Conference Recap

FOSS4G 2011, Denver Colorado

FOSS4G is global symposium focused on free and open source software for geospatial technology. Their 2011 conference was held in Denver, Colorado last September12th through the 16th. More than 900 people from 42 countries attended the five-day event sponsored by OSGeo.org, a nonprofit group established to support the needs of the open source geospatial community.

Open source geospatial software is used pretty much anywhere proprietary geospatial software is applied: GIS, lidar imaging, mapping, marine surveying, and so on. This conference is designed generally for the geospatial software development community and had a wealth of workshops, talks, and presentations for that audience. As a measure of the breadth of the conference, the conference program ran 34 pages. You can find selected videos from the conference here.

To understand open source, it helps to look at the entire "open" approach to software development.Let's get started by defining the main terms.

  • Open Source: Software that is freely available and provides access to the source code for modification and re-distribution within the (usually lenient) terms.
  • Open Standards: Agreed-upon protocols and formats that provide the foundation for open source software and facilitate interoperability. Geoff Zeiss of Autodesk pointed out in his presentation that there are more than 228 different geodata formats.
  • Open Data: Free and open access to publicly available geodata. A good example is the OpenStreetMap project I discussed in Pangaea’s issue #49.

Advantages of open source geospatial software are (at least) threefold:

  • Faster revision cycles: Proprietary software has a revision cycle that usually runs 12 to 18 months. That means if you need a feature that is not in the current version of a software program, you can request this feature; however, you may not see it until the next revision, which could be in more than a year. Revisions on open source software are end-user-community driven and occur with greater frequency.
  • End-user customization: Let's say you can't wait for the next revision cycle or have needs that are specific to your company or industry. No need to wait: Just modify the source code yourself or hire a developer to do so.
  • Interoperability: Because open source software is based on open standards, file format compatibility and process flow are enhanced. Autodesk's recent Revit open source announcement is a great example of this. 
  • Reduced cost: Surprisingly, this seems not to be as big a factor as one might think. However, I did hear some developers say that having free, open source geospatial software available allowed them budget flexibility to take on projects that would have been out of their reach if they had had to invest in proprietary software.
  • The future of geospatial software is hybridization. As noted by Autodesk's Geoff Zeiss, the real question isn't open source vs. proprietary software. Rather, it's what makes the most sense for your situation based on functionality, support, interoperability, and so on. This is leading to a hybrid approach to many geospatial applications: Ersi's plug-in for their ArcGIS allowing users to add geodata to OpenStreetMap is a good example. 


About the Author

  • Jeff Salmon, Editor
    Jeff Salmon, Editor
    Jeff Salmon is the new editor for Professional Surveyor Magazine. For nearly 15 years he has been involved with the geospatial and surveying industries. He has worked as an instrument operator, a manager for a surveying firm, a land-use project manager and end-user of land surveying services, and a writer and editor on geospatial subjects. He started in 2005 as the Business Angle columnist, then served as the web editor and then editor for our popular Pangaea newsletter, which he still produces.

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