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Open Source or Commercial GIS, or both?

I’m a big fan of open source software, including geospatial software, such as QGIS and GeoServer, and it’s not just because it can be used without paying a license fee. The best thing about open source is the community of users that share their code and support one another through shared applications, documentation, tips, and tricks. This is the same spirit that exists in the Pitney Bowes user community (Li360), ESRI’s GeoNET, and the countless other software communities of practice.

The question is, which GIS software is the best choice for an organization?

If you ask commercial vendors, they’ll explain that their paid-for solutions offer a higher level of reliability and quality. However, most QGIS users and consultants will say that their solutions are free, making them more attractive to the cash-strapped user. In fact, some QGIS users talk about open source software as if it’s air — a gift to the GIS community from selfless developers committed to the greater good. Let’s consider this more closely.

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All human action is based on some motivation – sometimes charitable, sometimes for pay. If it’s charitable, it’s just another form of pay: moral income for doing a good deed. For example, if you need a new car gearbox installed, you are probably going to pay for it because not many people can do it themselves or find someone to do it for free. That’s because not many people get moral income from giving away gearbox installations. However, If you need counseling, you can probably find a free source, because many people care about those in need, and will either volunteer as a counselor or donate funds to places that do it.

If you want to get paid for what you provide, it better be pretty good, or people will use your competitors. Sometimes free stuff is pretty good, but sometimes it’s not as good, because people who get moral income don’t feel the same pressure to accommodate user needs as those who get cash money.

With these principles in mind: what about QGIS?

Most of QGIS is high quality, but that doesn’t mean that it’s all easy to use or fast.

Many people contribute code or plug-ins to QGIS because they want free GIS software. Or maybe they also get moral income from being part of an open source community that helps other people get free GIS software.

Some organizations contribute money to QGIS to get certain features because it’s cheaper to make QGIS better than to buy commercial software for their organization.

Some companies make a living by providing professional services to design, deploy, and support systems based on QGIS. They are making cash income, not moral income.

So, the main difference between QGIS and commercial software companies is that the QGIS business model is based on a combination of people seeking moral income, users who fund the platform as an alternative to buying commercial software, and people trying to make a living with real cash income (like the employees of ESRI and Pitney Bowes).

Open source software, including GIS software, usually comes from the scientific and academic communities and requires a higher level of user proficiency than commercial software. If you and your organization have highly technical, self-sufficient people as GIS Analysts, you are well positioned to take advantage of open source software.

However, if the GIS Analysts in your organization need software that is more user-friendly and comes with a dedicated support team, you might find that it’s worth the license fees to use commercial software.

With these principles in mind, let’s talk about how you can make the right decision when choosing a GIS — a decision that gives you the flexibility to “Free your GIS.”

  1. Begin by recognizing that you are not a prisoner to those who tell you that you must use open source or commercial software. YOU CAN USE EITHER OR BOTH!
  2. Free your decision-making process – Define your decision processes and determine how a GIS is going to help you.
    1. What level of precision is required? What data quality will you need? What calculations must the software be able to make? What visualization will you need? How fast does the system need to be to give you results that keep your decision processes moving?
    2. After you have done this, you can compare the capabilities of Open Source vs Commercial software.
  3. Free your users – Don’t pretend that your users can use software that is designed for DIY users if they are not DIY users.
  4. Free your budget – If you have DIY users, make sure that you calculate the costs of design, deployment, and support of your GIS before you choose “free” open source software versus commercial software.

In the end, your success with GIS will be based on your ability to achieve high levels of Productivity and Innovation. Productivity comes from fitting your people with software that is compatible with their training and experience. Innovation is achieved when your people have time to use the insights from GIS to make better decisions instead of wasting it figuring out how to use software that’s not suited to their skill level.

Register for the #FreeYourGIS Webinar Series starting on September 18 and join thought leaders, industry professionals and Pitney Bowes experts to explore today’s challenges and opportunities surrounding GIS software and achieving true location intelligence.

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