The power of open source GIS—a personal journey

avatar-icon2 My first foray into the world of open source GIS occurred at a meeting of Cascadia Users of Geospatial Open Source (CUGOS) back in 2007 at the offices of LizardTech in Seattle’s Pioneer Square. At the time, I didn’t know anything about what open source was or how it was being used. In the years since that meeting I’ve met wonderful, smart people like Dane, a geographer who worked with Esri software but learned to use open source tools as well and helped build the amazing start-up Mapbox. And Aaron who built servers and applications to help map and mitigate disasters, such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, remotely from his home in Langley, Washington, with team members from all over the country.

My work as a GIS analyst in a public agency that uses proprietary enterprise software hadn’t helped me to understand the need and importance of open source software. CUGOS did help me discover that, and over the years I’ve learned so much from CUGOSians about new GIS technologies and better workflows.

My first Free and Open Source Software for Geospatial (FOSS4G) conference was in Victoria, British Columbia, on Vancouver Island in the fall of 2007. I wasn’t familiar then with any open source software tools other than recognizing that some performed functions that were very similar to what I did as a GIS analyst in a typical work day. Since then I’ve learned to run some basic command line functions, I’ve been exposed to programming languages, such as JavaScript and Python, and to the OS relational database Postgres, and I’ve learned about web mapping and many utility tools and libraries.

I’ve recognized the importance of open source software tools and how powerful they’ve become. One simple example of that power is the rise of the Google search engine. If Google hadn’t been able to use open source resources, such as the Linux operating system and Apache Server, but instead had to purchase Microsoft Windows, there might not be a Google now.

I used to think that open source simply meant free of cost—one didn’t have to pay to use it. But as I became more educated, I realized that free and open source software meant that people can share its code design and change it as needed. This sense of freedom and transparency is what really drives open source.

The increasing availability of open source software, which one is free to modify, enhance, and share, allows a whole range of opportunities to exist. Cash-strapped but creative students can easily access and make use of it. Businesses can leverage it in unexpected ways without having to invest in external costs. Government organizations can easily share solutions with each other, with the public, and with non-profit, non-governmental groups. I strongly feel that this demand will only grow.

This past fall, ten years after my first FOSS4G conference, I attended the 2017 FOSS4G conference in Boston, Massachusetts. More than 1,000 people came to share and learn from each other about open source GIS. I attended various workshops and many presentations. I felt that the main theme of the conference was that “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want to buy a quarter-inch hole.” (Theodore Levitt) FOSS4G was a place where one could find and share the best tools to make holes of all sizes for all kinds of needs. Here is the link to my summary notes from the conference.

I feel very fortunate to have been exposed to geospatial open source tools since my first 2007 CUGOS meeting. Since then, I’ve been led to learn numerous tools and meet a number of fantastic people in the FOSS community. Through open source GIS my love of geospatial technology and its power has only increased.

Peter Keum is a GIS analyst in the King County GIS Center and King County Wastewater Treatment Division.

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