Question: Simple desktop GIS for participatory mapping

mir is asking a question about gis
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by mir | March 28, 2018 17:26 | #16033

We are working on a project with remote forest communities in Panama with the Almanaque Azul Foundation over there. We will be facilitating participatory mapping of their local forest reserves, and we will train local teams to keep collecting data and keeping their maps updated. So we will be testing Mapeo ( for data collection and QGIS ( as a general purpose desktop GIS application.

However QGIS is pretty full on in terms of features and user interface, and some of our community partners have limited experience with desktop computers. We would ideally like a (free) desktop GIS that has a user interface more like Mapeo (which is based on OSM's iD). Something that would allow people to load raster and vector layers and do basic styling at least, so they can quickly produce maps for print or display.

Does anyone have ideas on whether this exists or if folks might be interested in developing a custom UI for QGIS for participatory rural cartography?


It's awesome to hear about your participatory mapping work in Panama! It's great that you're testing out DigDem's Mapeo, I'm interested to try it myself. The big name out there for FOSS4G is definitely QGIS, but this article ( from earlier this month has some desktop software that might be more simple for a less computer-literate community. It might require trying a few of them out yourself first, though, to find the most appropriate one.

I've posted your question on a participatory mapping forum and will update my response if I hear from anyone with any more software suggestions, I would also love to hear what software you end up using with the community!

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Maybe uMap ( could be a good solution for you.

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Other feedback I've received from the geospatial community includes:

"I think GeoDa ( is friendlier than QGIS if you need an open-source alternative."

"gvSIG ( would be my other choice but only if no other option. I would rather make an inventory of required tools in QGIS to be accessible and make a custom profile, I believe the toolbars can be hidden/shown with some customization."

Decided to make a custom QGIS profile.

Thank you all for the very valuable info. Ok so here's the result of my research:

  • uMap has a beautiful, modern user interface, the kind of thing we would ideally use. However it can't handle shapefile layers! So we can't use it. Also: needs to be online, forgot to say we need something that runs offline, like Mapeo, as we will be working in remote forest communities.

  • The "13 Free GIS Software Options" article is an excellent source. I tested everything that runs on Linux and they basically all had the old fashioned GUI similar to the QGIS one, with a couple of exceptions.

  • GeoDa is a very interesting option, but can only display one layer at a time.

  • Whitebox GAT has an interesting UI, but not revolutionary enough in my mind to justify moving from QGIS

  • So I've gone for the recommendation cited by alyd_vt: to use QGIS' built-in UI customization tool and basically get rid of all menu options, toolbars and buttons that we won't be using for our introductory course and mapmaking work. I'm actually surprised I can't find any pre made QGIS .ini customisation files on the internet.

There seems to me to be a big unmet need for a general-purpose GIS with an UI more like OSM's iD and uMap. Maybe it can be done using a preexisting back end. Anyways, stay tuned for my custom QGIS 2.18 .ini file and the results of our field testing!

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I like GeoDa for its clean interface. Its an easy way to make a quick map and create charts. I recommend it to people who need to simply view GIS data and interact with it a little bit. If you want to apply more analysis you can move the project into QGIS.

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