by Sebastian Benthall
I have the privilege of attending FOSS4G 2008 (Free and Open Source Software for Geospatial) in Cape Town this year as an engineer for OpenGeo. This is my first time attending a technology conference, and so came with few expectations. But what I had gathered from colleagues who have attended in the past was this conference is primarily for hackers and open source entrepreneurs who are committed to the free software paradigm and bringing it to the GIS world. The event is put on by OSGeo, which is unguarded about its goal to piss off ESRI, the monopolistic proprietary GIS giant who we believe misserves their costumers and, indirectly, the general public. (Author’s note: Please see comments below and retraction, here.)
So far, most of the people I have met are coming to the conference from this angle, and it creates an exciting atmosphere. What I didn’t understand until today was that there are other major groups attending FOSS4G this year.
The reason why FOSS4G is being held in South Africa this year is because FOSS4G is being co-sponsored this year by GISSA, the Geo- Information Society of South Africa. They have contributed to an otherwise technical conference a humanitarian focus. The first few talks given today were sober ones about the crises of developing nations, beginning with the health and crime problems in Cape Town itself. The theme of the conference is oddly cautious: “Open Source Geospatial: An Option for Deveoping Nations.” GIS professionals from government and NGO’s have been invited from developing countries around the world, with a couple hundred from South Africa itself.
The result is a strange cultural mix. The FOSS crowd is lively, reliably laughing and applauding when a speaker makes a dig at proprietary software (PowerPoint, Internet Explorer, Apple). Their speeches are deliberately humorous and irreverent. After Ed Parsons gave a rather cluelessly untargeted talk about how Google’s (proprietary) products are awesome and how easy it is for people ot use them to make (proprietary) data, the crowd dragged him over the coals during the Q&A.
The government and GIS groups must find this strange. Their tone was consistently more serious, more cautious, and less confrontational. The pace of their presentations was slower. They presented their tragic facts and their strategies to overcome them without the exuberance and confidence that this was their time to rally.
The point of bringing these two groups together is so that groups like GISSA can evaluate the appropriateness of geospatial FOSS for their very serious needs. In many ways it’s great that they can see the FOSS developers in their element, since the transparency of the open source process and the enthusiasm of its participants is one of the software’s selling points. But on the other hand, I worry that the two groups are speaking different languages. I’ll be interested to see whether there’s any convergence by the end of the week.
Thats a really great take on the conference. This fact was evident to me largely because I straddle the fence, A as a consultant using FOS GIS software, and B as someone who interacts with these government departments (and in a developing nation). It was enlightening for me to see the vigour and excitement from you guys. At the same time I am sitting hoping that those in Government saw the excitement (and were not frightened away!) and will eventually see the benefits of OS. I still think this will take a long time (in South Africa anyway) because it is just safer to go with arcIMS and if anything goes wrong, they can just say “but its arcIMS!” Did we as SA gain anything – I did – and all us techies did…perhaps the eyes of developing nations were opened…lets hope……because when money is tight it just makes sense to use free software doesn’t it……and its better! let this conference be a lesson for future conferences in my country – unbuckle your belt, laugh and talk about what is important!
As someone who loves and uses open source gis and also uses ESRI and Google products on a daily basis, I find it amusing and a little annoying that either group looks upon the other as the enemy.
I would say that ESRI has been one of the biggest founders of GIS software and Google has been a mainstay in bringing GIS to the masses. Can anyone deny their influence on GIS?
I see open source GIS making great strides and I imagine/hope that I’ll continue to use such products more frequently, but if you cannot see why someone would use Arcmap or Google Earth/maps then I’m not sure you see where open source needs to go.
I do the same – use proprietary and OS software, and agree with you – certain products are better than others for certain things. It was interesting to see the strides that advanced desktop GIS (cos thats really where OS is lacking) has made recently. A gvSIG with sextante installation will do a lot (and more) of what we can do in arc now, which is promising – but I still need to fire up the old arc beast often. The main reason why ed from google was dragged through the coals was related to his demonstration of google mapmaker, and the philosophy that “give us your data by capturing streets we dont have…but……you cannot have it back”. That sort of philosophy does not go down well at a conference focused on collaboration
I was not in attendance this year; but it sounds like a poor tone was struct. It is a fine balance between enthusiasm and brashness; if you wanted to see the developers being serious the code sprint was probably the place to be.
We all work with ESRI and ArcIMS (because that is where a lot of the data is today). The idea here is to help build expertise with open source solutions. The goal is to ensure that the a developing countries next 50 million does not go out the door – we want it to go to *your* development community (and into improving the software we all use).
“The event is put on by OSGeo, which is unguarded about its goal to piss off ESRI”.
This is an interesting take on the OSGeo mission statement, which can be found on it’s home page:
“Created to support and build the highest-quality open source geospatial software. Our goal is to encourage the use and collaborative development of community-led projects”
Not to say that there aren’t people who do like to piss off ESRI (and I have felt like that myself on a number of occasions), but that kind of sweeping statement doesn’t help the cause of OSGeo, which is trying to be considerably more professional about FOSS.
[…] Thanks to Jody Garnett and Archeogeek for their correcting my misrepresentation of OSGeo in my first post from FOSS4G. As they point out, OSGeo does not, as an organization, have it in for ESRI. […]
[…] of times. In 2008, the conference was in South Africa. I didn’t know anybody, so I blogged about it, and got chastised for being too divisive. I wasn’t being sensitive to the delicate […]