How to choose Mapping / GIS software?

Map Making/ GIS software review and comparison

or more appropriate:

A road map to choosing the right Mapping /GIS Software

In this article we will compare a few industry leading Mapping/ GIS software packages . It offers a brief, pragmatic overview and some advice and criteria on how to choose the right package for your specific requirements. We discuss their use for novices and professionals and list some guide prices.

To approach this topic in style, let’s 'put these packages on a map!’  


Here we go.

Because there are so many different packages and different users, and because we only have limited space, the map to show these packages on has got to be a small scale map, like a road map. The nature of a small scale map is that some features,like main roads, are exaggerated to make them very clear, while other features,like buildings, are displaced to leave room for, let’s say, wider road lines.And finer detail…?Well, that is left out altogether. That is all OK, since it is just a small scale map and serves a specific purpose. This simplification process is called‘ generalisation’.
We  will apply this generalisation principle to ‘map-out’ these software options, knowing we fall short on finer detail.
But first:
Who needs mapping software anyway?
This question is the elephant in the room and is not so  hard to answer. Hobbyists and enthusiasts aside, let us focus on professionals. Most professionals dealing with “Land”  or “Spatial related information”  (buildings, cable & pipes, assets etc) will have to deal with maps, map data and map making.

This is the 21st century. Life without a computer is unthinkable. Artifical Intelligence is about to take over humanity. To still produce maps with a pencil, sticky tape and a photocopier will not reflect well on the producer or organisation. Grant applications, land registration, land management, all of these are nowadays done online, digital or are done with handy apps.
Most map data is digital and to be able to analyse it, and work with it we need flexible software. There is a lot of valuable digital data available, on-line, ready to be used. And so it is that any larger organisation simply must have some mapping capability to be able to integrated, compare, analyse and work with such data.  Apart from larger organisations (who definitely need some serious map capability) we can narrow this broad group of ‘land managers’ down a bit further.
For example: those  wielding a chainsaw or lawn-mower  8 hours per day might perhaps consult a map once in a while but likely have no need to actually make a map. On the other side of the spectrum we find land and asset managers who are in the top of a larger organisation. These managers too, probably seldom have to actually draw a map or interact with a (digital) map. And if they have a need they probably have staff whom they can direct where to draw the line. 
This leaves us with a group of professionals (foresters, ecologists, biologists, land agents etc)  who need mapping software. We can in fact be rather specific.

Who needs mapping software:
Those who have a set of wellies in the boot of the car because they need to be ‘on site’ frequently or periodically.

It is this group of professionals who should be able to knock up a map as easy as they fire up MS Excel or MS Word. It is this group who are ‘in the know’ of ‘what is where’.  If these managers are not able to work with mapping software they are rather disadvantaged. And so it is that mapping software MUST be learned to add it to the tool set of this day and age.


There is quite a range of mapping software on the market to choose from, some are free, some are affordable and some are very expensive.  

Where to start?                

Prospective and novice map makers often start with a statement  like: “I only need to draw a few lines on a map and print them, that is all, no bells and whistles. For me that would be too complex, I don’t need anything fancy anyway”
Fair enough. It is a simple mission statement, like to fly from A to B in a simple, elegant and efficient fashion. Like so:

But guaranteed: no sooner have we mastered the first take off and are airborne, then…
the Farm manager, also using the software says, “yeah, great, I can do this!” Now I also want to spray my crops...

After those skills are mastered (it is do-able) the Forester has some additional specific needs:

The Marine Biologist or Ecologist having learned these easy basics, now want to approach this map just a tad differently:

After the first maps are made, the Land Agents, the self-employed and those multi-tasking will soon want some serious oomph:

whilst those working in larger organisations really need something big to handle large data sets:

...Golly! now it has become a three man job to fly or land the jolly thing...! 

The functionality of these aircraft is often reflected in the increasing number of controls in the cockpit:

Translating this back to software interfaces it can range from something as simple as this: something more complex like this:

As said: this is usually how it goes: "I only want something simple...”, and as soon as it is mastered, more is required... 

Naturally each of these aircraft have their strengths and weaknesses and each comes with a different price tag. So how do we narrow down what we really need and want? 


First a few words on typical industry jargon. The buzzword being: GIS.
GIS stands for: Geographic Information System.
This type of software allows the user to work with map data. By design, its core is to work with existing data, but naturally the user can draw a brand new map in it as well.

To simplify the matter at this stage I will talk about “mapping/GIS”  packages because there is more on the market than only such big GIS packages.  

Zooming in, let’s squeeze all mapping/GIS packages unreverentially into only two groups: 

a.    One-trick ponies
b.    Multi functional packages 

One-trick Ponies can be very efficient, slick and easy to use – but offer little flexibility.
Industry standard packages offer immense flexibility but there is far more to learn.

a.  One-trick ponies & horses for courses – considerations:

Import / Export
In the early days of working with digital map data (and computing in general) the software packages often tied the user into their brand and way of working. This is, in general no longer the case. There are industry standard file formats and any good package will be able to import and export data making use of these standard file formats. To create maps and map data/layers is a time consuming activity and if a particular software package does not allow you to import and export your data to these industry standards (ArcGIS at the least) I’d be reluctant to use it however tempting it may seem. 

Although most packages will allow exporting your data to be used in another package, a new phenomenon is emerging. Some packages are web-based. The user can no longer physically download and install the software on their PC and in some cases the data which you draw lives somewhere in ‘the cloud’ on remote servers. And that means you are tied into their regime. Furthermore, anything digital can be hacked, no matter how big the firm is and no matter how well the security measures are advertised (think of incidents where even government data was leaked etc.). The bulk of produced map layers may perhaps not contain super sensitive data, but think of the time it took to create  them, and then you don’t mind being dependent on an external supplier to access your data...? 

The cost of using such online/on demand software seems small and can, for example be charged per print, reducing the cost to a bare minimum... or so it seems. However, you will soon find out that in fact when it comes to map making you need a lot of prints. Not only to make a high quality map but also in daily use. And then the costs of using these seemingly cheap packages and services mount, little by little, bit by bit.

Quality of output
The map is often your ‘visual end-output’ of a costly and/or time-consuming project (like a field survey which took days and thus costed a fair bit). Or it may lead to a costly and time consuming new project: sale of land, grant applications, planning permissions etc. In other words, the map is a key component in the presentation of your information. If you fail to present it well your project may miss its aim. 

The creators of these on-line packages are often keen to promote their services and so their names and logos may show up clearly on your work.

Furthermore, drawing a digital map is more than just some basic colours or pattern fills. You are communicating valuable information on your map and so you need control over its appearance. ‘One-trick pony’ software often offers easy access to a few default and standard lines and colours – but that’s it: often there is little creative/personal control.
Bear this in mind when producing map output for your valuable and specific project. 

Ease of Use
These ‘One-trick pony’ packages can be (or should be!) very efficient and most user-friendly. That is to be expected because they only do a few things so there is little to do and learn. I am repeating myself but: as soon as you are over the initial hurdle of the complexities of map making and you know how to draw a few lines with these basic colours and tools, I repeat once more, NO SOONER have you learned that and you will ask, “can it also do this…?”, or, “I want it to look like that…”. And then the answer is, “no, it can’t be done because this is a basic package”. And then you start looking for other software and waste more time and money to find something that does work for you.
In other words, do't start with something easy which soon will prove to be insufficient for your needs.

Dedicated packages
Then there are mapping tools which are developed by service providers who operate in a specific ‘non-map-making’ industry sector and realise that offering mapping capabilities enhances their core product. Think of forestry management software, terrier software, property maintenance software etc. Such mapping tools are often, again, easy to use as they are an efficient match for their core activities. To be able to program a smart administrative/management database package is one thing, to develop a proper mapping/GIS package is of course a totally different ballgame. So, mapping software like this might be efficient and practical, however, these too are, in a way, a ‘one-trick-pony’ and are no match for software which is specifically developed for map making/GIS use. 

b.  Multi functional packages

On the other end of the spectrum are the big serious mapping/GIS software packages. There are quite a few about, and we will only touch upon the most well-known: 

ArcGIS, AutoCAD etc. (all named software: see links below)
The undisputed market leader in GIS software packages is ArcGIS. In hot pursuit we find rival packages like MapInfo, Bentley, AutoCAD etc. In days long gone the first two were like Coca-Cola and Pepsi, they had conquered and divided the world between them. Big, formal organisations are making use of packages like these.

Let’s put these big packages on our generalised road map:
These packages rule the world because they are good, are well known and are a standard.

If (for example,)you ever need to dig open a road to replace a cable and want to coordinate this with all other utility services, have all their data on your mobile and have it projected in your Google Virtual Augmented glasses so you can see in 3D where the cables are whilst looking at that road,
then these are the tools which offer the integrated app and functionality to do all that.

Mind-boggling and spectacular. But like the aforementioned sugar soft drinks, though they may rule the world, it does not mean they are all that healthy for you too, bear that in mind when choosing a package! 

Packages like this come with a hefty price tag. 4 digit numbers for a single PC licence followed by annual licence fees. An office license will have a price tag of 5 digits + annual licence fees, and then it is not uncommon you need an extra module to do this and another to do that...

Because they serve the entire world with all its GIS needs, the learning curve to master these excellent tools are quite steep indeed. Usually a formal course must be followed to get the software going. Or to put it back into the airplane analogy and as mentioned: when working with big software like this "one would almost need 3 persons to land the jolly plane".

This type of software is  for people / organisations who are happy to spend money and have the time to learn them. And given the complexity of such packages, it warrants a full time GIS officer (or team). And that in turn could soon lead to a bottleneck in the organisation. Working in land management, it is of the essence that the data we work with is up-to-date and can be distributed or processed quickly. We all know from experience that as soon as there is 'another department;' involved in helping us, things start taking more time.
Not only that, but drawing maps, knowing where to draw a boundary, to what scale and with what accuracy, is not something an office based software technician is well placed to do (nor solicitors for that matter), this is the realm of skilled cartographers or those managers who actually manage the landscape and produce this type of data. (I'll come back to this conundrum later).

ArcGIS interface: (look at the impressive row of tool icons in the top row)

The times they are a changing...
Be aware that the quality of the software can not be gauged by the retail price or fancy websites. There are very good packages around with a very affordable price tag (or no price tag at all!).
Even amongst the big formal corporate users things are changing.

For example, the Norwegian National Mapping Agency which serves up their maps through web-portals to a range of other organisations and users, have opted for ‘Open-Source’ software to provide these services.‘
Open-Source’ software is, of course, free.
It is programmed by a collective of enthusiasts, professionals and/or hobbyists.
Many of us know about ‘free’ software; which we can download from obscure web pages covered in advertisements so that we first download and install 3 packages we don’t really want. Then end up with a polluted computer and after many test, trials and tribulations eventually discover the free software which we thought would do the trick does not quite deliver as expected. And yet, here we are, Open-Source, free software, in use in a very formal and secure, national institute. 


‘Quantum GIS’ saw the light of day as recently as 2002 and became Open-Source in 2009. Initially it was basic and not all that impressive. However, more than 10 years have passed and the GIS community has pushed it to spectacular heights. It now is even becoming a serious rival to the likes of ArcGIS!
QGIS is a totally free and excellent package with functionality to make your head spin.
And that shows in the interface, the icons and menu settings one needs to learn how to apply all this wonderful functionality. This is an excellent package particularly for those who enjoy nuts and bolts and appreciate a challenge. 

Others well worth mentioning
Then there are packages which have found their way in to the mapping/GIS world through the graphic design sector. Graphic designers and artists can draw. And therefore they can make beautiful looking maps too (but not necessarily accurate maps!) The world leading graphic design package often used by such designers is Adobe Illustrator. There is however more involved in a good map than just stunning graphics. And so an ‘add on’ package was developed by another company (Avenza) which now serves the GIS world in an impressive way: MAPublisher.
It is based on and requires Adobe Illustrator, and that runs on a monthly license, two packages in one, a lot of functionality, a lot to learn. 

Global Mapper is particularly strong in using Lidar Data. It is a very good and impressive package to work with 3D data. A Global Mapper license is currently $599. A Global Mapper Pro license is $1349. (Feb 2022)

Global Mapper interface:

And so the list of good packages can go on and on.


Drawing their basic functionality on our generalised road map – scale 1:250,000, we can note, to some extent and generally speaking that:

1.  Nowadays all of these packages do more or less the same tasks. The core difference is that by their initial design some do specific things more elegantly than others or are better suite for specific tasks.
2.  Furthermore, an important thing to realise is this: GIS packages (as the name suggests) are often designed to manage, analyse and work with existing data. To actually draw and make new maps is something different.

Another important aspect to bear in mind when choosing mapping / GIS software is this: the interface.
The interface is how the software ‘talks’ to us,  how we can interact with it. Traditionally this is done through buttons with icons offering speedy access to specific tasks. Icons are good and efficient. Some Icons even have become internationally recognisable, like these: 

 But with digital mapping we need a bit more than these three and then ‘handy icons’ might not be so easy to remember, especially when we are not using the software daily:

Example typical GIS icons and menus .



Then there is…

Map Maker 5
It was developed in the mid-90’s for a particular target group: those working in international development. It was recognised that good maps are often a foundation brick for proper sustainable development and that, at that time, digital tools were not available for those working out in the field. The software had to be super user-friendly - after all, not everyone is a GIS expert. It had to be affordable and practical and had to have most mapping and GIS functionality a professional out in the field might need. You may find it hard to believe, but as a professional map maker working across the board, serving many very diverse clients, making simple maps as well as working with complex and huge data sets: in the last 23 years Map Maker has not let me down once! It spans it all, taking you with ease and in a most user-friendly way from A to B:

A single licence  is £225. An office license is £895 (both are a one off payment, no annual fees).

Map Maker Pro Version 3.5 became very popular worldwide because of its impressive set of tools. It has always operated on the cutting edge of what technically was possible.
And, speaking about ‘cutting edge’, the seemingly simple ‘cutter’ tool was such an example. It was in MM right from the beginning (mid-90’s), ArcGIS only introduced a similar tool in about 2012! That is an impressive head start.
The interface (more on that below) has always been most user-friendly whilst its applications have been formidable.

For example:

Many different users found their way to Map Maker: Land owners and agents; farmers; foresters; doctors; ecologists; marine-biologists; government officials and various hobbyists.
- Map Maker 5 has been implemented as a very efficient mapping / GIS tool at many estates, land management firms and organisations.
In the early years, about 1800 farmers in Central America used a free Spanish version of Map Maker.
-       In 2016 I was told that 95% of all government organisations in Ghana who used GIS tools were using the Map Maker software. That is impressive. Don’t dismiss this, thinking Ghana is just a developing country, it is not. They have online map based, planning application web-portals etc.

It is impressive that Map Maker can serve this many different users. That was version 3.5. We are now looking at version 5!
Again, cutting edge.
For example; I have not yet seen the super-efficient ‘brush tool’ functionality in any other GIS package yet. In terms of user-friendliness it has left ArcGIS and QGIS far behind.  

As a professional, I need good and efficient tools and therefore I (and most of my clients) use Map Maker. I have found that working with small or super-large datasets or complex GIS work, Map Maker 5 is equal to, if not outperforming, other packages. Map Maker has remained true to its initial concepts: it is easy to use for anyone and yet it covers all the tools we need today to draw, analyse and manage maps, both for the occasional map maker, the full time map maker, as well as larger organisations. 

Map Maker 5 updates & maintenance
Once installed the software runs for 30 days with its full functionality. After that it reduces the functionality to a pragmatic set of core tools, which is often enough for the occasional mapper!
The software is continuously being improved, expanded and enhanced. Users who want the most up-to-date version of the software, should periodically download and install the latest update free of charge. There are no set times for such releases, they appear as they are completed.

Map Maker 5 and SHP files
Because ArcView ‘rules the world’, Map Maker 5 works seamlessly with SHP files. One can read and write to this file format without the need to go through an import or export routine.  

Map Maker 5 Interface
Because the target users of Map Maker are professionals who need to work with maps but who are not necessarily trained full time GIS experts, the developers have chosen a different route when it comes to the interface.
All functionality is 'spelled out', avoiding icons. This software uses ‘tabs’ and ‘headers’. These tabs hide all options which at that stage in the interface are not relevant. And so we are not overwhelmed with choices and options we do not need (at a particular stage).
The user can dive deeper and deeper into the options an possibilities, or, alternatively the user can stop at a level of use he or she feels comfortable with. Thus the interface is almost 'understated', yet below the bonnet we can find functionality the other map making or GIS software packages also offer.

And further to that, in most cases below those headers is a text panel explaining the function of that active tool/tab.


This concludes brief round-up of Mapping/GIS tools. We hope this generalised overview and the pointers given has been helpful to consider which software might be useful to you in yours specific circumstances. 

OK, it is quite a thumbs up for Map Maker 5. But consider this: I am an independent map maker and as soon as there is a package on the market which is better and more efficient (I need to make a living with it) I will consider changing my preferred tool. For many years Map Maker has been the best choice for me and many of my clients, I can recommend it, for both individual users as well as larger organisations.

Hanno Koch

Cartographer by Royal Appointment.

Latitude Cartography

About the author:
Hanno Koch founded ‘Latitude Cartography’ in 1999 and produces topographic base-maps, management plans, GIS set ups and offers training for e.g. Ecologists, Farmers, Foresters, Hobbyists, Land Agents, Land Owners, Marine Biologists, NGO workers and organisations. 
Before moving to the United Kingdom, Hanno worked in the Dutch Armed Forces as a qualified land surveyor. Early in his career he found his way into cartography using traditional reprographic techniques. He worked for 11 years for the former mapping division of the Royal Dutch Airlines (KLM), started the first digital cartography department and was eventually made responsible for all of the division's international mapping projects.

In January 2008, Latitude Cartography was granted the Royal Warrant of Appointment to Her Majesty The Queen in recognition of services and products rendered to the Sandringham Estate.