Is this the future for LA mapsites? I hope not! 10

GIS Professional landed on my desk recently. The cover image and lead article caught my attention “Is this the future for LA mapsites?” Barrow Borough Council have implemented an open source web GIS and the author explains the reasons why they went down this route in preference to a proprietary solution or using Google.

Apparently the reasons for building a home grown solution on an open source stack were affordability and an improved web experience for the public. Google was rejected because of derived data issues (which may have at least partly gone away after April 1st) and the fact that you have to pay a license fee for use behind the firewall, oh yes and because BBC (not the Beeb) did not want to rely on a 3rd party service that might change in the future.

You might be wondering what bothered me about this? Open source, improved user experiences – sounds good. Well my reservations are certainly not with the use of an open source stack for a corporate GIS but the idea that Google is the only alternative to in house development for public facing apps is very disappointing. What about OpenStreetMap or even Bing which both met the Ordnance Survey’s derived data requirements and in at least one case are completely free?

Perhaps the most disappointing quote for me was

“After only a few months of effort we have a service that meets most of our immediate requirements … we have achieved this without paying any new license fees and without incurring any extra expense”

Clearly a “few months effort” does not cost anything in Barrow!

There is always cost, open source is not free it needs skills and resources to support an implementation in just the same way that a proprietary solution does. And what happens when the talented individual who drove the adoption and development of this solution moves on? Cost and control may be slightly more challenging.

I thought I would take a quick look at an example of the “improved web experience for external users” and I found this

I will leave it to you to decide how successful BBC have been to date with this initiative. But to be fair to them they did also say

“Styling of web pages also needs practice. Earlier versions were very ugly!”

No doubt this was a very very early version.

I hope this is not the future of public facing mapping on local authority web sites, I really do believe that their are affordable and sustainable options that will engage and inform users reagrdless of whether they are built on Google, OpenStreetMap, Bing or an open source stack.

But on the other hand BBC should be commended for giving open source a try and sharing their experiences.

10 thoughts on “Is this the future for LA mapsites? I hope not!

  • Robin Gawlik

    No not unfair it is hard work getting links on the front page, currently it is on the right had side under quick links of the home page. I will try again and get a more prominent location.

    We have two versions of the same setup running the one you are seeing is for external consumption, but uses same data as internal.

    The internal version has extra features such as printing, editing using WFS-T, reporting etc added. Also some data which we cannot currently give the public access to. I am looking to enable printing externally with OS open data and OS streetmap as soon as I can confirm a few licence issues with derived data.

    I don’t disagree with you on cost, and I wouldn’t expect others to do unpaid work not everyone is that stupid or enthusiastic. As in most small local authorities we are already expected to undertake several jobs that are quite often carried out by individuals in larger authorities. So what is one more in the pot ?. However one of our main drivers was that we had no funding to implement an internal web mapping system. What we have done has not cost this authority any more monies than are currently being spent on GI and have actually reduced our costs. I also think that what we have undertaken would not be suitable for everyone and proprietary solutions are often better for some authorities.

  • steven


    Thanks for your comments

    We will have to agree to disagree on cost. I imagine the council pays you, therefore your time has a cost, if you were not implementing a webGIS solution you would be doing something else useful. I commend your commitment in doing some of the work in your own time but I doubt you are suggesting unpaid overtime is the way forward for all local authorities.

    I went to the Barrow home page, there is no link to interactive maps only to some pdf’s so I searched the site for “maps” and the local attractions page was the first result returned. Surely not unfair?

    Your webGIS link shows a neat and comprehensive browser based map viewer with quite a few data layers, is this intended for public use or internal?


  • Robin Gawlik

    I would just like to make a few comments about this blog and what I feel are some misrepresentations of the facts

    “Clearly a “few months effort” does not cost anything in Barrow!”

    In fact it didnt as the vast majority of the work was done in my own time and unpaid.

    I thought I would take a quick look at an example of the “improved web experience for external users” and I found this

    You decided to pick one of the inline pages rather than the main web mapping solution I noticed, which I feel was rather unfair. The whole solution as mentioned in the article is still in development can can be found at the link below.

  • blabyboy

    hi steven,
    I wonder if ‘professional open source’ can actually do what you say. There can be only one primary driver on a project (budget, time, scope) and not three – the other two will always be subject to compromise to achieve the primary driver. It would’ve been good to know which was the primary driver.

    I would *guess* that most LGA’s likely have budget as the primary driver, therefore the other two take a lower priority. It may also be that the lead developer / OSS proponent is more of an agile evangelist than a standard big corp. waterfall gantt chart type person, so they can afford to give a developer some time to get up to speed on software libraries they need to use – they may ‘offset’ this time in their heads against the money saved from licensing, consultancy fees.

    As a devil’s advocate against Gary’s criticism’s, I think that perhaps the LGA would never have covered all the immediate requirements as the project manager was most likely in-experienced as well – the developer may have had this role as well 🙂

    I think there is a tendency in LGA / the public sector to try and achieve everything in the first phase, instead of trying a small subset and then seeing how things should be progressed. There is an inherent fear in the public sector / LGA’s of any project being seen as a failure. They really need to take a leaf from the private sector in embracing this.

    my 2p.

  • Archaeogeek

    While I think that their final implementation (as per your example) is, umm, unfortunate, I have seen plenty of ugly proprietary examples- that also took months of effort, and incurred a huge license fee on top of that!

    Furthermore, unless building a web gis in one of these alternative packages is so trivial that anyone could do it with no training or hand-over, why should it be any different whether the package was open source or not when it comes to the lead developer leaving?

    • steven

      You are absolutely right that you can get ugly implementations whether you are going down the proprietary route or not. You can also get cost over runs with open or proprietary if you do the development in house or even outsource.
      I guess my point is more about the idea of doing things in house and “learning on the job” – quite often it does not deliver on time, to spec or budget and perhaps getting someone who is an “expert” to do the work may work out a lot cheaper and with better outcomes. After all that is why people employ “professional open source” companies.

  • Gary Gale

    Actually, that quote is even more disappointing than your reading of it …

    “After only a few months of effort we have a service that meets most of our immediate requirements … we have achieved this without paying any new license fees and without incurring any extra expense”

    … or in other words:

    “after funding a few months of effort we have something that doesn’t meet the original requirements, doesn’t provide all immediate requirements and therefore has no capacity or increase in scope inbuilt but we’ll ignore the few months of effort, focus on lack of license fees and call this a win”.

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