Why I am moving from Google Earth Pro to QGIS

I’ve spent a lot of time developing an open source workflow for permaculture design. While, initially, I thought that Google Earth Pro was my ticket to professional level work, I slowly began to realize the limits that the platform has. I’ll admit, I spent all this time working on learning one type of GIS that I wanted it to be the one I could use until the end of time. But there are some pretty compelling reasons to use QGIS over Google Earth Pro if your goal is to do professional design work, and that is the subject of my article.

Updates and support

I’m fairly certain that Google has been developing their Google Earth Engine while GEP has been left on version 7.1 for years. QGIS on the other hand just came out with version 2.16, and is continuously developing their platform. It’s simply a matter of goals. I don’t think Google really ever wanted to create an ArcGIS alternative, and after using both GEP and QGIS I understand the vast differences in their user interface and capabilities.

File Type Support

This is a pretty straight forward benefit to using QGIS. It supports many more file types that you are going to encounter while doing geospatial analysis. Many data types on websites like CTECO (Connecticuts repository of GIS data) can be used in QGIS, while GEP cannot handle any of it. Take the shapefile, or SHP. Here is a file that needs to be converted to either one of the file types that GEP can support, KML or KMZ.

QGIS is meant to be an open source, high end software and thus understands the need to be able to open and use file types used by the dominant company in GIS: ESRI.


QGIS is adept in handling databases, something I am learning more about everyday. The beauty of databases is that when I create a shape to represent some data on site, for example a riparian buffer, I can create a table with information about that buffer such as seasonal flow, water quality tests, and what kind of species composition is contained within the buffer. I’ll be honest though, I haven’t quite figured out how to do what I just said, but I think it is within the realm of possibility.

Datums & Geolocation for everything

Everything you do on this platform will need to be marked geospatially. Because of this, the workflow that all stems from the master GIS file will be better streamlined. Also, due to the large numbers of plugins available and file types supported, you can export data from QGIS to the next step such as LibreCAD for some CAD work, all while maintaining GPS locations which will become helpful in the field.

Datums are quite possibly one of the primary reasons to switch over. A Datum is essentially a way of orientating the GPS coordinates, there are many, and to keep everything smooth you need to be aware or which datum you are working. The orthoimagery that I use works on the EPSG:2234 datum for example, while GEP only works on WGS84.

It all comes down to workflow, conversion, and goals

QGIS makes the professional open source workflow all that much better. There are many municipalities and governments investing in this technology and doing real world projects on the ground. To me, that signals that QGIS is the better choice for having the workflow be smoother and save time. It is just too much of a hassle to rely on third party apps to convert data from GEP to anything else that will be useful.

Though my one caveat is to not throw out the baby with the bathwater. GEP is a wonderful software and I have had happy clients who end up with the GEP file and can do what they need to do at their level. Most clients need to visualize and play with their data on the fly, GEP is perfect for that. For us other designers, who want to be taken seriously but don’t want to fork up the cash for the proprietary software, QGIS is a great option.

Open-Source Permaculture

A group of college nerds came together collectively at the UC Berkley campus in the 70’s and ushered one of the most technologically important inventions of the modern age…fully functional personal computing.  Fueled by their desire to figure out problems and impress their friends, these students and enthusiasts worked hard and for long periods of time to crack the problems of computing.  Their club was called Homebrew, and the ethic was sharing and open-sourcing.

I am currently working on applying such an ethic and also provide some insights in how to apply open-source to permaculture design.  The sheer power and swiftness of computers makes them well-suited to creating scaled basemaps which can be easily traded, shared, and printed for various uses.

The roster of Open-Source programs and their uses are as follows:

LibreCAD- Scaled Basemapping

Inkscape – Vector Based Editing

GIMP – Pixel Based Editing

Scribus – Desktop Publishing

Krita – Digital Painting

There are other free but not open source programs available to the budding permaculture designer:

Google Earth Pro (Yeah buddy) – GIS and Geositing

Google Mytracks – GPS Tracking

Xmind – Mindmapping

SketchUp – 3d Modeling

Let me briefly explain which programs I am using so far and for what purposes:


LibreCAD – With this program I am trying above all to create a basemap that is scaled, and on which I can make visually appealing with other software.  This is done by typical low-cost surveying techniques like triangulation and offset/extension.  I build the basemap with my own personal measurements combined with any found measurements from existing maps.

Inkscape – Basically the mainframe of the operation.  Even though on the surface inkscape is basically an open-source version of Adobe Illustrator, it can support a large array of file types.  The most important file type it supports is .dxf which is integral to using and then improving upon work done in LibreCAD.

*Here is a link to an example of the first full basemap I created with the LibreCAD/Inkscape Combination.

GIMP – A photo editor.  I use it personally to edit digital photos that I’ve taken.  Right now I’m working with a Canon A2300 modded with CHDK.  Essentially CDHK makes certain point & shoot Canon cameras able to shoot in RAW format as opposed to jpeg, as well as other useful features like altering shutter speed and aperture.

Scribus – Really haven’t been able to sit down and figure out this one yet.  I have experience with InDesign, so I will have to learn the different interface.  From what I’ve seen and read it can get most jobs done.

Krita – A lot can be done with this digital painting program.  This program is for painting the basemaps that I finish in Inkscape.

Free to use

Google Earth Pro – Now the pro version is available, all one needs to do is download the pro version and use the code GEPFREE when logging in to it for the first time.  It is pretty powerful and I sometimes get lost in all that can be done with it.  It is perfect for getting a bird’s eye view of your site and the context of where you are doing design work.  There are topography maps available to put as overlays and there are soil maps that can be overlaid as well to find out what kind of soil types are existent on your site as well.  The soil types can be clicked on and then sent you to more information.

Google Mytracks – This app requires a GPS device via cell phone, so you’ll need a smart phone in order to use this.  It basically tracks the path that the phone moves in.  This can be used to find out how long it takes to travel certain paths, changes in elevation and other data.

Xmind – Just a mindmapping software.  Bubble diagrams and webs are created through topics and subtopics.  Can be used to organize ideas, plans, and projects.

SketchUp – Used for 3D modeling.  Any kind of architectural work and concepts can be hashed out on sketchup for the site.  I have used it briefly to model the garage and see what it would look like with a second floor.  The garage is right in a central location of the garden, so I imagined that with a second floor and large windows facing the garden (and simultaneously facing south as well) a nice space could be created up there that takes advantage of the solar gain during colder months.

Open-Source is an ethic I really like, and computing is important to design.  Things just move faster with open-sourcing, when many users can access the code and change it to improve the programs and offer more applications.  Companies tend to stop innovating when they become a certain size and opt instead to buy innovation from smaller groups or individuals.

But with more focus and time spent on the learning curve with the open-source programs, innovation can be occurring all the time, because individual coders and small groups can constantly be tweaking the source code in order to provide a tighter designed program.  This is what I’m after as a designer, tightest design possible.

So if you have the time, go for open-source, collaborate, and get more sites implemented.