Open Source Software and OGC Web Services: Life-saving Components in Québec’s Emergency and Disaster Management

By Nicolas Gignac

In situations involving public safety, many organizations need to work together and they need to access diverse types of up-to-date geospatial information in a timely manner.

Over the years, the Ministère de la Sécurité Publique du Québec (MSP) and its partner organizations have embraced the ideas of interoperability, open source software and Web services to more effectively serve Québec's population. The MSP's open, autonomous, on-demand, service-oriented architecture and vendor-independent development model is supported by open Web services standards. These include, among others: the OGC Web Map Service (WMS) Interface Standard, and SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol); open source software, such as UMN (University of Minnesota MapServer, TinyOWS); tiled-based Web maps, such as TileCache; user-friendly map server interfaces, such as OpenLayers and GeoExt; and Web 2.0 capabilities, such as the OGC Web Feature Server – Transactional (WFS-T) Interface Standard.

The MSP has developed modern Web mapping services for partners such as 9-1-1 emergency centers and emergency managers. These services integrate hundreds of distributed geospatial resources through client and server implementations of Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) standards. Most of the MSP's servers use open source software. Some of the MSP's partner organizations use proprietary software, but many use open source solutions provided by the MSP, and all of these software systems interoperate through open standards. This article describes how the Québec-wide open infrastructure enables users and decision makers to quickly locate any incident, analyze hotspots, make simple geospatial requests, and maintain a "common operating picture" during incidents by updating geographic features in real-time.

Geospatial needs in public safety

When dealing with the full cycle of emergency and disaster management (planning, mitigation, preparation, response and recovery), public safety organizations have multiple needs in terms of geospatial information management. When working with partners who have different cultural backgrounds and who use diverse information systems and workflows, a set of common protocols enables better collaboration and reduces time spent analyzing and responding to a particular situation related to public safety.

Figure 1. Emergency Management Continuum (Source: Public Safety Canada, 2011) (Click for larger view.)

In this context, effective sharing and publishing of information is critical.

Emergency and disaster management decision makers need to:

  • Access up-to-date data from many partners
  • Rapidly integrate multisource situation reports that are often at different scales
  • Share all the information available as well as the associated metadata
  • Judge the quality of information from different sources
  • Prepare different scenarios before and during crises
  • Quickly make the best possible decisions based on available information

Developers of supporting information systems need to provide end users with:

  • Rapid access to base maps
  • Simple visualization tools for different type of users
  • Ways to integrate information from multiple partners
  • Processes that are simple, requiring little technical support
  • Tools for "geocollaboration" between partners

In recent years, we have seen the convergence of open source software (OSS), open standards from the OGC and the philosophy of Software as a Service (SaaS). This convergence, along with other progress in communication technologies, has made possible the use of geospatial datasets and Web services distributed at different locations. The example of the MSP in Canada shows the benefits of this distributed model.

What are open standards?

The OGC defines open standards as standards that are:

  • Freely and publicly available – They are available free of charge and unencumbered by patents and other intellectual property.
  • Non-discriminatory – They are available to anyone, any organization, anytime, anywhere with no restrictions.
  • No license fees - There are no charges at any time for their use.
  • Vendor neutral - They are vendor neutral in terms of their content and implementation concept and do not favor any vendor over another.
  • Data neutral – The standards are independent of any data storage model or format.
  • Defined, documented and approved by a formal, member-driven consensus process. The consensus group remains in charge of changes and no single entity controls the standard.

The OGC's open standards are specifications for interfaces and encodings that enable interoperability between geoprocessing systems from different developers, whether employed by proprietary product vendors, independent integrators, application developers or active in open source projects.

What is open source software?

Open source encompasses two related concepts regarding the way software is developed and licensed. They are codified in the "Free Software" and the "Open Source" definitions. "Free and Open Source Software" refers to software which has been made available under a free software license with the rights to run the program for any purpose, to study how the program works, to adapt it and to redistribute copies, including modifications. These freedoms enable open source software development, a public, collaborative model that promotes early publishing and frequent releases. The Open Source Initiative has developed a set of 10 requirements of any software license that is to be considered an open source license under the Open Source Definition.

Technological solutions at MSP

Québec is prone to floods, blizzards, landslides, ice storms and ice jams, so Québec authorities deal with all aspects of disaster management. As the main national public safety organization in Québec, the MSP works to find innovative ideas to ensure that partner agencies have the information they need to prevent loss of life and property.

In 2005, the MSP set out to find the best and most innovative solutions to improve geospatial information services within the organization. The decision was made to focus on open standards and open source software. Québec has many developers who have been active in OSGeo (Open Source Geospatial Foundation), and thus the MSP can draw upon a pool of power users and service providers to support the needs of the local community.

UMN MapServer was selected for its effectiveness, degree of maturity, interoperability, free availability and openness to both the Windows and Linux environments. The MSP, as an integrator for the public safety community, decided also to exploit the GDAL/OGR libraries to import/export most of the raw datasets (shapefiles, MapInfo, Geodatabase, images, etc.) shared by its partners. After using Oracle for many years, all geospatial datasets of the MSP were migrated to PostgreSQL/PostGIS in late 2009. In 2010, the entire server-side spatial data infrastructure was also migrated from Windows to Linux/OpenSUSE OS, because they provided better overall server performance during the testing phase. For the development of the system's Web mapping interface and associated applications for various partners, the combination of OpenLayers and GeoExt/ExtJS was selected.

Figure 2. The user interface of G.O.LOC 9-1-1. (Click for larger view.)

In 2011, the open source software TinyOWS was selected for a pilot project to provide online editing in the main Web-based geospatial application at the MSP. Compatibility with MapServer and PostGIS was an important consideration.

Figure 3. Geospatial architecture at the MSP. (Click for larger view.)

To serve those geospatial datasets to its internal users and its partners outside the organization, the MSP had to determine which open standards and protocols to implement. At the outset, the main standard selected to publish layers information was the OGC Web Map Service (WMS) Interface Standard, which is widely implemented in the industry. Besides being widely implemented and well-documented, WMS was selected because of its small bandwidth demands, dynamic connection to always up-to-date data, and the option it provides of publishing a layer as a transparent image.

Interoperability enabled by WMS gave the MSP’s services a huge boost in terms of use. More than 300 geospatial layers were made available in WMS version 1.1.1 to all users of the MSP and its partners in disaster management. UMN MapServer is the main Web mapping server at the MSP, which is used to serve the 300 layers in WMS. Because base maps (road maps, aerial-photo, topographic maps, etc.) need to be quickly accessed and the WMS was not fast enough, a solution was devised in which WMS tiles generated from the UMN MapServer are held in cache and served using the open source software, TileCache.

Figure 4. Road map generated by the MSP as a WMS tiling service in OpenLayers. (Click for larger view.)

On the MSP's servers, providing tile-based maps is almost ten times faster than using WMS without tiling. The Web Mapping Server – Cached (WMS-C) road map shown above was generated on the Google projection and it can be reused, very much as OpenStreetMap tiles can be used. For example, one of the MSP's partner organizations using another GIS tool (Esri-Sample Flex Viewer) is able to integrate the WMS-C service of the MSP into its own application by applying the tiling parameters of OpenStreetMap.  The main uses of WMS at the MSP involve overlay on the WMS-C base maps of other layers such as address points, buildings, points of interest, electrical power lines, thematic maps, etc.

In 2010, a major partnership was signed between the MSP and the Institut National de Santé Publique du Québec (INSPQ, the main public health institute in Québec) to share Web services (e.g. WMS, TileCache, etc.), source code, open source software expertise, architecture oriented services and Web mapping applications, providing a cooperation network of geospatial professionals and projects.

A recent OGC standard used by the MSP is the OGC Web Feature Service – Transactional (WFS-T) version 1.0.0 for editing vector data. This is part of the Web mapping application that is based on TinyOWS. 

Apart from the capabilities described above, a SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) Web Services (WSDL: Web Services Description Language) service has been developed to provide text searches of government database records, such as street address, point of interest, mileage and other specific locations, including geohazard risks, needed in disaster management situations. This service has been deployed in the internal MSP geospatial Web application (see the next section below, “The G.O.LOC 9-1-1 project”) and in more than ten other partners' public Web mapping applications. This Web service can be described and used as a geocoding service.

Below is a table for describing the Web services used by the MSP, along with the applications supported and the advantages from the MSP point of view as an organization working in disaster management:

Table 1. Web services used at the MSP. (Click for larger view.)

The G.O.LOC 9-1-1 project

The MSP oversees the local 9-1-1 emergency centers all across the province of Québec. On December 31, 2010, a new regulation came into effect to identify a standard operational protocol in all aspects of 9-1-1 (police, fire department, ambulance) in the province of Québec. Location information is naturally a crucial consideration. The MSP was involved in a pilot project to assess all the relevant Web services and datasets owned by the government and local authorities to provide enhanced and standardized 9-1-1 emergency services.

Figure 5. Emergency 9-1-1 responder taking a call in Rimouski, Québec. (Click for larger view.)

In this pilot project, all the Web services at the MSP (implementing WMS, WMS-C, Geocoder WSDL, etc.) were combined into a Web mapping application called G.O.LOC 9-1-1. This application combines capabilities from the open source OpenLayers, ExtJS and GeoExt products in one customized tool. G.O.LOC 9-1-1 makes available external base maps, such as those offered by the Google Maps API and OpenStreetMap, as well as the 300 WMS layers of the MSP and other disaster management partners. This complete Web mapping application was tested in urban and rural regions and was based on the philosophy of Google Maps: It is fast and easy to use, as well as combining the best up-to-date multi-source official information. During the project, emergency call responders were logging events when they were not taking calls, and they tried to locate and spot all incidents. Involved throughout the project, emergency responders were able to identify useful data, standardization requirements and requirements for functionality that would help them to help different types of callers in distress.

Figure 6. Emergency 9-1-1 responder using G.O.LOC 9-1-1 while taking a call in Shawinigan, Québec. (Click for larger view.)

After two years of development, collaboration and training, the G.O.LOC 9-1-1 project was picked as one of the best tools to support all 9-1-1 emergency centers in the province of Québec. With this Web mapping application, 9-1-1 call responders can quickly find any location across Québec, overlay critical information when needed (schools, telecommunication station, etc.), share the map with other emergency call centers (police, fire department, ambulance) and use a simple Google routing function for specific requests.

Advantages of the G.O.LOC 9-1-1 include:

  • Free, simple, open, technologically independent and requires no plug-ins
  • Fast text searching to locate an address, municipality, point of interest, mileage, emergency site and more
  • Access to many overlays from multiple government sources of data
  • Access to standardized base maps as well as Google and OpenStreetMap
  • Supports OGC standards and open formats from the geospatial industry

After this first phase of development, most of the 9-1-1 emergency centers expressed the need to both have access to the Web service (not only the Web application) and be autonomous in terms of Internet connection (not having to always connect to the MSP network). In the spring of 2010, the SAG-9-1-1 (Autonomous Geographic Service) project was started to offer all 9-1-1 emergency centers of the province of Québec a way to integrate the different Web services needed without having to depend on Internet access. SAG-9-1-1 provides the same information as that available through G.O.LOC 9-1-1. The stack of open source software used at the MSP (UMN MapServer, OpenLayers, Apache, OpenSUSE, GeoExt, TileCache) was deployed in one main server to support G.O.LOC 9-1-1. As an autonomous server, the hardware infrastructure was located within the 9-1-1 emergency building center.

Figure 7. MSP’s first autonomous server, installed in Shawinigan, Québec. (Click for larger view.)

Each 9-1-1 emergency center is now able to use either the Web services or the Web mapping application installed on the main autonomous server, or both of them. Because different 9-1-1 emergency systems used different GIS that were already integrated into their computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems before the MSP pilot project, the MSP solution had to be flexible and standardized as much as possible.

Figure 8. G.O.LOC 9-1-1 on 9-1-1-CAD screen. (Click for larger view.)

With access to open standards interfaces and encodings, primarily from the OGC and W3C, all mapping systems in 9-1-1 emergency centers were able to connect easily to the Web services offered by the MSP. Currently, five 9-1-1 emergency centers have implemented SAG-9-1-1 within their IT infrastructure.

Advantages of OGC open standards and open source software

As exemplified in the MSP open architecture service model and the G.O.LOC 9-1-1 project, the combination of OSS and Web services supported by OGC standards is an important trend in collaboration networks. The economy of software licensing and the development flexibility afforded by this approach were critical factors in G.O.LOC 9-1-1's success. Most of the partners' external products and solutions, either open source or proprietary, were able to connect to these standardized services without major changes in operational protocols or interfaces.

In summary, here are the main advantages of the MSP model:

  • Flexibility in serving data and developing solutions
  • Compatibility and interoperability with OSS and proprietary software
  • Open to multiple sources of data (government, private companies such as Google, local authorities)
  • Fast server-side response when dealing with many users
  • Web distribution of server/service in different locations
  • Integration of different types of services to meet varied user needs

What’s next?

After the MSP completed the G.O.LOC 9-1-1 project, other ministries of the government of Québec expressed their interest in the services offered by the MSP. In response, in 2011 the MSP made the Web services and a subversion repository (SVN) of the open source code of the Web mapping application G.O.LOC 9-1-1 available for government partners such as the INSPQ (Public Health Ministry). The MSP plans to implement other improvements in the coming months and years, such as:

  • Large-scale online editing
  • Geospatial annotation when there are errors in data
  • Portable, autonomous, geographic service on a laptop (using almost all the data and software on the SAG 9-1-1)
  • Integration of a dynamic routing service using government data
  • Making the WSDL Geocoder service compliant with the OGC Open Location Service Interface (OpenLS) Standard
  • Exploring ways to use cloud computing and crowdsourcing

The combination of open standards and open source software has proven to be of great value to organizations whose role involves coordinating the diverse information systems of diverse organizations to provide public safety. (A French-language blog and website also provide information on this topic.)

Published Monday, December 5th, 2011

Written by Nicolas Gignac

Published in


Open Source

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