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GIS software, more applications, but at a price: ever increasing complexity

Geographical Information Systems, GIS, Remote Sensing and mapping software are tools for endlessly diverse applications varying from highly sensitive and complex military applications to great fun ways to teach high school students about the our world and for every use in between.

Over the last decade, professional GIS users have excelled in fabulous creativity as they created ever more complex applications and prettier maps, while the leading GIS (vector) and Remote Sensing (raster) software products facilitated such creativity to flourish.  

However, in their quests to offer ever-increasing options to do more with their products, most vector and raster software vendors have created products that have become so complicated, that only GIS-experts can keep up with the complexities of those products if they work in it full time. Working in GIS has become a profession in itself, accessible only for those that have jobs to do so. 

Separate of Vector and raster software increase complexity and costs

On top of that, most packages of the market leaders are either vector or raster based programmes, so in order to be able to work all applications, one must have at least two programmes to work with: a raster package and a vector package. That means that one must learn how to work in 2 different, completely un-related packages, most of which are very difficult to master. This makes GIS and remote sensing technology even more difficult and scary for people, who don't work in GIS every day. That is a petty because there are many professions that could greatly benefit from having access to the technology, while not using it on a daily basis.

The ITC solution: ILWIS

The Netherlands based ITC (Institute for Aerospace Survey and Earth Sciences), an autonomous international Dutch Government training institution with International University status, has been remarkably successful at developing a solution to this dilemma. It developed the Integrated Land and Water Information System, ILWIS. It combines raster (satellite image and aerial photo analysis), vector (map making and analisys) and thematic data operations in one comprehensive integrated software package on the desktop. The mere fact that it combines raster and vector in one programme, already makes it more user friendly than any other package of the market leaders. But there is more. ILWIS has been developed by a training institution of the Dutch Government, whose first mission is to teach. As a result, the product has been developed to be user-friendly and for decades, its user-friendliness has been extensively tested on the students of the ITC, who come from more than 100 countries of the world. Therefore, not only was it quintessential to have a user-friendly and transparent programme, but also to have a very comprehensive and understandable manual integrated into the software. These two factors, integrated raster and vector in one programme and development by an international training institution may explain why ILWIS is so much more user-friendly than any other GIS package on the market. Since July 1 2007, ILWIS has been granted open source status and it is currently maintained by the open source community 52North a none profit organization under German legislation. However, the current free version, ILWIS, is essentially the same GIS programme that has been created by the ITC and that so many have become familiar with and have fallen in love with for its user-friendlyness and operational efficiency. 

So does that mean that ILWIS is a compromise in its technical capabilities?  Far from that! It is one of the most diverse and versatile high-end programmes on the market, which particularly excels for academic users, educators, biologists, natural resources managers, and land-use planners.    

ILWIS delivers a the widest range of possibilities import/export modules of any software on the market. (E.g. it can open and export [*.shp] shape-files and ArcPad.prj very easily),  it is extremely user-friendly for digitizing, editing, analysis and display of data as well as production of quality maps. It even allows you to analyze stereo photographs from your monitor with a stereoscope mounted on your screen.

Technically, the integration of both vector and raster in one programme is also a major advantage over the segregated  vector or raster systems, because you can work in a raster and vector application, where both your satellite image and map are linked and can simultaneously be adapted to your needs. That is a major technical advantage shared by no other brand-name GIS software package!

WICE: Every natural resource manager, educator, land-use planner and biologist must have GIS on his/her computer like a world processor

It is the philosophy of WICE, that GIS and remote sensing should be widely accessible. In fact, every student in high school should have the opportunity to play around a bit with GIS and get acquainted with such wonderful programme. In university, every student in land-use planning and field sciences (recreation, regional, city, and environmental planning,  natural resources management, forestry,  ecology, etc.), should have serious training in GIS and remote sensing applications.  All people working in those fields should have raster and vector GIS on their computers just like they have a word processor and a spreadsheet on their computer. Now there is nothing to stop you from having it. Just go to our download page and download the software entirely for free! NO hidden costs, no sneaky conditions. Just download and go! 

Who can effort spending $30,000 per GIS computer?

What has been holding us back from a broad use of GIS were two main factors:

  1. Complexity, and

  2. Costs

The world’s market leaders in GIS and remote sensing software have become remarkably successful at making their users believe that only their software is suitable for performing GIS operations adequately. Those enterprises get away with pricing their products to levels that in practical terms exclude individual scientists, biologists, educators, non-institutional users, and many institutional users in developing countries from any serious access to their products.  Even in wealthy countries the practicing GIS professionals are limited in numbers, because of the limited access to those excessively costly products.  

For environmental work, both vector and raster programs are required. An operational GIS computer with peripherals, using a dedicated vector GIS software ($8,500 + additional costs for specialized extensions) and a dedicated raster GIS software ($1,500 - $8,000), a big screen, a 36 inch plotter easily costs more than $20,000. Which natural resources manager or planner can effort such costs, unless they paid by his/her office. For high schools, prices like this are completely out of the question! Yes, you read it well, high school students should have access to GIS and thanks to ILWIS, they now can !

Because of such extremely high costs, countries try to bundle GIS applications in a very limited number of GIS units within a few central offices of national ministries.  As a result, only very few people have access to those systems and GIS has become a highly centralized tool. Invariably, the number of scientists with access to those programs is very limited. This centralized and limited distribution of GIS applications often leads to situations in which GIS operators determine what scientific studies can be done and how, while the field technicians and scientists become marginalised from their own scientific fields. 

Creation of software dependency

Some local distributors of high-cost packages may sell "special licenses" at lower prices or even donate them to government agencies and training institutions.  Really nice of them, one would think, but that only creates software dependency further down the road, because many applications created by these packages, will require the purchase of those packages by other users, if they want to use the products created by those government agencies. Students having been trained in donated packages will automatically continue to work in those products after they leave school. So, "donations" of packages to key institutions are not donations, but rather efforts to create software dependency down the road. It is comparable to handing out free cigarettes to teenagers! Highly addictive! 

Options on the market

WICE has reviewed a variety of GIS packages and listed their prices and links to the distributor's websites at . At that page it shows why it has been particularly impressed with the free open source GIS, ILWIS, because it is:

  1. Amazingly complete and versatile; 

  2. The most user friendly GIS programme on the market, while

  3. it offers a fabulous number of import and export modules, and

  4. it is open source, meaning that nobody owns it and everybody can improve on it. 

WICE has tested many applications and came to the conclusion that ILWIS should be the programme of choice for natural resources management,  biological field studies, land-use planning and teaching, as well as for applications like city planning, natural disaster modeling, certain water modeling applications, etc. It found ILWIS the most suitable GIS programme for natural resources managers, biologists and many other disciplines. Now, can it do everything? Of course not; no programme can do everything. But it can do far more than each of the mono-functional commercial packages. If you don't work for a kadaster, a power line company or for the USA Homeland Security, almost anything that you may come up with that you want to do, can be done in ILWIS, and most of the time, much and much faster. So, 


What are your greatest savings? Production-time reduction!

Free software is great! However, the real savings are not in the costs of the software, but in the time it takes to carry out projects.  ILWIS is so much more user-friendly than the programmes of the market leaders, one can usually perform the same task up to twice as fast in ILWIS as in any other GIS package. That is a very significant benefit, because the savings in production costs of the application even far outweigh the investment reduction of this free GIS software. 

Non-fulltime users won't lose their abilities with ILWIS!

Most natural resources managers, land-use planners educators and scientists don't need to use a GIS and remote sensing programme every day. The other products are so complicated to use, that professionals who don't permanently use those programmes, lose their abilities and after a while, stop using GIS altogether. As this happens, they lose their investment in their GIS training effort and their direct access to GIS-based information. That is a great loss. With ILWIS, non-fulltime users will easily recover their semi-forgotten skills in merely a few hours of playing with the programme and running a few of their exercises again. 


In many developing countries natural resources management and planning are financed or subsidized by multi-lateral or bilateral institutions, and nowadays most of them require some form of monitoring.  However, data-collecting is not monitoring until is has been done consistently over a period of a minimum of ten years.  Among donor based financing plans, only very few programmes are being designed to meet the continuity requirements of real monitoring and even less so, to allow for serious linking of data collection to change-cause relationships.  As a result, the monitoring components in many sustainable development and environmental projects end up being compulsory components that lack continuity and durable integration capacity into a larger context.

Major  problems in setting up monitoring systems are their costs and a continued knowledge basis required past the life of the original programming. While Geographic Information Systems and remote sensing programmes are commonly advocated as comprehensive tools for processing and interpreting valuable field data, in practice they have become just the opposite, because they are too expensive and too demanding on equipment and they put several limitations on the number of people capable of using the tools. With ILWIS, well defined long-term monitoring programmes can be conveniently designed.

By the way, if you are interested in natural resources and biodiversity monitoring, provides you with our free database, manuals and field forms free for dowloading. It is another WICE website to promote free quality tools for natural resources managers, planners and biologists.

Breaking through the centralization of information

As a result of the high costs of the licenses of the market leades, the information gets centralized into GIS units in a limited number of offices. This leads to high centralization of information and access to information to the privileged few that have access to the information in those institutions and to those that have software on their computer that can open the specialized GIS files. Many Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) and individual scientists are deprived of the use of data produced by the governments in that software. High costs of GIS software is an important factor in centralization of information.

No more costly periodic updates required!

ILWIS is public domain and will be maintained by a user community, still with support of the ITC and other members of 52North. Everything that will be produced will be free of charge, so any future upgrades will be free too.

What in the world are we still doing with expensive GIS software?

When one sees these arguments, one wonders, "what in the world are we still doing with those expensive software products from the market leaders, while for applications in natural resources management, nature conservation and general planning purposes, we have such a much more user-friendly and economical product at our disposition?"

The legal obligation of governmental and international financing institutions

Most governmental institutions of most countries of the world and all international financing institutions, are obliged by their laws and regulations to acquire the most economical products that are available on the market. 

Concerned with its experience of inaccessible software for both pricing and user-friendliness in developing countries, WICE has taken the initiative to discuss aforementioned issues at international financing agencies as well as some leading government agencies in the USA and the Netherlands. The results of those conversations were a surprising indifference among the civil servants concerned, and in none of those cases, had those officials even taken the trouble of downloading a programme to test it.

International Development cooperation and financing institutions and government agencies should do what they are obliged to do: finance the lowest cost product that can reasonably do the job, so that government spending can be minimal and the results of the use of the programmes  may be shared by individual users and NGOs, who can also effort buying those products. For most applications in government agencies, is perfectly capable of performing the job, and for many the ideal software, because it can reduce production time considerably, while it is the most economical serious GIS and remote sensing product on the market, both in acquisition costs (its free) and in production time efficiency. 


NATURE WORLDWIDE is the official website of the World Institute for Conservation and Environment, WICE. It is an integrated network of web sites dealing with different topics on nature, nature conservation and natural resources management. Read here why we created Nature Worldwide. Our Methodology explains how we produced our information. Our Site Map helps you find your way in the website. We made this website out of passion for conservation. We spent our own salaries and free time to gather the information and publish it on these websites, in total valuing hundreds of thousands of dollars of professional time. Nobody pays us to do this. We simply want to contribute to conservation. If you appreciate our work, PLEASE visit our site Adopt A Ranger and see how you can make a difference for conservation most effectively: By paying one day of the salary of a ranger, you will make a difference in conserving the lives of thousands of birds, other critters and entire forests. Check our sitemap. Enjoy!

NATURE DU MONDE est le site Web officiel du World Institute for Conservation and Environment, WICE, C'est une collection intégrée de sites web qui traitent avec des sujets différents sur nature, conservation de la nature et gestion des ressources naturelles. Lisez ici pourquoi nous avons créé Nature de Monde. Notre Methodologie explique comme nous avons produit nos renseignements. Notre Site Map vous aide trouver votre entrée dans le site web. Beaucoup de plaisir!

NATURALEZA DEL MUNDO es la página Web oficial del World Institute for Conservation and Environment, WICE, Es una red de páginas Web tratando de temas diferentes relacionados a la naturaleza, la conservación el manejo de recursos naturales, parques nacionales y áreas protegidas. Lea aqui porqué hicimos Naturaleza del Mundo. Nuestra Methodología explica como produjimos la información. Nuestro Mapa del sitio le ayuda encontrar su información en nuestra página web. Disfrute! 

NATUREZA DO MUNDO é o Web site oficial do World Institute for Conservation and Environment, WICE, Es uma red de páginas Web tratando de temas diferentes relacionados à natureza, la conservação el manejo de recursos naturaleiss, parques nacionais y áreas protegidas. Lea aqui porqué creamos Natureza do Mundo. Nossa Methodología explica como produjimos a informação. Nosso Mapa do sitio le ayuda encontrar sua informação no web site. Desfrute!

NATUR DER GANZEN WELT ist, die offiziellen Website der World Institute for Conservation and Environment, WICE. Es ist ein einheitliches Netzwerk von Web Sites, über Themen wie Natur, Natur-Schutz und natürlichem Ressourcen Quellen Hege. Lesen Sie hier warum wir Natur der ganzen Welt gemacht haben. Un

sere Verfahrensweise erklärt, wie wir unsere Informationen produziert würde. Unsere Site Map  hilft Ihnen Ihren Weg im Website zu finden. Viel Spaß!

NATUUR UIT ALLE STREKEN is, de officiële Website van het World Institute for Conservation and Environment, WICE. Het is een geïntegreerd Netwerk van websites, over Natuur, Natuurbescherming en het beheer van natuurlijke hulpbronnen. Lesen Sie hier warum wir Natuur uit alle Streken gemacht haben. Onze pagina Methode legt uit, hoe we onze informatie vergaarden. Onze Site Map helpt u op weg door onze website. 

WICE is a worldwide non-government non-profit organization that contributes to the conservation of nature. While it works on a many issues related to the conservation of nature and the protection of the environment, it is particularly committed to the conservation of national parks and other protected areas.

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