Open Source GIS for Local Government


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  • Thanks for inviting me along today. Last time I was here, I talked informally about open source GIS, how it relates to INSPIRE, and about getting maps on the web. This time, circumstances are different. The credit crunch means that everyone is trying to get value for money, short and long term, and avoiding risk. I'm going to talk about how an open source approach might be less risky, and better value for money than a conventional approach. I'll also talk through a short case study about a local authority using open source GIS.
  • Open Source GIS packages and libraries have been around since 1978, and all these packages are still in use (is it a revolution if it takes 3 decades?) The libraries, in particular GDAL, for working with raster data, and Proj4 for working with projections and coordinate systems, are now included in proprietary products such as ESRI.
  • The main standards body for geospatial data is the OGC- the Open Geospatial Consortium. This developed directly from the OGF, the Open Grass Foundation. The OGC use open source products as reference implementations for their standards such as Web Mapping Services and Web Feature Services. These are considered to be fully featured implementations against which other packages (OSS or proprietary) can measure themselves. In January 2009 the OGC signed a memorandum of understanding with OSGeo, citing open source software and open standards as being good for business, and allowing further collaboration on reference implementations. So OS GIS is not only well established and mature, but also has a close relationship with the international standards body.
  • Open Source is relatively big business these days. The granddaddy- RedHat is worth around 5 billion dollars. Before the acquisition by Oracle, the MySQL database was worth around 90 million dollars. It's harder to figure out how much open source GIS projects are worth. attempts to do this- and measures the activity of open source projects and the number of person-hours invested in the code. Using OhLoh we can calculate that the OSGeo group of projects are worth around 159 million dollars in total, an increase of 37% on 2008.
  • There are many open source licenses, and this does cause some confusion. However for general use, where you are not intending to develop new software yourself, the license can be seen as extremely flexible. If you ever read the EULA on a proprietary product you might have a surprise Many are based on United States export regulations, preventing people from certain prohibited countries from using the product. Some licenses prevent you from publishing the results of benchmark tests, meaning you can't properly judge the program against it's competitors. In comparison, the open source licenses are designed to promote fair use rather than restrict it.
  • The “product” is more than the software, or the hardware. It is the services, training, packaging, support that goes with it. Traditionally, selling the software allows companies to cross-subsidise access to the additional parts of the product. When the software is free, selling access to the additional parts of the product, such as the support, certification and training, allows cross-subsidy of the development of the free product.
  • The advantage to the customer is that they have the choice of buying the added value products if they wish to, but they don't have to. They don't need to predict the number of licenses they may require in advance. They can try before they buy.
  • Negative press around open source software abounds. Joking aside, “open source” is often referred to as a “movement”, with political connotations. Commonly the perceived risk of using open source software is referred to, along with the notion that it's OK for non critical use. This is interesting when you consider the number of web servers running apache.
  • Joking aside, in a recent survey (Public Sector Forums: Open or Closed? A survey of Open Source software in local government, August 2009) stated that risk was the main barrier to open source adoption at local government level. Lack of awareness and organisational culture were also high on the list. Encouragingly, support and security concerns were fairly low down the list.
  • Whitewash from proprietary companies would have you believe that the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) of open source software can be higher than that of a commercial product. It is true that you may need to train your staff. It is true that you may need to upgrade your hardware. It is true that you will need to support the product and provide annual maintenance. What does the license have to do with this?
  • I would argue that the greater interoperability of open source software means that the barriers to entry and exit are considerably reduced. There is no commercial reason to force you to upgrade to a new version of a package, and to make you change file formats. There is no reason to lock you in to a particular software package. There is no 3-year license with penalty clause for exiting early.
  • There is a way to minimise any perceived risk. Choose only projects that are clearly sustainable. OSGeo have an incubation process that guarantees the intellectual property rights of every line of code, and ensures a proper project management infrastructure is in place. Use to analyse the activity of a project, and its year on year financial worth.
  • OSGeo maintains a list of service providers on a county-by-country basis for all the software they promote. Increasing numbers of training courses are now available in the UK for open source GIS software, for example at the Universities of Lancaster and Newcastle. A number of companies exist in the UK to support open source GIS, OA Digital is one, but there are others. All will come and run training courses for you, tailored to your requirements. The UK local chapter of OSGeo is also up and running, and will be happy to help you with any issues you might have.
  • The United States Department of Defense have recently issues guidance on the use of Open Source Software, stating that it now meets the definition of commercial computer software, and should be treated as such during procurement and market research. In fact, the DoD sees the ability to view and modify the source code as more secure, easier to respond rapidly to changes or threats, and sees the broader peer-review of the code base as more reliable.
  • Thurrock Thames Gateway Development Corporation (TTGDC) approached OA Digital about creating an online map of planning applications after seeing a talk we gave on open source GIS at the British Computing Society. TTGDC have proprietary planning application software built around MapInfo and Microsoft SQL Server. They wished to display information about planning applications on their main website, to get information to the public quickly and easily, avoiding the need for them to visit the office. The new web GIS should allow people to view planning applications, either by searching for a planning reference or by post code. It should have a simple interface, but with the possibility of adding more advanced functions. Users should be able to click through to more detailed information about a plan, including photos and other media.
  • TTGDC looked at the offerings provided by the proprietary software vendors and decided that they didn't offer the functionality, or the flexibility and future extensibility they required. They particularly liked the idea of using MapGuide Open Source (MGOS), as it provides an easy to use Graphical User Interface for configuring data, creating online maps, and styling them to suit their corporate image. With some training and initial setup, they should be able to use this to create their own web maps in future, without needing to hire in developers.
  • MGOS can connect to, and display, data from a variety of formats, including MapInfo. This means it can be slotted into the TTGDC workflow without disruption or changes to current practice. OA Digital have also installed MapServer, to serve Ordnance Survey base mapping to MGOS in a more bandwidth-friendly way, using Web Mapping Services. This can be extended to serve base mapping to desktop GIS too, making data management easier. There have been issues- it would appear that not all standards-compliant packages are made entirely equal, and it is less easy to integrate with MapInfo data than one would like!
  • Thanks again for listening, this talk is available online with notes, should you wish to replay it in the comfort of your own office.
  • Open Source GIS for Local Government

    1. 1. Open Source GIS for Local Government: Benefits and Practicalities Gateway Group, October 2009 Jo Cook Senior IT Support and Development Officer OA Digital [email_address] +44 (0)1524 880212
    2. 2. Open source GIS is not new 1978: Map Overlay and Statistical System (MOSS) 1982: Geographic Resources Analysis Support System (GRASS) 1983: Proj4 Coordinate System Library 1986: PostgreSQL Database 1995: University of Minnesota Mapserver
    3. 3. Geospatial standards evolved from open source GIS 1992: Open GRASS Foundation (OGF) is founded 1995: OGF is re-structured as the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) 2009: OGC signs memorandum of understanding with the Open Source Geospatial Foundation (OSGeo)
    4. 4. Open source is big business
    5. 5. License promotes use rather than restricts it “ No discrimination” “ No restriction” “ Technology Neutral” (
    6. 6. Where's the money in open source? © Techefreak (flickr)
    7. 7. The customer has the choice
    8. 8. FUD!!! “Linux is a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches” (Steve Ballmer: Microsoft, 2001) “It’s a political movement as well as a technical effort. People who buy our products don’t typically want to buy open source because they want to acquire total integrated support for their mission critical applications. Do we want ambulance dispatch running on a system that’s not as well supported?” (Jack Dangermond: ESRI, 2008)
    9. 9. Perception of risk Biggest barriers to adoption of open source in local government Public Sector Forums: Open or Closed? A survey of Open Source Software in Local Government, August 2009
    10. 10. Total cost of ownership Training Hardware Maintenance Support
    11. 11. Total cost of ownership Training Hardware Maintenance Support Entry Costs Exit Costs
    12. 12. A sensible approach
    13. 13. Support and training
    14. 14. Level playing field “ In almost all cases, OSS meets the definition of 'commercial computer software'” (United States Department of Defense, October 2009)
    15. 15. Case Study Thurrock Thames Gateway Development Corporation online planning map
    16. 16. MapGuide Open Source Editing layers with MapGuide Open Source
    17. 17. Integration © Miss Mass (flickr) OS Base Mapping Postcode Data Planning Outlines
    18. 18. Summary <ul><li>Open source software in general is mature enough to consider in commercial procurement
    19. 19. Perceived risk can be minimised by choosing sustainable, active products, commercial support and training
    20. 20. All of these things exist for open source GIS! </li></ul>
    21. 21. Thank You! This work is licenced under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License. To view a copy of this licence, visit or send a letter to Creative Commons, 171 Second Street, Suite 300, San Francisco, California 94105, USA. Jo Cook OA Digital [email_address] +44 (0)1524 880212