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In late 1984, ITC was awarded a grant from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was determined that the funds were to be spent on research benefiting land and water development in developing countries. ITC decided to concentrate these funds in a single multidisciplinary research project. This project investigated the methodology of a Geographical Information System which could be used as a tool for land use zoning and watershed management studies.

By the end of 1988, the project resulted in the official release of the DOS version 1.0 of the Integrated Land and Water Information System (ILWIS). ILWIS was launched commercially two years later. At the same time, ITC started up a distributors network to distribute ILWIS and to support its users worldwide. ILWIS 2.0 for Windows was released at the end of 1996. It was the first windows based version (windows 3.1) and had a radically different design from the earlier (1.0) version. With ILWIS 3.0, a more evolutionary step was taken. It ported the code to Win32 and contained many enhancements. It was released by mid 2001 and is still the core of the current ILWIS (3.7).

ILWIS was designed to respond to user demands of the ITC community and its network, to be low-cost, low-entry level and application oriented. Thus, entirely meeting one of ITC's main objectives, i.e. transferring appropriate technology to developing countries. After 2000, the development of ILWIS software was reoriented and ILWIS became more integrated into the ITC research program with the aim of enhancing ITC's research capacity and position. Active development of ILWIS was gradually reduced in 2002, because software development for a single ITC-unique project was no longer seen as sufficiently important to warrant the investment. The decision to release ILWIS as an open source product, in order to create better opportunities for the reuse and deployment of GIS functionality in a wider community, was made at the end of 2006.

As of July 1, 2007 ILWIS Open 3.X is available as 52°North free and open source software (GNU GPL).

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