The GRASS is greener on the open source side

A group of users based in Ottawa is creating a forum to discuss the use of open source geographic information systems software in academia and beyond.

The Ottawa GRASS Users’ Group (OGUG) is just getting started, but its

founders say it has already attracted a mix of representatives from both the public and the private sector. GRASS refers to the Geographic Resources Analysis Support System, a geographic information system (GIS) tool used for data management, image processing, graphics production, spatial modelling, and visualization of many types of data. Like the Linux operating system and other open source software GRASS is available under the GNU General Public Licence.

GRASS was originally developed by a branch of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to manage land and plan environmental strategies in the 1980s. Once other GIS applications became commercially available, however, development stagnated, according to Carleton University professor and OGUG member Scott Mitchell. The advent of open source programming has reinvigorated GRASS, Mitchell said, encouraging more collaboration among users and developers to contribute to the code and get bugs out.

“We want more of the wider community know what GRASS is and what it might do,” said Mitchell, who works in Carleton’s Geography and Environmental Studies department. “It’s great for what I do, but that’s a narrow subset of what it might do.”

Dave Sampson, a GIS technician at the Centre for Sustainable Watersheds (CSW) in Portland, Ont., and the founder of OGUG, said he was inspired to find other GRASS users after attending Open Source Geospatial 2005, a conference hosted by the University of Minnesota that was held in Minneapolis earlier this year. CSW is already a complete open source organization, with Linux running on workstations, OpenOffice used on desktop and Bugzilla for managing viruses.

The only problem with GRASS, Sampson said, is that it has sometimes been more difficult to use than proprietary GIS and mapping tools. With ArcView or AutoDesk, for example, “it’s all click, point, drag, imput your data and it’s good to go. In open source, it’s only now that we’re starting to push the graphical front end,” he said.

“GRASS has a lot of power in the background, creating coverages and layers. GRASS is now being combined with a project called Quantum GIS, or QGIS. And QGIS is becoming like the front-end for GRASS.”

Still in a 0.7 release, QGIS is able to call upon the GRASS libraries to display images that users produced in GRASS. Online mapping applications can then view the most recent coverage. “That’s one of the big links,” Sampson said. “If you think about ArcGIS with IMS, their big claim to fame is you can produce a map and have it published to the user. Now you can do that in raster format using GRASS.”

Mitchell said he primarily uses GRASS to study the interface between environmental models across a landscape, examining patterns in vegetation growth. Managing simulations of landscapes this way may allow researchers to predict how ecosystems evolve, he said.

“Part of the purpose of this group is understanding where people are using it,” he said. “I was the only faculty member at that first meeting. We’ve had people from consulting, from government and that I think is the promise of getting these meetings going.”

OGUG has a mailing list to which interested parties can subscribe to for more information.

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