GIS Monitor Aug 23, 2001


- Proprietary is Not a Dirty Word
- A New Consortium in the Making
- Mapping Cell Phone Dead-Spots

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The term “proprietary” has gotten a bad rap in the technical world in general, and in the GIS world in particular. It implies close-minded, greediness and to some, an attempt to rule the world. But are those implications fair?

I suggest they are not. According to the American Heritage dictionary, “proprietary” means: “exclusively owned; private: a proprietary hospital.” According to The Free Online Dictionary of Computing, it means, from a marketer: “superior; implies a product imbued with exclusive magic by the unmatched brilliance of the company's own hardware or software designers” and from hackers and users, “inferior; implies a product not conforming to open-systems standards, and thus one that puts the customer at the mercy of a vendor who can inflate service and upgrade charges after the initial sale has locked the customer in.” The Jargon File adds: “Since the coining of the term open source, many hackers have made a conscious effort to distinguish between `proprietary’ and `commercial’ software. It is possible for software to be commercial (that is, intended to make a profit for the producers) without being proprietary. The reverse is also possible, for example in binary-only freeware.”

So, is proprietary good or bad? Clearly, it depends on which side of the fence one stands. I was recently chastised for suggesting that ESRI’s software is proprietary. It certainly is, according to all of the definitions above. So are products from MapInfo, Intergraph, Smallworld, Microsoft, Adobe, Autodesk and so on. A week or so later, I noted the use of proprietary, meaning superior, in a press release: “Laser Technology, Inc. manufactures and markets laser-based speed and distance measuring instruments, which utilize proprietary technology developed by the Company.”

To add to the confusion, many GIS companies like to call themselves “open.” What does that mean? According to Webopedia, in the computer industry, “open” is the opposite of “proprietary.” Webopedia goes on to note, “Increasingly, proprietary architectures are seen as a disadvantage. Consumers prefer open and standardized architectures, which allow them to mix and match products from different manufacturers.”

This highlights the complexity of this issue. “Open” means published and available to all. In the case of ESRI, the shape file format is owned by ESRI, but is published for all to see. Further, just because source code is published, making a product open, does not mean that the product uses standardized architectures and can “plug and play” with others. GRASS is an open source GIS; it does not, at this time, implement any OpenGIS Interoperability Specifications.

Some vendors play the Open GIS card another way: they will suggest that since their products implement OpenGIS Interface Specifications, they are automatically “open.” Sorry, the product source code is STILL not published, but with the OGC interface in place, the product can, in theory, “plug and play” with other products (proprietary or not) that implement that same interface. This is an important distinction for the buyer/user to understand.

The bottom line? From my perspective, it’s time to go back to basic questions about software. Does it technically do what you need? Does the product interoperate with the products that you need it to? Can it share data with other products that you need it to? If so, buy it. If not, try something else.

If an open source GIS is essential, begin your search at the Free GIS Project. As they put it, think of “free” as in “free speech.”

I’ll be the first to step forward and say that ALL of the software on my computer is proprietary. All of the GIS software I’ve ever used is proprietary. All of the CAD software I’ve ever used is proprietary – with one notable exception: IntelliCAD, which in the past few years has gone open source.


I saw a fleeting reference to a new initiative focusing on enabling local governments to share resources via common distribution agreements. I was pleased to see well-established GIS people behind the proposal and a connection to the GeoData Alliance. The new project’s tentative name: Open Data Consortium.

Now, let’s start with what this project is NOT about. This is not about a new data format. This is not about getting software to work together. This IS about starting a dialog to find mechanisms for local governments to share data using standard types of agreements. The hope is that public and private organizations will “buy in” and help make data more widely, and more consistently, available.

Further, the potential mishmash of differing agreements might well preclude some of the data and services sharing envisioned by groups like the Open GIS Consortium, and those attempting to implement local, county, state, regional and even federal e-government solutions.

In the past few weeks I’ve seen several queries about how to set up a data distribution agreement for local governments to encourage sharing, limit liability and basically “do it right.” Clearly, there is a need to discuss such issues, and I hope this group, or whatever it turns into, can make some headway. The “kickoff” for this project is planning in connection with the National GeoData Forum meeting at the beginning of November in Denver.


Anyone who’s used a cell phone knows the dangers of “dead-spots,” those small or large areas where service winks out or even drops your call. Now, there is a movement afoot to map them, if not erase them entirely.

Anthony Weiner, a representative from New York, introduced a bill last year, and a similar one this year, requiring the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to collect dead-spot information from users and then map them by geographical area and carrier. Ideally, then, consumers could see which carriers could maintain the signal on their route to work or at their vacation home.

Weiner argues that consumers are now powerless to compare one service to another since virtually no carriers allow a “test drive” of their products. He also expects that once information is public, providers will work to “fill the gaps” to distinguish themselves from competitors.

The carriers, of course, hate the idea of government intervention and feel that providing more spectrum is a better road to solving the dead-spot problem. A Sprint spokesperson notes that mapping such spots is difficult since it depends on time of day, weather, the network capacity and the capability of local landline carriers who complete the calls. Agilent Technologies' John Catlin says there is never 100% coverage anywhere, rather 90% is more like it.

It is possible, of course, for consumers to build a database on their own. Given a web page we could mark dead-spots on a map and key in the carrier as an attribute. Some online GIS hosting service want to give it a try?

POINTS OF INTEREST   -GPS add-ons for handhelds are still “in progress” according to a review at The $200+ versions are more complex to use than the $100 standalone versions.

- U.K.-based Morpheous now sells Geodys, a modern “speed camera detector.” The product holds a database of roadside speed camera locations, and armed with a GPS mounted in the vehicle, beeps when the vehicle nears a camera. Incentives are available for those who report new cameras to keep the database up-to-date.

- "Lost in the U.S.A." was to be a WB network reality-adventure series involving a cross-country race among four teams of contestants. Unfortunately the studio producing it, Artists Television Group, has been shut down and the decision has come to scrap the show. NBC will pick up the slack with its own “Lost,” a reality show about being, well, being lost.

- One of the eight arrested in connection with “rigging” a McDonald’s game is from – ironically enough -- Fair Play, S.C.

- If you ever wondered why ESRI tends to be in so many different industries, the answer may lie in their success in pulling people from those very industries to spearhead efforts in specific markets. Case in point: the current Associated Press Director of Graphics, Kris Goodfellow, just joined ESRI, no doubt, to work on GIS and journalism.

- This week’s award for clever marketing goes to ADCi. Their e-mail is straight to the point on a timely issue: “ADCi has your solution for troublesome formats -- at just $25 per quad!” For that amount they will deliver 1:24K DEMs in the format of your choice (DWG, DGN or SHP formats) in the coordinate projection and datum of your choice. These are built from the “old” no longer available USGS data. If you’d like files built from the “new improved” data, they can provide those on a custom basis.


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Adena Schutzberg
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