GRASS Is Now Greener
A Geographic Information System Joins the GPL Family
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
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
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
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
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
European GRASS Page
GRASS Documentation Project
GRASS GNU Press Release
USGS: Geographic Information Systems Page
Brandon, R. J., Trevor Kludt, and Mark Neteler. 1999. Archaeology and
GIS - The Linux Way. Linux Journal, May 1999, No. 63, p50-54