Sunday, 14 September 2008

Forays in southern Africa

Here are a few scenes from some of my travels this year. If you're coming to FOSS4G 2008 you might be lucky enough to experience some of these. If you haven't decided to come yet, perhaps these will entice you. Make the best of your long journey to Cape Town and travel a bit after FOSS4G. In April I went with family and friends on a 4x4 trip through the Central Kalahari National Park and Moremi in Botswana. The baobab below is at Khubu Island, high ground in Sowa Pan, the bed of an ancient dried up lake, where we spent a night on the way back. Notice the MapBender cap offset by the baobab tree. You'll have to travel to the north end of South Africa or beyond to see baobabs.This family of tuskers trumpeted as we surprised them in Moremi. You'll see elephants in many reserves, a few fairly close to Cape Town.

A view over the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers in Mapungubwe National Park, World Heritage Site and Transfrontier Park, where we went camping in July.

One normally associates hippos with waterways in savanna and thicker bush but this family have been reintroduced to the Seekoeivlei Ramsar wetland in the Highveld grassland outside the small town of Memel in the Free State Province. I was there in August to see my brother's Green building project.

A trip to South Africa is amiss without a visit to the Kruger National Park. With only a few hundred cheetahs in the whole park we were lucky to see two males wandering along the side of the road. We spent a weekend camping there after I gave a presentation on Open Source GIS at GISSA Mpumalanga meeting in Nelspruit.

Hope to see you at FOSS4G 2008! Register now!

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

What I'm up to with FOSS GIS and how I got here

When I moved nearly 3 years ago from CSIR to Mintek, I thought I would be a lone FOSS advocate. The CSIR is a national research organisation of around 3000 people that is pioneering a complete move to open standards and FOSS, firstly developing and then 'learning the ropes' for the implementation of the South African Government Open Source and interoperability policy. In my lab at CSIR, ICT4EO, we'd made the switch early, with several flavours of Linux and a suite of FOSS GIS and image processing applications, for reasons both principled and practical. Mintek is also a national research organisation and has to report an increasing FOSS quota each year to Government, but it is early days. Indeed, Mintek has recently tied itself down for a long while to come with a R4,5m agreement with Microsoft. Yet, I've discovered an in-house LUG, some Linux clusters and a group of like-minded people. I'm willing to bet there's a FOSS kernel like that in every organisation.

Back a few years to my FOSS GIS beginnings. I had 'grown up' in GIS on ArcInfo *nix workstation and early ArcViews and was quite content. My eyes were opened though when EIS-Africa was donated a server to be hosted in my lab at CSIR. Mick Wilson came down from UNEP in Nairobi to set up MapServer and show me how to play with it and keep it going. I also worked on the first South African metadata clearinghouse, with the FGDC's iSite and dabbled in early attempts at online linkages and harvesting, as OGC standards started emerging. The CSIR became the first OGC member in Africa with me as technical contact. My last two years at CSIR were spent at the Satellite Application Centre and ICT4EO, where my research leader, Andrew Terhorst, pushed FOSS relentlessly, so at a stage where the CSIR had switched only their back end to FOSS, we had gone the whole hog, proving in the process that FOSS GIS and image processing tools are diverse and mature enough to support all the functionality a professional facility needs.

Moving across to Mintek, I've set up a dedicated enterprise GIS server running Ubuntu. PostGIS, GeoServer, QGIS and Sensor Web tools based on Bill Howe's OOSTethys Python code are my daily tools while we also run GRASS, uDiG, GeoNetwork and various other apps. We have limited GIS human resources (just 2 of us) and I'd love to build that up with some developer strengths. We also have a couple of ArcView 9 licences which serve their purpose for quality desktop map production. As far as working in a mixed environment goes the major bottleneck to seamless interoperability is that ArcGIS can't read directly from PostGIS nor consume WFS services. Unless of course we spend another fortune on the Interoperability extension. I wonder if ways around this are going to be addressed at FOSS4G 2008?...See you there!

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

From snow to sand

Since my last post I've descended 3000m to pleasant coastal climes at Cove Rock near East London; tomorrow the long haul back to Jo'burg (10 hours). If you're coming to FOSS4G, take a peek at just one of the thousands of kilometres of beaches you can sample on your travels around South Africa. Note the MapBender cap and Open Planning Project (GeoServer) T-shirt. I'm getting really excited with FOSS4G around the corner. Five weeks to go to a landmark event in Africa. A mouthwatering lineup of workshops, labs, presentations, social events, code sprint, demos, outreach activities, OpenStreetMap mapping party, lightning talks, guest speakers...I hope you're coming. See for more and register soon!

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Why should you attend FOSS4G 2008? If you're interested in GIS, geospatial software, open source or anything related, here are some reasons to attend 'Free and Open Source for Geospatial 2008 incorporating GISSA 2008' to be held from 29 Sept - 3 Oct 2008 at the Cape Town International Convention Centre. These are mainly aimed at South Africans who need to motivate to attend.
  • Like it or not, Government procurement is soon going to demand Open Source solutions ( If you're in business, what better platform to launch into this market than a conference like this? If you're in Government, what better way to learn about FOSS and prepare for the transition?
  • FOSS4G 2008 is not just about open source – the whole SA GIS community will be there, including all the normal 'proprietary' GIS community. Content, exhibitors, sponsors (including GIMS) are from the open source AND the proprietary communities, not that there is a clear distinction, with many being from both. If you attended AfricaGIS in '05, or any GISSA or local GIS conference for that matter, FOSS4G is for you and is going to be bigger and better. It is indeed also the ‘GISSA 2008’ conference. Learn about how proprietary and FOSS GIS can work together. Or, learn about how to make the transition from proprietary to FOSS.
  • Open source software in most cases (especially server and web-based) outperforms the proprietary equivalent.
  • You could build the same or better solutions with open source than you currently build with proprietary.
  • Using open source will save your clients money, increase your profits while providing the same or better functionality.
  • Many FOSS GIS projects are best-of-breed. Did you know, for example, that ESRI now uses and supports GDAL and 52North. GDAL now is at the core of almost everything you do with rasters in ESRI software. Frank Warmerdam (GDAL/OGR and PROJ4) and the lead developers on many other best-of-breed open source projects will be presenting papers and hands-on workshops at the conference.
  • FOSS4G 2008 is a landmark event in Africa, the first time FOSS geospatial is being showcased on the continent.
  • South Africa won an international bid to host FOSS4G 2008.
  • People from over 40 countries have already registered and we have users on our conference website from over 80 countries.
  • There are still great opportunities for exhibitors and sponsors. If you are potentially one of these, please download the Prospectus from the conference website. A bonus for exhibitors will be the exhibition launch at the Icebreaker event in the exhibition hall…
If you have any motivations to add please post them in a comment.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Skiing in South Africa

Something different to do in South Africa. For those who think Africa is just jungle, here's me at South Africa's only ski resort. If you're coming to FOSS4G 2008, you might catch the end of the season ;-). I'm learning to ski here at Tiffindell near Rhodes in the Eastern Cape. It's just below Ben McDhui, the highest peak in South Africa at 3000m. A month ago they had a blizzard and it was covered in natural snow but they keep the slopes going with snow machines and the old hands say it's as good as any slope in Europe. The temperature dropped to -20 deg C a few weeks ago but we've had clear, windy weather, cold but not that cold. OSGeo types note the MapBender cap I'm wearing.

Thursday, 31 July 2008

Caught short with proprietary GIS

The Cabinet of the South African Government in February 2007 approved a policy on Open Source and Interoperability in Government. I've heard details recently of two GIS projects where Government departments in South Africa have been caught short, which would not have happened were this policy implemented. Firstly, the GIS-based Working for Water management information system. I started work on this in 1997 while working at the South African ESRI distributor. Naturally initial versions were based around ArcView 3 and Avenue. Development and deployment continued after I left in 1999. A switch of Government IT contractor a few years back resulted in the GIS firm's contract ending. The result? The Department of Water Affairs was left without the source code of the system and so had to employ the new contractors to rebuild it from scratch. It was probably due for a refactoring anyway... This time around they have apparently retained ownership of the source code. All that's left for them to do under the new policy is to release it under an Open Source licence and all the benefits that brings. My second case is of the very popular SA Explorer, produced by the Municipal Demarcation Board with Norwegian funding. It is (or rather was) a MapObjects-based viewer that came with a mountain of free spatial data, the basic set for any GIS user in South Africa. The reason it's discontinued after version 4 is that funding dried up and the Demarcation Board couldn't get the source code from the contractor who put it together. If it were open source it would still be alive and kicking and updated by the community. I'd like to build up a collection of case studies so if you know of any other examples please add them in a comment.