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The Future of GRASS?

8. The Future of GRASS?

Excellent question! Several possible answers have been thrown out:

  1. USA/CERL's announced intention is to use GRASS and COTS (commercial off-the-shelf software) for internal uses, to leave the GRASS public web- and ftp-site on its system indefinitely, and to sign cooperative research and development agreements with three companies: (1) the Environmental Sciences Research Institute (ESRI), (2) Intergraph, and (3) Logiciels et Applications Scientifiques (L.A.S.) Inc. The first two agreements encouraged the incorporation of GRASS concepts into ESRI's and Intergraph's commercial GISs. The third encouraged the adaptation of GRASS' concepts and code into a new commercial GIS by L.A.S. L.A.S. also offered to encourage the continuation of a public domain GRASS, as a viable stand-alone system and as a potential source of new ideas and code for L.A.S.'s GRASSLAND. One observer noted that the first two agreements might be akin to someone signing Linux over to Microsoft. The same observer considers the experiment by/with L.A.S. to be an interesting possibility - an attempt to keep viable public domain and commercial versions of GRASS.

  2. Some people believe that GRASS will wither without USA/CERL's central management. Some believe that the Open GIS Consortium will successfully guide industry into an open architecture that will benefit all developers and users. Others believe that OGIS' effort will lead to a cacophony of almost similar (but not quite interoperable) vendor-specific "standards," so the loss of GRASS as an open development platform will be felt sorely.

  3. Some people believe that developments on some campuses and other sites may result in those institutes keeping GRASS for awhile, but in non-standard forms. In short, GRASS will undergo "cell division" and lead to a cacophony of internally valuable, but externally unused, GISs.

  4. Others hope that GRASS' previous management model under USA/CERL has left it ready for a new model. Perhaps:

    1. Under a new mentor, such as NASA (which needs an open, powerful and scientific, GIS integrated with image processing system for its Earth Observing System).

    2. Under a distributed management model... perhaps somewhat like Linux?

    3. Perhaps a bit of a hybrid? Perhaps a Web-based effort could spawn a series of usenet discussion groups beginning with

      • comp.infosystems.gis.grass, and evolving to:

      • comp.infosystems.gis.grass.academics

      • comp.infosystems.gis.grass.publicservice

      • comp.infosystems.gis.grass.commercialvalueadded

      • comp.infosystems.gis.grass.commercialdistributors

      • comp.infosystems.gis.grass.programming

      • comp.infosystems.gis.grass.users

      • comp.infosystems.gis.grass.centralcommittee

      Clearly the topics are a bit tongue-in-cheek. However, under this model, a Central Committee (including representation of academic, public service [government and nongovernmental organizations], commercial distributors and value added firms, programmers, and users) would guide overall grass development and testing. The other special interest groups would serve their user communities. Academics, for example, would involve GIS and GRASS education, but would also try to pull GRASS development in its direction. Value added commercial developers would serve their own interests, including trying to pull GRASS development in a direction that would help their businesses. Users would help each other learn GRASS, develop workarounds to bugs, etc.

GRASS offers considerable potential for:

  • Use as a scientific, as well as a traditional graphically oriented GIS. Many GISs can make pretty maps. Many of those GISs cannot easily perform certain scientific analytical functions as easily or powerfully as GRASS. GRASS was designed and developed in response to a perceived need for scientific GIS, specifically for environmental analysis, and the environmental management/protection of public lands. Incidentally, there is at least one Web-based GRASS version. GRASSLINKS, developed at The University of California at Berkeley, uses Web forms to submit commands to the server, which creates .gif-based display output, places the images into pages, and serves them up to the requester. More on that later.

  • Education. GRASS is easier to teach and learn than some other GISs. It is easier to modify (for those that want to learn GIS as computer science, rather than as "geography") than most other GISs that come without source code and treat the program as a magical black box. And, of course, it is more affordable for the student of GIS than many other GISs.

  • Applications research and development. Many universities have used GRASS. Its available source code, easy modification, easy scriptability, etc., give it distinct advantages over some more closed systems.

  • Public Service. GRASS has been used as a scientific GIS for many public service applications. There is considerable value in continuing a robust GIS that can ba packaged with any UNIX workstation. There is considerably more value if that UNIX workstation universe can include Linux (but is not constrained only to Linux).

  • GIS research and development. For example - do you want to experiment with a different data model? Add it to GRASS!

  • Commercialization. This document gives contact information for a commercial version of GRASS. That company (and perhaps others?) may welcome your help in enhancing/supporting their product.

Who would be the Linus Torvalds equivalent in this management model? Perhaps no single person. I have been involved in GRASS for about a decade, when GRASS was the only GIS that satisfied my needs in scientific data management and GIS application. Indeed, I had been a dedicated avoider of the user-unfriendly UNIX environment until GRASS forced me to learn it. Several senior GRASS developers are active in GRASS-related activities and would like to see the continued vitality of an open GRASS. It's likely that a reborn GRASS would attract a new crop of friends. Thus the concept of a "Central Committee" to collectively lead GRASS' transition to a more open management and development style.

In short, the Linux community has an opportunity to take under its wing a killer ap. GRASS' current public domain status is slightly different from Linux's. However, that status could be discussed....

Comments would be appreciated!