Second Open Source GIS conference, Nottingham

Open Source GIS (OSGIS) was something I’ve always been intrigued by from an early stage in my GIS degree. Not only because of its significance for developing countries and non-profit organisations, but also for its participatory development (and to find out whether this actually works well).

The second UK OSGIS conference, 21-22 June 2010, was different from most of the academic-centred conferences I usually go to as most of its participants seemed to be drawn from the industry/public sector. The first day had a range of full-day training courses to choose from and true to my vocation, I went for web mapping workshop. Using a Linux live CD to trick the university’s Windows workstations, Jo Cook from oaDigital gave us a crash course in how to get spatial data onto a website. We started off by loading data into a PostgreSQL database and then displaying it in QuantumGIS, a desktop GIS. where we where able to perform some spatial queries. Moving on to MapServer, we learned how to visualise layers of map data in a browser by using the correct map file syntax. Once this was mastered, we could use php to create our own web maps with the OpenLayers library – not only to display various layers but also elements such as zoom controls and custom viewboxes.

In a similar but slightly more proprietary vein, there was the Ordnance Survey OpenSpace workshop in the evening on how to use the OpenSpace API. By using an API key and javascript, we were able to display OS map data and add pins and text boxes. I had a lot of fun doing some pair programming but sadly we only got through the first tutorial, although the other two OpenSpace tutorials also promised postcode search, custom pins with video bubbles and boundaries with hover control. All easy enough to follow in the comfort of your home!

The second day was packed with lectures, a great opportunity to get up to speed on the latest in OSGIS. Some introduced academic geospatial institutions and current research and important theoretical considerations. Quite a number of presenters were from Spain, often referring to gvSIG, a GIS environment originating from the local transport department in Valencia. There was a lot of opportunity to hear about the work of small independent consultancies and the many products OSGIS developers were addressing current technical issues with. Here just a selection of a few topics I found particularly relevant to my work:

Arnulf Christl, speaking about the outlook of the OSGeo, started his presentation by reiterating tools every OS web cartographer should know about: MapBender, GeoMajas, MapFish – and also mentioned the extJS web app development tool, which ties in with the increased use of jQuery. He also stressed the importance of web mapping code sprints such as the one at the OpenStreetMap developer conference 2008 at the Linux Hotel (code sprints as in: BarCamps or hackathons). He appealed to users to simply ignore software and data that is restricted.

Some presenters also made some insightful presentations on the direction Open Source is taking from a business point of view. Mark Vloemans, chairman of the Dutch open source software suppliers OSSLO, used the phrase ‘Soldier, Tailor, Tinker, Spy’ (taken from the title of the John le Carre novel) to described the four phases that open source GIS was going through: from a technology- and supply-driven approach, to supply-and-demand driven, then getting a competitive edge and finally ‘jumping the curve’. He pointed out that in the last phase the competitive edge lay within providing a service such as support, hosting or consulting – and that open source could branch off into hybrid source (a licensing model where the open source element can be time- or version-limited).

Turning to the role of OSGIS in developing countries, we heard from Jorge Sanz how the GIS infrastructure of Venezuela was built. Tim Waters of OpenStreetMap talked very memorably about disaster mapping after the Haiti earthquake. He pointed out that in order to bring relief to the population, the locations of spontaneous camps needed to be fast determined. Within a space of several weeks, the OSM map of the Haitian captital Port-Au-Prince went being as empty and bare as GoogleMaps and Yahoo, to suddenly acquiring an impressive amount of detail – thanks to the many aid workers which were issued with GPS devices.

On a completely different topic but one a little closer to my past work, Antony Scott presented how he used Quantum GIS and GeoServer to build a system for energy conservation management. This had to be suitable for small organisations with little funds and useable by consultants with little technical knowledge. He described an easy way to estimate energy consumption by viewing houses on StreetView without the need to visit. The GIS resulted in a good visualisation in OSM, invovled no scripting and contained an export function for Excel for further easy processing.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to stay for the AGM of the OpenSource Geo user group as I had a train to catch, but I’ve been following their Twitter feed for a while to keep up to date. If you have a look on the UK OSgeo site, you will find a long list of software for all your open source web mapping and other GIS needs. On the whole I enjoyed the conference and the networking very much (even met some alumni from my degree course!) and hope to make it to next year’s conference.

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