Thursday 25 September 2014

FOSS4G 2014

This year was the third time I have attended FOSS4G, the international conference for open source GIS and mapping software. The first one I attended, in Denver in 2011, was  my chance to find out what was going on in open source geospatial development. Despite many years of working in the GIS field, almost everything I saw and heard about in Denver was new to me, an indication of how it's possible to work in a specialised area and yet miss so much of what is happening around you.

I looked at the OS Geo Live DVD I was given at the Denver conference and wondered where to start with such a broad range of different applications. In 2013, for the Nottingham event, I was already much more aware of what was happening and beginning to make more sense of where the open source world was stronger and how it might influence the future of the geospatial industry. OS Geo Live demonstrates in a single installation the strength of community developed software.

This month in Portland over 870 people attended the conference, and there was an impressive range of workshops for those who wanted to start the week learning new things. One thing that struck me about the event this time is that there was more of a balance between sessions reporting progress on development of the software and those that focused more on how these tools are being used. If I had a criticism of Denver in 2011, it was that there was a bit too much repetition of sessions dedicated to developer themes at the expense of this broader view.

To some extent this is inevitable in an open source environment, without the strong developer input very little happens, but the maturity of the product of all that effort is only really demonstrated when you have people who can stand up in front of that audience and show what they have done with the software. Portland to me was a significant advance in this respect, things are moving quickly. The fact that there were 8 simultaneous streams of presentations made this clear.

At each of these conferences you can soon get a feel for which software developments are attracting the most attention, usually when they have to change the rooms for some sessions because of the people waiting to get in! Nottingham was in many respects the year of QGIS, a new release of the package was a statement of intent raising the question of why many GIS users need to continue paying licence fees when they have an impressive open source desktop package available to download whenever they need it.

In Portland it seemed that any presentation which had '.js' in the title or summary was going to be full. The Javascript libraries for web mapping, like Leaflet and Open Layers, had a strong presence. Notable also are the advances in vector mapping for mobile clients and some truly impressive products for 3D visualizations. Using the power of many of the devices that we can carry in our pockets or in a bag challenges the accepted wisdom of the last 20 years of development for the desktop.

The ability to combine different packages to do different tasks suggests to me that we are close to a tipping point in the GIS world, where the age of the desktop GIS attempting to combine all geospatial functionality in a single package is over. The demands of different platforms for delivery of spatial data mean that it's no longer a matter of choosing a single product and trying to force it to do what you want to do.

Acceptance of open source software by large organisations and public administrations is increasing rapidly and the game has definitely changed. But not in all sectors. I'm still a bit of an outsider in the open geospatial world, working as I do with proprietary software in the utilities and telecoms sectors still dominated by a few large vendors. Regarded by many in the GIS world as a 'niche' sector, it is one that creates a substantial proportion of the GIS work available and often involves large investments over many years.

Not surprising that open source has made little headway in such a sector so far, but there are still possibilities to be explored. Not every utility company has been swallowed by a corporate giant and many of these companies are unwilling or unable to spend thousands of dollars on a single user licence. Even some of the larger companies run into problems when they want to increase access to their date locked into a proprietary format. The traditional model based around licence revenues is one of the reasons why so much of the good development on web and mobile device mapping is taking place in the open source world.

So for me an extra positive development this year at FOSS4G has been the formation of a new OS Geo group for the utility and telecoms sectors, to explore ways in which open source can become an option for GIS users in this sector. Anyone who is interested in this project is invited to join the group. 

FOSS4G is a conference organised by volunteers from the host city, and a very impressive job they do too. Each year's edition builds on past experiences and this year set a high standard. All those involved in setting it up and running the conference did a great job. Portland was a good choice, the weather was great and I have to say the local craft beer was even better! My 'Timbers Army' scarf bought for the game between the Portland Timbers and San Jose now has pride of place back home in Madrid. 

Next year Asia gets the chance to host the event as FOSS4G 2015 will be held in Seoul. I hope to be there.

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