Open Source Geospatial ‘05: Ten Ideas Worthy of Note

By Adena Schutzberg

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?
The plenary 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 output options.)

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 further.

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.

Published Thursday, June 23rd, 2005

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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