The Free and Open Source Software for Geospatial (FOSS4G) Conference Wrap Up

By Joe Francica

Ed. Note: This is a collection of blog posts published on Directions Magazine's All Points Blog between Sept. 14 - 16. We present them here in their entirety.

FOSS4G 2011: Opening Plenary Session Recap

Between the most humble host, Peter Batty, the gregarious and t-shirt endowed OSGeo president, Arnulf Christl, and the comic relief of Paul Ramsey, the opening session of FOSS4G presented a fusion of open source-related anecdotes, history and common sense.

Conference Chairman Peter Batty of Ubisense opened the formal part of FOSS4G 2011 (workshops were held the two days prior to the opening plenary) by announcing a new attendance record of over 900. Batty recognized the many contributors to the conference and stated that he wanted the conference to remain true to its roots, being one that is more focused on technology and not "sales-y." Since open source technology is often seen as more cost-effective because of the idea that it’s "free," Batty also cautioned that he was not seeing significant difference in costs between proprietary software and open source. He said that while it might be easier to find support when needed for open source software, in his work he might lean toward taking a "hybrid" approach, using both "closed" (i.e. proprietary) and "open" software to solve problems.

Arnulf Christ, president of OSGeo, led off by proclaiming that his organization is the "leading voice for open source geospatial software" and articulating how the organization has built a sound library of resources for open source projects including infrastructure, legal and financial types of support. However, he said the organization needs to do a better job in two areas. The first is in demonstrating the value of sponsorship in OSGeo so that private supporters will see a return on their investment. The organization has few large corporate sponsors now. The second area for improvement is in the educational community where he believes that educators are not currently as knowledgeable as they should be in working with open source geospatial technology, and hence we are not seeing students familiar with open source solutions bringing that into the workplace. "Please spread the word," he implored those educators in the audience.

Paul Ramsey of OpenGeo quoted a study from the 451 Group, which reported that open source is not a business model; it is a business tactic, a software and distribution model enabled by a software license. He drew an analogy with the publisher of a newspaper whereby the intrinsic value is in the sum of its parts. That is, writers contribute a plethora of diverse stories that, in the end, are delivered to subscribers. In a second analogy, he compared software developers to "a hive of bees" and that someone must manage the bees to get the "honey," that is, a marketable product.

Animated discussions then followed about business models and monetization – a sure sign that the open source community is maturing.

Open Source Reality Check

There was buzz and excitement at the Free and Open Source Software for Geospatial (FOSS4G) conference as it formally kicked off today in Denver. But why wouldn't there be? It was the largest such gathering of this community of open source geo professionals ever, with over 900 attendees!

However, as my colleague Adena Schutzberg reminded me before attending this year, you have to understand one thing: open source software is, after all, just software.

So I prepared to cover this event with a mindset to not get caught up in the buzz and judge the event and the products being demonstrated from a more objective perspective. In short, as Adena also suggested, FOSS4G is "just another GIS conference."

Much of the interest in open source software is that, in most cases, the software is considered "free." You download and use it. No support, no or few license restrictions, nothing or little in the way of help files, but a community willing to supply you with whatever plug-in you need to make it as good or better than commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) software. 

To hear Paul Ramsey of OpenGeo describe open source software, it should be the only choice to consider if you are looking for a geospatial technology solution. I would disagree, because, wait, it's just software.

Having been down the road a few times with a few companies in supporting the development and design of software (including one grassroots effort with which I was involved in the mid ‘80s that saw the integration of AutoCAD and dBase into a home-grown GIS solution for a major oil company where I worked), I can assume that open source comes with the same problems as COTS: delays in development, bugs, functionality that is only as good as the design, etc. 

Then there is the business model. It's just software so whichever company has taken up the charge of developing on an open source software architecture still has the same issues with clients: deliver on time, fix the bugs, support new (that is, neophyte) users. In the end, all companies here at the event still have to keep the lights on somehow. There is, after all, a profit motive in open source software development too.

The reality is that open source software is just another choice. I would advise anyone who has for years used COTS solutions to try open source products because they are a viable option. The community is maturing, hence a great turnout at FOSS4G 2011. More companies, even commercial providers like Esri, are getting involved because it makes good business sense. Many solutions from MapServer to QGIS are sound, viable options from which to choose. There is great support from a huge and growing global community and a code library that would rival any commercial company. Therefore, if you are either an integrator or an end user, an open source solution should be evaluated on the same level playing field as any other choice.

Building a Brand Around Open Source

Some of the discussions that could be heard in the hallways were around the issue of branding and whether it makes sense to continue to promote the organization, OSGeo, or the conference, FOSS4G. Both have gained an element of notoriety but confusion ensues in linking the two to essentially the same goal, that is, the promotion of open source software as a viable alternative to commercial software. A few were emphatic that the organization should rename itself to the same "brand name" as the conference. Yet, OSGeo probably has more immediate traffic to its website because it represents the “going concern” of the community.

It will be a challenge for the new OSGeo board to tackle. But in terms of Marketing 101, you “brand extend” the product and leverage the corporate brand where possible to grow to a larger entity. For example, there is Coke, Diet Coke, Coke Zero but Sprite is also a product of the Coca-Cola Company. Coca-Cola is rarely identified as the product much anymore. So, OSGeo, if it wants to extend the brand, might consider FOSS4G North America, FOSS4G Europe, etc. But what to do about OSGeo? That's more of a challenge. 

This, however, represents the growing pains of the open source community. It's a good problem to have because it signifies a movement that people are passionate about preserving.

The “Freemium” Business Model at the Ordnance Survey

Peter ter Haar, director of products at the Ordnance Survey (OS), the national mapping agency of the United Kingdom, discussed how his organization radically challenged and changed its approach to geospatial data access. The OS had been known to offer its large portfolio of data for a high price tag. In the era of Google Maps and online data that at least appear "free," a new model had to be considered. As such, the OS adopted a freemium model and now offers some data "free" and its premium data for a fee. But where to draw the line? ter Haar says the OS wrestled with this challenge but also admits that this will continue to be an issue, and adjustments will continue to be made. The OS is addressing this from the standpoint of how much value geospatial data bring to the UK government. While the OS is an agency of the government, it must be self-funding. It is overseen by other government and private entities but it is essentially a private company. To help the OS in establishing its value, it is relying on ACIL Tasman, a consultancy that has performed this type of analysis for the governments of Australia and New Zealand.

The Intersection of Open Source and Commercial Software

One of the more cogent presentations of the FOSS4G conference was delivered by Dale Lutz of Safe Software, whose talk focused on the interoperability challenges between open source and commercial software. Safe has a unique position in that it offers spatial extract, transfer and load (ETL) solutions that leverage both internally developed and open source technology. Lutz mentioned the challenges in keeping the licensing agreements intact when Safe sells products that include both.

Lutz said that the issue of choice comes down to either saving time or saving money. For some people, using open source software will take too much time. As a private vendor, Safe tries to mitigate the time issue and provide value with many additional services and products. So, as a model, Safe has a foot in both camps. But Safe might provide the template for the company that is just getting established with open source tools but quickly finds that productization of value-added software affords a better business opportunity. Lutz cautioned the audience, "Don't be too religious about any particular argument," suggesting that it may not be feasible to go entirely open source or entirely commercial if you are out to solve a business problem in the most efficient manner possible (again, the hybrid suggested by Peter Batty in the opening FOSS4G plenary).

Lutz also quoted from a 2009 article in The Economist suggesting that the future will be a mix of both open source and proprietary software.

FOSS4G: Where Code Swaps Mix with Business; Well, Not That Much Business

It's true. FOSS4G is still a conference for software developers and open source project managers. But mixed in with the presentations of open source product updates and code clues for the developers was a thread of business realism. Because, at the end of the day, you have to make money. Or, as David DiBiase of Esri mentioned in his presentation, "You have to make a living, before you can make a difference." So, don't think that FOSS4G is just an event for guys and gals playing around in their basements with free software.

Open source software made the leap into mainstream productization many years ago with products like Linux. And while the timeline is shorter by some years, open source geospatial software is already a viable alternative technology to commercial software, to the dismay of several commercial software suppliers. With over 15,000,000 lines of code in the OSGeo library, there is a wealth of contributed intellectual property to make a corporate lawyer drool with envy.  While there is the realization that open source products are viable, this is still just a small community of companies that are making a go of it selling value-added solutions based on open source code. The evidence is in the small number of exhibitors at FOSS4G (and many of those were commercial providers like Esri, Safe Software, MapQuest and DigitalGlobe, the latter two being locally headquartered) and even fewer large corporate sponsors to OSGeo. Arnulf Christ, president of OSGeo, admitted it has not made a very good pitch to companies looking for a return on their investment in the open source movement. Even Autodesk, a long-time investor in open source that placed Map Guide into the public domain several years ago, is now missing in action as a major participant from FOSS4G 2011. Hopefully Peter Batty, a new OSGeo board member and FOSS4G 2011 chairman, can bring his long experience in the commercial software world to this community.

The conference thrives on the language of the developer. Do you speak Phythonese? Then FOSS4G is right for you. Most of the sessions were very product-focused and assumed the audience was familiar with the architecture and community of software developers. There were lots of good code samples and interface examples, as well as information on how to support those developing the products.

The open source community is maturing. There are now many people engaged in development of code and code support. OSGeo will need to come to grips with how it commercializes itself because it needs to promote the good works of its global community if it wants to make the association, as a whole, grow and thrive. In turn, it must promote its members as viable alternatives to commercial software because, let's face it, that IS the competition. Attendees shouldn't think that they'll leave Denver singing Kumbayah unless they feel that  the business model and the community as a whole have been advanced. It can no longer sit back and bask in the notion that it is the independent breed striking out against the forces of proprietary solutions. They are all in the same ballgame and will need to compete as well as find partnerships with the same "nasty hoards" of the proprietary software industry.

For a recap off the Twitter reports, go to @joefrancica.


Published Monday, September 19th, 2011

Written by Joe Francica


Published in

Open Source


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