What are you doing wasting your time with that little company?


A couple of months ago I was at an industry event in the UK with a colleague from Astun Technology (I’m a strategic adviser to the board at Astun and have been helping them to grow their business). We bumped into someone, let’s call him Mr X, who is a well known senior figure within the UK geoworld who on discovering that I was attending the event with Astun said something like “What are you doing wasting your time with that little company?” (I may have slightly paraphrased).

I was shocked, my colleague was greatly offended and unusually for me I was a bit lost for words, I think I mumbled something about enjoying being disruptive. I have been substantially pissed with Mr X (don’t bother speculating who she or he is as I won’t respond, anyway it doesn’t really matter for this piece) since then. Now that FOSS4G is over I think I am ready to answer that question.

FOSS4G - 3 days of Peace, Love and Maps

FOSS4G – 3 days of Peace, Love and Maps (with thanks to David King, https://www.flickr.com/photos/bootbearwdc/)

FOSS4G was an amazing experience for me, it was my first introduction to the global OSGeo community and as conference chair I was certainly thrown in at the deep end! I thought that I knew a bit about conference organisation having chaired 3 GeoCommunities but this was on a different scale, 189 presentations, 8 keynotes, 28 workshops, 2 parties an icebreaker and over 850 delegates. Here is some early comment on how successful the event was

I learnt a lot about the OSGeo world at FOSS4G, it helped to crystallise my thinking in several areas.

The software just gets better and better, for most commonly required tasks the software is way more than good enough and in many cases it is best of breed. Just look at the reviews coming through on QGIS 2.0, this is now a powerful open source alternative to the costly traditional products with a substantial core group of contributors who are working on it pretty much full time.

The open source business model is maturing and more people understand how enlightened self interest creates ever improving free software. Paul Ramsey jokingly said

or maybe that wasn’t a joke. Certainly the model that funds new features through major user contributions and investments is now delivering a fast pace of product development.

A few people from the traditional software model have questioned the support offered to FOSS4G by the Ordnance Survey and the Met Office but in conversations they were both very clear that their contributions back to the open source community were a fraction of the savings they were delivering through the use of open source software as opposed to paying license fees to vendors. Enlightened self interest.

My opening welcome touched on the topic of Free (as in beer or as in speech) and the need to move on from the illusion that because there is no license fee the software is free. Of course it is not free, open source people need to earn a living the same as any other software developers or consultants – they get paid for their time not for  legacy code that has already been paid for. The F in FOSS4G stands for Freedom, the freedom to deploy as you wish without constraint, the freedom to adapt or embed as you wish, the freedom to educate and to solve problems in the least advantaged parts of our world through the use of open source software and open data.

So what’s the community like? Community is a much abused word within the tech world, usually it means little more than a group of people with some common interest but with little personal connection or sense of care for each other. This is a community which seems to be creating lifelong bonds of friendship that span the globe, there is a strong sense of ethics that permeates the community and is evident to new comers. In addition the many businesses that have been built on open source foundations have fully bought into the values of the community and are active in supporting its activities, just look at the list of large and small sponsors at FOSS4G.

Is the open source community sustainable? I think Paul Ramsey sums it up well here

So far, my core theory of open source domination remains intact: while open source adoption may occasionally (or often) be slow, it’s an inexorably one-way process. Organizations increase their use of open source over time, but they rarely (ever?) decrease it.

My experience has been that every month another large user of proprietary geo software is saying “maybe we should be looking at open source” and once they try it on a small project, it is only a matter of time before usage will grow and become embedded within that organisation.
So back to Mr X (don’t ask) and why I am involved with Astun and Open Source.
  • Astun are not so little, they are growing by over 20% per annum, they employ some of the most talented people in the UK open source arena and they have a set of commercial and personal values that I admire and respect.
  • I don’t think I am wasting my time, I think I am part of a community that is changing the software business model for the better and that encourages creativity and openness.
  • Open source geo will help to make the power of geo more widely available in education, humanitarian relief and public administration, particularly in the less wealthy parts of the world. That’s pretty inspiring stuff when you get to my stage of life.

Yes Mr X, I enjoy being disruptive and maybe you should be worrying about how our disruption will impact your business model.  Jim Allchin, a VP at Microsoft, has some advice for you

My pic from Paul Ramsey’s slide

Mr X, I think we are gonna eat your lunch 🙂