Comparison of GIS and Remote Sensing Software - GIS Software Tutorial -
Comparison of GIS and Remote Sensing Software

In many countries – though not all – biodiversity conservation activities are financed or subsidized by multi-lateral or bilateral institutions, and nowadays most of them require some form of monitoring.  However, data-collecting is not monitoring until is has been done consistently over a period of a minimum of ten years.  Among donor based financing plans, only very few programmes are being designed to meet the continuity requirements of real monitoring and even less so, to allow for serious linking of data collection to change-cause relationships.  As a result, the monitoring components in many sustainable development and environmental projects end up being compulsory components that lack continuity and integration capacity into a larger context.

Major  problems in setting up monitoring systems are cost and a continued knowledge basis past the life of the original programming. While Geographic Information Systems are commonly advocated as comprehensive tools for processing and interpreting valuable field data, in practice they have become just the opposite, because they are too expensive and too demanding on equipment and they put several limitations on the number of people capable of using the tools.  The world’s leading software developers have become remarkably successful at making the users believe that only their software is suitable for performing GIS operations adequately, and they get away with pricing their products to levels that in practical terms exclude developing countries from any serious access to their products.  

Even in wealthy countries the people with access to GIS are limited in numbers, because of the limited access to those costly products.

In GIS applications, there are two major groups: vector based programs and of raster based programmes. Several renown packages specialize in either the one or the other.  For environmental work, both vector and raster programs are required.  With some software packages costing as much $8500, an operational GIS laboratory, using a specialized vector programme and a specialized raster programme, a big screen, a 36 inch plotter usually costs about $30,000.  While the costs and some of the products listed on this page have changed over the years, the basic premises and conclusions remain completely valid.

If you are new in GIS, this pages gives a very nice overview of good options and considerations for choosing your GIS software. If you are an experienced GIS user, this page gives you some very serious arguments to reconsider your choice of software as well as some highly specialized open-source programmes that may be just the right tool for you. Are there more GIS programmes available? Absolutely. This was merely our selection of choices, and if you want to consider other options, there are many more programmes to choose from. This overview however, gives you the market leaders for natural resources management as well as the most commonly used open source, broadly-supported integrated raster + vector programmes. 



Because of such extremely high costs, countries try to bundle GIS applications in a very limited number of GIS units within a few central offices of national ministries.  As a result, only very few people have access to those systems and GIS has become a highly centralized tool. Invariably, the number of scientists with access to those programs is very limited.  One often sees that the specialists on GIS by their training and experience are rather system managers than in-depth technicians and scientist who use GIS for what it is, just another computer tool, like a word processor.  This often leads to situations where GIS operators determine what scientific studies can do and how, while the in-depth technicians and scientists become marginalized from their own scientific fields. 

On top of that, the need to learn 2 different programmes make learning and working with GIS even more difficult and scary for people, whose profession is oriented at understanding how nature works and not how computers work. 

WICE has developed biodiversity and protected areas monitoring methods, which inevitably need the application of GIS. With the extremely high costs of the GIS applications, it is really almost impossible for protected areas administrations to carry out such activities.  WICE is mordicus against keeping the prices of GIS applications at such excessive levels and therefore, it has looked for alternatives and found several.

Some local distributors of high-cost packages may sell "special licenses" at lower prices or even donate them.  Really nice of them, one would think, but that does not solve the problem of centralization of information, as Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) and individual scientists are deprived of the use of data produced by the government produced in that software, which then still continuous the cycle of centralization of information.

Therefore WICE highly recommends International Development cooperation financing institutions to only finance GIS work in affordable software applications so that the results may be shared by individual users and NGOs.


WICE has particularly been impressed with ILWIS 3.4 because of its incredible user-friendliness.

The Netherlands based ITC (Institute for Aerospace Survey and Earth Sciences, an autonomous Dutch Government training institution with International University status) has been remarkably successful at developing a solution to this dilemma. It developed the Integrated Land and Water Information System (ILWIS). It combines raster (image analysis), vector and thematic data operations in one comprehensive software programme on the desktop. ILWIS delivers a wide range of possibilities including import/export (e.g. it can open and export [*.shp] shape-files very easily), extremely user-friendly digitizing, editing, analysis and display of data as well as production of quality maps. It even allows you to analyze stereo photographs from your monitor with a stereoscope mounted on your screen.

The integration of both vector and raster in one programme is a major advantage over specialized systems.  The programme runs on regular Windows 95 PCs and higher, it is remarkably user friendly and handles very powerful problems, including mathematical watershed models.  

Moreover, this open-source GIS is completely free!

You can download the software for free as well as lots of training material in English and Spanish: Go to: 


TerraLook is a fully operational viewer of satellite images in "jpg" format.. Images in "jpg" format and "TerraLook Viewer" can be downloaded from This material is also great for high schools and all students making their first exploring steps into the fascinating world of maps and satellite images. We feel that every field biologist and protected areas manager should have the "TerraLook Viewer" on his/her computer, along of course with the free open source user-friendly raster and vector GIS software "ILWIS", which is available from the Nature Worldwide Website 



Like ILWIS, GRASS is an open source (free) raster AND vector programme and it is available for a variety of operating systems like MSWindows, Linux, Mac. etc. Nevertheless, it is much less userfriendly. It appears to be primarily maintained by an Italian group of developers.  



PCRaster is a Geographical Information System which consists of a set of computer tools for storing, manipulating, analyzing and retrieving geographic information. It is a raster-based system that uses a strict data type checking mechanism. 

PCRaster has a relatively open database. The architecture of the system permits the integration of environmental modeling functions with classical GIS functions such as database maintenance, screen display and hard copy output. The modules for Cartographic and Dynamic Modeling are integrated with the GIS at a high level, which means that the GIS functions and modeling functions are incorporated in a single GIS and modeling language for performing both GIS and modeling operations.

Currently most spatio-temporal models only use the GIS for data preparation, user interface handling and the graphical display of the results. The model itself, often programmed in C or Fortran, is mostly executed outside the GIS. This approach has some disadvantages. For development of a such an environmental model, expertise is needed in the fields of low level programming (C, Pascal), quantitative modeling of natural phenomena and GIS. As a result a model is often built and maintained by a whole group of specialists: environmental researchers, GIS experts and specialized programmers. This working scheme has the burden of difficult communication between these specialists, besides the large financial investments that must be made when working in such a group. This communication problem is also reflected in the resulting model: the model concepts (structure) are mostly totally hidden for environmental researchers by the low level computer language code. In addition, as the model is developed separated from the GIS, data exchange is needed when somebody wants to run the model with data stored in a GIS.

The PCRaster approach is different. The dynamic model is built with a Dynamic Modeling language that runs inside an easy to use GIS. The Dynamic Modeling language is especially meant for building environmental models. Unlike low level computer languages it can be used by a researcher even if (s)he has no expertise in programming. The researcher can build the model him- or herself without loosing understanding in the model components and structure.

The Dynamic Modeling language is an extension of the ideas behind Map Algebra and the Cartographic Modeling Language proposed by Berry and Tomlin. It follows the same approach as Map Analysis Package (MAP) in the sense that it provides a set of generic operators, which can be used as primitives for the models. The main extension to MAP-type programs is that the Dynamic Modeling language provides time operators for retrieving and storing dynamic data in iterative models. These iterative models are built in a structured Dynamic Modeling script.

The learning path of the Dynamic Modeling language is rather short because the same operators that are used for static operations (queries from the command line) are also applied in a dynamic spatio-temporal model. So, somebody who grasps the principles of the map algebra operators is able to build a dynamic model in a relatively short time, using the same map algebra operators as building blocks of the model.

It would be presumptuous to state that any spatio-temporal can be built with the Dynamic Modeling language in PCRaster, but it is clear that the Dynamic Modeling language is powerful in a wide range of environmental studies. It is applied for building hydrological models, erosion models, crop growth models, soil gas diffusion models, cellular automata models, solar radiation models and 3D geomorphogenetical models at geological time scales for both denudative and sedimentary zones.   

The programme is a truly scientific instrument.  The developers did not pay much attention to the looks of the programme. However, unlike many other fancy looking GIS programmes, it is gratis after you have registered on-line for free.

PCRaster and its manual are available at: 

The module for geostatistical modeling (Gstat module) is integrated at a medium level with the GIS part of the PCRaster package. Both use a separate set of functions for manipulating the data; the map format of the central database is used and files can be automatically exchanged between the Gstat module and the PCRaster GIS part. Exchange of ascii files with any other modeling or GIS package can be done using PCRaster conversion operations.

Gstat is a FREE computer program for geostatistical modeling, prediction and simulation. Gstat works at least on the following platforms: Linux, hp-ux (9.x, 10.x), aix (3.2, 4.1), OSF/Alpha, SunOS, SGI, win32 and MS-DOS (dpmi). Gstat is Open Source software, distributed under the terms of the GNU General Public Licence (meaning it's freely available in binary and source code form). 



Gstat is a specialized open source (GPL) computer code for multivariable geostatistical modeling, prediction and simulation, and has been around from 1997. So this is not generic GIS tool for the "normal" GIS user. But it is free, and it may be just the tool you are looking for, for your specialized needs. If so, visit: 

In the original form, gstat is a stand-alone executable, interfaced to various GIS. As of 2003, the gstat functionaly is also available as an S extension, either as R package or S-Plus library. Gstat can calculate sample variograms, fit valid models, show variograms, calculate (pseudo) cross variograms, fit valid linear models of coregionalization (S extension only), and calculate and fit directional variograms and variogram models (anisotropy coefficients are not fitted automatically).

Kriging and (sequential) conditional simulation are done under (simplifications of) the universal cokriging model. Any number of variables may be spatially cross-correlated. Each variable may have its own number of trend functions specified (being coordinates, or so-called external drift variables). Simplifications of this model include ordinary and simple kriging, ordinary or simple cokriging, universal kriging, external drift kriging, Gaussian conditional or unconditional simulation or cosimulation. In addition, variables may share trend coefficients (e.g. for collocated cokriging).

Gstat was designed to do calculations, not graphics. Other programs or environments are better for this. For many years, gstat (stand-alone) used gnuplot for the display of sample variograms and variogram functions. Gnuplot is a program for plotting functions and data, ported to most computer platforms, and allows saving graphs in many formats (EPS, PNG, gif, cgm, LaTeX, fig, etc.).

With the gstat S extension, the full suite of graphics capabilities of S becomes available, and the following is currently used by gstat:

image processing software comparison - conditioning plot to show multivariable variograms
image processing software comparison - conditioning plot to show directional variograms
image processing software comparison - identifying point pairs on a variogram cloud, combined with a visualisation of the point pair in a map view
image processing software comparison - selecting a set of points by digitizing an area, combined with a visualisation of the point pair in a map view



Flowmap 6 is a software package dedicated to analyzing and displaying interaction or flow data. This type of data is special in the sense that there are two different geographic locations connected to each data item: An origin location where the flow starts and an destination location where the flow ends. The flow data itself can be people (e.g. commuters, shoppers, hospital visitors), goods, usage of agricultural services or telecommunication and so on. A free version and a commercial version are available at  It is the same software but it gets more functionality after you have entered the code, which you will receive after paying $250. by credit card. 


Map Maker Gratis is an interesting introduction to the world of GIS. Unlike other free viewers, Gratis is a fully functional map production program with GIS functions such as thematic mapping and data interrogation. The program can be used both with vector and raster data and produces high quality, accurately scaled print outs. There is a basic free version, Mapmaker Gratis, and a commercial version. The software runs on Windows only.

Map Maker Pro is for people who want to make maps. Creating a basic map in Map Maker Pro is simple. If your needs are more complex and demanding do not let this simplicity put you off. Behind the simple, clean interface there is a wealth of powerful features.

Map Maker Pro 3.5 is a full GIS which includes 3D functionality as well as rubber sheet tools for ortho-rectification. A flood-fill polygon tool converts raster to vector data in a one click operation. The low price reflects the developer's commitment to affordable GIS - not the capability of the product. The full program can be downloaded for a 30 day evaluation free of charge. Files are convertible to most big-brand formats.  What is nice about Map Maker Pro is that you can download it, use and test it for a month, after it will downgrade itself into Map Maker Gratis.  If it suits your needs, the pricing is really attractive for a commercial product:
Single user license £225 + VAT
Student single user license $80 (order must be accompanied by letter of accreditation from the student's head of department.)
Educational or registered charity site license $725 (up to 40 seats at one physical site)

Site license $1300 (up to 20 seats at one physical site)

Map Maker Ltd, The Pier, Carradale, Kintyre, Argyll, PA28 6SQ, United Kingdom
Tel: [44] (0) 1583 431 358 Fax: [44] (0) 1583 431 728 


Idrisi32 is another widely distributed raster GIS and Image Processing system. IDRISI Andes is an integrated GIS and Image Processing software solution providing over 250 modules for the analysis and display of digital spatial information. IDRISI offers the most extensive set of GIS and Image Processing tools in the industry in a single, medium-range-cost package. Tools for land planning, decision support, and risk analysis are included side-by-side with tools for spatial statistics, surface analysis, and spatial modeling. With IDRISI, all analytical features come standard—there is no need to buy costly add-ons to extend your research capabilities.

IDRISI is primarily raster-based, but vectors can be used to get data from other sources into IDRISI. Further they serve as overlays for better visual orientation. So it is a good affordable system, but satisfies only half the needs of a fully functional GIS lab.

A Commercial/Private Single User License costs  $1,250.00. Student and multiple-user licenses are available. 


We found this GIS on the internet and do not know of any users.  From what it describes it seems to have been developed for Linking Spatial Data with Population Viability Analysis. For details see: 

The PVA program RAMAS GIS is designed to link GIS-generated landscape data with a detailed metapopulation model for extinction risk assessment, viability analysis, reserve design and wildlife management. 

The program operates in four steps. First, landscape data is analyzed and the patch structure is exported to a metapopulation model. Second, temporal changes in habitat characteristics are modeled. Third, a metapopulation model is built by combining spatial and demographic information. Fourth, simulations are run to estimate risks of extinction or decline, and to predict the abundance and distribution of individuals in the metapopulation. Below the essential aspects of these four model components are summarized. 

Academical: $ 995 NGO/Government: $1,595 Regular: $2,395. Class room licenses are available.  Additionally models need to be purchased for full functionality. Price details at: 




ESRI has successfully set the word's de-facto standard in vector GIS map format, the shapefile [*.shp].

ESRI offers a wide range of GIS software in the "ArcGIS family" with a high emphasis on vector applications.  There are many products, and finding out what you need is very confusing. If we understand it well, the full-fledged commercial license is $18,495. This license probably still may require additional extensions for various specialized applications.

The commercial viewer ARCGIS sells at $1500; an upgrade between 1/3 and 1/2 of the price.  Each extension sells as added costs, which may run as high as $2500, and which also need to be upgraded periodically.

Every few years upgrades are required, which not only are extremely costly, but each time they require that you have to spend considerable time at learning how the new version works.  Often, expensive additional commercial training is required if you want to get the fullest out of your new version. For details see: 



This information is somewhat outdated, because the Erdas website is extremely user-unfriendly with smooth propaganda and non-transparent information. From our previous review we wrote:

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Supervised, unsupervised and hybrid land cover classification techniques to make production of land use maps easy

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Advanced tools for evaluating the quality and input training data and the resulting thematic maps, essential for ensuring and assessing classification accuracy

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IMAGINE Expert Classifier - this tool does the thinking for you by allowing you to build and execute geographic expert systems for image classification, post classification refinement, and advanced GIS modeling

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Model Maker- a unique, object-based interface for integrated raster and vector spatial analysis, as well as the design of new image processing techniques

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State-of-the-art tools for pre-processing and analyzing radar data

Key Capabilities

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IMAGINE Essentials tools

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All IMAGINE Advantage tools

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Advanced classification

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Model Maker graphical spatial analysis

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Advanced radar image analysis

No pricing is listed on the website, but in the past, a commercial licence would sell at about $8500, with some discount for non-profit organisations and Government institutions.  Version 8.4 has a vector module built-in. There was no info on this for the current Version 9.6. 

Sales prices outside of North America may be higher, although sometimes local distributors may sell at a considerably lower price for special clients. In general, we don't trust corporations that don't provide transparency on their sales prices, either by having you jump through endless loops at their websites, or by not providing the prices on line at all.

For details see: 


Natural Resources Database (NRDB)

The NRDB is a GIS tool for developing and distribution environmental databases.  Its aim is to provide people in developing countries with a powerful yet simple tool to assist in the managing of their own resources.  The NRDB consists of three products, a freeware standard version, a professional version (free for environmental/sustainable development projects in developing countries)  and an open source version.  The software should run on most Windows-based computers and requires only standard desktop peripherals such as a scanner and a printer.  NRDB View is a tool for displaying and editing of spatial data stored in shapefiles.  This means that the source code is distributed with the application, so that end-users can make their own updates to the software.  It is hoped that users will contribute to improvements in the software.  NRDB View contains the same code for displaying and editing spatial data as NRDB Pro.  It does not have a database component.  NRDB Pro is not a commercial product. It is available only for sustainable development / environmental projects (NGOs, government, academe etc.) in developing countries. See .

Extensive overview of free programmes

Some of these packages are extremely expensive and as you should have understood from this page by now, for the far majority of natural resources management applications, there are plenty of much lower costs and free alternative programmes. 

A very extensive overviews are given at:

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image processing software comparison - 

 We recommend you check them out, but the qualifications are not based on external review, and are rather limited to brief characterizations from the providers.