GIS software and mapping tools

Map of Devastating 2003 Heat Wave in the Netherlands Observed from MODIS Satellite. Mehdi Aminipouri (PhD Candidate in Geography at SFU)

This page lists a range of popular GIS software/platforms for different purposes, a mix of proprietary and free and open-source options. The list is not exhaustive. 

GUI (graphical user interface) GIS programs 


ArcGIS is GIS software for visualizing, managing, creating, and analyzing geographic data. 

Access and technical details:

  • Available to the SFU community (login required) 
  • Currently available on Library computers at Bennett Library, in the Library and labs at SFU Vancouver.
  • Download (Esri's ArcGIS software suite):
    • SFU students, staff, and faculty may download Esri's ArcGIS software suite for use on their own computer through our university-wide Education Site License. 
    • Technical requirements: 

ArcGIS Online

ArcGIS Online is a browser-based / cloud-based mapping, analysis, collaborative web GIS platform that allows you to use, create, share maps, scenes, apps, layers, analytics, and data. 

  • SFU students, staff, and faculty may use ArcGIS Online suite through our university-wide Education Site License. 
  • Esri ArcGIS software download page: For instructions on how to access AcGIS Online. 


QGIS is a popular open-source GIS software package that works on PCs and Macs alike.

Access and more information:
  • To download, and for more details and technical help, see QGIS
  • QGIS is currently available on Library computers:
    • in Bennett Library: in room 2105 and the Research Commons
    • at SFU Vancouver in Harbour Centre's Lab 1330. 

Google Earth Pro

Google Earth Pro is a powerful (and free!) geovisualization program that has the ability to import geospatial data files.

Access and more information:

  • Google Earth Pro is available on Library computers in the Bennett Library:
    • in Bennett Library in labs 2105 and 4009
    • in the Research Commons. 

Programming languages 

R/R Studio 

R is a free, open-source programming language primarily for statistics and graphics.  

Although R was not originally designed to work with spatial data formats, it has long had a strong geospatial developer community and can be used as a powerful GIS platform with the addition of external packages.  R is particularly powerful for spatial statistical analysis and quantitative researchers in particular may find R more useful than GIS desktop applications (Adapted from Columbia University Libraries' GIS Guide). 

For a list of R packages useful for working with geospatial data, you may refer to Columbia University Libraries' GIS Guide


Python is an open-source, interpreted programming language that has been broadly adopted in the geospatial community.  Different GIS Software packages (such as ArcGIS, QGIS) provide an interface to do analysis using Python scripting.

For more information, see:

Web mapping/GIS tools 


Leaflet is a popular open-source JavaScript library for mobile-friendly interactive maps. 


Mapbox is on open source mapping platform for creating custom web-maps and other web map-based projects. MapBox.js is an open source library created by Mapbox that is built on top of and leaflet, adding a variety of functions and similarly working with raster tile servers abd GeoJSON. 

Other than Leaflet and Mapbox.js, there are many other Javascript API for web mapping, such as Google Maps API, D3, OpenLayers, and ArcGIS API for Javascript. 

Remote sensing/imagery processing programs

IDRISI GIS Software 

IDRISI GIS is a powerful raster-based GIS and remote sensing software system produced by Clark Labs at Clark University.

Access and more information:

  • The Library manages the license that allows for SFU departmental computer installations. 
  • IDRISI TerrSet is currently available on Spatial Information System Lab

Google Earth Engine 

Google Earth Engine is a cloud based geoprocessing platform as well as a petabyte-scale archive of publicly available remotely sensed imagery.

Access and more information:

  • Google Earth Engine is free for non-commercial use provided users sign up for a GEE account.
  • There is a Javascript API and a browser based code editor. 

Easy-to-use mapping tools (not for spatial analysis)

SimplyAnalytics Canada (SFU sign in required)

SimplyAnalytics Canada (formerly SimplyMap Canada) is a web mapping tool used for creating thematic maps and reports using Canadian demographic, business, and consumer data sourced from publishers such as Statistics Canada, Environics Analytics, and Dun & Bradstreet.

This tool is useful for making quick maps drawing on the data (i.e. Canadian Census data) embedded in SimplyAnalytics. For example, you can make a thematic map about the median family income in Vancouver at Census Tract level within 5 minutes.

Access and more information: