The Geospatial Landscape


Teaching: 10 min
Exercises: 0 min
  • 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:

Online + Cloud computing

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

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


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:

Downsides of using a GUI include:

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.

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.

Key Points

  • 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.