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GRASS Is Now Greener

A Geographic Information System Joins the GPL Family

by
Abhijeet Chavan

It seems to have gone unnoticed - a press release dated October 25th, 1999 that was posted on a couple of newsgroups. At the time of writing this article, the story had not yet made it to feverishly updated Linux websites such as Linux Today and Slashdot. This posting that did not immediately make headlines was:

GRASS GIS Released Under Gnu Public License!

"...As of October 25, 1999, GRASS is released under the terms of the Gnu Public License (GPL)...This makes GRASS the first fully featured GIS that is released worldwide under the GPL."

What is a GIS? What is GRASS? And why is the above press release significant?

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is a term used to describe a system that is "capable of assembling, storing, manipulating, and displaying geographically referenced information". In other words, GIS deals with data that has a spatial component. Need to track an endangered species, find a site for a new power plant, or plan a whole new city? GIS is indispensable.

Starting in 1982, Geographical Resource Analysis Support System (GRASS) was initially developed by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers Construction Engineering Research Laboratory (USACERL), Champaign, Illinois, as a Unix-based GIS. Since then GRASS has been used for both military and non-military applications around the world. As GRASS was originally developed by the U.S. Government it was considered to be in the public domain. The freely available nature of GRASS combined with its powerful features and flexibility made it an attractive GIS solution.

After USACERL ran out of funding for GRASS, its development was continued by the GRASS Research Group at Baylor University in Texas. An article in the July 1999 issue of Linux Journal, "Archaeology and GIS - The Linux Way" reported that much of the new development in GRASS is being spurred on by Linux users. The authors of that article feel that "the growth of the International Linux community ... has been a major catalyst in giving GRASS a new lease on life."

With the October 25th, 1999 announcement GRASS GIS joins the family of software released under the GNU General Public License (GPL).

How is this significant for GRASS?

The reason for turning to the GPL given by the GRASS Development Team is that the GPL will protect the developers and resolve licensing issues. If this prevents someone from taking GRASS code and locking it into a closed product then the GPL will make a difference to GRASS. Licensing is a complicated issue. But irrespective of the positive and negative aspects of releasing under a particular license, the high visibility and awareness that comes with joining the GPL family can only help GRASS in attracting developers and making it easier for them to contribute.

Some questions still remain to be answered. Are only new versions of GRASS to be released under the GPL? What happens to the code of earlier versions? Will this change the way GRASS is being developed? Can studying the development models of other GPL projects like GIMP and GNOME benefit GRASS?

How is this significant for Linux?

It is important to remember that GRASS is not a new or untested product. It is a powerful and mature product with an already established user base and an active development community. Moreover, it is available today in a stable release (GRASS 4.2.1) with a new feature-packed version in beta release (GRASS 5.0 beta). GRASS could easily join the list of excellent applications being delivered as part of Linux distributions.

Also, there is great potential for future development that links GRASS with other applications available for Linux. For example, connectivity between GRASS and MySQL might be a good idea as would web-based delivery of maps using GRASS and Apache. An enhanced graphical user interface might attract more users.

Proprietary GIS packages can be expensive or may not always offer the flexibility required for certain GIS applications. The low cost and open nature of GRASS make it a GIS solution worth considering for many applications. Sometimes it may be the only choice. These are also the very reasons why Linux is often chosen as the platform of choice. Linux and GRASS together make a good combination for a GIS workstation.

With its release under the GPL, GRASS will surely benefit from the pace and size of the Linux community as well as the momentum of Linux in general. And it gives you yet another reason to choose Linux.

I think I see Tux the Penguin smiling.


References and Resources:

GRASS Home Page
http://www.baylor.edu/~grass

European GRASS Page
http://www.geog.uni-hannover.de/grass/welcome.html

GRASS Documentation Project
http://www.geog.uni-hannover.de/grass/gdp/

GIS-GRASS Mini-HOWTO
http://www.linux.com/howto/mini/GIS-GRASS.html

GRASS GNU Press Release
http://www.geog.uni-hannover.de/grass/gnu-release.html

USGS: Geographic Information Systems Page http://www.usgs.gov/research/gis/title.html

GIS FAQ
http://www.census.gov/ftp/pub/geo/www/faq-index.html

GIS Newsgroup
news:comp.infosystems.gis

Brandon, R. J., Trevor Kludt, and Mark Neteler. 1999. Archaeology and GIS - The Linux Way. Linux Journal, May 1999, No. 63, p50-54

Published October 30, 1999


[ Reply to this item ]    [ Flat Mode ]


Linux? Open your mind man!
extrasolar     Oct 30 at 05:24 PM
Linux? Linux is a single kernal. GRASS will benefit all the GNU systems, not just the ones based on Linux.

I fear that some day people will think they need to be tied to one kernal. But there are many kernals one could use. *BSD, Hurd, EROS: why just Linux? I think GRASS should be compatible with as many OSs as possible, probably Unices. This Linux-centric view should be avoided as much as possible. And who gives a damn about popularity? If GNU system is better people will use it. That is as pragmatic as you can get. We need no 'opensource' marketing BS.

I would love to see GRASS included in future GNU distributions. I am interested in what exactly it does. And how could GRASS integrate nicely with other applications. GRASS Bonobo componet anyone?

How could this lead to a file format standard for mapping software? It should be a DTD for XML.

Ah, the possibilities...
[ Reply to this ]

GRASS and PostgreSQL
Duncan Kinder     Oct 30 at 09:40 PM
While a link between GRASS and MySQL would be interesting, GRASS has traditinally had use with Postgres.

This makes more sense becasue Postgres, unlike MySQL, supports the complex data types that geographic information systems require.

Still, there is substantial need for improvement in the interaction between Postgres and MySQL. HOpefully we will se much more development in that area.
[ Reply to this ]


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