The shift of mainstream desktop GIS functionality into the cloud environment has been happening at a quickening pace in recent years. With that shift has come an increasing number of affordable (and even free) GIS cloud options, some of which are mobile-ready and integrating geoprocessing capabilities that were previously reserved for pricey desktop programs. Here we’ll take a look at three cloud GIS options of the many available today, each with their own level of sophistication, advantages and cost models.
- GIS Cloud -
One relatively recent player is GIS Cloud, an online GIS platform (now out of the beta phase) that easily allows users to create maps and analyze data through a user-friendly interface. Many of the geoprocessing tools require the use of data through a PostGIS database, but this definitely opens up a lot of useful options. In addition to quickly uploading and displaying your GIS data on interactive maps, advanced functionality includes the ability to:
- Measure areas;
- Undertake layer comparisons;
- Buffer from features using set distances;
- Add and edit features directly from the web interface;
- Integrate mobile data collection easily;
- Perform spatial selection queries;
- Merge layers (limited to certain layer types);
- Geocoding based on an Excel or CSV file.
The site has integrated a number of different usage tiers and niche functions. While this is a less simplistic approach and makes orientation of the site a bit confusing at first, overall I believe this is a strength of the site and sets it apart. These modes/tiers include the following:
- Map Viewer – Free for non-commercial use, $15/user/mo. for commercial use;
- Allows for basic map creation and sharing
- Map Editor – Free for non-commercial use, $55/ user/mo. for commercial use;
- A step further, allowing for authoring, editing and publishing along with other useful tool
- Tracking and Asset Tools – Currently free as beta previews
- Asset Data Collection and Management – collect and manage asset information from the field, integrate workflows
- Roadwork Management and Coordination – utility coordination, detailed forms and reporting
- Fleet Management – real-time fleet tracking, affordable fleet management
- Other free tools
- Data collection through their free GIS Cloud app
- Publisher for ArcMap – easily transfer MXDs into GIS Cloud (free extension)
A summary of the main apps listed above is available here on their site. While I’ve listed some of the more advanced functions above, GIS Cloud is also helpful for the non-GIS user to create and share simple web maps. Easy embed functions that are standard across these web mapping solutions also allow for inclusion on your own sites, with layer controls. I tested out GIS Cloud with some data that lists craft breweries in BC, good information to have! I created a web map that can also be accessed in the web mapping section. Overall, I had good experiences with the free Map Editor instance – aside from one or two odd errors when testing the analysis tools, I would recommend GIS Cloud. They have definitely made some strides from their early development phase and are continuing to build functionality.
- GeoCommons -
I was also very impressed while working with the free GeoCommons interface recently. Developed on the basis of an “open data and tools for all” concept, this site impresses me for the quality of display and analytical tools that can be executed on a free tier. The first thing that jumped out at me was the ease of editing symbology, applying filters and creating charts – all of these tools come in the default view when editing maps. I also like the fact that you can control the style of the pop-up attribute window when users click on features. Similar to other cloud solutions, you can also limit who may view or edit your maps and create various groups with differing permissions.
I’m particularly a fan of the interface with GIS Commons and the options available. You can explore a user’s maps, and choose to MAP, ANALYZE or SHOW the data – with additional options to download a KML, Shapefile or spreadsheet version of the data, just to name a few formats. When the analyze functions are selected, users can choose from the following tools:
- Filter by Distance
- Predict Within a Dataset (Pearsons Correlation)
- Predict Across Datasets (Aggregation and Pearsons Correlation)
These types of tools are normally components of fully-featured desktop GIS program, and in this case they are available for free and immediately accessible in the cloud environment. Users also have the ability to built expressions and create custom analytical tools, which I thought was a great feature to include. Another stand out feature to me with GeoCommons is the integration of charts in the mapping interface and even in the attribute summary tables you see when first accessing a user’s maps.
While the site is free, also note - “There are some usage restrictions on the free GeoCommons site. Users are limited in their number of simultaneous downloads and total downloads per day. This is determined through a series of internal metrics – and you may reach this limit if your office or organization is using GeoCommons.com heavily.” Overall, this site is a great leap forward for open access mapping and data analysis - I’m definitely going to be working more with GeoCommons in the near future. Similar to GIS Cloud, developers can leverage GeoCommons and work with the API to achieve further analysis and advanced options.
- Mango Map -
The last cloud GIS site I wanted to mention today is Mango Map. For the purposes of getting a basic interactive map out there (particularly for non-GIS users), Mango Map achieves what it sets out to do. The menus are simplified greatly, with a basic button to add layers, change title and map description and choose from pre-developed templates to achieve different looks. Finally there is a share button that allows you to grab embed code or share through social media. Similar to the other sites, you can restrict access to the general public – in this case you can quickly set a password up in order to view your map(s).
Technically you can store, analyze and manipulate geographic data with Mango Map so it does qualify as a GIS interface, but barely. If you are looking for options that are more indicative of a full-fledged GIS, Mango Map wouldn’t be my recommended first stop. If you are just looking to enable users with very basic GIS knowledge or to quickly get data shared onto the web in the form of an interactive map, this site would suit those needs.
In summary, it doesn’t take long to discover new cloud-based alternatives to the mainstream desktop GIS products today, and you will be surprised by the functionality that is achievable “out-of-the-box”. Every time I discover a new GIS cloud site, it seems to work even better on mobile devices and there seem to be more possibilities with less barriers or need for customization through an API, for example. Open source data and mapping is gaining a lot of ground, with the cloud GIS environment being no exception. I’m excited to see how it continues to develop.
Happy exploring! … if you have other cloud GIS solutions you swear by, please comment below.