Open Source Geospatial ‘05: Ten Ideas Worthy of Note
The Open Source Geospatial (OSG '05)
meeting, which included MUM3 (MapServer User Meeting 3) and EOGEO (an
international event started by the Committee for Earth Observation
Satellites - CEOS - in 1996) was held last week in Minneapolis.Here
are the ideas and themes that ran through the event.
1) What is the future of GRASS?
session on the past and present state of GRASS, the open source GIS once funded
by the U.S.government, turned quite a lot of heads.Many, many
attendees said the same thing to me, "I'd not looked at it in 2/5/10
years.I'll have to now!" What prompted those reactions? Mostly, it was
updates to the interface and the possibility of front-ending it with
QGIS (a new open source desktop GIS), along with scripting
options and other goodies that make it far more user friendly than ever
before.Several CD offerings that run the whole package directly off a
CD (nothing to install) and simple one-button installs make it more
amenable to stress-free use or installation on many platforms.When a
"lighter weight" desktop open source or Web solutions needs more GIS
power, GRASS is the big tool that has it all.
So, the question is, will this renewed interest by the open source
community mean a resurgence of interest in the once "put out to
pasture" GRASS? It's possible; most attendees agree there is nothing as
powerful in the open source arena.The renewed interest in easy to use,
but limited functionality toting desktop projects means that when those
reach the end of their capabilities, GRASS will be the powerhouse of
choice to take them further.
2) Where is IBM?
IBM is the biggest, most vocal proponent of open source.It's even got
an active (commercial) GIS group, which has had a close relationship
with ESRI of late.But IBM wasn't in attendance at OSG 05.Why? One
attendee said that this space it too small for it to take an
interest.IBM seems to come back to GIS regularly, first with
GFIS in the 1980's and more recently with renewed interest in
integration with ESRI.I suspect that IBM is focusing on broader, more
horizontal tools in its open source efforts, so GIS may be too
specialized, at least at this time.On the other hand, it'd be great to
see the company support the open source geospatial arena.The company
is bound to be able to take advantage of it.
3) Big Milestones
I challenged attendees to help me identify key milestones from the last
year that illustrate/explain/document the growth of the open source
geospatial community.They and I share this list.
General interest in open source. Use and coverage of open source in
general IT continues to explode.That's helping educate the general
public and the geospatial community about the reality of open source
and perhaps allays some of the "fear, uncertainty and doubt" (FUD)
offered at every turn by detractors.Demand for documentation of return
on investment and total cost of ownership are helping all open source
projects gain credibility worldwide.
Commercial players stepping forward.ER Mapper's commitment
to both share its code under open source licenses and fund one of the
key libraries (GDAL) is a huge step forward.Many are hopeful the small
company will set a precedent for others looking to benefit from, and
contribute, to the community.
Open source geospatial projects looking for funding. Paul Ramsey
of Refractions Research is tapping PostGIS users not to fund to PostGIS
work, but rather to fund updating some limitations in the underlying
PostGres database (1,2).
In particular, he hopes to raise enough funds to have key coders
implement row level locking.He reports positive responses but still
needs another commitment or two.
O'Reilly acknowledges geospatial.O'Reilly (the publishing company)
committed in the past year to not one but two books on mapping.(Mapping Hacks
is now available and Web Mapping
Illustrated should be available any day.) These are technical "how
to" books from the most respected publisher of programming and
technology books, not academic treatises that have come from other
publishers, nor product specific books such as those published by ESRI.
(Recall that ESRI publishes books at least in part to support sales of
its software; O'Reilly does not.) Further, much of the content of the
two books focuses on open source solutions.
Google Maps.While not an open source project by any stretch,
the open API provided (intentionally or not) an opportunity for
developers to play in ways they'd not before.The first contribution
"inspired" by the offering to my knowledge is DM Solutions' ka-Map.Further, since the
hacking community is generally very open source savvy, if Google Maps
prompted interest, it's likely open source solutions might be the first
areas to explore, before say, ESRI's offerings.
Conference growth. The OSG conference has doubled in size in
each of its iterations in the last three years, with just over 300
attendees (and some turned away) this year.(Next year's event will be
in Europe; it's unclear how that will impact total attendance.) As one
attendee put it, the event reminded him of when Intel released the 8080
chip: for the first time he could build his own computer and not have
to lease time on a mainframe from IBM.
4) Open Source and the Developed/Developing World
With some 22 countries represented at the conference from Cuba to
Venezuela and projects tackling the creation of shareable data of the world, London and Mumbai, the
importance of open source as a viable solution for the developed and
developing world is growing.While EOGEO wants to put the tools in the
hands of NGOs, commercial and educational organizations are finding
these solutions fit their needs and wants as well.Even in developed
Japan, commercial pricing (from traditional GIS players) is pushing
savvy business people to GRASS and MapServer and spurring new
partnerships across the globe.
5) Open Source vs.Commercial
What cultural or timing factors impact the "ways" of open source vs.
the "ways" of commercial software? Two came up several times in my
conversations.Commercial software has moved rather quickly from
focusing on operating systems (though of course some companies -
notably, Sun and Microsoft - still play there) to the "user experience"
of end-user apps.Open source solutions, for a variety of reasons, have
been most successful on the server side (Apache, MapServer) and with
operating sytems (Linux, FreeBSD).
Another difference, which I suggest is "generational," involves
printing.Commercial software (think Microsoft, Autodesk, for example)
is all about paper.Printing documents is a key part of the "user
experience." That's perhaps linked to the "paper" generations.The
"open source" generation, perhaps, is still thinking it's the
"paperless office" generation.For that reason, perhaps, printing has
always been a challenge.That's long been a criticism of open source
desktop GISs.(Interestingly, GRASS has some complex, but powerful
6) The Explosion of Desktop Options
In my first serious explorations of open source (before last year's
conference) I specifically asked about open source desktop GIS options.
"Where's the ArcView?" Back then, the offerings were pretty limited
with GRASS (a big, complex desktop solution) and MapServer (a Web
mapping solution) taking most of the energy of developers.This year
desktop options are everywhere! QGIS
has gotten quite a lot of Internet press courtesy of an aggressive
"marketing" campaign.(It was shown quite a bit at the conference,
though as I understand it the QGIS guys were not there.) uDIG, the new desktop offering
from Refractions Research, was the focus of several sessions (complete
with t-shirts) and numerous demos.JUMP,
a Java-based offering, didn't have quite the buzz as last year, but
continues to be a player in this space.While these (and other up and
coming offerings) will likely "duke it out" in the open source user and
developer world in the coming months and years as they mature, they
clearly represent a new era in open source geospatial.
7) Interest from Commercial Players
Whereas last year the most commercial players at the conference might
have been DM Solutions and Refractions Research (each of which takes
responsibility for key open source projects), this year the presence of
Autodesk, ESRI and Intergraph (and Mitre and SAIC) changed the
landscape.Why were they here? "We can't ignore open source anymore; we
need to understand it," was one explanation I heard.Another, "we hope
to do what ER Mapper did." That said, one attendee was bold enough to
share his opinion in a session that "having Autodesk here makes me
nervous." My suspicion is that he was not alone.Another comment from
that crowd, "It's pleasing to hear about how users are running both
[our software] and open source together."
8) Developing a Community
I was touched that after receiving the first Sol Katz award for
contribution to the OSG community, Frank Warmerdam alluded to his first
Open Geospatial Consortium meeting.At that event the Kenneth Gardels
award was presented.(It's a parallel sort of award, named after an OGC
founder who died young, as did Katz.) Warmerdam noted that it helped
him see that this was not just a bunch of people battling about
standards, but one that truly was a community of people.The fact that
no one on the planet expected anyone else but Warmerdam to receive the
award, and that everyone stood to acknowledge him when it was
announced, helped tighten the connections of this community even
9) Swapping Seats or a Rising Tide?
I received mixed signals about whether open source solutions were
taking seats from commercial developers or tapping into a new market.
If seats were to be taken away, the consensus seems to be (and I agree)
ESRI's seats are being swapped.That's in part due to its largest
number of seats, but perhaps to other factors as well including a
strong interest in open source from the natural resources arena, a
traditional market for ESRI.More than one presentation alluded to
aggressive marketing by ESRI in competition with open source.Others
suggest that open source is simply causing a rising tide, that is, more
potential customers are being exposed to the idea of geospatial and
hence making more opportunity for both open source and commercial
offerings.Yes, I agree that the guy who sells surf boards might not
have been a traditional GIS software customer...
10) Bottom Line: More
This year's event was about "more" in many ways.More projects.More
uses.More bridges between programs (both open source and commercial).
More questions about the business case for open source.There were, I'm
told, more formal meetings between attendees (actual appointments, vs.
"let's get together some time...").And, from the energy that ran from
day 1 through day 3, I see no reason that this community will not
continue to grow and continue to contribute to the larger geospatial
landscape in ways we can't even imagine right now.