It is nearly common knowledge that GIS finds its origins in
government agencies in that great northern territory we know as Canada.
I say "nearly because there are still those who believe that GIS was
created by proprietary software vendors ... which Ill bet makes the
marketing guys at these companies more than happy with themselves.
GIS is believed to have originated in Canada. The renowned "Father of
GIS, Roger Tomlinson, calls Ottawa, Ontario his home and has been a
resident since the 1960s. His early work with computer mapping is
identified as the worlds first steps towards the GIS industry we all
know and love.
This article, however, goes beyond Canadas role as the birthplace of
GIS. I want to summarize Canadas role in open source GIS. I do not
wish to downplay the contributions of other countries around the world,
but only to shine a light on a number of contributors throughout Canada
who seem, collectively, to be setting the table.
I have learned through my conversations that Americans are not the only
people who like to talk about their country. Just ask a Canadian about
Canada, pull up a chair, grab a plate of poutine with gravy,
and settle in. Of course, this is all fine because the stories are
There is, of course, the world of MapServer. While it is true
that MapServer came to us from Steve Lime out of the University of
Minnesota in 1994 (Minnesota is far enough north to require travel
south to access parts of Canada), it is also true that several
Canadians have been instrumental in MapServers development. First,
there is Frank Warmerdam out of Eganville, Ontario and his Shapelib
library. Lime picked up the library and supported the first versions of
MapServer. Warmerdam went on to add OGR and GDAL, which bring
tremendous vector and raster data support to MapServer and other open
source software. Along with others, Warmerdam has also been a lead
developer of OpenEV, a
powerful 2D and 3D image classification, editing, conversion, analysis,
reprojection and management tool released under the GNU LGPL open
If Lime is considered the "Father of MapServer, then no discussion of
the origins of MapServer are complete without giving credit to the
"Mother of MapServer: Daniel Morissette. Formerly of DM Solutions,
Morissette currently heads Mapgears, located in Chicoutimi, Quebec.
Morissette and Lime starting working together on MapServer technology
in 2000. They collaborated over the Internet; they would not meet in
person until 2004. Morissette and the rest of DM Solutions helped: port
MapServer to run on the Windows platform; enable Php Mapscript as a
scripting tool; provide support for OGCs Web Map Service (WMS) and Web
Feature Service (WFS) specifications; add a lot of much needed
DM Solutions, out of Ottawa, Ontario, continues to this day to make
contributions to MapServer and open source mapping tools by providing
us with Chameleon (an open source software platform that "widgetizes"
mapping components for ease of site development), kaMap (an open source
AJAX mapping platform similar in functionality to Google Maps), and
MapLab (an open source Internet software platform for the construction
of mapping websites). All these tools and more are supported on www.maptools.org. DM Solutionss
role in the GIS open source industry has certainly been one of
leadership, providing that element of support that is often lacking in
open source environments.
In 2001, Refractions Research
entered the open source picture with the release of PostGIS, a spatial
database add-on to the open source object-relational database
PostgreSQL. This package rivals the functionality and performance of
ESRIs SDE software, providing a significant advancement in spatial
data handling for MapServer and other open source software titles.
Refractions Research, out of Victoria, British Columbia, currently
offers a desktop GIS software product called uDig. Based on GeoTools
(which is based on the JTS Topology Suite, or JTS), uDig brings
Java-based GIS desktop tools to the open source industry.
JTS was created by another Canadian company called Vivid Solutions. Just four
blocks down the street from Refractions Research in Victoria, Vivid
Solutions created JTS en route to production of a Java-based desktop
GIS software called JUMP. JUMP, largely the brainchild of Martin Davis
of Vivid, has been very successful in the open source industry,
providing many of the common functions expected of a desktop GIS and
enabling Java programmers to build plug-ins.
Finally, I need to discuss the Canadian contributors from Autodesk. While Autodesk is an
American company, its MapGuide roots come from a Calgary-based company
(Argus) that Autodesk purchased in 1995. The lead architect for that
software, and todays MapGuide software, is Bob Bray. Bray still
resides in Calgary. Of course, MapGuide made significant news when
Autodesk released MapGuide Open Source to the Open Source Geospatial
Foundation last year (www.osgeo.org).
This event is one of the most popular points of discussion in the GIS
open source industry and promises to remain so as open source
developers watch how Autodesk operates in this new role. Additionally,
Autodesks Ottawa office is the primary source of support for its
Feature Data Object (FDO) software, a now open source package that
supports retrieval and update of spatial and nonspatial GIS feature
So, there we have it. The Canadians have certainly earned their seat at
the table with their contributions to open source GIS. You have to ask
yourself. ... Why? Why Canada? Why not the USA? Why not other countries?
Well, certainly other countries have contributed. European countries
and the United States have indeed contributed with products like
GeoTools, GeoServer, MapBender, MapBuilder, OSSIM and others. But
Canada seems far ahead of all the others. My research indicates a
possible reason for this is government funding.
Early forestry GIS work by Tomlinson and others was largely funded by
the Canadian federal government. Warmerdams work with Shapelib, OGR,
and GDAL was largely funded by GeoConnections
(a national partnership program to evolve and expand the Canadian
Geospatial Data Infrastructure), Canadian Forestry, Environment Canada
and the Atlas of Canada. DM Solutions work with MapServer and other
open source titles has been primarily funded by Parks Canada, Natural
Resources Canada, the Canadian Coast Guard, the Public Health Agency
Canada, and Geological Survey Canada. Vivid Solutions work with JTS
was largely funded by the Provincial Government of British Columbia.
Refractions Researchs work with uDig and other open source titles was
mostly funded by the Canadian federal government.
With this level of support over so many years, it is easier to see why
Canada has taken such a leadership role in the GIS open source world. I
have to ask why such support is lacking in the United States. Actually,
once you learn about the large government contracts with proprietary
GIS software vendors that exist in the US, it makes sense. This type of
software contracting is common in the US. As a matter of fact, it was
big news when the State of Massachusetts decided to move to "open
standards," ending the long term contracting opportunity that Microsoft
once had with the state.
There have been government investments in GIS software in the US,
including the USGS and Army Corp of Engineers investments in GRASS,
PROJ.4 and GCTP, as well as NASAs support of MapServer and Worldwind.
But that funding seems to have given way to proprietary software
contracts over the past several years.
Certainly, there are good reasons for a government to pursue contracts
with proprietary software vendors, with support contracts possibly
being the single largest factor. But this may change with the GIS
industry clearly becoming focused on Internet software, where support
(including onsite support) may become less of a factor. And certainly
the argument can be made that such factors are more short-term in
nature than long term ... is it fair to ask a government to think long