O Canada! Canadians and Open Source

By Kevin Flanders

_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 I’ll 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 world’s first steps towards the GIS industry we all know and love.

This article, however, goes beyond Canada’s role as the birthplace of GIS. I want to summarize Canada’s 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 interesting.

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 MapServer’s 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 source license.

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 OGC’s Web Map Service (WMS) and Web Feature Service (WFS) specifications; add a lot of much needed documentation.

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 Solutions’s 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 ESRI’s 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 today’s 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, Autodesk’s 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 data.

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. Warmerdam’s 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 Research’s 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 NASA’s 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 term?

Apparently, it is in Canada.

Published Tuesday, June 13th, 2006

Written by Kevin Flanders

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