GeoForAll Grows Its Grass Roots
Since its establishment almost five years ago, the open source education and research initiative borne of multiple memoranda of understanding between the Open Source Geospatial Foundation and the International Cartographic Association, followed by the International Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing, has transitioned into GeoForAll – the Open Source Geospatial Education and Research outreach. As of today, more than 100 laboratories and centers worldwide have formally joined the community, and GeoForAll has expanded and organized its infrastructure in response. Multiple coordinators across the globe now guide and manage regional membership activity. GeoForAll is a very open and inclusive organization. The requirement to support its mission (making contributions to free and open source software, data, education and access) is very broad, making the threshold to join relatively low,reflected in their wide and diverse membership base.
Recently Directions Magazine had the opportunity to catch up with Helena Mitasova, one of the North American regional chairs of GeoForAll, to learn how GeoForAll has been progressing towards its goals. Mitasova, a faculty member at North Carolina State University, is also a recently elected member of the OSGeo Foundation Board of Directors and one of their vice presidents.
Directions Magazine: Membership in GeoForAll growth has grown significantly in the last couple of years. Can you share some of what’s driving it?
Helena Mitasova: What you’re seeing is in part the result of consolidating parallel efforts and activities. Because of the rapidly expanding interest in open source geospatial we quickly outgrew the slow growth, top down organization outlined in the original memorandum of understanding between OSGeo and ICA. The original idea was that there might be one lead center on each continent but the interest was well beyond that. There were multiple centers of activity happening on different continents at the same time, and there were similar types of activity going on in the Education and Curriculum Committee of OSGeo itself. So in January 2016, the OSGeo Board consolidated its educational agenda under the one, single GeoForAll umbrella going forward. This structural change has been very helpful as we aim to streamline and clarify our infrastructure and relations with partners, such as ICA and ISPRS.
DM: What have been the recent priority areas of activity for GeoForAll?
HM: Having gone through this tremendous growth in membership has required us to better organize and develop our online resources, such as our wiki and website. Helping faculty and students from across our labs find each other based on their common interests is important to support a broad range of collaborative activities, and for developing grants and funding opportunities.
This also allows members to see that they do not all have to be programmers of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). Many other ways to contribute exist such as writing documentation, or just being an active open source software user. We are also aiming to have a simple but robust platform for sharing the development of educational materials. We have an open repository that supports resource distribution already, but are still deciding on the best platforms for collaborative development and updating of the materials. Perhaps GitHub may be one answer. Organizations that are led by volunteers distributed around the world all face similar challenges. We have always been a “do-acracy” – if you need to get something done, you do it! So it’s a current goal that we’re working on.
DM: Share with us some of your success stories.
HM: We are very proud of having been able to involve students from across the GeoForAll network in activities such as code and community sprints to increase participation in open source software development. And we’ve had over 20 students in a given year participate in Google Summer of Code. That is a big accomplishment that is very empowering to students from around the world.
With our expanded network, we have also been able to organize and populate the academic tracks and scientific planning committees of numerous conferences, including FOSS4G global and regional conferences as well as others such as the upcoming ISPRS congress in Prague or past American Geophysical Union meetings. This works well to help spread our message. It is tremendously exciting to see the genuine global demand for all that GeoForAll is striving to do.
Another important area has been our webinar series. Before we consolidated, we used multiple different platforms based at different host institutions and we were not particularly well coordinated around the topics or the schedule. Now we’re able to be much more effective at offering these regularly and we will start to market these more. Rafael Moreno, at the FOSS4G lab at the University of Colorado – Denver, manages this effort, and the recordings are available through our YouTube channel.
DM: What are the current thoughts from GeoForAll on the topic of certification and credentials in the geospatial arena, and with FOSS in particular?
HM: We widely recognize that something is going to be needed, and is strongly desired by many in industry. Exactly what will emerge in the FOSS world is not established yet but the trend is more towards a technical-type certification (for example there is a QGIS certification effort) rather than a general geospatial one. In the short time frame, it’s more likely to be developed by business or industry as it is also a business opportunity. The demand for such a certification is so far too ambiguous for an academic institution to take it on at this point. Plus, students really need to be experienced with both FOSS and proprietary software platforms to be as knowledgeable as they can be for work and research. Both big and small companies use FOSS tools extensively but in combination with other proprietary software as well. The world doesn’t work with only one or the other; we all need both.
DM: What is next on the horizon for GeoForAll?
HM: Planning for conferences is always on-going. FOSS4G Global events rotate between venues in Europe, North America and other non-Europe/non-NA sites. So we have FOSS4G Global in August 2016 in Bonn and August 2017 will be in Boston. Now there are also regional gatherings as well. For example, the North American FOSS4G was held in Raleigh, North Carolina in early May 2016, and we had over 500people attend.
We would also like to increase our membership with universities in the United States, not because we have any quota to reach but because we know that there is interest. Though being part of GeoForAll isn’t what every geospatial academic lab must do. I am frequently asked “What can GeoForAll do for me?” or “What are the benefits of joining?” and I let them know they are asking the wrong question. The right question is, “How can I contribute?” Having that kind of attitude is how you will get the most out of being part of the GeoForAll community. Whether it has to do with teaching or research, making these connections and exchanging knowledge is how everyone benefits.