Freeware to Get Started With GIS And Explore Mapped Data


As the Web and the world have become increasingly data-driven, GIS is just another tool to process that data. GIS stands for Geographic Information System, a system which manages spatially-aware data. GIS is a booming sector even though it’s been around for a while and makes for a great direction to steer your career.

Data can be anything worth recording. For example, say I made a list of all the reported car accidents in my county. Each accident would be a data point and make for interesting conversation on an elevator ride, but that’s about it.

Let’s say I got even more detailed with the data I collected and recorded what type of accident it was (rear-ender, head-on collisions, cross-over accident, etc.) and the GPS coordinates of where each accident occurred.

After collecting enough data and putting it into GIS so I can visualize it, I might be able to conclude some patterns about the accidents and find solutions to reduce their number like lengthening an intersection’s yellow light, reducing the speed limit, or adding a street lamp.

ArcGIS is hardly the only GIS software but it’s one of the most popular and well known. It’s like photoshopping an image with any image editor. ArcGIS is made by Esri and comes with a variety of licenses that allow a variety of functionality but cost a pretty penny. Fortunately for the freeware crowd, Esri produces a free application that allows you to explore GIS data called ArcGIS Explorer Desktop.

ArcGIS Explorer Desktop is a 95.8 MB download that requires Microsoft .NET Framework 3.5 SP1 and runs on Windows XP – 7 and Server 2003 – 2008 R2.

ArcGIS Explorer Desktop is a free GIS viewer that gives you an easy way to explore, visualize, and share GIS information. ArcGIS Explorer adds value to any GIS because it helps you deliver your authoritative data to a broad audience.
With ArcGIS Explorer, you can:

  • Access ready-to-use ArcGIS Online basemaps and layers.
  • Fuse your local data with map services to create custom maps.
  • Add photos, reports, videos, and other information to your maps.
  • Perform spatial analysis (e.g., visibility, modeling, proximity search).

The interface starts out like Google Earth, looking at the globe. You can zoom in and pan around with your mouse or type in a search for a particular location or address. Once you’ve found the location you’re interested in, you can mark it up with lines or shapes to annotate the area.

The aerial map that you’re looking at when first starting comes from Bing but you can choose a few different maps to get the right look for your map. Different Bing maps, World maps, and OpenStreet maps are available from the Basemap button on the ArcGIS Explorer ribbon. You can also incorporate your own maps to use.


ArcGIS Desktop is really for exploring datasets. You can create geographic-centric presentations and analyze the data you’re working with but you should have the (paid) ArcGIS View or higher apps to really be managing production level maps that have broad amounts of data to be created or added. But where do you get that data?

You can add geographic data to your map that has been published in a wide variety of formats:

geodatabases, shapefiles, KML/KMZ, GPX, and raster formats (JPEG 2000, GeoTIFF, MrSID)

You can also add layer files and packages created using ArcGIS Desktop, or add locations from your spreadsheets. You’ll find these options under the Add Content button on the ribbon.


Another source of data comes directly from ArcGIS Online. You can search and find all sorts of data that others have made available.


What I find more interesting, however, is finding the GIS files that are available out on the web and using that to make maps of interest to me and find my own trends.

The US Census provides the census data in shapefiles that can be added through ArcGIS Explorer Desktop.

You will also likely be able to find GIS data provided by your state. After a quick search, I found the Illinois Department of Transportation offering data by county or statewide. The Illinois Natural Resources Clearinghouse also has data available. acts as a repository for local, state, and federal data, so you might find some worthwhile map data there.

You can pretty much just do a web search for “GISData” and find a lot at your disposal. Further refine your query and you’ll likely be able to find the data you want. Any data that you find should be fair game, just verify that the acquired GIS data is:

  • accurate
  • has metadata
  • is recent
  • is free

If you wanted to collect your GPS data, you might look into getting something like a Trimble GPS tool.

ArcGIS Explorer Desktop is a great, free tool to start exploring GIS more and view some of the files that different agencies are publishing but it’s really just scratching the surface of GIS tools freely available.

ArcReader 10 is another Esri product that has its own features though it is more limited to navigating and marking up maps. It requires a free account be setup in order to download it from the Esri website. It’s a 499MB .zip file for Windows when all is said and done.

ArcReader is a free, easy-to-use desktop mapping application that allows users to view, explore, and print maps and globes. Anyone with ArcReader can view high-quality interactive maps authored by a high-level ArcGIS Desktop product and published with the ArcGIS Publisher extension.

Other free Esri products to look into further include ArcGIS Explorer Map Viewer, and the gallery of maps and web appsfrom the ArcGIS community. The web apps cover a wide variety of data including recent topics of interest like recent Japanese earthquakesand the Fukushima Nuclear plant incident which can be shared or embedded in web pages. The Map Viewer also allows you to embed maps you create into a website.

There are a lot of other free tools out there separate from Esri. Does anybody have any recommendations for other quality, free GIS tools they’ve had good luck with?