Navigating the Geospatial Open Source Software Landscape

Vaclav (Vashek) Petras, Corey White & Randal Hale

NCSU GeoForAll Lab at the Center for Geospatial Analytics,
North Carolina State University & North River Geographic Systems, Inc.

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NCGIS 2019 Winston-Salem
Feb 27 - Mar 1, 2019


  • vendor neutrality
    • proprietary software has a single vendor (vendor lock-in)
    • open source is not influenced by vendor's current business goals
  • flexibility (use where you want, when you want)
  • interoperability
    • open source aims to support standards
    • proprietary software often uses propriety formats
  • cost (no license fees, no license management)
    • low total cost of ownership (includes cost to upgrade or migrate)
  • support (many free options available by default)
    • money not spent on license fees can be used for support or features
  • influence in development (direct access to developers)
  1. Computerworld: 4 reasons companies say yes to open source
  2. PCWorld: 10 Reasons Open Source Is Good for Business


  • In science:
    • Software must be available to readers [Nature Methods - 4, 189, 2007].
    • Use of open source tools is part of reproducibility [Lees 2012].


  • Users of open source are more happy when using the software. 1

Image credit:

  1. No research to support that.

Free, Libre and Open Source

Similar to each other:

  • open source software
  • free software
  • libre software

Very different from FLOSS:

  • proprietary software
  • freeware
  • shareware
  • freemium (clouds and apps)
  • open API (public API)

Free, Libre and Open Source

  • open source and free software
    • some argue open misses the point about freedom
    • free is often misunderstood as free of charge
    • includes libre to address the confusion about free (gratis versus libre)
  • FOSS and FOSS4G is often used in the geospatial community
    • free refers to user's freedom
    • open source refers to open development model
    • FOSS4G (free and open source software for geospatial)

Open Source Initiative logo

Four freedoms

  • According to FSF, there are four freedoms that you should have as a user:
    • the freedom to use the software for any purpose,
    • the freedom to change the software to suit your needs,
    • the freedom to share the software,
    • the freedom to share the changes you make.

GNU logo, a free operating system by FSF

Commercial and FOSS

  • FOSS can be used commercially
  • FOSS can be commercial but not proprietary
  • FOSS can be used to build closed platforms
  • Famous FOSS examples (non-geospatial):

Types of FOSS licenses

  • copyleft licenses
    • example: GNU GPL
    • free software licenses (according to four freedoms by FSF)
    • code cannot be combined with proprietary (and closed) code into one program
    • examples: Linux, R, GRASS GIS, QGIS

Types of FOSS licenses

  • permissive licenses
    • examples: BSD, MIT
    • source code can be modified, closed and sold as proprietary
    • more freedoms for the developer
      • can combine the source code and software more freely
      • can make the new software proprietary
    • less freedoms for the user (might not get the source code, thus freedoms)
    • example: GDAL used in QGIS as well as in ArcGIS

Users and FOSS licenses

  • licenses are mostly important for the developers
  • users don't have to worry about the license
  • this is different from proprietary software
    • user must read and agree to EULA or similar type of agreement
    • license is used in the meaning license to use
      • use often paid or limited (or both) for proprietary software
      • as opposed to FOSS licenses which cover things beyond simple usage


Using GRASS GIS as an example

Source code

Commit (Changeset)

Who can make changes?


  • everybody can make changes


  • everybody registered can make changes

Open source projects:

  • only people with granted access can make changes

    • everybody can view changes
    • everybody can discuss changes
    • everybody can make changes in their local copy
    • everybody can make changes and submit them for approval

Review (and revert)

[GRASS-dev] Handling of Python scripts on MS Windows (October, 2013)

Ticket (Issue): Bug report

Ticket: Feature request

Changes (History, Timeline)

Geospatial analysis and remote sensing

Which software should I choose for my work?

Orfeo ToolBox

Example Desktop Software Stack

statistics and scripting
Python, R
database, attribute/tabular data
SQLite, PostgreSQL with PostGIS, LibreOffice
Inkscape, Gimp, ImageMagic
  • Portability: works on Linux, Mac, Windows
  • Interoperability: programs designed to work with others
  • Flexibility: standards and open formats allows to switch different components
  • Scalability: can be copied to more machines at no cost

Development statistics

Black Duck Open Hub: GRASS GIS

FOSS4G Organizations

global organization, local chapters and related projects like GeoForAll
data, applications, services

FOSS4G Organizations

working group at Eclipse Foundation
FOSS4G conferences
global and local conferences
Individual projects and communities
projects and communities exist on their own


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Take a class:

Work with us:

Twitter: vaclavpetras
GitHub: wenzeslaus
GitLab: vpetras

Come to see the NCSU Center for Geospatial Analytics booth!

Talk to me at the poster session!