Open source a challenge with geospatial data

Conference speakers agree that using open-source geospatial software is hard for government agencies, but the results are worth the effort.

map of epa sites

A map of EPA cleanup sites in the Denver, Colo., area, generated at Geo.Data.Gov, using government data.

Open-source geospatial technology has proved its mettle in state and local government and the nonprofit and private sectors, providing significant services, value, innovation, transparency and a healthy return on investment. But significant barriers remain if federal agencies are to realize the same successes.

Outdated procurement policies, licensing issues, accreditation dilemmas, standards and interagency shortcomings in communication regarding acceptable, accredited open-source tools were just a few of the major hurdles discussed by feds and other open-source developers at FedGeo Day 2013 in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 28.

Existing challenges in adopting open-source geospatial tools are magnified for agencies, speakers said, due in part to rigid federal budgets and the need to keep up with rapidly evolving standards and software.

"It’s become very clear that we’re going to have to do more with less," said Ben Tuttle, program scientist at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, speaking during a panel on procuring open-source geo-tools.

"Current expectations set by commercially available mobile applications require a faster, enhanced pace of development," Tuttle said. "We need to work with projects that move at this new pace. We need to understand the roadmap, timelines, and expected deliverables of a release going in."

Open-source tools evolve at the speed of caffeine-saturated developers, which is often faster than agencies can get past the accreditation process of procuring them. Liz Lyon, research geographer at U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said accreditation quotes range from six months to nine months.

"Getting stuff into the federal government is tough – network accreditation is just a bear," added panelist Josh Campbell of the State Department’s Humanitarian Information Unit. However, it could be sped up if every agency didn’t go through its own accreditation process.

NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, among other agencies, have used and contributed to the open-source community, highlighting how open-source technology can help "deliver new and critical capabilities faster, cheaper and with less work" at the federal level, Tuttle said.

But how do agencies get there on a timely basis?

Open-source data should be an easy sell for agencies, Lyon said, because it is "inherently transparent," a word often tossed around in budget discussions. Open information, she said, can expand the impact of funding, meaning even small investments in open-source technology can "go a long way in the open-source community."

Most importantly, Lyon said open-source geospatial tools create "a competitive market for software services, for design and data."

"That’s pretty huge, I don’t think I can overemphasize this point," Lyon said. "Open-source changes the conversation; we’re changing the conversation. Let’s keep changing it."

Lyon said innovative feds should encourage their colleagues in other agencies to speak up, and know where to turn within their own organizations regarding open-source innovation.

Lyon’s advice struck a chord in some audience members.

One woman who identified herself as an Environmental Protection Agency employee said it took her weeks just find someone else within the agency who had gotten open source software accredited before.

"Building key relationships and knowing who the key nodes are and working together" is important, Lyon said.

Panelists agreed, however, that such difficult groundwork is worth the effort. Ultimately, they argued, geospatial tools – open-source or proprietary – can help users understand geography better. And that can make for better policy.

Their power can be seen on local levels, like plotting blight in the effort to rebuild New Orleans, or on international scale, tracking famine in Africa.

Mike Byrne, a geographic information officer at the Federal Communications Commission, said open-source geospatial tools are becoming powerful enough that they should now be helping to form policy.

"We don’t want geospatial data to be an afterthought. If you’re not engaged in policy discussion, we’re missing the boat," Byrne said. "In trying to solve policy problems, geography can be used as an actual policy driver."

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