OSGeo: Mapping the World of Open Source Geospatial Software

The Open Source Geospatial Foundation looks to assist the next generation of cartographers by helping them navigate the world of free and open source geospatial software.

Geospatial data, such as that used to make this world map from 1689, has been used for thousands of years. Image Credit: Wikipedia

Geospatial data, such as that used to make this world map from 1689, has been used for thousands of years. Image Credit: Wikipedia

Sometimes the best way to understand something is to take a good look at it. The Open Source Geospatial Foundation wants the geospatial software community to check out free and open source software.

Geospatial software is used to study the Earth’s surface through the use of geospatial data. This kind of software includes Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Global Positioning Systems (GPS), and any software that analyzes data referenced by location.

An example of a geospatial software is the Geographic Resources Analysis Support System (GRASS) GIS.

An example of a geospatial software is the Geographic Resources Analysis Support System (GRASS) GIS.

Markus Neteler, the head of the GRASS GIS Project Steering Committee, said the capabilities of geospatial software have been developed for more than 30 years. “This is, for sure, an accumulation of knowledge which you don’t easily find elsewhere,” he said.

Moreover, Neteler, a founding member of the Open Source Geospatial Foundation (OSGeo)  says there is power in geospatial software that is developed and distributed freely and openly.

Free and Open Software

Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) is software that meets both the Free Software Definition, as defined by Free Software Foundation, and the Open Source Definition, as defined by the Open Source Initiative. These two institutions are recognized within the FOSS user community as the authorities on what it means to be free and/or open source, says Neteler. While the definitions are slightly different, they serve many of the same goals (and as a result are often used interchangeably), and together give users of such software the following rights:

 

  • to run the software for any purpose without discrimination (hence “free” software)
  • to have access to the source code of the software (hence “open source”)
  • to modify the code to suit their needs
  • to redistribute both the source code and any modified versions.


The development of free and open source software is a collaborative process. The source code is open to the public, unlike proprietary software, and anyone who is interested can contribute to its development. The general contributions are usually guided by a project steering committee, such as the one Neteler heads for GRASS GIS, which is a dedicated team that oversees the direction of the software development. The communal effort produces very flexible software because more points of view and possible uses are taken into account, says Neteler. Open source software also can be
debugged quickly, and adaptively evolve to suit needs as they are recognized.

Openly developed software doesn’t look to compete with proprietary software, says Neteler, but simply uses a different business model. Because of this, open source software is often used by proprietary developers. An example is the Geospatial Data Abstraction Library (GDAL), a widely used translator library for different formats of geospatial data, and an OSGeo project. GDAL is used by proprietary software companies including Esri, a proprietary GIS software company which has a plugin for its ArcGIS software.

FOSS for Geospatial Applications

While the concept of open source software is by no means limited to GIS, there is a large community of users that believe FOSS development can be particularly useful for geospatial applications (otherwise known as Free and Open Source Software for Geospatial applications, or FOSS4G).

“The idea,” says Neteler, “is that sharing the knowledge in an open context allows you to, in our view, develop better software because, especially in the GIS world, it is pretty complex to do analysis …

“With the open data movement even more data are available now, and all of them come with different needs, and users have different needs. Since we are able to discuss this openly and also to share methods (of) how to deal with certain problems, we have this kind of peer-review system which you see in academia. And this is something which, in our view, leads to better software in the end.”

The Open Source Geospatial Foundation seeks to promote the use of geospatial software that is developed by the community in an open setting. Image Credit: OSGeo

The Open Source Geospatial Foundation seeks to promote the use of geospatial software that is developed by the community in an open setting. Image Credit: OSGeo

Just as geospatial software is used to understand the surface of the Earth by taking a closer look at it, the mission of OSGeo is to promote the use of FOSS4G by giving interested consumers a place where they can talk to experts, learn about these tools, and see how the tools can help them. “We do not want to force anybody to purely use open source solutions,” says Neteler, “but we would like to showcase that they are probably the better way to go.”

To this end, as Neteler describes, OSGeo provides three things: software (such as GRASS GIS), education on how to use the software, and georeferenced data for the software. “It is not only about software but also about teaching how to use this software, and naturally without data, GIS software is relatively useless.”

The data for geospatial projects is often found in federal sources like data.gov, although Neteler notes that geospatial information is more easily accessible in the U.S. than in other countries.

To make data sets accessible and useable with different software, OSGeo promotes the use of data standards maintained by the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC), a group of more than 500 companies, universities, and government agencies that develop standards for encoding georeferenced data. The OGC grew out of a foundation created by the GRASS user community to drum up private sector support for GRASS. The foundation was created because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which originally developed GRASS, had signaled that they were going to withdraw their support. Once the Corps withdrew, that foundation broadened its focus and became the OGC.

OSGeo and the OGC have a memorandum of understanding which allows OSGeo members to be a part of the standard maintenance process at OSGeo, using their position at the center of the FOSS4G community to provide insight as to what standards are beneficial. These standards facilitate interoperability, allowing different users to work on the same data even if they use different software, and making previously difficult to use data more easily accessible. “Given the community idea behind OSGeo, of course interoperability is one of the core features we are interested in,” says Neteler.

For example, OGC has a standard-based format for geospatial databases called GeoPackage. GeoPackage is used by many open source and proprietary geospatial software platforms, including GDAL and Esri’s ArcGIS.

An example workspace in the GRASS-GIS software. Image Credit: OSGeo

An example workspace in the GRASS-GIS software. Image Credit: OSGeo

Software

The software projects promoted by OSGeo have been incubated in a process similar to that of the Apache Software Foundation, an organizational body founded in 1999 that oversees more than 350 diverse open source solutions. The process involves vetting the source code – every line – to make sure that all the code was developed either by the company or was incorporated from other open source projects. GRASS, one of the founding projects of OSGeo, was incubated from 2006 to 2008.

By becoming an OSGeo project, the software gets put on display for the entire open source geospatial community to see. “This visibility gain is quite important,” says Neteler, “because if you are producing nice software but nobody knows it, then it is of course not very useful, and if you want to sell services on top of that, then you can only gain from getting visibility.”

Education

In education, OSGeo has another memorandum with the International Cartographic Association (ICA) to encourage the development of geospatial science learning centers at universities and corporations around the world. The initiative, called “Geo For All,” has already set up 40 labs at universities, and is planning to expand to more than 100. The labs provide GIS with a low-cost barrier to provide access to and promote geospatial science education at universities.

In addition to the software packages, OSGeo also offers a list of software service providers. Customers can ask the service providers for assistance and guidance on how to use the software or outsource the entire data analysis project to them. The providers, each of which specializes in different software packages (not all of which are licensed as FOSS), charge for their services, even though the software may be free.

Neteler sees the educational outreach development as being hugely important because it is what creates new FOSS4G members. “In the end, it all starts with education,” he says. “If we want to have more new members, we have to tell them how to use the software, how they can benefit from that.”

Lessons Learned

Marketing FOSS4G to attract new users is one of the most important functions of OSGeo. However, it is also one of the biggest challenges OSGeo faces, says Neteler. Social media has made the problem of bringing new faces into the community a bit easier, he says, but users still have a desire to have something to try out and experiment with to get a better sense of what GIS is.

One way that OSGeo addresses this desire is with its FOSS4G conferences, which attract international visitors wanting to learn about geospatial software. The FOSS4G 2015 conference will take place from Sept. 14-19 in Seoul, South Korea.  “A huge amount of people visiting or participating in these conferences is probably newcomers; they want to see it, they want to kind of touch it, and get ideas from the usually very interesting presentations,” says Neteler. By going to these conferences, they can get hands-on experience with FOSS4G and better understand its merits.

The other main challenge OSGeo faces is “how to get a vast community into one direction … there are different opinions, and these different opinions have to be addressed somehow.”

Given the collaborative nature of FOSS4G, OSGeo is structured democratically, with a hierarchy patterned after that of the Apache Software Foundation. There are three layers: the general community, which can express its opinion but can’t vote; the charter members, who are proposed by the community and act as its representatives; and the board members, who are elected by the charter members and run the day-to-day business of the foundation. The current president, Jeff McKenna, was elected in December 2012.

The presence of OSGeo in the FOSS4G community has visibly and significantly increased its membership. OSGeo has about 26,000 subscribers to nearly 200 separate mailing lists, says Neteler, each of which focuses on a different topic in FOSS4G. Neteler estimates that that number of subscribers isn’t even 10 percent of the total number of users of the OSGeo software stack. “Back in the ‘90s it was still possible in the (geospatial) software community itself to know more or less who’s there. Nowadays it’s absolutely impossible … but impossible in a positive sense,” says Neteler.

With local chapters all over the world, OSGeo is working hard to chart the world of free and open source geospatial software for anyone interested in taking a look.

Alec Drobac is a senior physics major at Middlebury College in Vermont. He hopes to pursue a career as a theoretical physicist, potentially in the field of astrophysics or cosmology. Originally from California, he is particularly concerned with water usage and conservation, as well as the advancement of technology in agriculture.

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