Teaching the Value of Open Source Geospatial Tools

Last night I had the pleasure of speaking to a class of GIS students at the University of Buffalo on the topic of open source geospatial tools. I have made this presentation before but last night my message to these students was to think of open source as a legitimate alternative and to take the time to learn about it.

The current GIS landscape is quite different from when I graduated from college. For one, the number of legitimate GIS platforms has doubled from the time I started working with GIS. In addition, GIS technology is being used in far more industries than they were when ESRI, MapInfo, and Intergraph were the main options and costs has become an increasingly important factor when organizations choose their technology platforms. If a student were to land a job with a non-profit or a small business where managing costs is important they could earn their keep immediately by knowing how to implement low or no-cost solutions such as QGIS, PostGIS, or GeoServer.

We at NBT Solutions have made open source geospatial tools a large part of our GIS development toolbox and have had many successes because of it. We clearly make it part of our company resume and I would recommend to all those future GIS professionals to make it a part of their resume as well.

Here are the URLs for some of the web sites I used in my presentation last night. These are great resources for learning basic and advanced topics of several open source geospatial technologies.

FOSS4G 2014 – https://2014.foss4g.org/

QGIS – http://foss4geo.wordpress.com/

Open Web Mapping – https://www.e-education.psu.edu/geog585/node/508

Github – https://help.github.com/articles/mapping-geojson-files-on-github/

OpenStreetMap – https://www.openstreetmap.org/#map=12/42.8963/-78.9244

FOSS4G Annual Conference

NBT Solutions was formed as a web-mapping application development company, bootstrapping with minimal startup funds.  With commercial web mapping engines carrying very large license price tags, we opted to check out open source geospatial software to build our applications. The results were positive and after a successful launch of our very first product we decided to explore this open source world a little more. In 2011 we attended (and sponsored) the International Free and Open Source Software for Geospatial (FOSS4G) conference in Denver. The conference was amazing. Almost 1,000 people gathered at the conference to exchange ideas and demonstrate their work. The energy and optimism was contagious. It confirmed our belief that geospatial open source tools and libraries were here to stay and that we had made the right choice.

One month ago the International FOSS4G conference came back to the United States and was held in Portland, Oregon. Like Denver, the conference was full of excitement and enthusiasm but there was also a subtle sense that the excitement that was so evident at FOSS4G in Denver had turned into productive energy. Along with the usual technical “how to” tracks there were also presentations that demonstrated practical uses of FOSS4G, the expanding number of FOSS4G curriculums in universities, and the coupling of open source applications with proprietary stacks.

Here are four specific things I took away from the conference.

  1. Open source technologies are becoming part of the university curriculum

One the coolest ideas I saw was the Open Street Map (OSM) updating project developed by folks at George Washington University. The school teamed with non-profits to update OSM data for the developing countries where the non-profits are doing work. Students get course credit and non-profits get accurate map data they can use to help with their assistance programs. Sounds like a win-win to me.

Penn State has developed a very comprehensive open web mapping curriculum (GEOG 585) which is available as open courseware however students can also get course credit and complete the course with an instructor by registering for the course. The online course exposes students to technologies such as OpenLayers, GeoServer, and PostGIS.

The FOSS4G Academy has developed a series of five lesson plans that dive into the features of QGIS. The five plans include an introduction to QGIS, spatial analysis using QGIS, data acquisition and management using QGIS, cartography using QGIS, and remote sensing using QGIS. Check out their site here: http://foss4geo.wordpress.com/2014/08/10/announcing-the-new-qgis-academy/

  1. PostGIS is becoming more popular

It is becoming clear that PostGIS is gaining popularity as a robust and powerful open source database. Add the FAA to the ranks of federal agencies that are using PostGIS. The FAA is using PostGIS for the NextGen and Airport GIS programs.

Amazon is also doing their part to make PostGIS installations easier by adding PostgreSQl/PostGIS to their RDS offerings. Now you can spin up a PostGIS instance in minutes.

  1. Open Source Technology Playing Nice with the Proprietary Stacks

There were at least a couple of talks that talked about using open source technologies on top of proprietary stacks. Most of the coupling is done through ETL conversions to GeoJSON – not the best solution but workable. ESRI has a library called KOOP that might be worth looking into.

  1. GitHub as an Open Data Repo

One of the last talks I saw was about storing geospatial data as GeoJSON files on GitHub. The presenter, an open data advocate, convincingly showed how GitHub is a perfect place to store and manage GeoJSON files. For small projects with simple viewing requirements I think this has a lot of potential. It’s easy to work with, very accessible, and interoperable.

  1. Vector Tiles

I first ran into vector tiles a couple of years ago when I took a new online platform called GIS Cloud for a test drive. I was amazed when I saw millions of points quickly rendered in my browser and I had all the interactivity I wanted. Now vendors such as MapBox are taking a deep dive into providing data as vector tiles for developers to consume in their applications. This could be a game changer.