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FOSS4G: Free Beer and the Longevity of Data

Robert White

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I just returned from a week in Bonn, Germany attending the annualInternational FOSS4G (Free and Open Source Software for Geospatial).  As always, this was a great venue for observing trends and improvements in the development of “free” software. The conference organizers are quick to point out that “free” does not mean zero cost as in a “free beer” but rather “free” in the sense of freely usable software and non-restrictive license agreements.

Healthy open source projects “grow” a community of frequently interacting developers, testers, and documenters. Individuals in the community assume roles and tasks to author frequent software releases.  Popular software developed in this manner includes everything from desktop GIS (QGIS, Grass) to databases (PostGIS on top of PostgreSQL) to various software level programing interfaces (Open Layers).  Many commercial products contain parts of FOSS4G products.

Unlike traditional commercial projects, open source projects are driven more broadly by projects requirements, funding, and community members.  There is no traditional “product roadmap” and features may spring up more haphazardly.  If there is a lot of interest in a particular functionality, it gets pushed to the front of the queue. 

FOSS4G offers workshops two days preceding the main event.  I took a workshop on the Internet of Things to learn how to collect and process real time sensor data.  The impending flood of sensor networks and data has huge implications for those of us in the natural resource industries in the United States and worldwide.  

In this workshop we connected a very low cost humidity/temperature sensor to an inexpensive Arduino interface.  We used software from the Swiss Earth Science Institute to interface the sensors, collect, and analyze the data in real time.  Using such technologies, a clever project to collect oil and gas well data could be similarly implemented.  

In contrast to prior years, there was more emphasis on GIS data.  Arnulf Cristl, a founder and charter member of OSGeo, gave an animated talk on “Software Comes and Goes. Mind the Data!”  You can watch the video here

Basically, Cristl makes the point that software needs to adapt and more fully utilize features in the data, and not the other way around.  In 100 years, data will likely be what has become permanent, and old software versions and companies long forgotten.  You should never adapt data to adjust to some vagary or fault in the software!