OS devs concerned over ESRI LiDAR format

By on 21 April, 2015

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80 spatial developers and users have signed an open letter that expresses concern for the future of interoperability between LiDAR applications, due to ESRI choosing to implement a proprietary LiDAR format for use in its ArcGIS software.

The open letter, published on the OSGeo Wiki, states as follows:

“We, the undersigned, are concerned that the current interoperability between LiDAR applications, through use of the open “LAS” format, is being threatened by ESRI’s introduction and promotion of an alternative “Optimized LAS” proprietary format. This is of grave concern given that fragmentation of the LAS format will reduce interoperability between applications and organisations, and introduce vendor lock-in.”

The letter then goes on to make four requests that would help rectify, what in their eyes, is a move that goes against the spirit of community that the open source movement is based around.

ESRI, on the other hand, believe that the creation and promotion of their proprietary ‘optimized LAS’ LiDAR format is more of a technical move than one motivated by profit.

The company told iTnews that the LAS specification does not address areas of compression, indexing, random access, nor the storage of statistics, which are required for direct use in applications.

“Existing open source LAS based formats also do not address all these concerns,” ESRI product manager Peter Becker said.

“The Optimised LAS format that Esri has developed addresses many of these operational issues and is provided as a runtime library under an Apache2 license enabling this capability to be added to any application.”

Of course, there was a clear need for the LAS format to be updated to allow random access and compression, among other issues, in order for it to work with ESRI or other enterprise software. However, there was already an open format addressing those issues: LASzip. Further, the runtime library has also been criticised by OSGeo as legally restricting open source products from implementing “Optimised LAS” compatibility into their codebase.

What is crucial to this argument, the developers claim, is that, if ESRI were truly committed to open standards, as they have claimed before, then the work that it has done improving the LAS format for use in ESRI software should have been handed back to the open source community, or, alternatively, ESRI could have worked with the community to turn LASzip into a proper open LAS standard that would benefit the spatial community as a whole, rather than just ESRI users.

Cameron Shorter, the Australian chair of the not-for-profit OSGeo Foundation, stated as much in a post on his personal blog:

“To be clear, Esri has extended LAS to create “Optimized LAS” which provides near identical features and performance to the existing and open LASzip format, both of which provide faster access and smaller file sizes the LAS format. However, rather than collaborate with the open community, as has been repeatedly offered, “Optimized LAS” has been developed internally to Esri. It is neither published, nor open, which provides both technical as well as legal barriers for other applications reading and/or writing to this proprietary format. This creates a vendor lock-in scenario which is contrary to the principles of the Open Geospatial Consortium, the OSGeo Foundation, and many government IT procurement policies.”

This isn’t the first time that the geospatial software giant has run into the ire of the open source community: in 2013, ESRI was pushing for its ‘Geoservices REST API’ to be implemented as an OGC standard, even though much of its functionality was already covered by existing OGC W*S standards.

The community was able to force ESRI to withdraw its application, and the OGC later updated its processes to ensure that a similar situation would not happen again.

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