FedGeoDay: Advocating for Open Source

March 4, 2013

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FedGeoDay, held in Washington, D.C. this past week, can best be described as an advocacy forum for open source geospatial technology and data. Some of the leading organizations, government agencies and companies invested in open source tech sponsored the conference. It was a day for shining a spotlight on the toolmakers and Washington policy influencers.
Michael Byrne, geographic information office (GIO) for the Federal Communications Commission, set the tone for the day discussing the fact that many common policy questions can be solved with geography (Byrne's slide deck). While these policy issues may not seem to be based in geographic understanding, they eventually depend upon the answers to some basic geospatial questions.  Byrne offered an example of geospatial technology being used in policy making to tackle a specific issue:  
Problem: How can we maximize broadband investment where current market forces aren't delivering broadband?
New policy solution: Understand why certain areas are underserved and determine how to offer subsidies to carriers to underwrite the risk in creating the infrastructure. 
Byrne advocated for two synergistic philosophies. First, avoid what he called "geo afterthought.” Byrne said, "We don't want geo to be an afterthought. Too often we get called in late.” Second, don’t jump immediately to technology before thinking about the policy objective. "We don't solve software problems [at the FCC]; we solve policy problems. We don't want to be in a situation that shoves technology into a solution. When I think that way, then I'm already thinking about forcing IT into a situation."
Following Byrne’s keynote presentation were lightning talks, which were overviews of projects using open source technology and also included demonstrations from solution providers.
Mamuta Akella of the National Park Service provided details about "Park Tiles" an application built on OpenStreetMap and MapBox for the National Park Service mapping project.
Matthew Loveless of the Department of Energy made the point that "maps made for communication are different than maps not used for communication" in the development of policy initiatives.
Dave Cole of MapBox emphasized that maps built for the Web need to be narrative, interactive and "non-linear" if they are going to be useful to policy makers.
Jerry Johnston, GIO for the Department of Interior, led a panel that focused on data sharing, and appropriately described his job as the "cheerleader in charge" of geospatial technology at the DOI, responsible for taking data and developing decision support tools.
Liz Barry of The Public Laboratory  promoted "citizen scientists," as another group collecting data for the public good, primarily in the area of environment and conservation. "Government is not the only entity publishing data," she said, and emphasized that open data is a two-way street, from government to citizens and vice versa.
Tom Lee of the Sunlight Foundation stated that government is sometimes too protective of data and government needs to take a step back from how people might use the data. "[It's]not helpful to have the gatekeepers," said Lee. 
Chris Herwig of Mapbox was more succinct: "Open data is good!"
Mick Thompson, a senior engineer with Code for America (CfA), described his organization as "a Peace Corp for geeks." Code for America works with cities that may not necessarily have the resources to develop software for government applications. Now in its third year, CfA has 73 fellows and is working with 20 municipalities.
Eddie Pickle, OpenGeo's CEO, said, "GIS is giving way to spatial IT." OpenGeo is developing an array of tools based on open source technology and is now looking to build out its software stack to include and improve scalability.
Andrew Hill of CartoDB described his software solution as a platform for hosting and managing data, and designed not to be complicated. CartoDB is built on PostgreSQL and PostGIS.
Arc2Earth's Brian Flood said that while his software is "not really open source," it is a bridge to open source solutions such as MapBox, CartoDB and Fulcrum. It was originally designed to be an extension to ArcGIS. The company has several versions including a cloud service, and supports more than 15,000 users.
Azavea's Robert Cheetham demonstrated GeoTrellis, a simulation, modeling and forecasting solution.
LocalData's (see also APB post) Matt Hempel said his mobile solutions are providing support to cities such as Detroit and small local governments, with tools to collect data in a simplified manner so that those data can be used by as many people as possible.
My Take
In short, FedGeoDay was a forum for exposing some very innovative open source solutions, but also a demonstration of how geospatial technology is making everyday government services more affordable and efficient. It also placed geospatial technology smack dab in the middle of policy decisions, as Michael Byrne discussed. 
Choosing open source technology is not just about leaving a commercial vendor behind. It must also be about participating in a community that needs reciprocity of ideas. Part of the commitment is sharing a value-added code base so that others can benefit as well. Tackling the issues around open data, licensing and privacy were not necessarily the focus of FedGeoDay, but need to be in the future.
Thinking spatially will be an acquired skill for many. I’d recommend that the next FedGeoDay bring in more true decision makers. The open source cognoscenti need to go beyond speaking to each other and start making a broad attempt to engage politicians and their staffs.
Government is an inherently geospatial business. You can't fix sewer lines or plow the snow from streets without understanding how to best deploy assets effectively. Moreover, even before plows hit the streets, you need decision makers to understand how to best serve the citizenry with right-minded policies. Those policy decisions often begin with the question: "Where do we start?” 


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