing LAS (LiDAR) files in 3D
  • PyScripter, for Python scripting
  • ArcGIS Diagrammer 10.0, for designing geodatabases and modifying schemas (ESRI XML workspace documents) (for 10.1 and for 10.2)
  • Visual Studio Express (C# or VB.NET), for .NET development
  • SharpDevelop, alternative IDE to Visual Studio for .NET development -- also handy for converting between VB.NET and C#
  • TortoiseSVN, TortoiseCVS, TortoiseGit, or TortoiseHg for version control on Windows
  • Oracle SQL Developer, for poking around the back end of ArcSDE, running queries, etc.
  • PrimoPDF, for printing/appending to PDFs
  • LightShot, for quickly taking and uploading screenshots, or GreenShot which is similar but quite a bit more powerful/customizable (thanks @Mike Toews for mentioning it in one of the comments).
  • VLC media player, for desktop video recording and video playback
  • Open Broadcaster Software, for 2D and 3D video recording and screencasting (requires Windows Vista or newer)
  • MSI Afterburner, for 3D video recording
  • VirtualDub, for basic non-linear video editing
  • XnView, GIMP, Paint.NET, and InkScape for various graphics tasks (each has their own strong suits)
  • FileZilla, for FTP sites
  • 7-Zip, for ZIP/RAR files
  • UnxUtils - For a lightweight (native Win32) port of common GNU utilities like "tail" and "grep". Tail is great for displaying log files in realtime, while grep is a powerful (regular expressions-based) text search tool.
  • Copy Path - A shell extension for Windows XP, Vista, 7, etc. that adds a "Copy Path" context menu item to files and folders in Windows Explorer. Makes short work of finding the full path (and also normalizes to UNC paths if it is on a mapped network drive). Great timesaver!
share|improve this answer

GDAL: GDAL - Geospatial Data Abstraction Library

When you don't know how to do it, you can usually do it with GDAL.

share|improve this answer
This sounds like GDAL's motto "When you don't know how to do it, you can usually do it with GDAL" –  jdeltoro1973 Jul 22 '11 at 3:14
Actually, why stop with just GDAL? Why not install FWTools - it comes with GDAL/OGR and a preconfigured Python shell pointing to the FWTools python instance (in its own sandbox). Get it at fwtools.maptools.org –  Kenton W Nov 29 '11 at 19:55
+1 for GDAL/OGR, but I recommend a straight-up GDAL/OGR install over FWTools at this point (for Windows at least), as Frank no longer maintains FWTools for Windows, and GDAL 1.8 offers too many enhancements to live without IMHO. –  elrobis Dec 1 '11 at 6:42

QGIS. Although I do most of my analysis using ESRI based tools, QGIS is extremely fast for quickly examining a shapefile, and zooming/panning/reading the attributes.

I don't mean this in a derogatory way, as QGIS is also a wonderful open-source desktop GIS; but for quick file opening/closing it's wonderful and the quickest I've found.

share|improve this answer
be sure to be tuned into QGIS Browser (in trunk), which is similar to ArcCatalog –  Mike T Jul 13 '11 at 8:29

Fiddler is excellent.


Suppose I'm looking at a Web App, like Esri's Redistricting Online ...

enter image description here

... and I become curious about the mapservices it uses. I can fire up Fiddler and see what Urls it is accessing.

enter image description here

I can right click and copy the url and paste into a web browser, since we're dealing with REST ...


I notice that as I add census blocks to a district, it simply does a query; it does not make a call to a geometryservice to union the blocks into a district as I would have expected. From this I can infer that Esri is holding back on us: somewhere in the client there must be code that unions geometries - but there is no such capability documented in the web SDK api.

Since there's no message on the root page of their redistricting mapservice saying I shouldn't use it, I guess I'm free to use it in my own app ... or at least until they implement the idea I've suggested.

share|improve this answer
+1 for fiddler, best free tool ever. –  tomfumb Jul 13 '11 at 0:13
Similar but more WMS specific is WMS Inspector for Firefox addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/wms-inspector –  Sean Jul 13 '11 at 1:54
+1 Great answer. –  whuber Jul 13 '11 at 14:08
Fiddler is an great Tool, but has a steep learning curve. I find the Firebug addon much easier to use when just figuring out the REST Queries/services. But there are other uses of Fiddler, where no other tool comes closer –  Devdatta Tengshe Jul 13 '11 at 15:00
The default dev tools in Chrome does the exact same things. –  Calvin Mar 23 '13 at 21:29

Benjamin already mentioned SAGA GIS, but just the name so I would like to add more info about this excellent SW:

SAGA (System for Automated Geoscientific Analyses)


SAGA is also free and opensource like QGIS, but it is focused on raster data analysis and processing.

The standard modules are:

  • File access: interfaces to various table, vector, image and grid file formats, including shapefiles, Esri grids (ASCII and binary), and numerous grid file formats that are supported by the GDAL library, in addition to the native SGRD format of SAGA GIS.

  • Filter for grids: Gaussian, Laplacian, multi-directional Lee filter.

  • Gridding: interpolation from vector data using triangulation, nearest neighbour, inverse distance. (my favourite is Multilevel B-Spline interpolation)

  • Geostatistics: residual analysis, ordinary and universal kriging, single and multiple regression analysis, variance analysis.

  • Grid calculator: combine grids through user defined functions.

  • Grid discretisation: skeletonisation, segmentation.

  • Grid tools: merging, resampling, gap filling.

  • Image classification: cluster analysis, box classification, maximum likelihood, pattern recognition, region growing.

  • Projections: various coordinate transformations for vector and grid data (using Proj4 and GeoTrans libraries), georeferencing of grids.

  • Simulation of dynamic processes: TOPMODEL, nitrogen distributions, erosion, landscape development.

  • Terrain analysis: geomorphometrical calculations such as slope, aspect, curvatures, curvature classification, analytical hillshading, sink eliminition, flow path analysis, catchment delineation, solar radiation, channel lines, relative altitudes.

  • Vector tools: polygon intersection, contour lines from grid.

According to the users it can partially replace commercial tools like Spatial analyst in ArcGIS and some people say, that the hydrological tools are even better than ArcHydroTools.

In my opinion it is good choice for people who are not familiar with GRASS and who need user friendly and free solution which can share data with other GIS tools.

I use it together with QGIS and it works really nice - SAGA for raster data, QGIS for vectors and final map finishing and for quick mapping.

share|improve this answer


I use these two for cartographic purposes.

Gimp has good raster support (until they get huge/GB in size, then you run it on a linux OS!) and Inkscape handles vectors really well.

share|improve this answer

Firebug for Firefox

Inspect HTML and modify style and layout in real-time . Use the most advanced JavaScript debugger available for any browser. Accurately analyze network usage and performance. Extend Firebug and add features to make Firebug even more powerful.


Like it as you can edit webpages online and see the changes instantly without re-uploading files.

This with Fiddler (mentioned already in this community wiki) are very useful and time-saving tools.

share|improve this answer

ColorBrewer is a great freebie for anyone who is publishing maps. Even though it's not an installed program, it's a powerful tool for picking effective color schemes, and downloads are available for various GIS software (see links below). There is even a new JavaScript version for those who can't or don't want to use Flash.

ColorBrewer allows you to pick effective, attractive color schemes based on number of classes, data types (e.g. sequential or qualitative), and many optional parameters. It also allows you to preview the color scheme with common features such as roads and city names, and export the scheme for (relatively) easy use in your software or code.

ColorBrewer's ramps can be installed to QGIS and ArcMap through symbol packages and add-ins.

share|improve this answer

Java Topology Suite, particularly JTS TestBuider (for Windows users, make a Shortcut to C:\Program Files\JTS\jts-1.11\bin\testbuilder.bat).

With JTS TestBuilder, you can copy/paste WKT or WKB into the geometry inputs, and debug a geometry (especially if it is invalid and you want to know why) or explore spatial functions and spatial predicate operators, etc. Most of the functions developed in JTS trickle down to GEOS, Shapely, JSTS, NetTopologySuite, etc., so it is a good graphical tool to work with.

JTS TestBuilder

share|improve this answer
+1 One of the very few among the list of answers which makes any sense. –  Petr Krebs Jul 26 '11 at 20:47

For statistical analysis, there is R. An integration of R with ArcGIS provides the Geospatial Modelling Environment. Using the right libraries you can easily handle shapefiles and raster data in R
RStudio is a powerful IDE with debugging and improved data handling for R.

share|improve this answer

Color Oracle - a colorblindness simulator for Window, Mac and Linux. I use this for checking the "look" of my composed maps.

share|improve this answer

No-one's mentioned postgresql and PostGis yet for storing, organising and manipulating geodata.

share|improve this answer
  • Eclipse and PyDev for Python coding - the latest version (finally) allows you to run a script without it being in the project, and has some other great features as well (break on exception etc.). That and the almost unlimited other number of extensions that you can install in Eclipse.
  • Git for version control. Free, easy, and you don't need to install any software on the server.
  • TrueCrypt for storing sensitive data by creating an encripted volume with a whole bunch of security options.
share|improve this answer

OpenOffice/LibreOffice - I use this tool to make the maps layouts.

share|improve this answer
cool, i noticed Draw has DXF support –  SaultDon Jul 13 '11 at 18:17
Libre Calc has read/write support for *.dbf files as well. Something lost in Excel 2007 –  dslamb Jul 13 '11 at 21:13

No one mentioned GRASS GIS or SAGA GIS...

share|improve this answer

I wonder why MAPNIK has not been mentioned yet. It is also pluged in to QGIS. Very nice tool for easily making astonishing looking maps.

share|improve this answer
  • Irfanview - for making simple image edits, such as cropping screenshots. Much more useful than MS Paint, and batch image processing!
  • Free JavaScript Editor - for editing JS, but also CSS, HTML, etc. Contains some great error checking functions, including a direct link to JSLint
  • Firebug - priceless when debugging a web application in FireFox
  • PythonWin - arguably easier debugging than Idle as it allows the use of breakpoints and "step over", "step into" handling
share|improve this answer

The Gdal command line tools are quite useful.

ogrinfo myshapefile.shp

gdalinfo myrasterfile.tif

ogr2ogr to convert files.

Sometimes I also use the xpath tool (provided with the gnome libxml2 library) to inspect xml/xsd/kml files:

cat my-insanely-complex-xml-file.xml | xpath "//Placename/text()"

You get the idea.

share|improve this answer

Self-link, but TileMill is very useful for exploring geodata, making pretty maps, doing analysis, etc. It's mainly for the presentation and exploration steps, while the heavy-lifting of analysis can be done in QGIS or similar.

share|improve this answer

FugroViewer - Fantastic program for viewing LIDAR data saved in LAS files. It has 2D, 3D and profile view. You can symbolize dots with all attributes stored in LAS files along with RGB colors.

enter image description here

share|improve this answer

Notepad++ as well as the extra settings from TWIAV.nl especially the code highlighting. Came in very handy after changing server structures as all our .wor files were broken. One short find and replace later and everything works!

share|improve this answer

You can use : ArcGIS Explorer

With ArcGIS Explorer, you can

  • Access ready-to-use ArcGIS Online basemaps and layers.
  • Fuse your local data with map services to create custom maps.
  • Add photos, reports, videos, and other information to your maps. Perform spatial analysis (e.g., visibility, modeling, proximity search).



share|improve this answer

Don't forget to mention MapTiler for easy map tiling jobs (build on top of the already mentioned GDAL).

share|improve this answer

I use MapServer with batch files to generate series of maps (same layers, but different places).

share|improve this answer

Whitebox Geospatial Analysis Tools (http://www.uoguelph.ca/~hydrogeo/Whitebox/) is an open-source GIS and remote sensing package that has extensive analytical capabilities. It runs on MS Windows, Mac OSX, and Linux. It has a user-friendly and intuitive user interface, extensive embedded help, and the ability to make cartographically pleasing maps.

enter image description here

share|improve this answer

My only contributions to the list (you've got most of the bases covered!) are:

share|improve this answer

I'll add TileMill to the list. It's an easy way to put map on the web. Mapbox have a free plan that can do for most small users.

I must have missed it, but PostgreSQL/PostGIS is a must too!

share|improve this answer

Cygwin, for access to all of the Posix tools in a Windows environment.

share|improve this answer
I actually recently just started using UnxUtils which are a lighter-weight (Native Win32) port of many of the common GNU utilities. Most handy? tail -f to display logfiles in real time. –  blah238 Aug 14 '11 at 20:34

Hard to add much to this comprehensive list, but for web map development you might look at FlashDevelop for Flash/Flex/AIR (Windows only) and Aptana Studio 3 for Javscript etc...

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.