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Open Source Sponsorship


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Open Source Spatial Data Infrastructures

A key challenge faced by Spatial Data Infrastructures is that the organisations who gain value from the data are different to the organisations serving the data.

The value of a Spatial Data Infrastructure is measured is the quantity of usable data it contains – or most specifically, how much data from other organisations can I get my hands on.

A Spatial Data Infrastructure becomes valuable to me when everyone else puts their data online so that I can use it. It costs me money to put my data online and I don’t gain anything because I have my data already.

Spatial Data Infrastructures (SDI) are deployed to allow organisations to properly store, document, index, distribute and analyse spatial data. Most data is collected to support decision making. These decisions range from the simple, “How do I get from A to B?” to the complex, “Which management strategy is most effective at preserving a particular environment?” To support these decisions, government departments work to a triple bottom line: Financial, Community and Environmental. While balancing these factors is critical to making decisions, the decisions are only as good as the data they are based on.

Improving the triple bottom line of national and international SDI programs is dependent on a number of factors:
  • Data Quantity and Integration
    A national dataset, aggregated from local and state datasets, is significantly more valuable than the constituent datasets.
  • Data Quality
    Inaccurate or imprecise data can lead to incorrect conclusions and ultimately poor decisions.
  • Data Currency
    Some data changes rapidly, such as traffic congestion or transit demand. Other datasets, such as geologic zones, will theoretically never change, though changes in surveying methods or resolution can add to the accuracy and extent of the dataset. Making decisions based on last year’s data serves only to solve last year’s problems a year too late.
  • Efficient Data Collection and Maintenance
    The costs and timelines of collecting data and maintaining existing datasets must be managed in order to achieve acceptable results in the previous three categories.
  • Data Availability and Licensing
    Simply storing the data is not enough. Data must be accessible when and where it is needed, formatted in such a manner that it can be used with the tools at hand, and it must be licensed in such a manner to permit the analysis and publication of results or derived products as required.

SDI programs often seek to address these factors by developing a centralized SDI to service a network of related departments and organisations, ranging from a number of departments within a ministry, to integration of datasets across the country. As Paul Ramsey explains (here and here):

“… a key funding challenge faced by SDI programs is that while sharing data in a distributed SDI reduces the overall cost for everyone, not everyone is equally better off”.

For data custodians, publishing data is a cost centre and doesn’t provide a substantial business benefit.

Many, including Ben Searle from the Australian Government Office of Spatial Data Management, realize that:

“… an effective way to increase access to other agencies’ data is to sponsor free, *Open Source tools which will reduce the cost barrier to sharing data.*”

Open Source offers many opportunities, which can significantly enhance the investment of organisations prepared to capitalize on them.

Opportunity Management is the inverse of Risk Management. With risk management you quantify what can go wrong then identify mitigation strategies to avoid or reduce the impact of the risks. With opportunity management you list potential windfalls and deploy strategies to enable and benefit from the windfalls. The table below shows an example opportunity management matrix.

Opportunity Enabler
Use data from external agencies. Agencies are given access to open source tools to reduce their barrier to sharing data.
Use Open Standards for tools to facilitate communication.
Use Open Standards for data schemas so data can be integrated.
External Agencies extend our toolset. Use and share our tools as Open Source Software so that others can use and extend them.
Support the Open Source development processes to reduce the barrier of entry to potential development sponsors.

Effective Open Source Sponsorship

After selecting Open Source sponsorship to achieve cost effective data access, agencies are now faced with a relatively new business model, open source sponsorship. Agencies need to align purchasing policies, based upon deliverables and milestones, with Open Source community development.

Under a proprietary business model, a company builds and markets a product. Multiple customer sales cover the cost of development, supporting infrastructure, marketing, support, future enhancements and hopefully include a profit. While Open Source business models incur the same costs as the proprietary models they generally distribute the costs to the end users differently, charging for the implementation of specific functional or usability improvements.

Initial investment in communities, infrastructure, and marketing for an Open Source project is often the most effective way to ensure a long term return on investment as these areas are commonly neglected in favour of feature enhancements. Proper promotion and infrastructure support, instead of a sole focus on missing features, will encourage project growth and ultimately lead to open source Nirvana: hundreds of developers building your application using someone else’s budget.

Keys to Success in Open Source

There are a number of key elements that a potential sponsor should consider when evaluating an open source project in order to ensure maximum return on investment. These include:

  • Solves a specific need effectively.
  • Has an active, diverse and inclusive community.
  • Enjoys support from multiple sponsors.
  • Established development processes including:
    • Issue tracking
    • Communication channels like email lists and IRC
    • Quality control
  • Clear and comprehensive documentation and marketing material.

The OpenLayers project is a good example of a commercial entity driving the creation of a thriving open source project. OpenLayers is an open source, browser based web-mapping client which provides a front end to various proprietary and open data sources like Google and Yahoo Maps, WMS and WFS. In three years OpenLayers has grown from nothing to be the dominant open web-mapping client, attracting the majority of the users and developers in this space.

OpenLayers was initially sponsored by MetaCarta who needed a browser based application to support their mapping services. Rather than focusing on features, MetaCarta focused much of their investment on infrastructure and community support. In particular their effort was spent answering developer and user questions on email and IRC, monitoring the quality of code contributions, and setting up automated testing. Many of MetaCartas engineers have developed a personal interest in OpenLayers which MetaCarta encourages by allowing the engineers to spend some work time on the project.

Today, OpenLayers has an incredibly active developer community requiring minimal support from MetaCarta and have provided functionality significantly greater than MetaCarta’s original scope. Key to the success of OpenLayers has been the long running, dedicated community support provided by Chris Schmidt from MetaCarta. GeoServer, another Open Source project, has recently introduced a similar community liaison role, dedicated to community support and marketing.

The role of Community Liaison has always been key to Open Source and often is filled by volunteer enthusiasts, however commercial deployments of Open Source creates a workload volunteers can’t maintain and hence industry hires these volunteers instead. Ensuring that the community is supported in this fashion promotes the uptake of the project, increases the user base, which in turn attracts more sponsors and more developers. This leads to the situation where many developers are employed by a variety of sponsors to create new features and improve the performance and stability of the project.

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Topic revision: r3 - 15 Oct 2010, UnknownUser

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