FOSS4G PDX Conference: Geospatial Technological Innovation and Diversity are Thriving

By Michael Terner

The Free and Open Source Software for Geospatial (FOSS4G) conference came to Portland, OR from September 9 – 12. For me this conference serves as a bellwether for the overall health of technological diversity in the geospatial industry. As an industry with an extremely strong #1, it can be difficult to ascertain how well numbers 2, 3 and 4 may be doing. The FOSS4G conference provides a strong glimpse into the health and doings outside of #1’s orbit, even as #1 participates in the conference. This was my fourth consecutive year of attending either FOSS4G or the somewhat smaller North American edition that takes place whenthe international event is on a continent outside of North America. And, I believe I found my answer: Geospatial technological innovation and diversity are thriving!

At FOSS4G, there’s a palpable energy in the rooms and a genuine feeling of collaboration. People are here to share what they know and to soak in the collective knowledge of others, and a really strong program backs those goals. And the people came in force. The total attendance topped 870. Conference organizers noted attendees came from more than 30 countries with about 23% from outside of North America. The sound of many languages was in the air, but almost everyone spoke JavaScript. My favorite personal vignette was buying some Euros from a recently-arrived Spaniard who needed dollars at one of the bars hosting a social (my son is studying abroad and I will need the Euros when visiting him in December). Share and share alike, friends helping friends.

One of the strongest parts of FOSS4G was a slate of incredibly interesting and compelling keynote speeches every day. Three of particular note were:

  • Mike Bostock (@mbostock) of the New York Times, who also leads the D3 visualization library open source project, shared numerous beautiful examples of state-of-the-art visualizations, including maps. Bostock reminded me of seeing Edward Tufte in the early 1990s, and is someone who takes both the beauty and info delivery parts of visualization seriously. Unlike Tufte in the 1990s, Bostock’s palette includes animations and other interactive forms of viz. (video)
  • Vladimir Agafonkin (@mourner) of MapBox is the author of the Leaflet JavaScript library. He spoke eloquently on “simplicity” and declared unapologetically that his work was not about GIS. He also declared that one of the driving principles behind Leaflet’s simplicity is “thou shalt not try and cover all the use cases.” (video)
  • Al Shaw (@a_l) works at ProPublica, an online “newsroom” that does a smaller number of stories that dig extremely deep. He closed the show with a bang on Friday. Shaw described how ProPublica’s stories are delivered almost like “apps” and include interactive graphics and data that the reader can manipulate (often created and delivered with open source tools). He beautifully described three stories that at their core were about “geographic accountability.” The topics were gerrymandering, sinking land in the Mississippi delta and an inquiry into the quality of FEMA mapping following Hurricane Sandy hitting New York City. (video)

All three talks were brilliant and compelling and made you feel like you were truly watching some of the best minds related to our industry. But, these sure weren’t “GIS talks.” They are well worth a watch via the conference video archive.

As a non-programmer, I’ve watched with interest as FOSS4G evolves to try and balance the programmer core that birthed the conference while expanding ever further to provide content to non-programmers. There’s an increasing audience that is interested in the business of open source as well as “case studies” that focus more on what open source projects have done and accomplished as opposed to their technical underpinnings. In my unscientific estimation, the last four years have seen a steady increase in case studies; this year they made up about one-third of the program.

There was some business buzz at the conference with the news that CartoDB was taking on $7 million in venture capital investment. CartoDB completes a trifecta, joining Boundless and MapBox, as a recipient of significant VC investment. All three companies use and support FOSS4G and OpenStreetMap.

The following provides a flavor of some of the sessions I attended and some of the “human interest” vignettes that make this conference unique:

  • Adam Johnson (@colmbus) of Gnomon (small consulting firm out of Reno, NV) shared how he reworked some open source, client-side point clustering tools to work on the server to accommodate the large number of points in his use case dataset. During the Q&A almost every “question” was actually a suggestion from the audience on how to improve the approach. It turned into a collective brainstorm with Johnson saying “yeah, that’s a great idea” often. It culminated with someone asking what client-side clustering framework he was using, and of course it was the author of that framework who asked that question, and had one last suggestion for improving the tool.
  • Paul Ramsey (@pwramsey) of Boundless, and the caretaker of the PostGIS project, gave a talk titled “PostGIS for Managers.” In his opening to a packed room he asked, “How many of you are managers?” Only about 10% of the audience raised their hands. Then he asked, “Then why are you here?” Someone blurted out, “So we know what to do to sell our managers on open source.”
  • There was a sparsely attended talk by Michael Ross from the Province of British Columbia in which he described the use of MapServer and other tools to help distribute the Province’s geo data. What was interesting, and understated by Ross, is that British Columbia is the first province to do so, and has done it voluntarily, as Canada does not have open public record laws. Great small technical innovations within a province doing a major policy innovation.
  • Two case study talks stood out and illustrated the use of open source in addressing important business and societal issues. Colin Reilly (@ColinReillyNY) of NYC spoke on his public snow plow tracking application powered by the Boundless stack; and Paul Ramirez (@pramirez624) from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory talked about how open source is helping with data processing and data visualization from a new sensor designed to detect snow pack depth in the Sierra Nevada in an effort to predict water availability in the spring and summer (which is doubly relevant given California’s current drought).

Good conferences are even better when they are well organized and the “PDX organizing committee” deserves a huge shout-out for an incredibly smooth running conference in a great venue in a really fun, walkable and beautiful city. They got all the details right, the food was great and I experienced absolutely no hiccups. There was also great public transportation and the whole show took the trolley to the social using TriMet tickets provided by the conference. It was no surprise that TriMet itself is a heavy user of FOSS4G and actively participated in the conference. On top of the best conference booklet I’ve ever used, I was not alone in observing two details that made a difference and illustrated the level of thought that went into the show:

  • Conference name badges were printed on both sides so it didn’t matter if your lanyard got twisted.
  • The Friday morning session started at 10AM ,1.5 hours later than on previous days, to accommodate the “extra sleep” that many needed following the rollicking social and associated after-hours festivities.

For me, there was no doubt about the strong yes answer to my question on the health of geospatial players beyond #1 and I would strongly encourage people to check it out for themselves. And if you do, I’d offer one tip to those who might be attending their first FOSS4G: Never be shy about simply following the name brand techies, impresarios and JavaScript gurus. I did this to a large extent and the following people played to full houses and certainly didn’t disappoint. Indeed, it’s always fun to watch great minds at work no matter the topic:

  • Ben Balter (@benbalter) from GitHub
  • Frank Warmerdam (@nfwarmerdam) recently of Google, now at Planet Labs
  • Andrew Turner (@ajturner) from Esri
  • Alan McConchie (@mappingmashups) from Stamen
  • Calvin Metcalf (@cwmma) from AppGeo

Time to start getting ready for the next two FOSS4G events!

Published Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

Written by Michael Terner

Published in

Open Source

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