FOSS4G-Barcelona: Open Source Geospatial Software Still Much in Demand

September 13, 2010

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This Labor Day weekend I concluded a heavy summer of travel around the U.S. attending geo-conferences, including GITA 2010 in Phoenix, Esri 2010 in San Diego, and GeoWeb 2010 in Vancouver, with a trip to the Free and Open Source Software For Geospatial (FOSS4G) in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain (Sept. 6-9). With the exception of Esri, it's been a year of lightly attended conferences and workshops, with many organizations and groups struggling to cover their costs, and maintain their date on the 2011 calendar following this most challenging year. Knowing the European Union is suffering even more economically than North America, it was a pleasant surprise to see how well attended the FOSS4G event was this year. The program boasts something close to 650 attendees from six continents, 79 from North America, and 52 from the US.

Why such a good turnout in down times in this relatively expensive venue? Did I mention - it's free? The software, that is - the conference, while reasonable, is definitely not free. So what was it that attracted so many educators, software developers, for-profits (yes, Esri was there) and governments to Barcelona? It was definitely not the "build it, and they will come" daydreamer factor for this group of attendees. It was the hard-edged professional, with either a product to push or a geospatial project searching for a solution, who attended this year's FOSS4G. Perhaps more than any other descriptor I can think of, the word "mature" best defines the state of the free and open source geospatial software industry today. One has to look no further than companies like OpenGeo to realize these are legit outfits, with shrink-wrap software solutions capable of managing geospatial data and applications, from top to bottom, for all but perhaps the largest of users, such as the U.S. Dept. of Defense. Open source GIS software is here to stay, and it's making big inroads into private and governmental users by the looks of the vendors and attendees at FOSS4G.

One sure sign of the robustness of the FOSS4G movement was the full-capacity attendance at the preconference workshops Monday and Tuesday this past week. Despite a healthy hike from the conference center to the university across Barcelona, the workshops were ALL chocker-block, with many seating attendees in the aisle to accommodate everyone. While I'm a bit dubious as to the value of three-hour workshops from an ROI viewpoint, the chance to mingle with such a diversity of users and vendors allowed unparalleled opportunity for professional networking and exchange of ideas and experiences. Surely this networking factor remains the bottom-line principle we all value that drives us to travel thousands of miles and spend an equal thousands of dollars (or Euros) to attend these events in an age of webinars and teleconferences. One real treat about the FOSS4G industry is that it's still new enough so that the first-generation FOSS4G pioneers and geniuses still dress like the graduate school programmers in Ts and denim, and love immersing themselves with their users for an in-depth discussion about their software creation. The ease with which the workshop presenters installed and configured their applications during the opening minutes of their workshop, while casually chatting with the attendees, demonstrated just how far their products have come in terms of maturity. If measured in terms of ease-of-installation and configuration, the products I witnessed speak volumes about just how ready-for-prime-time they are here in 2010.

The three opening plenary speakers demonstrated, in equal parts, just how committed this group of programmers are to their cause. Notice I say "cause," not product. For many of these software disciples, FOSS4G is more of a mission to evangelize the merits of open source than it is to sell product. Miguel Montesinos opened the plenary arguing that the opposite of free and open is not necessarily "closed" or "for-profit" or "proprietary" or even "commercial." He termed the opposite of FOSS4G as "private," as in locking geospatial data into storage silos where only the privileged, those with the right software, can access them. To Miguel, FOSS4G is about bringing software solutions to the masses in the least painful way possible.

Schuyler Erle spoke next, passionately pleading the moral imperative for volunteers to give of their time and talent to promote worthwhile social causes with FOSS4G. He provided several enlightening and dramatic examples of using OpenStreetMap to help the U.N. and other NGOs assist in the rescue of Haitians following the devastating January 2010 earthquake that buried Port Au' Prince and killed hundreds of thousands of Haitians. He demonstrated OpenStreetMap samples that literally appeared overnight from the sweat of hundreds of non-resident GIS volunteers worldwide. Using digital imagery made available from NASA, GeoEye and others, OpenStreetMap volunteers around the globe worked 24 hours daily geocoding street and building data that helped rescuers on the ground in Haiti affect search and rescue operations. Schuyler credited FOSS4G with saving perhaps thousands of lives in this one instance.

Arnulf Christl closed the plenary with a somewhat disjointed but humorous presentation, leveraging a myriad of social media and geospatial websites to drive home his point that the power of FOSS4G comes not from any one genius or scheme (think Bill Gates and Microsoft), but from the collaborative power of the collective. Think of his point as the Borg Collective of Star Trek - TNG fame.  Not so much the "resistance is futile" schmuck, but more of the synergistic value of empowering individuals to act in a moral and socially productive collaboration to achieve something much more powerful than the sum of their individual parts. Not exactly preachy, but certainly calling upon the listener to think beyond his or her own personal gain, and a call to action for the larger good of the group. This, then, is the message from the founders of FOSS4G - we speak with one voice (through open standards), we believe in the power of GIS to address societal challenges for the betterment of humankind, and our time has come.

Which brings up one final point - why did GeoTech attend an event promoting software that appears to be more of a European solution than an American-based commercial one? With more than 90% of our U.S. two-year college programs basing their academic curriculum on teaching Esri products, why even bother with FOSS4G? Don't we struggle enough with just trying to keep pace with the next iteration of ArcGIS XX from Esri? Well, if the Open Source software class offered this summer in Albuquerque by Central New Mexico Community College is any indication, the industry is clamoring for alternative solutions, and employers are eager to engage graduates fluent in BOTH flavors of geospatial software technology. One of GeoTech's prime goals is to bring state-of-the-art technology to the attention of educators to prepare them to build capacity for the American workforce. With the signs of FOSS4G flashing all around the globe, can we not expect it to reach our shores soon, where U.S.-based companies like OpenGeo are already seeking qualified employees? One sure sign was seeing the GITA staff as they prepare to coordinate next year's FOSS4F Conference, right here in good old Denver, USA in early September 2011.


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