Mapping has been entering a technology explosion. There have never been more amazing open source solutions at our fingertips, nor have they been so accessible to non-tech people. I worked for 9 years at a university, exposed to the best proprietary software packages. It was fun. It was included in my job. I loved my toys!
When I started a business on my own, I had hard choices to make on how to spend my very precious dollars. No more virtually unlimited tools at my fingertips. I had to consider open source alternatives. Keep in mind that the majority of my clients don’t care how I do my magic, as long as the magic gets done, and on time. Ultimately I decided to pull out my wallet and spend my money on what worked best for me. Why? I discovered quickly that open source is not free.
At least not according to my currency.
I am a female business owner. I have a family. I like to sleep, and I like to take time off occasionally. I like to knit in the evenings, and I’m currently re-watching the 6th Season of Doctor Who. Making time for all these things is hard. Time is almost as scarce of a currency as dollars. I’m guessing you might feel the same way. If you are my client I know you feel the same way. You want your work done, by any magic possible, and on time, so you can go home at some point at night and pretend to do something else (like knit) while you’re thinking about how to move forward (or perhaps considering time travel). This is the world of small business, and the people who run it. We are looking for a sonic screwdriver that will do ALL THE THINGS, and leap us into the future while we’re at it.
So why isn’t Open Source GIS my sonic screwdriver?
Open Source is Rarely Intuitive
It takes a village to create an Open Source GIS. It takes yet another village to write multitudinous add-ons and plug-ins. This form of authorship makes it hard to figure things out as the user. There is a great deal of reading the directions as opposed to following your intuition. When you install a new tool, it’s hard to even say where it will appear. Is there a new button? Is there a new menu? Is there a new sub-menu…? Figuring these things out takes a bit of time.
Open Source Has Bugs
Although efforts are made to severely limit software bugs, they happen even after beta testing. This is where the user spends time in forums and blogs and GIS Stackexchange learning about causes and workarounds. There is no help desk for the plug-in that fails to work as advertised. If you’re desperate you email the creator and hope they answer. You meet new friends online and you trade code like gold nuggets. And honestly I think that this is one of the places where open source shines to many GIS users – a community who loves what they are doing.
BUT… People like me have a burning desire to conceptually break boundaries, and to do amazing things for my clients (magically and on time). When the tool gets in the way of either of those goals, I tend to grind my teeth and pull out my wallet. I don’t get gratification in being a member of a community who collaboratively codes. It’s just not me.
Open Source Has a Fabulous Community
Concepts are my thing. I love going to conferences and my brain exploding from the questions people are asking and the ideas they are raising about place and space. To take it further, I don’t go to conferences any more where I am not participating through presenting. Community doesn’t sit back and watch.
Along the same lines, open source is fun for the participators. They are building something together. Everything is out in the open. There is nothing that can’t be customized. Tools are becoming available that are sleek and powerful. Proprietary GIS packages are leveraging these technologies in their own tools because amazing things are happening. At the moment, open source is the messy and exciting front lines of GIS technology.
ArcGIS is My Sonic Screwdriver
But me? I want to understand the world like no one else ever has. I want to explore, and explorers take the best tools with them. Tools that have been excessively vetted in the field, and who come with a help desk when they don’t work as advertised. Explorers push their tools to their limits. There is a destination you are trying to reach, and you have a limited amount of time to get there. I push boundaries, while promising a rapid turnaround. I absolutely have to trust my toolbox. It has to be my container full of possibilities. No bugs allowed.
This is why I pay for ESRI’s ArcGIS. For what I do, it pays itself back repeatedly. It’s not as expensive as you think, especially when you consider what you are getting for your money, and saving on your time. There are very likely thousands of pages of resources on every topic, and they are now offering a variety of complimentary training modules to their users.
Periodically I look at how much fun my open source friends seem to be having. I crack open the tools give it another try. After all, maybe I’m wrong! But after spending double the time on a few things, I go back. Because at the end of the day, I just love an intuitive tool that lets me walk away from the computer and pick up the knitting.
That’s why ArcGIS Basic is my workhorse – my sonic screwdriver.
Free is Relative
It is undeniable that downloading open source costs you nothing, and downloading ESRI’s ArcGIS starts at $1,500. But when you consider training and time spent working through bugs, the initial price tag can be a false comparison.
I think it comes down to how you like and choose to spend time. If being a part of the open source community is fun for you. If you wrote off Microsoft decades ago and speak in Linux. If collaborative coding is something you like either in practice or as a concept – go for it! If you have zero budget in dollars but a healthy amount of time to spend working things out – go for it!
If GIS is a means to an end for you, and you don’t have time and effort to spare on the means, then you probably want to consider making an investment of dollars. I’m not saying that open source is never a good choice. But maybe not the choice you want to make while you are also pushing other boundaries in your field. Explorers have plenty to worry about already. Maybe you need that extra support from your technology.