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).
  • 4
    This thread is already better because everything is free/open source.
    – blah238
    Commented Jul 12, 2011 at 23:14
  • 13
    I think the "free" qualifier makes this question sufficiently different.
    – blah238
    Commented Jul 12, 2011 at 23:23
  • 2
    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
    Commented Jul 13, 2011 at 12:14
  • 1
    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
    Commented Jul 26, 2011 at 20:45
  • 2
    @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
    Commented Jul 28, 2011 at 5:37

42 Answers 42


This question has been converted to Community Wiki and wiki locked because it is an example of a question that seeks a list of answers and appears to be popular enough to protect it from closure. It should be treated as a special case and should not be viewed as the type of question that is encouraged on this, or any Stack Exchange site, but if you wish to contribute more content to it then feel free to do so by editing this answer.

  • Excellent list - thanks for the links! I have rediscovered GIMP for Windows and it's already helped me out on a few editing tasks.
    – Radar
    Commented Jul 13, 2011 at 18:26
  • ArcGIS Diagrammer has saved me many-a-headache!
    – Roy
    Commented Jun 30, 2012 at 22:54
  • I rolled back the most recent edit because I am not familiar with the suggested applications. Please add them to a separate answer so that they may be considered on their own.
    – blah238
    Commented Oct 21, 2013 at 17:09
  • You missed all the backplane stuff!
    – huckfinn
    Commented Feb 1, 2014 at 1:28
  • This list is kind of hilarious. I have exactly one of these installed: VLC. Which has nothing to do with GIS. Commented Oct 18, 2017 at 3:43

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.

  • 4
    be sure to be tuned into QGIS Browser (in trunk), which is similar to ArcCatalog
    – Mike T
    Commented Jul 13, 2011 at 8:29
  • Good point - there isn't a "need" for using both Arc and QGIS is most circumstances, but it is nice to have a free solution, especially if you want to allow others (non-GIS coworkers, customers) to do some basic exploration of data.
    – Radar
    Commented Jul 29, 2011 at 19:08
  • +1 for QGis - the new browser is great for a quick lookup and the way is provides a front for Grass makes it useful for most tasks.
    – Adrian
    Commented Aug 14, 2011 at 14:11
  • QGIS is brilliant, and can do almost everything ArcGIS can
    – bgordon
    Commented Jun 4, 2018 at 8:53

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.

  • Could you perhaps say a little about what it's good for and why it's so good?
    – whuber
    Commented Jul 12, 2011 at 22:01
  • 6
    Similar but more WMS specific is WMS Inspector for Firefox addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/wms-inspector
    – Sean
    Commented Jul 13, 2011 at 1:54
  • 1
    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 Commented Jul 13, 2011 at 15:00
  • @devdatta Yes, while using Fiddler to find out what mapservices a web app uses is very easy - and very useful - inspecting urls is a bit more involved. Commented Jul 13, 2011 at 16:21
  • 4
    The default dev tools in Chrome does the exact same things.
    – Calvin
    Commented Mar 23, 2013 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.



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.

  • 3
    +1 on Gimp. It's almost as a good as Photoshop, for most tasks I've found anyway Commented Jul 12, 2011 at 22:54
  • Have used both with great success - when photoshop hasn't been an option.
    – Mapperz
    Commented Jul 13, 2011 at 13:53

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.

  • Colour ramps can be installed into QGIS and ArcMap through addons. Commented Aug 20, 2012 at 16:44
  • I added a few ColorBrewer-related downloads. If anyone has any others I think they would be good to add to this answer.
    – blah238
    Commented Oct 24, 2013 at 17:04
  • ColorBrewer palettes are also available for use in R via the RColorBrewer package
    – Jezibelle
    Commented May 1, 2015 at 20:11

JTS 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


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.


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.

  • Of course R is a great tool and use gdal as well. Viewing and editing shapefiles is also possible using the correct library.
    – Riccardo
    Commented Dec 25, 2013 at 21:52

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

  • 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.
  • Agreed on Eclipse and PyDev. In my case, we keep our data under version control using Mercurial because Git choked on large binary files. Many VCS users would say not to version the large binary files, but in the case of GIS, that's often part of the point.
    – nicksan
    Commented Dec 28, 2011 at 2:55
  • WARNING: Using TrueCrypt is not secure! truecrypt.sourceforge.net :((
    – Learner
    Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 9:41

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.

  • +1 for the "cat"; those (Ubuntu?) terminal built-ins (from GNU) can sure make mundane tasks easier.
    – SaultDon
    Commented Jul 13, 2011 at 20:54

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.

  • Mapnik looks good but coding is difficult because it's terrible documented!
    – huckfinn
    Commented Feb 1, 2014 at 1:21
  • 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

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!


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


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.


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

  • This looks good. I suggest you also post this in the Community Promotion Ads thread so it has a chance of showing up in the sidebar. Just be sure to make sure to follow the rules and create a good, eye-catching image for it.
    – blah238
    Commented Sep 13, 2013 at 19:02
  • @blah238 That's a good suggestion, thank you. I'm new to this so I'll have to look into it now.
    – user21951
    Commented Sep 13, 2013 at 19:37

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).




Nobody mentioned about proj.4

Proj.4 is an open source cartographic 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 effective 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 possibility 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


  • this answer doesn't really tell us anything about what proj.4 is or why it is an answer to the question..
    – Dan C
    Commented Feb 1, 2014 at 4:03
  • Fascinating is, that we are late or not at all remember what is working as basic engines behind the GUI tools.
    – huckfinn
    Commented Feb 1, 2014 at 8:43
  • Fully agree, there are many free tools available which do coordinate transformations/projections but very often the number of supported projections is quite limited. In Proj.4 you will find them. Commented May 26, 2015 at 9:49

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!


soapUI is a really good tool for testing SOAP and REST web services. It's designed more for building extensive test suites, but it's also a fairly quick way to run simple one-off calls to your web services.


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

enter image description here


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


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:


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...


If you want to work with SONAR data SonarWave Lite is a free solution. It was referenced on this thread on GIS SE.


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).


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

  • I've been looking for a good AutoCAD replacement for a long time. Thanks for linking to this one. Commented May 15, 2013 at 14:56

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...

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