Book Review – How to Succeed as a GIS Rebel
How to Succeed as a GIS Rebel – A Journey To Open Source GIS
A new book from Locate Press shares the lessons Mark Seibel learned throughout his 25-year career as a GIS professional. He shares his enthusiasm for open source geospatial software and makes a case for choosing it over proprietary alternatives.
Most GIS books focus on a single application or field, offering multiple tutorials to create certain outputs. This book takes a different route: it can be read as an introductory text for people new to the GIS field, explaining the different flavors of GIS, as well as the different roles found in organizations that use it. To understand what GIS means today, it’s necessary to understand its past and how it evolved to what it is today. Rather than presenting a history book on the evolution of GIS technology, the author chose his career in GIS as a guideline for this book.
This results in a personal report that touches on the evolution of both open source and proprietary GIS, as well as GIS education, certification, data types, data formats, and how GIS fits into larger IT infrastructures of organizations that use it. The author describes his own GIS education and different GIS roles and projects where he was able to do everything from data collection, application design, map production, and IT architecture when desktop GIS transitioned to being server-based and finally cloud-based. The result is a whirlwind tour of the evolution of GIS, seen through the eyes of an expert GIS user.
The author, Mark Seibel has been a power user of GRASS GIS and open source software for 19 years and Esri GIS software for 24 years. He was the first in the state of Florida to receive Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) agency approval to delineate streambanks using GIS-based scientific modeling techniques. He has a B.S. in Environmental Studies from Stockton University and held three Linux certifications as well as a Boundless Geoserver certification over the years.
Main thread and detailed contents
The author’s transition to geospatial open source software is the main thread of the book but has more to offer. For example, it offers additional insights from an industry veteran who is well-versed in scientific modeling in environmental consulting in addition to GIS spatial analysis. While GIS itself is fun to use, it gets even more fun when you combine different tools into a workflow or combine multiple datasets to get additional insights. Throughout the book, Seibel makes the case for adopting open source GIS instead of proprietary GIS, stressing the potential benefits such as the large and helpful open source community, open data formats, and large ecosystem of freely available tools.
The book starts with an introductory chapter explaining the intended readership and what it has to offer them: the text serves as a guide to people new to the GIS field to determine where to start and what skills are important to get a job in the field. The focus lies on open source GIS software and applications and their evolution through a 25-year personal journey.
Next follows a primer on GIS as a technology and career: GIS software, titles, users paths, and roles are covered in detail. Related but decidedly non-GIS software such as CAD is covered briefly to understand what makes a GIS different from design and illustration software. This chapter is the basis for subsequent chapters on open source and proprietary software, their user base, user support, and data formats. Chapters 4 – 9 form the main part of the book, describing the author’s journey from college to his profession as an environmental consultant using GIS, and gradually moving away from proprietary to open source GIS.
Chapter 4 can be read as an extension of the GIS primer from Chapter 2, but written from an academic perspective. It covers common GIS concepts such as topology, data attributes, topic categories, as well as file formats, and the art and science of making maps called cartography.
The next chapter discusses entry level work that is done with proprietary software as no open source alternative was available at the time.
After discussing a multitude of problems with proprietary GIS in Chapter 6, the next three chapters describe the transition towards and successes with open source GIS. Interestingly, the author’s journey coincides with the birth and rise of open source geospatial software. Over time, he gets more convinced open source is a better and cheaper alternative to proprietary GIS, offering the same capabilities but in a less complicated manner and with better performance. Seibel is surprised that no more organizations in the US are following his example and that open source geospatial software is not as well-known as in Europe.
Chapters 8 and 9 in particular deserves special credit as both offers a great resource on hydrologic modeling using open source GIS and LiDAR data, offering detailed and valuable first-hand experience from the field, where the author makes a case for having a scientific background and knowing how data is captured and what it represents. This knowledge is what differentiates a GIS user from a GIS expert and explains what is the added value of such knowledge when creating workflows for data analysis and the final deliverables. Tools that are covered include GRASS GIS, r.watershed, Mapserver, QGIS, LASTools, PostgreSQL and PostGIS.
The final chapters stand on their own and cover new and innovative applications for geospatial technology, including a geo blockchain and Minecraft. There is a standalone case study of how to create an enterprise GIS database library that successfully integrates an open source geospatial database and an proprietary desktop GIS application. The book concludes with an outlook on the future of GIS, which includes augmented reality and big data.
Why read this book
By now, it should be obvious that this is not a typical GIS book. While most GIS books offer tutorials or use cases for a specific domain, this book is a very personal journal on experiences and opinions, combined with knowledge acquired from years in the field and academics. As such, it covers a wide range of topics of which open source GIS is just one of many different subjects. That said, I think this book has much to offer to different audiences.
As the book is meant for people new to the GIS field, it does a great job introducing the technology, data, user roles, and GIS ‘flavors’. Although a short book such as this could never discuss all of these topics in detail, you’ll get a good overview of what GIS is and how it is used, at least in North America. It would be interesting to have a similar book written by someone from a European perspective.
One great takeaway from the book is the author’s insights gained from data collection in the field, designing workflows, and being creative when looking for alternatives when an easy solution is not available. While many people think GIS has a solution for every spatial data problem out of the box, in reality, this is rarely the case. This is where domain expertise, a scientific background, and problem-solving capabilities come into play. He warns multiple times against the consequences of vendor lock-in, in the form of proprietary databases and software licenses, and additional extensions.
Seibel is enthusiastic about open source, and less so about proprietary GIS. He makes no secret about this. Although at times meant to provoke, the book is an effort in promoting wider adoption of open source GIS in the US, where the uptake has been slower than in Europe. His take on proprietary GIS is based on past experiences and may not always correspond with the current state of the industry. He repeatedly writes about the benefits of open source software but offers no information about possible disadvantages. [Note, we took this feedback earlier and have since added a section on the challenges of adopting open source GIS technology, thanks Eric! —Ed.]
Also, as Seibel illustrates in the book when covering the integration of open source and proprietary software, a choice for either one does not have to exclude the other. Today, many GIS users want to have the flexibility of choosing the best tool for the job, irrespective of the type or provider. In the final chapter, he makes a plea for promoting and sharing best practices of open source projects and applications, hoping to inspire others to make a quick and seamless transition to open source geospatial software.