Businesses Using Open Source GIS

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  • Open source tools provide numerous financial benefits to businesses
  • Open source has a lot of room to grow and the future looks bright
  • For software developers, flexibility in services are an advantage

Open source tools in GIS have become popular among users and programmers applying GIS. For many years, open source was primarily of great interest for academics and a relatively small group of people who wanted to share their research methodology. Increasingly, businesses are taking advantage of growing and more powerful open source GIS software, finding that there are a lot of benefits along the way.

In a recent podcast on the MapScaping website, interviewing Tim Sutton, it is evident businesses have increasingly seen benefits to switching to open source GIS.[1]

Open Source Licensing Types

The main benefit of open source software is you can obtain code, with a given open source license that provides specified reuse of the software, and apply geospatial functionality without cost. The two general types of licenses for open source are copyleft and permissive. Copyleft requires that subsequent derived software products also carry the license forward. For permissive, options to modify and use the code as one please are more open.

QGIS is a very popular popular open source GIS software.
QGIS is an Open Source desktop GIS licensed under the GNU General Public License

One common license used is the GNU Public License (GPL). It is one of the most common licenses used and it is a copyleft license that requires any distribution using the license to apply an equivalent license. In this case, people who contribute own part of the software’s intellectual property. On the other hand, dual-licensed agreements mean that one entity may own the software and they have flexibility to provide the code as proprietary or open source.[2]

Making a Business Out of Open Source GIS

The question then is how do companies make money with open source tools such as QGIS? The answer, at least for geospatial companies such as Kartoza[3], is to providing training and support for individuals interested in using open source applications, such as QGIS and Postrgres, while providing customized support and development on applications such as mobile web software.

Logos of open source GIS and WebGIS tools.

Training in open source tools is a relatively slow growing area but tools such as GeoNode, GeoServer, Open Drone Map, Postgres, and QGIS are among popular geospatial and database tools used by businesses seeking help to develop and use their own software. One main problem is a lot of government bodies have required set standards and compliance in software training and may make it difficult for companies to customize training on open source applications for training. Nevertheless, areas of government, infrastructure, and humanitarian fields have been among those showing increasing interest in open source GIS training.

Benefits and Challenges of Open Source GIS in Business

Corporate customers have seen the benefits of open source, although there can be a cost to training and learning new software. Benefits such as freedom to not depend on proprietary software while also removing costs for expensive licenses. In fact, by removing licensing costs, businesses can more easily grow horizontally from a tool by widening the user community rather than having to also increases costs related to more licenses.

Additionally, companies see the benefit of not having to be locked in to a given software supplier. Open source tools also have open standards that help support collaborative developments for those who want to add and build on projects while working with others. Upgrades to software also do not have a cost, outside of time, as is often the case when proprietary software is upgraded.

One motivation, perhaps an understated one, is that corporations are seeking also to do better in their social responsibility. Creating tools that build on open source allows them to provide solutions for their customers without large costs that might be required when using software incorporating expensive licenses.

Companies also see that tools they want created often resemble other existing free and open source tools, which means they can pay to complete or modify existing code for use without having to create something entirely from the beginning.[4]

There are, of course, problems when depending on open source tools and providing services to customers. For instance, open source projects such as QGIS constantly change. Plugins and other tools often do not work with major upgrades without sometimes important modifications being made. Thus, maintenance is often required; for many consulting firms building or using open source for their clients the problem becomes an issue of maintenance, which is often not funded and has to be considered prior to a project starting.

Screenshot of the QGIS Plugins Repository
Screenshot showing the QGIS Plugins Repository

Within large open source projects such as QGIS, there are also different levels of approval where standards are enforced for given plugins to be used. There is the QGIS core, the official plugin repository, and also third-party repositories that can be used. This requires contributors to follow standard formats and have the community accept what they commit for use by others.

There will likely be challenges in the future. For instance, changes to different processors, such as switching from Intel to Arm chips, which could make some existing open source tools obsolete, requiring new changes to be made. Open source projects require active users and community engagement, which can be hard to maintain for long periods for at least some efforts. However, these challenges are likely to be overcome given the high levels of interest and use within the business community and beyond.

References

[1]    For more on the MapScaping project and the interview with Tim Sutton, see:  https://mapscaping.com/blogs/the-mapscaping-podcast/business-built-on-open-source-gis.

[2] For more on types of open source licenses, see: Meeker, H., 2017. Open source for business: a practical guide to open source software licensing(affiliate link), Second edition. ed. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, North Charleston, SC.

[3] For more on Kartoza, see: https://kartoza.com/en/

[4] For more on motivations for using and committing to open source projects, see: Hartman, K., 2012. Motivation in open source: Intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation(affiliate link). Lap Lambert Academic Publ.

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