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Introduction to My GIS Journey

I've been in the GIS game for about a decade. My educational background is in Geoscience and Geography. I've worked in industries such as cultural resources, surveying, and engineering. In any of these roles, Esri's or AutoCAD's software was what I used to sketch out the job. If it's not obvious from this website, I've felt a pull to try something different. I want to tell stories about conservation and the environment to my folks in Florida.

Choosing Open-Source Mapping

USGS historic aerial images showing the Ocklawaha River, concept image for embracing QGIS.

Map of the Ocklawaha River, USGS, Army Map Service historic aerials, click to view full-size. Source of USGS EarthExplorer Aerials (Entity: ARA007104005567, ARA007102503371, ARA007104005617, ARA007104005619), Army Map Service: U.S. Geological Survey. Visit the USGS at Map made with QGIS.

A big part of this storytelling effort has been finding free-to-use or accessible tools. In particular, I was looking for an open-source tool for mapmaking. That's why I've chosen to learn QGIS. It's a free, open-source alternative to pricier stuff and it has the ability to use a variety of plugins. I want to make maps, tools, and training resources that will be useful to a wide audience in Florida. Especially for individuals and groups trying to make a difference.

Learning new software is a bit nerve-wracking, even for seasoned GIS professionals. I want to help ease some of the hesitation people feel toward learning a new program. It was also important to me to provide these resources using a program that is accessible. You don't need to pay for a high-dollar mapping license and often, open-source software will fit the bill. Often, using QGIS over its competitors comes down to learning a new interface - a challenge I too had to overcome.

I figured hopping over to QGIS would be a breeze as a professional. What I didn't expect when embracing QGIS, is that there would be new facets of this industry I needed to consider. The actual challenge came after I had already created maps I wanted to share with the world.

Everyone Should Consider Embracing QGIS

I've seen plenty of friends in the GIS world come to a fork in the road. They usually reach it when they realize that they need to switch from Esri's ArcMap to ArcGIS Pro. Learning new software isn't actually difficult, but it can feel that way. Being in tech or STEM can lead to fatigue in having to keep up with continuing education. Jumping from one software to another, made by the same company, was a bit easier for me to manage than the jump to QGIS. I generally see that sentiment shared by my peers.

I have assisted quite a few colleagues at this point in my career, in making that switch between products. Recently, when training a few colleagues in Pro, I realized I missed that feeling. I missed being new to software and working towards becoming proficient in using it. That feeling is what made my decision to embrace QGIS rather than pay for a high-dollar GIS license.

Rediscovering the Beginner's Mindset

The best part about embracing QGIS as a beginner is being just that again - a beginner. I'm a professional map maker. However, a large part of the point of embracing QGIS was to develop skills in an accessible program to share. I want to provide services to groups trying to enact change in Florida. Also, enable people to make their own maps and graphics for their businesses or mission.

QGIS is an open-source gem that throws open the doors to everyone. That's a real change from the closed-off world of software that I've been in. Learning and teaching this software is going to be a power-up for my community - and make GIS everyone's game.

My First Experience with QGIS

I first encountered QGIS in a database course where we were learning PostGIS. This course was a standout in my studies, I thought the only negative about it was it required using QGIS. My education was Esri-centric (like most GIS programs) and this software was new to me. At the time, it felt like I had little mental capacity to learn this new program. I was balancing a demanding job with a full-time course load, and I didn't want to spend my time learning this. When I opened up the program, I was in such a negative headspace and wanted to use ArcGIS Pro because it felt easier. So, I get where people are coming from when they say they don't want to learn a new interface.

I ended up returning to QGIS a few weeks ago, over a year since I had last opened it. After a few weeks of helping my colleagues make a transition, I was ready to do it too.

Navigating the Challenges of Open-Source

Open Street Maps basemap showing the Ocklawaha River, concept image for embracing QGIS.

Map of the Ocklawaha River, click to view full-size. Base map and map data from OpenStreetMap and OpenStreetMap Foundation (CC-BY-SA). © Map made with QGIS.

Opening up this program, I only knew how to connect a database and add layers to my map frame. I had no idea how to create a layout. In the past, I took screenshots and added title block text to them later. The first hurdle I experienced when embracing QGIS was getting used to this new setup. Then came the bigger climb: not all open-source plugins contain data that is right for the job.

Let's get into that aspect. One of the first things I wanted to do was add a base map. I searched for how to add base maps in QGIS and found directions to use the QuickMapServices (QMS) plugin. When I searched for aerials, the BING map tiles were there, so I added that to my map and continued with adding my layers. I didn't think to even question whether this was free... or consider that QuickMapServices isn't likely affiliated with QGIS. I recorded a few hours of mapping and exported layouts before this question popped into my mind. I've spent hours reading terms of service and use agreements starting this company. I couldn't believe I hadn't considered the issue of copyright when it came to the most basic component of my map.

Finding Data for My Use Case

Not all base maps are free. Google, Bing, and Maxar are all companies that produce base map data that you have to pay for. Each company has its own standards and terms for use. You have to read walls of text to figure out whether your use qualifies.

I ended up going down a rabbit hole of figuring out what wasn't behind a paywall or what data was for commercial use. This ended up exposing me to a ton of new information that I'd like to dedicate an entire deep dive to. Once I found a few open-source companies that made base maps available for commercial use, I was good to go. I replaced the base map, added the appropriate attributions where needed, and re-exported. In light of this, figuring out the interface of the program was a breeze.

Discovering the Richness of QGIS

Embracing QGIS, the information at my disposal surprised me. It was every bit as detailed as what I'd found in competitor's resources. But QGIS has its special touch. It boasts a vast array of plugins and tools, thanks to its active open-source community. This isn't only a toolbox, it's a playground of creativity. Here, you can mix, match, and make things as you please.

Then there's the community. This is where embracing QGIS shines. The forums, user groups, and online resources are plentiful. It's like a think tank. Everyone is ready to pitch in, solve problems, and elevate the GIS experience for all involved.

Embracing QGIS for Career and Project Advancement

Getting to grips with QGIS has opened up a world of opportunity. It's put me in the middle of a huge community that stretches way beyond paywalls. I'm going to have a wider toolkit at my disposal in this field.

Learning open-source software is going to allow me to grow into a position to guide those dipping their toes into GIS. Those who might not have the resources for high-dollar software but who are ready to dive into geospatial sciences. It's an opportunity to nurture a fresh batch of GIS pros. Especially those drawn to the environmental and geographical challenges of Florida. Something I care deeply about. This will be a chance to widen the impact I can make in my profession and my neck of the woods.

Where to next?

Embracing QGIS as a Conservation GIS Professional
Understanding the Transition: How Florida’s Ecosystems Change from Summer to Fall
Modern Development and Its Impact on the Everglades’ Tree Islands
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