open source viable in GIS?

A friend posted to a remote sensing mailing list to say that he was trying to “create a standalone program for manipulating shapefiles” and did anyone know of any existing code libraries for such things? Several of the responses he got pointed him in the direction of the existing open source GIS community. For example,

GIS is Geographic Information Systems. It’s computer mapping software basically, but it usually isn’t very basic. The existing, commercial tools, are complex, tricky, legacy-ridden and quite powerful. There is one world leader in the production of the software, ESRI with their ArcGIS family, and it is deeply entrenched throughout industry and research.

Open Source is software collaboratively developed by dispersed individuals who contribute their code more or less freely. In return they take advantage of the work of other who collectivley build software that is cheap or free, and open to transformation and growth.

The idea of an actual, functioning open source GIS community is a painful sort of hope. The cost of a single seat license for ESRI ArcGIS is USD$1500.00. That’s a tall barrier to anyone outside of either a) a big institution or b) the western world. GIS, mapping, may sound banal but it’s not. Using spatial data is bottom-line-key to policy and planning in a profound portfolio of infrastructure areas: environmental management, conservation, social and urban development, health. The possibility that every NGO and developing-country school and government organization could use powerful GIS tools is, pardon my geek, a thrilling one.

The reason the hope is painful is that the open-source community has some very high walls to climb if they want to succeed, so high I’m doubtful. The barriers to any new GIS software ecology gaining use are, I think, these:

  • interoperability

    It’s getting easier to open files from one program in another, but even when you can open them, working with them glitch-free across programs is a major issue. Often the process of importing and translating without losing functionality can be time taking and frustrating.

  • transmission of knowledge

    While the underlying theories of cartography and GIS are mostly the same for all different flavours of software, much of the knowledge of a skilled GIS operator is tied up in the working details of specific software. People learn those details from courses or colleagues. Such training is precious and hard to come by, and usually people take what they can get, rather than choosing their software platform and seeking out training for that platform. Once you’ve learned a platform, it’s a more than most people are willing to do to retrain themselves.

  • cost

    nobody wants to buy sofware to do the same thing more than once.

Open source software can generally dodge the cost issue, since it’s typically free and isn’t vulnerable to most of the “total cost of ownership” questions that arguably affect OS operating systems, but the the other two barriers remain substantial for any new GIS software, definitely including open source options.

Hanging over all this is the question of quality. Even if all of the “unfair” barriers to entry are overcome, new software will still have to face the “fair” one: is it good enough to use? For all the complaints I have about ESRI software — and I assure you, I have many — I recognize that creating a program that does so many different complex operations for so many different types and skill levels of users is not a simple thing. The amount of code in the ArcGIS suite must be staggering, and the magnitude of man-hours of interface development is beyond guessing. If an open-source alternative is to compete on features, which ultimately it must, it will require the development of hundreds of analysis and manipulation processes. It seems to me that this is potentially a greater programming challenge than any open source project I am aware of, with the single exception of a full operating system. OpenOffice appears straightforward in comparison (and was jump-started by the Sun Office code, for which there is no paralell option in GIS world), Mozilla/Netscape ditto.

I deeply hope there’s some group of crazy GIS programmers out there with the technical capacity and the heart to take on this challenge. In my short career with GIS/remote sensing I have time and again come across situations where I wished there was a license free GIS package that small groups, enivronmental groups, developing-world groups, could use. Information is power in law, in politics, in science. There is a lot more free data out there than there was: GLCF with it’s back-catalog satellite imagery data, SRTM with all that topology, old, uncopyrighted Soviet maps waiting to become useful again, free fresh satellite data for the taking from NASA, and dozens of small and medium labs turning out their intermediary products. But turning raw and intermediary data into final product needs that software tool. I think it’s safe to say that the overwhelming majority of potential users of GIS simply don’t have the technical knowledge and the computing access to make those products when they need them. Technical know-how is a whole other quagmire, but if someone could make an open source GIS package, the benefits would be substantal and long-lasting. I wish I was more optimistic about the chances of that happening.

leave a comment