Boundless Launches GIS Products Based on Open-Source, Data-Rich Future

Boundless is looking to create a license-free model for mapping tools.

by / November 15, 2016

Boundless is betting that open source, non-proprietary and license-free is the future of the geographic information systems (GIS) market.

It’s a bet wagered in the form of dual product launches this week. Boundless, which already offers a GIS platform and sells to government, is filling out its offerings to move from a platform to an “ecosystem.” The first, Boundless Desktop, is a desktop GIS tool filled out with analytics, plugins and various other tools. The other, Boundless Connect, is essentially a hub capable of connecting Desktop, other Boundless services and even third-party GIS programs.

All without a user license.

“We’re selling support, we’re not selling licenses,” said Andy Dearing, Boundless’ chief executive officer.

That means the company is putting its stake in helping its clients make the platform work for their own specific uses — its biggest customers thus far have been at federal agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, but it’s beginning to work more with state and local customers. The software comes free, but the how-tos, the maintenance, the support line, anything extra, needs to be paid for.

There’s a big, cloudy reason for that. The leadership team at Boundless is looking to the future, as government gathers more and more data — from body cameras, from drones, even from ubiquitous sensor nodes. Wearables, connected vehicles, mobile devices. The Internet of Things.

Anthony Calamito, Boundless’ chief evangelist, sees so much possible data coming government’s way in the future that many GIS managers and users today are going to need to scale up their operations — massively.

“We truly believe that our technology, the open source stack, is better suited to meet that need,” he said.

In a proprietary, license-based model, users might need to pay more to scale up their operations. For some, the extra costs might mean going through a procurement cycle, which takes time and resources.

For its part, ArcGIS maker Esri — the dominant player in the GIS market, and one of the older government technology companies around today — has a plan for when its customers need to scale up. Christian Carlson, Esri’s director of state, local and provincial government, said the company can work in licensing models that account for surges in use, as well as a “shift model” that allows users with similar roles to share time on a license. He declined to say whether scaling up would mean extra costs for those customers, but said it hasn’t been a problem for the company’s users.

“It’s completely cost-effective for them,” Carlson said. “I have yet to have a customer on our side complain that the model was a barrier for them … to deploy the technology.”

Esri also prices its support and extra services, including the support of emergency management experts in case there’s need for them, into its licensing.

“Our licensing, you really have to consider our licensing models to include those comprehensive services we provide,” he said.

But then, according to Calamito, using Boundless doesn’t necessarily mean moving past Esri — or anybody else.

“It’s not an ‘or,’ it’s an ‘and,’” Calamito said. “It’s not a binary [choice].”

That’s been the case at the Port of Seattle, which operates Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and various maritime facilities. Eric Drenckpohl, enterprise GIS manager for the port, said his organization has a city’s worth of operations — up to and including police and fire — and as such, needs a broad-focused GIS platform and not just a set of narrowly-focused tools.

So it built its own program, Port Explorer, using Esri tools. Then, for version two, the port set up a hybrid system that uses Boundless to connect with Esri and other programs. Boundless allows Drenckpohl to pull aerial photos from an Esri database while drawing boundaries based on data in a PostGIS system.

“Having a hybrid GIS environment with proprietary and non-proprietary really strengthens my role as a GIS manager because I have options, more tools in my toolbelt,” Drenckpohl said.

The ability to scale up also helps, he said. For Drenckpohl, it’s an issue of operational efficiency.

“I can’t manage 1,800 discrete users and try to figure out what permissions they have,” he said.

Instead, he’d rather set up a system with enough disparate data and tools to let users do things he can’t predict — anything from locating a specific manhole cover in a vast plot of land to plotting out security incidents through the airport.

And that’s what Boundless is going for. The new product launches focus a lot on the word “ecosystem.” They are far from being the only GIS provider. But they want to be the provider of an open-source ecosystem.

“We’ve seen some commercial providers do this," Calamito said, "but we haven’t seen it from an open-source perspective.”

Ben Miller Staff Writer

Ben Miller is the business beat staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.