Open Source Geospatial Foundation @ Chicago

I got home from Chicago this afternoon, and though I am a little loopy from travel, I had better write something down before the moment is gone.

It was a very interesting experience to have all these open source people in the same room at the same time. While I had met all of them (with the exception of a couple of Autodesk folks) at different times and places, this was the first time that particular combination of people were all in the same place at one.

The discussion was good, and surprisingly on point the whole time, which is great for a group of 25 opinionated people. Gary Lang of Autodesk did an excellent job ensuring that all the important topics were covered, while letting the discussion move at more-or-less its own pace. The IRC channel was a great forum for carrying on parallel discussions to the verbal points being made. Rather than interrupting a speaker, folks could jot a point into IRC, and if it was trenchant enough it would come up verbally shortly anyways. An interesting example of a meld of old and new forms of discourse.

The summaries at Directions Magazine and Mapping Hacks cover the details of decisions quite well, so I won’t go over that ground again.

One thing that the recaps do not cover is that I was under some pressure on a couple of occasions to bring PostGIS (and to a lesser degree uDig) to the Foundation right away. I recognize that PostGIS is considered a core piece of the open source GIS product stack right now, and that is what is generating the pressure – the desire to have all the “big guns” under the Foundation roof right away. But we have spent a lot of effort to get PostGIS to where it is, and I am not inclined to jump into the Foundation without giving a good deal of thought about the benefits and risks.

As I talked about a couple months ago, our open source work is a company calling card with respect to our abilities: our abilities with the products we make; and our abilities in general. Our projects let potential clients understand the quality of our work and and our enthusiasm, even if they have never met us or even heard of us before: the projects are tangible proof that we are a good company. If we move our projects into the Foundation, the direct link between the projects and ourselves gets severed. Now they are Foundation projects, not Refractions projects, and the “halo” effect is somewhat diminished. Sure, smart folks who read the email lists or the commit logs will figure out that we are doing the work, but that is a long ways from the current fairly obvious linkages between the projects and the company.

The flip side is that taking the projects away from the (one, smallish) company and into the Foundation (with Big Important Companies as funders and backers) adds a new halo of legitimacy to the projects themselves. And therein lies the calculation. Does making the projects look better help us enough to offset the loss of direct project/company linkage?

I do not know.

One of the things I will be doing is talking to people who have some distance from the whole issue, and see how they perceive both ourselves, our projects, and the foundation. I certainly do not have enough distance from the issues to have an undistorted view of the issue, and neither do the people in Chicago who wanted us to join right away. So it will take some time and some thought.

Strangely, it seemed that we were the only organization with this particular quandry. Autodesk actually wants to break the linkage between their open source project and their company. Most of the other projects are classic multi-individual projects that came into being without corporate gestation. One exception is ka-map, which was gestated by DM Solutions, and will eventually put them into the same should we/shouldn’t we cycle as I am in now. But ka-map is still a new project, so people were not pressuring them to jump into the pool right out of the gate.