2017 FOSS4G Conference Highlights

August 23, 2017

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Free and open source software for geospatial analysis may not roll off the tongue or be on everyone’s Must-Do list, but is among most people’s Always-Use desktop and smart phone apps. Our GPS, weather, and other location-based apps are running on FOSS4G mapped applications. Their ubiquity is usually invisible to the user since viewing information in a map is so highly intuitive.

The August 2017 FOSS4G conference in Boston, featured developers from several countries. The annual OS code community meeting has been presented by the OSGeo Foundation, the base organization FOSS4G since 2006. Attendance to the conference has been steadily rising, likely paralleling the increased growth of crowdsource mapping applications now available globally. The conference’s official language is English, with accessibility in over a dozen languages. In the collaborative spirit of OS sharing, attendees met, presented and learned from one another in workshops, sessions, and a completely open post-conference 9-5 code sprint.

Local members of the FOSS4G community, Boston’s AppGeo, and their many local volunteers supported the week-long event at Boston Seaport’s World Trade Center. The first two days were packed with 53 four-hour workshops at Harvard’s Center for Geographic Analysis, and a waterfront reception at MIT’s Sailing Pavilion on the Charles River. These were followed by three days of 14 conference presentations every half hour. The week’s final gala was held at New England Aquarium on the harbor.

Opening keynote speaker Paul Ramsey said, “Most organizations show an incredibly low degree of enlightenment. Many companies or governments or NGOs use open source. Very few of those organizations recognize their dependence on open source projects and direct their resources accordingly.” Ramsey differentiates the cash economy of enterprise software from the gift economy of OS software in its collaborative, sustainable, self-improving nature as compared to the costly upgrades of enterprise or commercial software. Many commercial software companies do support OS development, needing its “insurance” of sustainable software, Ramsey said. “Some of the largest companies, the Googles and Facebooks and Microsofts, have put together a small program called the "Core Infrastructure Initiative" to fund open source infrastructure, but their focus is generic network and coding infrastructure. If we wait for the Core Infrastructure Initiative to help with geospatial open source infrastructure, we'll be waiting a long, long time.”

Ramsey further explained the future logic of the gift economy of OS development, citing the development of Java, an original OS application, and recounting how some decisions made by a Canadian government administrator led to a cascading effect of OS developments that later became legend:

             “Fortunately a civil servant in the British Columbia government had a vision for a toolkit to allow the government to build GIS data processing systems without installing big GIS software packages. He secured funding from the federal government via an industrial investment program, and the contract he wrote specified that it be delivered under an open source license, and contracted with a local company to write the software. The software he contracted for was called the Java Topology Suite, JTS.

           “Because it was open source, we were able to port that software to C++ and then use it, for what became PostGIS 0.8, the first version that could do real geo-processing. That same civil servant also contracted with us to manage the provincial road centerline network and encouraged us to use PostGIS as the database for the project. That was the first production deployment of PostGIS. He also encouraged us to use hours from the contract to improve PostGIS to handle the roads data faster and more accurately. You've never heard of this guy, but you've probably used geospatial software that works because of decisions he made, over 15 years ago, as an employee of a big, boring, government institution. All these projects, (QGIS, PostGIS, Fiona, GDAL, GeoServer, GeoTools, Turf.js, GeoDjango) use GEOS or JTS,” he said.

In a recent Directions Magazine article, “IoT and the Move to Open Source GIS,” Andy Dearing discussed the ascendance of OS technologies, saying: “The question is not whether companies and organizations will make the move to Open, it’s how fast.”

Increasing numbers of institutions of higher education are moving beyond single vendor geospatial packages to include open source GIS in their teaching. In a review of several universities that offer post-graduate GIST certificates or Masters of Science degrees, there was a split among those offering coursework in dual platforms, FOSS4G programs, and others just using commercial software. I asked Harvard’s Center for Geographic Analysis’ Joshua Liberman, if he thought this was a generational shift, since many of us have been users of the Arc products since the 1990s. Josh responded, “I think it’s more evolutionary than generational.”

Indeed, there are many FOSS4G developers of vintage who’ve been developing OS code solutions, as well as mid-career folks who operate local, state, regional, and federal GIS offices who have found the need to develop their own solutions, have sought other OS developers’ help, and have collaborated with them. This is the essential community connection clearly present at this conference. Below is a sampling of the range and scope of projects presented.

Scope of Projects Presented

Global systems: These included NASA SEDAC (Socio-economic) and other data; NOAA satellite imagery for environmental analysis, flood alerts, water supply, air quality and inequality; Google Earth; Digital Globe; Drone imagery to deploy Red Cross Humanitarian aid, rectify existing map coverage for disaster response and post-nuclear accident radiation; anti-collision systems for ship traffic; low-tech for indigenous populations; Big Data; harvesting metadata, zipped files and end-of-term, at-risk federal data in Data Rescue missions; and web-based global OSGeo education.

International: With the United Nations OpenGIS Initiative, the U.N. is making a long-term commitment to OSGeo in order to meet its international goals to:

  • Provide a geo-portal for geospatial information infrastructure that can be accessible to all nations.
  • Assist capacity building for the U.N. with several training programs.
  • Provide geo-analysis solutions for the U.N.
  • Develop solutions for geospatial data collections, quality controls, and pre-processing of geospatial data.

For the U.N. to adopt OSGeo is a significant, appropriate technology choice given the range of nations’ technology infrastructure, giving due respect to the OSGeo community to meet the continuing needs and challenges of all global citizens. The U.N. cited OS benefits of customization, open standards, and overall costs.

National level applications: Community health mapping and the Small Business Administration HUBZone Map Modernization, were among the US examples.

Regional collaborations: The Big Ten Academic Alliance Geoportal, created by an alliance of librarians and geospatial specialists at ten research institutions, focuses on storing and updating agnostic metadata, sharing collections, and providing tools and work flows.

State/Provincial applications: Chief Digital Officer at MassIT, Holly St. Clair, described the challenge of updating the mass.gov website’s 250k+ htmls. From analyzing user data, her team found that roughly 10 percent were most often used, reducing the workload of prioritizing and revising the scope of the task.

Local regional: Imagine a new job in a region of a New England state where counties barely exist — for example, Massachusetts, which was settled town by town long before counties were established in the U.S. Some towns have no GIS, so are limited to state GIS, satellite imagery, and large area mapping projections until each town raises the funds to produce its own GIS. Your latest task is to develop analyses from existing data on properties to help property owners determine their best options for wastewater or septic upgrades, including appropriate funding options.

City planning: See New York City’s Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications, or Oregon’s GeoMOOSE.

The Final Keynote

FOSS4G’s final keynote speaker was Dr. Richard Stallman of MIT, founder of the Free Software Foundation, whose early development of GNU, plus the kernel developed by Linus Torvalds’ Linux, spawned generations of OSGeo development. Stallman pointed out that historically, all original code was collaboratively developed, so the recent return to OS is a natural outgrowth. He then clearly identified the essential functions of OS in his talk, “Free Software: Freedom, Privacy, Sovereignty,” which he described in this way:

  1. You design the program any way you wish.
  2. Study the source code and change it in the way you wish.
  3. Collectively control, collaborate, and use and redistribute the program as you wish.
  4. Modify, change, share, sell, or distribute the program as you wish.

Join FOSS4G!

If you wish to participate in a FOSS4G event, look to smaller, regional FOSS4G chapters for events across the globe, or plan to attend the 2018 FOSS4G in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Get ready to safari!


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