Mapping a better world

The Economist, in its June 6th 2009 issue article “Mapping a better world,” discusses the role maps play in effecting social change.  They seem to miss, however, how open source tools directly influence this development.  Open source mapping is not about budgeting for the non-profit with limited resources.   Rather, it provides solutions that work for all kinds of mapmakers.

The article initially captures the democratizing power of mapping:

For most people [maps are] a handy tool to find a nearby pizzeria or get directions to a meeting. But mapping technology has matured into a tool for social justice…[N]on-profit groups and individuals around the world are finding that maps can help them make their case far more intuitively and effectively than speeches, policy papers of press releases.

On the subject of the mapping software landscape, however, the article is less enlightened.  After mentioning ESRI as “the market leader in mapping software,” the author adds, almost as an afterthought, “the rise of open-source projects such as MapServer, PostGIS, and GRASS GIS have made sophisticated mapping available to non-profit groups with limited resources.”

And here the article has fallen into the common assessment that open source software is merely a cheaper version of its proprietary brethren.  Organizations, regardless of size, or for-profit status, want geospatial tools that meet their needs.  To this end, cost is often a factor, but not always the most overriding one.  With access to code, open source mapmakers can build the solution that works best for them, rather than being forced to work around a given product.

Such openness has fundamentally changed the landscape of web mapping, even helping make projects featured in The Economist article possible.  The profiled Ushahidi, makers of crowd-sourcing social activism software, promises on their website to “make [our] mapping tool available globally for free.”

In this way, a diverse range of organizational models find open software well matched for their mission of social justice.  From the Obama Administration’s Delivery on Change initiative, an interactive account of citizen action for change, to SourceMap, a platform for visualizing product supply chains, to the MarineMap Decision Support Tool, a public forum for designating the use of marine environments, organizations are choosing open source tools not because of limited resources but because “open” means the best tool for the job.

At OpenGeo, we are committed to making open source mapping a seamless experience.  With such access and ease, any organization can take their vision of a better world and map it into reality.