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

What free programs should every GIS user have installed?

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.
  • I use Google Tasks daily and I think it's worth mentioning. It's not GIS-specific, but it's a great tool, especially if used independently and on multiple projects where purchasing time-management software isn't reasonable.
  • While it's not focused on GIS development, Rainmeter has proven to be very useful in terms of increasing productivity and monitoring system resources. I have created a GIS "sidebar" on my desktop that holds all of my development tools, as well as links to the online resources I used the most. It's nice to be able to use one location, rather than many (e.g. taskbar, bookmarks in browser, search engine).

locked by PolyGeo Jan 8 at 7:40

This question's answers are a collaborative effort: if you see something that can be improved, just edit the answer to improve it! No additional answers can be added here

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
I think this is the kind of question which should have been closed right away, wiki or not. I mean, just look at the answers so far.. pretty much everything goes. From Fiddler to GIMP to ColorBrewer to VirtualDub to SharpDevelop (and no, SharpDevelop is not for converting from C# to VB.NET). Where's the real value? – Petr Krebs Jul 26 '11 at 20:45
@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

42 Answers 42

up vote 110 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!


Its a nice tools published by the developers to analyse the map documents and data. It will help you identify which layers needs to simplified so that they can be loaded faster if you have huge datasets with large number of vertices.


Tthe FREE Double CAD XT is an AutoCAD LT-like program with more features then AutoCAD LT, simpler interface. Excellent for those GIS folks that have to interact with a lot of CAD data. Double CAD XT also claims excellent support for Sketchup - might be a good tool for those looking to integrate GIS, CAD & SketchUp data.

AutoCAD LT ($1200) and Double Cad XT ($0) Comparison chart

enter image description here


Nobody mentioned about proj.4

Proj.4 is an open source cartograpic projection library and tool that works hidden in the most of desktop gis, spatial databases and gis service software (web stuff). You can use it also very effictive at the command line and beside of geotrans (which has military roots) it is IMO the open source tool to transform cooordinates between geodetic/geographic notations and has the possibilty to use abstract datum description (like +datum=UTM +zone=32) or numbers like EPSG (+init=epsg:32632) as well as complex coordinate system descriptions like the Swiss Oblique Mercator Projection:

+proj=somerc +lat_0=46d57’8.660"N +lon_0=7d26’22.500"E
+ellps=bessel +x_0=600000 +y_0=200000
+k_0=1. no_defs



HDFview is geared for use with satellite data or climate model output that often comes in hierarchical data formats or netcdfs, but it's one of those things like a good text editor (ex. notepad++ or vim), where once you come across certain file types you need this tool to get a first look at them and understand how things are structured. It's not really meant for much more than getting a first look at the data and its metadata, but it will also do some basic plots and mapping and is easy to use.

  • 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

The ability to create city/province/country shapefiles of your data with the click of a button (instead of a lot of technical and manual work) is certainly something every GIS-user would want.

Therefore I suggest my own free/independently created software called "Easy Georeferencer" which is simple, easy to use, and yet powerful (see screenshot at the bottom of the post).

The program is simple and straight-forward to use, and is run directly from an exe file requiring no installation. You can choose to geocode between the GNS or GeoNames datasource, and you can do what no other geocoder so far can do, geocode provinces based on the GADM administrative units database, as well as geocode historical country borders from the CShapes dataset. The only caveat is that it does not geocode address data. All outputs come as shapefiles ready for immediate visualization/analysis in a GIS.

As far as regards efficiency and handling of large data, the program has been tested to geocode 100 000 records in only 3 hours. For larger datasets the expected increase in processing time should drop curvilinearly because much of the processing time goes only to the initial phase when the country reference datasets are loaded, but picks up afterwards. Also, one does not have to worry about internet bottle-necks or connectivity issues when geocoding large datasets because the software, reference datasets, and processing are all based on the local computer. Match rates can get up to 80-90 percent because it is based on fuzzy-name matching accounting for spelling differences.

More details, including an introductory paper and beginner's guide are included in the download package. No need to be hesitant about trying it, the program is just a simple file that you can place and run on your desktop without any commitment or cluttering of your computer.

The software can be downloaded from:

Hope that helps.

enter image description here

You should always disclose that are the author/developer and/or work for the company that produces a software product. – RyanDalton Oct 21 '13 at 4:49

For doing computational geometry (COGO) work -- i.e., calculations involving plane coordinates and angles and distances -- Copan is a great tool, I've used it a lot (but I was also a developer).

Copan's Cogo dialog lets you enter combinations of known points, angles and distances and it provides the missing data It also presents the relationships graphically

The above represents only one of the functions of Copan. There are other tasks -- such as coordinates transformation and map boundary closure checking, that land surveyors and civil engineers find useful -- available in Copan.


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.


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.


TatukGISViewer is great for quick viewing of raster and vector files. I work with both ESRI and MapInfo which forces me to do tons of converting .tabs to .shps or the other way around. Tatuk is great because it handles both formats, just drag-and-drop and they all show up nicely. It also truly shows the geographic location of the data if two datasets have different coordinate systems (I don´t like ESRIs automatic compensationing).


I don't think anyone here has mentioned CartoDB which is a cloud based GIS tool for visualizing and analyzing geospatial data. Your data is automatically imported into a postGIS database allowing for complex SQL queries. It also has a robust set of tools to style your data (including Carto CSS), and you may choose base maps from other services such as MapBox.

I saw a few people mention TileMill but don't believe I saw anyone mention MapBox, the company that created TileMill and is doing some really awesome work with OpenStreetMap data and cloud based GIS. Both MapBox and CartoDB have free account options.

Speaking of OpenStreetMap, I don't think anyone mentioned that as a very good free/open-data source. The data is under an opendb license. Here are a few places to grab shapefile data from OSM:


I didn't see any mention of CrimeStat:

Which offers some great tools and features for statistical and spatial analysis.

GeoDa also offers a great lightweight GIS for viewing spatial data, creating box-charts and other graphs, as well as editing tabular data:

  • 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.

Whitebox Geospatial Analysis Tools ( 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


I love PicPick for Windows for image capture/quick editing and on-screen measurements, it includes a screenshot capture utility, an on-screen protractor, pixel ruler, color picker, and more. The current version (3.1.7) is free for personal use only. The last version that was free for all uses is 2.1.5, I use that version daily and very rarely does it give me any problems.

Another handy link is, which has downloads of the last freeware versions of some popular programs that later became shareware or commercial software. I don't think it's updated anymore but the download links still work.


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.


Bulk Rename Utility is a great program that can do a lot of renaming and custom naming for data sources without the need of scripting. Data is an absolute for GIS individuals, and having access to free data is a great tool to have. I regularly use, and ESDI at the Global Land Cover Facility to get a range of raster and vector products.


OpenRefine (formerly Google-Refine).

This free and open-source tool is awesome for cleaning up messy data. I typically use it for fairly simple operations like concatenation, trimming, replacing one character with another, removing spelling mistakes, etc.

One of my most common use cases is grouping similar items via the clustering tools. This is great for finding spelling mistakes or abbreviation problems (e.g. Road, road, rode, rd, rd.) and changing them all to a single correct value.

Having clean data makes database operations and definition queries MUCH simpler to perform. You can even "record" the operations you've performed on a set of data for reuse on the next bit of messy data you encounter.

I don't use anywhere near the full potential of this software, but I find it easy to pick up and use for the simple tasks I've described. Here are some screencasts that touch on some of the more advanced operations. Oh yeah, you can also use it for geocoding!

The project has moved from HERE to GitHub.

Here's what the ReadMe says:

OpenRefine is a power tool that allows you to load data, understand it, clean it up, reconcile it internally, and augment it with data coming from Freebase or other web sources. All with the comfort and privacy of your own computer.

The wiki has everything you need to know including download links.


Here are a couple of web-based tools for entry-level GIS users:

Inquiron has a free online file converter for shp/xls/csv/gpx/dxf/kml to kml with more content being added. It's a simple process of just dragging and dropping the file into the relevant box - if you're using Chrome the file will automatically download.

There's also Mapsdata which lets you load geodata from xls/csv to view as pins, heatmaps, bubble maps, cluster maps, all of which can be colored, made transparent, etc. They have auto export to png and iframe.

Both of those are geared towards the novice or lite GIS user and aren't designed to detract from QGIS, etc.


GPSBabel to convert waypoints, tracks, and routes between popular GPS receivers and mapping programs.

enter image description here


I am working with Rasterdata a lot, DEMs and Orthofotos so I have a bunch of basic tools I need to handle them

  • Landserf is great for quickviewing DEMs, create Hillshades, Slope, Aspects, Profiles, and to convert to other formats (ASCII Grid to XYZ for example). A good alternative is GridConvert
  • I use TotalCommander to manage thousands of files,renaming them (create worldfiles and renaming them to fit to tifs for example)
  • Since ER Mapper is ERDAS now its hard to get, but free ECW Compressor and ECW Header Editor are still better (in compressing images) than GDAL with the ECW SDK linked. Lucky you if you still have the setups.
  • Already said here, that Irfan View is one of the best Image Viewing and processing tools out there

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!


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


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


Here it is another solution: Geobide SDK a set of components for the development of gis professional applications. Free versions of the tools are available.

Geomap, System for viewing, editing and analysis; [Geoconverter][3], geodetic reference systems and geographic formats converter: Converts formats, ipdate fields... (available in English); [Geobuilder][4], solution for the design and execution of diagrams of geoprocessing. (available in English); [Geobridge][5], plug-in for access to CAD/GIS data from Autocad, Microstation, ArcGIS...


Everything, quickly find any file in your computer.

Evernote, remember everything of life.

Python Tools for Visual Studio, a VS plugin for python.


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.


For file management that goes beyond windows explorer, it's hard to beat eXtreme from

for quick viewing of shapefiles, where you can see the shape and the attributes table, I use Mapbrowser from

For renaming multiple files I use


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


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