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Deciding to Use Advanced GIS Software

This section describes choices for advanced GIS software

For most land trusts, basic desktop GIS (e.g., ArcView) is satisfactory for most tasks. But if you need to do more there are several choices available.

Expand Your Use of Desktop GIS

For many GIS users, the tools they need for advanced GIS operations may be just a few clicks away.  Special scripts and extensions that come with many GIS software packages, or that may be available from other users are often free and very effective. Some shareware extensions are also available that can boost what GIS can do, or that may help you do it more easily.  Here are some resources:

  • Check the Help system in your GIS carefully and use any online Knowledgebase or User Bulletin Boards (BBS) that might be available
  • For ESRI software, check the downloads and user forums section of their web site - there are terrific resources here. 
  • The GeoComm web site has a wide range of listings for shareware GIS extensions, particularly the well-known XTOOLS extension

Move to Full Strength GIS

ArcInfo:  The flagship program for most advanced GIS users is ESRI's ArcInfo. Part of the ArcGIS product set, ArcInfo is a much more robust version of the simpler ArcView - it allows for very sophisticated analysis, more capable data management and advanced cartography. Users should be highly skilled in GIS (several years full-time using it) to make best use of this software. ArcInfo is quite expensive and ESRI's Conservation Program does not always grant it to groups who request it. It's best to not start with ArcInfo and if you decide you need it, you can request a free trial version for 90 days, available from ESRI.

ArcGIS Extensions:   An alternative to  ArcInfo is to add ESRI's Spatial Analyst extension to your ArcView Desktop software. This module adds to what ArcView can do, allowing viewshed and watershed analysis, modeling, best path calculations and much more. It can be requested through ESRI's Conservation Program but requires clear reasoning.  Another ESRI extension that can be useful is the 3D Analyst, which allows the creation of 3D views of data and landscapes. While useful, this extension can be technically challenging and requires very robust computer graphics capacity.

Programs That Add to What GIS Can Do

Commercial companies produce other advanced software that can be very useful for particular tasks.  Here are two programs that assist with visualization and modeling.

  • Community Viz:  An extension to ArcGIS, Community Viz allows the development of urban planning models, including 3D visualization.  It was originally developed by the Orton Family Foundation and is now available for approximately $300 from Placeways, a non-profit that focuses on technology tools for community decision making. Community Viz has the capacity to model urban and rural growth scenarios and other situations, and can be used to generate reports on these alternatives as well as real-time variations (by changing basic factors). It can also create 3D models of new growth. It requires ArcGIS as well as considerable learning time and preparation to actually run a model. Most land trusts would do well to work with a consultant who already knows Community Viz.
  • World Construction Set/Visual Nature Studio:  These packages from 3D Nature are used for creating complete visual studies based on GIS data. They are very powerful - and very expensive (about $3,000 each), plus they require significant skill to use well. The programs can help you can create highly detailed and realistic landscapes, including roads, houses, trees, water features, etc.  They are best used with an outside consultant. Contact 3D Nature for more information.
  • Other Programs:   Clark Labs' IDRISI program is very powerful software for managing and analyzing aerial and other imagery - and for modeling landscape patterns. It costs just over $1,000. A public source software, GRASS, a public source program, is also an interesting resource for GIS, used in quite a few academic institutions and some public agencies. These programs will typically require specialized expertise and are unlikely to be highly accessible for most land trusts.

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