Geo For All: FOSS4G In Geospatial Education

March 10, 2014

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In 2011, the Open Source Geospatial Foundation (OSGeo) signed a memorandum of understanding with the International Cartographic Association (ICA) with the aim of developing collaboration opportunities in open source GIS software and data (press release). One result was the ICA-OSGeo Labs Initiative, an effort to develop a network of academia, government and industry organizations focused on education and research with free and open source geospatial (FOSS4G) technology. Directions Magazine interviewed Helena Mitasova, associate professor in the Department of Marine, Earth, and Atmospheric Sciences at North Carolina State University, to get an update on the initiative.

Directions Magazine (DM): The motto of the ICA-OSGeo Labs Initiative is "Geo For All." What specific problems or limitations is the network of university laboratories meant to solve? That is, what’s not currently happening in geo education that the initiative hopes to create, add or enhance?

Helena Mitasova (HM): The initiative aims to provide free access to GIS tools and educational material anywhere in the world. The free here means the tools and educational material is free to use, modify, share and distribute following the spirit of the free and open source software.

There are numerous limitations in geo education that the network is trying to address:

  • The number of universities and educational institutions offering Geographic Information Science and Technology (GIST) courses in developing countries is still very low because of high costs of proprietary software.
  • FOSS4G and open access teaching materials enable universities in these countries to develop their own GIST programs tailored to the local needs.
  • GIST programs at most universities, including the U.S. and Europe, teach using only proprietary software; the labs network aims to broaden the options for students to learn GIST in more flexible software environments
  • Although FOSS4G is free both in terms of price, use and modifications, educators and students may not know about it or lack the expertise to get started.
  • The FOSS4G software development has a well-developed infrastructure and mature communities, but the education materials, although plentiful, lack the infrastructure for consistent sharing and updates.
  • Access to source code and ability to modify the source code, both essential for research and science, are currently seriously limited when proprietary software is used.
  • The initiative aims to support the movement from efforts by enthusiastic individuals to building a FOSS4G community at educational institutions worldwide.

Figure 1: Global ICA-OSGeo Research and Education Laboratories Network

DM: What have the 64 labs already signed on (map and list) done thus far? The commitments from ICA-OSGeo detailed here are very broad. How will you measure the success of the program?

HM: We are at 65 laboratories today and a lot has happened since the launch of the initiative, probably too much to cover here, so just few examples.

  • A monthly webinar series was launched.
  • NASA Worldwind Europe competition is in its second year.
  • FOSS4G-focused sessions were organized at numerous conferences.
  • The on-line repository of free educational material keeps growing.
  • Advice on course material and approach to teaching with FOSS4G has been shared between faculty and instructors from the labs and outside.
  • Network members have given presentations, seminars and workshops all over the world and collaboration between the labs keeps growing.

It is important to realize that in the spirit of the open source movement this is a self- organized initiative and although there is an advisory board, there is no corporate structure, directors or sponsors that the network has to respond to so our success is measured by the accomplishments of the network nodes, and through providing access to geospatial tools and education for a growing number of participating institutions.

DM: What is the status of efforts to build open source GIS-based curricula and educational content? Will the content be aligned with things like the GIST Body of Knowledge and the GTCM and other GIS education standards and goals?

HM: The effort to create educational content, although coordinated, is very open and based on the needs of participating labs - so I would expect that some labs will align their efforts with GIS education standards but this is not obligatory. I can envision labs or groups of labs developing content focused on specific areas which are not covered by standards, especially in cutting edge or very new areas into which GIS has expanded only recently and on the borders of several disciplines.

By creating a market of open educational material we anticipate that the most effective material will be widely adopted while allowing more focused, highly specialized and advanced material with a smaller audience to thrive as well.

DM: There is a clear focus on expanding GIS education and use in the developing world. What are the goals of the initiative in the U.S. and Europe where college-level GIS, if not necessarily open GIS, is widely taught?

HM: College-level GIS education, especially in the U.S., has very limited FOSS4G resources, so there is a great need here to provide students with experience in a broader range of geospatial computational and graphics environments.  At NCSU we have found the mixed FOSS4G/proprietary environment to be very effective.

To some extent, it reflects the current use of FOSS4G. Python, an open source programming language, is a good example of FOSS that is being used extensively along with proprietary software everywhere.

DM: How can those outside of labs support this work? How might they draw upon it in their own teaching or research?

HM: Everything is open and available on-line, so anybody outside of the network can access the material, incorporate it in their teaching, participate in activities and collaborate on research projects.

We welcome all kinds of support, from spreading the word about the initiative (thank you, Directions Magazine), organizing FOSS4G focused sessions at conferences, to sponsorships of FOSS4G Community Sprints (such as one planned in Vienna). We would love to see sponsorship of high profile, competitive fellowships for students wishing to pursue degrees in geospatial science and technology focused on FOSS4G.


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