Day-Tripping NCGIS 2011

I went down to the NCGIS Conference in Raleigh, North Carolina yesterday (it’s still going on today). I was speaking in the session titled “The Desktop App: News of My Death is Premature.” My talk was called “If You Can Browse This Map, Thank a Desktop” and was focused less on desktop apps themselves than the fuzzy boundary between the desktop and the web. I have been told that the slide deck and, more frighteningly, the video of the talk will be online at some point.

It’s generally difficult to get a feel for a conference when you only attend for a day but a couple of things struck me. First, a higher number of people than I expected actually described themselves as programmers or developers. I find that, at GIS gatherings, it is becoming increasingly rare to find people who describe themselves that way. Perhaps it was because we were in the Research Triangle area but this was a good sign. The truth is that GIS is requiring more development skill, not less, from its user base but many people entering the GIS world today seem primarily focused on the “button-ology” of specific software tools.

I was also struck by the amount of work being done with open-source GIS tools in North Carolina. Julia Harrell and Tobin Bradley, who were on the conference program committee, are big advocates of open-source tools so I’m sure that had something to do with their greater visibility at NCGIS but there really does seem to be a lot of good work being done. In most cases, it’s a hybrid approach that mixes and matches open-source and proprietary tools for a best-of-breed approach but I was impressed with the “systems integration” mentality that was evident. In the Federal world where I work, ELAs make a more homogeneous tool set readily available and this kind of innovation has become increasingly rare.

It seems that a lot of people from the DC area made the trip down for the conference. I saw many of them at the social and also some people, like Paul Black, of have built impressive bodies of work at the state and local levels in North Carolina.

Before I had to get on the road, I was able to attend a good chunk of the open-source software group meeting. A large part of the discussion centered around analyzing what is impeding the penetration of open-source GIS tools. Eddie Pickle and some of his colleagues from OpenGeo were there and I continue to be impressed by the business approach they are taking with regard to the OpenGeo Suite. By taking high-quality tools and bundling them with professional documentation and support, they continue to reduce the perceived risk associated with open-source tools in the minds of many decision makers. In short, they are making open-source GIS quantifiable; which it must be in order to be adopted.

During that same discussion, the value of open standards was highlighted as well. One compelling use case was put forward of a project that implemented proprietary tools exposed through OGC WxS specifications and then swapped those tools out seamlessly with open-source tool. Because the users and systems were interfacing via OGC specifications, that back-end switch occurred without interruptions in service. Obviously, there are still very strong feelings regarding the WxS specifications (both positive and negative) across the community. Without wading into those waters, I will say that this highlights the value of open standards and open data in that it can reduce dependence on specific tool sets. I think a similar experience could be achieved using other open formats such as KML or Atom as well but the picture this example painted was rather compelling.

I want to thank Julia Harrell and the rest of the conference organizers for inviting me and I wish I could have stayed longer. Project work required that I come back early but I’ll make plans to a) stay for the whole conference next time and b) try to stay on top of things going on in North Carolina in the meantime.