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A Growing Geo Community: FOSS4G-NA 2019 Wrap-Up

By Coleman McCormick
April 23, 2019

I just arrived back home in St. Pete after an awesome and productive week in San Diego for this year’s FOSS4G-NA conference. It’s North America’s version of the go-to event for those of us at the intersection of geospatial and open source. OSGeo and the local organizing committee hosted it at the Marina Village Conference Center in Mission Bay. Overall the event was a phenomenal week full of great content, new (and old) friends, time with customers and partners, and a chance to see what’s next in the industry.

Here are my takeaways — a quick overview of the event and setup, some content spotlights, and final thoughts to try and convince you that FOSS4G conferences are always worth the effort.

Marina Village FOSS4G

Setup & Structure

The Marina Village area doesn’t give off “conference venue” vibes. Rather than being a large closed-in convention center or a hotel event space, it’s a spot that capitalizes on the best of the fabled San Diego spring weather. It’s a collection of buildings adjacent to the marina, some used for presentations, co-working spaces, sponsor hall, and social events. Who wants to be inside a windowless conference facility when it’s 65° and sunny outside?

In between sessions you could browse the sponsor hall, get some of the snacks and coffee the crew provided, or hang out and catch up with people while sitting right on the water with a marina-front view.

On Monday there was a “B2B / Government” theme day with slots for a dozen or so lightning talks on various projects with specific relevance to business or government application. It was a good chance to break the ice with folks, and was punctuated by MC Eddie Pickle of Radiant Solutions hosting a “speed networking” hour where everyone went round-robin style around the room with a chance to get dozens of introductions in a short time early in the conference.

The main conference took place on Tuesday and Wednesday. One building was devoted to 4 or 5 concurrent tracks with smaller rooms, and there was another larger space for the keynote talks in the morning and afternoon. Everything was close by, so jumping between rooms each half hour wasn’t bad at all, and the spacing for sessions I sat in on wasn’t bad. Only a couple were high-demand “standing room only” capacity.


As always there was a broad stable of talks from varied aspects of the community. A major difference I noticed after a few years off from FOSS4G events is the increase in non-technical sessions. The organizing committees over the last few years have made a concerted effort to include a more diverse swath of topics, and it’s bearing fruit.

Here were some of my favorites throughout the week:

  • Creating and Maintaining Open Source in Government, Josh Sisskind & Clarisse Abalos of Radiant — This was a good overview of Radiant’s work on the Hootenanny project, an open source conflation tool built for NGA. It’s built on top of the iD editor for OpenStreetMap, so much of this talk covered their experience managing an advanced fork of another project, what it’s like to do open source development for federal government customers, and how they manage pull requests to contribute back to the core codebase. An interesting talk giving some insight into what government is doing to leverage open source and contribute back to the community.
  • The Future of Foundation GEOINT, Eddie Pickle & Carter Christopher, Radiant & NGA — This keynote was a conversational session about what government is doing to be more agile and open in how they approach mapping for “foundation” data (a broad term covering all things that’d appear on a typical basemap). Historically the US government produced nearly all maps internally, dating back to the days of the USGS and DMA, with cartographers making maps from surveys and eventually imagery analysis and digitizing. This has shifted now to the government leaning heavily on commercial data licensing, open data sources (like OpenStreetMap), and collaborative engagement with the community for a huge quantity of foundational map data. As a consultant working on government programs, Eddie brought perspective on the topic as someone who’s worked with NGA dating back years, seeing the evolution of the approach to a more open and agile model.
Carter and Eddie on GEOINT
  • Finding Geo Fame and Spatial Fortune (Starting a Podcast), Todd Barr of SolSpec — Todd and Silas Toms started doing the Mappyist Hour podcast a while back and this talk was to convince the rest of us to jump in the pool and do one, too. In typical hilarious style, Todd gave the backstory about how they came to do a podcast, how they organize and put it together, and what the overall response has been so far. Podcasting is now my main source of staying current on many topics, so I’m glad to see one for geo subject matter taking off. He also had a nice nod to our own James and Bill’s podcast.
  • Mago3D: Open Source Digital Twins, Sangee Shin of Gaia3D — BIM and “digital twin” technology is something I haven’t followed that closely, so this was a good chance to see what’s happening in that realm. Gaia3D has been doing some interesting things with Samsung Shipping and other large industrial facilities to see all of their BIM data in 3D, in a browser.
  • PDAL Project Status, Michael Smith of US Army Corps of Engineers — PDAL is a library for working with point cloud data, in the same way that GDAL was built to handle vector and raster data. Just like how GDAL has built in programs for transformation and projection of its supported data types, PDAL has similar functions for merging, splitting, and converting point cloud data, optimized for working with those enormous datasets.
  • Pelias Geocoder, Julian Simioni of geocode.earth — Pelias is a geocoder project that originated with now-defunct Mapzen. This is such a fantastic example of the value of open source — even though Mapzen shut down in 2017, Pelias is going strong under its own project community leadership and the Linux Foundation. Geocoders are some of the hardest technical problems to solve in geo, since it takes mature software to resolve locations quickly based on messy inputs and source data. Plus they rely on rich datasources underneath to produce reliable results. Pelias can work with OpenStreetMap, OpenAddresses, Who’s on First, GeoNames, or your own custom datasources. It’s great to see a project like this flourishing.
  • EventKit, Josh Campbell of Sandhill Geo — EventKit is a project built for data consumers and analysts to be able to process and package data across many different datasources into a usable bundle. It was cool to see more under the hood of what EventKit can do.
  • Serverless Spatial, David Bitner of SolSpec — In the new cloud-based world of AWS and Azure, “serverless” tech has become a confusing buzzword for most of us. David’s talk helped to clear up what exactly being “serverless” means, and how you can apply that stack of technologies to geoprocessing tasks. With AWS Lambda functions, you can call compute resources on-request, versus having standing “always on” servers available to run tasks. Interesting and powerful stuff.
  • “State of” Talks — As always at FOSS4G, it’s a great time to get caught up on the latest developments with a variety of open source projects. There were talks on the current state of GeoTrellis, JAI, GeoServer, QGIS, GeoNode, and more. If you’re a user of any projects, it’s an excellent opportunity to hear directly from the core developers on what’s new and what’s coming in future releases.

Of course this is only a highlight reel of stuff that I got to see. There were dozens of other great talks on all sorts of other community efforts and projects. One of the perennial challenges as a FOSS4G attendee is the surfeit of interesting sessions you have to pick from. As Gretchen said on her blog, you need some clones so you can absorb more stuff!

‍People (the best part)

The geo community has an active Twitter presence (just check in on the #gistribe or #gischat hashtags to get a sense of the weekly conversation). Someone on Tuesday afternoon proposed a “tweet up” for Wednesday, which we did. Twitter’s been a great platform for asynchronous coordination and getting/staying connected with folks from all over the world. This year I had a chance to meet dozens of new people and also catch up with even more old friends to hear what everyone’s been working on in recent months and years.

The key to getting the most out of a FOSS4G is the people. I haven’t attended one since 2013, but each one I’ve been to proves this out. The connections I’ve made at past events have been incredibly rewarding and lucrative over the past 8 years. I tell everyone thinking about going that to get the most out of it, you should be an active participant in the community. Sure the sessions are great content, but forming human relationships and expanding your network is the overarching goal. Such a positive, energetic crowd to spend time with!

I want to extend a huge thank you to the organizing team, sponsors, and Jeff Johnson in particular for quarterbacking such a great rendition of FOSS4G. Planning events is an enormous undertaking, and they pulled off an excellent one.