There is no such thing as a free lunch 11

There is no such thing as a free lunch, someone else is paying

This might be a bit of a long and windy road type post, so bare with me as I try to work my way through this topic. If you are impatient, skip the intro and jump into the meat of it.

Go back 4 years and I wrote a post called “Cocktails on the Titanic” based on a couple of talks I had given about future business models within the geo space. I said

“Open Source software is increasingly recognised as a cost effective alternative to proprietary software, particularly for web mapping applications where the functionality is quite well established and becoming commoditised through open standards interfaces. Open Source is not free but it is potentially a very cost effective alternative to traditional license models, particularly if hosted in the cloud”

That post prompted some quite robust comments from a couple of friends particular about the apparent deception that open source is free (their views not mine) when of course it is not. Things have moved on and I have participated in dozens of sales engagements where the value proposition for open source based solutions has won out against proprietary software models with a combination of performance, features, flexibility, scalability and of course lower cost of ownership (no it is not free). There really aren’t many occasions when you need to defend or justify the use of open source, it’s rarely a factor in the decision making process. In public sector where I spend a lot of my time open source (and open standards) is actually the preferred approach if you follow the government’s ICT Strategy.

A couple of years ago I got into a discussion about the ‘Free’ in FOSS4G (that’s Free and Open Source Software for Geo) which lead to a post titled “Get the eff out of FOSS4G” which  worked through thoughts on “Free as in speech not beer” and “Freedom to ..”. I still think that ‘Free’ is a problem for the open source community because I think it encourages a misunderstanding of the open source business model and the ecosphere that creates and supports open source software. At FOSS4G in Nottingham last year I was blown away by our final keynote from Paul Ramsey entitled “Being an Open Source Citizen”, if you are interested in how the open source ecosphere works this is a great presentation (re-presented and recorded after FOSS4G) so get yourself a coffee or a beer (depending on the time of day), sit back and listen to Paul for 20 minutes.

You’re back? Enjoy that? Remember what Paul said? This is a win-win ecosphere.

“It’s all about me”

Open source isn’t solely an altruistic movement of volunteers, it has a business model that supports thousands of developers and service delivery people around the world. It’s a win-win model, win for the user or customer, win for the developers of the projects and win for the people who deliver services and help to make it all happen.

“You get what you pay for, everyone gets what you pay for, you get what everyone pays for”

This sums up the community element of the open source ecosphere and also how user organisations can influence future developments by sponsoring features which everyone else will benefit from

“Using  is not the same as supporting, an organisation supports open source with time or money”

If you have been wondering where this post was going, stop wondering, we’ve got there – this is the important bit. If your organisation (or you as an individual) get benefit from open source software how are you going to contribute and support the community that creates and maintains that software? Or don’t you think about it? I suspect many organisations that make use of open source software are supportive of the idea but somehow neglect or don’t know how to support the projects that deliver benefits and savings to their businesses.

So I thought “wouldn’t it be a good idea to have a User Charter or Guide to Best practice for Users?” I asked on the OSGeo lists if anyone knew of something that user organisations could be pointed at, and I drew a blank, so what follows is my first shot at a draft of ‘Good practice for organisations using OSGeo software” Since this is a personal project that hasn’t been endorsed or supported by the OSGeo community I have posted it here to kick the discussion off and hopefully people will suggest improvements to a point where possibly the OSGeo community adopts it and we move it to the OSGeo wiki.

Good practice for organisations using OSGeo software

If your organisation has decided to make use of OSGeo open source geospatial software you will already appreciate the product capabilities, flexibility, support for open standards and cost savings that open source software delivers but have you considered how your organisation can contribute to the community that builds and supports the software that you are using? The open source ecosphere of companies, individual developers and volunteers needs to be fed, supported and encouraged, if your organisation benefits from using open source software then here are a few ways that you can put something back and keep those developers and businesses creating the software that you use.

It’s called sustainability, it won’t work if you rely on someone else doing it.

How much should we be contributing?

When you made the decision to use open source software you probably identified potential financial benefits from savings on licensing, implementation and ongoing support costs. How about setting a small percentage of those savings as a target for contributions back to the community that supports your organisation? 10% of your savings (calculated on the most cautious basis you wish) would be great but if that is too much set a percentage that you are comfortable with. [I can imagine this suggestion prompting some controversy but I think we need a starting point]

Your contribution could be a cash contribution or it could be volunteering your staff time to one of the projects or a combination of both.

Hard cash

Here are a few ways to contribute financially to the OSGeo projects and community:

  1. Every little bit helps. Image from

    Make a donation to an OSGeo project, they are all linked to from the OSGeo home page

  2. Sponsor a feature that your organisation needs – remember “You get what you pay for, everyone gets what you pay for, you get what everyone pays for”
  3. Sponsor the OSGeo Foundation (there’s a button on the web site) and let them work out how to use your donation
  4. Sponsor an OSGeo event. FOSS4G’s whether they are the big international event or smaller regional and national events all rely on sponsorship to make attendance affordable for developers, volunteers and students
  5. Sponsor your local OSGeo chapter


Thx to Alan Cleaver

A community needs more than hard cash (a;though that is very useful) it needs participants and contributors.

Do you have the technical skills in house to make contributions to the codebase of one of the projects? If so why not allow your staff to get involved during working time or even to be seconded to a project to gel develop some capabilities that you need. If you don’t have the skills in house to write code, could you offer some of your staff time and skills to help with documentation and translation or work on a publicity group or conference organising team? There are loads of ways to get involved that don’t require code skills. You will almost certainly find that there are fringe benefits in terms of skills development and staff engagement from encouraging your staff to get involved with OSGeo.

Keep a record of the time that your staff contribute to OSGeo and tally it against your ‘10% of savings’ target but do use a fair rate to value your staff time.



It costs nothing to give a little bit of acknowledgement to the open source projects and community that are supporting your organisation, here are a couple of suggestions:

  1. If you have a web map or spatial data output on your web site you could could include some form of acknowledgement of the projects that helped you to deliver the project. If there are several projects that you have used you could link to a page on your site that details the open source technologies that your organisation uses (not just the geospatial ones) or you could link to the OSGeo web page
  2. Publish an annual open source usage report. Set out your organisation’s open source policy, take time to audit your usage of open source and the benefits and savings that it has delivered, acknowledge the projects that you have used and list the contributions, financial and time, that you have made in the past year.

Once you have done that, why not commit yourself to reaching out to other potential users to share your experiences through case studies and by speaking at events?


If your organisation uses a services company to implement, customise or support open source software then you might want to ask what they are doing to contribute to the open source ecosphere?

  • Do they donate a percentage of their revenues to sponsor open source projects or the OSGeo Foundation?
  • Do they contribute code to any of the projects?
  • Do they sponsor functionality which everyone benefits from?
  • Do they support their staff in volunteering within projects, events and groups?

In other words, are the consultants that you are using to implement open source solutions following this ‘Good practice’?

Something else?

I am sure there are other ways of contributing to the open source community that I have missed off this short list, use the comments below to offer your suggestions.

Let me know if you think that this good practice guide would be useful or if it’s a waste of time.

The end of free lunches

Hopefully this first stab at a good practice guide for users will help to convince users of open source software to contribute time and money to the community that creates and supports the open source software that they benefit from. Don’t leave it to someone else to fund that feature you need or to fix a bug, step up and contribute.

11 thoughts on “There is no such thing as a free lunch

  • blair freebairn

    oh I forgot… the answer to the question up thread about the pitch to the CFO is enlightened self-interest.

    One simple but compelling example I like is home delivery.

    Failed deliveries are the No. 1 pain for customer, carrier and vendor alike. A single failed home grocery delivery can wipe out an entire day’s profit for a van, lead to huge waste (perishables have to be junked), absolutely ruin a customers day (kids party etc).

    All delivery co’s therefore track and record thinks like access points, delivery problems, location of door(bell), parking restrictions etc. These are maintained to help them save money and deliver a better service. Now if all delivery co’s shared that data via OAF…:-)

    All customers, carriers, vendors reap all the communal benefits, the classic you pay, you get benefit … everyone gets benefit Steven mentions in the post.

    The beauty of this system is that there is a natural fairness to it. The biggest contributors to the raw data will be the very same people who get the most benefit from it. No free loaders. A single local delivery co only puts in a little bit of data, but then she/he only uses a little bit. Perfect symmetry.

  • blair freebairn

    Another way of giving back would be to champion your company making some of its data open. For example a council could make it’s planning data open, a retailer could publish all it’s store locations and attributes, a telco could release spatially aggregated call trace data, utilities could publish energy/water use per hhd at OA, insurers have property age (needed for rebuild costs), banks have … well pretty much everything :-)….

    I’m hoping OAF might, over time, grow into the central clearing house of such ‘giving back’.

  • Steve Campbell

    Great article, this good practice guide is well worth it. It’s kind of like the countryside code for Open Source – keep the community how you would like to find it.

    I am looking at ways in which our organisation can contribute back now we’re moving to QGIS and GeoServer. Cash unfortunately isn’t an option as every time I make a saving in licences it gets taken away from me by management higher up, but offering the time of my staff is definitely an option. I have thought of another way that time can be offered – in helping identify bugs in new releases. We haven’t got the coding skills, but we can easily install the beta versions and flag up any errors we find in the applications we use, and this is of great help to us as users and to the quality of the released product for all users.

    • steven

      If your management are scooping up all of your license savings without leaving a small proportion of the savings to contribute to the sustainability of the community then having a good practice guide may be a useful resource for internal education.

  • Cameron Shorter

    Hi Steven,
    I love your article and think it is a good basis we can build from, but …

    the article misses an Inconvenient Truth.

    Open Source gives away free lunches (in the context referenced by this article). More accurately, Open Source provides a better quality lunch, which is better value than proprietary equivalents, and you only need to tip the cooks if you are feeling generous.

    Ie, organisations can, and do, enjoy the benefits of Open Source without giving back to the community.

    In order to become effective at raising money for Open Source, we need to provide business arguments for Chief Financial Officers which explains why spending money on Open Source gives strategic advantages beyond just being a user of Open Source.

    Such arguments can be made, but they require more thought and explanation than this limited response.

    • steven


      Organisations can be encouraged to behave as ‘good open source citizens’ without there being a defined commercial advantage over those who do not, you could consider it in the same light as the move towards a Corporate Social Responsibility agenda or environmental best practice both of which have gained acceptance in the corporate world. In the case of the public sector (which I believe are the largest users of OSGeo software) the call for self interested support is already proving to be successful e.g. support for FOSS4G 2013, but there is a lot more that could be done by having some clearly defined guidelines for user organisations.

      I wanted to start a discussion, I didn’t expect my very simple first stab at best practice to be anything more than a straw man.


      • Duarte

        Hi there Steven.

        I caught your email on the osgeo’s list. That got me thinking and haven’t stopped… that’s probably why I did not reply 😉 Your post and Paul’s presentation are great food for thought.

        I feel this is a “thing” where osgeo could really play its role and benefit all its projects and others of same nature. It is one of those things I see like an umbrella project for the whole community.

        Also it is painfully missed be all the gis managers going the open source way that lack the arguments to win a budget for the open source products they use. I know many that want to contribute but really, really don’t see how to overcome the formality of a budget process. At least in my country, donating for the sake of it is not doable. It is kind of ironic, but proposing to spend a % of savings to the item that allows that saving is perceived as optional. So, at this time and in the perceivable future, financially it is a no brainer: if it’s optional don’t spend it. That’s where that eff goes bad…

        So we really need those guidelines, a standard that we can refer to. Sustainability is a good word for it. But this standard must build a very good case with specific wins and consequences. There are many such best practices, maybe some can be a starting point.

        • steven

          Hi Duarte
          Seems that a few people have picked up on the ‘sustainability’ bit. Maybe that is something that needs expanding into the preamble as to why user organisations should follow the Good Practice Guide

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