Let’s at the outset be frank: I’m aware of the benefits of remote computing. But when talking about career-long sustainability (for those of us without tenure) there’s a challenge in using the big names in the field.
The two that I have worked most with are ArcGIS and SPSS statistics. I have extensive amounts of work done in both of these systems, which now I can access easily. But I think its hard to take for granted that you will always have access to these pieces of software. At all points in your career, you’re one move away from being a $1,000 purchase away from being able to access your previous work.
Enter the Free Alternatives
PSPP I’ve found to be a nearly 1:1 relationship with SPSS. It’s free, and contains pretty much the same array of statistical analysis tools you’re used to using in the more expensive tool. I don’t know anyone in the New Media Lab using it right now, but it comes up constantly when the discussion about ways to work at home or on your own computer. I think in most cases, remote access becomes the tool of choice. But PSPP is an option I think very worth exploring if you’re going to be doing a lot of statistical work, and don’t want to count on always having access.
QGIS is the one I’m most anxious to spend some time getting to know. I’ve done a great deal of analytical work with ArcGIS. In the past, the New Media Lab has had Steve Romalewski of the CUNY Mapping Service come into the lab and talk with students about using GIS in their work. I’ve been intrigued by a training class that Antonia recently attended on using QGIS. She has a great resource book, and I know that Hillary was looking into using it to work on her visualization of theater movements in New York City.
Geographic data, particularly web visualization of that data continues to be big in the lab and I’m anxious to see how it turns out, and to learn more about the application myself.
On the Other side of Free Alternatives
The amount of money behind ArcGIS and SPSS is hardly a guarantee that they will be around forever, but it is a concern of all of these free packages. For example, the Open Office community has been around for a long time has produce a very high quality word processing program, but I think that the guarantee of the long term future may be somewhat less than that of say Microsoft Office. Can we guarantee that QGIS and PSPP will be around forever? I would hope so. But it is far from a certainty.
In the end, there’s a good deal of pros and cons to both sides. But, the sheer fact that alternatives exist and that they are gaining popularity and usage in the lab (and the mainstream even) bodes well for a future where the choices are not “which 1,000 dollar program should I commit to?”