Autodesk's Liam Speden on how open source can help coordinate our world

Speden explains how the open source community and Autodesk can work together to make sense of the surge in location enabled and spatially aware information.

Autodesk recently announced plans to donate its coordinate system (CS) and map projection technology to the Open Source Geospatial Foundation (OSGeo). The software, acquired from Mentor Software will help users to more easily support geographic coordinate conversions and allow accurate and precise geospatial analysis. This planned donation joins other previous Open Source donations by the company, including the web mapping MapGuide and the geospatial data access technology (FDO) software, both donated last year.

PC World Australia speaks with Autodesk Mapguide Product Manager, Liam Speden about the Mentor technology and what the donation means to the open source community, the geospatial community and to Autodesk. He also discusses where he thinks this technology is headed.

What sort of applications does the CS software enable right now?

CS-Map technology currently supports a library of over 3,000 map projections and coordinate systems, and coordinate systems are a fundamental part of any mapping or geospatial application. The CS-Map technology is also currently part of the Autodesk Map 3D and Autodesk MapGuide Enterprise products.

Where do you see CS technology heading?

With so many coordinate systems in existence, customers are continually asking for enhancements. By enabling the open source community to develop and provide these enhancements, customers will benefit from more rapid innovation.

What sort of applications could the technology be used for in the future?

Coordinate systems evolve like the data and applications that use them. For example, GPS (Global Positioning System) uses a 3D coordinate system that evolved from more traditional 2D methods to more accurately reflect the needs and abilities of satellite positioning technology.

In the future, coordinate systems will incorporate additional factors such as time, as this is increasingly a key feature of location based services and social and community networking. This is needed to support searches that answer not only the questions "what and where" but "what, where, and when". A user may be interested in knowing what sporting events are going on in their community in the coming Saturday, whether anyone else nearby is going to be offering a carpool to get there, and possibly who else from their social network is also going to be at the event.

How could social networking sites, and Web 2.0 technologies benefit from this technology?

MapGuide Open Source can absolutely develop Web 2.0 mapping applications. As coordinate systems underpin the accurate definition of location, we see CS-Map as enabling better and broader community participation through the web, such as the San Francisco Urban Forest community map and the crowd-sourcing of data from portable devices like GPS-enabled cameras and cellphones. Online communities and social networking can benefit from members being able to see who or what of specific interest to them is nearby.

(See an Autodesk video about the San Francisco urban forest project here)

How could this software be provided or used as a Web service?

Autodesk is donating the CS-Map technology as an open source project to the Open Source Geospatial Foundation (OSGeo). The source code will be available on the OSGeo Web site for anyone to download. People already use the CS-Map technology through web applications built on MapGuide Enterprise, and once released into open source developers will be able to access it through MapGuide Open Source and build it into their own software and applications. As the CS-Map technology is a comprehensive, proven coordinate system library we anticipate the technology will be incorporated into a range of existing open source projects and into new web services and applications.

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How could the software be used as a basis of mobile services?

The MapGuide Open Source architecture inherently enables the use of mobile services around spatial and location-based information. Organizations worldwide use MapGuide technology to distribute information to their mobile field forces. Often this data is provided in a variety of different projections and coordinate systems, requiring expensive or proprietary tools to be use for data translation or manipulation. Releasing CS-Map as an open source technology enables a wide range of participating technologies to share a common set of coordinate systems and transformations, improving consistency and compatibility between systems and thus helping improve the quality and reliability of mobile services built on the technology.

What is the biggest market for coordinate system technology?

CS-Map technology is used by hundreds of thousands of organizations worldwide, primarily in the oil and gas industry.

Are there emerging markets for this technology and if so, what are they?

Due to the surge of location enabled or spatially aware information, Mentor CS technology can be used to further enhance the context of this data by providing results with multiple coordinate systems.

Does this compete or compliment something like geonames?

Mentor technology can enhance technology like geonames to transform results data into multiple coordinate systems for use or display in different ways. Examples would be the ability to perform a transformation between an equal-area projection for demographic analysis, or to an equal distance projection for logistics planning. For something like Geonames, being able to get data quickly and easily into a common coordinate system is tremendously valuable.

What coordinate systems does this conversion system work with?

CS-Map supports the projections and transformations necessary to implement over 3,000 coordinate systems.

How will donating the Mentor technology help Autodesk?

Autodesk sees the open source community as a valuable partner in creating better software for our customers and partners. Participation with the open source community through the MapGuide Open Source web-based GIS software and the FDO (Feature Data Objects) data access technologies have provided innovation and insight into the technology trends affecting the web and geospatial industries. The active engagement by members of the community creates a constant level of feedback and contribution that helps us improve quality and deliver functionality faster than a traditional, proprietary software model. We believe that the recent donation of the Mentor technology will help to accelerate innovation for the larger geospatial community through faster development cycles and lower costs. This donation will free many customers and developers from the cost or need to re-engineer coordinate conversion technology and, thereby, "reinvent the wheel". Additionally, this acquisition and donation closes the gap between our MapGuide Enterprise and open source offerings.

How will the donation benefit the Geospatial community?

Companies that currently pay to license Mentor software will be able to embed the technology at no cost. Much as the donation of Feature Data Objects (FDO), an open platform for accessing geospatial data, meant that companies no longer required proprietary and potentially expensive tools. Additionally, Autodesk customers will benefit by seeing increased parity between MapGuide Open Source and Autodesk MapGuide Enterprise as these two software products will now employ the same coordinate conversion technology and support the same number of projections and coordinate systems. All users will benefit from the lower costs, faster development cycles and more rapid innovation.

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How will it benefit the open source community?

The community will no longer need to re-engineer coordinate conversion technology. CS-Map technology offers features that existing open source coordinate conversions technologies, such as Proj-4, do not. These include:

  • A user extensible dictionary of coordinate systems
  • Robust support for re-projecting coordinates and performing datum shifts
  • Support for identifying coordinate systems through EPSG codes as well as multiple flavours of OGC WKT
  • A variety of utility functions such great circle distance measurement

When are you expecting to donate the software as an open source project?

Autodesk is currently organizing and preparing the software for donation and we expect this donation to be finalized and completed by the end of 2007.

What value does Autodesk get from donating to the open source community generally?

Autodesk gets to draw on a vast community of users and developers in the open source community that bring unique ideas and talent to improve the software at a much faster pace than Autodesk can in its internal development cycle. For example, the MapGuide Open Source community now includes over 600 members and the software has been downloaded over 38,000 times.

Autodesk is incorporating many of the innovations developed in the open source community into its enterprise software. The Autodesk MapGuide Enterprise 2008, for example, incorporates significant Ajax usability enhancements developed by the MapGuide Open Source community.

What do you find most rewarding about managing this project?

The innovations coming out of community involvement in open source projects are very exciting for us. Autodesk last year donated the source code for two of its geospatial technologies - MapGuide and Feature Data Object (FDO) - to open source and since then, the community of users and developers has grown significantly. We're now starting to see applications and new functionality added to the software that was developed by the community, which everyone can benefit from. Many smaller organizations that wouldn't have the resources to consider commercial alternatives now are able to create customer applications that fit their unique needs.

What are some examples of these applications developed by the community? The Urban Forest Map in San Francisco and the localized Spanish and French language versions of MapGuide Open Source are great examples of how the community is building on and improving this technology.

Prior to joining Autodesk, Speden worked in a variety or roles in the industry, including senior systems analyst, technology manager, consultant and, most recently, director of strategic development. His area of expertise includes management of strategic software solutions for international government and military markets.