The Geospatial Landscape

Last updated on 2023-08-15 | Edit this page



  • What programs and applications are available for working with geospatial data?


  • Describe the difference between various approaches to geospatial computing, and their relative strengths and weaknesses.
  • Name some commonly used GIS applications.
  • Name some commonly used R packages that can access and process spatial data.
  • Describe pros and cons for working with geospatial data using a command-line versus a graphical user interface.

Standalone Software Packages

Most traditional GIS work is carried out in standalone applications that aim to provide end-to-end geospatial solutions. These applications are available under a wide range of licenses and price points. Some of the most common are listed below.

Commercial software

Open-source software

The Open Source Geospatial Foundation (OSGEO) supports several actively managed GIS platforms:

  • QGIS is a professional GIS application that is built on top of and proud to be itself Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). QGIS is written in Python, but has several interfaces written in R including RQGIS.
  • GRASS GIS, commonly referred to as GRASS (Geographic Resources Analysis Support System), is a FOSS-GIS software suite used for geospatial data management and analysis, image processing, graphics and maps production, spatial modeling, and visualization. GRASS GIS is currently used in academic and commercial settings around the world, as well as by many governmental agencies and environmental consulting companies. It is a founding member of the Open Source Geospatial Foundation (OSGeo).
  • GDAL is a multiplatform set of tools for translating between geospatial data formats. It can also handle reprojection and a variety of geoprocessing tasks. GDAL is built in to many applications both FOSS and commercial, including GRASS and QGIS.
  • SAGA-GIS, or System for Automated Geoscientific Analyses, is a FOSS-GIS application developed by a small team of researchers from the Dept. of Physical Geography, Göttingen, and the Dept. of Physical Geography, Hamburg. SAGA has been designed for an easy and effective implementation of spatial algorithms, offers a comprehensive, growing set of geoscientific methods, provides an easily approachable user interface with many visualisation options, and runs under Windows and Linux operating systems.
  • PostGIS is a geospatial extension to the PostGreSQL relational database.

Online + Cloud computing

  • Google has created Google Earth Engine which combines a multi-petabyte catalog of satellite imagery and geospatial datasets with planetary-scale analysis capabilities and makes it available for scientists, researchers, and developers to detect changes, map trends, and quantify differences on the Earth’s surface. Earth Engine API runs in both Python and JavaScript.
  • ArcGIS Online provides access to thousands of maps and base layers.

Private companies have that released SDK platforms for large scale GIS analysis:

  • is Uber’s toolkit for handling large datasets (i.e. Uber’s data archive).

Publically funded open-source platforms for large scale GIS analysis:

  • PanGEO for the Earth Sciences.
  • by FAO Openforis utilizing EOS satellite imagery and cloud resources for global forest monitoring.


The earliest computer systems operated without a graphical user interface (GUI), relying only on the command-line interface (CLI). Since mapping and spatial analysis are strongly visual tasks, GIS applications benefited greatly from the emergence of GUIs and quickly came to rely heavily on them. Most modern GIS applications have very complex GUIs, with all common tools and procedures accessed via buttons and menus.

Benefits of using a GUI include:

  • Tools are all laid out in front of you
  • Complex commands are easy to build
  • Don’t need to learn a coding language
  • Cartography and visualisation is more intuitive and flexible

Downsides of using a GUI include:

  • Low reproducibility - you can’t record your actions and replay
  • Most are not designed for batch-processing files
  • Limited ability to customise functions or write your own
  • Intimidating interface for new users - so many buttons!

In scientific computing, the lack of reproducibility in point-and-click software has come to be viewed as a critical weakness. As such, scripted CLI-style workflows are again becoming popular, which leads us to another approach to doing GIS: via a programming language. This is the approach we will be using throughout this workshop.

GIS in programming languages

A number of powerful geospatial processing libraries exist for general-purpose programming languages like Java and C++. However, the learning curve for these languages is steep and the effort required is excessive for users who only need a subset of their functionality.

Higher-level scripting languages like R and Python are easier to learn and use. Both now have their own packages that wrap up those geospatial processing libraries and make them easy to access and use safely. A key example is the Java Topology Suite (JTS), which is implemented in C++ as GEOS. GEOS is accessible in R via the sf package and in Python via shapely. R and Python also have interface packages for GDAL, and for specific GIS apps.

This last point is a huge advantage for GIS-by-programming; these interface packages give you the ability to access functions unique to particular programs, but have your entire workflow recorded in a central document - a document that can be re-run at will. Below are lists of some of the key spatial packages for R, which we will be using in the remainder of this workshop.

  • sf for working with vector data
  • raster for working with raster data
  • rgdal for an R-friendly GDAL interface

We will also be using the ggplot2 package for spatial data visualisation.

An overview of these and other R spatial packages can be accessed here.

As a programming language, R is a CLI tool. However, using R together with an IDE (Integrated Development Environment) application allows some GUI features to become part of your workflow. IDEs allow the best of both worlds. They provide a place to visually examine data and other software objects, interact with your file system, and draw plots and maps, but your activities are still command-driven - recordable and reproducible. There are several IDEs available for R, but RStudio is by far the most well-developed. We will be using RStudio throughout this workshop.

Traditional GIS apps are also moving back towards providing a scripting environment for users, further blurring the CLI/GUI divide. ESRI have adopted Python into their software, and QGIS is both Python and R-friendly.


  • Many software packages exist for working with geospatial data.
  • Command-line programs allow you to automate and reproduce your work.
  • The RStudio GUI provides a user-friendly interface for working with R.