Featured Resource: QGIS, a Free, Open Source Mapping Platform

This week, geographers around the globe took some time to celebrate the software that allows them to analyze, well, that very same globe. November 13th marked the 20th annual GIS Day,  an “international celebration of geographic information systems,” as the official GIS Day website puts it.

the words "GIS day" in a stylized font appear below a graphic of a globe with features including buildings, trees, and water

But while GIS technology has revolutionized the way we analyze and visualize maps over the past two decades, the high cost of ArcGIS products, long recognized as the gold standard for cartographic analysis tools, is enough to deter many people from using it. At the University of Illinois and other colleges and universities, access to ArcGIS can be taken for granted, but many of us will not remain in the academic world forever. Luckily, there’s a high-quality alternative to ArcGIS for those who want the benefits of mapping software without the pricetag!

the QGIS logo

QGIS is a free, open source mapping software that has most of the same functionality as ArcGIS. While some more advanced features included in ArcGIS do not have analogues in QGIS, developers are continually updating the software and new features are always being added. As it stands now, though, QGIS includes everything that the casual GIS practitioner could want, along with almost everything more advanced users need.

As is often the case with open source software alternatives, QGIS has a large, vibrant community of supporters, and its developers have put together tons of documentation on how to use the program, such as this user guide. Generally speaking, if you have any experience with ArcGIS it’s very easy to learn QGIS—for a picture of the learning curve, think somewhere along the lines of switching from Microsoft Word to Google Docs. And if you don’t have experience, the community is there to help! There are many guides to getting started, including the one listed in the above link, and more forum posts of users working through questions together than anyone could read in a lifetime. 

For more help, stop by to take a look at one of the QGIS guidebooks in our reference collection, or send us an email at sc@library.illinois.edu!

Have you made an interesting map in QGIS? Send us pictures of your creations on Twitter @ScholCommons!

 

Review: Docear

We’ve talked about Docear the Visual Citation Manager on the blog before, before my time, but it’s been a while we’ll revisit it. Though, the most recent major update to the software was in 2015, and based on the forums it seems that Docear has struggled with finding funding. However, the researchers behind this project are still active. That being said, in the worst case scenario, Docear is an open source project and if things went south, you could still get your information out. If you are considering relying on this software for organizing very long term research projects you need to use an external cloud backup service as their My Docear service is no longer available and supported if it ever existed at all.

Docear

Screenshot of Docear demo mindmap

Docear paper demo mindmap showing linked annotated PDF

Docear is an open source mind mapping, reference, and citation management software for those who want a visual way to keep their research organized. It is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux computers. Docear provides plenty of support and useful instructions through their official user manual. The examples on the app itself for trying out the mind map and PDF capability incorporate some of the research behind the product itself and makes for an informative, if somewhat meta, experience. Docear staff like to compare the software to Zotero and Mendeley, but it’s a very different type of beast. Specifically, a combination of Jabref (without the OpenOffice support) and Freeplane for mind maps, and, depending on what type of PDF viewer you use, a document annotation software. To enjoy the full capability of this software you also have to download PDF X-change viewer, though you can still do some annotating with other less supported PDF editors. Docear also uses Mr. DLib or Machine-readable digital library cataloging. While Mr. DLib has not really caught on elsewhere, it is featured as part of JabRef and specifically powers the article recommendation function. If they ever get their funding together, Docear could become a space where you can research, organize, and write an article. And unlike some of the software options discussed on this blog and in our LibGuides, you can download Docear from a zip file and run it to full capacity on Scholarly Commons computers.

Although Docear is not quite the all-encompassing research suite the creators envisioned, there are still lots of funky little features not found in other services. For example, in the Tools and Settings tab you can add map locations with OpenMaps (unfortunately there is no search function — you have to zoom and select your location) to add a geographic component to your otherwise mental map,which you can see by clicking on “View Open Maps Location” later.

Screenshot of Docear Open Maps features

You can also add time alerts for time management in Tools and Settings. But before we get ahead of ourselves, it’s easy to add a node with keyboard shortcuts and the node panel in the toolbar. You can add links to websites and other nodes right in your mind map by right clicking on a node. Apparently, you can add formulas to your mind map using LaTex but I didn’t try it, as I am not one of the people who cares about that sort of thing.

And while you do have the option of writing in Docear itself, there is a plugin for MS Word, but only on Windows. On the one hand, the plugin is old and hasn’t been updated in a few years, and it doesn’t work on the computers at Scholarly Commons. But on the other hand, since it’s based in BibTeX, if it actually does work the way they say it does, you should be able to use it with any BibTeX bibliography, and not just Docear. This means, it could give you that MS Word integration that you might be lacking with another reference manager.

Overall, if you wanted a reference manager and document annotator that is easy to get started on this is NOT the one for you, but for those patient enough to deal with the learning curve, Docear can be a good addition to your research strategy. I really hope this project gets the funding it needs to fully live up to its potential, but for now it’s still a solid option for researchers looking for a unique way to organize their work.

Choosing GIMP as a Photoshop Alternative

The GIMP logo.

Image manipulation is a handy skill, but sinking time and money into Adobe Photoshop may not be an option for some people. If you’re looking for an alternative to Photoshop, GIMP is a great bet. Available for almost every operating system, GIMP is open source and free with lots of customization and third party plugin options.

One of the major aspects you lose when moving from Photoshop to GIMP is the loss of a major community and widespread knowledge of the software. While GIMP has its dedicated loyalists and a staff, they lack the same kind of institutional power that Adobe has to answer questions, fix bugs, and provide support. While Lynda.com does provide tutorials on GIMP, there are fewer overall resources for tutorials and help than Photoshop.

That being said, GIMP can still be a more powerful tool than Photoshop, especially if you have a programming background (or can convince someone else to do some programming for you). Theoretically, you could add or subtract any features that you so choose by changing the GIMP source code, and you are free to distribute a version of GIMP with those changes to whomever you choose.

There are a number of pros/cons for choosing GIMP over Photoshop, so here’s a handy list.

GIMP Pros:

  • Free
  • Highly customizable and flexible (with coding expertise)
  • Motivated user community run by volunteers
  • High usability
  • Easier to contact leadership regarding issues

GIMP Cons:

  • Less recognized
  • Changes are more slowly implemented
  • No promise that the software will always be maintained in perpetuity

Of course, there are more pros and cons to using GIMP, but this will give you a basic idea of the pros and cons of switching over to this open-source software.

For more information on GIMP, you can check out the GIMP Wiki, which is maintained by GIMP developers, or The GTK+ Project, which is a toolkit for the creation of graphical user interfaces (GUI). GIMP also provides a series of Tutorials. If you’re still loyal to Adobe, you can look at the Adobe products available on the UIUC WebStore, as well as tutorials on Lynda.com.

Do you have opinions on GIMP vs. Photoshop? Let us know in the comments! And stop by the Scholarly Commons, where you can use either (or both!) software for free.

Spotlight on DiRT Directory: Digital Research Tools

The DiRT logo.

As a researcher, it can sometimes be frustrating knowing that someone out there has created a useful tool that will help you with what you’re working on, but being unable to find it. Google searches prove fruitless, and your network of friends don’t necessarily know what you’re talking about. In that moment of panic and frustration, you may just need to get a little DiRT-y.

DiRT Directory: Digital Research Tools is a directory of research tools for scholarly use. Using TaDiRAH (the Taxonomy of Digital Research Activities in the Humanities), DiRT breaks down the stages of a research project, and groups tools that are relevant to each stage: Capture, Creation, Enrichment, Analysis, Interpretation, Storage, and Dissemination. Users can either search for tools using these categories — broken down into subcategories whose specificity helps to narrow down the many tools found in the DiRT Directory — through a search box or by tag. Personally, I feel that searching through the TaDiRAH categories allows you to find relevant tools, but also allows you to explore options that you may not have previously thought of as being available, making it the most fruitful way to browse tools.

One nice aspect of DiRT is its search platform. After you choose your category, you have the option to search within the category for these criteria: Platform, Cost, Exclude, License, and Research Objects, as well as sort order. For researchers concerned with cost, this tool is especially useful, as you can limit your search to what is in your budget.

After you complete your search, you are offered a list of different tools. Tools range from well-known sources, like Google Docs, to things you have probably never heard of before. Each source includes a description, outlining what kind of tool it is — online, software, etc. — what its capabilities are, and in many cases, a note on its past or future development. Each entry also includes a link to the tool’s website, their license, and the date of DiRT’s most recent update on the source information.

An example tool entry on DiRT for Scrivener writing software.

An example tool entry on DiRT for Scrivener writing software on the search page.

Finally, each tool has its own page that you can access from the search function. This page holds a wealth of information, including an expanded description that outlines the nitty gritty aspects of the tool — from platforms to cost bracket to tags. It also includes screenshots of the tool in action, a list of recent edits to the page, and a comments section. However, not all tools have the same level of detail in their pages.

capture2

Scrivener’s page, which includes a description, screenshots, a list of contributors, and a comments section.

While the selection presented on DiRT can be almost overwhelming, digging through DiRT can help you find the perfect tools for your project.

If you still can’t find what you want in DiRT Directory, or need some guidance in what to search for in the first place, stop by the Scholarly Commons, located in Main Library Room 306, open from 9am-6pm on weekdays. Or, email us! We are always happy to help you with your research needs.