Is Open Source the answer?

August 30, 2019 Chris North

You may be wondering if Open Source is the answer. But what is the question?  Here are my thoughts on navigating the Open Source landscape.

“In a moment of crisis, the wise build bridges and the foolish build dams”

– an ancient Nigerian proverb.

Recently, the organizers for the URISA-OC BeSpatial event in Toronto graciously gave me the opportunity to speak at a plenary keynote. In planning for my talk, I went through the usual list of potential topics on where GIS is going, interesting new technologies and approaches, and exciting new applications of GIS. Yet, when I looked at the agenda, I saw that the sessions and papers already covered those sorts of things. What I did notice was that there were a lot of sessions on open source technology in GIS.

That got me thinking. Most people don’t realize this but Esri is a big proponent of open source technology. Oh – I can just hear all the eyebrows raising. But, it’s true. The thing is, most people see the open source movement through a very simplistic and detrimental view of “Free Software” vs. “Commercial Software”. Truth is that the distinction is far more blurred than proponents on either side for the battle lines would have you believe.

You see, every single customer of Esri has at least some open source technology as part of their GIS implementation. How do I know that? Because Esri put it there. As a software developer, there are many open source technologies that work very well as foundational components to a product or solution. In the case of Esri, even the simplest ArcGIS Desktop (ArcMap or ArcGIS Pro) contains Python. We use Python for geoprocessing and analysis, map and data automation and publishing. Guess what? Python is open source technology and Esri ships it with its products.

It’s not just Python; ArcGIS Enterprise includes PostgreSQL at the heart of the hosted data store and Jupyter Notebooks, to name a few. For those keen to explore the details of how Esri leverages open source technology, there’s a great Software Acknowledgement document here.  Why are these components part of ArcGIS? Because they open up the ArcGIS platform to new capabilities that expand what our users can do with their GIS.

Not only do we leverage open source technology, we also contribute a number of projects to the open source domain. In fact, a recent study that Esri actually ranks 24th globally in terms of number of employees contributing to open source projects–a list that includes giants such as Microsoft and Google (who are #1 and #2 respectively).

Some of the more interesting (I think) projects that Esri contributes to the open source community are the GeoPortal metadata server, the Koop ETL engine, and Esri-Leaflet. Also, let’s not forget that all of the source code for ArcGIS StoryMaps, and the template applications are in the public domain. So, it’s very easy to take Esri’s code and modify and extend it for your purposes. Again, for those who are keen, check out everything that is available on the Esri area of GitHub.

Yet, despite all this, some still want to look at things through this “tug-of-war” view of “open source” vs. “COTS.” I think this is counterproductive. More importantly, decisions made through this overly simplistic viewpoint can actually hinder the value of your GIS. Let me explain.

There’s an adage, “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” That’s so very true for GIS. While some open source technologies, such as Python and Jupyter, expand the horizons of our GIS activities, others close us off. If organizations seek out any technology paradigm (commercial, open source or home-grown) that simply mimics and preserves what we already have and what we already do, then it’s impossible to grow GIS. It’s impossible to reach new users and new applications.

Here’s the great irony: by simply looking at “free” tools to replace what you might use today, you run the risk of reducing the value of your GIS. Rather, when you are looking at a new technology–any technology from any source– ask yourself these questions:

Does the technology do the following:

  • Provide new capabilities
  • Help you reach a new audience
  • Deliver more efficiently
  • Support organization goals

Then, ask yourself some simple questions:

  • Am I just keeping people busy?
  • Who does this help?
  • Am I just replacing something I already have?

At the start of this article, I quoted an ancient Nigerian proverb (yes, it was paraphrased in Black Panther). But I think it holds true. While I don’t think our GIS Industry is in crisis, I do think we’re at a crossroads. And I believe that we should expand GIS in to new areas, not retreat into our own little world. Let’s leverage technology–open source, COTS, whatever–that helps us do new things and reach new audiences, not just maintain the status-quo.

About the Author

Chris North

Chris North is the Director of Industry Solutions for Esri Canada. With over 20 years of experience in geomatics, Chris is an accomplished GIS professional who brings an in-depth understanding of enterprise GIS and technology trends to the company. He was previously the principal at 43 North GIS Consulting. Prior to starting his firm, Chris was an executive with DMTI Spatial responsible for product strategy and customer advocacy. He has a master's degree in GIS from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and an undergraduate degree in Geography from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Chris is also a graduate of the Cartography Program at Sir Sandford Fleming College, Ontario. He is the recipient of several industry awards and continues to be involved with many industry groups. Chris is currently chair of the GIS and Cartography Advisory Board at Sir Sandford Fleming College.

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