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FOSS4G 2017 Round Up

A month ago at this time I was in Boston for FOSS4G 2017 (Free and Open Source for Geospatial), which is the international conference for free and open source GIS enthusiasts, developers, educators, and practitioners. I updated my introductory GIS / QGIS workshop manual to 2.18 Las Palmas (which is slated to be the next long term service release once 3.0 comes out) and Anastasia, Janine, and I took the workshop on the road. We had a good turnout and an excellent class, and then were able to enjoy the three days of sessions. Here are some of the high-lights from sessions I attended.

  • The NYC Department of City Planning has hired their own, internal open source developer and is assembling a team called NYC Planing Labs. Their first project was to revamp the city facilities database and build the NYC Facilities Explorer, a web mapping interface that sits on top of the database and makes it easy for folks to browse and visualize.
  • There was an interesting talk from an independent research unit that’s affiliated with the University of Chicago. The speaker outlined their process for switching their team from ESRI to open source. The talk gave me appreciation for the amount of work that’s involved for transitioning a team of service providers from one set of tools to another. This group did things the right way, doing necessary background research and identifying short, medium, and long term plans for making the switch. Their biggest revelation was that they ended up shifting funds from purchasing licenses to staff, which has allowed them to expand their activities.
  • PostGIS 2.4 will add a number of functions that were only available for the geometry type, like ST_Centroid, to the geography type. PostgreSQL 10 is going to allow users with big databases to take greater advantage of parallel computing.
  • Some archaeologists are looking to adapt the schema used by Open Street Map to create an OpenHistoryMap. There aren’t many global standards for cataloging archaeological data; it’s primarily site and project specific. Unique challenges include the importance of scale (need to see that pot shard in a room, in a house, in the overall site, in the greater region…) and varying degrees of reliability. Once an artifact is found there isn’t absolute certainty regarding it’s age, provenance, or use. This project (Open History Map) is different from Open Historical Map; the latter relies on data that’s already in OSM and describes the past as a function of the present.
  • I tend to use GRASS GIS in limited circumstances, but am always pleasantly surprised when I follow up to see what’s new. The big selling points are stability, backwards compatibility, and the ability to do a lot via the command line. For version 7.2 there are several improvements: an improved GUI, a data catalog, a more sophisticated Python editor, easier vector legend tools, an advanced search feature for finding modules, and temporal algebra. I’m not a heavy raster user and never work in 3D, but these have always been and continue to be major strengths of GRASS. They also have a growing repository of 3rd party plugins and modules.
  • One of the plenary speakers gave us a demo of R markdown for creating websites, documents, and even for writing books. It gives you the ability to easily import data and write R code to produce a chart, graph, or map right in the same document as your narrative text. So instead of doing a basic analysis, creating a chart, and writing up your project in three different places you can do it all in one place and compile it to HTML or PDF. With the source, readers also have the benefit of seeing what you did and they can test the results.
  • R has really come a long way for geospatial analysis and visualization. I can’t remember it even being mentioned at the last FOSS4G I attended in 2011, but in 2017 it was a major component of the conference. In trying to figure how it fits in to the landscape, I assumed that it was a matter of background and preference. People who have a stats background and want to do geospatial work are going to gravitate towards it, while people with more of a programming or data processing background may be more disposed to using Python or Javascript. The plenary speaker framed R as an exploratory language that’s great for iterative work – let me quickly graph this data to see what it looks like, then I’ll write another piece to view it a different way. Other scripting languages tend to tackle more tasks in one large batch in a linear fashion.
  • The contingent of academic GIS and geospatial librarians and developers has been growing at this conference over the years. There was an opportunity for the Open Geoportal and Geoblacklight communities to get together and exchange notes. Both groups have a commitment to open metadata standards and resource sharing.
  • OSGeo folks have been active in promoting free and open source GIS education, and have created a directory of GIS labs around the world.
  • Just when you thought you were confused about which tool to use, here’s another one – Vega, a declarative JSON grammar for creating graphs and charts.
  • QGIS 3.0 is on the horizon; it will encompass a shift from Qt 4 to 5 and Python 2 to 3. There are a number of great new features: a task manager, a data source manager to replace the dozen individual buttons in 2.x, better support for metadata viewing and editing, more 3D tools, multiple map canvases, the ability to store different user profiles (to save your plugins and layouts on shared machines), better digitizing tools, and a whole lot more. A lot of plugins will disappear as they make their way into the processing toolbox, the stand-alone QGIS Browser will be dropped as its functions are integrated into QGIS Desktop, and map projects created in 3.x will not be backward compatible to 2.x. The time line says that 3.0 will be launched in late Nov 2017, and at that point 2.18 will become the LTS release. It will take another year, til Nov 2018, when 3.2 becomes the LTS. If you’re like me and favor stability over new features, you can stick with 2.x for the another year.
  • A good talk on community health mapping introduced a stack that you can use for data gathering (Fulcrum), analysis (QGIS) and publishing on the web (Carto). I’m well versed in the last two, but didn’t know about Fulcrum. Essentially it’s an app that you can use on phones and tablets to gather data out in the field, including GPS coordinates. On his blog he’s created a series of lab exercises that cover the entire stack, so the communities can learn the process and take ownership of it and the tools.

Planning for FOSS4G 2018 is well underway. The conference uses a three year rotation where it goes from Europe to North America to another continent. Next year it’s Africa’s turn as the conference heads to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.