Open-Source Movement Hits GIS Market
- By Jennifer Jones
- Jul 04, 1999
Following the lead of the open-source stalwarts who made the Linux operating system and the Mozilla World Wide
Web browser respected, real-world products, developers of geographic information system (GIS) software are providing open-source tools that could become a valuable resource for state and local IT departments.
Open-source distribution provides access to free, modifiable source code without the technical support common to commercial software.
Until recently, deciding which route to take for GIS has been fairly easy. For a hefty price, commercial vendors will provide robust tools and good support, enabling urban planners, zoning and tax departments, and emergency service providers to access detailed photos from satellites and high-altitude airplanes.
The high cost of commercial software, however, has put such graphic data out of the reach of many state and local users, while in-house programmers have had few resources available to help them write their own code. The advent of open-source GIS and remote-sensing tools promises to tip the balance in the programmers' favor.
"The open-source approach will allow state and local governments to get the latest and greatest tools without having to buy expensive software," said Tom Murdoch, vice president of sales and marketing at Advanced Geographic Information Systems Inc. (AGIS), which hosts the open-source forum at www.remotesensing.org. Software on the site is available free of charge, with source code and documentation provided by the programs' authors.
"The idea behind the Web site is to create a forum for some of the newer tools for handling graphic data," Murdoch said. "The remote-sensing business needs new tools, and we feel the open-source model best leverages what's going on in the developer community."
More than 100 programmers have expressed interest in contributing applications and algorithms to the site since its February launch.
For state and local government users accustomed to commercial technical support, access to that community of software experts may be as important as access to the code itself.
"The Web site is a good place to get advice and to connect with people who can help to customize existing tools or build new applications," Murdoch said. "It gives users access to the people who are actually developing the functionality and the code."
The lack of direct technical support, however, has some experts waving a red flag on open-source GIS.
"Open source needs to be maintained by very technical people," said David Schell, president of the Open GIS Consortium. "If towns and counties and states would spend more money to bring in development talent, they could do very well with it. But right now, they're pretty much locked into their commercial vendors."
"Open source is not necessarily bad," said Douglas Nebert, clearinghouse coordinator at the Federal Geographic Data Committee Secretariat. "But any kind of software implementation works better when somebody can stand behind it to provide guidance."
Pre-Linux efforts to distribute free GIS software have not fared well, Schell said.
The Geographic Resources Analysis Support System (GRASS) GIS, for example, was written by the Army Corps of Engineers for military land management and environmental planning. The software is distributed free of charge in a manner similar to the open-source model.
"It's a good program, but when it was introduced to the market at large, it very quickly died because people could not do the support themselves," Schell said. "The whole issue is support."
Despite its inability to gain a commercial audience, GRASS is used by many government agencies, including NASA and the Census Bureau. A beta release of Version 5.0 was made available in February. The GRASS Web site (www.baylor.edu/~grass) is hosted by Baylor University.
- Patrick Walsh
Web Site Lists Debarred, Suspended Vendors
State and local governments looking to steer clear of contractors or vendors that have been placed on agency blacklists can use the World Wide Web to access a database on "debarred and suspended vendors."
Launched by MLTS Inc., a Phoenix-based professional services firm, the subscription-based service lists companies that have defaulted on contracts or otherwise run afoul of state and local governments.
The database service costs $495 annually for a government agency.
"The reasons why a company may be debarred include things like embezzlement, forgery or falsification of documents. A big one that comes up a lot [is] breaches of contract," said Samuel Blacke, an MLTS marketing executive.
MLTS relies on its government members to swap lists of debarred vendors. The Debarred and Suspended Vendors List site can be found at www.debarredlist.org.
- Jennifer Jones
Motorola Swipes Bay Area Smart Card Project
San Francisco's Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) has awarded a 10-year, $114 million contract to Motorola Inc. and the ERG Group to install and operate a smart card fare system. The system will enable riders to pay for transit system travel throughout the nine-county Bay area with a single regional smart card.
The TransLink system, scheduled to go live by 2002, will let transit riders pay for Bay-area train, light rail, bus or ferry service with a single fare card. The smart card will be able to determine the correct fare by calculating fare structures, transfers, routes and discounts as well as rates for senior citizens, students and riders with disabilities.
MTC hopes the new system will speed boarding times and ease the frustration of travelers by eliminating the need to search for cash or new boarding passes as they commute.
The commission also is counting on the system to provide more accurate rider data to help transit agencies improve the efficiency of routes and schedules.
- Meg Misenti
Network Security for the Budget-Conscious
Trying to ward off network pests on a shoestring budget? Orlando, Fla.-based Global Technology Associates Inc. (GTA) recently unveiled a new version of its Gnat Box firewall software. For less than $1,000, Gnat Box offers a Microsoft Corp. Windows or Windows NT interface, anti-spam features and remote-management capabilities.
Version 2.2 of Gnat Box sells for $995 for an unlimited-user license. "Three years ago, if you didn't have $20,000 to spend, you didn't get anything," said Paul Emerson, president of GTA, which is focusing on network security for budget-minded city and county agencies. "If you were a small county or city government, the prices on one of these boxes might have been your whole budget."
The National League of Cities has run Gnat Box as its principal Internet firewall for about a year. "It's a very nice, simple-to-configure product," said David Bean, NLC's manager of information technology. "It's managed through a Web browser and has documentation clearly showing you how to set it up." Bean now runs Version 2.0 on an 486 computer but plans to install 2.2 within the next month on a more powerful system.
Gnat Box 2.2's remote management capabilities enable network managers to set policies and control configurations from anywhere, not just from behind the firewall. The new version also blocks junk e-mail from getting through the network. The system is hooked into a real-time blacklist of known junk mail sites. The blacklist is run by a grass-roots group called the Mail Abuse Prevention System.
About half of the 100 county agencies and private groups that make up Wisconsin's welfare-to-work program also use Gnat Box. The system, called Wisconsin Works, tracks welfare recipients through databases on county and state networks via the Internet.
Dana Perry, network infrastructure services supervisor with the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, said the software wasn't on the state's approved firewalls list, but so many agencies requested it that the state had to add it to the list. "The partners chose Gnat Box primarily because of its cost and also [because] it is perceived as less complex than some of the other products on the market," Perry said.
- Meg Misenti
Massport Tests Web Project Manager
This summer, the Massachusetts Port Authority will embark on a three-year, $26 million renovation of the parking garage at Boston's Logan International Airport. To help manage the job, Massport will test a proj-ect management tool that is designed to help coordinate via a common World Wide Web site the work of all the managers, designers, architects and engineers who are involved in the mammoth undertaking.
The tool, Framework Technologies Corp.'s ActiveProject, "is a virtual filing cabinet," said Brian Giuffrida, Framework's director of marketing, who also described the tool as "real-time project management" software.
With ActiveProject, users can upload text documents, spreadsheets and computer-aided design files to a common Web server. Users have passwords and navigate the site using a browser, enabling them to keeps tabs on the constantly changing face of their project.
Massport is using its ActiveProject Web site to distribute meeting minutes and correspondence as well as to transfer drawing files. Ken Johnson, a project manager in Massport's Capital Programs Department, said he hopes the site will provide continuity across the renovation.
"This will be a multishift project," Johnson said. "So we will be able to come in and get progress photos from the on-site engineer who was on duty that night."
While Massport also uses project management software from Primavera Systems Inc., the agency will be able to integrate Primavera data into the ActiveProject site. ActiveProject also can give users access to data from accounting and financial systems. "This will be a good tool to help people stay focused on the goal of the project because of all the unforeseen conditions [in a renovation project]," Johnson said. "People believe we'll have a 20 [percent] to 30 percent decrease in administrative time."
- Joshua Dean
States Balking at Vendor Liability Caps
Some state contracting officers are pushing for more guarantees from information technology vendors and, in some cases, are shying away from traditional contract terms that limit the amount of money a vendor must pay if something goes wrong.
"Contractor liability is a big issue right now," said Gary Lambert, president of the National Association of State Procurement Officials (NASPO). "What happens in more cases than not is that the business side of the IT community assumes that things will go well. But in comes the legal side, and that quickly leads to discussions on how much risk is involved for the company on a particular contract."
Unlike many states, Massachusetts has not used legislation to cap the liability level of companies doing business with the state government. "Instead, we have set up boilerplate contract terms and conditions," said Lambert, who also is the state's deputy purchasing agent.
Maine and a few other states are re-examining the fine print at the bottom of large IT contracts. "I think what has happened is that contracts have gotten larger and larger, and the degree of risk has gotten greater and greater," said Richard Thompson, Maine's director of purchases.
Maine recently has had difficulty with contractors. "Many vendors have been unwilling to sign our contracts because [their] liability is not capped or the cap is very high," Thompson said. Particularly onerous to vendors, Thompson said, are clauses that hold companies liable for "consequential" or "special" damages.
On the vendor side of the equation, most large technology companies cry foul when states balk at liability caps. "If a state says it won't cap a company's liability, many companies are going to say, 'Hey, wait a minute, we are not in this to do you in, but you're talking about wide-open exposure,' " said Larry Allen, executive director of the Coalition for Government Procurement.
Lambert said state governments and vendors plan to have an open discussion on the topic of liability by fall. And Thompson said he plans to talk with vendors from the coalition within the next month. NASPO featured contractor liability at the association's February conference, "Marketing to State Governments," which was aimed at educating vendors on doing business with states.