Returning to FOSS4G, Five Years in the Making

The 2017 edition of the premiere geospatial conference comes to Boston


With two decades in the geospatial data business, I used to frequent the international FOSS4G conferences. After a stretch of attending for five years straight, in 2012 I missed the next five events. This year’s conference was in my backyard — Boston—so it was awesome to return once again, and catch up with old friends and colleagues.

The FOSS4G Boston logo.

The Boston community stepped it up and did a great job with the conference, from the main organizing group led by Michael Terner at AppGeo; to state and local governments; to universities like Tufts, Harvard, and MIT; and of course local companies like IBM and Paragon Corp. I spend a lot of time at conferences, and I can honestly say that FOSS4G remains the gold standard for staying on the cutting edge of technology while maintaining a strong, authentic community.

Geo data leads the way

Geospatial technology has always been at the forefront of IT because spatial data is a bigger challenge to store, index, and visualize than mainstream data types. Therefore, the community is often ahead of the curve in adopting tech that has staying power. It’s also quick to ignore shiny trends with no substance.

The buzz

I saw 3 areas of traction this year:

  • Serverless
  • Big data processing (always a “meat and potatoes” topic)
  • Geospatial data science, particularly with Jupyter Notebooks but also with R

The interest in geospatial data science was great to see, since that’s the area I’m currently most involved with. I was also happy to see a couple offline mapping talks, as my team has a lot of interest in that area. Another technology of note was Google Earth, due to their recent open sourcing of the software.

Lack of buzz

I noticed little buzz around graph databases or semantic web. (I have a standing bet with a friend that semantic web technology will never take off that I continue to win.) I just think it’s one of those technologies that, like XML before it, programmers dislike, although it’s a darling of information architects.

Graph was more surprising to me. I thought that since network analysis has been a mainstay of GIS systems for decades—mainly to model hydrology dynamics and transportation networks—more people would be looking at new open source graph databases like JanusGraph to modernize their implementations. I predict their time will come, but 2017 was not the year for graph DBs in the geospatial community.

The sessions

With that said, here’s a quick, personally biased roundup of talks that caught my eye at FOSS4G 2017.

Geospatial Spark

The geospatial Apache Spark™ community has been active for years, much before Spark became the hot big data technology du jour. This year, we saw continued maturity on supporting spatial data types and fast spatial queries. It must be noted that the parallelized performance race is moving to a new playing field: GPUs. MapD showed some amazing results with their open source in-memory SQL database running exclusively on GPUs.

Jupyter Notebooks

Just like the mainstream data science community, geo scientists are big into Jupyter Notebooks. (Plug: the first link here is my talk.) It’s great to see geo using the same tools as the rest of the market, instead of inventing their own.


The sheer number of serverless talks is interesting since the CfP process is open, with the community voting on which presentations get accepted, so clearly there’s a big interest in deploying geospatial functions in a serverless style.

The last one is intriguing in that it combines an old idea — the Koop geospatial query API translation middleware — with a new deployment technology of Lambda Functions. I really like where Esri is going with that initiative.

Google Earth is open source

Not much detail to add here or to the following section because it’s the same story: The geo community is an early adopter of the latest technical solutions.

Offline maps

While not explicitly an offline presentation, it was interesting to hear Vladimir from Mapbox talk about Mapbox GL, a GPU-optimized, client-side mapping library I use a lot in not only web projects, but Jupyter Notebook geospatial visualizations as well.

See you in Dar es Salaam

I’m sure I’ve left out many awesome talks on databases, satellite image processing, and implementation stories, but my interest is in cloud technologies. So the omission is just my bias. The takeaway is that in the area of cloud-related data “stuff,” the FOSS4G community is once again a leader that deserves more attention than they get.

Keep up the great work, and I hope to keep my new attendance streak going when I see everyone next year in Tanzania!