Saturday, October 17, 2009

Open Source GIS Clients

I have had a number of companies recently approach me about open source GIS options. This has something to do with my recently published articles. One interesting area has been an investigation into Flex GIS clients. Openlayers is the premier Web 2.0 GIS client; well supported, a rich library filled with an array of functionality .. but written in Javascript. Now I have nothing against Javascript, its free, has a big community behind it and runs in the browser. But I'm a Flex developer. I prefer it because .. it has an excellent IDE which makes for easy debugging, developing sophisticated interactive application is both quick and easy, applications run the same in all browsers, actionscript is object oriented. Actionscript is just nicer and easier to work with .. in my view.

So enough. Anybody who argues against these opinions I would not oppose. Its just how I feel about it. Anyway, the whole Flex GIS open source client issue. I have worked with Modest Maps for sometime now to develop mostly consumer maps. Stop right there! Consumer maps? The world of online maps remains somewhat split. GIS maps and consumer maps. Consumer maps I define as the use of basemaps - tiles which are derived from satellite images or vector road maps for example - to build mash ups; video, imagery, text using, often, the addition of map markers for access (or clickable icons geospatially placed on the map). Here is a simple example. Google, Yahoo, Bing, mapquest offer largely API's for developing consumer maps.

So what are online GIS maps. A simple question? Well maybe. GIS has moved from the desktop to the Web. It was very much a niche market. Geography type nerds generating applications and analyses in large part for government (a generalisation but close to reality). The frustration for GIS vendors was how do they broaden the market. ESRI and the other key private vendors struggled to sell into the enterprise. They still do in fact.

Suddenly google maps arrived on the scene. It shook the mapping industry to its core. Internet maps were everywhere. Its worth noting that Mapquest preceded Google, but the fanfare (and $) waited for Googles arrival. Suddenly the other GIS vendors needed to react. ESRI produced rival online products. But with a GIS twist.

So here we are today. A plethora of consumer map APIs. And ESRI sitting in a somewhat awkward position offering free API's hooking easily into their own server product(s) ArcGIS (not so easily into other providers). Offering consumer and GIS API functionality. With a focus to sell their complete stack to those interested. Their purpose is to make money.

So how about those of us wanting to build online GIS maps, but avoid the high cost of the private vendor solutions? The open source GIS stack is very mature. But how about Flex clients?

I've spent some time looking at the options. Base requirements include:

- Rendering both WFS and WMS in combination
- Overlays of these services on various basemaps
- Drawing tools for line point and polygons
- Identify functionality

I looked at both Modest Maps and OpenScales. Though not its focus there has been some work done on Modest Maps toward some level of interaction with spatial servers. I added a WMS layer at:

Note, I had to make some tweeks to the WMS provider, provided with the library.

Openscales is less mature. But very impressive for how long development has been underway. I built the following map application:

It supplies much of the base functionality I was looking to include. WMS is proving a little challenging (but i suspect a style tag is mssing from the tile request) and the map interaction is not a smooth as Modest maps. Only openstreetmap is provided, but I am looking to port code from Modest maps to add this functionality.

Ultimately Flex should simply be rendering the points, lines, and polygons supplied by the server.

I am interested to see how easy it might be to port from one library to the other. Either way, Openscales is a very interesting project. One well worth supporting.


Anonymous said...

Online GIS maps are, IMHO, tiled basemaps overlaid with the results of real-time analysis. You do a geo-processing task on the server and get a resultant geometry. You render this geometry in the client side and then allow further analysis tasks. A typical example will be a drive-time calculation. Other examples are creating thematics, view shed analysis etc.

In a nutshell, you let the server do the heavy lifting but use the wonderful capabilities of Flex to render the results interactively in the client.

Anonymous said...

Your feedback on this will be appreciated.

Gilbert said...

I am developing an application and I was looking originally at ModestMaps.
I have a shapefiles of a city broken on arbitrary subdivisons, to use on my app.

I would like to know if it makes sense to try to use OpenScales instead (what do you think?), but I don't know how to use the shapefiles in there, or how to convert the shapefiles to WFS.

Any suggestions or pointers will be appreciated.