Open Source

Open source a challenge with geospatial data

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Outdated procurement policies, licensing issues, accreditation dilemmas, standards and interagency shortcomings in communication regarding acceptable, accredited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."

About the Author

Frank Konkel is a former staff writer for FCW.

The Fed 100

Save the date for 28th annual Federal 100 Awards Gala.


  • computer network

    How Einstein changes the way government does business

    The Department of Commerce is revising its confidentiality agreement for statistical data survey respondents to reflect the fact that the Department of Homeland Security could see some of that data if it is captured by the Einstein system.

  • Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Army photo by Monica King. Jan. 26, 2017.

    Mattis mulls consolidation in IT, cyber

    In a Feb. 17 memo, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told senior leadership to establish teams to look for duplication across the armed services in business operations, including in IT and cybersecurity.

  • Image from

    DHS vague on rules for election aid, say states

    State election officials had more questions than answers after a Department of Homeland Security presentation on the designation of election systems as critical U.S. infrastructure.

  • Org Chart Stock Art - Shutterstock

    How the hiring freeze targets millennials

    The government desperately needs younger talent to replace an aging workforce, and experts say that a freeze on hiring doesn't help.

  • Shutterstock image: healthcare digital interface.

    VA moves ahead with homegrown scheduling IT

    The Department of Veterans Affairs will test an internally developed scheduling module at primary care sites nationwide to see if it's ready to service the entire agency.

  • Shutterstock images (honglouwawa & 0beron): Bitcoin image overlay replaced with a dollar sign on a hardware circuit.

    MGT Act poised for a comeback

    After missing in the last Congress, drafters of a bill to encourage cloud adoption are looking for a new plan.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group