In this article, I want to look at a GIS option available for
Linux—specifically, a program called SAGA (System for Automated
Geoscientific Analyses). SAGA was developed at the Department of Physical
Geography in Germany. It is built with a plugin module architecture,
where various functions are provided by individual modules.
A very complete API is available to allow users to extend
SAGA’s functionality with newly written modules. I take a very
cursory look at SAGA here and describe a few things you might want
to do with it.
Installing SAGA should be as easy as looking at the software repository
for your favourite distribution. For Debian-based distros, you can install
it with the command:
sudo apt-get install saga
When you first start it, you get a blank workspace where you can begin your
Figure 1. SAGA starts up with a central project window, several tool panes on the
left and console messages at the bottom.
Two major categories of data sets
are available that you can use within your projects: satellite imagery and terrain
data. The tutorial website provides
detailed walk-throughs that show
how you can get access to these types of data sets for use in your
own projects. The tutorial website also has sections on some of the processing tools
available for doing more detailed analysis.
several data file formats. The typical ones
used in GIS, like SHP files or point clouds, are the default options in
the file selector window. You can work with these types of data, or satellite
imagery or terrain data.
Let’s start by looking at terrain analysis
in SAGA. You’ll need digital elevation data, in DEM format, which is
available from the SRTM Tile Grabber site.
will get a zip file for each region you select, and these zip files
contain geotiff files for the selected regions.
Load the geotiff
file by clicking File→Open. By default, it will
show only the common project file formats. To locate your downloaded
geotiff files, you’ll need to change the filter at the bottom of the
file selector window to be all files. Once it is loaded, it will show up
in the list of data sources in the bottom-left window pane.
Figure 2. You can load data sources, such as geotiffs, into your project.
You may find that the default layout is a bit crowded, so you may want
to close some of the detail panes, as I did in the screenshot here. By
default, the file is simply added to the list of data sources in the data
manager pane in the bottom left of the window, and nothing is displayed.
To view the newly added data, you can right-click on the entry in
the data manager and select “Add to Map”. Several other options
are available when you right-click the data source. For example, you can click on
“Spatial Reference” to get details about the projection and so on.
Figure 3. You can play with projection settings for a data source.
Moving to the “Map” tab of the bottom-right pane, you can see the
current list of maps and their layers. Right-clicking on the layers
provides only viewing options, like what layers lie above or below other
layers. Right-clicking on the map provides a bit more functionality. You
can save maps as images or even copy them to the clipboard to be used in
some other application. You change the overall view to either a 3D view
or a print layout. You even can add extra items to your map, such as a
base map or a graticule. You also can adjust the order of the layers, in order
to have all of the appropriate information displayed correctly.
Several other tools are available under the “map” menu item at the top
of the window.
When you click the “Geoprocessing” menu item, you’ll see the massive
list of tools available to do processing tasks on the data that you have
imported. Some of them are basic, while others are very computationally
intensive. For example, if you click Terrain Analysis→Basic
Terrain Analysis, it can sit and run for quite a while. You will select single
analysis tools if you want to look at some specific items. For example,
you could look at the solar radiation by clicking
Geoprocessing→Terrain Analysis→Lighting→Potential Incoming Solar
Figure 4. You can run tools that provide additional layers to be displayed in
As you can see, a very dense tree of
tools is available. Many of these tools also are available under the “Tools”
tab in the bottom-left pane. You simply find the tool in question
and double-click it. You may, however, discover that it’s difficult to find
a specific tool. If that’s the case, click
Geoprocessing→Find and Run Tool, and you’ll get a pop-up window where you
can look for something specific.
Figure 5. You can do a search for a specific tool, rather than navigating through
To get a better idea of what you can do, the SAGA tutorial site includes
a set of complete application examples that walk you through entire
workflows. For instance, the first one in the list is assessing sediment
flows from a point field survey. It explains how to import data from
a CSV file, apply coordinate transformations and visualize the resulting
data. It then walks through how to apply a hydrological analysis tool
to better understand how the sediment flow happens based on the terrain
I hope this short article whets your appetite for using GIS
in your own projects. I’ve covered only a small taste of everything you
can do with SAGA, and as with many open-source projects, you always
can add extra functionality as needed, which will be loaded as shared libraries
that provide additional tools.