QGIS raises interest among cities

Text: Sanna Jokela

QGIS challenges established software in management of municipal spatial data.

Image: Topi Tjukanov, Gispo Ltd.


Currently, open source software produces a large part of digital services in the public sector. In terms of spatial data, QGIS is the most advanced and globally the most widely used desktop GIS software. Currently rising numbers of Finnish cities and towns have added QGIS to their personnel’s toolkits. How has this been done how do organisations use and maintain the QGIS software?

For ten years already, City of Tampere has been building a spatial data management system that is compatible with the national spatial data infrastructure. In addition to being able to transmit geospatial datasets via interfaces inside and outside its organisation, Tampere has integrated user management into an Oskari based map service (Oskari is also open source software originally created by the National Land Survey of Finland). According to Marko Kauppi, former leading senior planning officer in the City of Tampere who is currently working at Ubigu Ltd, a role-based approach makes it possible to allocate organisation-specific material to the right people and to build user-specific views.

As data volumes are high, unnecessary work should be avoided and finding the correct data should be easy. Tampere’s goal is that users only need to save data once and that all centralised data is available to all processes for different needs.

Tampere deployed the QGIS desktop soft-ware because of cost savings and its versatility. The aim was to distribute the management of spatial data reserves throughout the organisation. In this respect, QGIS has proven to be the best tool. QGIS supports the use of OGC compatible GIS interfaces and enables the easy management of data through database connections. It is also possible to produce visualisations for to the GeoServer map service engine using QGIS.

In Tampere, it is now easier to produce data, as users can directly maintain databases using QGIS. In addition, the volume of data made public has increased significantly. In this decen- tralised model, the skills of the users have an impact on the quality of data.

“An incorrectly modelled data  structure is a challenge that causes problems in service interfaces. We need to have detailed instructions and trained users, and our organisational culture must support our operations. Of course, it’s always possible that we forget something, regardless of training”, Marko Kauppi says.

Unknown software without any licence problems

In Helsinki, the story of QGIS started three years ago when users wanted to use the software. After some mental briefing, the city officials decided that this unknown software would be  a good addition. Licence policies used to cause headaches every year, which at worst meant that not everyone was even able to use spatial data software.

“Using free and open source software, no licences are needed. On the basis of the feedback, it seems that the use of QGIS has started nicely. Training is of course needed. Starting to use QGIS has been easy for new employees”, says Outi Hermans, special planner in the City of Helsinki. Kauppi and Hermans both mentioned city planners as one user group that has special needs due to the complex visualisation of geospatial datasets.

“Here, city planners, in particular, have enjoyed the diverse visualisation options of QGIS”, Kauppi says.
“If we could effectively add data to databases and top it all with diverse visualisation features, QGIS would be a pretty good tool for planners. Often, it is not about available software, but about processes. Changing the working culture is the key factor”, Hermans says.

For example, the database model of the Tampere land use plans has been developed during the past 12 months in this way – by addressing planning processes and working methods. By slightly configuring QGIS workspace, suitable tools and visualisation features can be built for planners.

In a nutshell

•    QGIS is open source desktop software for the processing, management and visual- isation of geospatial data.
•    Its development started in 2002.
•    It is developed actively and new versions are released frequently. The latest version is QGIS 3.4 Madeira.
•    The municipality of Frederikssund has published packaging instructions in GitHub.
•    Instructions are also available at the Gis.stack exchange site.

QGIS as a ready-to-use package for employees

Instructions have been set up for packaging the software for organisations. For example, the municipality of Frederikssund in Denmark has published packaging instructions in its GitHub. In Helsinki and Tampere, a service provider packages the software for employees, with the assistance of specialists.

Helsinki favours the organisation versions of QGIS. These are long-term releases that only need to be updated roughly once a year. “We have packaged the latest LTR version 2.18. A good Finnish translation of the software is a long- awaited improvement”, Hermans says. The next major update will be expected as a result of QGIS 3.

In both cities, Tieto Corporation takes care  of the QGIS packaging. Using packages, IT support can easily make the software available to all users via desktop distribution. In Tampere, every user always has access to the most recent software version.

“We are not using any organisation versions”, Marko Kauppi says. “Users can always select the most recent version. The current version  is a good one, and there’s no reason to go back. What is particularly useful is that all employ- ees have direct access to the software, even at schools.”

The software packages can also be customised. In Helsinki, it would be handy to automatically add the OpenStreetMap tool to QGIS, as the Helsinki service map has been built on OSM. In Tampere, database and interface connections should be included in a single package, so that they do not need to be defined separately.

What would you do if you could start with a clean slate?

What would you offer to municipalities, cities or other organisations that are planning to develop or change their geospatial infrastructure? What kind of a system would you build?

Marko Kauppi has straight answers to these questions: “QGIS with PostGIS, an extension of PostgreSQL, would be the best combination. When it comes to database software, PostGIS is in a league of its own. QGIS offers versatility.”

Hermans calls for openness and compatibility in terms of data interfaces: “I have tried to be device-neutral and support processes using good tools. The key is to separate databases and interfaces from a software and to step away from systems where data cannot be transferred between different software. Compatibility and open interfaces are important, no matter what software is used.”


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