Saturday, October 27, 2007

Open Source

I've been digging around this topic, and though it's not singularly a "GIS" one, a GIS is an Information System. So, I asked, who runs on Free or Open Source Software (FOSS)? Just niche users and rebels without a cause?

Well, the Internet runs on Open Source, for one:

- The BIND name server resolves web addresses to Internet Protocol (IP) numbers
- The Apache web server serves most Web sites
- The MySQL database runs many online applications
- The PHP programming language is used on a third of the internet
- The GNU/ Linux operating system drives many PCs and servers.

LAMP servers, which combine the Linux OS, Apache Web Server, MySQL database and PHP/ Perl/ Python programming languages, are a well established solution for hosting companies.

Supercomputers run on Open Source too! In fact, it seems most of them do. GNU/ Linux powers over three-quarters of the world's fastest supercomputers including the 8th-ranked US's National Centre for Supercomputing Applications Abe, the 9th-ranked Barcelona Supercomputing Centre Mare Nostrum and 10th-ranked Germany's Leibniz Computing Centre HLRB II.

But who uses Open Source? Answer: Yahoo!, Google, Amazon, Flickr, YouTube, Wikipedia, Facebook, the New York Times, the BBC, your PlayStation and various mobile phones. It will seem obscure if you don't manage servers, but here's Open Source software developed by the NY Times.

On the user-side, the Firefox web browser, Thunderbird mail client and OpenOffice office suite are all Open Source. The point made in the previous excerpted article, that the Caribbean needs to invest in FOSS, is very well supported.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Open Source

I recently received an opinion on Open Source from "outside" of the GIS community, and following Raj's recent post on the Open Source DIVA-GIS, thought it worth repeating:
(Excerpted from a briefing prepared for the inaugural OECS meeting of the Eastern Caribbean Telecommunications Authority (ECTEL))

How can something that is free become a driver of economic diversification? And what does it have to do with the Caribbean?

Free or Open Source Software (FOSS) is free to use, as opposed to proprietary software such as the Microsoft Windows operating system.

With FOSS, if some functionality is lacking, you are allowed to look at the source code and, if you have the skills yourself or know somebody who has them, you can write extensions or enhancements to the program.

You must fulfil one requirement only: send your enhancements back to the original programmer, or to a clearing-house like authority, which will check that your enhancements do not introduce errors or conflict with other parts of the program. After the approval, your code - and this is the beauty of the method - then becomes a part of the whole system, making your enhancement available to anybody who uses the system.

That is the essence of FOSS. Programs are widely available with source codes that can be viewed and changed by almost anybody who wants to.

By applying this methodology, free software is developing and evolving continuously, sometimes through the collaboration of more than 1000 programmers around the globe, creating new software, or improving existing software programs.

So, how do you make money with FOSS?

Income is generated mostly through services related to the software, such as consulting, installation assistance, maintenance, and training. None of these services are free; hence they provide the financial incentive for developing the software further.

And herein lies the financial opportunity for the Caribbean. For two reasons:
  1. By saving money
  2. By creating a service environment based on FOSS systems developed and maintained in the Caribbean
Licenses for so-called proprietary software cost money. Either as a one-time expense at the time of purchase, as recurring costs in the form of maintenance or support agreements, or as updating costs, if the new versions are available and demanded by a changed environment, whether it be new hardware, a new version of the operating system, or data exchange / compatibility issues with other programs or users.

Under FOSS those licensing costs do not exist. As mentioned already, the usage of FOSS systems is free. Hence, in contrast to paying licensing fees to a foreign company without economic impact to the local/regional market, FOSS systems could be used and the saved money would be spent on employing local experts to train, maintain, or enhance the otherwise free software.

In the Caribbean, governments are the largest spenders when it comes to software applications. Hence the way funds, in the form of taxpayers money, grants or loans from international donors, are utilized determines whether a local service industry and expertise can be instigated.

Reducing or eliminating license costs, and building a base of local consultants for future projects and the sustainability of present projects, and - it is to be hoped - reducing development costs, will ensure that more money will remain in the local economy, and thus achieve the goal of increased economic activity in the IT field.

Or, to put it another way, here, saving money does not mean saving money, but spending the same money in areas that contribute to the economical development of the community.

How could this work?

To give an example, let’s assume that one of the Caribbean countries has received funds to establish, let’s say, a Health Information or a School Management System.

The respective Government could utilize those funds by employing a group of local programmers to create a system, which would be released under the GNU General Public License (GNU GPL). The programmers that did the initial work on the system would be paid for their work.

After the system is released to the Government, it would be made available free of charge, as determined by the GNU GPL, to the other Caribbean countries that may have an already up-and-running IT agency with permanently employed skilled programmers, or may have funds to contract local developers who would work on enhancements on the Health or School Management Information System.

In the case of the skills set not being already available, programmers can educate themselves by looking at the source code and therefore will be able to contribute to the constant development of the system.

Since this system was released under the GNU GPL all enhancements must instantly be made available to all other countries evolving into a research and development system of collaborating programmers, trainers, and consultants located around the, region releasing itself from the dependence upon a single source.

Because this proposed method produces software geared to the conditions in the Caribbean it is not difficult to imagine that the same products could work in other countries around the world with similar conditions, thus enabling the export of services and ideas. This in turn would mean more work for local consultants and a chance for local government to contribute to development in other parts of the world.

Correctly-channelled funds can fuel a Caribbean software industry operating within the region and working for the region.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


I mentioned in a previous post that there were free training courses being offered for a few open source GIS software packages (registration for these courses is now closed). I decided to give one course a spin and experience what it is like. First off, the courses are delivered through a web-based open source software called Moodle. I am pretty impressed by this package. It is quite intuitive though they should replace the default theme with a better one. There are also many places where it can be improved esthetically.

The course I opted to take is DIVA-GIS. The website ain't great but the software is. This is the fourth week into it and I'm quite impressed. It's true that it can't do all the fancy stuff ArcMap or ArcView is capable of. However, for basic GIS tasks it does it for free and it's way faster than ArcMap. One thing I noticed so far is its built in capability for working with meteorological data. Those working in the meteorology/environmental field may want to give it a spin and consider taking the free course if it is offered again next year. Even if it's not offered again, the software is pretty intuitive.

Stay tuned for more ...