Is anyone aware of a GIS application that an ordinary person with no GIS expertise could readily download and use? By way of analogy, the average Joe cannot download and immediately benefit from AutoCAD - it costs too much and the learning curve is steep. However, many people benefit from Google SketchUp, which is free, easy to learn, and powerful.

Let me throw out a hypothetical example: I own a small lawn care company. I want to maintain a geographic database of my clients about town. This way I could quickly print a map of clients whose lawns are due for service this week, and perhaps even generate the best route and sequence for servicing them. (CMS+LBS)

Another hypothetical example: I manage building maintenance for an office park. I want to log service requests by location, type, and severity; and generate a map of hot spots. (cluster analysis)

Wrap-up: Thanks for all the great suggestions. It looks like the offerings out there generally fall in one of three categories: "ArcGIS alternative," "ArcGIS lite," or "web-based mapping." The Google offerings are most promising in terms of accessibility, price, and ease of use. Google Earth, Google Maps (esp. My Maps), and Google Fusion Tables are all exciting.

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    Google Earth?.. – whuber Feb 18 '11 at 16:49
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    Define "use" - what exactly does average Joe need to do? Like anything else, you gotta use the right tool for the job. – Chad Cooper Feb 18 '11 at 17:14
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    I find that "GIS for the masses" is an oxymoron, I end up calling it computer mapping or web mapping. Does your question include browser based mapping apps? – Kirk Kuykendall Feb 18 '11 at 18:04
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    does this need to be a community wiki? – Ian Turton Feb 18 '11 at 19:49
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    @iant I think it does; it seems like there is no one correct answer. – djq Feb 18 '11 at 21:30

Google Earth [Free]


400 Million Users (2008) - ESRI would be happy with half that. http://ogleearth.com/2008/07/400-million-google-earth-users-really/

More Specific GIS [Free] QGIS - http://www.qgis.org/ note: underdark (GIS Stack Exchange user might be able to give numbers of users/downloads)

So to get GIS to the Masses - go FREE but make sure it is user friendly

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    Unfortunately, we don't have download numbers for QGIS (due to the fact that it is distributed over many different channels). But we know that the windows stand-alone installer (there is another Win installer too) of the previous version has been downloaded almost 100,000 times: blog.qgis.org/node/146 – underdark Feb 18 '11 at 18:19
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    "Half that"? LOL--ESRI would be thrilled to get one thousandth of that (if they paid for support :-). – whuber Feb 18 '11 at 19:23
  • Having paid over 10 years for ESRI support - it doesn't justify the high cost of maintenance vs actually solutions they provide - their best move lately is making the ArcGIS Suite down-loadable. – Mapperz Feb 18 '11 at 19:41

ArcGIS Explorer Desktop

It's free and very user friendly. Best of all, it gives a great way to learn more about GIS, showing basic concepts like layers and map notes.


There are many great tools at osgeo.org
Open Source Geo dot org to start with has opengeosuite, osgeo4w, and other standalone tools.
osgeo for windows (osgeo4w) is a complete suite with many preconfigured tools.
opengeosuite has some great learning tools for postgis.
the qgis forum provides great help to get started (for the average joe).
Join in here also for some really nice help (and archived) when you ask or search (try the search first)


I Think that OpenJump is the most easy to use GIS available with vector editing and database capabilities.

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QGis is also user friendly, but it's far more advanced.


Manifold System, easy to install, easy to purchase, cheap, fast, good: www.manifold.net

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    Please write why you think this is the answer to the question. – underdark Feb 19 '11 at 0:59
  • because it's an affordable, readily available and easy to use application that is used by the masses and can do everything dude asks for. I didn't know that explanatory commentary was required here, but whatever – mdsumner Feb 19 '11 at 1:39

I find Christine GIS to be really approachable, perhaps because it is a clone of software from an earlier simpler era. But that said starter GIS seems to be much more about finding relevant and ready to use data, rather than simple software. And despite many efforts (for example Natural Earth Data) the situation seems to be getting progressively more complex, not better.

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