Mapping agencies and open source geospatial software – why not?

So, mapping agencies are going full-steam on PostGIS, the geospatial database choice of modern times. Recently, we at Gispo studied briefly the utilization of PostGIS within national mapping agencies. As one of the concluding remarks, we could say that the majority of the mapping agencies we looked into leverage PostGIS for storing and editing or analyzing and deriving insights out of geospatial data. 

For the readers that aren’t familiar with PostGIS; it is a geospatial database extension for the open source Relational Database Management System PostgreSQL. It’s a robust, well-known and stable database environment for storing and analyzing geospatial data. 

Institut Géographique National, the French mapping agency, together with Ordnance Survey seem to hold the first place on the complexity and volume of the usage on PostGIS. In France, they’ve been using PostGIS since 2002! The processes seem very interesting and go beyond the common. For example, the unmet goal of efficiently managing and analyzing 3D geospatial data is something where the French institute has advanced quite a bit (read more here). 

But let’s not announce any winners, since somebody (you!?) reading this blog post might actually represent a mapping agency that has the best geospatial IT setup on PostGIS ever made.

Software that’s easy to deploy

It seems that PostGIS is widely used across the European mapping agencies. Among the agencies PostGIS seems to cover geospatial solutions from small to big: if PostGIS is not backing up some mission-critical process, it’s some process with smaller geospatial requirements. For these mapping agencies PostGIS seems to be an easy-to-implement low-risk geospatial software tool.

For example, in Germany, within the Federal Agency for Cartography and Geodesy, PostGIS seems to be the backbone of some INSPIRE related services. In Norway it seems to back up the open geo-data portal with providing data in PostGIS format (read more here). In many agencies PostGIS seems to be part of the stack, although the legacy systems undoubtedly are firmly placed in many European agencies as the core infrastructure components. 

Back here in Finland, National Land Survey of Finland utilizes PostGIS for example to serve the geospatial data APIs (WFS, WMTS) for the topographic and other databases, as we can see from the presentation their Director General Arvo Kokkonen gave at Smart Land Administration 2018.

Arvo Kokkonen, Director General of NLS discusses needs and technology for delivering spatial data policy of Finland at Smart Land Administration 2018.

Here’s a point to make: PostGIS seems to be a risk-free, easy-to-implement software package from small to big geospatial data processes. You would suppose that this is the way mapping agencies go from testing PostGIS to implementing some smaller processes, eventually getting closer to resolving mission-critical processes with it.

Data, a lot of it

Denmark and the Netherlands seem to lead the way when it comes to opening for the public high-quality geospatial datasets on buildings or other huge datasets.  For example, Denmark serves geospatial datasets with an open source stack of PostGIS + MapServer that receives on yearly basis close to 7 billion server queries.

~ 10 million buildings visualized with QGIS (consuming the data from PostGIS).

Meanwhile in the Netherlands, PostGIS is also used (read more from this slidedeck) within the PDOK project that is the leading geodata platform in the Netherlands (check out the factsheet on PDOK from here and see also their Github account). 

Then there was the Basisregistratie Adressen en Gebouwen (BAG) project that held info on basic registers including buildings and addresses. Interestingly the topographic data on buildings was augmented with buildings height and other data through a research project at the Delft University of Technology. The project was implemented by a research group called 3D Geoinformation who built a data pipeline for augmenting, updating and sharing the data as open data through their website and – what’s best in PostGIS – in GeoPackage formats. So, here the data went from the mapping agency to a research group who augmented it to cover height and other attributes derived from lidar datasets. 

Additionally, it’s worth mentioning that the data quality and the straightforward method they deploy for sharing it is gaining attention as the standard way to use the data in the Netherlands. Just go and download the dataset on ~10 million buildings in PostGIS format and use it in whatever client-side software of preference (QGIS!?). You can access the building datasets here:

As we know, PostGIS delivers great on big data. While big data is a problem to crack among some European countries, what about middle-income economies, such as Mexico and Colombia, or low-income countries such as Uganda?

PostGIS fueling the spatial data infrastructures in low- and middle-income countries

For countries such as Finland the legacy systems (commercial “off-the-shelf” proprietary solutions) in the mapping agency have been there for many, many years. These systems are fundamentally part of the basic registers on population and other societal matters and for a variety of reasons are difficult to change or modify. In countries where it has been possible to start without any historic IT burdens, it seems that PostGIS is more widely used.

Additionally for low- and middle-income countries it’s even more important to mitigate risk by investing in IT systems based on open source software that can be fully managed locally by themselves. This is how they get to take the decisions independently and build and leverage IT capacities for managing the systems locally.

In Uganda, the land information system is built on a hybrid web-based cadaster data management system based on open source software and commercial of-the-shelf (COTS) software (read more here). In this example the base registers, including the cadastre database, is built on PostGIS. Meanwhile, some pieces of this modular IT development use COTS software. 

Besides the high cost of using purely COTS solutions, in land administration often the clients want to have access to the source code of the IT system so that they could: 

  1. Make fixes and enhancements on demand, 
  2. Tailor the system for every countries’ custom regulatory framework,
  3. Mitigate risk against vendor lock-in.

In Colombia the work towards data compatibility and interoperability of systems for the land administration sector has advanced further quickly during the last years. Within the Multipurpose cadastre project the use of open standards (LADM) has advanced extensively and the project quite clearly has emphasized the value on data compatibility. The system has been built mainly on open source software, including PostGIS as the backbone for the whole cadastre system (read more here).

Meanwhile in Mexico, INEGI, the National Institute of Statistics and Geography, use extensively COTS solutions for different internal geospatial processes. They have built an integrated platform for web-based maps based on PostGIS and other stable open source projects (e.g. MapServer). Read more about the platform from here

Open data from Mexico on digital elevation models (INEGI) visualized with Rayshader-package and R.

PostGIS, a commonality for mapping agencies?

PostGIS is widely used among the mapping agencies, so what? Is it just another software solution? No, it’s not. It’s based on open source, and while resolving your problems it can resolve the geospatial requirements of any other person or organization with a similar problem without any further production costs. 

António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, declared for the audience in the United Nations World Geospatial Information Congress 2018 “Your dedication, expertise and guidance – in geospatial data, methods, frameworks, tools, and platforms – is urgently needed”. So is also urgently needed a culture to share those methods, frameworks, tools and platforms among the member states and the mapping agencies. This is how we’ll reach better systems and more effective processes. So, could the mapping agencies share a lot of this? Yes, they could.

Finally, while we’re are talking about generating unprecedented amounts of value out of geospatial information by using open source geospatial software and sharing the production costs at global scale, we should not think that the sharing and the great software happens from nowhere, free of charge. We can conclude with words from Paul Ramsey (2013) on the virtuous circle around investing in open source software: “You get what you pay for, everyone gets what you pay for, and you get what everyone pays for.”


Santtu Pyykkönen

Santtu Pyykkönen is MSA who is interested in GIS (and all its glory), open source software and open communities and urban development. Freetime activities consist of running and reading.