Open source is great! Now how can we make money off of it?

Alex Joseph, Executive Director, Water and Environment Hub

Open source, and in particular open geographic information systems (GIS), is at the heart of the Water and Environmental Hub. So it seemed highly appropriate that I should take a break from the GIS In the Rockies conference in Denver, CO, to check out the nearby Free and Open Source Software for GIS (FOSS4G) event, which ran from Sept. 12-16. (You can see their promo video here.)

The FOSS4G truly offers an open source, individual developer feel, similar to the O'Reilly Open Source Convention. This vibe was reflected in the diversity in presentations, and apparent explosion of ideas on how to use and incorporate open-source GIS solutions. The question of "how can I make money with open source?" came up often. A number of speakers (including James Dixon of Pentaho Consulting) used the term "professional open source software" to infer the potential for this sector, although others alluded to the challenges of finding a workable business model for open source.

The "$weet $pot" could potentially be found in being an intermediary or translator between users and developers or data providers. Although open source and open data may be implicitly free, business models exist to make money from them. For example, newspapers are sold below cost but are profitable through ads, Amazon Kindles are sold for cheap in order to sell profitable e-books, and everyone is familiar with the existence of the museum gift shop to extract the biggest source of profit for a museum. Google was conjured up as the largest open source company in the world and the greatest example of profits that can be made from a "free" product, while also exemplifying that you have to make a living, before you can really make a difference.

On the contrary, it was noted that, "the best organizations know how to extract information from data streams" (such as Google), and clearly, there is much enthusiasm around the opportunities opening up due to open source and open data paradigm shifts in the economy. Even more encouraging was a recent article in The Wall Street Journal by Marc Andreesen, entrepreneur and co-author of Mosaic. He suggested that "more and more major businesses and industries are being run on software and delivered as online services".

I have the feeling we're just seeing the tip of the iceberg here.