WorldMap: Supporting Academic Collaboration with Open Source

Harvard’s Center for Geographic Analysis (CGA) is currently developing WorldMap, an open source web mapping system that extends the capabilities of their previous AfricaMap technology by using GeoNode as a collaborative spatial data infrastructure.

AfricaMap:  A Web-based Map to Support Scholars

When CGA released AfricaMap in 2008, the web mapping system was enthusiastically received by researchers both within and outside the university. While students and instructors had previously found it extremely difficult to access geographic research materials,  AfricaMap allowed non-technical users easy access to more advanced GIS capabilities, including the ability to:

  • Easily share information by navigating an intuitive, map-based interface

  • Rapidly query multiple data layers, with results returned on a map

  • Query through many layers at a time, using transparency control for comparing layers

  • Bring in feeds from multiple sources

In addition to Africanists, the project drew interest from other groups that wanted a platform focused on their own geographic areas of interest.  This enthusiasm brought with it new data from organizations seeking a safe place for their materials and generated demand for adding additional layers into AfricaMap.  As these layers were included, AfricaMap’s utility steadily increased.

Vermont to East Asia with a FOSS Stack

Witnessing the success of AfricaMap, users interested in other parts of the world decided to create deployments for new regions and thematic areas.  Since CGA developers used free, open-source technologies to develop AfricaMap, they were able to replicate this successful platform for other groups without worrying about licensing or proprietary software costs.  The same technology stack now supports another five research maps:

WorldMap: Extending the Reach

[caption id="attachment_254" align="alignright" width="470" caption="Historic and contemporary Boston data can be explored in WorldMap Alpha."][![](]([/caption]

While AfricaMap was envisioned as a platform that would enable an entire community of users to create and maintain a map together, initial versions focused on providing a simple, stable application and postponed the addition of collaborative capabilities. Unfortunately, this required organizations to rely on CGA to add new maps or additional data layers, creating a bottleneck to broad adoption of the AfricaMap system.

In 2010, however, CGA began adding collaborative features to WorldMap to empower users to create and maintain their own customized maps. Because AfricaMap was built on OpenLayers, ExtJS, and GeoServer, OpenGeo's advances on the GeoNode open source stack meant that CGA could take advantage of new capabilities when building the next generation of their platform. Rather than having a single bottleneck when posting contributions from the community, WorldMap is designed to allow many individuals to be responsible for building and managing their own communities.  In this way, WorldMap is designed to present an array of public maps and scholarly data that enable users from different disciplines and organizations to work collaboratively with spatial information.

GeoNode: A New Component

[caption id="attachment_253" align="alignright" width="300" caption="WorldMap architecture incorporating GeoNode"][![](]([/caption]

As with AfricaMap, CGA was committed to building WorldMap using open source technologies.  While supporting user roles and collaboration requires major development efforts, CGA was able to quickly achieve results thanks to WorldMap's open source, interoperable architecture.  By working with OpenGeo to use GeoNode as the basis for new capabilities, CGA received immediate access to key open source components supporting collaboration, mapping, metadata management, and more, including:

  • Built-in user login/registration

  • User generated maps

  • Uploading of shapefiles and GeoTIFFs

  • Permissions control over maps and layers

  • Metadata storage & search through GeoNetwork

  • Interactive layer style editing

Giving Back:  The Beauty of Open Source

We're happy to welcome CGA to an open source community that is committed to the shared mission of empowering non-technical users to collaborate on advanced mapping and data sharing tools. Going forward, CGA will be committing the WorldMap improvements to the appropriate open source communities, including GeoNode, Django, ExtJS, GeoServer, OpenLayers, PostGIS, GEOS, GDAL, OGR, etc.

According to Ben Lewis, project manager for WorldMap: “We value the open source community very highly for many reasons social and technical which is why we are building WorldMap from open source components."

Sebastian Benthall, program manager for GeoNode at OpenGeo, adds:  "It is inspiring to see what WorldMap has done with GeoNode.  They have taken advantage of the core software's flexibility to add impressive new features.  That's how we hope people will use GeoNode, and a big part of why we made it open source."

The innovations that Harvard’s CGA is realizing for its users create more opportunities for university deployments of GeoNode.  Improvements for WorldMap benefit not only its own users, but assist other universities and institutions in further customizing GeoNode deployments for their own users and projects.  By sharing data from one another's GeoNodes, institutions can enable scholars from different disciplines and organizations to work collaboratively with spatial information. WorldMap allows users to publish and access the best contemporary and historic data for a particular site, city, region, or continent.

The beta version of WorldMap is projected to be completed by March 2010, pre-release training will be in May 2010, and the full release is scheduled for July 2010.

Posted at - Feb. 7, 2011, 4:22 p.m.

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