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Software GNU is Not Unix

Open Source Geographic Information Systems 189

RGillig writes "The second MapServer Users Meeting and the first ever Open Source GIS Conference was held on June 9th to 11th in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. The initial response from the Open Source GIS community is that the conference was a huge success. It was great to have people from private, government, academia, and communities all together discussing how Open Source GIS applies to their needs. Here is a presentation given by Paul Ramsey, Director, Refractions Research Inc. that outlines the current state-of-the-art for Open Source GIS, and includes links and information about all of the current software packages/efforts, etc."
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Open Source Geographic Information Systems

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  • by toetagger1 ( 795806 ) on Saturday July 10, 2004 @11:08PM (#9664155)
    Isn't it ironic that they have to specify that Ottowa and Ontario is in Canada, when the whole article talks about maps?
    • by xs650 ( 741277 ) on Saturday July 10, 2004 @11:11PM (#9664178)
      They realized that many of their geographically challanged friends from south of the border would read the report.
      • True though, try asking some random person how many states are in Canada some time. The answers will amuse you. For some other easy questions people seem to miss see: About how long does it take for Earth to orbit the sun? How often do we have a leap year? I think MSNBC did a survey with simmilar questions, I was shocked by the results.
        • About how long does it take for Earth to orbit the sun?

          Or how long, to the nearest minute, does it take for the Earth to complete one rotation about its axis?
          Or how long is a day in terms of rotations of the Earth?
          Even dictionaries get this wrong []:

          • The 24-hour period during which the earth completes one rotation on its axis.
          • time for Earth to make a complete rotation on its axis

          These definitions are, of course, incorrect; in 24 hours, the Earth completes approx. 1 + 1/365.25 rotations on its axis, and the

        • " True though, try asking some random person how many states are in Canada some time."

          The only one I can think of off hand is North Dakota.
    • by 0racle ( 667029 ) on Saturday July 10, 2004 @11:25PM (#9664244)
      I know, its so strange, its not like there's any other Ottawa [] or Ontario [] anywhere else in the world. Yep, only ones are in Canada, and while were at it only Americans don't know geography. Any other cliches you want to throw in?
    • You fool! (Score:1, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward
      You blew it! You could've made so many funny jokes playing off the potential irony of attending a conference on mapping, instead of just stating the obvious. Examples set heretoforthwith:

      "Yeah I was supposed to attend this conference...but I got lost on the way."

      "The annoying thing about those GIS guys....they never stop to ask for directions."

      "Yeah, well at least with the GIS guys you always know where you stand."

      "Hey, did ya see the meeting agenda? It was like,
      Opening Remarks: 45d19'23"N, 78d52'34"W
    • Isn't it ironic that they have to specify that Ottowa and Ontario is in Canada, when the whole article talks about maps?

      No. It's not.
    • Ontarios outside the US:

      1|-356249|-535329| -11.2833333| -74.4333333|-111700|-742600|WN65|SC18-15|P|PPL||PE |12||||N||||ONTARIO|Ontario|Ontario|1993-12-12
      1| -894310|-1322756| -38.25| -72.1|-381500|-720600|YC56|SJ19-09|S|FRM||CI|04||| |N||||ONTARIO|Ontario|Ontario|1993-12-19
      3|-12693 64|-1846857| -25.9166667|23.1333333|-255500|230800|GS13|SG34-08 |S|FRM||SF|01||||N||||ONTARIO|Ontario|Ontario|1993 -12-23
      3|-1269365|-1846858| -27.2666667|26.7333333|-271600|264400|MK78|SG35-14 |S|FRM||SF|03||||N||||

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday July 10, 2004 @11:11PM (#9664177)
    Couldn't find the damn place though.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday July 10, 2004 @11:12PM (#9664179)
    So when is GIS going to be tied into the internet so when I search for a pizza joint the first result won't be a place that's 300 miles away?
  • It happened when? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by rikkards ( 98006 ) on Saturday July 10, 2004 @11:18PM (#9664208) Journal
    I live in Ottawa and never heard about it. Hmm. Maybe it was due to the fact that the two big summer events that anyone talked about here were the Hope beach volleyball tournament (today) and Bluesfest (which started yesterday).
  • by prof_peabody ( 741865 ) on Saturday July 10, 2004 @11:24PM (#9664234)
    Many of you may have forgotten that GMT (generic mapping tool) is open source and predates linux. I'm glad to see more opensource work in the GIS field, as many companies charge bundles of cash for very basic GIS software.
  • This is good stuff (Score:5, Informative)

    by goatstuffer ( 794548 ) on Saturday July 10, 2004 @11:25PM (#9664239)
    Outside of the end-user type applications (ESRI's ArcGIS and co.), open source in GIS is quite widespread.

    Refractions Research maintains the PostGIS module for PostgreSQL, and while it is not yet complete (fix the ACROSS function guys!) it certainly makes the wrangling of data much easier as it implements the OpenGIS SQL specification.

    Compare this to the old days of a dozen different formats which weren't convertable, it's much nicer with GML (Geographic Markup Language) and standard representations of geographic features made possible by the find folks involved in the OpenGIS consortium.

    Props to the team at the University of Minnesota for MapServer, it's made my life a whole lot easier.
    • Texas Mesonet (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward on Saturday July 10, 2004 @11:45PM (#9664340)
      I did a lot of work with MapServer and GIS data at Texas A&M for a part-time job I had my last semester (this has been close to 2 years ago now). Check out the Texas Mesonet project at: []

      Click on Current Weather to see the MapServer-based map I helped create initially. It's all built with open-source software and (I think) freely available data from the national weather service. It's amazing how much data you get, and how easily it can be handled by one little machine in a windowless office somewhere (until it's slashdotted of course).
    • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 11, 2004 @12:06AM (#9664419)
      Just want to say that Refractions Research's postgis mailinglist is one of the best customer support experiences I've ever had. A prototype of one of our future products (crime mapping software) is based on PostGIS, and 4am the night before a customer demo we were having some problems (postgres optimizer on geom indexes).

      By 4:30 AM we had exchanged about 3 emails each way, fixed all the problems and had a great demo. If we land the client, we're hiring them.

    • by temojen ( 678985 ) on Sunday July 11, 2004 @01:33AM (#9664769) Journal

      Indeed. I was glad to read of JUMP in this report because I was looking for something along the lines of ARCView for occasional use and had been very frustrated with GRASS. GRASS may be extremely powerful and flexible for geographers etc, but for occasional analysis (by non-experts) it really sucks. JUMP looks to be just the ticket.

      I guess I'll know a little while once the download completes.

      • I'm on the JUMP development team and I hope it meets your needs. It's a good program for editing 10MB shapefiles. It can also edit GML, though not as easily. And it has a simple Java plugin system, so you can make it understand any data format (or database) (or do anything for that matter).

        Feel free to contact me or to sign up on the mailing list for the JUMP Unified Mapping Platform.
  • doc file? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by shaitand ( 626655 ) * on Saturday July 10, 2004 @11:50PM (#9664355) Journal
    Anyone else have a clue why information about an open source anything would be in a proprietary MS format?
    • Re:doc file? (Score:1, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Because open source anything doesn't imply open source everything so don't assume that it does.
      • "The State of Open Source GIS"

        Gee and here I thought this headline (of the document) indicated this document was ENTIRELY about OSS.
    • They have made everything available in at least .sxi too!
  • by isdnip ( 49656 ) on Saturday July 10, 2004 @11:53PM (#9664368)
    The "briefing" has a good collection of pointers to open-source applications out there. But as a fan of the commercial Windows GIS product MapInfo, I am frustrated by the lack of an open source alternative, and by the lack of comparable tools for Linux. GRASS is pretty powerful, but it's not something anybody can just start using; it's more like something a Unix GIS professional (difficult but powerful systems like ESRIs) would find interesting.

    This note from the briefing is most telling:

    Note: The saturated commercial market for cartography tools, the high level of effort to achieve a usable tools, and the appeal of other cutting edge projects have combined to deter any active development on user-friendly paper map production tools. As with the OpenOffice experience in Linux, it would probably require a dedicated multi-year funded project to produce a core product with sufficient technical mass that an open source community could reasonably continue with enhancements and support.

    In other words, don't expect to find a complete open source end-user application within your lifetime.

    This is, alas, common in the open source world. Everybody does their own toolkit that does 90% of what other toolkits do, adds 10% of its own, and assumes that the user is a person who gets their jollies from writing code, not actually using the application with production data.
    • > In other words, don't expect to find a complete
      > open source end-user application within your
      > lifetime.

      The comment you quoted addresses the specific topic of cartographic map generation suitable for printing. I don't see any reason that several of the existing projects can't include respectible map production suitable for most GIS end users.

      Furthermore, as noted, a serious cartographic production system could be implemented within a couple of years given an appropriate project to drive it.
      • There are a number of recent efforts in the exploratory spatial data analysis real that attempt to deliver on the "end user" side of things, for example:



    • I use MapInfo at work, and was toying with a custom alternative using SVG output of the image_gis php module. More info here []

      I didn't get very far as the documentation is pretty light, and I have a hard time coming up with info in the Arcinfo/E00 format or finding a decent converter.
    • GRASS is pretty powerful, but it's not something anybody can just start using; it's more like something a Unix GIS professional (difficult but powerful systems like ESRIs) would find interesting.

      That's very interesting! I was wondering if you could give me some advice...?

      This is the situatation: I'm looking at GIS now, as I need to expand my skills, and only solutions running on Linux will come under consideration. Furthermore, I wouldn't trust systems where I can't inspect the source code. It doesn

      • I couldn't tell you what the learning curve of GRASS is like -- it's so steep up front that I've never been able to get anywhere. I've installed it, but even using the Tcl menus, I haven't been able to really use it. I think it takes having an expert sitting next to me showing me what to do. I don't have such an expert here.

        To be sure, I did have such help to get started in MapInfo, but once I got the hang of it (quickly), the learning curve for most things was not too bad. Although it is rather sloppy
  • by PierceLabs ( 549351 ) on Saturday July 10, 2004 @11:57PM (#9664383)
    What we need are good royalty and free-use datasets that allow open source products to actually be able to do high resolution GIS queries. Without a large volume of free data, having an open source GIS system isn't enough.
    • It's out there. (Score:5, Interesting)

      by sp0rk173 ( 609022 ) on Sunday July 11, 2004 @12:35AM (#9664534)
      As an undergrad researcher currently doin a heavily GIS-intensive project, i have to say the data is out there. In the US, the USGS provides multitudes of data for free, as does the EPA (the BASINS dataset is HUGE and completely free). Granted, it's hard as fuck to track down if you don't know someone who has already had to sift through the many, many websites out there that hold the data - but it's out there. What needs to be done, I think, is for the community to create some kind of central portal that makes it easy to find, and then download all of the data. THAT would be helpful.
      • What needs to be done, I think, is for the community to create some kind of central portal that makes it easy to find, and then download all of the data.

        What data is it that you need and is not available via the USGS National Map []? There's a lot there besides topography, and it's constantly adding new datasets.

        • You can still get USGS DEMS at the GIS Data Depot []. Originally all the data there was free, but little by little they've been fencing it off into the paid "premium" area. But DEMs are still free to download.
    • by jim_deane ( 63059 ) on Sunday July 11, 2004 @12:42AM (#9664560) Journal
      There is a /ton/ of 'free' GIS data available on the internet.

      I say 'free' because in reality the US taxpayers have paid for it, but take a look at things like:

      Kansas DASC [],

      Census Bureau TIGER data [],

      collection sites like Geo Community [],

      and an almost limitless number of other sites. Most states now have GIS sites of one form or another, with downloadable data.

      Jim Deane
      • Sure, the US has a lot of free GIS data, but maybe you've heard that there people who live outside the US? And, maybe they also prefer free software, open formats and more available data?
        • There is at least the SRTM-3 data set []. It is an excellent data set covering most of the landmass between 60 N and 58 S (which, unfortunately just barely includes me...). It has a spatial resolution of about 90 meters and an elevation resolution of about 15 meters.

          It's in a simple binary matrix, easy enough to hack up something to import it whereever you want.


            But no UK under Europe/Middle-east unless you count the south-coast that appears under France.


            I've been looking for over a year for UK map data. I may find it yet.

            • More poking around finds:


              snck snck

              Now to see what it really is....

        • Sure, the US has a lot of free GIS data, but maybe you've heard that there people who live outside the US? And, maybe they also prefer free software, open formats and more available data?

          Apparently you haven't looked. There is some free data available, from the US, on other parts of the world. Other countries and more local governments or organizations also do provide some free data.

          The only datasets I have downloaded directly have been quite open format--in fact, they're completely unencoded, or they
      • I work for the Georgia (USA) GIS data clearinghouse. We have thousands of free datasets, and very reasonable pricing on downloadable imagery ($5 per USGS quarter-quad). Of course the imagery is kind of old (most recent is 1999 color infrared), but many people still find it useful. You do have to sign up, but believe me, it's not for any sinister purpose. There's only two people with direct access to the data; me and the guy in the office next to me. We don't do anything with it but collect aggregate st
  • by IGnatius T Foobar ( 4328 ) on Sunday July 11, 2004 @12:02AM (#9664405) Homepage Journal
    Name : 2004-05-OSS-Briefing.doc

    These "open source GIS" people need to learn a few things about "open source software." Presentation in Microsoft Word format? Faux pas!!
  • Irony strikes (Score:2, Redundant)

    by A_Non_Moose ( 413034 )
    As the sys admin for a GIS lab, I was curious and clicked the link, only to be amused to see:


    Heh, funny.
  • Here's Hoping (Score:5, Informative)

    by Nilmat ( 626701 ) on Sunday July 11, 2004 @12:12AM (#9664442)
    Back in the summer of 2001 I used GRASS [] pretty extensively. At the time, it could do a lot of the same stuff as ArcView and ArcGIS but was vastly clunkier in doing it. Think Gimp vs. Photoshop a few years ago. I'm glad to see that open source GIS lives on, since a workable alternative to ArcGIS is absolutely essential for those of us in academia. In fact, I've given up on ArcGIS and still use ArcView because I can't stand the damn thing. It also doesn't help that you can't run ArcGIS under anything OS but Windows, since its all written in VB. I've even tried to run ArcGIS under Windows via VMWare, but it doesn't recognize the necessary hardware key. Enough with rant there, but in any case I guess I'm just hoping that one of these open source alternatives will be viable in the near future.
    • ArcGIS runs in windows, linux, AIX, HP-UX and solaris. There's some functionality difference in ArcView once you enter the *nix/UNIX world, but it does exist.

      check it out []

      It seems they might have changed things in version 9, but i'm not totally sure. Either way, i don't like the product.
      • Just recently looked at version 9, still ships for at least Linux HP-UX and Solaris, can't remember if I saw AIX there.
      • Must be new for version 9. I gave up on it after version 8.something. Regardless, I don't think I'll go looking for it unless I can't avoid using it.
      • Actually, after my last post I took the time to explore the ESRI website as you suggested. Please let me know if I'm mistaken, but it looks like the server products (ie ArcGIS Server, ArcIMS, etc.) run under various *nixes but the desktop products (ArcExplorer, etc.) do not. AV 3.x, of course, runs on a variety of platforms as does ArcInfo 7.x.
      • ArcGIS 8 was a ground-up re-write as COM/DCOM and is unlikely to ever run under unices. ArcINFO is more or less a "legacy" app and is bundled with ArcGIS, and it runs under just about any command line (except Linux), it is *nothing* like ArcGIS. ArcGIS 9 adds a bunch of missing capability (like a sane macro language) and goes a long way towards making it a "real" GIS, for example, the default macro language is Python, and you can script in whatever language you want, they have also fixed a bunch of other bi
  • by ONU CS Geek ( 323473 ) * <> on Sunday July 11, 2004 @12:12AM (#9664443) Homepage
    I use and upload information into WiGLE (, and having information like this would do wonders in having accuracy in mapping and plotting. There ahve been times where I've plotted information, but the information from Tiger isn't up to date, so my plots don't look like they're on roads.

    Now, if we could only work on GPS accuracy. Sure, 21 feet is 21 feet, but, still...I'd love to be able to wardrive and know exactly where something is at. (Yes, for the subtle, I know that 21 feet doesn't make much of a difference with a Wi-Fi point, but, being able to accurately identify where a point is would be nice. Instead of knowing where on Randall Road something is, it'd be the bomb if we could pick up something like 4033 Randall Road from the GPS Coordinates.)

    Maybe I'm just dreaming, or had one too many to drink on a Saturday night.

    • also nice for geocaching accuracy....
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 11, 2004 @12:14AM (#9664451)
    because I expect that where Redmond, WA is, the map shows a giant lake. :)
  • Data, not programs (Score:4, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 11, 2004 @12:51AM (#9664595)
    right now, what Canada needs is free access to high-quality current GIS data. The US has Tiger, we have nothing similar.
    It's all controlled by municipalities. Toronto wants a small
    fortune for copies of TAXPAYER paid-for data.
    • by Anonymous Coward
      Take a look at this, it has most of the canadian road network available for free (as in speech): []
    • Yes, the lack of free geodata outside of the U.S. is a major problem for us at the FlightGear [] project. This is one area where the rest of the world (I'm Canadian) needs to emulate the U.S. rather than making fun of it.

      In fact, not only does the U.S. make its own geodata available for free, but it provides nearly all of the available free geodata for the rest of the world as well, though at a lower resolution. We use the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) 3 arcsecond for worldwide elevations, the 1:

  • GRASS COMPLETE! (Score:1, Offtopic)

    by atheken ( 621980 )
    Well, I own a mac, so anything GIS that runs on it, I am happy with I just found GRASS Complete (like "") Anybody have a lot of experience with it and willing to "tutor me"?
  • THERE'S NO DATA!!! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 11, 2004 @04:42AM (#9665325)
    For at least 90% of the world, there is no free GIS data at useful resolution. There's free data for most of the US, but not much for the rest of the world.

    I'd say free data is the real issue, not free software.

    • You are so right. I think there are two reasons for that. First, the knowledge of positions has been and is somewhat still considered a military secret. Many mapping agencies (all?) come from a military background, so they are naturally reluctant to reveal the data. Second, they are making loads of green by selling the information to professionals who need them (e.g. surveyors).
      • I think you're right. I've noticed this, too, and I'm perversely amused by it, as it's exactly the reverse of the way things USUALLY seem to be stated (i.e. normally it's "We European types get free service from The Government(tm), whereas you Yanks have your Government(tm) selling out to rich corporations!"... I suppose a study of the sociological forces at work in this isolated role-reversal would be kind of interesting - any sociologists/political scientists out there looking for a thesis topic?...)

    • Try - yes it is funded by the US and yes it is somewhat limited in its detail but it does have a large amount of data for most of the earth.
  • ... but it has big plans to be - see my sig :-)

  • And today is? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by hswerdfe ( 569925 ) <{} { ...}> on Sunday July 11, 2004 @09:44AM (#9665909) Homepage Journal

    July 11th, it would be nice if someone would have told me about this ahead of time.. I live in ottawa and would have loved to atend
  • by paanta ( 640245 ) on Sunday July 11, 2004 @10:42AM (#9666138) Homepage
    As much as I'd love to see ESRI relinquish its stranglehold on the end-user map-making world, I don't think I'll see a good, open source alternative for a _long_ time.

    I've worked for one of the largest regional planning agencies in the country, for a ~100,000 person city, with planners and environmental types at at U of Michigan, and done a fair bit of GIS work on my own. ~95% of that work has been with ESRI products. Except for some specialized spatial statistics software, and equally specialized transportation modeling packages, ESRIs stuff is (sadly) hard to beat.

    The (paying, non-researcher) end-user, a GIS lackey in a planning office somewhere, someone doing work for some environmental group or maybe someone doing marketing analysis, is not going to deal with the hassles that most open source packages involve. The most successful open-source end-user programs tend to be things with a _huge_ amount of interest in them. You know, web browsers, mail clients, desktop publishing, etc. GIS is still kind of a niche market. Maybe I'm totally off-base in assuming this, but my feeling is that ESRIs core customers are the big metropolitan planning organizations and those are _incredibly_ slow moving organizations for the most part. IMO, there has to be a lot of oomph behind a project before it gets polished enough that Joe Blow, Metropolitan Planner, is going to use it.

    I love the idea of GRASS, but I don't see it ever out-doing ArcGIS. Open-source GIS needs to find a big, untapped market and branch out from there. I think what the open source GIS community needs to do is focus on a very stripped down package, as easy to use as a web browser, that lets the average person download TIGER line files from census, import ESRI shapefiles, add their own GPS data, with a big open source library of maps for people to play with. Leave out the analysis tools altogether, deal with things like map projection behind the scenes, and let people use GIS to plan gardens around their house, etc. Once you've got people using that, bloat the software from there, rather than slowly adding features to an already buggy, difficult to use package.

    The other extreme of the spectrum is the high-end GIS work, where you've already got serious computer nerds working, and where there's always a market for a product that cedes some control back to the user, even if it is at the expense of some day-to-day usability. Thats where open source is already making inroads.
    • GRASS can *do* all that stuff. It's just that ordinary mortals can't get GRASS to do it. The basic code underneath GRASS seems to be perfectly functional. It just needs to had a good user interface written from scratch, and then have the various GRASS mechanisms put underneath it.
  • by goatbar ( 661399 ) on Sunday July 11, 2004 @10:50AM (#9666171) Homepage
    Yes, so it doesn't take long to discover that there is a mountain of data available for free here in the US. The problem is GETTING the data. What a nightmare. The DataDepot is truely a hideous system. And ArcWeb (or what ever their web map server thing is) is totally frustrating to all but the most patient. Data comes from 10000 sources in 100's of formats and require a different way to get each one. Please don't make me separately click to download the 50 different files just to make a basemap of a new field area.

    I've triend to make an effort to show how to do this, but it gets frustrating! You can see what I did here at my Visualization Classes []. I used to be a Arc/Info hardcore user, but got so frustrated I gave up. It's easier for a programmer to write their own than deal with all the cruft in Arc. However, it's great for creating funny war stories.

  • by enrico_suave ( 179651 ) on Sunday July 11, 2004 @11:26AM (#9666456) Homepage
    If OSS GIS could get to the point where it can do one thing better than ESRI arc* products it would be a very good thing.

    (not to say OSS GIS doesn't do certain things better than ESRI... let me explain)

    If the OSS development community can build say, a viable online mapping platform that was open it would be huge!

    I'm sick to death of the ESRI upgrade/maintance ladder/extortion to get product revisions that fix the bugs in the original release. I'm tired of the convoluted bandaid approach to online mapping.

    I'd welcome a solid OSS solution any day, ideally beable to serve ESRI format .mxd files...


  • Where's the GPS? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by GoRK ( 10018 )
    So, we've got all this wonderful open source GIS software, but no open source GPS navigation software that takes advantage of it unfortunately. It's like the open source GIS stuff is so complex and geared towards GIS applications, that it's next to impossible to make it do anything else like draw simple road maps.
    • That's silly, everyone knows that REAL open-source geeks read road maps directly from the source code [], not some wussy precompiled map! (That is, if gets its act together - for some reason I can't get to this page at the moment. Probably running some proprietary OS or something...)

      Seriously though - there are two open-source "road map"-type programs that I know of...

      GPSDrive [] is a 'general purpose' map display program. It doesn't render roads, etc. "on the fly" (though it WILL render NASA sate

      • GPSDrive, yes, I figured someone would bring this one up. I have used it a little in the car in testing from time to time. It does work marginally well by being able to show you where you are on top of pre-rendered maps; however, since it doesn't have any ability to access the low level data that was used to create these maps it can't even do something simple like figure out what street you are driving on (note the difference between showing you a map that shows your location moving down main street vs prin

          • HECK YEAH! This is awesome! Thanks.

IN MY OPINION anyone interested in improving himself should not rule out becoming pure energy. -- Jack Handley, The New Mexican, 1988.