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Desktop GIS: Mapping the Planet with Open Source Tools

Gary Sherman
Published by Pragmatic Bookshelf
ISBN: 978-1-934356-06-7
368 pages
£ 21.99
Published: 28th October 2008
reviewed by Gavin Inglis
   in the December 2008 issue (pdf), (html)

Maps fascinate people, and their digital versions are becoming ubiquitous. Whether through a portable GPS unit, mobile phone, web browser or vehicle navigation system, we now expect new maps wherever and whenever we need them. And why not? With Google Earth, we have the ability to fly from space to a photographic rendering of anywhere in the world, and just possibly, see our car parked there on the street.

A richer, but less accessible world is that of the desktop geographic information system (GIS). This book leads beginners through the GIS landscape and the open source tools available for its exploration.

From the first page we are introduced to Harrison, a keen hillwalker who wants to make something of his geotagged bird sightings. Harrison provides a route through GIS concepts, as he investigates his theory that each sighting is within a certain distance of a lake. This is an excellent approach which makes it clear why you would choose a desktop application rather than a web site — and why you might not.

Thus begins an engaging book which feels rather odd. This is down to its breadth: one chapter describing the point-and-click operation of a GIS application will be followed by a dirty discussion of spatial databases, then a slice of theory about projections and coordinate systems.

An inexperienced mapper may feel adrift early on, with only a vague understanding of what constitutes spatial data. However there is fun to be had in mapping the world and its cities using the downloaded data which accompanies the book. Chapter six does briefly fill in the missing pieces and adds some worthwhile thoughts on organising and managing geodata. The section on how to digitise your own maps is practical and useful.

There is a clear emphasis throughout that different levels of user have different mapping needs (amusingly, their initials spell CIA) and it is also established that rarely will one application meet all your needs. Throughout there is a clear Linux focus, this being a book specifically on open source; but neither MacOS X nor Windows users are excluded from the bulk of the examples.

The first GIS used is uDig. This seems clunky but the text soon moves on to the more polished Quantum GIS. Only later does it scale to the mighty heights of GRASS, with a lengthy appendix devoted to the system. There is some general discussion of how to keep software up to date and obtain support through mailing lists; this is reasonable but generic stuff.

As with most books of this type, there is an American bias to the geodata. Blame freely available government data in the USA versus the Ordnance Survey's licensing terms; however, it's surprising to find no mention of the gutsy OpenStreetMap project in a book about open source and geodata.

is an enjoyable stroll for the newcomer to GIS, with many colour illustrations throughout.

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