India’s first FOSS4G - India conference was organized on 25-26 October, 2012 at Hyderabad. This was a surprisingly low-profile event and there was very little buzz about it on the internet. I learnt about it just in time to register and make it to the event. Here I am sharing some notes and impressions. (notes are mostly from memory, so please excuse if I missed something)
- I haven’t been to other FOSS4G events, but this was unlike any other Geo conference I have attended. It was very formal and government-centric. All presentations were from government researchers, employees or students.
- The penetration of open-source software within government was deeper than I anticipated and the decision-makers - including the politicians recognize the benefits of using open technologies. The Chief Guest - Shri V. Aruna Kumar, MP from Rajahmundry district commented that he realizes that the real cost of software is not the upfront cost, but the lifetime maintenance cost and open-source and open-standards can really benefit in the longer run.
- Keynote’s main message was that we should really focus on delivering applications that solve real problems. According to the speaker - Shri Anoop Singh, Special Secretary to AP Government - we have not even begun to realize the full potential of GIS within governments. For most end-users and decision makers, the ‘Science’ or 'System' in GIS isn’t important and GIS should really be about Geographic Information Services.
- India is seen largely as a follower in the open source movement and no big open-source projects have come out of research institutions here. To address this, International Institute of Information Technology released one of their projects - LSIViewer as open-source. The github upload was done during the inauguration of the conference by the chief guest!
- Prof. Venkatesh Raghavan receiving 2012 Sol Katz award Prof. Venkatesh Raghavan, Osaka City University was chosen as the winner of the 2012 Sol Katz ward by OsGeo. The award was given to him during the conference.
- Postgrasql + PostGIS, Geoserver and Openlayers seem to be the platform of choice. Almost all applications I saw were built using one of these.
- ELOGeo portal was shown an example of learning resources available for open source geo tools.
- There is virtually no open data for India given the strict geo data policy. But even within the government departments - there is a lot of reluctance in data sharing. Everyone talked about this problem of data being guarded very closely and seldom shared. But some forward thinking departments, especially in Tamil Nadu, have found a way around it by promoting Web Services. They publish a WMS feed for the datasets. That way other departments can use the data without really having any ownership of it. This seems to be working well.
- Ms. Mahalakshmi from National Informatics Center (NIC) in Tamil Nadu demonstrated some of most interesting internal applications built by them. They have built web services for different departments and each department uses these web services for their application. Administrative boundaries, census data, land use maps, land parcels, police data and planning related data are some examples which are available via WMS. She also showed a pretty cool app that BSNL - Chennai uses to identify fault points in their 2G network. The map is updated in real-time with pings from their different 2G sites around Chennai.
- BHUVAN - Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) portal for disseminating geodata has come a long way since it’s launch a few years back. It’s built completely using open-source stack and it’s a pretty snappy app. For the first time, a lot of thematic datasets are available freely to the public via WMS. They are also making some medium and low resolution raw/derived data from Indian remote sensing satellites available for download. The downloads are for personal use only, but this is a big step forward in India’s data access policy which has been very restrictive so far.
In summary, some positives and challenges for Open-source software described by various speakers.
Why open source is very attractive to governments
- No upfront cost. Don’t have to navigate complicated and time-consuming approval and procurement process. Easy to get started at low-cost and do a proof-of-concept.
- Standards Compliant. Rising awareness within the government of being standards compliant. Choosing a proprietary solution which is not standards compliant can cause problems and raise questions from others in future.
- No vendor lock-in. Can hire another consultant to run or develop services since all code is available.
Challenges to wider open source adoption
- Lack of support. Not many companies providing development and support. Most applications shown were written and maintained by in-house staff. Big opportunities for consultants who can provide support for open source tools.
- Change aversion: On the desktop, most people are used to proprietary software from their education or prior work. One example given was reluctance in the government to switch to Open Office. Free versions of MS Office is easy to come by and no incentive to learn and adopt open source solution. Using open-source software in education is a way to increase the adoption.
- Lack of Mature solutions: Politicians and administrators felt they had limited time in their tenure to implement whatever changes they want and show progress. There is always the attraction to choose a well known solution and get the results. The key message was that they feel the open-source software is mature but there are no mature solutions based on these that the governments can adopt without much risk.