Trying out uDig, a free, multi-platform GIS application

ArcGIS is the standard in geographic information system applications. I don’t like that it’s expensive, unwieldy to install and update, and its user interface is stymying and slow*. I also use Mac OS X most of the time and ArcGIS is not available for Mac. It doesn’t have to be the standard.

I’ve tried my hand at Cartographica and QGIS. I really like QGIS because there’re many plugins, it’s open source, there’s a diverse community supporting it, and best of all, it’s free. I’ve written about Cartographica once – I’m not a fan right now.

My project

  • The data: Bicycle crashes in the City of Chicago as reported to IDOT for 2007-2009
  • Goal: Publish an interactive map of this data using Google Fusion Tables and its instant mapping feature.
  • Visualizing it: Added streets (prepared beforehand to exclude highways), water features, and city boundary (get that here)
  • Process: Combine bike crash data; reproject to WGS84 for Google; remove extraneous information; add latitude/longitude coordinates; export as CSV; upload to Google Fusion Tables; map it!
  • View the final product

Trying out uDig

In reaching my goal I had a task that I couldn’t figure out how to complete with QGIS: I needed to combine three shapefiles with identical table schemes into one shapefile – this one shapefile would eventually be published as one map. The join feature in fTools wasn’t working so I looked for a new solution, uDig, or “User-friendly Desktop Internet GIS.”

The solution was very easy. Highlight all the records in the attribute table of one shapefile, click Edit>Copy, then select the destination table and click Edit>Paste. The new records were added within a couple seconds. I could then bring this data back into QGIS to finish the process (outlined above under Project). I did use fTools later in the process to add lat/long coordinates to my single shapefile.

After adding more data to better visualize the crashes in Chicago, I noticed that uDig renders maps to look smoother and slightly prettier than QGIS or ArcGIS. See the screenshot below.

A screenshot of the three bicycle crash datasets (2007, 2008, 2009) with the visualization data added.

The end product: three years of police reported bicycle crashes in the City of Chicago on an interactive map powered by Google Fusion Tables, another product in Google’s arsenal of GIS for the poor man. View the final product.

*I haven’t used ArcGIS version 10 yet, which I see and read has an improved user interface; it’s unclear to me and other users if the program’s been updated to take advantage of multi-core processors. ESRI has a roundabout way of describing their support.

Trying out new GIS software

I want to draw 50 and 120 feet buffers around the points of store entrances to show where bike parking should and shouldn’t be installed. I want to follow this example:

walgreens with bike parking buffers

Aerial photo of a Tucson, Arizona, Walgreens showing the location of existing bike parking and two buffers (50 and 120 feet) where proposed city rules would allow bike parking. I advocate for ratifying the 50 feet rule, which I’ve discussed on this blog and elsewhere many times.

I want to do this easily and accurately, so I will use GIS software to create a “buffer.” I use QGIS occasionally, but I want to try out other Mac-friendly applications. I’m getting my orthoimagery (geometrically corrected aerial photography) from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) using a web protocol called Web Map Server. I’m trying:

  • Cartographica, $495, with free trial license.
  • uDig, completely free software. UPDATE: I have had NO success getting any data to load from a WMS connection into uDig. I would like to understand why. Cartographica can obtain some of the WMS-stored data I want, although it messes up often.

I’m having success with neither – both are having issues downloading or maintaining a connection to the USGS orthoimagery. In one case, Cartographica trims the Bing Maps imagery to match the extent of my other objects (the buffer). In another case, it won’t even download the USGS imagery (and gives no indication that anything is happening). uDig hasn’t been able to download anything so far – I hope it’s asking for the current extent, instead of all data because it’s taking a looong time to do anything (so long that I just quit in the  middle of it).

This screenshot shows how to add new WMS connections to Cartographica.

UPDATE: I did it! I successfully used Cartographica (and the integrated Bing Maps) to create this drawing that shows the current (abysmal) bike parking at a Chicago Home Depot outside the 50 feet line.

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