Wisconsin Geospatial News

Where open source, open standards, and open policy fit in Wisconsin GIS

No doubt you’ve heard the terms ‘open’ or ‘interoperable’ thrown around lately in the GIS arena, but why is this important? I’d like to summarize three important and fairly distinct categories of open activity which are sometimes difficult to sort out as their influence is often overlapping. As you read on, it’s important to remember that all three of these are not unique to the geospatial world, and in some cases have already matured considerably in other information technology domains.

Open standards
To begin, let’s look at open standards. Overly simplified, open standards have often come to represent open interfaces, such as server-based request protocols (“Give me a map”), application programming interfaces (“Geocode this for me”), or interoperable data exchange models and formats (“I’d like a piece of the National Hydrography Dataset in Geographic Markup Language please.”)

The Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC), currently the leading standards consortium for open specifications in geospatial technology, defines an open standard as one that: 1) is created in an open, international, participatory industry process; 2) has free rights of distribution; 3) has open specification access; 4) does not discriminate against persons or groups; and 5) ensures that the specification and the license must be technology neutral.

Put another way, open standards ensure that software can interoperate across platforms, across vendors, and across networks. The opposite of these are known as proprietary specifications.

As open standards and specifications are assembled together, they are often referred to as an “open architecture.” This term has come up recently with respect to the newly-published Geospatial Enterprise Architecture , part of the larger Federal Enterprise Architecture initiative. This is an important initiative to watch, especially considering Wisconsin’s heterogeneous environment, where many organizations from the county board up through state agencies would like to see the best value and return on their investments in geospatial data and technology.

And you can bet the market is watching. The number of IT and geospatial firms advertising open standards-compliant or OGC-compliant solutions has increased dramatically in just the last two years.

On to open source
As I began to write this article, one of my primary goals was to distinguish open standards from open source. The distinction is subtle, but important. There are certainly examples of proprietary software implementing open standards, and open source software implementing less-than-open standards. So, what exactly is open source?

In the most simplistic sense, open source refers to the availability of source code for a given application or piece of software. However, perhaps more importantly, open source also refers to a particular level of openness with respect to distribution and re-distribution. The open source process asserts that when software code is able to be read, modified, fixed and redistributed in an evolutionary process by a networked community of developers, the software can evolve and improve at a dramatically improved pace.

There are plenty of articles written comparing the trade-offs and balancing the benefits of using open source software, proprietary software, and/or a hybrid combination of both. But when a foundation is formed based on seed money from a major proprietary geospatial software vendor, along with a decision to turn one of their major product lines open source, industry analysts start to take note.

This happened earlier in 2006 with the emergence of the Open Source Geospatial Foundation initiated in a joint effort by early open source geospatial pioneers and AutoDesk, Inc. This foundation is somewhat different than the OGC as their role is to provide an umbrella organization for open source geospatial software projects looking for a conduit to other developers, related projects, and increasing synergy between them.

At this time the foundation is not initiating new software development efforts but providing a hub through which these projects can mature, be tested, and promoted as valid components in an open architecture. With MapServer software as its first inaugural project, the foundation currently houses eight high-profile geospatial software initiatives with developers from around the world, including the newest core of AutoDesk’s webmapping software suite, dubbed MapGuide Open Source.

Decision-makers want the right tool for the job at the right price, and “open source” software increasingly receives a fair evaluation next to proprietary software in filling these needs. Open source is also making a name for itself in providing more flexible real-time access to tools and data through which loosely-coupled developers can deliver timely information. Katrina maps and photos via open source tools is one early example of this phenomenon.

What does all of this open technology have to do with open policy ?
Increasingly we have been hearing about two parallel efforts advancing in the geospatial data policy community. The first effort is actually the combined efforts of two related consortia. The Open Data Consortium and the GeoData Alliance collaborated in the past to find funding for, and develop a Model Data Distribution Policy. The Open Data Consortium followed up by developing a second study: Geodata Transaction Requirements, but since then has been rather quiet.

A parallel but related effort receiving recent publicity is the development of an open standard for geospatial digital rights management (GeoDRM). This time the Federal Geographic Data Committee and Open Geospatial Consortium joined with the GeoData Alliance to produce a recent report on how digital rights management is utilized in other fields (like the movie industry), why geospatial data is a special case, and how development of an open standard would improve the timely flow of geographic information to where it’s needed.

Digital rights management, broadly speaking, utilizes technology to manage access to digitally stored and managed information in an automated fashion. Based on this, GeoDRM looks at how to encode the roles and access rights to geospatial data right into a server-based response over the Internet – a marriage of legal policy and agreement and open technology standards. This amounts to a digital handshake followed by near real-time access to geospatial data that has a sensitive nature or privacy-based concerns associated with it.

GeoDRM represents one of the last and most significant hurdles in discovering how Wisconsin’s distributed GIS data efforts might be pulled together successfully and confidently while respecting the rights, wishes, and liabilities of the data producers. Accordingly, it may be time to see how open standards and technologies could augment the formation of a flowing network of useful geospatial information in Wisconsin. And if specific open standards, models, or policies are useful; why don’t we adopt them as a standard?