What’s New In GIS And Biological Research: 8 May 2015

8 Jun

The first article which I want to highlight in this week’s digest is an important one for those of us who are interested in open source GIS. Open source GIS software packages provide a free alternative to the more traditional commercial GIS software, and while the first generation of these packages could best be described as basic, they are now advancing to a level where they can provide their commercial rivals with some serious competition. One in particular, QGIS, seems to be leaping ahead with it’s development at an ever increasing pace. Indeed, it has now reached a point that many in government and ecological consultancy are starting to mutter about why on Earth they are still paying for commercial GIS licences when there are such good free alternatives available. This was borne out in my own experiences last week when I was invited to run a QGIS training day for one such business. While there was some scepticism at the start of the day from dedicated ArcGIS users, by the end of it, I was amazed at how well they’d taken to this free alternative.

So, on the open source GIS front, I was very interested to come across this post about the plans for the development of QGIS 3. QGIS 2 was the first version of QGIS which I felt could really provide biologists with a viable alternative to commercial GIS software, and hopefully with QGIS 3, we should see this revolution continue. By the sounds of it, the development of QGIS 3 is being taken slowly but steadily, and is being developed at a pace which will let all those who provide the plugins and other packages which make QGIS so useful keep up. Too often, new software packages are rushed out and the result is a rather poor mishmash of new and old features that don’t really work as they should (I’m writing this article on a Windows 8 computer, which is a classic case in point!), so it is good to see the QGIS community taking things slowly, and with plenty of warning, rather than rushing forwards. I have no doubt that in the longer term, which will make for a much better product.

Moving on from GIS software, I want to consider a more applied element of GIS and biological research. One aspect of biological GIS is using it to help identify the best sites protected areas for the conservation and management of our natural resources. However, simply identifying the best location for a protected area should not be the end of this process. Once it has been established, you need to make sure that people know where the boundaries are, especially if there are restrictions on what can be done in specific areas. As this post about MPAs in California, USA, points out, the best way to do this is by creating maps. These can be traditional paper ones, but now-a-days, they are just as likely to be online or interactive ones. Yet, regardless of how these maps are accessed, you need to ensure that they are both accurate, and easy to interpret, and that is where good GIS skills come in.

For my pick of the self-help advice out there in the last couple of weeks, I’ve selected a series of posts that all centre around one general topic: how to make your maps (such as ones showing the locations of protected areas) look good. One of the key skills when using GIS in biological research is learning how best to display your information so that it is as easy to interpret as possible. This means not cluttering up your maps with features you really don’t need to show, and selecting colour schemes for those you do need to show which won’t induce migraines in the brains of anyone who looks at them for more than a few seconds.

The first of these are actually a pair of posts from Maps Nigeria Inititive and provide a basic introduction to changing the ways that data layers are displayed in ArcGIS and in QGIS. Meanwhile, over at MaybeItsAMap, there’s a nice post about using colour ramps to show variations in a specific characteristic within a data layer, and how to make sure your colours shade in the correct manner in relation to increasing or decreasing values, and another about how to change the maximum number of sampled values when creating ranges for colour ramps. Taken together, the advice in these two posts will help ensure that you always manage to highlight exactly the right variations within your data.

Finally, on the subject of setting how data layers are displayed, there’s a new Terrain Tool box for ArcGIS which can be used to help improve the look of maps land elevation or water depths. However, it strikes me that biologists could also use it to make striking images of things like predicted distributions from species distribution models that, if done correctly, could be really eye catching.

So these are the GIS-related things that have caught my eye this week, but, as always, I’m sure there’s a lot of other good stuff out there as well.

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Dr Colin D. MacLeod,
Founder, GIS In Ecology
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