Map Out Your World with AlterSIG (Built on the NetBeans Platform)

(December 2007)

French developer Johann Sorel is the sole driver behind AlterSIG, a Geographic Information Systems application that is currently being developed on the NetBeans Platform. AlterSIG will allow users to turn geographic data into viewable maps and to run comlex queries on the data. The 22-year-old Sorel, who has lived in Hong Kong and French Polynesia, hopes his open source project will find a place among other GIS tools. In the meantime, the recent Computer Science graduate—when he isn't busy working on AlterSIG—devotes time to helping Java newbies on the French developer site, In this interview, he discusses his work on AlterSIG and his introduction to the NetBeans Platform.

Johann SorelWhat is AlterSIG?

AlterSIG is a GIS (Geographic Information System) modular application that lets you open and edit geographic data such as shape files, postGIS database or Oracle Spatial and see them as maps. (Just imagine a rich GoogleMaps application.) But more than just for viewing purposes, AlterSIG aims to become a tool for developers. For example, to make an application to create maps of different locations such as hospitals, schools, rivers, roads, anything, you will be able to add your own module on top of AlterSIG, similar to a normal NetBeans module.

How long have you worked on AlterSIG?

I started in November 2006 during my GIS studies. It was a personal project—a GIS toolbox for my own use so I didn't have to depend on expensive applications. At the start of 2007, a classmate and I were asked to create an application to convert GIS formats. But the project did not move forward until June when I launched it on; AlterSIG then became an open source application. But the project is still very new; AlterSIG is not ready yet for professional use, but there are preview versions available. I don't have a team, but I work on the GeoTools project (the GIS library of AlterSIG) with about twenty developers.

How is it different from or similar to popular GIS projects like WorldWind, GoogleEarth, etc?

WorldWind, GoogleEarth are public tools that have a rich 3D viewer, but that is not enough for professional use. We need to see more than a nice map—we need to analyze  the data, make advance queries on them to be able to see specific things. We also need editing tools, to create new data with great accuracy.

AlterSIG Screenshot1 AlterSIG Screenshot2
(Click on images for magnified view)

Who is the target audience for AlterSIG?

It's a really tiny one—GIS developers looking for a base application that can be extended without paying thousands of dollars for applications like ArcGIS or Geomedia.

Why did you choose to develop AlterSIG with the NetBeans Platform?

Swing is the main reason. I wanted something more general, for all users. SWT has a small community compared to Swing. Swing is also simpler, richer and fast enough for all use. I never really understood why people switched to SWT.  Another reason I used NetBeans is that it's made by Sun and is a secure choice.

Did you encounter problems building AlterSIG with NetBeans? And how did you solve them?

Previewing and printing is a big part of GIS applications, and using OpenOffice offers everything needed to make a nice presentation. But I had problems integrating OpenOffice with AlterSIG. Chuk Munn Lee explains this better than me in his interview with Geertjan Wielenga. Eventually I used Lee's module to fix the issue, but I'll have to find another solution eventually because the technique he recommended is too much work.

What features of the Platform did you use for the project?

The usual ones only: the modular structure, actions, windows, and other basic features. it's mainly the modular structure I appreciate. I didn't even use the tree provided; I needed to be able to to add columns, so I built my own tree on the JXTreeTable of SwingLabs.
AlterSIG Screenshot3

How long have you been using the NetBeans Platform?

I was introduced to the NetBeans Platform a year ago, and it was the first time I had ever used a platform. It wasn't a very good experience because I didn't understand the modular structure or how to work between the xml files and persistance files. So I tried again a few months later after using tutorials from Also, by the second try, I had experience working on the GeoTools project. GeoTools is a huge Maven project and I think working with Maven modules and pom xml files helped me to better understand working on a modular project. But overall, I am still a newbie to the NetBeans platform, and I'm waiting for Adam Myatt's “Pro NetBeans IDE 6, Rich Client Platform Edition” so I can really dive in.

Based on your experience as a newbie, what advice would you give others also trying to use a platform for the first time?

The first thing I did was to remove all default modules of the platform, to see what it is like without anything. The result was an empty frame. This is important: starting from something you know, then try to add a few modules from Platform7 and see what each offers.

What do you think of NetBeans IDE 6.0?

It's the best IDE I've worked with. At the beginning of my Java experience, I was using Jbuilder, but Eclipse quickly replaced it. Over time Eclipse was getting less and less friendly for me because of module compatibility. So I gave NetBeans 5 a try and adopted it. I was a bit frustrated at first because of some missing functionality—highlight, code completion—but since NetBeans 6 things are perfect. I have everything I need—excellent SVN support, Maven, a GUI editor, etc. And it's far less complicated than Eclipse.

What is the next phase of your project?

I just started to embed OpenOffice for page preview and printing. And I need to catch up on documentation. That's enough work for a few months for a single developer.

Are you looking for people to join the project? Where can people get more info about the project?

Yes, I would like help. Those who want to participate must have some experience with GeoTools Swing widgets and GIS theory. Joining this project also means joining the GeoTools project—the  two are very close. The main part of the code hack is in GeoTools, and AlterSIG is the frame.

What are the top issues you need help with?

The big work is creating all the Swing widgets. GeoTools is huge and has plenty of functions in it, but nothing in Swing to see and manipulate all of them. I've been working on it for four months and only beginning to have enough to make a basic application. Making user interfaces and getting feedback is the main work.

Do participants have to speak French?

Not necessarily, GeoTools is already a world wide project. But nothing is done yet for langague versions of AlterSIG. The web site will have to be translated eventually.

Thank you Johann for telling us about AlterSIG. Good luck with the project!

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