Open Source Spatial Technologies Grow Up

By Adena Schutzberg

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Dave McIlhagga, president of DM Solutions.

Announcements this week from DM Solutions Group, one of the largest companies involved with development and support of open source spatial technologies, suggest maturation of that arena.The company, based in Ottawa, Canada, announced the ka-Map project, an open source tool that will enhance the open source Web mapping platform, MapServer, with a more interactive client-side interface. Says the press release, it will enable "user interaction and response typically only found in desktop applications or browser plug-ins." The demo, with data from DMTI Spatial, is very Google Maps-like.The company is also offering data optimized for use with MapServer, including DMTI Spatial data of Canada.

I spoke with DM Solutions president David McIlhagga, (he's the DM, but there's a second DM, Daniel Morissette, Vice President, Research and Development) about the company's plans.It's time, he feels to "commercialize the pieces around open source spatial technologies" in the form of training and support."We need to raise the comfort level of implementers and users to move the use of the technology forward." While DM Solutions staffers have been active players in, and users of, the informal newsgroups that support open source solutions, a more formal set of offerings is needed in today's marketplace, he offers.

McIlhagga and the company hope to support a wide range of users, from the basement techies who want to "do it themselves" but need guidance, to those who need a lot of support.In fact, the company began by offering consulting services using commercial GIS products.It wasn't until February of 2000 that the company started using MapServer.The staff quickly developed PHP access tools and insured there was always a Windows build.Back then, there were 100 participants in the newsgroup. Today, the MapServer newsgroup has 1,300 active members and probably three or four times that many readers, McIlhagga suggests.The company website notes that "over 75% of MapServer's software development activity worldwide is being provided by DM Solutions Group." That sort of growth, combined with statistics like the 15,000 downloads from MapTools.org, (the company's open source download website) last month have lead management to formalize its offerings."It's the next step," as McIlhagga puts it.

I asked McIlhagga if the move is akin to what Red Hat offers in terms of products and services for its flavor of Linux.The reply: "Yes, but..." The "but," he noted is that "geospatial technology is different than operating systems.An operating system is a product.It's designed to do a particular task.Geospatial technology is a stepping stone to solving a problem." That makes DM more of a services company than a software company.McIlhagga lists the four areas where the company will work: technology (MapServer in particular), applications (built on MapServer and other open source technologies), products and services ("tangibles" including data serving), and partnerships (for example, working with Orkney of Japan to develop MapServer support of SVG for cell phones).On the partnership front, McIlhagga expects future critical partners to be "in vertical markets where we apply open source technology to particular domains like real estate, crime analysis, health, etc."

I commented recently that "open source makes people nervous." Commitments like DM Solutions' should help calm the nervous, but interest new implementers and users.That in turn, I'll offer, will make a different set of people even more nervous.

Plug: Directions Magazine is media sponsor of Open Source Geospatial '05 to be held in Minneapolis, Minnesota on June 16-18. As I noted in my coverage of last year's event (1, 2), this is the place to get "plugged into" a vibrant and growing open source community.

Published Tuesday, May 24th, 2005

Written by Adena Schutzberg



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