What is a GIS?

A GIS, or geographic information system, is a system that allows for the visual analysis of geospatial data. Basically, any system that allows us to visualize data on a map is a GIS. They are particularly useful as patterns that might take us hours to identify in a spreadsheet can often be identified in an instant when displayed in a more visually engaging format like a graph, chart, or in this case a map. A good GIS allows us to analyze our data in a multitude of formats such as, plotting the points on a map, finding routes and distances between points, or using heat maps to identify clusters and patterns in our data. This last feature is the focus of this white paper.

Basis of Evaluation   

While there are a multitude of available GIS software, the following three are are the most highly rated by professionals. This article will contain basic information, pointers to in depth implementation resourses, the pros and cons and our overall recommendation.

The following evaluation was conducted to determine the best, most cost effective approach to a greenfield project with a priorities placed on fastest time to delivery and cost over scalability and performance.

  • Google Maps API
  • ArcGIS
  • QGIS (Quantum GIS)

Written by Chris Rogan


Of the three GIS applications reviewed, ArcGIS seems to be the most user friendly and easiest to learn. However, its high licensing cost reduces its viability for greenfield projects with limited use cases; e.g. using it for its heat map generation capabilities. If the use case for this software solution required more its advanced features and supporting large data sets it should be considered.

The Google Maps API seems to be the best value of the three software solutions evaluated. It has the second-best interface, runs on a commonly used software and can have as much detail as needed. The potential drawbacks to this solution is that it might not scale well with large data sets and that it is the only of the three options that requires coding. However, most of the code posted in the resources can be easily modified so this is not a major concern for project teams with basic coding experience.

The low price and robust mapping visualizations make the Google Maps API our top choice for greenfield projects followed by QGIS.

Live Demo

Click on the link above to view a live demonstration of earthquake data provided by US Geological Survey (USGS). This example uses a local copy of the GeoJSON stored at http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/feed/v1.0/summary/2.5_week.geojsonp.js

This geological data is overlayed on Google Maps using the Google Maps API and executed by a Java script embedded html page.

Google Maps API

The Google Maps API provides a container for arbitrary geospatial data. You can use the data layer to store custom data or to display GeoJSON data, the most common form of geospatial data, on a Google map. With the Maps JavaScript API, users can mark up a map with a variety of overlays; such as markers, polylines, polygons, and heatmaps. The Maps JavaScript API can either render heatmap data client-side via the Heatmap Layer or server-side via a Fusion Table.


  • Ability to store business data on their servers or locally
  • Comprehensive documentation with several examples of JavaScript code for importing data as a heat map layer and projecting it on a google map


  • Requires an API Key that costs money – free tier with inexpensive pricing model
  • Scalability concerns; online resources stated that a large number of data points may result in reduced performance
  • Requires low to medium coding


ArcGIS is currently the biggest, most well known and strongest of all commercially available GIS software. It’s so influential that the term ArcGIS is sometimes (mistakenly) used interchangeably with GIS. The program runs faster than most other GIS software and scales very well. Similar to the Google Maps API, you can import data and create heat maps for clients. However, unlike the Google Maps API, there is no coding involved. Users only need to import the data into the software and create the heatmap by using the layer options.    


  • Highly customizable and user friendly
  • Scales with larger data sets
  • Large user community and well supported documentation
  • Zero coding, GUI interface


  • High license cost ($800-$4200 per year per computer)

QGIS (Quantum GIS)

QGIS represents the most significant open source technology adoption in GIS today. With QGIS (formerly Quantum GIS), users can create, edit, visualize, analyze and publish geospatial information without a cost. QGIS has 400 different plug-ins that let users generate heat maps, add OpenStreetMap, and create Bing layers, among other things. In the GIS community, QGIS is widely believed as best open source option because of its top-of-the line cartography and processing.


  • Provides a multitude of plug-ins for different geospatial analysis. 
  • Large user base with lots of online support and thorough documentation
  • Completely open source and free
  • Zero coding, GUI interface


  • Low quality heat maps