Quantum GIS (QGIS)


Name: QGIS
$: Free
Example: Overcrowding in Cambodian Prisons (featured image by Mathieu Pellerin), Documented Kidnappings in Mexico, Al-Shabaab Attack Kenya
Level: Intermediate to Advanced depending on project complexity
Use For: Visually representing research; Conducting geographic analysis


QGIS can be used to edit and analyze geographic information, as well as generate a wide variety of static maps. QGIS is a free, open source software that supports vector data, raster data, GRASS data, and online spatial data. There are a variety of plugins that expand on the features listed below.


At its most basic level QGIS can be used to layer geographic files on each other to produce a map. The user can choose the symbology that is used, what aspect of the feature is visualized, and whether features are labelled. The user can choose the zoom level of the map. There are various items that can be added to the map, including a scale, title, and legend. Other mapping projects can also be embedded into a map. Screenshots of the map or layer can be saved as georeferenced images.



The user can create and edit shapefiles and GRASS vector layers. These files can be reprojected as needed. The user can also import data from GPS tools or use OpenStreetMap data. QGIS has tools to help the user manage attribute tables and spatial database tables. Edited files can be exported in several formats.


QGIS is able to conduct vector analysis, sampling, geoprocessing, geometry and database management. The GRASS Plugin and the Processing Plugin give the user access to a wider variety of geoprocessing tools. For more information about GRASS GIS click here.




Name: Mapbox
$: Varies
Examples: Demand Justice Now (featured image), North Korea: Political Prison Camps, Syrian Humanitarian Funding, Registered Syrian Refugees
Level: Intermediate to Advanced
Use For: Generating basemaps; Visually representing research


Mapbox allows the user to create interactive online maps. It is free with limited map views, storage and custom styles. Subscription plans start at $5 per month and go up to $499 per month. More advanced users can build custom mobile and web applications.


The user can create customized maps using Mapbox’s online platform. Mapbox has street, terrain, and satellite basemaps that can be customized with colors and languages. The user can draw markers, lines and polygons or import a variety of files including CSV and KML. The features can be given a title and description.


Maps can be viewed on desktops and mobile devices and can be shared through links or embedded in websites. Each map has a Map ID which can be used to import the map into other platforms such as StoryMap JS. Those who are new to Mapbox can use its guides to learn how to create maps.

Mapbox Studio:

Mapbox Studio is a desktop application that allows the user to create maps. It has some preset map styles or the user can choose their own files. Mapbox recognizes shapefiles and allows multiple layers to be added to any project. Mapbox provides a guide about how to convert an ArcMap visualization into Mapbox. To change the appearance of the layers CartoCSS is used; Mapbox Studio has a guide to CartoCSS in the program under Docs. The user can adjust coloring and font, as well as make these features specific to the level of zoom.


Once the map has been adjusted to the user’s satisfaction the map can be uploaded to Mapbox online, the user can also upload styles and data. The map can be further adjusted once it is on Mapbox online. Mapbox Studio also allows the user to export an image of the map as a png or jpeg. For those who do not know CartoCSS Mapbox online is a better option than Mapbox Studio.