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2004 Article by Carl Reed - MOSS - A Historical perspective

2004 Article by Carl Reed - MOSS - A Historical perspective

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Published by Carl Reed
This short article provides a historical perspective on the Map Overlay and Statistical System (MOSS), the worlds first full function, interactive GIS.
This short article provides a historical perspective on the Map Overlay and Statistical System (MOSS), the worlds first full function, interactive GIS.

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Published by: Carl Reed on Aug 08, 2008
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06/14/2009

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Carl Reed, PhDOGC2536 West ProspectFt. Collins, CO
creed@opengeospatial.orgMOSS – A Historical Perspective
I recently browsed several books on GIS, including one on the history of GIS. Out of  personal interest, I checked out what the authors had to say about MOSS, the MapOverlay and Statistical System. While MOSS was mentioned several times, there was alack of both historical accuracy and content. Since I “lived” the MOSS story, I felt that itwould be interesting to go back, brush off a number of documents from the 1970’s andwrite a short but definitive history of the early days of MOSS. One item I quicklydiscovered in my research is that MOSS as a software product is still alive and well andavailable as OpenSource! Not bad for a GIS software product that was first developed in1978.The development and use of MOSS was a very important milestone in the evolution of GIS. MOSS was the first broadly deployed, vector based, interactive GIS. Second, it wasthe first GIS to be deployed for production use on mini-computers. Third, it was the firstGIS to provide integrated vector and raster processing. Finally, and perhaps mostimportantly, dozens of States Federal agency’s staff were able to cost effectively use andlearn about GIS at a time when there had been very little exposure as to the power andusefulness of GIS. In a sense, MOSS provided the educational springboard that allowedmany of these agencies to use the lessons learned in implementing and using MOSS togrow and expand their GIS “reach”, purchasing and using more powerful, commerciallysupported systems.In the middle 1970’s, coal-mining activities in the Rocky Mountain States began toaccelerate. In response, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was tasked with evaluating theimpacts of strip mine development on wildlife and wildlife habitat. They were further tasked with evaluating and making recommendations regarding habitat mitigation.Professionals within the USFWS felt that the (at that time) nascent potential of GIS as ananalysis and modeling tool was exactly what was required to aid the wildlife biologistsmap habitat and develop habitat mitigation scenarios.With funding from the EPA Coal Program, the USFWS issued a Request For Proposals(RFP) in early 1976. As documented in the RFP, the scope of the project included doing aUser Needs assessment, developing a GIS functional scope, evaluating existing GIStechnologies, and making recommendations to the USFWS as to the appropriate courseof action for the development and deployment of GIS technology. In late 1976, thecontract was awarded to the Federation of Rocky Mountain States, a not for profitorganization that eventually evolved into the Western Governors’ Policy Office. TheUSFWS group given responsibility to oversee the contract and participate in the User 
 
 Needs assessment and demonstrations was the Western Energy and Land Use Team(WELUT). The project leader for the FRMS was Larry Salmon and the COTR for theGovernment was Ken Burnham. The complete FRMS GIS team came together in Januaryof 1977 and consisted of myself, George Nez, Jim Gropper, and John Hammill. I washired as the GIS architect and programmer.For the first six months of 1977, we worked on two tasks: A User Needs Assessment andan Inventory of Existing GIS technology. The needs assessment involved interviewingwildlife biologists, natural resources planners, and other professionals that would beinvolved in wildlife habitat definition and habitat mitigation. The objective of theinterview was twofold. First, to elicit the types of GIS functions and GIS environmentthat they would need in order to fulfill the mandated mission of the mitigation studies.The other was to begin educating them on the potentials uses and benefits of GIS. FRMSstaff and WELUT staff traveled to numerous USFWS field offices and intervieweddozens of individuals. The results of the assessment were published in the summer of 1977.Concurrently, I was doing an inventory of existing public domain and commercial GIStechnology. Using previous work done by the IGU (International Geographical Union), personal contacts, and research, approximately 70 different mapping and GIS software packages were identified. Of these, 54 had enough documentation and basic requiredfunctionality to warrant further analysis. A basic set of information was collected on eachsystem (hardware, operating system, basic GIS functions supported, etc.). In a sense, thesurvey and inventory was similar to those now published in various GIS magazines andindustry analysts’ reports. The main difference is that we collected the information asopposed to sending out a survey and asking companies and individuals to complete thesurvey. The USFWS published the results of the inventory the summer of 1977. Thisdocument provided information on product name, programming language, requiredoperating system, GIS capabilities, data model(s) used (vector vs. raster), level of documentation, and whether support were available – or not. This document is a valuablehistorical document as it has information and details of systems long extinct andforgotten.The results of the User Needs Assessment coupled with new industry and technologyknowledge allowed us develop a GIS Functional Needs document that specificallyfocused on the GIS requirements for the USFWS and the habitat mitigation process. Wethen were able to compare the functional specification against the inventory of existingsystems. It became quickly apparent that none of the existing systems could meet evenhalf of the requirements of the USFWS. Further, all the inventoried systems operated in batch mode. There was a general feeling among the USFWS/WELUT staff that aninteractive GIS would be much more useful as part of a decision making process. Since Ihad used both batch and interactive GIS applications in graduate school, I stronglysupported the interactive approach. So we had to make a “build or buy” decision.A very critical and interesting discussion took place at this point. Some FRMS staff andsome at WELUT were sold on the idea of using a batch mapping system called CMS
 
(Computer Mapping System). Functionally, it was similar to Symap. Its primary outputmode was the line printer. As far as I know, it is the only “GIS” ever written in COBOL!After weeks of argument, the decision was made not to use CMS. Also, since none of thecommercially available systems at the time had the required functionality or they wereway too expensive, the decision was but design and implement a new GIS based on therequirements uncovered by the needs assessment and documented in the functionalspecification. The stipulation by the decision committee was to use as much of the publicdomain code documented in the inventory as was feasible in the new system.With this background of well-documented requirements and systems information, thedesign of MOSS began during the summer of 1977. Once the group agreed on the design, programming started. Eventually, a set of shared libraries of common functions, such as agraphics library, a math library and a text processing library were developed. Theseshared libraries with documented interfaces allowed for the very rapid development of the complete software system. Many of these base level subroutines were extensions of work done by myself and other geography graduate students in the GIS laboratory atSUNY Buffalo. The development environment was a CDC mainframe running theKRONOS operating system. Fortran IV was the development language. Graphics presentation and code development was done on a Tektronix 4010.Since the decision was to implement an interactive system, we needed a user interactionlanguage. Using the results of the user needs assessment, we were then able to define anEnglish like language for user interaction for the new GIS. We decided to use simpleaction verbs (PLOT to plot a map) with simple subjects and modifiers (PLOT ROADS)to plot a roads map. We also raised the issue of how once a user has selected a map set,they could continue processing on the result of the select without having to constantly re-select the map or set of maps. We came up with the concept of “Active Ids”. These ID’sare equivalent to views or query sets. For example, if the user selected interstates from aroad map, the result of this select was “remembered” by the system and given a uniqueidentifier. The use could then reference this selected map set by its ID number. So, for example, the user could then enter PLOT 3 to plot map set ID 3 or they could enter OVERLAY (2 4) to perform polygon overlay on selected map sets 2 and 4. This approachmade it much easier for users to develop and use sequences of commands to perform agiven work flow or modeling operation. We further extended this concept so that userscould save this save and reuse this information from working session to working session.Using the defined user language, the functional specification, and the systems design for guidance, in late 1977, I began implementing high-level user action functions in thesoftware. These higher-level functions accessed the shared libraries already previously built and tested. Extensive use of existing public domain code helped accelerate thedevelopment process. For example, code for point in polygon was extracted fromsoftware done my David Douglas, a polygon cross hatching and fill capability was“borrowed” from code by Waldo Tobler, and the vector to raster conversion software wasa recoding into Fortran of the COBOL code in the CMS system. As a point of interest, thecommitment to using existing public domain code continued through the fulldevelopment and deployment lifecycle for MOSS.

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