A Meeting of the Minds

By Kevin Flanders

_The year 2005 was certainly an interesting one for open source GIS software, with the highlight arguably being Autodesk’s announcement to join the movement and release significant technology to open source. The result was the formation of a new open source foundation (that has been without a name). It seemed that the coming together of open source and private labels would not be as easy as one might think. After several weeks of mind-melding and Internet discussions, the time came for interested parties to get together and talk, which they did this past Saturday in Chicago. (Adena Schutzberg’s report here.)

A common complaint on the part of the private labels about open source GIS is the lack of organization behind the software. While various open source titles certainly have enjoyed a great deal of organization behind their individual titles, a formal organization among projects has indeed been lacking. The announcement of this new foundation, and the fallout that followed, may well have exposed that lack of organization.

And so, the meeting in Chicago had a lot riding on it. If this first meeting were to go well, then we might witness the birth of the next Apache Foundation (which arguably represents one of the strongest of its kind in the world). If it were to go poorly, then we might witness the beginning of the end - or rather, the end of something that never got started.

Well folks . . . apparently it went very well.

Much effort went into getting people to Chicago this past Saturday. Three European groups were represented, along with groups from Canada and the U.S. Included in the mix were representatives from the Apache Foundation (to provide significant guidance, advice and experience), Collabnet (the distributed software company that was picked to provide the infrastructure on which the new foundation will be based), the Open Source Software Institute, the GRASS Community, the GeoTools Project, Autodesk, and the MapServer Community. Interestingly, Lizardtech was also present…which added an odd and interesting point to ponder about other private labels that might eventually join the party.

Twenty-five people, almost as many laptops, wireless Internet and a projector powered the creation of the Open Source Geospatial Foundation in Chicago. (Image courtesy Tyler Mitchell) (Click for larger image)

Ten hours of meetings (did I mention this was on a Saturday?) led to a lot of resolutions. First and foremost, Open Source Geospatial Foundation (OSGEO) was the name chosen for the new foundation. The new website will soon be found at www.osgeo.org. Five members of the new Board were elected, with four more to be added as the membership grows. They decided that the membership would grow to 45 (including the Board members). Interestingly, they also decided that membership could include non-programmers. Therefore, people who contribute to the foundation and foundation projects in meaningful ways other than writing code will be eligible for membership. This is certainly different from the Apache Foundation - and should add a variety of perspectives and objectives to the foundation’s discussions. These are perspectives that the GIS industry demands.

This form of organization offers a degree of control to its members. For example, new members must be nominated by an existing member. Their nominations will be considered based on non-financial contributions to the foundation and its projects and goals. There appears to be no method of “buying” your way onto the Board. This is not true of all foundations - and is most likely the result of many comments over the past few months regarding Autodesk’s motivations. There were a number of comments regarding other private labels that might wish to participate over time as well. The concern was that the value of open source might become diluted. This arrangement should calm those fears in the short term, and the foundation’s visibly adhering to these principals over time should keep those fears from arising in the future.

Electing five members of the Board at this time also seemed to be a good move. It will allow the full membership to complete the Board in the months ahead. This plan should address those in the open source community who might not have been able to attend this first meeting, but would still want a voice in this selection process. Certainly, there are a number of worthy individuals who could and should be a part of this membership, but were not present at this initial meeting (did I mention this was on a Saturday?).

On the question of how individual projects will be handled to ensure that their participation continually supports the foundation’s goals and objectives, members decided that each project will appoint a Vice President who will report to the Board. VP’s must be current members of the foundation. This concept should ensure a high degree of stability not only within a project, but among projects that can share components, concepts and even code. This step should ensure that each project contributes to the foundation’s momentum, with everyone pulling in the same direction.

As for dirty laundry, it seemed to be decided even before the meeting that Autodesk’s code contribution to the foundation would be renamed MapGuide Open Source, thereby enabling the MapServer name to remain intact and releasing the terms “Enterprise” and “Cheetah” to the worlds of overused phrases and endangered species. Thankfully, that short chapter in the life of this new foundation is over.

Also noteworthy was the fact that Autodesk pledged to fund the foundation through its first full year of existence. This is not a minor point. Foundations are created everyday without funding, with the statistical probability of success lying somewhere between a Christmas tree farm in Vegas and an ice cube factory in Alaska. This funding supported the meeting in Chicago (did I mention it was on a Saturday?) and will likely support meetings to be held in the near future, along with the underlying infrastructure provided by Collabnet. And this financial commitment will continue to support needs in the year ahead, those both foreseen and unforeseen.

So, what do we have here? Is this just another “pie in the sky” idea? Or do we have the start of something real? Clearly, the opportunity exists for OSGEO to become what it aspires to be. With OSGEO comes the opportunity for new partnerships, new business models and new levels of open source technology advancement. OSGEO will provide a new platform for discussions, vision and interaction, with an open door to new perspectives and ideas. No one knows what will come of this new foundation - just like no one knew what would become of Apache. It does appear, however, that this first step is a strong one, and that is all we can ask for.

Published Friday, February 10th, 2006

Written by Kevin Flanders

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