By promoting and contributing to open source development, the PVS has made a choice for the future, which can, at some point, influence local development and reinforce the open source skills of the Department. A lack of skills can slow down a project like ours. Beyond the spread of geospatial data, the PVS has triggered genuine momentum in adopting a common philosophy.Emmanuel Jobin, GIS Manager
An attractive and strategic syndicate of municipalities in the North-East of Charente-Maritime
Situated in the countryside of Charente-Maritime in western France, the Pays des Vals de Saintonge is close to both the Atlantic Ocean and a concentrated urban network (Saintes, Cognac, Rochefort, La Rochelle, Niort); it is easily accessible via A10 highway, the Paris-Bordeaux road. Its principal city, Saint Jean d'Angély - whose historical origins in the Royal Abbey (built in the 9th Century to house a relic of St. John the Baptist and classified World Heritage by UNESCO) - today combines a vibrant economy with sustainable practices. There are a number of ongoing building projects in the Vals de Saintonge, among them the development of Arcady, which will be dedicated to eco construction (under the EFFINERGIE label); the creation of a motorcycle construction hub in Fontenet; as well as a golf course and a Senior Village in Ville-aux-Moines.
The Vals de Saintonge oversees the development of 7 municipalities comprising 117 towns. Population has grown since the 90s with 53,000 inhabitants evenly distributed across the county. The mission of the Syndicate - founded in 1975 - is to define a sustainable development strategy for the municipalities (Scot, GIS, etc); and to implement economic policies (workshops for business start-ups), housing policies, tourism, heritage, culture, and new technologies (WiMax experiment).
A state-of-the-art geographic information systems department
The Charente Maritime region comprises 9 counties including the Vals de Saintonge. In 2002, the General Council decided to assist its municipalities in implementing geographic information systems (GIS) to capture, manage, analyze, and display all types of geospatial information. The aim was first, to provide a land registry of all administrative and municipal officials via the Internet and, secondly, to enhance the data by adding specific business information dealing primarily with systems in the public domain - sanitation, water, electricity, trucking routes, social infrastructures etc.
"The plan is to disseminate geospatial management skills throughout all the municipalities, not only for transparency, but also to ensure geospatial planning consistency," says Francis Forgeard-Grignon, former President of the PVS who initiated the project and, today, Vice-President of the PVS and President of the group of municipalities in Saint Jean d'Angély. "The goal was to develop a common platform provided consistently to stakeholders across the department allowing them to share costs and letting municipalities, including the smaller ones, improve their geospatial management."
The Department relied on Charente Maritime's IT organization (SI 17) to take the first step, which involved digitizing the land registry. "Founded 25 years ago, SI 17 is tasked to democratize the use of computers in small and medium-sized municipalities that have limited means compared to larger cities such La Rochelle, Saintes, or Rochefor," explains Emmanuel Jobin, GIS Manager of SI 17. "The land registry didn't exist in digital form and represented 80% of the project. The digitalization has since been decentralized and the cost assumed by the municipalities. Today 85% of the municipalities have been scanned and all - some 472 municipalities - will be digitized by 2010."
The project was meant to meet different usage needs and, eventually, to provide information via the Internet in a simple and secure way. Technical services and project managers would be able to create and modify the data and GIS administrators responsible for training and support would be able to collect and shape it.
Innovation and transparency
Led by its President, the PVS initiated an early shift to open source technologies. "The idea is that open source provides an alternative to proprietary solutions which frequently don't address issues that local governments face in the field," says Francis Forgeard-Grignon. "Moreover, fostering innovation by encouraging experimentation is a cornerstone of our philosophy. For example, we participated in the first WiMax trials in 2001. The PVS migrated to open source in 2002, followed by a few municipalities. We did the same for the GIS project, affirming our desire to contribute to municipality work without limiting ourselves to a single use."
"It was a risky bet at the time," adds Francis Forgeard-Grignon, "but we had a long-term goal. We knew that whoever controlled IT had the power and we didn't want to let that fall into the hands of private operators. The reasonable up-front price for digitizing the registry let us counterbalance the costs associated with ramp-up and training the engineers. We are preparing for a future free from the financial constraints of proprietary solutions."
A public search was launched for GIS tools to use with the registry data. With each municipality free to choose its own solution, the PVS selected Camptocamp, a European leader in open source geomatics. "The eligibility criteria required that candidates use open source technologies under GPL license, and Camptocamp met those specifications," adds Emmanuel Jobin. "The other applicants were loosely based on open source components, but not entirely, and not necessarily under GPL license. Camptocamp introduced us to Talend's data integration solutions, but at that point there were no geospatial-specific Edigéo or Magic (DGI) data integration tools. The PVS decided to finance the Edigéo and Magic connectors to transform this data, which would then be given back to the community under a GPL license so that all municipalities could benefit from them. Camptocamp developed Spatial Data Integrator (SDI), an open source geographic solution based on Talend Open Studio for Data Integration."
"Camptocamp was the only integrator offering a 100% open source solution. That wasn't just to win the contract; open source is their core business. Moreover, the company went beyond proposing a tool and addressed peripheral issues such as maintenance, management, and data security," added Francis Forgeard-Grignon.
Costs savings & evolution; security & ergonomics
Today the entire geomatic chain relies on open source technologies - from data storage to retrieval - and meets many functional needs. The ergonomics of the system was also improved so that eventually it will be available to citizens and not just local government agents. The Web application also has several levels of security - each municipality has access to its own data and can see the whole picture. A computer will be installed in each municipality, and an Internet connection will make the data easier to access.
According Francis Forgeard-Grignon, one of the main benefits of Camptocamp's solution is its scalability. "If we decide tomorrow to create 100 GIS integration jobs, the costs would be well below what we'd have to pay with a proprietary solution because we don't have to buy software licenses. And, since the system is Internet-based, it's quick and easy to use and we don't need to send out update CDs, which can be expensive and hard to manage. We are completely in control of how our system evolves." For Emmanuel Jobin, the benefits go beyond the availability of the geographic data. "By promoting and contributing to open source development, the PVS has made a choice for the future which can, at some point, influence local development and reinforce the open source skills of the Department. A lack of skills can slow down a project like ours. Beyond the spread of geospatial data, the PVS has triggered genuine momentum in adopting a common philosophy."
The public website will be online in early 2009. "We are glad to have led this collective work, funded by the municipality, and to make it available to other French municipalities wanting to reach the same goals of transparency and land-use controls," concludes Francis Forgeard-Grignon. "Open source was a decisive way to achieve these objectives."