The place for nonprofits, charities, and libraries

Mapping and GIS Tools

  • Has your organization used online mapping tools such as Google Maps, Microsoft Virtual Earth, and Google Earth? What about more sophisticated tools such as MapWindow, Manifold GIS, ESRI ArcGIS, or others?

    If you've considered using mapping or GIS tools for projects at your organization, share your questions and challenges here.
    senior editor, TechSoup
  • i've used Google Earth, ESRI's ArcView and ArcGIS Desktop, and played with a few other GIS packages, including the free open source GRASS. ArcGIS is definitely the most professional and commonly-used program out there. it's like Photoshop for maps; there might be other ways to work the data, but hardly anyone uses them.

    the ECP grant can help you get the software for low-cost, but it's no longer free. ESRI asks for a $100 co-pay per software package. for environmental work you will almost certainly need two additional extensions for a total cost of $100. the grant form is long, but there's a short form available now. the new grant process is very fast.

    the biggest hurdle in any GIS project is finding qualified staff. it's a very complex system, perhaps the hardest thing i've ever tried to learn on a computer. i've seen half a dozen orgs start a GIS program thinking they could learn it themselves, and fail. bummer.

    if you do conservation work also consider the Society for Conservation GIS, or SCGIS. they have a low-cost conference every year that is chock full of trainings and demos and roundtables, and it's a great way to network with other conservation professions, and to get a good introduction to the abilities of GIS.

    SCGIS also has a program to provide free trainings and software to qualified individuals around the world. this scholarship program is most often applied to internationals, but has recently supported domestic scholarships as well. disclosure: i used to serve on their board.

  • As a long-time ESRI user, I'd like to recommend a *much* simpler tool for NPOs who need to do some level of geographic display and analysis, but don't have or want a trained GIS professional on staff (ESRI software leads the pack, fur sher, but also takes years to learn well).

    Look at Not only will it do many GIS analysis operations, but it also lets you share data and maps with other users easily. You can, for example, create a set of data layers (maybe a political boundaries map with zones shaded by some attribute, some data points, and some natural features like rivers), create the symbology (colors, icons, etc.) you want, set the "zoom" level, and send it all in a single file to another user. This user can just open it up and have the map presented the way you made it, *and/or* take your data and add to it or change the display. It's also an order of magnitude less expensive than ESRI, and works natively (depending on the version) with Excel or Access data files.

    Karen Nyhus
  • Karen,

    Looked at awhere, but was wondering how this can be leveraged for the web? We developed a site called, but would like to use more of our data to drill down by state, county, village/township, and actual park location. I am very interested in this product, but was wondering if it could be used in a website.


  • If you're arriving at this discussion thread through the forums, Idealware's article A Few Good Mapping and GIS Tools offers a good roundup of many of the tools being talked about here.
    senior editor, TechSoup
  • I am developing a whole site dedicated just to the use and adoption of GIS in the nonprofit & advocacy sectors. It's independent advice and very practical in helping you to understand what GIS is and what it can do for your organization. Also contains advice on implementation and planning, tutorials and more.


  • Yes, we are using ArcGIS but have used Google Maps as well. I have a question about basemap resources. I understand you can pull data from ESRI for streets, but usually it includes the whole U.S.  Is there a streets basemap that is just California? Seems to me it would run faster if it didn't have to carry al the data for the rest of the U.S. I can't seem to find such a basemap. Thanks!

  • ibray- are you referring to the Street layer in the ESRI Resource Center online or on the DVDs or are you talking about another dataset?

    The ESRI layer is US in coverage but you could manipulate your own local version of this file. Your other option is to create a local file from the Census Tiger Road layer available on the census website- this is all street centerlines and attributes- useful for geocoding and display but not a very reliable dataset. because the basemap from ESRI is coming via the web it only pulls down data for the area you are zoomed in on- so it's not affected by the overall data size. If you are pulling from your DVD locally or your network then this is more of an impact- the addvantage of online data is their servers just extract data for the area you ask it for.

    Your other option is to look at purchasing a road layer from TeleAtlas or from your local county/city.

  • Thanks Steve, was using the Street layer in the DVD's but sounds like the online approach may work better, am usually always working at the State level. By the way, can you refresh my memory on where to find the Excel file for geocoding that was discussed? Can't seem to locate it. Thanks 2x.  Ira

  • Search for Juice Analytics Excel Geocoder 2

    here currently:

  • I've developed an addin for Excel which does forward/reverse geocoding and GCD with GoogleMaps. Freeware:


  • The article is a great beginning. I hope the authors will continue to update and expand it.

    It would be helpful if the article would say more about the file formats that can be read, created, and exported by programs such as GRASS and Manifold, so that laypersons or small business persons who can't afford to lay out $1200 plus can make better decisions about what affordable programs provide the most utility for time invested. A table would be useful.

    I would also like to see more information about versions of GIS programs on operating systems other than Windows, especially OS X.