Integrating FOSS into GIScience Curriculum & Research

Helena Mitasova, Vaclav Petras, Anna Petrasova, Brendan Harmon, Ross K. Meentemeyer
NCSU OSGeoREL at the Center for Geospatial Analytics
North Carolina State University

November 11, 2015

UCGIS Webinar

slides available at

What is FOSS?

Free and Open Source Software

  • Software that is free to run, study, modify and distribute
  • Free means freedom: free is a matter of liberty not price
  • It can be commercial but not proprietary

FOSS is everywhere

Microsoft loves Linux

Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO, 2014

Apple uses software created by the Open Source community and returns its enhancements to the community. —Apple Inc., 2015

Google, Amazon, Facebook, IBM, Red Hat... all use and contribute to FOSS and the community

FOSS is essential in science

Software [...] developed as part of novel methods is as important for the method's implementation [...] Such software [...] must be made available to readers upon publication.

Social software, Nature Methods 4, 189, 2007

Note: making software available to readers does not make it FOSS

Geospatial FOSS

OSGeo foundation supports the development of FOSS4G and promotes its widespread use. Example projects:

Web Mapping and Desktop Applications
GeoServer, MapServer, OpenLayers, GRASS GIS, QGIS,
Geospatial Libraries and Databases, Metadata Catalogs
GDAL, GEOS, GeoTools, PostGIS, GeoNetwork, pycsw

Non-OSGeo projects with geospatial capabilities: R, pySAL

Geospatial FOSS at NCSU

NCSU OSGeo Research and Education Laboratory:

  • course development using Geospatial FOSS
  • research projects
  • active participation in OSGeo projects

Course development

Software and GIS education problem

  • students are becoming software users instead of scientists
  • students confuse software implementation issues with fundamental concepts
  • bonding with single software limits flexibility and broader knowledge of the field

Beyond teaching GIS software

  • Lectures: software-independent, focus on theory, concepts
  • Assignments:
    • hands-on practice related to lecture topic
    • students use two different software packages solving similar tasks in both
    • opportunity to see what is a general concept and what is specific to a particular software
  • Independent project: focus is on research question, students chose software/tools/data

Geospatial Analysis and Modeling course

  • offered since 2008 as on-campus and distance course
  • every semester 30-50 students
  • assignments in both GRASS GIS and ArcGIS
  • workflow for each software is provided
  • students write papers explaining methods and results

Assignments: Erosion Modeling

Sample lines from instructions and results for GRASS GIS and ArcGIS

r.mapcalc "sedflow = 270. * Kfac * Cfac * flowacc * sin(slope)"
r.divergence magn=sedflow dir=aspect out=erosion_deposition
Build an expression for sflowtopo:
"flowacc" * Sin("slope" * math.pi/180.0)
output raster = sflowtopo

Lilliana Velasquez Montoya, Spring 2014

Midterm exam

Simple workflows for given problems in GRASS GIS or ArcGIS: example least cost path solutions in GRASS and ArcGIS

Vaclav Petras and Laura Belica

Independent Project

Focused on student's research interests, any geospatial software can be used

only condition: surface or continuous field component must be included   

Anna Petrasova and Molly Foley

GIS for Designers

GIS as an integral part of the creative design process
  • software in class:
    • ArcGIS and Rhino (proprietary)
    • GRASS GIS and Tangible Landscape (open source)
  • projects: combination of GIS and design tools

UAV/lidar Data Analytics

  • Trimble flight planning software and GRASS GIS
  • Agisoft PhotoScan and experimentally OpenDroneMap
  • GRASS GIS, Python

UAV/lidar Data Analytics

Assignment: Impact of terrain change on water flow, january and june flight with corn fields

Multidimensional Geospatial Modeling

Modeling of landscape dynamics using multitemporal georeferenced data and simulations
  • software:
    • GRASS GIS, often with new features such as Temporal Framework
    • + whatever the students need, e.g. XBeach, libLAS, ArcGIS
  • new technologies: Tangible Landscape, NCSU Hunt Lib Teaching and Vis Lab, eye tracking

Multidimensional Geospatial Modeling

Modeling of landscape dynamics using multitemporal data and simulations

Example assignments on subsurface soil moisture and solar radiation

Course material on-line

NCSU MGIST program is undergoing update and re-design

Keeping assignments up-to-date

Most of the assignment instructions provided as text (easy to update), students generate the images.
  • GRASS GIS workflows provided as commands.
    • GUI dialog filled according to the command.
    • Commands can be automatically extracted and tested.
  • Text also for running ArcGIS part through GUI, but the names in dialogs are not part of the API, so they change.

Experimental tutorial design

Interacting with software in multiple ways: tutorial with tabs showing the task run through GUI, CLI or python

Example: GRASS as temporal GIS workshop

Standardized sample datasets

Initiative to make the course material location specific through data sets with standardized names of layers
g.region raster=elevation
r.relief input=elevation output=shade
d.shade shade=shade color=elevation

Result for North Carolina, Czech Republic and Piemonte (Italy)

See wiki page, and create data set for your region.


  • research with FOSS4G:
    • using FOSS4G as a tool
    • developing FOSS4G by implementing new methods
  • FOSS4G development: join open community of developers and users

Our research: Tangible Landscape, Modeling and simulations of dynamic landscapes, Ultrahigh resolution monitoring and analysis, Sustainable land management

Tangible Landscape

Book: Petrasova, A., Harmon, B., Petras, V., Mitasova, H. Tangible Modeling with Open Source GIS, Springer International Publishing, to appear in December 2015.

Tangible Landscape

links to publications

Tangible Landscape

see more videos at NCSU OSGeo REL YouTube channel

Student opportunities

  • Code or community sprints:
  • Google Summer of Code
    since 2005, 8500 students (from 101 countries), 8300 mentors, ~$5500 per students, OSGeo GSoC page

Tools for open science course

  • Course dedicated to
    • exploring important role of FOSS in science
    • overview of tools and methods common in FOSS and needed in science
    • open access, open data, open standards, open...
    • reusability and reproducibility are standard in FOSS

Geo for All

  • Making geospatial education & solution accessible to all
  • establishing research and teaching opportunities
  • building global open access teaching infrastructure
  • worldwide labs network, students and faculty exchange
  • based on MOU between OSGeo and ICA, ISPRS
  • join at:


  • What can we do:
    • improve students' geospatial skills by teaching diverse software packages
    • join the open source software community as user or developer
    • share teaching materials through OSGeo Educational Content Inventory
    • join geo4all - send email to and describe your FOSS4G activities (link to your website is enough)

Read more in: Petras V., Petrasova A., Harmon B., Meentemeyer R.K., Mitasova, H., 2015, Integrating Free and Open Source Solutions into Geospatial Science Education. ISPRS International Journal of Geo-Information. 2015. Open Access, doi:10.3390/ijgi4020942

Resources: courses and tutorials

NCSU OSGeoREL courses
OSGeo Educational Content Inventory

Resources: workshops developed at NCSU

Resources: software and platforms

Resources: IPython Notebook

Future of education programs at NCSU

Eric Money, Associate Director of Professional Education