FOSS4G 2007: Open Source Geospatial Matures

By Adena Schutzberg

_8Author's note: OSGeo paid for my travel and lodging.

The Free and Open Source Software for Geospatial Conference (FOSS4G) 2007, held in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, is the fifth "formal" gathering of the open source geospatial community. To be sure, there have also been product-specific gatherings, including those for GRASS. The series to which I refer grew out of a MapServer User Meeting in 2002; it's evolved, and with the involvement of the Open Source Geospatial (OSGeo) Foundation, has become the premiere event for the community. I've attended two other meetings in this series, in Ottawa and Minneapolis. This year I was asked to provide a "wrap up" as part of the closing session. These are the themes I presented, which all neatly fall under an overarching theme of "maturity."


The experiences of the last few years (from the development of projects, to the creation of OSGeo, among other things) have given the FOSS4G community a confidence that I didn't feel in the past. While the FOSS4G community is still "fighting for market share" in the way that free software does, I sense a "this community is here to stay" attitude. What are the other sources of this confidence? One is the experience of doing "homework." As one attendee put it, and I paraphrase, "We banged on MapServer for three years to convince ourselves it could do the job." Another source of this maturity and related confidence comes from the natural progression as projects are born, live and move into old age. At the same time, new projects spring up to take their places. (I'd pick OpenLayers as the new kid on the block.) Some have longer lifetimes, others, shorter ones. Seeing, respecting and making business decisions based on that "circle of life" shows a level of confidence for the future.

A "Real" Conference
While I've missed a few meetings in this series, notably the last edition of this event, the 2007 event struck me as a "real" conference. I don't mean any disrespect to the previous events; they were terrific. With a functioning organization (and a paid employee) behind the conference, a larger number of attendees (nearly 700), and more sponsors, FOSS4G is an event to which "geeks" could (and should!) invite their "suit" bosses. I do want to emphasize that the growth and changes have not had any impact on the energized, fast-paced environment of collaboration that seems to spring up each time this community gathers.

Stack Changes
I see a change in the answer to this question, which I've posed to attendees over the last few years: "What software are you working with?" In the past the response was typically a single product: "MapServer" or "Grass." It was the rare exception when a respondent offered more than one product. This year, almost without exception, respondents listed at least three products – and they were typically a list of open source projects (always listed first!), followed by the name of a proprietary vendor's product or family of products. So, I'd hear: "PostGIS, Grass, QGIS and ArcInfo." Several things are going on here:
  • Attendees are actually using more parts of the open source stack
  • The open source stack better integrates with itself and with proprietary solutions
  • Attendees think about/talk about their stacks differently than in the past, especially as players like Autodesk, ESRI and Leica participate in the community
GIS/Open Source Newbies
I make this observation based on the sample of attendees with whom I shared coffee or a chat before a session. I suggest that the proportion of attendees new to GIS or new to geospatial was rather high. (I asked this question at the final session and estimate about one-quarter of the hands went up.) I met people who have used proprietary GIS for years and attended at the urging of their colleagues. I met IT professionals who'd never played with GIS and saw it as part of their business' future. It's a huge responsibility for the community to welcome and help educate both of these groups. This draw of new blood suggests maturity in the sense that the FOSS4G community is no longer "talking to itself."

The FOSS4G Community is "Just Like" the Rest of the GIS Community
Schuyler Earle, in his lightning talk in the opening session, identified Public Participation GIS (PPGIS) as one of the key "dimensions" in his analysis of the conference content. One "session" I attended had two medical application papers followed by a PPGIS one. The attendance rose to standing room only for the last presentation. PPGIS is one of the "hot topics" in the rest of the GIS community. (It has its own conference, organized by URISA.) There was also buzz in this community about other "hot" topics in the broader community; I heard many excited conversations about open source solutions for mobile apps, location determination, and collaboration. Part of this, I suspect, is simply that the community has reached significant numbers and hence represents the range of interests, customers and users in the wider geospatial and IT communities. Equally important, the open source community and its superset of the geospatial community are realizing that overlap. That's in part why so many predominantly proprietary software vendors served as sponsors and had booths in the exhibit area. The FOSS4G community is making new friends in the wider world and working through any prejudices and fears. That shows maturity!

I would identify the pursuit of effective business models and development funding as far "calmer" than in past years. My sense was that Arnolf Chistl's admonition in his lightning talk that attendees "get paid" for their work was well received. Highlighting a few of the funding providers noted in presentations shows the breadth and depth of potential sources: Google Summer of Code, GeoConnections, a variety of international acronyms noted in the uDIG Case study session, OGC, local governments, consulting firms. I'm not suggesting those building FOSS4G tools can all sit back and relax and the money will flow in, but rather that the pool, and those contributing to it, has gotten far larger. The community is moving out of its parents' place and managing a place of its own.

The demand for open source geospatial education is growing. Students are demanding such training to give them an edge in the marketplace. Faculty members are looking to broaden student experiences: one educator uses open source in introductory courses, then moves on to proprietary later. Faculty and others who support research in their universities are finding open source a viable and valuable resource. Faculty in attendance were already "open sourcing" course materials. Looking to the next generation, caring for it, educating it, is what "grown ups" do.

In 2008, the FOSS4G event moves to Cape Town, South Africa (proposal). Among the reasons to consider attending are: (1) outreach to local players in Africa and other developing regions and (2) that the event will be held in tandem with the traditional regional GIS conference.

Published Wednesday, October 3rd, 2007

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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