Sunday, July 13, 2008

Linux GIS

For some time now I've been interested in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) for Linux. This is a natural combination since there is a huge amount of freely available geographic data available for free from the US government. GIS systems take datapoints, usually as geographic coordinates (longitude, latitude and elevation) and by associating various data (stream surveys, street plans, etc.) give a graphical representation that's very flexible. It's helpful to use them to make maps or visualize different elements.

There is a project with a long history in Linux that does this -- it's called GRASS. It was chosen for three projects in the 2008 Google Summer of Code. It's an active project with a long history and many users so it's likely to be around for quite a while longer, and it's licensed under the GNU GPL so price isn't an issue.

GRASS is pretty feature rich. GIS systems are always complex beasts as the various methods of storing, converting and visualizing geographic data are all rich fields with long histories and good fields for varying preferences. This system allows GIS data to be stored in any of the common databases including MS Access, MySQL, PostgrSQL, MS-SQL Server, Oracle, dBASE and others as well as various common formats or flat files. It can use live files created for and by ESRI's ArcGIS, which is the commonest commercial GIS program.

With the next version of GRASS a native Windows build will be available. For now the Windows version of the application is built under Cygwin.

Like many GPL licensed applications, GRASS has been included in a number of packages called distributions that include many complimentary applications that target an audience with a complete suite of applications and related tools that suit a common purpose, along with the Linux operating system and all of the usual applications as well. ArcheOS is an example of one that's targeted to archeologists that provides GRASS and related tools as well as a rich set of new toys to play with. I'll be using ArcheOS to set up a workstation system with GRASS. As of the current version (2.0.0) ArcheOS comes as a 1.2GB .iso file to burn to DVD for live DVD use or to install and includes version 6.2.3 (the most current stable release) of GRASS.

Anyway, give GRASS a try and tell me what you think.

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