Paul Ramsey is a Solutions Engineer at CartoDB. He has been working with geospatial software for over 15 years: consulting to government and industry, building a geospatial software company, and programming on open source. He co-founded the PostGIS spatial database project in 2001, and is currently an active developer and member of the project steering committee. In 2008, Paul received the Sol Katz Award for achievement in open source geospatial software. Paul speaks and teaches regularly at conferences around the world.
I’m writing this article for GeoHipster almost simultaneously with the Esri User Conference (UC) plenary session, which feels appropriate. If being a “hipster” means being in some way unconventional, then I’m missing out on the peak event of the “conventional” GIS community, and what could be more “GeoHipster” than that?
It’s been a long time since I attended the UC, probably 10 years or so, and the dominant feeling I remember coming away from the last event was one of absolute dejection and depression.
I was at the time, as I am now, a proponent of doing things “differently”, of exploring other options than the dominant enterprise mainstream, and it’s very hard to sit in a room full of over 10 thousand people applauding the dominant enterprise mainstream and still think your ideas have much merit. And as much as I enjoy GeoHipsterism and all its proponents, one of the dangers of our little echo-chamber is that we forgot just how fundamentally irrelevant our ideas are to the actual practice of professional GIS in the world.
The source of my dejection while sitting in the UC plenary had a lot to do with the futility of my position: here were 10K folks who would never care a whit about what I was working in. Here also was a company with so many resources that they could afford to waste the efforts of huge development teams on products and ideas that would never pan out.
That particular plenary, back in 2005, included lots of 3D technology that has never seen the light of day since, and felt like a festival of technological spaghetti throwing. There was not a wall left unfestooned with spaghetti. And it wasn’t random either. They were comprehensively going down every possible track of future technology, even though 75% of them were going to end up dead-ends, just to avoid missing out on the one track that turned out to be relevant for the future.
And this brought yet more dejection. Even, if by some amazing chance, I did hit on an idea or technology that was important enough to gain a market presence or interest, Esri would turn their vast development resources upon the problem and render it an also-ran in short order.
Why even bother?
It took me about a month to recover.
Since what I was working on then and what I’m working on now is open source, my ability to keep on working and growing it are never at issue. Open source can’t be driven out of business. What is at issue is relevance: whether the work is helpful and worthwhile and useful to people to make the world a better place. Even with 99% of the professional geospatial world locked up and working in the Esri ecosystem, the remaining 1% (pick whatever numbers you like) is still a lot of folks, and a lot of those folks can do things with open source that they could never do with Esri.
So I saw the NGOs and First Nations and academics and innovative governments still doing cool things with open source, and I got happy again and kept soldiering on.
Fast forward ten years.
Heading into this years UC, there was a brief twitter-storm around Esri’s use of vector tiles, which is worth following through several of the conversation chains if you have the time.
very exciting to be working on the open source project @esri is quietly rebranding as their product
In an earlier era, it would not have been hyperbole to state that having Esri use your code/steal your idea guaranteed its relevance in ways that having them ignore it never would. Andrew Turner once told me that one of the big plusses of being acquired by (big, bad) Esri was that his ideas had a much better impact than they did when he was working in his (teeny, tiny) start-up.
But this is a new era, and the people Esri will be serving with their adoption of Tom’s vector tile technology are almost completely separate from the people Tom’s company (Mapbox) will be serving with that technology. There truly is a win-win here. There’s also lots of relevance to be had beyond the now tiny world of “professional” GIS.
And this is where the “GeoHipster” thing gets a little weird. If being a “hipster” means standing outside the mainstream, what becomes of your status when the former mainstream itself becomes marginalized? When I read the list of interviewees and their interviews, it’s clear that mostly we “geohipsters” share a history within the old mainstream and that we have to varying degrees decided to look beyond that mainstream.
But with the growth of the industry “geohipsters” are becoming a minority within a minority. The new kids can’t identify, because they’ve never had to break out of the old paradigm. Tom MacWright, whom I quoted above, and who has already built so much amazing open source geospatial software in his career, has no experience with Esri tools. Outside the solutions engineers, none of my colleagues at CartoDB have any Esri experience either.
To call Esri the dominant company in our field these days is to radically misread what our field actually is, and who is leading it. What technology has changed our field in the last ten years?
Globe visualization and ubiquitous access to imagery (Google/Keyhole)
Mass access to mobile location (Apple/Samsung)
Mobile maps and vector mapping (Google/Apple)
Oblique imagery and model extractions (Microsoft)
Esri isn’t calling the tune, and neither is open source — we’re all just fast followers now.
So I can take some comfort that — some 10 years after I sat in the Esri UC plenary and wondered why I bother to get up in the morning — some poor Esri exec is going to have to sit in the Google I/O plenary and have the same experience. The jungle is very very large, and there’s always a bigger gorilla.
Maziyar Boustani received his bachelor’s degree in Iran, then moved to US to receive his master's degree in GIS. After finishing his school in 2012, he started working at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena since. He is working as a GIS developer and Software Engineer, focusing on earth science projects and big data.
Q: So Mazi, we met at FOSS4GNA 2015 in San Francisco (technically Burlingame). Where do you work?
A: Yes, it was nice meeting you at FOSS4GNA at your QGIS talk. I am currently working at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
Q: What do you do at JPL?
A: I am working as GIS developer and software engineer at JPL for 3 years, working on a variety of earth science projects, finding solutions for big data problems, as well as being involved in some interesting open-source projects.
Q: So what sort of Big Data Problems are you working on (if you can tell us)? Big data and GIS together? That seems to get a lot of discussion these days.
A: At JPL our team deals with a variety of data received from satellites, as well as model data generated by scientists.
Also within the last two years our team is working on two projects from DARPA called Memex and XData to find some solutions for big data problems. Provided data can be public tweets, financial, employment, and more. Some challenging questions have been asked, such as visualizing data geographically, as well as finding the connections between different data.
For example, in terms of geospatial data, I had a challenge of visualizing big point data on a map. I found the solution by using D3 JS library with generating vector point tiles using Python SciPy k-means clustering by running in Apache Spark. You can find the repository on my GitHub page at (https://github.com/MBoustani/Khooshe).
Q: I see you graduated with a bachelor’s degree in civil surveying and Geomatics from Iran. How is the GIS field in Iran, and how were your classes? That’s an area in the world we haven’t seen on GeoHipster as of yet — educate us!
A: The GIS field in Iran is booming and growing very fast. At the time I was studying (2004) there was no university major called GIS — it was part of Civil Surveying major, but in terms of classes, we had a very updated curriculum and were using mainly ArcGIS Desktop for GIS analysis and processing.
Q: At FOSS4GNA 2015 I did a QGIS workshop and you came to it — afterwards you demoed this small program (I say that jokingly) that you have been working on called GISCube. What is it and why did you make it?
A: So when I started getting into the field of GIS (back in 2005) ArcGIS was the only software for doing GIS processing and making maps. I was mainly using ArcGIS for many years (until 2012) before I started working at JPL. Our team at JPL was one of the early groups using and distributing open source code and software. Because of that I started researching for open source alternatives to ArcGIS and found out about QGIS and GDAL/OGR.
We have some scientists who are working with geospatial data but they are not familiar with GIS software like QGIS and not comfortable writing Python code using GDAL/OGR. So I came up with the idea about making GIS processing and visualization easier by developing a web-based GIS application that can be run internally on the JPL server for all employees.
Q: And that’s what GISCube does, correct? It allows you to visualize GIS data using a web browser? It also allows you to do simple GIS analysis things like buffers?
A: Yes, to start you first upload your geospatial files (such as shapefile, GeoTIFF, GeoJSON, and more), after which you can visualize them on a map, get metadata, and extract it to other metadata file formats. And most importantly, a series of geoprocessing tools lets users implement processing in the browser.
A: Making your project open source not only helps to have broader user base, but also helps to have a community of developers around the project to help you expand the project at no cost.
Q: In the middle of our interview you went back to Iran to visit friends and family. You get to see all the news reports on Iran like I do, but you just went back for a visit. Were you born there?
A: Actually I was born in Boston, MA, but grew up in Iran for 23 years, came to US for education and work. I am not following the news, but definitely I know it creates a very wrong image of Iran for non-Persian people. It was very impressive to see the number of US tourists visiting Iran increasing day by day. It’s a place worth visiting for sure.
Q: Would you consider yourself a geohipster?
A: Can you define geohipster for me?
Q: That’s a good question. So we took a poll, and the ultimate answer we came up at the time was that geohipsters more or less shun the mainstream GIS world, have a sense of humor, and like to do things differently. So do you feel like one now? Because it appears you’re doing all sorts of things differently, and doing it quite well.
A: Yes, I am considering myself a geohipster, it sounds cool. However, I have noticed most of the questions in the poll were about visualization, so I would like to see more GIS people thinking about GIS as processing and generating data instead of just visualization. I believe GISCube is unique because you can’t find many projects that focus on geoprocessing on the web.
Unfortunately when you talk about GIS, most people are talking about Mapbox, Leaflet, OpenLayers, map projections, and more. I would like to see more geohipsters focusing on developing libraries and applications to make the GIS processing much easier and faster than what we have now.
Q: I always leave the last question for you to say whatever you would like. Mazi – what would you like to tell the world?
A: Be creative, come up with crazy ideas, and yes, you can make it happen, just work hard
Javier de la Torre is the CEO of CartoDB, a global startup democratizing data analysis and visualization on maps. He is a former scientist with a research focus on biodiversity informatics and global environmental change, and is a recognized expert on open data, open source software, and data visualization.
Q: I have the impression many users of CartoDB are people who wouldn’t otherwise have the technical ability or skills to bring a map to life. Who uses it? How?
A: That is correct. We believe that GIS and mapping in general should not be a niche domain, but that everybody should be able to take advantage from it. We have many different types of users, some of them using it more professionally for development, sales, marketing or BI, and others use it for data exploring and communicating stories with maps.
Q: So people are using CartoDB to tell stories with maps. What are the top three hippest examples?
A: Something I love about CartoDB is the community behind it, so probably most impressive is to see everyday maps of what is happening around the world. It is like you can watch the news just by looking at the maps being created on CartoDB.
But for my personal favourites, I love stories about biodiversity and conservation. Here goes my top three:
Q: But of course it’s not just about trying to make pretty maps, you also need to make money. As we like to say here at GeoHipster HQ, EU branch: “If it doesn’t make Euro, it doesn’t make sense.” On the CartoDB pricing page the most expensive package is named after Mercator, while the middle tier is named after Coronelli. Do you really think Mercator’s contribution to geo is twice as valuable as Coronelli’s?
A: Ha! Mercator gave us the projection we now see in all 2D maps, and Coronelli gave us 3D globes… I think Mercator clearly won 😀
Now, what you are looking at is our basic plans, but we have a set of Enterprise plans https://cartodb.com/enterprise. In those cases we provide extra enterprise services, more capacity, SLAs, performance, and many more things. This is where we make most of the money. We have a really long tail of clients, which I think is important — to provide service to a larger audience — but right now the money is in the enterprise.
Q: It’s a cliche, but we often hear “A downturn is the best time to start a company.” You started CartoDB in the middle of Spain’s worst economic crisis in living memory. What was that like?
A: Well, the good thing about starting in the middle of a crisis is that things only get better! So for us honestly it was not really something we thought about. We bootstrapped this client for a looong time growing carefully based on our resources. That made us really care about the use cases, the users, and the sustainability of our business models.
Q: We’re seeing more and more geo-product companies like CartoDB (or Mapbox with their B round announcement a few weeks back) taking the VC funding route. Why, and why now? More importantly, how does the story end? How will the VCs get their money (with a tidy profit, natch) back?
A: Well, there has never been a better moment to create geospatial technology. There are many changes going on at the same time that are calling for a disruption on the technology, business models, and market in general. Geo has been special for way too much time, but now is infiltrating everywhere. There are several open fields from a business perspective. Mapbox is going for the LBS market with OpenStreetMaps, Planet Labs is disrupting at the Satellite, and we are going after the Enterprise data. There is multi-billion-dollar business in all those areas, and there has never been a bigger demand than now. So it makes sense for the VC world to show their interest in the field.
For us the return is very clear — we aim to provide a great ecosystem where organizations find value and pay for it. In other cases it might be hard to figure out how they will monetize, but in our case big revenues will provide big returns to our investors.
Q: If you weren’t doing CartoDB, which geo start-up would you work for?
A: Actually my second love is in Precision Agriculture http://agricgear.com/ There is something amazing about solving a real problem in the most simplistic way. And most people don’t know I am an agriculture engineer.
Q: You’re a Spanish company developing in the open, last year OpenStreetMap’s State of the Map was held in Argentina, and now the first SotM LatAM has been announced for Santiago, Chile in the autumn. It feels like OSM is really taking off in the Spanish-speaking world in the last two years or so. Is that perception correct, and if so why is it happening?
A: I would not say it is just about the Spanish-speaking world. OSM is catching on everywhere, and it was a matter of time that the Spanish-speaking world would get into it. In Wikipedia Spanish is the second language after English. Now, more specifically about Latin America, I think it has to do also with the development of an Open Data movement, and the realization that crowdsourcing will often provide better results than relying on private or governmental data. I would expect in the future for OSM to have more contributors in Santiago de Chile than in New York, honestly.
Q: Let’s delve a bit into your background. Is it true you were very unhip as a child, and then only really blossomed during your studies in Berlin, the current epicentre of EU hipdom?
A: What? No way! Before Berlin, Madrid was the capital of fun in Europe. Although I have lived in London and Rome too, and I have to recognize that Berlin is one of the most fun cities to live now in Europe, that’s for sure.
On the other hand, Germany is a country that teaches you how to destroy and reconstruct potatoes in 1,000 different ways, that must have helped somehow.
Q: It’s great to see an EU company trying to conquer the world. Any other up-and-coming players in the European geo space that geohipsters should be keeping tabs on? Who’s doing hip stuff?
A: Hey! I think there are a ton of European geo-startups trying to conquer the world! Take a look at Mapillary or Nutiteq for example.
Jenny Allen is a Product Manager in the Search Team at HERE. She's worked in and out of the geo-industry for many years and lives happily in Berlin, Germany. You can follow her on twitter @sjen.
Q: You started your career in geo in the field, working for the Geological Survey of Ireland. That is hip. Tell us a bit about it.
A: It was indeed both geo and hip. I was just out of university and had rather romantic notions of working somewhere that mapped the earth. And that’s what happened.
My time was spent digitising maps from the field, analysing data from drilling records, and a spot of field mapping. I say “analysing data”; what I was doing with the drilling data was perfecting the art of manual geocoding to the National Grid. I learnt all about the techniques for mapping based on aerial photography, interpolation of point data, and the hard graft of digitising with a click pointer.
One of the greatest pleasures of working at the GSI for a map-nerd (should I say “geo-hipster”?) like me was that we had access to the original bedrock mapping done in the mid 1800s done by geologist-artist George Victor du Noyer. These are beautiful watercolours painted on-top of 19th century 6-inch maps, and have exquisite details of the landscape represented on them. I got map-goose-bumps every time I held one.
Q: Any truth to the rumour that you felt compelled to leave Ireland due to the lack of postal codes? Will you be heading back now that they’re being introduced? What’s your opinion?
A: Well of course that’s the reason I left, I couldn’t find anything. Not true actually, I was pretty nifty with National Grid co-ordinates by the time I left! (See above comments about geocoding.)
Just to clarify for those who don’t know Ireland’s postal system too well: for a long time we’ve got by fine without post codes as the Postman very often knew who was living in each house in his area. We knew our Postman by first name (Chris), and would have chats on the doorstep. I lived in a house with a number, street name, town, and county in the address. We got our post. Some of my friends in rural areas have only their name, townland, and county. They could have the exact same address as their Auntie who lives about two miles away. They got the right post.
But perhaps this is the rose-tinted view of the world I used to live in. I am of the opinion that postcodes are good for people and society. They unitise our geography to a level that brings real human benefits like accurately delivered post, routing for navigation, and geographic analysis.
I am looking forward to seeing what comes out of the Eircode work (Ireland’s soon to be launched new postal code system). It is a shame that the new codes won’t be totally intuitive. I like the hierarchical nature of postcodes like those in the UK and find it fascinating how a postcode can become part of the lexicon of geography. One of my pet projects is to tune in to the ways that non-map-nerds talk about location, such as this question overhead in London: “Who’s in the SW3 area this afternoon. Want to meet up?”.
Q: Today you live in Berlin, widely hailed as the hippest city in Europe, if not the world. Obviously it also has a thriving geo scene with HERE, skobbler, komoot, a new wave of location-based service start-ups seemingly every week, and regular events like wherecamp.de. What’s your take on the Berlin scene? What are you and the kids talking about while out sipping your Schwarzbier in Kreuzberg?
A: Is Berlin the hippest city in the world? Hell yeah! Berlin’s push-pin on the world technology map is strong and steady. It’s a great place for people with ideas for technology, music, art, everything else, and all that combined. The city is bathed in creativity and openness. You can hang out in the betahaus and get advice on your start-up; hack with the Berlin Geekettes, or join one of the numerous Meet-ups on coding.
That’s the hip part, what about the geo? Without a doubt HERE occupies a vital part in Berlin’s geo and technology scene. This isn’t a shameless plug, it’s just as it is. I know this as I have been working at HERE for over four years and I know the people and teams who develop our great products. It’s a global company and the Berlin site (around 1,000 people) includes developers, cartographers, developers, data collectors, developers, product managers, developers, designers and more developers. Did I say developers? What’s key about what we do in Berlin is that we are building the APIs, SDKs and technologies behind many of our key business services in Automotive, for example, such as routing and traffic. This is on top of the beautiful maps that everyone can use on here.com, and the HERE maps app on Android and iOS.
The bit I said earlier about “creativity and openness” in Berlin is important, because the connection between different technology groups in the city is strong. Plenty of HERE’s development community take part in the numerous hackathons, meet-ups and conferences available in the city.
Schwarzbier? Mine’s an IPA please.
Q: Relatedly, almost from the beginning the German speaking world embraced OpenStreetMap in a way not really seen elsewhere. Why is that? Is it strange working for a proprietary mapping provider in Germany?
A: I’m not sure I can provide a definitive view on why Germany has embraced OSM so much. But let me offer my point of view on Berlin at least: I think it’s down to the “creative and open” culture of the technology community. Take the open-source movement in technology; this is part of the fabric here. It means you’re being generous and that you’re part of something meaningful.
Q: Before moving to Berlin you worked for the UK’s Ordnance Survey. As someone looking from the outside, any thoughts on the transitions going on there?
A: Ordnance Survey has a very special place in my geo-heart, and I’m very proud to have had a small part in such an illustrious organisation. Since I’ve left they’ve moved office, undergone a huge refactoring of data collection, revolutionised access to data for developers with their APIs, and have now started a GeoVation Lab in London.
It looks like things are going well and I’m quite pleased to see that they’ve done very well without me!
Q: Speaking of transitions, now you’re at HERE, which it seems Nokia wants to sell. Can you share the opinion of someone on the inside?
A: If we were sipping a Schwarzbier in a Biergarten in Berlin I would tell you all about it. But as we’re not, I shan’t.
Q: As someone who is hip, but also has a considerable geo career under her belt working for a mix of different players, what are your thoughts on the state of the industry? What’s your advice to the kids?
A: Am I hip? I prefer to call myself a map-nerd. But I take the compliment.
Yes, the industry has changed, and it’s changed for the better. The big disrupter has become the standard, and the new disrupters just keep on pushing. We need quick and efficient ways to acquire data (such as vehicle image capture and community sourcing), advanced indexing technologies (think machine learning for better search), and compelling location based applications for users and businesses alike.
Something that’s important for the geographers of the world like me: you should step out and step back in. It helps to work in a different industry, experience a different domain, work with people with different skills, and to understand what it’s like to not be a geography map crazed geo-hipster. I left mapping for a few years and learnt so much about software development, user interaction, and customer satisfaction from people who are passionate about things other than mapping.
Q: Any final thoughts for all the geohipsters out there?
A: I belong to the cadre of people who love, eat, sleep, drink and breathe maps — lucky me. But I came to work here because I wanted to get back to mapping, so it wasn’t really luck — it was my ambition that got me here.
If it’s what you love, just go do it. If there isn’t a company out there doing what you want to do, go get the data and do it yourself.
Thinking back to the topic of the state of the geo-industry, I’d say that there is one key element to becoming a map champion: build applications and services that delight the geo-nervous or geo-reluctant. Make it useful, beautiful, fast and simple — then everyone will be a geo-hipster.
Nathan Woodrow is a QGIS developer, blogger, father, and reborn Warhammer 40K lover. He has been an active developer and member of the QGIS project for the last five years. His QGIS/GIS blog at nathanw.net showcases some of the upcoming features in QGIS, as well as offers tips and tricks for developers and users. Previous to moving into the private sector, he worked as a GIS officer in local government for seven years. His bio pic is also a lie, as he has cut off all of his hair but has no good photos :)
Q: Nathan, how is life in the Land Down Under? I believe you are on the Gold Coast, Australia?
A: Good, thanks, and no shortage of Vegemite that is for sure; so delicious! — but let’s not talk about the current government, OK? Yes, I currently live on the Gold Coast. I have been living here with my wife and two children for almost three years. I was born and raised in Warwick, a town about 150km south-west of Brisbane, where it gets nice and cold in winter and bloody hot in summer — mind you I have become a bit softer in my tolerance of the cold since moving to the coast.
My GIS career started in the local council in Warwick fresh out of high school, not even knowing what GIS was, and after starting with Digital Mapping Solutions (DMS) I moved to the Gold Coast to be closer to the airports for travel accessibility. Also so we’d have family around, as that’s where my wife is from originally.
Q: You are one of the developers on QGIS. How many of you are there out there working on this project?
Lots. Spread all around the world. There are 32 developers with direct commit rights to the code base, including myself. However, if you don’t just count core contributors, which you shouldn’t because that is what open source is all about, we have a large number of other contributors. “Contributors” includes people who just commit fixes and/or features but never come back, it also includes people who hang around the project regularly but just don’t have direct commit rights.
There are also people working on the docs, website, managing the tickets that come in, all jobs that make the cogs in the wheel that is QGIS turn. It’s a very friendly project to work on, which I think has helped in our success in being a large community of project maintainers and users.
Q: I ran into you on Twitter several years ago (@madmanwoo) with some wayward question on how QGIS works. How did you get involved in the QGIS project? Was the local council in Warwick using it?
My first involvement with the project, from a contribution point of view, was when I added expression-based labels (http://nathanw.net/2011/10/27/expression-based-labeling/). I had started to use QGIS at council for data entry, but expression labels were something that MapInfo had that I really missed in QGIS; without it I was never going to be able to use QGIS more in my day job. After opening a ticket and sitting on it for a while, I sat down over a weekend, hacked in an expression-based label to see how it would work, and was pretty impressed at the speed and how easy it was to get going. It still took me about two months to add the UI and finally get it added to the core project. After that I was added as a core contributor and here we are now.
I was the first one at council to use QGIS in a full production setup. The first version I used was 1.7, but at that stage it just wasn’t ready for full time usage. After 1.8 I pretty much stopped using MapInfo and started using QGIS for all my tasks. Readers of my blog would have seen the progression. It didn’t take long for the bug to bite and for me to promote QGIS to other councils, and anyone else that would listen. It wasn’t our “official” desktop GIS, however I started to move other people onto it for all their mapping tasks. I was quite happy when I managed to get an older foreman using it to update our kerb and footpath assets, including splitting and joining.
Q: There’s been some discussion on when QGIS 3.0 comes out. With every release the software grows. In your opinion, what’s the next big hurdle for QGIS as a desktop software?
A: For the me the biggest thing is the user experience of the whole package as one thing. QGIS is getting very large in code, usage, and function. At times things can go into the application without full thought on how the overall workflow fits together, which can leave the user confused when moving through to get their work done. To do this correctly you really need to design full workflows around a user story and not just a single feature for a single use case, which can leave a function hanging on the side and not really fitting in. I will also add that I am fully guilty of doing the single function style of developing myself — it’s much easier.
Of course this is a complicated process, because QGIS has a massive user base with very different use cases, but I think as we evolve we need to address some of the workflow issues within the application. This is not to say we are not already doing it, or getting better. Every release adds new custom controls that are used throughout the application for consistency. Things like data-defined buttons, layer combo box, etc., are all generic controls that we can reuse to help the flow and feel of the application. Consistency is almost always the key.
I guess that also raises the question does QGIS have a future in a world that is moving “all the things” to the web? My answer is of course yes it does, but I’m also biased.
Q: In order to do all of this you have to know something about programming. Are you more programmer or GIS person?
A: I consider myself more of a programmer these days, although my imposter syndrome is quite strong at times as there are some super smart people, and reading past GeoHipster interviews does help that feeling. My current job and involvement in QGIS still keeps me in the GIS space, which I very much like, just more on the programming side and less on the map-making and data entry work. GIS is still great though, and I enjoy it when I can. The people in the GIS circles are excellent, and the problems in this space are fun to work on, but I guess just out of natural evolution of my current work I have landed more on the development style of things.
Personally I believe good programming knowledge helps you in GIS every day, even if you are just better at scripting things — you have just saved yourself some money and time where someone else couldn’t.
Q: How did you get started in programming, and what was the first programming language you learned?
A: My first programming language was Borland Delphi in the programming course at high school. If I remember right the first thing we wrote was a fake cash register application, after that I did a small bit of game programming making a Pokemon shooting game that lasted on the school network years after I left. Pokemon + sniper rifle = awesome fun!1! (don’t judge me I know you think it’s awesome)
Once at council, the other GIS guy and myself took the intro MapBasic course, the scripting language that comes with MapInfo. The plan was to cut down some of the tasks we had to do every week but took ages to do. After plain MapBasic I “progressed” into using VBA with Access and embedding MapInfo maps into Access forms for custom applications — you can almost hear the screams from here but hey at least they worked for the tasks. Once I saw that you could also use MapInfo in .NET, I started to use VB.NET for everything, moving onto C# after that — because who really uses VB.NET any more. Once I picked up QGIS, my only path there was C++ so I left C# and MapInfo for Qt/C++ and QGIS. After using QGIS for a long while, I started to really like writing Python, and now that is my go-to language for most things these days.
Q: With everything you did, you also developed Roam. What is Roam? I see it starting to pop up everywhere.
A: It’s nice to see you are starting to see it used by others. I think unless you hit critical mass with a project, it can be hard to see who is really using your stuff.
Roam is a Python-based QGIS application that is mainly focused around easy tablet-based data collection. Roam, which used to be called QMap, started as a plugin I developed while working for my old council to aid in our data collection process. The first version was very very primitive. It ran as a plugin in QGIS and had pretty poor UI, but it worked quite well for our needs.
After starting with DMS we invested a lot of time in making it a lot better and released it under a new name as most of the code was redone. Roam was the first project using QGIS and Python outside of a plugin that I had done, so there was a lot of learning involved in how to do it, but I am quite happy with what it has become and the number of users — there was even a Roam workshop at the recent QGIS conference. It’s also GPL, just like QGIS, which makes me quite happy as it gives people a good (bias warning) data collection application for Windows.
Q: Have you ever eaten kangaroo? If not, what’s the most random thing you’ve eaten in Australia?
I’ll pass on kangaroo, some tell me it’s good others tell me it’s bad so I will just stick to what I know
Not very many out there, but I do like my typical Aussie Vegemite and Milo in the mornings though. Tend to have more Milo in a glass than milk, and Vegemite nice and thick on toast.
Milo contains some theobromine, a xanthine alkaloid similar to caffeine which is present in the cocoa used in the product; thus, like chocolate, it can become mildly addictive if consumed in quantities of more than 15 heaped teaspoons per day
That might explain it. *eats spoon of Milo*.
Q: I always leave the last question wide open for the interviewee — now’s your chance to tell the entire world what you wish to tell them.
A: I see a lot of people in GeoHipster interviews giving out good GIS advice. I’m not sure I have anything like that I can give out. However, I will try to offer something a bit more general which has helped me recently.
Outside of family and friends, hobbies are the most important things you can have in life, especially if you are a programmer. Having non-development hobbies is super important to your health. After my daughter died two years ago I realised I didn’t have any hobbies outside of programming, and it drove me into a massive hole. My answer to the question “what do you do in your free time?” was “programming”; after Eloise died it turned into “nothing”, as I had lost interest in anything programming-related because that is all I had and burnt myself out on it. Bit boring I know, but the moral of the story is: For your own mental health get something that you can do when the normal thing you do gives you the shits and you need a time out.
Some lighter general advice is to get involved in your local open source project. It’s not always a rose garden, but it’s normally a lot of a fun to be involved in a project that other people put their love into. Luckily there is a lot of great GIS open source stuff coming out to get involved in.
As CEO of Mapbox, Eric Gundersen coordinates product and business development. Eric has been with the team since the start, and splits his time working on projects in San Francisco and Washington, DC.
Eric got his start in the mapping and open data space at Development Seed, building open source tools for international development agencies. He holds a master's degree in international development from American University in Washington, DC, and has dual bachelor's degrees in economics and international relations.
Alex Barth is an open data expert with years of practice in developing and implementing open data strategies and solutions on behalf of multinational organizations like the United Nations and World Bank. At Mapbox, he leads our data team to raise the availability and quality of freely accessible open data.
Before joining Mapbox, Alex was a developer and strategist for Development Seed. Prior to that, Alex managed information technology for an international development organization in Central America, where he became involved in the Central American open source community. In his free time, Alex has designed interactive robots and virtual reality interfaces, organized a traveling exhibit depicting life in Nicaragua and its sweatshops, and taken photos of his life and travels in Washington, DC, Nicaragua, and Austria.
Q: Mapbox is currently one of the coolest geo companies to work for, attracting top talent at neck-breaking speed. How do you do it, and how do you maintain the coolness factor?
A: So much of our work is out in the open, us coding on GitHub or editing on OpenStreetMap — working like this in the open lets us meet really cool people. When we find people who do cool stuff we ask them: You’re doing great stuff, would you like to get paid to do that?
Q: OpenStreetMap (OSM) relies on volunteers to map the world. Mapbox is relying on OSM to make maps. How do you help make sure there are people to map? How do you help recruit people to the platform?
Q: With all that you’re doing — will you always be tied to OpenStreetMap as a basemap?
A: Our platform is totally data agnostic. We have customers using TomTom or HERE data to power their basemaps in addition to OpenStreetMap. For us it’s all about being a platform and providing the building blocks for developers to do whatever they want to locations. That said, you know our bet is all on open data in the long run.
A: Working on it.
Q: Verizon, Aol, MapQuest — what’s going on there?
A: Finally we can talk publicly 😉 — what’s so exciting for us is that MapQuest still accounts for an insane amount of map traffic, and it’s growing. Their team is going to use our building blocks to make their next generation mapping product on both mobile and web. And while I can’t comment on specifics, what I have seen looks really hot.
Q: An official Mapbox-MapQuest partnership announcement was made after our initial talk. Congratulations! Still no word on the Verizon mobile location data stream, and whether the ODbL OpenStreetMap license will be a barrier to using it. Can you comment on that?
A: Mapbox maps are 100% owned by Mapbox and licensed under our TOS. So everyone using Mapbox never has to worry about any data licenses from the dozens and dozens of sources we all pull together to make our map.
Q: What meat will Mapbox barbecue on the funeral pyre of HERE?
A: Obviously brats if the German auto consortium wins. But I’m starting to get excited to cook Peking Turducken — looking like the Chinese are making a for-real play, maybe with an American partner. If our bid wins, and we get a snapshot of the data, it’s going to be tallboy beer can chicken coast to coast.
Q: Mapbox is opening offices in South America and India. What are the business opportunities there for Mapbox to explore?
A: The data teams in Peru and India have been amazing! These are our dedicated teams for making OpenStreetMap better. From processing probe data we collect, to analyzing errors in OpenStreetMap, to tasking new satellite imagery — these teams run 24 hours a day 5 days a week feedback loop letting us be ultra-responsive and laying the groundwork to grow even more.
Q: Where do you see Mapbox in 2020?
A: NYSE: MPBX
Q: Do you consider yourselves geohipsters? Why / why not?
A: Ah, you saw the garage full of fixies?
Q: Thank you for the interview. Any parting words for the GeoHipster readers?
A: It’s the early days, and that is not meant to be prophetic.
Reading his bio, one might get the impression that Marc Pfister is the prototypical geohipster. After studying mechanical engineering, he was a bicycle designer by day, and DJ by night. He then took his CAD skills and turned them into a 10-year GIS career. As a tinkerer who has to take everything apart, he began to focus on Open Source geospatial programming. Along the way he helped reverse-engineer Esri’s SBN spatial index, and started making statewide maps of gravel roads. Then in 2012 he bounced around the midwest and became an artisan cheesemaker with his wife, starting Longview Creamery.
Q: You are among a growing number of people I know who have left the GIS industry. Why did you leave, and why do you think others do?
A: My wife has worked as a cheesemaker on and off over the years, and we had always thought about starting our own cheese company. It’s a daunting task to go from zero to a fully operational facility. Some friends who were starting up a goat cheese operation in Nebraska needed some help and had a place we could stay in, so we decided it looked like a good opportunity to try something out. We would help them with their operation, and in exchange we could use their facility to start testing some potential cheeses. So we quit our jobs, threw some minimally viable furniture into a small trailer, and moved to Nebraska. While we were working on that, some equipment came up for sale in Colorado. It was in a really nice facility and it seemed like a shame to have to move it, so when we bought the equipment the owner leased us the building and let us take over the existing business.
While this was going on, I was still doing geo work on the side. I worked for Boundless on GeoNode and MapStory, which was a neat project to be involved in. But lately the business has grown so much that I’ve been sucked into it more and more, so there hasn’t been much geo-anything going on. Honestly, I like working with physical equipment, so at this point if I left cheesemaking I could see going into dairy engineering. But on the other hand, I like the geo field and would probably go back with the right opportunity and team.
I don’t know anyone who has left geo due to a beef with some aspect of the industry. It seems like most ‘geo’ people have come into it from some other career path, so they have options to leave geo to go back to environmental work, or programming, or whatever. It’s almost like geo is an adjective you can stick on any career. It’s like saying you work in the color red, and you could be growing strawberries or painting fire trucks.
Q: You are still very active on the geotwitters, though, so it’s not like you have shut the geodoor. Or have you?
A: I’m doing almost zero geo work other than the gravel road maps. People still email me questions about SBNs and Google Static Maps, so I help out where I can. I’m active on the geotwitters mostly because I’ve absorbed enough technical jargon to come up with good jokes. I love a good geojoke, especially if it involves some photoshopping.
Q: What is your fondest memory from your geo times? What is the worst?
A: The fondest? In 2008, when I lived in rural Northern California, there was a huge lightning storm, and several wildfires started within a few miles of my house. I was frustrated because I could see the flames from my porch but the online information was terrible. The MODIS heat detects were on one site with a horrible base map, and the fire perimeters were on another that had an outdated clunky interface. So in the best 2008 mashup spirit I bodged together some scripts to pull in that data and put it together on Google Maps. I also did a little cleanup, like converting the MODIS detection time stamps to local time. It ended up being a big hit. The Los Angeles Times posted it on their website and it slashdotted our server, which is both terrifying and gratifying at the same time. I also got a lot of ‘Thank You!’ emails, including some from USFS and Cal Fire staffers who preferred it to their in-house mapping.
The worst moment, I don’t know if I can think of anything geo-specific that would qualify as the worst. The most frustrating was getting into turf wars with the Board of Professional Land Surveyors. I worked for a scrappy little GIS, environmental, and planning consulting company, and we did everything in house. Orthoimagery, LiDAR, GPS, you name it — we DIYed it. We’d try to sell LiDAR data, and we’d get a nasty letter. We would have to explain that we’re just reselling elevation data that was collected by a company that of course had a licensed land surveyor involved. It got so silly at one point — we ran an ad in a planning magazine advertising that we did ‘Surveys’, as in public opinion surveys for proposed projects, and we got a C & D letter over it! So now you have the backstory behind the Breaking NAD image and a lot of my otherjokes about a dystopian future where rogue GIS techs sling illicit elevation data on the black market.
Q: Unlike most GIS practitioners and opinionators (myself included) who are too close to the problem and often can’t see the forest from the trees, you have the unique position and distinct advantage of looking at the industry from a distance. What do you see?
A: Even while inside it, I’ve seen it from a lot of different perspectives. When I started doing GIS work we hadn’t moved to ArcView yet and were doing everything in AutoCAD and Adobe Illustrator. We eventually transitioned to ArcView, but around the same time I found #geo on IRC and the geowanking mailing list, which led to WhereCamp and getting a whole different outsider perspective from people who were programmers discovering that maps were fun to mess with.
So I see two things going on: people who are totally entrenched in the Esri stack and would really benefit from branching out — that’s contrasted with people who are trying too hard to be innovative and are missing the fact that a big part of GIS work is making a PDF site location map that’s going to go into a forgotten report. The eye candy is fun but it’s often the boring stuff that pays the bills.
Q: Is there fashion in technology? Does the desire to be different sometimes trump other more “rational considerations” — in tech as well as in couture?
A: Fashion can mean a lot of things. In terms of self-expression, and as a signifier of belonging to a certain group, definitely. Is the choice of Python, with a focus on readability and whitespace, any different from choosing minimalist Scandinavian furniture?
Software for us is generally a practical tool, so there seems to be a pragmatic limit where getting stuff done trumps outwards appearance. To an outsider, the proliferation of MacBooks in the geo developer world might seem like a fashion thing, but honestly it’s because OS X seems to do the best job of getting out of your way.
I also think there’s a parallel with the low barrier to entry and often easy mix ‘n match pluggability of software. A ‘look’ is really just the sum of parts of component pieces, as much as software is a sum of the underlying libraries. To get into programming you don’t have to start with writing a language and compiler, and to get into fashion you don’t have to start with spinning your own thread.
Q: What is the geo equivalent of normcore? If you see me wearing dad jeans, how would you know whether I am normcore or just lame?
A: If you’re wearing dad jeans when driving your kids around in a minivan, then you’re probably lame. Normcore has to be out of place in order to be referential. So I guess the geo equivalent would be trying to edit ways at an OSM mapathon using ArcView 3 just because you like the menu bars.
Q: You make steel bicycles by hand. You and your wife own and run a creamery. Tell us about your day-to-day activities.
A: They sound terribly hipster — steel bikes, artisan cheese. But it’s really not that cool. I’m a small business owner, so I wear a lot of hats which I’m simultaneously juggling. Usually at least one of those hats is on fire. The hipster sheen wears off quickly. We hear a lot from people who want to get into cheesemaking, and they always have idealized the cheesemaking process to soft-gloved curation of what are essentially precious living objects that have to be nurtured and massaged, like they’re kittens or something. And that you’re carrying on this ancient and noble tradition, yada yada. The reality is that it’s a lot of hot and sweaty manual labor and doing dishes over and over.
Q: Colorado is a geo hub, but is it also a hipster hub? Is the Colorado brand of hipsterism the same as the Brooklyn or Portland or Berlin or Shoreditch variety? How does it differ?
A: I live in a rural farming town that’s turning into a retirement/bedroom community, so I don’t have the best perspective. I spend some time in Fort Collins which is a college town so there’s some ‘hipster’ visibility. There is a sort of coherent ‘coloRADo’ style that’s a mix of snowboarding/skate style with a hippie/raver jam band 420 overtones, but with some tech gear conspicuous consumption. White guys with dreds and rallyed out Subaru turbos. What seems to distinguish them from their peers in places like Lake Tahoe, California, is that they have a high degree of stoke for their state. The Colorado flag is on everything. In California you might see the bear on some things, but stoke seems to be much more regional and often oppositional. You have the Norcal/Socal divide (one of my favorite geo topics), and smaller ones like Oakland/SF or LA/San Diego. I don’t see that in Colorado, even though it has diverse regions (except at the political level).
Q: “New and improved” vs. slow food/slow code. Is the race to develop newer and “better” things at an ever accelerating pace the mark of progress? Is it a good thing? A necessary evil? Or a temporary madness?
A: I find it especially frustrating that ‘upgrades’ these days break so many things. My phone was obsolete the day I bought it. I just upgraded my OS, which ‘upgraded’ Python which broke certain modules that cascaded down into other tools I use. Working with machinery I accept that entropy is going to break things — bearings wear out, metals corrode, on so on. But these upgrades really seem to be the opposite of entropy.
Some of my equipment is over 50 years old, and it will run for at least another 50. I like to think about what would be the equivalent of a web map with a 50 year lifespan, when languages and OSes are EOLing after 5 years. Could you get 50 years out of code in ANSI C?
Also on the subject of cheese versus code, I enjoy that I can see my work get turned into large physical objects. I go into our cheese cave and there’s cheese stacked from floor to ceiling, and that feels pretty good, you know? We made all that. And the best part is that it only gets better with age! It can’t disappear with one simple refactor. Of course, physical output means physical labor. There’s no shortage of articles these days about how soul-satisfying physical labor can be. But it’s hard and breaks down your body, and I’m glad I have the luxury that I could go back to a desk job. I hate to romanticize it when I know people who don’t have that choice and are slowly killing themselves.
The worst thing about working with physical products is when you screw up and you have to throw your hard work and money away. Bits are free! I always tell people who are nervous about learning programming that you can screw up as much as you need and there are almost never any consequences. Go crazy and break things.
Q: On closing, what would you say to geohipsters who may have toyed with the idea of trying another career? Go for it, or stick with geo?
A: Go for it. And if it doesn’t work out, geo will take you back.
Ann Johnson is a technology industry veteran with close to 30 years of progressively responsible experience in all sectors of the industry. With a long career spanning many companies including Data General, EMC and RSA Security, Ms. Johnson has always enjoyed applying technology to solve real customer business problems and driving value to organizations. Ms. Johnson is a subject matter expert in network architecture, mobile security, fraud reduction, transaction fraud reduction, and online banking security, as well as maintaining competence in storage and systems infrastructure. She enjoys the process of building highly successful, highly performing organizations. Outside of work, Ms. Johnson is a strong advocate for animal welfare organizations, and is an avid historian. She is a graduate of Weber State University completing a dual major in Political Science and Communication with a minor in History.
Q: Thank you for taking the time to interview for GeoHipster. While most of our US readers are surely familiar with Boundless, many in our international audience (~50% of our readership) are probably not. For their benefit, please explain what Boundless is about.
A: Boundless is the preeminent open source geospatial information systems company. We have a full stack of open source tools — GeoServer, QGIS, PostGIS database, and OpenLayers 3. We do a lot of value-added enhancements around that open core, driving down customers’ project costs, and we have services that we help deploy, and make your project successful.
Q: Boundless is one of the community leaders for support of open source options. Where do you see the open source market heading?
A: This is a great time to be in open source. With the INSPIRE Regulations in Europe, with the US federal government promoting open source, and with our commercial customers looking not only for lower-cost alternatives but also for more openness in their code, they are looking for more community contribution. I think that open source is only going to grow. We are seeing more and more open source companies in all kinds of adjacent technology areas. If you think about what Red Hat did with Linux, what’s been done with Hadoop, there’s a lot of different areas where open source is becoming very, very prominent, and I don’t see that slowing down at all. As a matter of fact, I think it’s going to become more open, because customers are just really tired of not having the visibility and the access and the ability to contribute positively to closed-source type projects.
Q: Judging from your bio, it appears you had little exposure to geospatial prior to joining Boundless. What attracted you to geospatial? What are some of the unique challenges you’ve encountered since joining? Is spatial special? How hard is to run something like Boundless? Is it “business is business” at the end of the day?
A: I am a technologist at heart. In the 30 years of my professional career I have been in technology the entire time. I started out in software, did a lot of work with network infrastructure, did work in storage and then in security. I think all of these segments are special. I they are all unique. There’s different business drivers, there’s different reasons people participate and purchase in each segment, there’s different problems that need to be solved. For me learning spatial was something I wanted to do. When the opportunity came to me, it was a conscious decision to go out and learn a different technology. It was exciting to me to learn the market, to learn the technology. I have a degree in political science and a minor in history, so I have a passion and a love for history — history as it deals with cartography, how society is evolved, all kinds of mapping lends itself to that. If you think about the things that Chris Tucker is doing with his MapStory project, those are the types of things that are really, really interesting to me, just from a pure historical context, so it was natural for me to move into the space. Yes, I think it’s special, but I think it’s special like every segment of technology is special. It has its uniqueness, and I have developed a lot of passion for it over the nine months I have been at Boundless.
Q: A significant topic of discussion around geospatial events over the past year has been the staggering amount of turnover at Boundless. How do you answer those who question the health of Boundless? What do you see as drivers of such turnover? With such a significant core of project contributors gone, what differentiates Boundless from other companies that provide professional support to PostGIS, GeoServer, QGIS, and the other projects that you bundle into the OpenGeo Suite?
A: I am glad to be able to respond to this question. Boundless is not a new company. Boundless started under the OpenPlans Charity many years ago with Chris Holmes leading the ship. Two years ago it spun out to be a venture-funded company. When people make decisions about where their employment is, they look at the company they are joining at the time. In the past two years Boundless has undergone an awful lot of evolution, an awful lot of change. People made decisions about their career, that it wasn’t necessarily the company they joined. They joined the company for their reasons. But one thing that no one is discussing about Boundless is the amount of talent we’ve recruited in. We have attracted and recruited a lot of talent, because of business, we are actually growing from both a people standpoint, also from a revenue standpoint, so Boundless is a really healthy organization. We have refocused to make sure we stay really true to that open source core. I am very data-driven, and I look at GitHub, and I make sure that we have the top two or three committers in every project that we are working on are employees at Boundless. I think it’s really important. We also have a gentlemen in the organization, Jody Garnett, who is chartered as our community liaison. So Jody is on the GeoServer steering committee, and I have made him the community liaison. His job is making sure we are meeting all of our requirements in our participation within the community. The other is developing talent, and making sure they become valid community contributors. I am bringing in young new talent, or talent from other parts of the industry, folks who really want to learn geo, and make them part of the community, and I think that just makes the community better. So, yes, there have been some high profile exits, some really talented people have gone on to other things. But we’ve also brought in some really high quality talent, and I think that’s the piece that gets overlooked.
Q: Feature-level versioning of geospatial data remains a largely unsolved problem. In the federal government, records retention rules make it a vital issue. With the shuttering of Versio, how is Boundless planning to address this need?
A: Version control is really important. If you look at the announcement that CCRi made yesterday with GeoMesa on top of Google Cloud, I think data is hugely important, and big data is becoming a big problem in spatial. Versio itself was a bit architecturally challenged — candidly, the product was. It wasn’t the right solution to the problem. But the problem does need to be solved. I’m a technologist at heart, I think the problem has to be solved in a much different way, with a big data backend, something that can actually do the analysis, something that has the power, and Versio, while there were a lot of really talented developers and talented architects on the project, I think it started off as a great idea, and has evolved into something that wasn’t quite the right solution. But absolutely the problem needs to be solved, and we are looking at ways, at things we can do with GeoNode, with Hadoop, I don’t have the answer today, but we know it’s a real problem that needs to be solved. Versio just wasn’t quite the right solution for it.
Q: What are your thoughts on dat?
A: My comment on open source as a whole is that the only successful open source companies have been really successful because they partnered. So we’ll look for a partner strategy there, and to the extent that you have an open standard API that can convert data formats, it’ll lend itself to that partnership. As an open source company we have to be very open, and dat will allow us to do that. As long as the API is robust enough, and really does allow cross-data formatting, I think it’s a very worthwhile project, and we will participate.
Q: OpenLayers is clearly Boundless’s preferred solution for web mapping, and it has been a solid open source solution for years. How does Boundless view the rapid adoption of Leaflet as a lighter-weight alternative? Is it a threat to your business model, or just another component of potential hybrid solutions?
A: They coexist. Mapbox solves a different problem than we solve — a “many” problem, whereas Boundless, like Esri, solves “deeper-but-not-as-many”. I don’t think it’s one versus the other. I think they solve different use cases, and people will use them differently. I also think we need to do a better job promoting OpenLayers. One thing I think Leaflet has is better marketing, candidly. It solves a different problem, but they’ve definitely done a better job promoting it, and we need to do a better job with the community promoting OpenLayers.
Q: You tweeted about upcoming exciting news — HERE partnership, etc. Can you share more details?
A: I’ll foreshadow a few announcements we’re going to be making over the next couple of months. The first thing is we have signed up a partnership with Nokia HERE. We can talk about it openly, we are working with Nokia on a press release. As a big organization that requires a lot of layers of approval, but you’ll see that. It was important to us that we had a data strategy that we can augment our customers’ data, or augment open data, so Nokia is our first step there. You’ll see more data partnerships coming. You’ll see an announcement coming soon about our AWS and our Azure offerings. We are really making a concerted effort to move toward a cloud delivery platform, because our customers are asking us to. We are doing a lot of work with LiDAR, you’ll see in short order a blog post around the work we are doing on open LiDAR standards, and why it’s important to keep those standards open. And the final thing is we are recommitting to QGIS. Even though I think the future is web and mobile, there’s still a lot of things you need to do on the desktop, and we are really recommitting and making sure we have a supportable QGIS platform, particularly for the US federal government. All those things are queued up to come up in the next four to six week, as well as our 4.6 release of the OpenGeo suite.
Q: You’re a geolady. Last year you became CEO of a major geocompany. What advice do you have for other women in the geocommunity?
A: I’ve been in technology forever, and women are seriously underrepresented everywhere. The best advice I can give to women is ignore the fact that you are a woman. I hate to say it, but you need to focus on what’s important. Focus on your skills, focus on what you bring to the table, and put aside anything that is what I call noise to the system. It’s tough. It’s tough to be in a room with 30 people, and you are the only one that looks like you look. But you just have to set that aside and realize what you are there for, what’s important. I also think it’s really important to become a subject matter expert. As you mentioned, I’m new to this. So I’ve done a lot of self-study, a lot of online tutorials, just to try to get myself up to speed. If you’re going to have credibility — whether you are a man or a woman — you need to have a basic knowledge of what the customers are using, and a basic knowledge of the technology, and I think some people overlook that, and it’s super important. And the other thing is don’t give up. Bias exists everywhere. It doesn’t matter if you are a woman, or a minority, or someone who is not a US citizen by birth, bias exists everywhere. You just have to ignore it and move past it and don’t ever give up.
Q: Do you consider yourself a geohipster? Why/why not?
A: I might be too old to consider myself a hipster, and I’m never gonna be as cool as Eric Gundersen, I can tell you that [laughs]. That said, I think this is a really nascent market, I think geo is just now emerging, there is so much we can do with it, and there is so much we can do to put it on the radar. I think it’s new, I think it’s fun, and I think we need to have some fun with it. There has to be fun with the industry, so yes, I do consider myself pretty hip with the industry, even if I am not as cool as Eric on any day of the week.
Q: Thank you for the interview. Do you have any parting words for our readers?
A: I’ll go back to something Paul Ramsey advocated and still advocates: Geo doesn’t need to be held by the GISP department in an organization. We need to make the tools easier to use so your average IT analyst or your average business analyst can use them, and that’s when we’ll become really relevant. We’ll need to make sure we mainstream geo while maintaining the specialness of it. We need to embrace the spatial IT concepts, and everything you see Boundless doing moving forward, with our application templates, some of our SDKs and APIs, is going to be toward doing that. And I encourage the industry to also work toward making the tools more usable. Because that’s the way we’ll become really relevant. Geo will become really relevant when the tools become much more useful for everyone to use within a business organization, and that’s the focus of Boundless, and I think that’s a really good focus for the industry, too.
Martin Isenburg received his MSc in 1999 from UBC in Vancouver, Canada, and his PhD in 2004 from UNC in Chapel Hill, USA -- both in Computer Science. Currently he is an independent scientist, lecturer, and consultant. Martin has created a popular LiDAR processing software called LAStools that is widely used across industry, government agencies, research labs, and educational institutions. LAStools is the flagship product of rapidlasso GmbH, the company he founded in 2012. Martin's ultimate goal is to combine high-tech remote sensing and organic urban farming in a "laser farm" that promotes green projects as hip and fun activities for the iPad generation.
Q: Thanks, Martin, for taking the time to have a chat with GeoHipster! Tell us about your ideas on “Front yard chickens”. Chickens are so awesome. We’ve heard that your chickens were about to be equipped with lasers. How did that go?
A: Happy to talk geospatial chickens. See, in the backyard chickens are a fun way to be green. But put three (not twenty!) in the front yard, and they create green communities. You meet your neighbors (dragged to your fence by their kids), and soon you are bartering eggs for kale because Lori and Dan across the street now have “front yard veggies”. And why lasers? Not for arming or roasting the chickens (common mistake), but for filming them in real-time 3D. Sort of like Radiohead’s video “House of Cards”, but better. A “happy feed” of urban farm bliss to lure folks beyond this neighborhood into green fun. Troubles over “cluster-bombing” the homeland with garden-fresh zucchinis forced me to put this project on hold.
Q: Can you give us an overview of LiDAR and how it works?
A: Fire a really short burst of laser light, and measure the exact duration until its reflection comes back. That allows you to compute the distance to whatever object was hit. Record the exact position from where and the exact direction in which you fired the laser, and you can calculate the exact position of these hits. Repeat this several hundred thousand times a second with an airborne LiDAR whose laser beam sweeps out the terrain, and you get enough information to model ground, buildings, and vegetation in 3D.
Q: How has LiDAR data storage evolved over the years?
A: The LiDAR points were first stored and exchanged as plain text files: x, y, z, intensity. But ASCII becomes inefficient as a storage format as point numbers go up. Several industry players got together and created a simple binary data exchange format — the LAS format — that was eventually donated to the ASPRS. LAS has become a huge success, and everybody supports it. Nowadays the specification is maintained by the LAS Working Group (LWG) of the ASPRS. That sounds fancy, but is really just a dozen or so email addresses that get cc-ed when an issue is discussed.
Q: You explained that LiDAR data is huge. How much data are we talking about?
A: One LiDAR return — how the hits are called — is typically 28 bytes. An airborne survey with 4 shots per square meter may average 8 LiDAR returns per square meter. For a small area of 100 square kilometers this is over 20 GB of raw LAS. Subsequent processing steps often create multiple copies of this data. Nowadays countries either have, or are going for nation-wide LiDAR coverage. So many terabytes of LiDAR are already out there, and petabytes are going to come.
Q: You developed the compressed LAZ format. Can you give us some background?
A: I spent years of graduate work on compressing polygon meshes, but few people have such data. When I stumbled upon folders of LAS files, I figured having a compressor for these point clouds may actually be useful. I wrote the LASzip prototype mainly to supplement an academic paper, but people found it on my web pages and used it. In 2010 I was asked to release LASzip with an open license to defeat a proprietary format that federal agencies feared would make compressed LiDAR costly. Eventually the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) sponsored the open-sourcing of LASzip.
Q: What is the development process that you use for making changes to the compressed LiDAR format?
A: I am very careful with changes, and try to be as transparent as possible about them. First I seek community input on new features via the “LAS room” and the “LAStools” forums. Once discussed, the new feature is implemented as a prototype for testing. If the prototype proves itself over time, these features are moved into the new release. But maybe the time has come to make LASzip an official standard with a committee overseeing future changes.
Q: The release of LAS 1.4 means new point types. This is a disruption of the LAS format in general. What opportunities does this present for LASzip?
A: I have held back extending LASzip to LAS 1.4. Like you say, the new point types in LAS 1.4 are a “natural break” in the format that offers the opportunity to improve the compressor without creating incompatibilities. An open “call for input” was issued to get feedback on features the community wants to see in the next generation of LASzip.
However, LASzip can already compress LAS 1.4 content. NOAA stepped up to sponsor the “LAS 1.4 compatibility mode” where new point types are re-coded into old ones by storing their new attributes as “extra bytes”. Added bonus: many older software packages can read re-coded LAS 1.4 content without upgrade.
Q: You’ve released a simpler interface to LASzip in 2013. How did that turn out?
A: When Esri came knocking, saying the LASzip code was too complicated, I asked them to sponsor the effort for a simpler DLL. But then I decided to create this DLL without further delay. LAZ was the de-facto LiDAR compression standard, and I wanted to remove any possible hurdle for its adoption. It is disappointing that Esri has still not added LAZ support to ArcGIS. The new DLL was essentially written for them.
Q: Recently Esri announced a variation of the open LAS standard called “Optimized LAS”. Can you describe the changes to how LAS files are supported?
A: The name is rather misleading. “Optimized LAS” is a closed format that compresses the content of a LAS file into a proprietary file. The resulting ‘*.zlas’ files are very similar to the ‘*.laz’ files produced by LASzip, which is why the new Esri format is also known as the “LAZ clone”.
Q: So from your view, how do they stack up?
A: The technical differences between LASzip and “Optimized LAS” are minimal. In terms of compression and speed, the two are almost identical. In terms of features, Esri includes spatial indexing information into the *.zlas files whereas we had been storing it as separate *.lax files. It took just a couple of hours to “upgrade” LASzip to match the feature set of “Optimized LAS” by adding one option for spatial sorting and another option for integrating the spatial index into the file. The argument that Esri could not use LASzip due to missing features is obviously a dud. The “LAZ clone” was created to tie LiDAR folks long-term to the ArcGIS platform.
Esri likes to point out that their format contains point statistic summaries. This is so trivial that any developer could add this in an afternoon. Such summaries are a good idea. I encourage Esri to propose a new “Variable Length Record” for that purpose as an addendum to the LAS specification. This is why they are part of the ASPRS LAS Working Group.
Q: Some readers may have seen this post back in 2014, believing the LASzip controversy was resolved. The post was your April Fools’ Day prank. Why did you do it?
A: I modified LASzip just a few days before April 1st 2014 to feature-match the “LAZ clone”. The triviality of these modifications made it obvious that further technical reasoning with Esri was moot. My last hope was to show Esri management how much applause they would garner from working with the community. So I wrote a prank press release, stating that Esri and rapidlasso were developing a joint compressor. Almost everything in this press release was true, except that Esri had not agreed yet to such cooperation. The response was incredible as the collected comments show…
Q: What are the ramifications of dueling data formats? What’s the point the entire GIS community at large should take home?
A: The instant loser is the user who will have to convert data back and forth. The instant winners are companies that provide data converters. Hey wait, that includes me! The long-term loser is the GIS community that will find more and more LiDAR locked to a single platform. The long-term winner is the provider of this platform (or so they hope).
Q: You just mentioned processing LiDAR in a web browser. Is that a new thing?
Q: The term geohipster is bestowed affectionately. With your urban farming and your front yard chickens, I feel like using Steven Feldman’s geohippy term. Do you feel more like a geohipster or a geohippy?
A: The original idea behind downtownfarm — the mash-up of chickens and lasers — was to get away from the granola-hippy image of urban farming and make green more trendy and cool. How about geoyuppy?
Q: Before we let you go, is there anything you’d like to add for our GeoHipster readers?
A self-professed map addict, Gary Gale has worked in the mapping and location space for over 20 years through a combination of luck and occasional good judgement. He is co-founder and director of Malstow Geospatial, a consultancy firm offering bespoke consulting and services in the geospatial, geotechnology, maps and location based services fields. A Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, he tweets about maps, writes about them, and even occasionally makes them.
This is very much an opinion piece of writing, and as such I want to start with a disclaimer. In the past I’ve worked on Yahoo’s maps, on Ovi/Nokia/HERE maps, and these days I’m freelancing, which means the Ordnance Survey — the United Kingdom’s national mapping agency — is my current employer. What follows is my opinion and views, not those of my current employer, not those of previous employers, and certainly not those of future employers. It’s just me. So with that out of the way and stated upfront, I want to opine on OpenStreetMap…
Dear OpenStreetMap, you are truly amazing. Since you started in 2004 with those first few nodes, ways and relationships, you have — to paraphrase a certain Dr. Eldon Tyrell — burned so very, very brightly. (Those of you who know your Blade Runner quotes will know that just after saying this, Tyrell was killed by Roy Baty; I’m not suggesting that anyone should take this literally.)
Just looking at the latest set of database statistics (over 4.6 billion GPS points, over 2.8 billion nodes, over 282.5 million ways, and 3.2 million relationships as of today’s figures) shows how impressive all of this this is.
The maps and data you’ve created are a key element of what’s today loosely termed the geoweb, enabling startups to create maps at little or no cost, allowing some amazing cartography to be created, stimulating research projects, and allowing businesses to spring up to monetise all of this data — some successfully such as MapBox, some less successfully, such as CloudMade.
After reading all of this amazement and adoration, you’re probably expecting the next sentence to start with “But …”, and I’m afraid you’d be right.
But times change, and the mapping and location world we live in has changed rapidly and in unexpected ways since OSM started in 2004. In just over a decade the web has gone mobile with the explosive growth of sensor-laden smartphones, and location is big business — $3.8 billion’s worth of big in 2018 if you believe Berg Insight.
In 2004 if you wanted maps or mapping data then you either went to one of the national or cadastral mapping agencies — such as the UK’s Ordnance Survey — or you went to one of the global, automotive-focused, mapping providers; you went to NAVTEQ or to TeleAtlas. Maps and mapping data are expensive to make and expensive to maintain, and this expense was and continues to be reflected in the licensing charge you paid for mapping data, as well as in the restrictions around what you could and couldn’t do with that data. The high cost of data and the license restrictions were one of the key drivers for the establishment of OpenStreetMap in the first place.
Eleven years on, and the mapping industry landscape is a very different one. NAVTEQ and TeleAtlas are no longer independent entities — Chicago-based NAVTEQ was acquired by Nokia in 2008 after an EU antitrust investigation gave the deal the green light, and Amsterdam-based TeleAtlas has been part of TomTom since 2008. Both companies continue to license their mapping data and their services, with NAVTEQ — now known as HERE — powering the maps for Bing and Yahoo amongst others, and TomTom licensing their data to MapQuest and to Apple as part of the relaunch of Apple Maps in 2012.
There’s also been changes from the national and cadastral mapping agencies, with more and more data being released under various forms of open license — including the Ordnance Survey’s open data program, which in direct contrast to the old licensing regime is now under one of the most liberal of licenses.
In 2007 there was much attention paid to the NAVTEQ and TeleAtlas deals, citing uncertainty surrounding continued data supply to the maps and location industry. It was also predicted that the PND market — those personal navigation devices from TomTom and Garmin that sat on top of your car’s dashboard and announced “you have reached your destination” — would collapse rapidly as a result of the rapid growth of GPS-equipped smartphones.
These concerns and predictions got only half of the outcome right. The PND market did collapse, but the map data continued to flow, although it’s fair to say that as OSM matured and grew a reasonable chunk of revenue and strategic deals were lost — both directly and indirectly — to OSM itself, and to the organisations who act as a business-friendly face to OSM. But as Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, everything changes and nothing stands still.
In the last few weeks it’s been widely reported that Nokia is looking to sell off HERE, the company formed by the (sometimes unwilling) union of NAVTEQ and Nokia Maps. Speculation runs rife as to who will become the new owner of HERE, with Uber seeming to be the pundits’ favourite buyer. But whoever does end up owning HERE’s mapping platform, the underlying map data, and the sizeable mapping and surveying fleet, it now seems to be clear that just as the days of NAVTEQ and TeleAtlas as independent mapping organisations came to an end, the days of HERE are coming to an end. This also has shone the spotlight onto TomTom, who whilst making inroads into NAVTEQ’s share of the automotive data market, seems reliant on their deal with Apple to keep revenue flowing in.
Even before the speculation around HERE’s new owner, there are really only three major sources of global mapping, location and geospatial data: NAVTEQ in their current HERE incarnation, TeleAtlas under the mantle of TomTom, and … OpenStreetMap.
When — rather than if — HERE changes ownership, there’s a very real risk than the new owners will turn the data flow and services built on that data inwards, for their own use and their use only, leaving just two major global maps sources.
Surely now is the moment for OpenStreetMap to accelerate adoption, usage and uptake? But why hasn’t this already happened? Why hasn’t the geospatial world run lovingly into OSM’s arms?
To my mind there’s two barriers to greater and more widespread adoption, both of which can be overcome if there’s sufficient will to overcome them within the OSM community as a whole. These barriers are, in no particular order … licensing, and OSM not being seen as (more) conducive to working with business.
Firstly I want to deal with making OSM more business-friendly, as this is probably the biggest barrier to wider-spread adoption over licensing. For anything other than a startup or SME with substantial geospatial competency already in-house, dealing with OSM and comprehending OSM can be a confusing proposition. What is OSM exactly? Is is the community? Is it the OpenStreetMap Foundation? Is it the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team? Is it one of the companies in the OSM ecosystem that offers services built on top of OSM? All of them? Some of them? None of them?
There’s no doubt that OSM has a vibrant and active map-making and developer-friendly ecosystem in the form of the OSM Wiki and mailing lists alone, even before you factor in the supporting, indirect ecosystem of individuals, community projects and organisations. But this isn’t enough. Business needs to be able to have a single point of contact to liaise with, actually it often insists on this and will look elsewhere if it can’t find this point of contact with anything more than the most cursory of searches. Whether it’s OSM in some shape or form itself, or a single organisation that stands for and represents OSM, this is the biggest barrier to continued OSM adoption that there is, although it may not necessarily be the one which requires the most work to overcome. For that barrier you need look no further than the ODbL, the Open Database License, under which OSM’s data is licensed.
This is a contentious issue and one which is usually met with a deep sigh and the muttering of “not this again“. Prior to 2010, OSM data was licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license, normally shorted to CC-BY-SA. This license says that you are free to …
Share — copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format
Adapt — remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially
But CC-BY-SA’s key weakness for OSM was that it is a license designed for the concept of “material“; for creative works and not specifically for data or for databases. This is understandable; at the time OSM adopted CC-BY-SA, such a data-centric license simply didn’t exist, and CC-BY-SA was the best option available. But in 2010, after much discussion and dissent, OSM switched to the data- and database-specific Open Database License. The ODbL maintains the same attribution and share-alike clauses, but phrased in legal language specifically for data sets. It seems like the perfect license for OSM, but it’s not.
The attribution clause in both CC-BY-SA and ODbL are not at issue. Such clauses mean that the efforts of those who have made OSM what it is are formally acknowledged. The issue is the share-alike clause in both licenses, although it’s fair to say that there are subtleties at play due to the many and varied ways in which OSM data can be “consumed“.
If your consumption of OSM data is a passive one, then the share-alike clause probably has little or no impact. By passive, I mean that as a user you are consuming data from OSM via some form of service provider, and your consumption takes the form of an immutable payload from that service, such as pre-rendered map tiles.
But what about if your consumption of OSM data still comes from a service, but takes the form of actual data — such as the results of a geocoder, or some other geospatial search? Such results are typically stored within a back-end data store, which means that by doing so the end result is a dataset which comprises the original data, plus the results of a search added to make a new dataset. Does this trigger the share-alike clause? This is still an ambiguous area, although current guidelines suggest that the resulting, aggregate data set is a produced work rather than a derived one and so are exempt from triggering the share-alike clause. But there is also a counter-argument that suggests that such an action is indeed a derived work, and so the share-alike clause does apply. This ambiguity alone needs to be resolved, one way or another, in order to make OSM an attractive proposition for business.
The final share-alike complication rears its head when your method of consuming OSM data is to merge one or more data sets with OSM to use the resultant data for some purpose. This sort of data aggregation is often called co-mingling in licensing and legal parlance.
If all the datasets you are dealing with are licensed under ODbL, then the share-alike clause potentially has little impact, as effectively ODbL plus ODbL equals … ODbL. Things are a little less certain when you co-mingle with datasets which are deemed to be licensed under a compatible license. Quite what a compatible license is hasn’t been defined. OpenDataCommons, the organisation behind the ODbL, only says that “any compatible license would, for example, have to contain similar share-alike provisions if it were to be compatible“, which while helpful isn’t a clear cut list of licenses that are compatible. At the time of writing I was unable to find any such list.
But if the data you want to co-mingle with OSM, or indeed with any ODbL licensed data, is data that you don’t want to share with the “community” — which of course will include your competitors — the only way to prevent this is not to use the ODbL-licensed data, which means not using OSM in this manner. To be blunt, mixing any data with a share-alike clause means you can lose control of your data, which probably is part of your organisation’s intellectual property and has cost time and money to put together. It’s acknowledged that not all co-mingling of datasets will trigger the share-alike clause; that there needs to be “the Extraction and Re-utilisation of the whole or a Substantial part of the Contents” in order for the share-alike, or indeed for the attribution clauses of the ODbL to kick in. The problem is that what’s classed as “substantial” isn’t defined at all, and OpenDataCommons notes that “the exact interpretation (of substantial) would remain with the courts“.
If you pause and re-read the last few paragraphs, you’ll notice that there’s words and phrases such as “ambiguity“, “isn’t defined” and “exact interpretation“. All of which adds up to an unattractive proposition for businesses considering using OSM or any open data license with a share-alike clause. For smaller businesses, finding the right path to navigate through licensing requires costly legal interpretation, and where money is tight such a path will simply be ignored. For larger businesses, often with an in-house legal team, a risk analysis will often result in an assessment that precludes using data with such a license as the risk is deemed too great.
OSM as a community, as a data set, as a maps and map data provider, and as an entity is at a crossroads. It’s been at this metaphorical crossroads for a while now, but with the way in which the industry is rapidly changing and evolving, this means that there’s these two challenges that OSM should be encouraged to overcome, if there’s a concerted will to do so.
In almost every one of my previous corporate roles I’ve tried to push usage and adoption of OSM to the business, with the notable exception of my time with Lokku and OpenCage Data, where OSM is already in active use. Initially, reaction is extremely positive: “This is amazing“, “Why didn’t we know about this before?“, and “This is just what we’re looking for” are common reactions.
But after the initial euphoria has worn off and the business looks at OSM’s proposition, the reaction is far from positive. “Who are we doing business with here? OSM or another organisation?“, “We can’t have a business relationship with a Wiki or a mailing list“, and “Legal have taken a look at the license, and the risk of using ODbL data is too great, I’m afraid” are paraphrased reactions I’ve heard so many times. To date, not one of the companies I’ve worked in has used OSM for anything other than the most trivial of base mapping tasks, which is such a loss of potential exposure for OSM to the wider geospatial and developer markets.
In short, the lack of a business-facing and business-friendly approach, coupled with the risks and ambiguity over licensing, are what is holding OSM back from achieving far more than it currently does. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
More than anything, OSM needs a business-friendly face. This doesn’t have to be provided by OSM itself; an existing organisation or a new one could provide this, hopefully with the blessing and assent of the OSMF and of enough of a majority of the OSM community. It’s also worth considering a consortium of existing OSM-based businesses, such as MapBox or GeoFabrik or OpenCage Data, getting together under an OSM For Business banner.
Coupled with the new approach to engaging with business, the licensing challenges could be solved by re-licensing OSM data under a license that retains the attribution clause but which removes the share-alike clause. Unlike the need for time to pass in order for the ODbL to be created to enable the transition from CC-BY-SA, such a license already exists in the form of the Open Data Commons Attribution license.
I do not claim for one second that making OSM business-friendly and re-licensing OSM are trivial matters, nor are there quick fixes to make this happen. I also do not doubt that some sections of the OSM community will be quick to explain why this isn’t needed and that OSM is doing very nicely as it stands, thank you very much. And I wouldn’t contest such views for a second. OSM is doing very nicely and will, I believe, continue to do so.
This isn’t about success or failure; OSM will continue to grow and will overcome future challenges. But OSM could be so much more than it currently is, and for that to happen there has to be change.
Place is a shared resource, and when you give all that power to a single entity, you are giving them the power not only to tell you about your location, but to shape it
These words rang true in early 2014 when Serge first published his post, and they ring doubly true in today’s world where the number of sources of global mapping data are being acquired, when the number of options available for getting and using mapping data are shrinking, and where there’s a very real possibility that the power to say what is on the map and what is under the map ends up in the hands of a very small, select group of companies and sources.
So, dear OSM, the world needs you now more than it needed you when you started out, and a lot more than it needed you in 2014. OSM will continue to be amazing, but with change OSM can achieve so much more than was ever dreamed when the first nodes, ways, and relationships were collected in 2004 — if you just get your community finger out and agree that you want to be more than you currently are.
(For non-British readers, “get your finger out” is a colloquial term for “stop procrastinating and get on with it”)