LIDAR Format Letter

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Cover Letter from the OSGeo Board of Directors

The Board of the Open Source Geospatial Foundation (OSGeo) is presenting this letter to the geospatial community at large. The letter highlights concerns about the need for standards in LiDAR data formats, from many people within the OSGeo community. Although specific organizations are named in the letter, the OSGeo Board of Directors would like to focus on the general importance of standards in the industry, and learn from this example so we can make geospatial information easily accessible to all users. As always, if there is anything that the OSGeo Board can do to help, then please let us know.

Signed:

  • Jeff McKenna (OSGeo President), Michael Smith (OSGeo Treasurer), Jáchym Čepický (OSGeo Secretary), Massimiliano Cannata, Vasile Craciunescu, Bart van den Eijnden, Gérald Fenoy, Anne Ghisla, Jorge Sanz

Open Letter of the Need for Open Standards in LiDAR

April 2015.

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.


We request that:

  1. The OGC initiate the formalisation of an open standard for storing LiDAR data, and that OGC sponsors help prioritise the development of this open LiDAR standard.
  2. ESRI support the OGC in their mission "to advance the development and use of international standards and supporting services that promote geospatial interoperability." In particular, ESRI joins with the OGC in consolidating an Open Standard for use of LiDAR data. This might include proposing ESRI's "Optimized LAS" as an Open Standard to remove any technical or legal hurdles in use of "Optimized LAS" as an Open Standard. A simple test to determine if "Optimized LAS" can be used as an Open Standard would be if "Optimized LAS" can legally be implemented by Open Source software such as libLAS or LASlib.
  3. Users and sponsors of LiDAR data, publicly state their preference for the use of an open LiDAR format over proprietary when selecting software and services.
  4. The custodians of the open LAS format LAS Working Group (LWG), who are part of American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS), request the term "LAS" not to be included in the name of a proprietary format, as it makes such a proprietary format appear to be an approved derivative of LAS.

Signed

Name, Affiliation(s), Optional comment on interest in Open LiDAR format

  1. Suchith Anand, Geo for All, committed to Open Principles in Geo Education and Policy.
  2. Martin Isenburg, founder of rapidlasso GmbH and creator of LASzip, LAStools, and PulseWaves.
  3. Cameron Shorter, GeoSpatial Director at LISAsoft. Core contributor and coordinator of OSGeo-Live. Contributor to numerous OGC testbeds, technical lead on a range of previous Australian and New Zealand Open Government initiatives.
  4. Stefan Keller, founder and director of Geometa Lab; Professor in GIS, databases, open (government) data and interoperability; maintainer of GeoConverter; contributor to open source software (GDAL/OGR, QGIS).
  5. Patrick Hogan, NASA World Wind Project Manager, committed to the US National Spatial Data Infrastructure principles, one being "to make geographic data more accessible to the public" NSDI. Open standards are essential for this.
  6. Lene Fischer, Associate Professor, Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management, University of Copenhagen. User of Open and free Data from The Danish Geodata Agency - Using LAZ and LAS http://download.kortforsyningen.dk/content/dhmpunktsky.
  7. Maria Antonia Brovelli, Full Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Politecnico di Milano. Geo For All, committed to Open Principles in Geo Education and Policy and to Open Principles in Research.
  8. Ron Fortunato, President of Trillium Learning LLC. Committed to open data standards that are necessary for education and all levels of communication.
  9. Armin Schmidt, Chief Developer at GeodataWIZ Ltd and Chairman of ISAP, committed to better science through Open Data.
  10. Giuseppe Conti, CTO Trilogis Srl, Italy. Committed to open data standards that maximize opportunity for innovative solutions, unencumbered by artificial obstacles to data exchange.
  11. Jorge Gustavo Rocha, Professor, Computer Science Department, University of Minho, Portugal, committed to better science through Open Data.
  12. Jim Miller, University of Kansas, Professor, Computer Science. Open standards for data exchange are essential for education and research.
  13. Brandt Melick, Information Technology Department Director, Springfield Oregon USA. The need to promote open solutions is paramount.
  14. Alex Paza Makini, National University Solomon Islands, Natural Resources and Applied Science. Committed to open data standards for education and research, and everything beyond.
  15. Jorg M. Hacker, Professor, Director/Chief Scientist of Airborne Research Australia, Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia. Open formats have always been a great benefit to airborne LiDAR.
  16. Didier Richard, Head of IS Training Dept. in Education and Research Directorate of Institut National de l'Information Géographique et Forestière, France. OGC user, Contributor to OSGeO projects like GDAL.
  17. Adryane Gorayeb, Federal University of Ceará Brazil, Geography Department. Open standards for data exchange are essential for education and research.
  18. Yury Ryabov, PhD, Senior researcher at Russian Scientific-Research Centre for Ecological Safety, Russian Academy of Sciences, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Open data formats are essential for successful and reproducible scientific research.
  19. María Teresa Lamelas, Centro Universitario de la Defensa Zaragoza, GeoForest-IUCA. Committed to open data standards for education and research.
  20. David Herries, Using LiDAR for forest yield modelling at Interpine Innovation. Establishing open data standards provide scope for exponential growth in innovation. This is key to a rapidly developing technology like LiDAR.
  21. Iván Sánchez Ortega, Mazemap. OSGeo Charter member and Open Data nerd.
  22. Anita Graser, GIS specialist with AIT Austrian Institute of Technology, OSGeo Charter member and QGIS team member. Committed to open data standards for education and research.
  23. Pedro-Juan Ferrer, Geomaticblog. OSGeo Charter member and member of the Open Knowledge Foundation.
  24. Professor Karl Donert, President European Association of Geographers (http://www.eurogeo.nl/ EUROGEO)
  25. Drew Fenton, Boulder Creek, CA Countdown to the Last Coast Redwood. Please protect Open Standards for geospatial data!
  26. Wladimir Szczerban, Geoinquiets Geogeek & OSGeo Spanish Local Chapter Member, Spain
  27. Volker Mische, OSGeo Charter member and creator of GeoCouch
  28. Carlos López Quintanilla, PSIG Geoinquiets GIS consultant, Spain
  29. Stephen Woodbridge, iMaptools, OSGeo Charter member.
  30. Oliver Doepner, doepner.net, Software Engineer (Java,Linux), Open Standards and Open Source advocate
  31. Luca Delucchi, Fondazione Edmund Mach, OSGeo Charter member, FOSS4G and Open Data developer, advocate, contributor and user.
  32. Antoine Cottin, CTO of Carbomap Ltd. and creator of Fleurdelas, Edinburgh, United Kingdom.
  33. Sandro Santilli, NetLab, Free Software Hacker. There are already too many users slave to their tools, let's stop that!
  34. Alessandro Pasotti, ItOpen, GIS Free Software Developer.
  35. Eduard Roccatello, 3DGIS, 3DGIS CTO and co-Founder
  36. Andrea Antonello, HydroloGIS, OSGeo Charter member, Open Source GIS developer, HydroloGIS co-founder.
  37. Stefano Campus, President of GFOSS.it Association (Associazione Italiana per l'Informazione Geografica Libera), Italian Local Chapter of OSGeo Foundation.
  38. Margherita Di Leo, OSGeo Charter Member
  39. Sergio Acosta y Lara, OSGeo Charter Member
  40. Maxim Dubinin, CEO at NextGIS, OSGeo Charter Member. Another 'standard' proprietary format? No, thank you.
  41. Stefano Costa, Soprintendenza Archeologia della Liguria, Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali e del Turismo, Italy
  42. Jonathan Greenberg, Assistant Professor, GEARS Laboratory, Department of Geography and Geographic Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
  43. Bob Basques, Saint Paul, Mn., Technical Director for SharedGeo.
  44. Maning Sambale, OSGeo Charter Member
  45. Paolo Cavallini, QGIS PSC
  46. Phillip Davis, Member OSGeo Geo For All education advisory board, Director @ GeoAcademy
  47. Nicolas Bozon, Researcher and software developer, OSGeo Charter Member
  48. Ruslan Rainis, Professor, Director, Centre for Research Initiatives in Liberal Arts & Social Sciences(CRI-LASS). Open GeoInformation for a Sustainable Tomorrow and the Bottom Billions.
  49. Silvia Franceschi, HydroloGIS, OSGeo Charter member, Environmental Engineer Open Source GIS power user, HydroloGIS co-founder.
  50. Oscar Martinez Rubi Netherlands eScience Center eScience engineer.
  51. Werner Macho, QGIS team member. Committed to open data standards for education and research.
  52. Giuseppe Patti, Geologist and Freelance Geospatial Advisor, GFOSS supporter.
  53. Daniel Rappo, Professor, University of Applied Sciences and Arts Western Switzerland, School of Business and Engineering Vaud.
  54. Juan Ignacio Varela, Freelance Geospatial Advisor and OSGeo Local Chapter Member.
  55. Daniel Morissette, President at Mapgears, OSGeo Charter member.
  56. Raul Nanclares, RS&GIS Specialist
  57. Riccardo Rigon, Professor at University of Trento (Italy)
  58. Zoltan Siki Budapest University of Technology and Economics (Hungary), OSGeo Charter member.
  59. Michael Lefsky, Professor of Remote Sensing Science, Colorado State University and Director, Center for Ecological Applications of Lidar.
  60. Lucas Villa Real, Research software engineer at IBM Research - Brazil.
  61. Loren Dawe, GIS Manager at Terra Remote Sensing Inc. Lidar Supplier and Open Standards Advocate
  62. Frank Warmerdam, Software Developer, OSGeo Charter member
  63. Jens Ingensand, Professor, University of Applied Sciences and Arts Western Switzerland, School of Business and Engineering Vaud.
  64. Siri Jodha Khalsa, Research Scientist, National Snow and Ice Data Center, Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, University of Colorado, Boulder, USA
  65. Andreas Neumann, GIS manager, City of Uster, Kanton Zurich, Switzerland
  66. Yann Chemin, Researcher - Remote Sensing, International Water Management Institute, Colombo, Sri Lanka
  67. Etienne B. Racine, Geomatics and remote sensing project manager, WSP, Canada
  68. Alejandro Hinojosa, CICESE Research Center, Earth Sciences Division, GIS & Remote Sensing Lab, Ensenada, Mexico
  69. Massimo Di Stefano, OSGeo Charter Member
  70. Rafael Moreno, University of Colorado Denver, Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences. Openness is fundamental to progress.
  71. Peter Drexel, GIS manager, State of Vorarlberg (State Survey Office), Austria
  72. Marco Minghini, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Politecnico di Milano. Committed to Open Principles in Geo Education and Research.
  73. Candan Eylül Kilsedar, WebGIS Developer, Research Fellow at Politecnico di Milano.
  74. Alastair McKinstry, Debian Linux meteorology/GIS developer, Ireland
  75. Elena Mezzini, Remote-sensing in forest ecology, Research Fellow, Department of Agricultural Sciences, University of Bologna, Italy.
  76. Mihai A. Tanase, Honorary fellow, Dept. of Forest and Ecosystem Science, The University of Melbourne, Australia
  77. Dave Murray, GIS Coordinator at City of Westminster
  78. Ayesa Martínez Serrano, Estudiante de Doctorado en Geografía del Centro de Investigaciones en Geografía Ambiental de la UNAM-México
  79. Christopher Crosby, co-founder, OpenTopography
  80. Shanmugam Ganeshkumar, Vice President - Consulting, GeoICON
  81. Chaitanya Kumar CH, GIS Developer with Egis Geoplan - India and OSGeo Charter member.
  82. KS Rajan, Associate Professor and Head, Lab for Spatial Informatics, IIIT Hyderabad and Chairman, KAIINOS Geospatial Technologies; Promoter and Supported of Open Source, Open Data, Open Standards and e-Governance in India
  83. Pericles Nacionales, RS/GIS Specialist and OSGeo Charter member.
  84. Vasile Crăciunescu, Researcher at Romanian National Meteorological Administration and OSGeo Board member.
  85. Andreas Roncat PostDoc Researcher, Research Groups Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing, Department of Geodesy and Geoinformation, Vienna University of Technology, Austria. In full agreement with Maxim Dubinin: Another 'standard' proprietary format? No, thank you.
  86. Rob Emanuele, Software Developer, Azavea Inc.
  87. Codrina Ilie, Researcher at the Groundwater Engineering Research Center, Technical University of Civil Engineering Bucharest and OSGeo Charter Member
  88. Gérald Fenoy, Software Developer, OSGeo Charter Member.
  89. Lucy Bastin, Software Developer at the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission / Computer Science lecturer, UncertML developer, Member of OGC SWG on User Feedback.
  90. Matt Wilkie, Geomatics Analyst at Yukon Government, Department of Environment. A practising GIS Professional for 20+ years. Throughout that time, the process of manipulating data into, through and out of proprietary formats has been the most aggravating source of inefficiency and wasted time. Things are hard enough without adding unnecessary barriers.
  91. Anna Petrasova, OSGeo Charter Member, GRASS GIS developer
  92. Mark Seibel, Geospatial Hacker. Long live open Geo data & software.
  93. Ben Discoe, Virtual Terrain Project and Leica Geosystems HDS, I wrangle point clouds every day. Semi-open E57 is bad enough. No more closed formats!
  94. Ilda Clos, GIS & IWRM specialist
  95. Daniel Kastl, Founder Georepublic and OSGeo Charter Member
  96. Gert-Jan van der Weijden Chairman of OSGeo.nl (local Dutch chapter)
  97. Randal Hale Owner of North River Geographic Systems, Inc
  98. Volker Wichmann, SAGA GIS and LASERDATA LIS developer
  99. Eric Theise, Software Developer, San Francisco, CA.
  100. Darrell Fuhriman, Director of Technology, Renewable Funding/ Adjunct Instructor, Department of Geography, Portland State University
  101. Ilkka Korpela, Academy Research Fellow, University of Helsinki. Open formats benefit everyone.
  102. David Percy, Faculty, Dept of Geology, Portland State University.
  103. Ken Woods, Alaska Division of Geological & Geophysical Surveys. Providing a web-based map interface to the entire collection of all publicly available point-cloud data in Alaska, USA.
  104. Vaclav Petras, using r.in.lidar and v.in.lidar in GRASS GIS and afraid of formats embraced by one vendor
  105. Jan Nespor, Ohio State University
  106. Dr. Marcos Nino-Ruiz, Geospatial e-Enabler, AURIN - The University of Melbourne, Australia
  107. Ed Russell, Terrain Mapping, Inc., Longmont, Colorado
  108. Jim Robb, Zia Design Group/Zia Maps LLC, Boulder, Colorado. Establish and legally support an Open LiDAR format.
  109. Travis Flohr, University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Landscape Architecture. Open geo standards are imperative to be successful in a transdisciplinary and collaborative world.
  110. Pete Bunting Senior Lecturer in Remote Sensing within the Department of Geography and Earth Sciences, Aberystwyth University and developer of the open source SPDLib software package for processing LiDAR data.
  111. Chris Clasen, Lidar Scientist, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency
  112. Peter Scarth Senior Research Scientist Joint Remote Sensing Research Program. Open standards are essential for research data archival and reuse.
  113. Just van den Broecke OSGeo Charter member and Secretary of OSGeo.nl (Dutch Local Chapter)
  114. Franz-Josef Behr Professor of spatial information processing at Stuttgart University of Applied Sciences
  115. Monia Elisa Molinari, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Politecnico di Milano.
  116. Don Brown, USGS, Enterprise GIS Specialist.
  117. Thomas Baumann, geoSYS, Project Manager GIS+Webmapping.
  118. Moritz Lennert, Université Libre de Bruxelles, Member of the GRASS GIS PSC
  119. Paulo Machado, Portugal Telecom Inovação Committed to open data standards and open source software.
  120. Eleonore Wolff, Universite Libre de Bruxelles
  121. Romanuel Ramon Antunez, Member of UACEE, GIS Developer, Professor at University of Informatics Science, Cuba.
  122. Ari Jolma, Biwatech Ltd.
  123. Paul Meems, Active GIS developer in the MapWindow Open Source GIS team.
  124. Leslie John Sox, Master's GIS Student, NCSU Center for Geospatial Analytics,[1], Degrees in Laser and Electro-Optics Technology, Geospatial Information Science, Raleigh, NC.
  125. Carlos H. Grohmann, Assistant Professor (GIS/RS), University of Sao Paulo, Brazil.
  126. Charles Schweik, Associate Professor, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
  127. Régis Haubourg, GIS manager, Adour-Garonne Water Basin Agency, France
  128. Angelos Tzotsos, OSGeo Charter Member
  129. Edzer Pebesma, Professor, Institute for Geoinformatics, University of Muenster
  130. Hugo Oosterkamp, Consultant Water & Sanitation
  131. Brylie Christopher Oxley Free/Open Source software developer
  132. Riccardo Civico Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia, Italy
  133. Carlo Alberto Brunori Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia, Italy
  134. Rashad KM, Developer, OSGeo Charter Member.
  135. Aníbal Pacheco, Developer, e-Government Agency, Uruguay.
  136. Mattias Nyström, Researcher, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Sweden. PhD in remote sensing of forests and now working with time series of remote sensing data and a remote sensing lab for the forestry education at the University.
  137. Thomas Mueller, Ph.D., GISP, California University of Pennsylvania, Department of Earth Sciences
  138. Cody Burns, Geophysical Land Services
  139. Alexander Bruy, Software Developer, OSGeo Charter member
  140. Nikos Alexandris
  141. John Callahan, Research Scientist, Delaware Geological Survey, University of Delaware
  142. Ivan Minčík, Independent GIS consultant and solutions architect, OSGeo Charter member
  143. Christian Malmquist, Gemoatics Engineer, Norwegian Mapping Authority and Norwegian University of Science and Technology

Background

About LiDAR

LiDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) is a form of high precision range measurement, much like a radar system, but one that uses laser light instead of radio waves. The standard LiDAR product is a 3D point cloud that can be conceptualized as a series of point measurements representing distance between the sensor to a returned emission.

For over a decade (since 2003), there has been a common format for storing LiDAR data, the “LAS” format, and open source libraries have been developed to read, write and process these LAS files: libLAS and LASlib. These libraries have been incorporated within many LiDAR applications, allowing read/write access to a common exchange format, and resulting in full interoperability between the applications. There is also an open source compression algorithm for the LAS format called LASzip that many LiDAR data portals use to compress LAS into smaller LAZ files for faster download. Many LiDAR software packages have added native support for these compressed LAZ files.

LAS Limitations

Quoting Paul Ramsey:

LAS format is not without its drawbacks:
  • While it is a binary format and does not waste any space unnecessarily, neither does it apply any compression to the data it stores. That’s not good for archival use.
  • Also, LAS stores points in scan order, so accessing any particular chunk of points involves reading the whole file. That’s not good for random access.
Clearly there is a little more work to be done. Can LAS be improved? In fact, it already has been:
  • An open source compression library, LASzip can apply 20:1 lossless compression to LAS files, making them great for archival purposes.
  • Other LAS users have experimented with re-ordering points in a LAS or LASzip file to allow random access to internal chunks of the LIDAR point cloud.
Basically, making LAS smaller and faster is not rocket science, and if the work were incorporated into libLAS then the whole LIDAR community could leverage it together, and the user community would only have one file type to interchange.


'Optimized LAS' A Proprietary ESRI Format

ESRI announced, 12 January 2014, the release of an "Optimized LAS" format which is claimed to provide faster access and smaller file sizes (similar to the open LASzip format). This announcement created a outburst of vocal protest in the LiDAR community [1 2 3 4 5 6].

The implementation of the "Optimized LAS" format is not available as Open Source and the format and algorithm details itself are undocumented, which means nobody can currently create alternate implementations, neither closed nor Open Source. This causes both technical as well as legal barriers for other applications reading and/or writing to this proprietary format. It 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.

One year after releasing the "Optimized LAS" format, ESRI released a Windows only library (DLL) as a free-of-charge (gratis) download that is claimed to convert between LAS and "Optimized LAS". Note there is a distinct difference between a "free-of-charge" binary distribution of DLLs and publishing something as "Open Source". Unless the source code of the library is released as Open Source under an Open Source license, libLAS and related products will be legally prevented from incorporating ESRI's reader/writer code into their codebase, or from fixing any underlying bugs or performance limitations which may exist in ESRI's product.

Ironically, ESRI later placed their binary library files on github accompanied by an Apache License, but no source code was published. The distribution of binaries without source code is allowed by Apache License, but very uncommon and misleading, to say the least. The practice goes against the basic idea of “Open Source” and the Open Source Initiative (OSI) even has an FAQ entry on the obvious contradiction of “Open Source” without source code.

OGC's Efforts For An Open LiDAR Standard

The Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) has indicated their interest in developing a standard LiDAR format.

Carl Reed (formerly on OGC staff) provided the following information on OGC's previous efforts to work toward enabling Open Standards in LiDAR:

"Over the last 8 or so years, the OGC approached ASPRS at least twice regarding LAS and worked with ASPRS to bring LAS into the OGC for consideration as both a Best Practice and an OGC standard. OGC member Rick Pearsall worked diligently on this. Rick worked for NGA, was active in the OGC, and was also the Standards Committee chair at ASPRS. Rick and Carl tried and failed. These attempts go back to at least 2007. More recently, Carl Reed had an email dialogue with Lewis Graham to bring LAS into OGC as an OGC Best Practice. Carl thought progress was being made, but then for some reason all communication stopped."

Scott Simmons (Executive Director, Standards Program) has explained the OGC's continuing interest in pursuing point cloud encoding standards, including a member-initiated mechanism to extend LAS data with OGC-standard XML content.

The OGC invites interested members who wish to work on this effort to please contact Scott Simmons (Executive Director, Standards Program E-mail : ssimmons@opengeospatial.org) to register their interest and discuss details. OGC will also be holding an ad hoc session at the OGC's next Technical Committee meeting in Boulder, CO, USA in early June to bring together all interested parties from all sectors (government, industry, academia) for this and plan next steps.


History: LAS and ESRI's 'Optimized LAS'

Martin Isenburg, one of the leading experts in LIDAR formats, and creator of LASzip, LAStools and PulseWaves, explains the history of LAS and "Optimized LAS":

Summary:
  • The LAS format has been used successfully for over a decade.
  • Within last couple of years, ESRI has added native LAS support into ESRI products.
  • ESRI discussed embracing the open LAZ format and simultaneously developed a proprietary "Optimized LAS" format.
  • The open geospatial community offered, on numerous occasions, to work with ESRI to avoid format fragmentation.
  • ESRI's proprietary "Optimized LAS" format is very similar in design and performance to the open LASzip format.
1998: Original LAS format definition
The original development of the LAS format started in 1998 according to Lewis Graham. The effort was at first led by pioneers of the LiDAR industry until the format was donated to the ASPRS. Since then ASPRS's LAS Working Group (LWG) has been maintaining the LAS format, guiding it from the initial LAS 1.0 version until today's LAS 1.4 version. This effort successfully created an open data exchange format for discrete LiDAR points that is currently supported by practically every LiDAR-related software program.
2011: ESRI joins LAS Working Group
ESRI did not join the LWG of the ASPRS until rather late, the 24th of August in 2011. At that time ESRI was not a significant "player" in the LiDAR market given they did not have much support for LiDAR in any of their products. That was to change soon as they were planning to add LAS as a native data type in ArcGIS 10.1.
Shortly before that, in June 2011, Martin Isenburg received a personal message from the ESRI development team: "I have a question about LAS compression. I’m evaluating some potential enhancements and support for [LAS and] LAZ is one of them. Compression time and amount is impressive." When inquiring two months later about the status of LAZ integration Martin was told: "We’re in beta and working to finish the current release. I very much doubt LAZ will make it in because it’s too big a change at this time. So, we’ll be considering, for the following release, [for] what we want to do regarding compression and spatial indexing."
June 2012: ArcGIS 10.1 includes [proprietary] LAS Dataset file
In June 2012 ESRI released ArcGIS 10.1 and introduced the proprietary "LAS Dataset file (*.lasd)" that groups collections of files into one logical unit. This format of this useful LAS container file was not shared with others despite several private and eventually public requests.
2012/2013: Collaboration Discussions
There were encouraging follow-ups from the ESRI team about adopting the open LAZ format in January 2012: "I would be interested in having a more in depth meeting with you to better understand the great work you are doing with LAS and how we can possibly better partner on this." and again in December 2012: "If you have time, I'd like to set some time aside Tuesday afternoon to meet with <an important person> at the ESRI booth. Does 2pm sound okay?" The meeting went well and it looked as if ESRI was going to embrace the LAZ format because shortly after the meeting Martin got word that: "I hear from <an important person> that it was a success and that he had a good meeting with you. I wanted to see if we can have a telephone discussion on Wednesday or Thursday this week related to the potential of incorporating LAZ into ArcGIS."
Then the first signs of hesitation showed. First there were legal issues raised in February 2013: "Currently the legal aspects are being reviewed. They were having some issues separating the LPGL aspects from LASzip from the remainder of LAStools etc." and then in April 2013 concerns about the code were made: "We have started to look into the integration of LAZ, but came across some issues. We don’t want to copy files from the other package, mix and match or hack around. We were hoping for an API to stream points out of a LAZ file as well as write LAZ files. There should be a simple code sample for that?" and - following up on that - in June 2013 Martin was told "I see value in LASzip becoming a de-facto standard that provides compression to the LAS format. If this is to happen then it needs to be bundled together with appropriate reference implementations, examples and documentation as a standard and so ensure that issues as defined earlier in email do not occur."
June 2013: ESRI asked to sponsor clean LASzip DLL
At that time LASzip was an open source project without sponsorship. The original funding from USACE that had turned LASzip from an academic prototype into an industry strength compression engine had long run out. So Martin asked ESRI to become a sponsor to create the clean LASzip API that ESRI was after. The answer was: "ESRI often helps in the financing of Open Source projects and I could foresee ESRI possibly helping in LASzip. [...] If you are interested in promoting LASzip as such a standard and doing the required work then I would recommend you put together a proposal and I can look to get ESRI as a sponsor."
Immediately Martin proposed to ESRI: "I hereby propose to write an easy to use open source DLL wrapper for LASzip that will make it easier to integrate LASzip in a standardized manner into other software products such as ArcGIS, LP 360, or Terrasolid. This will come with example code on how to use the DLL for reading and writing LAZ files and include a few compressed example files. I hereby ask ESRI to provide funding for this effort without imposing any limitations on the produced DLL API."
July 2013: ArcGIS 10.2 includes [proprietary] LAS indexing
With the release of ArcGIS 10.2 in July 2013, ESRI introduced spatial indexing to speed up area-of-interest queries. Their new proprietary *.lasx files were seemingly identical in functionality to the open *.lax files that had been announced two years earlier - in May 2011 - and were presented at ELMF in November 2012.
July 2013: Open LASzip API released
After more requests for an easier interface to LASzip (in particular for USDA's FUSION), Martin released a clean, well-documented, and easy-to-use LASzip DLL (without ESRI funding). Martin expected that developers at ESRI would now use it to add read and write support for LAZ to their next release of ArcGIS.
December 2013 : ESRI discovered to be secretly developing proprietary LAS format
In December of 2013, several LAStools users contacted Martin with suspicions that ESRI may be creating a proprietary LAS compression. Martin broke the news as soon as it became evident that ESRI had used the time it needed to resolve "legal issues" and "code problems" to put together their own proprietary compressed format with near-identical performance and functionality to LASzip. A few days later ESRI released an official FAQ to confirming this was the case.
From day one, Martin has worked with stakeholders, including ESRI, to avoid format fragmentation. Martin's core argument for resolving this to everybody's benefit was that - coincidentally - a natural break was happening in the LAS format with the introduction of the new LAS 1.4 point types. Martin outlined a detailed plan for how a joint development of LASzip for LAS 1.4 between rapidlasso and ESRI could exploit this natural break in the LAS format to accomplish two things at once:
  1. Add the unspecified technical additions that ESRI had hinted at desiring, and
  2. Extend the LASzip compression scheme to handle the new point types introduced with the LAS 1.4 specification. As there was no pressing need at the time to handle LAS 1.4 Martin had delayed the extension of LASzip to the new LAS 1.4 point types to make sure a cooperation with ESRI would remain a viable option.
1 April 2014: Positive reception to "Optimized LAS" / LASzip collaboration April Fools announcement
In an attempt to convince ESRI management of the community desire for an open standard, Martin released an April Fools' Day prank press release pretending that ESRI had already agreed to the envisioned collaboration to develop a joint LiDAR compressor. Community jubilant reactions (see comments) left no doubt about the sentiment on this issue within the LiDAR community.
October 2014: Announcement of [open] LAS Compatibility mode
Digital Coast, NOAA Coastal Services Center became a Gold Sponsor of LASzip for the development of the LAS 1.4 compatibility mode that was beta-released in November 2014. This allowed support for the new point types in LASzip without closing the door on a potential cooperation with ESRI for a joint LAS 1.4 compressor.
November 2014: ESRI announces proprietary extension to LAS 1.4
In November 2014 ESRI announced that they had added their own extension for the new LAS 1.4 point types to "Optimized LAS", dismissing the opportunity to develop a joint compressor and avoid format fragmentation by exploiting this "natural break" in the LAS format as Martin had suggested.
Since then, ESRI has been promoting "Optimized LAS". By including the term "LAS" in "Optimized LAS" and "zLAS", the distinction between the open LAS format and proprietary format is blurred. This is likely to mislead novice and future users, thereby endangering many years of standardization work. To date, [April 2014], the custodians of the LAS format, the LAS Working Group (LWG) of the ASPRS has yet to make an official statement regarding use of the "LAS" name in promoting a proprietary LiDAR format.

Value of Standards

The importance of Open Standards is described in most government IT policies. For instance, the United Kingdom policy states:

… Government assets should be interoperable and open for re-use in order to maximise return on investment, avoid technological or supplier lock-in, reduce operational risk in ICT projects and provide responsive services for citizens and business. This should also lower barriers to entry for more diverse sources of IT services, including citizens and SMEs. [1]

The value of Open Standards has been described in numerous national studies on the effects of standards on economic growth.

... the national studies demonstrate that standards have a positive influence on economic growth due to the resulting improved diffusion of knowledge. The contribution of standards to the growth rate in each country is equivalent to 0.9% in Germany, 0.8% in 0.3% in the UK and 0.2% in Canada. [2]

Further Reading

  1. Paul Ramsey provides background to LAS vs Optimised LAS
  2. Running commentary by Martin Isenburg, author of LASlib
  3. Earlier comment from Martin Isenburg
  4. First call-to-action by Martin Isenburg
  5. ESRI Announces "Optimised LAS"
  6. ESRI description of "Optimised LAS"
  7. Discussion background on this topic at Geo for All list
  8. Cameron Shorter refutes ESRI's initial response and claim to be good Open Standards citizens
  9. Adena Schutzberg questions why some spatial media are not running this story
  10. Jack Dangermond, founder and president of Esri, responds, suggesting commitment to address concerns
  11. Summary of initial responses after delivering the open letter
  12. Martin Isenburg provides clarifications to five wrong statements overheard at an ASPRS conference

News coverage:

  1. IT News
  2. Slashdot
  3. Heise Online Follow-Up - German speaking IT news.
  4. Spatial Source
  5. Slashgeo
  6. Motherboard
  7. GeoHipster

Blog coverage:

  1. Adena Schutzberg
  2. Oliver Doepner
  3. Randal Hale

Outcomes

References

  1. All about Open Source – An Introduction to Open Source Software for Government IT, Version 2.0, United Kingdom Cabinet Office
  2. Prof. Dr. Knut Blind, Prof. Dr. Andre Jungmittag, Dr. Axel Mangelsdorf "The Economic Benefits of Standardization", DINN, 2000. Retrieved March 2015.