Open Source Computing and GIS in the UK

Travels in a digital world

Thoughts on the Move to Opensource

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The decision to move towards opensource software is one that more and more organisations are making, and there are many reasons for doing so. We are moving along the route slowly, but surely. Most of our back-end and infrastructure software is now opensource, whilst we are still investigating alternatives to the mainly closed source desktop packages.

Today, I read a series of posts about making the difficult choice between different opensource solutions. It wasn’t clear on Paolo’s blog why his company were making the move, yet that is a key factor. It boils down to balancing ethics, finance, and control, but the decision will be different for everyone. This is absolutely as it should be, if we value our freedom of choice! There does seem to be a lot of muddying the water at the moment though, confusing free, as in beer, and free, as in speech. Even the BBC are doing it. Last week in an piece on the usefulness of opensource software to businesses, they segued into a interview about how useful Google Maps was. Beer. Not Speech. It’s even more difficult to make the right choices when people are confusing the debate…

Bill Dollin’s question was about why people would choose to release something that was free, yet closed source in today’s environment. I think this is part of the same problem, with people confusing “free” with “open”. Because that distinction is not clear, companies like Google can jump on the bandwagon, and get a lot of good press without having to go to the trouble of exposing their code for all the world to see. I look forward to a day when the meanings of “free” are not confused like this.

The other element that got me thinking though was Paolo’s mention of ZigGIS, which he is working on at the moment. ZigGIS is a free and opensource product, but it relies heavily on closed source proprietary code from Microsoft and ESRI. This raises some philosophical questions but also some difficulties for Paolo, as he cannot delve into ArcObjects to find out why something is going wrong. Bridging products like this, PGarc, FME ,et al are absolutely vital though, for several reasons. Firstly, people who have made the choice to stick with proprietary GIS for the time being can still use a free open source product for data storage rather than investing the large amount of money required for the alternatives. Secondly, it allows much greater flexibility of access, because such a large range of products can work with the data. This means people can adopt a single standardised data stack without worrying about the tools people will be using to access the data with. Thirdly, it allows people to try out opensource alternatives without needing to abandon their familiar proprietary desktop GIS. Rather than expect people to dive into unfamiliar opensource products with no lifeline, they help make the process a little easier. Good luck with ZigGIS Paolo, and the move to opensource!

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