GIS Programming – Baby Steps

GIS programming and where to begin
The hardest part when writing any piece is the beginning, so I’m going to just dive in. Programming by itself sends chills down the spines of many. Hours and hours spent behind a computer screen typing mindless letters and numbers, drinking too much coffee and the frustration!!! I’d be lying if I said there’s none of that. However, programming is more than just a skill, it’s a way of life; a culture.
Then there is GIS. This article assumes that you are already aware of GIS and the power you can wield with it. Programming is to GIS what sugar is to a milkshake. The systems you are using now, your Arc GIS and your Mapbox are all products of programming. You are probably up to your hair with digitizing, analysis and what not, and are looking for a bigger thrill, an explanation for what goes on when you calculate the shortest route to a destination on a map, or just to spice up your CV. Well look no further, GIS programming is nothing short of thrilling.
So where to start with GIS programming? Another assumption is that you’re completely green at this. Starting off can be a very frustrating exercise for a beginner, I had a difficult time at it myself for months on end, so here’s a short list of the software, frameworks and languages you might be interested in learning.


This stands for Hypertext Markup Language. This is the computer language that allows us to create web pages and web applications. HTML is the backbone of any web page. The script is rather simple, making it the best for a beginner. Its simplicity boosts your spirits. However you are not yet a programmer.


This is a style sheet that allows us to style our web pages. Add color, different fonts etc. This works for small scale projects but you will realize that writing all your CSS gets tedious when you’re creating large scale applications. However our programmer ancestors have lightened the load for us. There are several frameworks that cut half the work and are available to you for free. My favorites are BootStrap (accolades to me for spelling this right) and Foundation. They help you create edgy, modern pages without writing too much code. You are still not a programmer.

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This is where things start to heat up. JavaScript is an object oriented scripting language (OOP). It’s used to add interactivity to web pages. Before we move any further; No, JavaScript is not a baby Java. It was initially known as ECMAscript before finally hitching on the name Java, which was racking up quite some attention at the time. Know those pop up ads you hate? Or that drama camp form when you filled last year and didn’t go? All that was made able by JavaScript. There are also several JS frameworks that enable you to harness the power of JS to create various things e.g. AngularJS, EmberJS, NodeJS. The list is endless. You are now a scripter.


Python here is not paraphernalia for a witch doctor practice but rather it’s a high-level programming language (named after Monty Python, the 80s show). Python has a very easy to learn syntax. But its simplicity does not limit its power. In the development of GIS web applications Python is key. You could use a python web framework called Django. It is good for clean, fast design and works well with spatial data.
You are now good to go for starters. With the above information you will be able to build simple but powerful GIS applications in no time… okay.. in quite some time depending on your dedication but I guarantee you, you will not be disappointed.

  • Felix

    Nice write up and helpful, straight to the point.