Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Beginning MapServer - Open Source GIS Development

This book is titled Beginning MapServer, and rest assured the term "Beginning" is a relative one.The author clearly knows the MapServer software, and patiently steps the reader through the process of building a Web mapping service based on this open-source software platform.

Like a lot of us, the author seems to have an appreciation for taking things apart.But unlike a lot of us, he is also gifted at putting them back together again ...and he guides the reader step by step.I appreciated the fact that he requires a certain knowledge level of the reader, any less and the book would need to be a thousand pages.But even someone like me, with an extensive For Dummies collection on the office shelf, was able to follow along.While I would not describe this book as light reading, I would refer to it as consistent and interesting.I would also refer to it as a must read for those considering using MapServer, and even those who have used MapServer for years.The author has reviewed every online support document available, found and corrected any and all errors he discovered, and summarized the information you need in a single manuscript.I only wish the book had been available sooner.

Kropla does take a direction with this book that many open source programmers take: he assumes (or wishes) that everyone who reads the book is a UNIX person.This may deter some readers in the first chapter, but should not.It seems strange that open-source-minded people are often not open-minded about Windows.If open source is going to be as successful as many would like it to be, Windows will likely be a part of the process.How else will open source reach Windows users? The author does admit that MapServer will run on Windows, and I cannot blame him for not spending too much time on Windows given the breadth of material he does cover.

The book also includes a significant review of other open source software tools that can be used by more savvy programmers to enhance and extend MapServer, including software utilities, programming languages and SQL databases.Application examples form the basis of instruction as the reader discovers how to create simple and less simple mapping interfaces.It is here where the term in the title, "Beginning," takes hold, and the reader is left to his own devices to build more robust mapping interfaces.Everything you need is indeed in this book, however, to reach high levels of mapping sophistication with MapServer.

The book's forward is written by the original creator of MapServer, Stephen Lime, who refers to the book as "tangible evidence that I was really doing something during those long nights in the basement..." I think this book represents tangible evidence that MapServer is here to stay.Along with other recently published books (Mapping Hacks), this book's mere existence (not to mention the publisher's willingness to publish it) seems to suggest a new path for GIS professionals and users to consider.I suppose the litmus test would be to have, say, your mother read this book and a similar book about a proprietary Web mapping software, and ask if she could tell the difference.If she cannot ...then why can we?

This same litmus test seems to be giving the GIS industry fits these days as Google Maps invades our space (including our lunar space) and flexes its muscle.There was a day when muscle seemed to be defined by size, with world-wide software vendors taking the lead in nearly every facet of the GIS industry.Today, muscle seems more and more defined by vision, where a handful of programming hackers can take a few months off from re-programming their ancient Atari games to produce stunning new mapping tools simple enough for nearly anyone to use, and useful enough for everyone to appreciate.

While further scrutiny reveals the gap between Google Maps and true GIS tools, closer scrutiny still does not reveal such gaps between proprietary Web mapping software and MapServer.And Beginning MapServer: Open Source GIS Development, appears to be the first glossy demonstration as to how narrow that gap really is.