Tuesday, 13 September 2011


Once again I find myself blogging on that hottest of hot topics, Open Source.  Or in fact not just open source but the whole area of FOSS (Free and Open Source if you don’t know). 

I have read a couple of blogs/articles recently on the subject, or perhaps more pertinently I have read a couple of phrases that set me thinking.

Someone (It might have been Stephen Feldman) used the phrase “I’m not an Open Source evangelist”, while Mike Saunt in his regular magazine article used the made up word, “Gainsayers” in his article. Mike was specifically having a pop at those in the proprietary software world who were detracting from open source.

So what is my point?

Well, from where does the voice of balance come from? Everyone seems to have a drum to bang or an axe to grind, either for or against. I take Mikes point, but he is hardly independent in the matter, as Astun are based almost totally on open source. 

But where can an everyday punter in the street, or should I say office, get a balanced picture of the pros and cons? Who out there in the world of GIS, or increasingly in the whole IT world, is there someone who not only straddles both camps but fully understands them both? 

If you know little of GIS as a concept how can you make a decision that QGIS or ARC is the one for you. Not only are they competing products but have totally different ethos, upgrades and support behind them.

The world of GIS seems split on the issue, either embrace it, or reject it. You cant have both, it seems like you have to choose and then back that horse all the way.

In search of a third way? Possibly, but I'm not sure if there is one.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Where will it all end?

Open Source is with us to stay, I accept that now. It took a while but I now understand the fact that Open Source wont give up and go away. I may not whole like it or agree with it but I can live with it.

Open data too is with us to stay. I like this rather more. Or at least I though I did until I settled down to think about it,. nursing sick children gives you time to mull things over.

When Tim Berners-Lee shouted "Raw data now!" at the TED conference, I almost joined in with the video I was watching of it. Data collected using tax payers money should be made available to tax payers to use, analyse, make decision on and recycle in whatever way they see fit, data protection not withstanding. I still think is is a sound idea and one which should be pushed into law to force local as well as central government to do. Take a look at what Nottingham City Council have said regarding this to see the reaction against it.

But what of other free sets of data? Open Street Map & Ordnance Survey OpenData both collected in very different ways but both free to use. But both have impacts that seem not to be discussed. The opening up of some OS data was roundly greeted with cheers by the industry, unless of course you had a business based on selling that data or competing data sets. A cost that has been ignored by most, not wanting to tarnish the good news with the cost perhaps? Or more interested in how it benefits us and not what it costs others?

"Ah but you need to change you business model", "Innovate", "The world has changed" are the kind of things said by people who's jobs are not under threat from free data or open source software use.

But back to the data issue, what about data collected using public money that's not taxation? Gas, water and electricity? Telephone? Private providers to public services? Dental service?
I have seen calls for the opening up of almost ever data source, whether in private or public hands, largely it hs to be said from the academic community. But surely there is an event horizon here, eventually we all cough up all out data and no-one can afford to collect any more (except the publicly funded academics of course).

And whilst am having a rant at the the world of academia, I read yet again in GeoConnexion magazine this month that another GI application has been developed by a university and being sold in the corporate arena. A public funded body using its captive in house free workforce (students) going into direct competition with private comopanies that have none of the above.

When making things free, we have to look at the cost, to all concerned.

Friday, 15 April 2011

AGI Northern Group Conference - Part 2 the Post Lunch Sessions

Firstly lunch was very good with fresh cream scones to die for. One item was labelled as “Salmon Balls”, I didn’t know they had any.

Ok then first up after lunch was another twitter buddy, Duncan Hill of Europa Technologies. Duncan has been in the industry for a long time and it shows. He is slick and professional at what he does. The presentation was really a sales talk though very low key. Some basic education on Tile Servers was possibly of use to some watching. The product/service itself I think is good and pretty unique in what it offers. It could have been a lot more “salesy” than it was so marks to Duncan for playing that down, but it was a sales pitch. We all have a job to do and that’s Duncan’s so fair play I say.

Next up then was Tim Waters of GeoIQ. Tim was very warmly received and many in the room were well on board with what he was talking about. However I have to say I got somewhat lost around the middle and found the simple and glaring spelling mistakes and poor slides rather amateurish and showed a lack of care. But no faulting hitting the rooms G-Spot so to speak. Most in the room were big users and supporters of social media so anything that comes along and utilises that is going to go down well, especially if it then maps it! Tim also gave us the stat of the day: We produce more data every three days than in the whole of history to 2003. I have no idea where it came form or how true it is, but that statistic puts the “data deluge” into perspective. It also shows how important it is that tools like this are there to help us utilise and make sense of this data.

Nick Ilsley next of Transport Direct. Another popular talk that hit a spot, despite starting off with rather too much railway information than we needed to know! Very pleased to hear mention of the NapTAN database as CDR Group did some of the survey work that went into this. Also delighted to see how much it’s being used, apparently the second most downloaded data set on data.gov.uk. The usage and publication of data from transport Direct ticks every box. It’s open, it’s transparent and it’s useful, Nick also gave us the acronym of the day in GESDU (Geographic Efficiency Savings and Delivery Unit). Not often a civil servant goes down so well.

Coffee and more scones!

Ordnance Survey next on the PSMA. I totally failed to make any notes during this session for which I apologies whole heatedly. However I didn’t really see anything in there that was that new or at least anything I didn’t already know. Let me know if you thought different.

Ok now possibly the highlight of the day. Steven Feldman again with his second and I suspect preferred session. Ove the last couple of years Steven has perfected the art of the geo-rant. Taking a subject he clearer feel passionately about and then going for it. I couldn’t help but think of a wind up toy, you wind it up and goes like the clappers for a short while then stops again. The subject was Open Data and originally titled Is It Like Giving a Kid an AK47? I have to say he articulated fears that I have been saying for a while. It is way too easy to take the raw data out of context and use it to your own ends (poilitical or otherwise). I really wasn’t sure about the cheese analogy, but the furniture one worked very well. I didn’t agree with all he said, but loved the way he said it. Always good value, always good slides.

Last up the mighty Dr Bob Barr. Bob was the first industry speaker I heard, now almost 12 years ago. I was impressed then, I’m impressed now. No one knows more about UK geo-spatial matters than Dr Bob. He picked up Steven’s geo- rant and ran with it, also speaking with passion and verve. Again I didn’t agree with all he said and I know Ordnance Survey certainly didn’t. But his views on the Public Data Corporation were valid and should be taken into account by the powers that be. I think that maybe the good doctor should be appointed to the corporation himself.

AGI Northern Group Conference

On 14 April 2011 I attended the AGI Northern Group Conference at the National Railway Museum in York.

First some general observations.

If you're going to host an event in some where like the NRM you HAVE to allow time to see the sights! A full day of seminars and events gives us good value for money sure, but it would have been great to have an hour to see some trains before and/or after! Hold it somewhere dull and functional otherwise and save a few quid!

The food was great, the scones to die for!

The day was hosted by my twitter buddy Stuart Mitchell who kept good order and kept the speakers to time simply and without fuss, he allowed time for questions but again not too many as to allow time to run away.

OK to the speakers.

I have to apologise to Dr Andrew Hudson Smith as I didn't get there until hi presentation was over half way through so cant really comment on what he had to say. However any one who has a corporate logo of "Gemma the Gerbil" is either very sure of their product or a little fool hardy.
I also thought it was a dodgy shirt too, that was until I saw Steven Feldman's.

Which brings me neatly on to second dodgy shirt of the day, and another twitter buddy, Mr Feldman. Whether you agree with or even like Steven Feldman is immaterial, he always gives good value and creates a discussion point. That is until this session.
A look and what the AGI's foresight study said in 2009 would happen in the industry over the next five years. Going through the points really just seemed a box ticking exercise , with most of the points either being stated as "not going to happen" or " has already happened".
The thing to take away from this was that some aspects of our industry are changing rapidly whilst others are not. hardly news. I also got the impression that Steven wasn't wholly comfortable with this session, unlike his second session later in the, but more of that later.
Steven rounded his first session off with a plug for the AGI CDP programme, which I believe has fundamental flaws in it, but more of that another time.

Alex Hill next of Plus Dane Group. Alex started by saying he was a little over awed by the previous two contributors and in a way I can understand why. But he shouldn't have, after all, he is the one doing it "at the coal face" to use his words. Whilst academics and thinkers can bush the boundaries and look for new opportunities and ideas, its people like Alex who actually do the work and use the software. there was nothing new or innovative about what is happening at Plus Dane Group in terms of GIS, but I'm sure there needs to be. They have established a method of working with GIS that works for them. At the end of the point lines and ploygons are all they need, so its all they use.

Next up then Arup and Ewan Peters. Demolishing buildings in San Francisco at first glance is more Geo-physics than GIS and indeed that could have been a criticism of this presentation. But the diverse use of maps and mapping applications is always good background knowledge for all GIS professionals. As Ewan said, some people are still impressed with points on a map. he doesn't have to impress us geo-geeks, just the people paying the money. Which he did. My only question on what they were doing was, if they are using the cloud to do some of the work, why bother with ESRI software at all and get the cloud to do more for less?

Ah and now INSPIRE. never was a subject less aptly named, or indeed presented. The presentation was centred on things we have been talking about for 2 or 3 years now. I myself was running almost identical explanatory session as long ago as 2009. I'm sorry if I'm being negative on this one but if you're not on board past this level with INSPIRE by now, you have bigger problems than you think. Maybe a demo of the Open Source Metadata tools would have been more useful? Sorry Ian nothing personal.

Ian Robinson of Cadcorp was next up, with first of the two sales pitches of the day. Ian presented well and confidently he was clearly practised and new his subject. Again nothing new and innovative, the concept of joining up departments and organisations has been a key GIS topic now for getting on for 10 years. maybe it's time to move on bit and look at other ways and methods of delivering this. As the software may well be more mature than 10 years ago, the base concept being sold was not. I would expect a vendor to push something new at an AGI event not just preach to the converted.

Curious inclusion next I thought, with Ray Buckingham talking about the Cockermouth floods. My first thoughts as he kicked off his double act with a gentleman who's name I sadly did not get
of the mountain rescue team, was "Where's the maps then?"
I was premature, there were maps, and I missed the point. the centre of the attention was nopt the map for a change but people. A timely reminder that amid all this rush of technology, it's pointless if it helps no-one. They managed to make a difficult subject humorous and interesting and showed again how just the most rudimentary of maps can be of huge help and significance. Ordnance Survey got a plug for there Open Data, which in the words of the chap from Mountain Rescue "Is saving lives now"
A poignant video rounded off their talk of the impacts of the floods on peoples lives.

I will do the post lunch sessions in another blog!

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Government ICT Stratagy

I have just had the "delight" and "joy" of reading the Cabinet office paper on Government ICT Strategy.


These sort of papers are rarely a good read I know and I'm sure many of you have felt heavy lidded whilst reading one.

This one doesn't start well, by claiming that the bad name attached to government ICT is unjustified. The numbers involved in delayed and even abandoned projects across central government, quangos and other tax funded bodies is huge, in fact it goes well beyond huge. Money which could have been usefully spent elsewhere (goes without saying). Plus most of these major problems have involved the usual suspects. the same multi-national corporations.

This is where the paper gets better.

It does acknowledge "significant failings". Well done Francis, we could all see that one.

Then it gets better again. Or least it does from my perspective. In case you don't know I work for one of those mystical organisations the coalition reefers to affectionately as an SME.

And, if this paper is to be believed, we are going to benefit from this new strategy.

So a few highlights as I see it:

1. Mandatory Open Standards. Why this isn't in place I will never know. We have to be able to share data and services even when times are good, let alone now. So if we can't even agree a standard to adhere to then we have, as they saying goes, Bob Hope.

2. Transparency. I know it's a buzz word, and I could be accused of band wagon jumping. But I have right to know where my tax is being spent, with whom and is it the best value.

3. Removal of Barriers for SME's. the world of SME can offer central and local government much that it is currently prevented from doing so. We offer a personal service. not a hotline number but a named individual you can ask or berate accordingly. An ability to react quickly to requests or problems. No monolithic admin system that wont allow a release for another 2 years and another large sum of cash. The benefits go on. But then again, I would say that wouldn't I?

4. Use of Skunkworks. useful but only if the appropriate level of funding and autonomy is given, balanced by transparency and accountability.

5. Use of Social Media. The quickest and easiest way to interact with anyone it seems. You ask you question, everyone else can read it and the answer. Fully transparent, fully accountable. As long as protection of individual citizens and employees is given.

I've picked just five highlights but there are more.

Here are some issues/questions however:

Open Source. Not convinced that relying on Open Source is the way forward especially for mission critical applications. At least not without someone sitting in the middle offering the guarantees and SLA required.

Transparency. Yes I know this was in the highlights section as well. But as we have all seen too often, personal details have "got out" by various methods. A move to more cloud based computing brings with it heightened dangers to hacking, misuse and accidents, that have much wider spread implications. With my bank details as well as details of my children these must be covered in layers of EFFECTIVE security.

A move away from large single ICT projects. So no single NHS medical records database then?

A greater use of ICT/web for citizen interaction. Great, it saves loads of cash. But at a time when we are increasingly viewed as statistics and numbers, at a time when isolation and loneliness are major issues, at a time when everything is being depersonalised, should we really be killing the personal touch? Should we really be alienating those who's understanding of technology is low or none existent. We like a smile, my monitor never smiles.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Dead or Just Sleeping?

Ok so here goes, blog number one. Of how many remains to be seen, depending on response and my own lazy arse.

On of the big issues in GIS right now isnt Metadata. But it should be. It reared its head a couple of years ago when the EU brought in the INSPIRE directive and half the GIS world got upset and exasperated at yet more work to do, deadlines to meet and management structures to put in place. The other half rejoiced for here came structure and order to the chaos of the the many thousands of datasets they had.

Then the banks imploded, the government borrowed, and cuts came in.

And INSPIRE died and dragged metadata down with it.

All the world of Geeks talk about now is Open Data and Open Source.

But surely if we're getting our hands on a deluge of data (6100+ in the UK right now), then surely metadata becomes more important not less. Where did it come from? When did I get it? When is it dated? Is it maintained? Is it the latest release? Not to mention hard drive space of storing all the blooming stuff when its been downloaded 18 times by all and sundry.

If you have not sorted INSPIRE or have started then stopped, its time to get it going before its too late. Central Goverment is ignoring INSPIRE right now, but its only a matter of time before the folks at DEFRA (via the UK Location Council) start to turn the big red (Dark Lord Sauron esque) beady eye on this issue once more. And lets face it If Mr Pickles can clobber you with financial penalties then he will.

metedata isnt dead, its just sleeping and when it wakes, you'd better be ready.