my GIS career, I
wanted to produce digital
maps at home.
Of course, I couldn't use tools I had access to at work due to
licensing and cost restrictions.This led me to investigate open
source GIS and mapping alternatives.I dove in and never looked back.
In fact, what began as a hobby has become a strategic
my consultancy work.I am bringing open source tools into the
corporate enterprise to replace or augment proprietary tools.It is
rather ironic that proprietary licensing pushed me to find
alternatives and that these alternatives are, in turn, supplanting
The benefits of open source are a stark contrast to
options, particularly in the high-priced world of GIS software.The
following is a general overview of some positive benefits of open
What Is Open Source GIS?
Open source software refers to software projects that
programming source code openly available for others to use.It is
free to use and customise, and is generally unrestricted in its
Think of your favourite GIS and mapping programs for
analysis, web-based mapping, command line data conversion and
geospatial application programming.Then consider what it would be
like to have complete freedom to distribute and customise those
tools, with no licensing fees.Would it be encouraging, profitable
and maybe even fun? For me it was all three and more.Open source
software reminded me of why I studied GIS in the first place: to
investigate the world around me, for business or for pleasure.
Open source GIS and mapping projects are akin to
other open source software projects, such as those hosted by
SourceForge.The principles they hold to
are summed up well by the Open
Source Initiative.Their site provides in-depth articles and
discussions about open source software.
Clearing the Open Air
The word "open," when referring to software, is
sometimes misunderstood and can mean different things to different
people.In software development there are two primary distinctions,
one being open source software, and the other being open standards or
protocols, designed to enhance interoperability.The term "Open
usually refers to the work of the Open
Geospatial Consortium (OGC).
The OGC provides specifications for
sharing geospatial data and connecting applications, and has but only a
loose connection with open source software.In particular, OGC's
specifications are freely available, just as open source programs are,
and some open source projects implement those specifications.
If you are confused about the difference between
and open source software, you are not alone.In some cases it is
particularly vague, implying the benefits of "open source"
when it is merely a reference to being able to share information with
Why Consider Open Source Software
Using or developing open source software has five
advantages, which I list below.
This is not to suggest it is suitable for everyone.Your business
model, client base or other factors may not fit well with an open
source philosophy.A program you need may not be mature enough to use
in mission-critical applications, or your company might not have the
required internal expertise.
Many projects have active communities.Support may come
lists, live Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channels, commercial support
packages, books, etc.The most powerful aspect of the open source
community is that others also want the product to succeed.You have
instant allies for troubleshooting and sharing ideas.Volunteer
support is nothing new, even for proprietary products, but the
striking difference is that your voice is heard and appreciated.You
will probably even communicate with the programmer in charge of the
When deficiencies are noticed, the discoverer is able
define the problem or even fix it.Developers of the project have
publicly accessible bug tracking tools that users are encouraged to
populate. Like-minded users and developers are
able to work together,
sharing code or the costs of funding program improvements that
neither could afford individually. Open source
communities are active, encouraging, a great source
for finding new ideas and often the first to see innovate
applications of technology being developed.
Open source communities and projects encourage
ideas, needs and problems you think are important are probably
already on the minds of others.Together, you can better define needs
and suggest changes to the developers.
Innovation is key for competitive business.There are
innovative applications for technology using closed source products,
but only as far as the product itself can be stretched.With open
source projects, the underlying technology can be improved and
customised, giving you a more competitive edge.Customised software
is in high demand.This demand cannot be easily met by closed source
Open source projects use a variety of licensing
more restrictive than others, but all aim to provide greater freedom.
The most common licensing limitation involves incorporating code into
your own proprietary product.Some open source licenses require you
to make your changes publicly available.For average users, this will
never be a problem.
In all cases, the freedom extends to allowing you to
use as many
copies of the software, on as many computers, by as many people as
you want.Contrast this with the closed source model where every
possible way of limiting users is employed to produce revenue from
licensing fees based on the number of users, computers, CPU, amount
of use and so on.
The increased freedom for programmers is undeniable.
developing a whole project from scratch, existing open source
products or libraries can be used.Previously developed code can be
incorporated, speeding up project development.A programmer may also
choose to share a product with others, and in turn receive help
Freedom to deliver products in many different ways
source a strategic option for companies looking to keep their clients
happy.For example, in the open source world you could use a product
like MapServer to serve
up a mapping program to a client.You could also take that product
and install it on the client's own network.You could make it more of
a stand-alone product, running only on your client's desktop
computer.You could put it on a CD or flash memory card and pass it
around, etc.You get the idea.You have the freedom to choose how to
deliver a product.Clients appreciate the sense of ownership and
Any time you combine community, innovation and freedom,
tend to be much more interesting, even fun.Many open source users
really enjoy being involved in community-based projects.Single
person consultancies can find it an opportunity to work with other
programmers.For corporations, staff are able to interact with others
in the field who share the same needs and interests.Working with a
broader community than your local sphere can be very satisfying.
Some believe that the more expensive a product is,
the better it is."You get what you pay for" doesn't always
hold true.Open source alleviates stress by reducing the cost.You can
then focus on the real tasks at hand:
implementation and customisation.
Costs for open source software are as good as it gets -
are not charged for using, improving or implementing open source
Because the code is openly accessible, you can reduce
choosing to program internally rather than outsourcing.Likewise, if
you are not in a position to do modifications, you can hire expert
programmers who are familiar with the product, or others that you
When you hire an open source developer, you are
to the product long after that programmer is finished.Contrast this
with closed source applications.Move away from the parent company
and your investment is lost.With open source you have all the code
you paid to develop and can pass it on to another consultant in the
Cost ties into all the other aspects mentioned in this
especially innovation.Combining the benefits of licensing and costs,
you have an incredible opportunity to provide innovative solutions.
When costs and licensing are no longer a barrier, unlimited
possibilities are before you.
When source code is available, it can be ported to
systems and hardware platforms that a vendor might never support.
Longevity and stability are another positive aspect.By having
access to the source code you can choose what version to use and when
to upgrade.You can even take your version of choice and continue to
develop it on your own if desired.
There are many open source GIS and mapping products
Below are a few good links to help you explore the options.