It’s now the eve of the State of the Map (SOTM) and Free and Open Source Software for Geospatial (FOSS4G) events, which take place back-to-back in Denver. The OpenStreetMap and FOSS4G communities will converge to cover open data and open source software, with a focus on development tools, applications, and shared objectives. The combined audience of more than one thousand users and contributors from around the globe (200 for SOTM and more than 840 for FOSS4G) speaks to a vibrancy in tough economic times, and should make you wonder what you’re missing if you’ve brushed aside this community in the past.
GIS got its start largely as open source software from academic research labs, and really got a jump start with spatial data provided openly and freely by government agencies (at least here in the United States). From this start, commercial providers have added value, and have consistently improved the capabilities and coverage of the tools. But, with the move to the Web in earnest for some time now, today’s open movement feels like getting back to the roots with great inroads being made in enabling software for Web mapping and online open data collection and distribution. While the commercial sector is by no means in imminent danger, it’s important for all geospatial practitioners to be aware of the open offerings and capabilities.
The Web has broken down barriers to business entry across a wide variety of business sectors due to the stripping away of the costs of promotion and distribution, and the same can be said of open geospatial data and software. With low costs to host data and services, a well-paved path for entrepreneurial software endeavors is to also bootstrap development on top of free and open data and software. The low-barrier requires very little investment, and the rich set of tools enable commercial-grade software capabilities to the committed developer.
Similarly, in the developing world where access to computers alone can be daunting, the cost of software licenses can hinder adoption. With FOSS4G software, and tools to ease and speed data creation for open distribution, meaningful work can be done in even the poorest and hardest to reach places. Thus, open source software provides a very viable entry point to the powers of geospatial technology.
Belonging and Tinkering
While trade associations lament the Internet Generation’s low uptake of traditional channels of professional congregation, open development and open data creation provide a means of belonging to an international group with common goals and shared experience. Rather than a structured association that aids corporate ladder climbing, these loosely-formed communities facilitate networking for data collection hobbyists, freelance developers, and small business consultancies.
Both the open source software and open mapping threads provide the means to tinker and build upon the work of others. With the addition of the community component to help each other along, the collective problem solving feeds a passion for software development to address real-world problems. The steady progression of capabilities are often created for serious commercial and government clients with specifications that expand the reach of the tools, and with advancement that is then shared with all. Often times the development path of some of these capabilities outstrips the pace of commercial software providers, with a more agile approach that doesn’t rely on a long-established code base.
On a global scale, governments have begun to embrace open source software given the strong capabilities, the reasonable carrying cost, the flexibility that the open source code provides, and the proven track record. The German government has embraced open source software for civil administration for more than a decade, Australia recently promoted the use of open source technology as cost-effective and flexible, and the National Geospatial Foundation in the United States is pursuing open source software.
In the research community, where large multi-institution software development projects take place with funding from large national entities, there is a preference for open source, and even a feeling that it may improve software engineering. While advancements in these projects often bridge to commercial software development, their start as open source often means that these advancements reach the open source community first.
There is great symbiosis between open data and open source software, so it’s great to have the events so close together. Looking through the programs of both events, there are a broad number of business problem solving case studies as well as software solutions for the greater good — from addressing the field data needs of a utility to aiding the tsunami response in Japan. This week should be eye opening in terms of the role open data and software are playing both in concert with commercial software, and on their own. As the breadth of geospatial applications continues to expand, there are no shortage of opportunities for all.