What is Open GIS?

Marco Morais


Open GIS is the full integration of geospatial data into mainstream information technology. What this means is that GIS users would be able to freely exchange data over a range of GIS software systems and networks without having to worry about format conversion or proprietary data types.

In a true ‘open GIS’, agencies who operate more than one mapping system can interchange graphic and attribute data with other popular GIS systems. The intent is to move away from the current status quo in which specific GIS applications and capabilities are tightly coupled to their internal data models and structures. In other words, utilizing an ESRI based software package also requires ESRI proprietary data structure such as shapefiles or ArcInfo coverages in order to utilize all analytical aspects of the software. Currently, a user who wishes to gain access to geodata developed by another agency is generally faced with a complex data conversion task. The conversion plug-ins commonly found with many of the major software packages help this situation, but do not solve it entirely due the complexities associated with merging vastly different GIS systems and data formats. Thus, even though ArcView can read and display Bentley Microstation (.dgn) files, any editing or analysis would require the conversion of that format to a native ESRI data structure.

Additionally, Open GIS seeks to facilitate the exchange of information not only between individual GIS systems but also to other systems, such as statistical analysis, image processing, document management, or visualization. Especially with the proliferation of geo-based websites, the networking component of GIS systems with other data processes is becoming more important.In summary, the fundamental requirements of an Open GIS are:

  • Interoperable application environment – a user environment that is configurable to utilize the specific tools and data necessary to solve a problem irrespective of the data structure origin or software.
  • Shared data space – a generic data model supporting a variety of analytical and cartographic applications.
  • Heterogeneous resource browser – a method for exploring and accessing the information and analytical resources available on a network – this is becoming an especially important goal with the rise of geo-based Internet sites.

There are three main focuses needed to bring forth an Open GIS system. The first objective is the creation of an interest group to consolidate the Geographic Information System’s industry activities and establish a channel to communicate interoperability issues within the OpenGIS Consortium. The second focus is the identification and resolution of interoperability issues and their introduction into the global Open GIS specification process. The third focus is the informative role an Open GIS Consortium would perform to inform the GIS industry about the Open GIS process. Regular meetings (Open GIS forums) would highlight information pertaining to the Open GIS movement. Technical debriefings are also necessary to provide detailed information concerning the outcome of OGC Technical Committee meetings.

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Open GIS Consortium (OGC)


The OGC is a consensus-based association of public and private sector organizations to meet these three objectives. Its purpose is to create and manage an industry-wide architecture for interoperable geoprocessing. OGC was founded in 1994 as a not-for-profit membership organization for the purpose of addressing the lack on interoperability among GIS systems and between these systems and mainstream computing systems.

By engaging key players in the GIS Industry such as software companies, governmental agencies, private businesses and academia , the OGC is bringing standardization of geographic data as is already found in other information systems. The end goal is to adopt widespread technology standards and business processes in an effort to support georeferenced data throughout the global community.

Other groups have joined the effort for an Open GIS system. GIPSIE is one such effort. An acronym for GIS Interoperability Project Stimulating the Industry in Europe, the project’s goals are to stimulate European GI communities’ involvement in the worldwide Open GIS specification process and thus increase the European GIS industry’s competitiveness.

Who Benefits From Open GIS?

The establishment of standards for an Open GIS system will benefit all users of georeferenced data. Standardization of data structures and processes will help to optimize data exchange between agencies as well as increase the accessibility of GIS to mainstream users.

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Marco Morais