Digifesto

Tag: foss4g

“SDI Best Practices with GeoNode” Slides

Slides from my FOSS4G tutorial on GeoNode available here:

The talk was well received, and many people I talked to were interested in installing GeoNode. Overall, the conference was a great one.

Preparing for FOSS4G 2010

Two years ago when I had the incredible opportunity to go to FOSS4G 2008 with OpenGeo, I was very new to the scene. I had been working on OpenLayers-based web applications for just a year at that point. Attending that conference gave me a much broader look at the industry I was entering, and was a crucial chance to become better acquainted with the people behind the IRC handles I was learning to recognize.

I’m back this year, with eleven other members of OpenGeo. Our contingent’s preparation in the past few months has been led by Paul Ramsey, who has a deep professional and personal connection to the conference. We are more coordinated than ever before; if you’re at the conference, you’ll see us in matching t-shirts and with advertised “expert hours” at our booth. Our intention is to make a strong showing and become our own self-fulfilling prophecy of a successful and growing open source geospatial company.

A key part of that vision is OpenGeo’s main product, the OpenGeo Suite. As the internal argument goes, software consulting as programming-for-hire doesn’t scale up as a business model. To prove that open source geospatial can really triumph in the industry, open source consulting shops need to evolve into a product-based company that sells support and training, and funds software development indirectly–but more efficiently, as with more flexibility the company can make wiser long-run decisions. So we are here to sell Suite contracts, we were reminded in our team meeting earlier tonight.

But what’s keeping me up at night right now is the knowledge that this year, unlike two years ago, I have something to say: I’m giving a tutorial on Thursday morning with Galen Evans announcing GeoNode to the attending members of the FOSS4G community.

I am quite nervous. Though we have been tweeting and blogging and releasing news bites about GeoNode with increasing frequency in the past year or so of development, we have for the most part been too busy building it to publicize what we are working on. Often when I try to explain the project, I’m still met with “Ok, but what is it?”

Now I’m hoping we can just show people. We’ve been ironing out the bugs from our 1.0-beta release over for a couple weeks now, and despite some worrying regressions I’m confident that what we’ve got to show is something genuinely new, compelling, and full of potential.

But it’s not for me to decide that. I’ve had my nose stuck in this project for a year, and am still fairly green in the geospatial domain. Meanwhile, the community at FOSS4G is full of jaded industry veterans, well aware of the alternatives and the pitfalls of new software projects. And their judgment matters: GeoNode depends on many other FOSS geospatial projects’ communities, and for us the ideal is for more open source geospatial developers to see potential in GeoNode and consider contributing.

So a lot is riding on this conference. Even if GeoNode is a commercial success, it won’t stand for what it ought to unless it is also a community success. And for that to happen, it needs to earn the respect of colleagues at FOSS4G.

I suppose I really should get back to working on my slides…

FOSS4G Erratum

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.  Rather, their mission is a purely positive one: “support and promote the collaborative development of open geospatial technologies and data.”  Indeed, I had no right to speak for the organization at all, having been exposed to it directly really only for a few days at that point.

Apologies for being caught up in the irrational exuberance of the moment, projecting my own opinions on the rest of the community, and generally overstepping.

Computers are for computing

One of my favorite talks from FOSS4G this year was Josh Livni‘s talk on Walk Score, a web service that calculates the “walkability” of an area based on publicly available data.  Walkability is calculated efficiently right against the database according to an algorithm that takes into account how easy it is to get around–and get to points of interest–by walking.  Then it displays the results using Google Maps.

It took me a while to realize what I liked about Walk Score so much.  It isn’t a fully open source stack, and though “walkability” is important to me, I don’t really have a use for this service beyond checking out the walk score of my home town.  And yet it appeals to me and has been a generally popular site.

Then I realized: this project appeals to me because it computes something interesting.

A frustrating aspect of the world of open source web GIS is that most projects appear to be hung up on the problems of making data available over the internet–in various formats, in certain combinations, with certain metadata, but otherwise essentially untouched.  Where modifying data is supported (say through WFS-T), it has to be done painstakingly by hand.

I don’t want to minimize the challenges of building the foundations that have taken so much effort so far.  But I think that what gets missed in the process is the fact that the most compelling applications compute something useful.  What people really want and need is software that thinks for them.  Or, maybe, discovers something for them.

What Walk Score does, which few applications I’ve seen this week do, is calculate something interesting for people.  Livni had the creativity to turn a human interest into a quantitative, algorithmically calculable metric, and found a way to report that metric back to people in a way they could understand.  It provides people with something two steps ahead of them, just beyond the horizon of what they can imagine.  That’s true progress.  I hope to see more of it in FOSS/Web/GIS applications in the coming year.

Get Real

Internet is expensive in South Africa, since all uploaded data has to travel via satellite.  So I will try to keep myself terse.

On the first day of FOSS4G2008, Sindile Bidha delivered a “lighting talk” on “GIS in schools programme and Quantum GIS.”  Quantum GIS, or QGIS, is open source desktop GIS software. Bindha spoke about how in Eastern Cape, one of the poorest provinces of South Africa, they were trying to introduce QGIS into the high school curriculum.  The challenges?  Among others: no trained teachers, no documentation, and no computers.

The next lightning talk was delivered by Arnulf Christl, president of OSGeo.  He rexcitedly read passages from the book Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything and interspersed his own commentary:

This is a revolution.  No, it’s an evolution.  The whole world can connect instantly, everywhere!

There was a talk given today on the subject of “Mapping the Sanitary Sewers of a South African City – First Experiences with FOSS GIS.”  Somebody is apparently making tentative steps to use open source geospatial software to make sure shit is disposed of properly.  First steps.

I didn’t go to that talk.

Instead, I went to a talk entitled “Participatory Free and Open Source GIS in the Web 2.0.”  A Brazilian masters student studying in Osaka told us that  the Web 2.0 was exciting because…well, I forget the specifics, but the reasons were displayed on a slide in the form of a tag cloud.  She told us that her thesis was on the future of the web and GIS.

“Studying the future is very popular in Japan; when I went there for the first time, I thought it looked like the future!”

Because crowds are wiser than individuals, she needed to talk to several people–maybe 30 total–about their predictions of the future, for her thesis.  She breathily asked the audience of nerds “who are so passionate about their work”–on the word passionate she turned to a slide displaying a red heart on a white background that was reminiscent of the Japanese flag–if they would agree to be interviewed by her.  To tell her what they thought.  About the future.

Q&A begins.  The first question from the audience, loud and clear: “How do I sign up for an interview?”

Another talk I missed today was about the “Development of a Malaria Decision Support System based on Open Source Technologies.”  Each talk–about malaria, about sewers, about the Web 2.0–was twenty minutes long.  About every three seconds, a child dies of malaria.

One issue that has come up frequently at FOSS4G is the importance of having free (as in “freedom”) data to be used with all the FOSS geospatial software that the conference is about.  The software is useless without data.  We are reminded of this most stridently by the OpenStreetMap community, which holds “parties” where they collect data by walking through streets with GPS in their hands.  They held one of these parties to map Hout Bay, a suburb outside of Cape Town, last Sunday just before the conference.  They put their data on the web under a CC-by-sa license (though, admittedly and regretably, the license cannot legally apply to the data because data does not fall under copyright law).

Late in the afternoon, I attended a workshop about GIS education.  It was attended primarily by people from South Africa’s GIS community; they were trying to figure out how the hell they could teach people how do work with GIS software.  At some point, somebody asks about how schools can get data for GIS students to work with in the classroom.  Ideally, it’s data that is local and relevant to the students’ lives.  Some guy from the South African government piped up:

“Oh, we have lots of data–on roads, lakes, vegetation, everything–and we want to make it free.  We just don’t have the bandwidth to host it!”

The government doesn’t have the fucking bandwidth.

Internet is expensive in South Africa.

Governments in open source

As I write this I am sitting in on the “FOSS GIS in Government” working session at being put on by SITA (State Information Technology Agency, the South African government created IT strategy company).  The working session is attended mostly by members of South Africa’s government, who are coming with questions and skepticism about using free software.

A lot of what I’m seeing here is unsurprising.  Arno Webb, the representative of SITA, delivered a presentation that was full of slides showing hierarchies and taxonomies of institutions and initiatives that SITA believes are necessary for the use of free software in government.  The acronym, FOSS, is a convenient encapsulation for them–it is peppered throughout the presentation and then paired with government-ese.  You would not be able to tell what the presentation was about if you didn’t know what that acronym meant.

As it should be.  There is a palpable difference between the culture and expectations of the government community and the open source development communities here.  Nevertheless, the alliance is a perfect one.  So it wonderful to see people working from both sides to bridge the gap.

One initiative Arno and other speakers from the government sector have describe has especially convinced me that these people get it.  When discussing the transition to open source, these government representatives often talk about how they will be producing training materials for the software they depend on.  And if anybody asks whether these materials will be made publicly available, the answer is, “Absolutely.  Yes.  We are adopting the same principles of openness as the software.”  Arno Webb describes a “Trilogy of Openness”– open software, open standards, and open content. The latter refers to the content that the government created training materials.

What this means is that governments will not only be users of open source software; they will also be contributing back to FOSS communities.  That’s awesome!  Free software developers are notoriously bad at providing documentation for their work, but everyone acknowledges that documentation is an important part of the software project and crucial to the software’s adoption.  And governments, who are real users with real needs, are highly qualified to contribute that documentation.  Those contributions are the perfect way for people in government to become part of open source communities.

Culture shock

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.