GEOG 585
Open Web Mapping

Understanding FOSS and its use in web mapping


The term “free and open source software” (hereafter referred to as FOSS) includes a number of ideas that can invoke complex and even emotional discussions within the technical community. To begin to describe this term, it's important to understand that software development is more enigmatic and artistic than other crafts in the tech industry, such as computer chip design. Software cannot be seen, touched, tasted, or described in a physical sense, other than the number of megabytes it occupies on your computer. Software often begins as ideas on a whiteboard, which are then encapsulated into intangible “classes” and "objects" of code by a programmer. These are then assembled into invokable sets of concrete tasks and dressed with a user interface of buttons, menus, and icons that require a whole other skillset of aesthetic design.

As a result of all this work, software is an empowering technology that enables a person to make practical use of computer hardware. In fact, specialized software can often cost much more than the physical machine that it runs on. Software is your window into printing, painting, calculating, storing data, and, in our case, making maps.

Given the value of software, it's no surprise that commercial businesses invest millions in researching, developing, and selling proprietary software. They protect it through patent and copyright laws. They obfuscate (scramble) the code to make it harder to copy or reverse engineer. Commercial software development has become a successful enterprise whose resulting tools have shaped our work and home environments.

At the same time, some software users and developers have advocated that there are benefits from making software source code freely visible and able to be modified or shared without legal or technical restraint. Business benefits, technical benefits, and moral arguments have been invoked in support of this concept of “free and open source software.”

It's possible to get confused when learning about FOSS, because the word “free” carries several meanings in the English language. A common analogy describing the F in FOSS is “free as in free speech, not free beer.” In other words, FOSS is “free” in the sense that it is open and amenable to use and modification. (You may sometimes see the term Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) used to communicate this idea.) A whole range of license types are used with FOSS that specify the conditions surrounding the modification and reuse of the software, along with the attribution required on any derived products.

While the selling of FOSS is not necessarily restricted, FOSS is usually available free of charge. All of the software we'll use in this course can be downloaded directly from the Internet and requires no fee, although donating a few dollars to your favorite project is a good way to invest in its continued development.

If FOSS is usually available without cost, why is it such a successful concept? And how do people make a living from coding with it? First, it's important to mention that many developers contribute to FOSS solely for personal enjoyment and for the desire to donate their skills to a project offering wide societal benefits. They enjoy working on virtual teams and facing the challenges of rigorous software development that their ordinary “day jobs” might not offer.

At the same time, though, many individuals make a generous living by selling services and training related to FOSS, and some of these efforts may increase the quality and number of FOSS features available. For example, suppose your company invests in a FOSS package that does everything you want at $30,000 cheaper than the proprietary software alternative; however, it's missing “Feature X” that is critical for your workflows, and you don't have a programmer who can implement Feature X. Because the code for the software is all open to examination, modification, and extension, you can contract with Rock Star Programmer to implement Feature X for you for $10,000. If Feature X is widely applicable to the good of the product, and you and the contractor are okay with the idea, Feature X may eventually be rolled into the core source code so everyone can benefit from it.

Other people may not contribute frequently to FOSS projects, but can still make a profit selling support services for FOSS software. When you buy proprietary software, you often are given access to a technical support package that allows you to call and talk to an analyst if needed. Because FOSS does not offer these official support systems, enterprising individuals have stepped in to fill this void. See this article in Linux Insider for more commentary on FOSS services consulting.

Finally, several new firms are building subscription-based online services that are created using open source building blocks and may even be released under open source licenses. The services are offered for a subscription cost that is lower than most organizations could achieve if they attempted to build their own comparable infrastructure or quality control procedures. Through these FOSS-based Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) offerings, the value of the free software is passed on to many buyers.

Although there are many FOSS purists out there, the decision to use FOSS does not have to result in a full migration away from proprietary software. Many businesses and governments use what might be termed a "hybrid approach," incorporating a mix of FOSS and proprietary software depending on their budget, staff skills, and technical needs.

Let's consider some of the benefits, challenges, and other considerations that the adoption of FOSS brings into your workflows.

Benefits of FOSS

As you begin the endeavor of learning to use FOSS, it's helpful to understand some of the benefits that you may see:

  • Lower cost software – The reason FOSS can be offered free of charge is discussed above. Even if you have to spend a substantial amount on training, support, and consulting, these expenses may not reach the amount that you would have spent for a proprietary software package.
  • More flexibility with the software – If you commit to a proprietary software vendor and you really need Feature X or Bug Fix Y, your ability to persuade the vendor to add this feature may depend on the size of your contract, how many other people want the feature, and when the next software release is available (unless you are an important enough customer to warrant a specially-built hotfix or patch). If you are a small customer and the feature you want is obscure (albeit mission critical to you), then you may wait for years and never see it added. With FOSS, you can add the feature or fix a bug at any time, and your only limits are the programmer skills you can find.
  • Interoperability of the software – Many FOSS offerings attempt to abide by open specifications for data and web services so that they can interact seamlessly with other products. You will learn about some of these specifications for geospatial data later in this lesson and course.

    Many proprietary software vendors indeed support the reading of open specifications, but often they will write data into proprietary data formats that can only be processed by the vendor's software. This becomes a problem when open government initiatives come into play, as demonstrated in March 2013 when the Ohio Supreme Court ruled (*) that Scioto County was justified in asking a citizen for a $2000 fee in response to a Public Records Act request for its GIS data. The reason for the fee: the data was inextricably intertwined with proprietary GIS software and would require extra effort to extract.
    * If the link does not work for you, the reason most likely is that you are located outside the US; just search for the event on the web and you should be able to find some articles about it.
  • Security – Militaries, banks, and other government agencies have gravitated toward FOSS because they have full view of its cybersecurity mechanisms and can patch or modify these according to their own desires. Some agencies will not use a new version of any software until it has passed a rigorous security certification process. FOSS allows for more agile response to issues that are brought to light during this testing.
  • Ethics –  Some people view the use of open source software as an ethical question. Creating and using software that is part of an intellectual commons is a powerful motivating factor for many open source advocates. The development and use of FOSS contributes to the expansion of collective human knowledge.

Challenges of FOSS

A danger of evaluating FOSS systems is to allow the potential exciting benefits to obscure the real challenges that can accompany a FOSS deployment. Some or all of the challenges below can be mitigated, but proprietary software may offer a smoother road in these areas, if you can bear the cost.

  • Usability – Designing a user-friendly software product requires a much different skill set than that required to write back end software code. When the author of this course worked at a proprietary software vendor, he held the title of “Product Engineer.” These were people whom the company hired to work with the developers to design, test, and document the product. They did not write source code; they just concentrated on making a usable product.

    Good product engineers are hard to find and hire even when you are a proprietary software company with attractive salaries to offer. When the number of coders working on the back end logic of a FOSS project outweighs the effort going into user interface design, then usability can suffer. Compounding this problem is the need for frequent iteration and clear communication between software designers and developers. In the halls of a proprietary software company, this may occur more readily than in the online collaborative forums driving FOSS.

    Some people who work on FOSS may vigorously debate this point, so as you work with FOSS in this course, be aware of its level of user-friendliness compared to proprietary software, and draw your own conclusions.
  • Documentation availability – Just as proprietary software companies pay designers and test engineers, they also are expected to deliver a fully documented product. Thus, they hire technical writers who can produce software manuals, online tutorials, and other training. There is a business incentive for this: if your product isn't well documented, it will get a negative reputation in the community, and people will stop buying it.

    When software is delivered free of charge, you rely on the benevolence of project contributors to provide any sort of documentation, much of which may be produced in the forms of wikis, tutorials, and forum posts. This can be maddeningly unstructured to someone accustomed to proprietary software whose documentation is expected to "just be there” in a single unified and searchable help system.

    Some FOSS documentation is excellent, and it's important to respect the people who contribute, proofread, and translate it. However, beware that FOSS is often created by very bright individuals who can Just Figure Things Out using minimalist or fragmented sources of information, and they may expect that you can play at this same level as you try to use their product. In both proprietary software and FOSS, documentation quality can sometimes be slighted or given lower priority when the initial coding and testing have been completed and everyone is itching to get the product out the door.

    Just as you did with usability, pay attention to documentation quality, and make your own judgment as you work through the course. Would you be able to figure things out without the course walkthroughs guiding you? How does it compare to the proprietary software help that you have used in the past?
  • Support availability – As mentioned above, many third-party contractors offer technical support and consulting for FOSS products; however, the advantage of purchasing support from a proprietary software vendor is that the people who developed the software are often accessible by the support team. Thus, the support team can get a closer understanding of the intent, logic, design, and planned trajectory of the software. They may also maintain a large database of both internally and externally documented bugs that can help find you a workaround in a hurry. Although it may be possible for a FOSS support consultant to learn some of these same types of things, the support experience is not as smoothly integrated.

Contested points

Some aspects of FOSS and proprietary software are not as clear when it comes to deciding which type of software owns the advantage.

  • Breadth of features – It can be argued (and you will see this in the Ramsey video required later in this lesson) that FOSS offers a more focused, prioritized list of features and may not be able to compete with proprietary software when it comes to sheer number and depth of features. At the same time, the flexibility of FOSS allows for infinite features to be added via plug-ins and direct modifications for the source code, something that cannot always be said for proprietary software where limited lists of new features are released via periodic updates. It should be noted here that if the proprietary software offers good APIs (in other words, programming frameworks), it, too, may be extended to a limited degree by third-party developers.
  • Quality and technical superiority – The “bugginess” of FOSS compared to proprietary software probably depends on the products in question, how mature they are, and who's developing them. FOSS advocate Eric Raymond argued that “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow,” contending that it would be difficult for any major issues with FOSS to go unfixed for long among a broad community of developers. It's less clear who fixes the obscure bugs that you hit and others don't. If you can't convince someone in the FOSS community to fix it, you could at least attempt it yourself or hire a consultant.

    Proprietary software vendors obviously have business incentives to fix bugs; however, they also have business incentives to NOT fix certain obscure bugs if the time and effort to do so would not provide a good return on investment. If you're a small-potatoes customer with an obscure bug holding up your project, you'd better start looking for a workaround.

  • Innovation – Does innovation occur more readily in a proprietary software company where large amounts of research and development dollars can be invested in full-time employees who collaborate face-to-face, or does it thrive in an environment where all the code is available for perusal and experimentation by anybody? Part of the answer may depend on how much the proprietary software company operates on a “reactive” basis as compared to a forward-looking vision. It also depends on whether the company's goals encourage certain types of development at the expense of others.

    Innovation rarely occurs in a vacuum. Some would argue that innovation happens more freely when there are more elements in the intellectual commons that can be drawn upon.

Examples of widely-used FOSS

FOSS has been developed to support all tiers of a system architecture. You've probably heard of (or used) some of this software before. For example, the term “LAMP stack” refers to a system that is running:

  • Linux operating system
  • Apache web server
  • MySQL (or MariaDB) relational database
  • PHP application scripting language

Other variations of this acronym exist. For example, PostgreSQL is another open source relational database that is commonly used with GIS because of the popular PostGIS extension. This results in a LAPP stack rather than a LAMP stack.

Other general-use FOSS includes the LibreOffice suite (similar to Microsoft Office), the Mozilla Firefox web browser, the Thunderbird e-mail client, the Python scripting language, and more.

FOSS use in government

Some governments have begun mandating or encouraging the use of FOSS for government offices and projects. This is especially popular in Latin America and Europe, with one of the more recent government decrees occurring in the United Kingdom. Often the FOSS is implemented first on servers and back-end infrastructure, then rolled out to desktop workstations in later phases.

These policies favoring FOSS come about for different reasons. Obviously, the savings in software licenses and the flexible security models offered by FOSS are desirable, but sometimes there are political motivations to reject proprietary software companies and their countries of origin (especially in places where the United States is viewed as a rival). If you are interested in more reading on this topic, I recommend Aaron Shaw's study of the FOSS movement in the Brazilian government and its tie to leftist politics [here is an alternative link to the paper in case the other link isn't working].

FOSS and web mapping

FOSS has a strong and growing presence in the GIS industry. Some tools and utilities for processing geospatial data have been around for decades. For example, GRASS GIS developed by the US Army Corps of Engineers recently turned 30 years old (to see what it looked like back then, see this old GRASS promotional video narrated by none other than William Shatner). In this course, we'll use some of these desktop workstation GIS tools for previewing and manipulating our datasets before putting them on the web. For example, later in this lesson, you'll install and explore QGIS (previously known as Quantum GIS), one of the most popular and user-friendly FOSS GIS programs.

There are also various FOSS options for exposing your GIS data on the web, either within your own office network or on the entire Internet. These include Map Server, QGIS Server, and GeoServer, the latter of which you will learn in this course. These software offerings take your GIS datasets and make them available as web services that speak in a variety of formats. They include a web server or are designed to integrate with an existing web server, so that your web services can reach computers outside your own office or network.

FOSS can also be used to generate sets of tiled images that you can use as layers in your web maps. In this course, you'll learn how to do this using TileMill, which puts a user-friendly interface around the FOSS map crunching library known as Mapnik.

Underlying both desktop and server GIS are the databases containing your GIS data. If you need something a little more complex than a folder of shapefiles or want to make use of spatial database types, then you can use a FOSS GIS database. These include PostGIS (which is an extension to the PostgreSQL relational database) and SpatiaLite (which uses the SQLite database). A lighter fare option for smaller datasets is to use standalone files of GeoJSON, KML, GeoRSS, or other well-documented text-based data formats.

To pull all your map layers together and display them on a web page, you'll use a programming framework, or API. One of the most mature web mapping APIs are OpenLayers and Leaflet, which you will use later in this course with the JavaScript programming language. Other popular FOSS web mapping APIs include ModestMaps, D3, and Polymaps.