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I am new to everything GIS. I have been researching different software but have found more questions than solutions.

What I want to accomplish: I'm working on a research project with participants across the USA. I have .csv files with their demographics and addresses (which I presume I can geocode rather easily). # of objects to be mapped would be in the hundreds to thousands range. Anyways I would like to create choropleth maps showing participant density in certain areas of the USA as well as heat maps or other visually pleasing displays of our participant's locations. I would then like to compare this to demographics of areas (ie race/ethnicity, age, income, etc.) which I would need to either purchase or find on the internet. This information will allow us to analyze possible reasons why certain groups choose to enroll as well as prevalence of disease in certain areas of the USA.

Budget: My company has some money to spend (if necessary - we are a non-profit) and I would like to choose the best software solution to fit our needs. I have looked into Esri/ArcGIS and MAPCITE and on the other end of things QGIS. I am trying to write a proposal comparing the possible benefits and feasibility of this kind of mapping.

Can you please give me an idea of the best option for my needs (please consider I do not have any GIS experience, but I am willing to learn).

Your guidance and wisdom are much appreciated!

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    Welcome to gis.stackexchange, Ben! The stackexchange-way of asking questions and providing answers can take some getting used to. In general, each thread should contain only one question. Currently, this thread contains two issues: one about which software can do the analysis you are planning, and one about how to obtain data. Please post the data question separately. – underdark Nov 6 '13 at 16:54
  • edited... hopefully that works better :) – Ben Nov 6 '13 at 17:23
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    Depending on the budget side of things I'd first of all work out the number of geocodes you'll need. Whilst this can be achieved for "free" using resources like Google many of these have a limit to the number of requests you can make in a given time period. Coupled with this, there is always the issue of accuracy / validation of geocode results. Going down the ArcGIS route (which may still be expensive(ish) would give you access to more quality geocoding - on the other hand ... going down the QGIS route would give you more cash to contract out the geocoding to a professional company. – Andrew Tice Nov 6 '13 at 23:15
  • I have a question for you. If you are willing to put in the work, would you be willing to learn of a way to obtain this demographic data that will cost you in time and possibly tedium but not money? – Kotebiya Nov 9 '13 at 12:09
  • Hey Kotebiya: I somehow missed your question. Your question is a big part of what I am trying to figure out. I am trying to find the most cost effect/time effective way of displaying this data. I am happy to put in the time to learn the methods and whatnot especially if they are free but if that means spending a month learning when I could pay a certain amount to get it done in a couple hours, it may be more cost effective to just pay the money – Ben Nov 14 '13 at 22:11
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I have recently been doing something like this (I work in health research) and I did not find the learning curve for QGIS exceptionally steep. I also used Google's free geocoding service with great results. Its usage limits shouldn't be a problem for you, especially if you only need neighbourhood-level accuracy and can de-duplicate your data. But I was using it for addresses in London, England and I imagine accuracy will decline in less urban areas.

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Well, I agree with underdark in her comment above about ideally asking things in single question specific threads, but, since you asked, here it goes. Yes, there are a lot of options as far as what software to use. Now, normally I would say that ArcGIS software is a rather easy to use, GUI rich, relatively intuitive software system with a lot of online resources, tutorials, and supportive forums and communities available; but I'd normally add that all that may not be worth if for the extremely high cost of the software if all you're trying to do are some simple single use problem solving. However, you are a non-profit, so that changes the game entirely because ESRI has an entire program for non-profits making the software cheaper: http://www.esri.com/nonprofit/arcgis-desktop

So, I would say in response to the first question, ArcGIS would likely take a bit less intensive work and training/learning to get started, and the low entry cost for your organization may make it a good solution for you. By no means is it the best solution for every problem, but overall they've put a lot of money into making it work, and you've got a cheap way of using it, so.... why not try it out.

Now, as far as getting access to data, it really isn't all that hard, depending on what you're looking for. The census data can be downloaded and visualized in your map without too much problem; I'm sure there are some tutorials online somewhere you could google that would get you some pretty straight forward instructions on how to do that. There are some other options as well of course, such as if you get an ArcGIS.com Organizational Account http://www.esri.com/nonprofit/arcgis-online you can get access to the numerous demographic datasets ESRI puts together and use them as feature services for analysis right within the desktop software (or just visualize in the online map). An example of some of these datasets is avaialble http://www.arcgis.com/home/group.html?owner=esri&title=Demographics%20and%20Lifestyle

Now, please understand, I'm not saying ESRI/ArcGIS is the only solution, but it is the one I'm most familiar with and it would be relatively straight forward to accomplish what you are talking about within the ESRI/ArcGIS system, so... that would be my recommendation.

Hope it helps.

  • I appreciate both of your answers. Assuming money was of no concern (which is obviously never the case) which program would you recommend? Which do you think is the easiest to learn and looks the nicest for displaying the data for things like grants, websites, etc? Is ArcGIS pretty much the standard or are other programs like Google's Map API also user friendly? – Ben Nov 7 '13 at 17:03
  • A lot of that really does depend on what your main focus is with it. Honestly, I would probably say that if money wasn't a concern, I would probably go with the ArcGIS suite (desktop & server/ArcGIS.com) simply because of versatility and user friendlyness/ease of use without a lot of time investment/training upfront. Google Maps API for example is great if everything is going to be a web-map, but isn't going to help as much if you need lots of customized PDF/printed maps. – John Nov 7 '13 at 19:40
  • QGIS or other open source may also be a good option for all I know, but I'm not all that familiar with them. The main question there is really do you want free software and have to invest in a higher learning curve &/or customization of the software/solution (but it's opensource, so it can support any customization you can afford to have programmed). Or, do you want to invest in proprietary software, such as ArcGIS, that is going to be easier out of the box, with less customization needed, but you are locked into that without as much customization possible and less say in future development. – John Nov 7 '13 at 19:46
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For a good and up-to-date comparison of commercial and open source GIS check Nicholas Duggan's Desktop GIS Comparison Matrix.

Concerning usability, I've worked mostly with ArcGIS and QGIS and I don't think the commercial option is more user-friendly. Both tools are reasonably complex and therefore require some getting used to but both have excellent online materials for self-study:

QGIS documentation is readily available on the project website and there are numerous online tutorials (on blogs and Youtube) which teach different aspects of the software. If you rather visit a real-life training course or want commercial support, there is a list of commercial support providers as well.

All the steps you've mentioned are well covered by commercial and open source tools and you will not have to deal with custom development work.

Concerning your use case:

I'm working on a research project with participants across the USA.

In general, it's easier to work with data in the US since a lot of background data is openly available.

I have .csv files with their demographics and addresses (which I presume I can geocode rather easily). # of objects to be mapped would be in the hundreds to thousands range.

There are a number of free geocoding services you can use - even a QGIS plugin. They tend to have a limit of how many records can be processed in a given time. 1,000 requests should not be a problem.

Online services mostly accept address lists in CSV format or even Excel files.

Anyways I would like to create choropleth maps showing participant density in certain areas of the USA as well as heat maps or other visually pleasing displays of our participant's locations.

Choropleth maps and heatmaps are very common and well supported in QGIS.

I would then like to compare this to demographics of areas (ie race/ethnicity, age, income, etc.) which I would need to either purchase or find on the internet. This information will allow us to analyze possible reasons why certain groups choose to enroll as well as prevalence of disease in certain areas of the USA.

The spatial analysis tools you need for this step - mostly intersection i suppose - are readily available in QGIS. Together with QGIS' field calculator, I'm certain you can calculate the desired indicators.

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