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After spending the better part of the year on this site I am seeing how big the open source GIS community is. I used to just think it was ESRI and nothing else. That said, how do you begin to nudge or convince others that open source programs might be more beneficial than ESRI products?

I'm not specifically asking about features in one vs the other, but actually trying to convince higher ups that a move to a similar product that would provide comparable results in terms of productivity, efficiency and end product.

I guess what it boils down to in the end, is, at the end of the day, does the cost savings outweigh the time that it might take to get GIS staff acclimated to open source software?

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With economic pressures and budget cuts it can be come necessity. Though the main point is 'purchased/licensed' GIS software usually comes with technical and training support from the vendor. – Mapperz Apr 18 '13 at 16:22
I think a big part of the cost with ESRI is the phone support, which may or may not be a factor. whuber is very helpful, but I don't think you can pick up the phone and ask him a question like you can with ESRI. ;) – Mintx Apr 18 '13 at 16:24
This question might be better as a community wiki, seems like there are many possible correct answers (which I look forward to reading). – Dan C Apr 18 '13 at 16:28
It shouldn't be an issue if OS can deliver the same results as proprietary software. In most cases it can, but you will have to put forward the case using demonstrable examples from your work environment/work flow – Dan Patterson Apr 18 '13 at 16:32
Interesting question, but I would also like to hear not just about ESRI, but Oracle spatial vs. Postgis reasons. – Tomislav Muic Apr 18 '13 at 20:17
up vote 25 down vote accepted

To start with I'd throw out the whole open-source vs proprietary premise and look at it in terms of "does Tool A accomplish what we need in a better way than the Tool B we are using now?"

Then follow up with demonstrations and tangible examples of where the tool you are suggesting as an alternative gives better results, or comes at cheaper acquisition price, maintenance price, learning curve, and so on. Be fair and balanced, don't gloss over areas where the alternative is weak or has gaps.

An often raised point against open source and for commercial is support, having someone on the end of the phone or email to answer questions. Take a good look at the support the organization is actually getting now from the paid tools. How many times and to what depth are the questions answered by that paid tech support versus just "from the internet"? Actually collect data and examples for this. As before, be fair and balanced.

If the answers to any of these explorations are extremely heavy on one side or the other, chances are there hasn't been enough homework done. There is a lot of value in proprietary products, and there is also a lot of value in open source. The question is do those value points align with your business?

Also remember that it's not an all or nothing proposition. The S in GIS is System, a web of interconnected parts and processes. Add in or replace components with open source, where that makes sense.

And finally, just use it yourself. When someone asks, "how did you do...?" Show them!

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+1 - Huge agreement with this statement. The question over which way to go should always be a business case for what supports productivity better. One or the other or a combination of both may be appropriate depending on your needs and abilities. Don't write one off without testing to see if it might actually meet your needs, whether FOSS or proprietary. – Get Spatial Apr 18 '13 at 18:19
I think this requires open-minded decision makers and an environment where you are allowed to install stuff. I'm very interested in this question because I more often see something else. How do you convince people who are starting from a policy of 'only commercial software is allowed' (by cryptic and maybe nonsensical, but historically accepted legal or other arguments), who are more interested in power than problem solving, and your environment is locked down? Perhaps the OP is similarly burdened? – MC5 Apr 18 '13 at 21:14
@MC5, in that case, which is very real for a great many people, the issue is still not about open source per se, but about how to open up a space where the people doing the work have more freedom to research and decide to accomplish that work in the best way within their own domain. I think the answer remains the same, at core: find tangible examples of how doing things differently could save them money/time/fuss/aggravation/etc. Most open source desktop applications can be run portably or from a live disc, so things can be done without installing (I'm not advising going against policy BTW). – matt wilkie Apr 19 '13 at 17:22

My process has been to install, and find projects/champions to utilize it "under" the radar.
Doing small projects that have a high success ratio, and getting others on the same page with you will have huge effects. Also using the software in a non-pressurized environment will help it accomplish success and help you learn to accomplish with it.

When you have more understanding of what it's strengths/weaknesses are you will be able to apply it as a tool in larger projects. This will also hold your integrity together allowing others to see that you are not trying to "throw out" the system but to augment the system.

When you can add accomplished users without paying the huge costs of established license management. Then work hard to add project specific payments to OS developers. This will make the ROI much easier to track and present.

Much more could be said on this subject. I am sure others will have excellent advice also. Let's keep it constructive though or it will likely be voted as "Not Constructive"

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I employ a similar strategy. I have found that some folks are open-source averse because they think it can't be as good as the stuff you pay for. However, if you can do something really well and then show that you did it with open-source products they don't have the same prejudiced reaction. – Kevin Apr 18 '13 at 16:46
QGIS with PostGIS is one example - direct connection no middle management (ie ArcSDE). Convincing higher management usually starts with 'we can save money here.' – Mapperz Apr 18 '13 at 16:53

Managers are not likely to cut off their employees from time tested ESRI tools without grass roots support. Imagine the alternative--say your company only uses open source tools to accomplish GIS related work. If all of the sudden ESRI tools were imposed on you, there would be a significant reduction in productivity in the short term. Rather, managers are more likely to test the waters and see how a potential transition of tools will work--after all they are ultimately responsible for the bottom line.

I would take a grass roots approach and convince GIS staffers to switch over to FOSS rather than the higher ups. A one time bonus equal to a year's licensing fees divided up among the staffers would provide good incentive. Once the GIS staffers actually embrace FOSS, the managers will realize the potential cost savings and are likely to opt for the transition.

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Much will depend on which ESRI components your organisation is using. Identify where switching to open source may be most beneficial.

If you are mostly using ESRI for cartography or mobile solutions you may find out that alternatives may cost you more than ESRI. Real gains can be made when you are using web gis or doing a lot of processing, which is where open source solutions stand out.

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+1 I completely agree with this sentiment: Real gains can be made when you are using web gis or doing a lot of processing, which is where open source solutions stand out. – elrobis Apr 18 '13 at 17:06

A slow migration would be less risky. Whenever budgeting issues come up along with the cost of software, then offer solutions that save money, one at a time as they arise. Whenever a project comes up with an Open Source solution that can handle the task at hand, mention the savings and ask, "Why spend that on software when we can spend it on something else more useful". There might be new projects that come on board that would call for the purchase of new software and staff. Whenever discussions of trimming back costs come up, ask why the organization isn't trimming the cost of software down so that less trimming has to occur elsewhere, especially when viable solutions work that are completely free. At those times, offer to use the Open Source solution and save the organization money.

When new employees come in, give them immediate access to open source applications, with proprietary software to arrive "as needed" When they need something expensive have them fill out a request for software with the reason they need it, then reply back with a question "Doesn't this software that's installed already do that function?" Eventually, turn these new employees over to help established employees learn the shortcuts of the Open Source way. Give the new employees a badge of honor or employee of the week for doing so. Make them the organizations new front line for innovation.

Lastly, when management asks you, "But why haven't I heard of this software before?" Simply retort back the truth, "Did a salesman try to sale it to you, or did you see it at a Vendors Booth?" ...and "That's because no one ultimately needs us to use this software, besides ourselves, because we are the only ones profiting from it"

Over time, some of the computers in a large organization can be replaced with complete open stack systems, like Ubuntu, to handle nearly everything, while a few others may have mixed applications that are in some state of transition to open source alternatives, as a goal. But, there may be others in your organization that do need to stick completely with proprietary systems. There isn't an open source alternative for everything; pushing too far, too fast back fires.

The amount of time spent learning applications and operating systems is MOSTLY UNNOTICED. This is a huge amount of time we spend, in our free time, getting familiar with new software--it's mostly an unconscious process of learning. The slow migration approach (with occasional leaps) is best, else disappoints will arise later, and with that comes the inevitable recommendations against the products that would otherwise be beneficial to any organization.

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To build on what a few others have mentioned, budgetary constraints can be very helpful.

At my workplace, we have a surprisingly limited number of esri licenses to go around, and staff are often frustrated by their inability to do necessary GIS work. People resort to tactics like waiting until after business hours to grab a license for the next day. In this environment, I found people were very receptive to open source tools.

I agree with the comments arguing for slow migrations and small projects, and the de-emphasizing of open source vs proprietary. If people can see that wow, I can have my own GIS software without the hassle of license sharing, people will try it for themselves. I've also noticed that once people do have an install of QGIS running they begin asking other users to rely less on esri proprietary formats.

Slow and steady!

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