This is part of a series on Open Source Builders. For a list of other articles in this series, check out the introductory post.

Amazon Web Services (AWS)_ sponsored this post._

Matt Asay

Matt is a principal at AWS and has been involved in open source and all that it enables (cloud, machine learning, data infrastructure, mobile, etc.) for nearly two decades, working for a variety of open source companies and writing regularly for InfoWorld and TechRepublic. You can follow him on Twitter (@mjasay).

If I had to pick an innovation that has dramatically changed my life for the better, Google Maps would top the list. Google Maps used to make my commute (remember those?) manageable, but in general, it has helped me navigate the physical world — including once guiding me up a steep couloir in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains before the sun rose to light the way. “Are in the right or left fork of the Y Couloir?” I asked my ski partner. “Let me check Google Maps.”

He might just as well have said, “Let me check GDAL,” because the open source Geospatial Data Abstraction Library is a key part of Google Maps (not to mention Google Earth, NASA’s planetary cartography, Uber’s mapping functionality, and every other major imagery provider in the world). GDAL isn’t the only geographic information system (GIS) but, as Robert Simmon has written, “the most pervasive GIS software is expensive [and] difficult to learn.” By contrast, he continues, GDAL is “free, broadly supported, constantly updated, and runs on almost anything.”

GDAL, in short, may not be a household name, but it’s everywhere and helps us to map everything. Or, as the folks at Google Earth put it, “GDAL makes the world go round.”

The reasons for that broad utility arise from its diverse open source community. To better navigate the GDAL community, I talked with Even Rouault, a lead maintainer and prominent contributor to GDAL since 2007.

Born for Geospatial

GDAL, launched in 1998, is primarily a translation tool, able to read and write over 250 different file formats (database or protocols, raster or vector), mostly in the area of geospatial. Do GIS/mapping vendors and users absolutely need GDAL? Perhaps not. Instead, they could write their own proprietary reader and/or writer for the file formats they need (there are many required). It’s “only” 1.4 million lines of code….

Or they could instead use the free and open source GDAL, a bit of a “Swiss army knife” for geospatial, as Rouault described it. GDAL has also become important in cloud computing, as it includes a virtual file system layer for accessing the storage services of most cloud vendors, including AWS. As Rouault says, “You can do things like reading the metadata of a GeoTIFF file stored in a multi-gigabyte ZIP sitting on Amazon S3 with just a few kilobytes actually retrieved.”

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GDAL: The Open Source Technology Behind Google Maps – The New Stack
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