Open source mapping tools prepare new generation of water managers

Written by Hans van der Kwast, on 22 October 2019

Traditionally the water sector uses a lot of commercial software with expensive licenses for hydrological models and analysis of spatial data. However, the developments in open source software are going so fast that it is currently a good alternative to expensive proprietary software. Yet for many professionals, open source is still unknown territory. There is also little attention for it in education, writes Hans van der Kwast in his book that appeared on September 19. Is the global water sector ready for a switch?

In a previous blog I wrote about Open Data as a driver for the economy, innovation and solution for environmental problems. However, that data is only useful in combination with good and accessible software. This was confirmed once again some time ago when I gave a course for agricultural experts in Kigali, Rwanda. The course was about water productivity. This is an indicator of the amount of water required for growing crops. Population growth increases the demand for food, while water consumption in agriculture must not increase due to climate change. More crop per drop is therefore one of the most important policy priorities of the Dutch government in development cooperation.

We used open data for this course. The formal definition of Open is: "data that can be freely used, reused and redistributed by anyone - only subject, at most, to the requirement to attribute and share equally" (Open Data Handbook). We introduced the students to the FAO WaPOR portal. This was set up for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), with support from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. With the data from this portal, agricultural and water experts can analyze which plots have good water productivity and where improvements are needed.

Geographic Information Systems

The most important tool that water experts use for this is a so-called geographic information system (GIS). This allows geographic information to be stored, managed, edited, analyzed, integrated and presented. In daily life everyone deals with GIS. For example, GIS is used in navigation systems and in mobile apps with maps and GPS locations. Water experts mainly use GIS for the analysis of satellite images, mapping of river basins and the processing of data for use in models.

Most of the students who have already come into contact with GIS have worked with ArcGIS from ESRI. ESRI is for GIS what Microsoft is for office software: a monopolist with expensive licenses and thus de facto the standard. Dutch universities and colleges spend significant amounts on ESRI licenses. Students often receive a free campus license for use during their studies. They are thus locked into commercial software at an early stage, while they are hardly introduced to open source alternatives. As a result, the water sector is dominated by ESRI software, while the use of open source alternatives for GIS is minimal.

Open source GIS

In the Global South they cannot afford these expensive licenses. That is why I use in my teaching and projects in the Global South as much open source software as possible that offers the same possibilities. For example, during the course in Rwanda, we used QGIS. This is a popular open source package that is supported by an active community of developers from different countries. Although there are many other open source GIS software, I use QGIS as an example in this blog. With open source software the source code is freely available. This allows everyone to evaluate and contribute to improvements. Instead of tying the customer to one brand, open source software is actually looking for links with other products, such as hydrological models.

Prejudices about open source

There are many myths about open source. An often heard misconception is that this software is only made by so-called geeks in their free time. That is not true. The majority of open source software developments are even sponsored by large companies. In the Netherlands, for example, the Dutch dredging company Van Oord has been a sponsor of QGIS and they are contributing to the development of new functionalities. Around QGIS there are various companies that improve the product. Part of this is also funded through crowdfunding. This makes it possible to remove bugs and implement innovations faster than with commercial software. This offers opportunities for innovation for universities and geo-it companies, without waiting for the plans of a commercial company with other interests. That users should opt for open source software because it is free is certainly not the only argument.

Another criticism of the use of open source software is that there is not one single company that you can call for support. That's right. You mainly get support through the online community, for example on Stack Overflow. This online platform contains a large group of fellow users who help you and who think along with you about solutions. If you still need paid support, then there are also companies that do that. For example, in the case of QGIS you can turn to Qcooperative and the Dutch LandGoed. There are also organizations that offer training courses, some of which are free, such as the OpenCourseWare from IHE Delft. The open source world does not therefore compete on the product, but reinforces it through the services surrounding it.


Back to the course in Rwanda. There it appeared that there was a need for a follow-up course with more emphasis on basic skills with GIS. The donor agreed with the content and the budget, but still wanted feedback on the proposal from the local university that would participate in the course. They responded enthusiastically to the initiative, but had the desire to use ESRI software (ArcGIS) instead of the open source alternative QGIS, because they work with ArcGIS in Rwanda. The donor therefore asked me to give the course with ArcGIS. I refused that, because I think it is important that GIS software is not only accessible to licensed organizations, but also to water experts who cannot afford expensive licenses. Such as students who have graduated and are going to work for an NGO or in the private sector.

Unfortunately, this example is not unique to Rwanda. Of course I understand that in the past we have forced many Western ideas into our aid projects that can be called neo-colonial. It is very good that we listen to local needs nowadays. Because of those good intentions in the past, they now work with the commercial software we have given them. I saw a striking example of this during a training for the Iraqi Ministry of Water in 2012. During the training we used ArcGIS at their request. When I suggested to the participants to do follow-up training with QGIS, their response was that after the war in Iraq, the Americans had provided the government with ESRI software. Talking about neo-colonial behaviour.

Illegal use of license software

Very often I am asked what the problem is with the license costs. Almost everyone in the Global South uses cracked versions of ArcGIS, right? I always explain that organizations in the Netherlands are checked for licenses. If the licenses are not there, a high fine follows. Licenses are not checked in the Global South. As a result, they continue to use commercial software and Dutch organizations are obliged to purchase expensive licenses in projects where they want to use this software.

The role of education

A change in education is needed to break this vicious circle. GIS education should be about learning concepts, where the software only serves as a means to implement the concepts. Compare it with your driving lessons: learning to drive a car may not depend on the lesson car. If that principle is paramount, it should not matter which software students use. It has sometimes been suggested to give students a free choice. But many students only know the commercial packages and will not choose open source alternatives on their own.

Nowadays, therefore, I only provide GIS training with open source software such as QGIS. The package is suitable for the applications that professionals in the water sector need. That is not always easy. Because many professionals are already working with ArcGIS or at least have heard of it, it takes some effort to convince them of the benefits of open source software with good arguments. Fortunately, it is also my role as a teacher to enter into that discussion and to have the students make a proper assessment between commercial and open source software. The most important thing is to show the possibilities of open source software such as QGIS. 

I show the many possibilities and applications in my book QGIS for Hydrological Applications - recipes for catchment hydrology and water management that was launched on 19 September.

Acceptance of open source software

As a lecturer I try to motivate students and researchers to become active in the open source community, to meet the developers and to contribute with their knowledge to further development. The QGIS community organizes so-called hackfests or hackathons. These are inspiring meetings where users and developers come together to improve the software. With the income from my book I want to financially support students to attend these meetings and increase the diversity of the community.

The acceptance of open source software in the water sector is slow. But by familiarizing new generations of water experts with freely accessible alternatives, it is possible to break the monopoly position of commercial software providers. With access to open data and open source software, water experts can work worldwide to contribute to solutions to water problems.

You can read Hans’s blog in Dutch here.

You can you also read his previous blog in Dutch here.


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