James Fee: “If you have spare time this weekend, learn dat”

James Fee
James Fee

James Fee is the creator of Planet Geospatial, which has helped build a community around geospatial blogs. He has also keynoted conferences including the Safe Software FME UC, URISA, BAAMA and many more. You can follow him on Twitter, view his presentations on GitHub, and connect with him on Facebook and LinkedIn.

James was interviewed for GeoHipster by Mike Dolbow and Atanas Entchev.

MD: I get the sense that your GIS career has had a few unusual twists and turns. Can you tell us how it all started, and what the biggest surprise has been?

JF: It started with a small job for the City of Mesa, AZ working on the mid-decade census. A Sun SPARC workstation was dropped off and I was the only one who wanted to read the Arc/INFO manuals. So I just started with the “A” commands and worked down to the “Z” commands. Good thing I needed ADDITEM first than WORKSPACE. The biggest surprise has been how easy it is for GIS to adapt to changing technologies. Honestly we are doing the same things we did 25 years ago but quicker and cheaper with less bodies around to get it done. I don’t do GIS in the same way I did it in the early 90s. I don’t even call myself a GIS practitioner. But I do the same basic commands I did with Arc/INFO back in the day, just with JavaScript and PostGIS.

AE: I see a trend in recent years where a number of prominent geogeeks now do “more database, less GIS”. Why do you think that is? Is there money in GIS?

JF:  GIS has always been databases. The difference now is not be so special about it. Why do we need SDE when PostGIS/SQL Server and Oracle can do the same work? Why do we need a special proprietary GIS file format when SQLite, PostGIS and even CSV get the job done easier? That doesn’t mean the skills to run such operations are simple, just the tools are more robust, cross-platform, and easier to learn. Databases are the key to solving spatial problems and they don’t need to be tied to some special GIS silo. Even Esri sees that. I doubt there is money is GIS on its own. We all see that. The money is in spatial and solving problems in those applications and databases that are necessarily spatial by default.

AE: You are one of the earliest geo bloggers, and one of the most opinionated. Have you experienced any adverse effects from your blogging?

JF: If I have I don’t recall. Blogging has opened up thousands of doors for my growth and sanity. I’ve never been told to take something down and I don’t think I’ve ever done so.

MD: I’ve never had the patience to keep a blog updated, but I certainly appreciate the value. Have you ever looked back at old posts like this one and marvel at how much things have changed? Or do you spend more time pursuing current topics like Metadata Madness (which I couldn’t agree more on)?

JF: I started blogging because I was fed up with SDE and Oracle Spatial. I found PostGIS and wanted to learn more. Blogging seemed the very 2005 thing to do. Things have changed for sure but many of the same projects and players are still around doing what they do best. I don’t really go back and look at my old blog posts except when I’m googling a subject and something I wrote is the best result. The old circular reference never fails when you’re in a hurry. I always look forward rather than reflect on debating the need of open-sourcing Avenue.

AE: Last week you announced the end of Planet Geospatial and Spatially Adjusted, and moving all your blogging to Tumblr. Does this signal the end of long-form blogging for you? Do you think long-form blogging is dying?

JF: I moved to Tumblr because it is easier to share and write on the iPhone and iPad. I’m so over “rolling my own” solution with blogging. Twitter and Facebook have taken over for blogs. It’s more democratic these days. Rather than wait for a blogger to write a subject and make a comment, you can just write 140 characters and let the community run with it. I don’t think Tumblr limits me from long-form blogging. It just allows me to share things quicker than WordPress or Jekyll ever did. After over 2,200 blog posts and 10,000+ comments, change is inevitable.

MD: Over the last few years you’ve hosted “Hangouts with James Fee”. Your “10 Years of Steve Coast” hangout lasted almost an hour in August. What inspired you to pursue this kind of format? Is it easier to host a hangout than it is to write an opinion piece?

JF: It’s fun to hear the conversations. We always say that when we’re having beers talking about how much we love the shapefile. It just seemed natural to have such a hangout and the team at WeoGeo did much to get it done. It’s easier to have a hangout of course, there doesn’t go much prep into it. Some things need to be written down though and that’s where the blog still has its point. Generally these hangouts could last hours if we didn’t put up a hour time limit. I wish I had time to get more done, they’re a blast and it’s never hard to find someone to join in.

AE: Is dat the next big thing? Why/why not?

JF: dat is great for working with large datasets. One can stream any format into any format. It’s an ETL but it is so much more than that. I like it because its CLI is so easy to use. So much data resides in huge data stores that are hard to access and use. I envision dat being that key that opens them up and allows me to get at the data in the tools I like to use. I feel like it is the key to open government data moving forward. If you have spare time this weekend, learn dat.

AE: I admire your passion for baseball, even though I don’t understand the sport. Any chance a Euro transplant such as myself can learn to appreciate baseball?

JF: Sure, baseball is all about statistics. That’s why I think spatial geeks love it so much. Every play, every movement of each player, every pitch, every swing is tracked and loaded into a database. It’s such a social sport too. Grab a beer, your friends, and head to a ballpark for a great evening. That and the Giants are World Series Champions again!

MD: Speaking of your fandom, it appears you are a Giants fan for baseball, a Lakers fan for basketball, and and Arizona State fan for football. This is confusing even for a New-Englander-turned-Minnesotan. Can you explain your allegiances?

JF: So there is no simple answer. I’m from Southern California so I grew up a Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Rams and California Angels fan. I disliked the Dodgers because they were everything the Angels were not. Thus I rooted for the Giants just to annoy Dodger fans. The Rams moved away and I swore off the NFL but at the same time I went to college at Arizona State University (thus college football replaced the NFL). Before Phoenix had a baseball team, it was the Triple A Phoenix Firebirds affiliate for the San Francisco Giants so I just started rooting for them. Then after graduation I moved up to San Francisco and the Giants replaced the Angels officially. Of course it made it hard to root for the 2002 World Series but I was pulling for the Giants. Thus it’s Giants in baseball, ASU for all NCAA sports, and the Lakers for basketball (though there isn’t any reason to pay attention this year).

AE: Thank you for the interview. Any parting words for the GeoHipster readers?

JF: Open data is a buzzword but it’s the wave of the future. Projects like dat are going to be critical for any project moving forward. Learn these tools (dat, PostGIS, Python, JavaScript) and you’ll be successful for the next decade.

Sophia Parafina: “Smart people will make you poor”

Sophia Parafina
Sophia Parafina

Sophia Parafina (Twitter, blog) provides janitorial services for data and is fond of firing high velocity projectiles.

Sophia was interviewed for GeoHipster by Randal Hale.

Q: We first met over Twitter. Our first IRL meeting was at the infamous Thea Aldrich baby shower in Austin Texas. But I’ve never asked: How did you start in the geo field?

A: I’ve had an eclectic career. I started with GIS and remote sensing in 1993 in Forest Science at Texas A&M. I was running away from the Geography department because I was done with the squishiness of cultural geography. My first project was redoing Texas Forest Service fire control maps for all of Texas using Landsat and TIGER at Texas A&M. From there, I moved on to routing garbage trucks and dead animal pickup at the City of Austin. I worked for a series of transportation GIS and environmental engineering firms where I routed pipelines, supported environmental impact assessments, and developed integrated GIS systems for railroads and airports.

I took a left turn career-wise and worked for In-Q-Tel — the CIA’s venture capital group — and moved into the world of secret squirrels. I was a founder and CTO of IONIC Enterprise, which was one of the first companies to provide a commercial solution built around OGC standards. IONIC Enterprise was acquired by Hexagon A.B. and Erdas, that’s all I’m gonna say about that because that’s what my lawyer told me to say. Following the acquisition, I was the operations manager at OpenGeo, providing me with a view into the open source world. Lately I’ve been bouncing around various projects, including a stint with Code for America in 2013.

Q: Speaking of Code for America, you spent a year in the program. What did you do there?

A: I was part of the team working on Ohana API while at Code for America. Ohana API is a platform for serving human services data. I submitted a proposal to the Knight Foundation and won a grant that enabled our team to continue our work so that it can be deployed more easily without dependencies on what I call hipster-tech such as MongoDB, Elasticsearch, etc. I’m working on a specification to make distributing human services data easier à la Google Transit Format Specification (GTFS). This will probably be the last time I will ever work on any standard.

Q: When you were at In-Q-Tel you funded a lot of OGC standards, such as the WMS standard. Is WMS still dead (referring to your 2011 WhereCampDC talk)? What evolves next in this arena?

A: Yes, at In-Q-Tel we funded a lot of OGC efforts that included standards and testbeds. WMS was an attempt at interoperability but it was based on ideas from pre-web architecture. It’s essentially RPC over HTTP which kind of works but doesn’t fulfill the promise of service chaining which was pretty much the full expression of interoperability at the time. As a technology, WMS is a dead end. There are still installations of MapServer and GeoServer and they fit a niche, which is usually a mandate for OGC interoperability. WMS is sometimes used for tile generation, but Mapnik has filled that role operationally for most organizations that offer mapping as a service.

I think we’ve already seen what’s next in MapBox, Google, and CartoDB where they offer mapping services. I think Esri will continue on given their installed base, but this market is pretty niche and everyone is looking to the next big thing, which is probably imagery. We’re seeing a prevalence of drone mapping and the launches of micro satellites by Planet Labs are pointing towards near real-time capture, analysis and dissemination of imagery. That’s way more data and information than vector maps.

Q: When we last spoke you said you were slowly moving out of the geo field and working more with databases than geo. You haven’t left geogeekdom, have you?

A: For me, geo has become more of a sideshow. I still occasionally map things for giggles such as this competitor’s map for Brownell’s Lady 3 Gun. I sporadically blog technical stuff, sometimes geo-related.

Geo can be fun, but after working in the field for a couple decades, it feels a bit played out to me. What do I know? I’m a jaded fuck. Today I work more with various forms of semi-structured and unstructured data streams. Internet of Things looms large for me. Oh yeah, building a business around social media data is stupid. That’s so done.

For relaxation, I’m a competitive USPSA (US Practical Shooters Association) pistol shooter as well as 3 Gun Nation member. You can find me at a range most weekends blowing holes into things and reloading ammo in the evenings. I would love to leave all this computer crap and become a professional shooter, but there’s no money in it.

Q: During our recent encounter you were successfully (or unsuccessfully) blowing holes through targets. How did a nice gentle person like you start carrying around three or more guns at something called Lady 3 Gun?

A: The main problem at Lady 3 Gun was that I was too slow when blowing holes into things. I had bird flu and was hospitalized two weeks before the match, and I was happy that I wasn’t keeling over.

I got into guns because I live in a colorful inner city neighborhood where we’ve had drug dealers set up shop across the street in a rental house, infrequent home invasions, and occasional MS13 or Latin Kings gang killings a couple of blocks over. My wife is a politician and public figure, and being the other female half of this dyad can be dicey since we live in Texas.

I believe in knowing how to use a firearm effectively, but regular practice can be boring. So I started shooting USPSA where I can run around obstacles and shoot as fast as I possibly can while off balance. I joined 3 Gun Nation this year so I can be mediocre in not just one gun, but three types of guns. It’s a literal blast and the adrenaline rush can’t be beat.

Q: I never asked about your skinny jeans or record collection… or your favorite PBR craft beer bar. Let me ask instead: What are some of your tools for either ripping apart things or ripping apart data?

A: My favorite tool has to be my Leatherman, but I also carry a Rick Hinderer knife and Smith & Wesson 9mm M&P Shield as everyday carry. Following that, I use Chrome and Sublime Text as my primary tools, but vim has a very special place in my heart because it can open files greater than 200GB in size on my 4 year old MacBook Pro. I use what is handy for mapping: QGIS, Google Fusion Tables, MapBox, CartoDB — whatever I need to do at the moment. No real preference.

Haven’t used Esri products in over a decade, except to occasionally liberate geodatabase files. I cruise through github for tools. Love PostgreSQL/PostGIS, but I’m also very fond of Elasticsearch. I’ve been using Ruby recently, but I’m overcoming my distaste of Python because it has more tools for analysis. I’m pretty good at stupid bash tricks as a lifelong unix devotee.

Q: Last question: Any pearls of wisdom to throw at the readers of GeoHipster?

A: Pearls of wisdom that were passed on to me:

  1. Smart people will make you poor.
  2. You will never get ahead financially until you can make money while you sleep.
  3. “Just walk away and there will be an end to the horror.” –the Humungus in Mad Max http://youtu.be/XPY5P0TaC4k

The 2015 GeoHipster Calendar is available for purchase

We are excited to announce that the first-ever GeoHipster wall calendar is ready for production. We thank all who submitted maps for the calendar, Christina Boggs and Carol Kraemer for co-originating the calendar idea, and Christina again for her ongoing assistance with logistics and curation.

The 2015 GeoHipster Wall Calendar makes a great holiday gift for the geogeek on your list, so pick up a few. The proceeds from the calendar sales will help GeoHipster offset our operational costs, stay ad-free, and maintain independence.

The 2015 GeoHipster Calendar is available for purchase from CafePress. All calendars are made to order (you need to specify January 2015 as Starting Month (as opposed to the default setting — the current month)).

The calendar features maps from the following map artists (screenshots below):

  • Gretchen Peterson
  • Jonah Adkins
  • Ralph Straumann
  • Markus Mayr
  • Bill Morris
  • Andrew Zolnai
  • Stephen Smith
  • Damian Spangrud
  • Farheen Khanum
  • Christina Boggs
  • John Van Hoesen
  • Steven Romalewski
  • Joachim Ungar
GeoHipster 2015 Calendar cover layout
GeoHipster 2015 Calendar cover layout

IMPORTANT! The screenshot below is intended ONLY to give an overview of the overall layout — which map goes on which page, etc. When you order the 2015 calendar, you will get the 2015 calendar. You can verify this by reviewing each individual page online before you order.

GeoHipster 2015 Calendar 12-month layout
GeoHipster 2015 Calendar 12-month layout

Amy Smith: “One of the things I love about Maptime is that it’s open to all skill levels and backgrounds”

Amy Smith
Amy Smith

Amy Smith is a Geospatial Data and Technology Specialist with Fehr & Peers in San Francisco. She’s had some great opportunities working with geographic information systems in a variety of fields, including environmental studies, satellite imagery analysis, water resources, and transportation planning. Amy currently spends her days working with an amazing group of people focused on improving transportation in our communities. In her free time she enjoys exploring the hills of San Francisco.

Amy was interviewed for GeoHipster by Christina Boggs.

Q: A few years back we used to work together but I don’t actually remember how you got into GIS. You have a master’s in it right?

 A: I do! I have a Master’s in Geography and Regional Studies. I got into GIS through a chance encounter with a geography professor whom I passed in a hallway on campus. Somehow we started talking about geography. I was undeclared at the time. I was trying to decide between GIS and intro to computer science for a general requirement. He told me a bit about GIS and geography, and that really won me over. Who knows, I could have been a computer scientist if I hadn’t met him!

Q: You didn’t leave computers entirely though, you’re pretty slick with code… In fact, you’re a great promoter of Python. Which came first – GIS or coding?

A: My first programming/scripting language was Matlab. I learned it while I was working on my master’s studying space-based synthetic aperture radar data in the Florida Everglades. Through learning Matlab, I learned the basics of programming logic. When I started using desktop GIS every day for work, it got me thinking about ways I could be using programming for spatial analysis, which led me down the path to Python. Since then, I use it almost every day, and not just for spatial analysis.

Q: What other tasks do you use Python for?

A: Lately I’ve been using it to prepare transit data for travel demand models. Since many of the inputs of the models are text-based, Python lends itself well to these types of tasks. It can also come in handy for automating things you’d rather not do manually. For example, I had an Excel spreadsheet with multiple worksheets that needed to be saved as individual CSVs. Instead of exporting them one by one, I wrote a script to iterate through each worksheet and save it as a CSV. Kind of a mundane example, but it’s this type of thing that I think can save lots of time at the end of the day.

Q: Speaking of time, you did a transportation study and saved time by scripting some node-based analysis of road segments to bicycle accident occurrences. I saw your talk at the ESRI UC where you talked about becoming one of the points. Do you know if that study has been reviewed by any of the traffic safety folks out in your area, has it helped any?

A: That was one of the first projects where I got a chance to develop a custom script tool for ArcGIS. The tool uses a roadway network and collision data to pinpoint high incident collision areas that might need attention. The tool was applied most recently by Placer County here in California to run a collision analysis of their entire county-maintained roadway network, which used to be a manual review process. They used some of the results to apply for grants and received several grants funding highway safety projects. Another benefit of the tool is that the county can continue to use it with new data in their safety programs.

Q: You’ve taught workshops on Python and even done some online workshops. Do you have any more in the future, or are you branching out to something different?

A: I’m planning some internal Python training here at Fehr & Peers for our planners and engineers who’d like to learn more about it. I’m always happy to talk with others about Python, so I hope there are more opportunities out there for workshops. I’m still learning too, so I’m always on the lookout for workshops and meetups others are hosting. In terms of branching out, I’ve recently been diving into JavaScript. There’s a library I’ve been learning about called D3 that has some great spatial as well as non-spatial capabilities. I’m still in the “stumbling through it” phase, but luckily there’s a great user community online and here in the Bay area that’s eager to share knowledge.

Q: A few months back you attended my first #maptimeSF with me; now that you’ve moved out to San Francisco I see you get to go to #maptimeSF more often. For someone who is thinking about attending their first Maptime, how do you think it helped you as an advanced GISer?

A: Maptime is a meetup that’s happening in many cities around the world where folks can get together, learn about maps, make maps, talk about maps, or maybe just hang out with friends. One of the things I love about Maptime is that it’s open to all skill levels and backgrounds. People are encouraged to ask questions and learn from each other. It’s a very welcoming environment. I’ve learned a lot about how others outside of my industry are using geospatial data and technologies. It’s also encouraging to see a thriving interest and enthusiasm for maps.

Q: Hearing about your work in transportation is really interesting. The water side still misses you. What are you up to at Fehr & Peers? Any interesting projects you can share with us?

A: I have so many great memories from my time with the Department of Water Resources in West Sacramento — it’s where I really started to get my feet wet (pun intended) with Python! It’s also where I learned to drive a boat. I definitely miss the field work collecting bathymetry data in the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta (picture below for proof), and of course the people too!

Amy Smith collecting bathymetry data in the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta
Amy Smith collecting bathymetry data in the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta

 One of the great things about GIS is that it’s applicable in many different industries. Transportation planning has a lot of great uses for GIS too. One of the more recent projects I worked on focused on improving cyclist and pedestrian access to transit stations. The project had a large data organization component that involved gathering available spatial data and organizing it in a consistent way so that we could use it in a series of network analyses. We looked at some of the ways that a well-connected network might help improve access to transit, making it easier for people to walk and bike to stations. I’m currently working on a project, also transit-related, that involves improving transit in an area that doesn’t have a lot of existing transit. It can be a challenge to anticipate how new facilities will affect travel in an area if you don’t have many observations on how people are currently using transit. In this case, we’re identifying places that have developed transit networks and that share similar characteristics with the study area that’s considering improving or expanding their transit system. Both of these projects are very much rooted in spatial analysis, but also require local knowledge. Another fun part of my job is getting to know new areas and talking with people to learn about qualities specific to their region that might not be obvious from just looking at the data.

Q: If people are looking to check out some of your cool stuff, where can you be found online?

A: I tweet about spatial topics, transportation, and my endless appetite for spinach @wolfmapper.

Q: Geohipster Amy Smith is awesome! How do you feel about being part of spreading the geohipster gospel?

A: I’m a big fan of GeoHipster! I was trying to disguise myself a bit by using a seriffed font, but I think you found me out anyway. :)

Q: Speaking of transportation, I’ve got to wrap this interview up so I can cycle to work. Is there anything else you would like to share with #geohipster readers?

A: I recently learned about a spatial data format called topoJSON that’s one of my new favorite things. I found out about it at a recent Maptime on D3 and have been reading more about it on Mike Bostock’s wiki. Also, I’ll be helping host a webinar on transit planning with Code for America next month. Tune in if you’re interested!

Happy cycling!

Ed Freyfogle: “Every startup is vulnerable, that’s what makes it exciting”

Ed Freyfogle
Ed Freyfogle

Ed Freyfogle is a German/American entrepreneur living in London. He is one of the founders of Lokku, makers of the OpenCage Geocoder.

Ed was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.

Q: You are the only geo person I know with an MBA from MIT. By contrast, I know people who wish they had an MBA from an Ivy League school so they could get out of geo. So what is your story? How did you get into geo?

A: It’s a bit of a long story, so bear with me.

I guess like most people “in the industry” I’ve always liked maps, as a kid was drawing maps, all that kind of stuff. Before MIT I had worked  as a software developer at Yahoo Germany during the first internet wave of the late nineties. It was a great case of being in the right place at the right time. I learned an immense amount. After five years there, with all its amazing ups and then the downs of the crash in 2001, it was time for something new. Also, while I really enjoyed programming I also wanted to learn the business side. So I got an MBA at MIT and thought a lot about what I wanted to do, and where I wanted to do it (I mainly grew up in the US). My conclusion was that I had really enjoyed Yahoo when it was small and had the startup feel; when I joined the Munich office was 15 people and I got to work on pretty much every system. I also concluded I had really enjoyed living in Europe. So in 2005 I moved to London in the hopes of finding a startup to join. Back then the scene was microscopic compared to today, I couldn’t find a startup where I liked the people, the idea, my role, etc. So in the end I started my own company, Lokku, along with another ex-Yahoo, and we’re still thriving today.

Those that know their geo history will recall that 2005 was the year Google Maps came out, shortly followed by Housing Maps, the first “mash-up” to put pins on a map. Heady times! Lokku’s first product, and still our biggest, was a real estate search engine called Nestoria. Initially we were just for London, today we’re in nine countries. A friend of mine from Yahoo, Mikel Maron (who later went on to start Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team), knew about maps, and was advising us, and that’s how I got into the London OpenStreetMap scene, going to a few of the pub meet-ups. I’m proud to say we sponsored the very first State of the Map conference back in 2006 (and have sponsored many more since). In 2006 there was a mapping party on the Isle of Wight, and afterwards we made tiles and started using them on Nestoria if someone searched for a home on the Isle of Wight. I’m pretty sure this was the first ever commercial use of OSM in a consumer service.

A few years later we launched Nestoria India and Nestoria Brazil. To do that we needed geodata for those countries. I have the sense most readers of this blog focus on the US or Canada, and I have no doubt there are impressive technical and licensing challenges around getting US geodata, but if you want to experience some grade-A bureaucracy I invite you, dear reader, to try to purchase Indian geodata. It was impossible, at least for a tiny start-up like ours. So basically we had to launch using only OpenStreetMap as our geodata source. I can not pretend OSM in India is perfect, it still lacks coverage. But then of course so does any other geo datasource given how rapidly things are changing in India. Anyway, OSM was good enough, and now Nestoria India is one of our fastest growing markets. This is classic “Innovator’s Dilemma” stuff, the new technology is “good enough” for experimentation, and then all of a sudden it’s good enough for day to day stuff, and then all of a sudden it’s the norm, and the existing models with their old cost structure can’t compete.

So we thought about that and thought about whether there is a way we could help make that happen, and the result was last year we launched our brand OpenCage Data. Our hypothesis was that companies want to use OSM, but right now it’s too chaotic for them – the documentation isn’t always great, the way to learn is to get on mailing lists, the toolset around OSM is evolving very rapidly — and that all of this puts off companies who are used to more stability. We talked with lots of people, anyone who might have any possible use case for geodata, but especially people outside of the existing market. Companies put off by the cost, or not even really aware of how using geodata would help them. We learned a lot: OSM is not on most people’s radar yet. The thing that came up again and again was geocoding. So this summer we launched the OpenCage geocoder. We try to differentiate on simplicity/ease of use, by aggregating many different open geodata sources, and by then annotating our results with things developers would find useful. It’s early days, but we’re learning a lot and getting good feedback.

Finally, over the years we’ve been approached by a lot of different people asking for advice, help. We never had a good framework to channel that so we usually said no. But over the last year we’ve started seed investing in some of these ideas. We provide a bit of money, but also advice, connections, etc. It has to be in a category we have expertise in and one of those is geo, so now we’re involved in a few different geo startups.

Q: You are involved with several startups, and you run the #geomob London event. How do you manage to juggle so many different things?

A: Well some of the things I’m a driver, others it’s just as an investor / advisor, but yeah, there is plenty to keep me busy — also I have two small children, so there’s not a lot of down time.

#geomob is a regular event we run. It’s a lot of fun. It is amazing how many cool things are happening in geo and location-based services in London (the city where OpenStreetMap was invented). We try to create a forum to show off that innovation. Every few months we have an evening event where five or six different speakers get 15 minutes each to talk about their project. And it’s not all startups — we usually have a good mix of startups, hobbyists, academics, and the occasional megacorp. Afterwards we all go to the pub and have a few beers. We see lots of wacky ideas and experiments. And some of those crazy ideas turn into great things. Some of the speakers are polished, some aren’t. It’s a healthy mix from all across the geo spectrum.

Our next event is November 4th, if you’re in London, join us.

Q: I am intrigued by the business side of a geo startup. I watched your APICon 2014 presentation where you talk about OpenCage Geocoder — your latest startup. Your MBA background comes through strongly in that presentation. You are also very open about your business strategy. Doesn’t that make the business vulnerable?

A: Every startup is vulnerable, that’s what makes it exciting. No risk, no fun.

Lots of people who work in big companies or organizations perhaps don’t appreciate that with a startup the main challenge is creating momentum from a standing start. You start with literally nothing. And then you have to make it happen. No one comes to you. You have to create the momentum.

In general it is clear there is massive societal benefit to open data. But it’s not yet clear if all of that benefit goes to the end consumer and is just a cost society needs to shoulder (i.e., through taxes so that government services release all their data), or if there is role for private companies. Our bet is that there is. Anyone who has feedback on what we’re up to we’d love to hear from.

BTW, I’m choosing to take your “You MBA background comes through strongly in that presentation” as a compliment.

Q: In the same talk you refer to “Berlin, Berlin” as an error of redundancy. But do you know that there is a Berlin in New Jersey, another in Maryland, and yet another in Connecticut? Maybe “Berlin, Berlin” does make sense after all? Or perhaps addressing cannot — or should not — be standardized globally?

A: For those who aren’t familiar with the problem here’s a brief description. I was in Berlin, Germany, I tweeted, and Twitter showed my location as “Berlin, Berlin” (i.e., Berlin the city, in Berlin the state). Of course there are multiple Berlins, but Twitter has the coordinates from my phone. There is no ambiguity. They know I am in Berlin, capital city of Germany, yet they choose to show the location in a way that makes no sense to a local.

Absolutely addressing can not be standardized globally. It’s too late, there are almost as many formats as there are countries. That’s part of the rich tapestry of the human experience. Software should be able to solve the problem and present the location in the way a local considers normal.  I blogged about this and how we’re solving it on the OpenCage geocoder. Our solution is open source and we’d love everyone’s help. Pull requests here please.

Q: On addressing: I like What3Words and what they do, but how realistic is it to expect the whole world (including non-English speaking regions) to embrace an entirely new spatial reference system? Do you think this will happen before or after the US adopts the metric system?

A: Many industries and contexts in the US have adopted the metric system, as you’ll know if you buy a 2-liter of Coke. But I take your point that it isn’t the norm in most consumers’ heads. But so what? That doesn’t stop the rest of the world from using it to get their tasks done.

And it’s the same with a solution like What3Words. It is not an immediately compelling solution in a place like London, which is well addressed and has highly accurate postcodes. But if you’ve ever been to a meeting in India you will concede that there are parts of the world where addressing can only be described as a disaster. There are no addresses. You are navigating by landmark and frankly it is hugely painful. Not just for me the tourist, but for the locals as well. Those parts of the world need a better solution, and it needs to be one that is simple enough for the average person. That solution is not long/lat. I think it might be What3Words.

As a product person, What3Words is great in its attempt to make something complicated simple. I recently watched this excellent talk by Vladimir Agafonkin, maker of the mapping library Leaflet, on simplicity, and how it is needed in geo. It’s too early to say if What3Words will succeed, but I love that they are innovating by being simple. As an investor What3Words falls squarely in that category of most people dismiss it as crazy, but it just might not be, and if it succeeds it will be on a massive scale.

But if some parts of the world want to keep doing things the hard way or say measuring temperature in Fahrenheit, that’s cool. It’s a big world and there’s usually more than one way to do it.

Q: SplashMaps is another one of your business ventures, and the most hipstery one, IMHO. How did you come up with the idea? How is the business doing? Are the maps selling?

A: We’re just investors in SplashMaps, full credit goes to David and the team. But I agree with you, it is hip. It’s an amazing product, a customisable fabric map, perfect for all sorts of outdoor uses where you’ll get wet, muddy, sweaty, etc. So yes, in 2014 I’ve invested in a company that makes physical maps, which I guess is a little contrarian. I wrote about all our reasons for investing on our blog.

Good news for all the hipsters out there who can’t wait to get their hands on one (did I mention Christmas is coming?); in the very near future SplashMaps will be available globally, to date they’ve only been in Great Britian. If you know a geohipster who needs a gift, you’re going to have a tough time beating a SplashMap.

For me, SplashMaps is exciting because it’s a great example of the kind of innovation that’s possible when the barriers around access to and cost of geodata go away. I’m also more intrigued lately by taking digital products and bringing them back to analog as a way to create value. You can go on a tough hike using your digital map. But people want tangible artifacts they can hang memories and stories on. Everyone in the geo industry can remember the pleasure of gathering around an atlas, looking at far away tropical islands, sliding your finger along a journey you took. This tangible experience is a basic human urge that digital doesn’t meet, and one that SplashMaps taps into.

Q: I understand you moved out of Shoreditch, which is London’s counterpart to Williamsburg in Brooklyn. What’s up with that?

A: Don’t worry, I now live in the Barbican in central London. Shoreditch’s not far, but it’s gone a bit too upmarket. Anyway, I think of myself not so much as a hipster as a digital brutalist, so the Barbican’s a better match for me, my wife, and our two kids. All that said, these days the cool kids are all in Moabit and Wedding, so I’m working on convincing my wife it’s her idea that we move to Berlin. Let’s see.

Q: We haven’t talked about humor on GeoHipster, which I realize is a serious lapse. Let’s fix that. You were a humor columnist for the MIT student newspaper. Do you have a joke I haven’t heard?

A: Wow, you’ve done your research. Yeah, I used to write an anonymous advice column for the school newspaper called “Ask Alfred” in which I pretended to be a greedy and lecherous version of Alfred P. Sloan, the business school’s namesake (CEO of GM, often credited with inventing the modern corporation). In hindsight it was an attempt to poke fun at the divergence between the high-minded ideals espoused by the school and the profit-driven reality (greed, if you will) of the industries most MBAs go into. On the other hand though, I do think in the open geo world, particularly here in Europe, there’s a tendency to err too far in the other direction — thinking everything should be free all the time, all code needs to open source, we all need to be motivated by altruism all the time. As anyone trying to pay rent in central London will tell you, goodwill alone will not get you far.

I’m not sure what the joke is here. These days my comedy is more situational and slapstick.

Q: Thank you so much for the interview. Any parting words for the GeoHipster readers?

A: In the geo industry (if I can say so as an outsider) we all get that something major has changed with the rise of the smartphone; all of a sudden we all carry around a supercomputer that knows exactly where we are at all times. But I don’t think anyone grasps how radically this will change everything. For everyone, but particularly for the geo industry. We are at the start of an amazing ride. Anyone who’s up for the trip I would love to meet with. So if you’re London come say hello, we’ll go grab a pint. If that makes me a geohipster, so be it.

Brian Timoney: “The ‘G’ stands very much for ‘geospatial’ and not ‘GIS'”

Brian Timoney
Brian Timoney

Brian (@briantimoney) is an information consultant based in Denver, Colorado. With 15 years experience primarily in the geospatial sector, he has worked in a variety of sectors including energy, defense, and local government. Brian speaks both English and Spanish with a Philadelphia accent, and is a US Marine Corps veteran.

Brian was interviewed for GeoHipster by Mike Dolbow and Atanas Entchev.

AE: You blog and tweet about geo, data visualization, and business analytics. Which of those is of the most interest to you nowadays and why? Is spatial special?

BT: While analytics are hot (if the prevalence of the term “data science” is any indicator), the usefulness of raw insight often hinges on a visualization that is both accessible and meaningful. As for where Geo fits in, the popularity of map-based listicles e.g. “38 Maps that Explain the Global Economy” either indicates a serious, ongoing demand, or the delight of the otherwise well-educated to engage in geographic thinking for the first time since middle school.

MD: Your blog post summing up findings on How the Public Actually Uses Local Government Web Maps is so succinct and forehead-slapping that I find myself constantly referring customers to it. Do you see any evidence that the tide is turning in local government web maps, moving from overcomplicated user interfaces to simpler designs?

BT: Anecdotally I know of some projects in Europe that were directly influenced by those articles, and some vendors have engaged with the ideas in those articles. Yet we still see local government opting for the visual grammar of desktop GIS because it both feels familiar and risk-free. Or put another way, government websites aren’t punished for the users who leave because of a crappy user experience.

But what is significantly turning the tide is mobile. My new favorite quote is from CartoDB’s Javier de la Torre who said the future of geo “isn’t an application with 100 buttons, but hundreds of apps with one button.”

MD: Your series on Why Map Portals Don’t Work expands on your observations, taking a deeper dive on the subject of simplicity in web mapping. If you had to pick one part of that series for customers to focus on, which one would it be and why?

BT: My kingdom for an auto-complete search text box! Google has made text-based search such an intuitive part of using the web that maps that leave the user no choice but to interact with map elements — pan, zoom, etc. — make discovering user intent much more difficult than it should be. And make no mistake, users end up alienated.

MD: You must feel some validation when you see Vladimir Agafonkin’s recent FOSS4G talk on how simplicity will save GIS. What do you think this means for the future of web mapping?

BT: If you see the world as a Pareto 80-20 proposition, then you could make the case that the history of web mapping interfaces is one of bloating the map out to solve the last 20% of use cases. Vlad’s exclusive focus on the core 80% of map functionality is what has made Leaflet so successful, especially outside the traditional GIS boundaries. He was the star attraction at the recent JS.geo, and his story highlights the need to keep our industry open to outsiders. Just to be clear, there are plenty of workflows out there where an OpenLayers or Google Maps or Esri Javascript API makes the most sense. But Vlad’s commitment to both Leaflet as an open source project and iterating only on a core subset of functionality  has served everyone very well.

AE: FOSS4G 2014 generated a lot of buzz and excitement, but is open source making serious inroads in the geo market space? Esri still rules the geo desktop. Microsoft is still king of the PC. Do you see this changing any time soon? Or will the desktop decrease in market share to a point of irrelevance?

BT: For me, the big takeaway from this year’s FOSS4G was that the “G” stands very much for “geospatial” and not “GIS”. I think back to the 2007 FOSS4G show in Victoria where there was much more seeing the market as the GIS market dominated by ESRI. Today, the opportunities run so much broader and deeper. Take an outfit like the Climate Corporation, who gave a FOSS4G presentation on doing geo things using ElasticSearch: they were an open data/big data/analytics startup that were bought for $1.1 billion. They had a specific operational need — spatial search — and I seriously doubt they spent 15 minutes thinking of it as a “GIS” problem but rather a very specific type of indexing challenge.

When you say “Esri still rules the geo desktop” I think that would be better expressed as “…the GIS desktop”. But what about people doing spatial things elsewhere? People are doing geo things in R Studio. People are doing geo things in IPython Notebooks. To see GIS as having a foregone monopoly on spatial analysis and mapmaking is to miss the much larger picture. Unfortunately, some of the biggest losers in this changing landscape are current students unknowingly suffering from a lazy Geography curriculum that offers little in the way of spatial reasoning and data fluency but instead only a mediocre grasp of a particularly byzantine desktop interface.

AE: I am reminded of this ancient Persian proverb: “The dogs bark, but the caravan goes on.” Microsoft bought Minecraft to keep the caravan going. Should Esri buy SimCity? Because, you know, geodesign…

BT: Everything I know about Geodesign I’ve learned from James Fee’s Spatially Adjusted blog. I have nothing further to add.

AE: Do you consider yourself a (geo)hipster? You are a skier. Is skiing a hipstery pastime? (Or is it only if your heels are disconnected, as Mike Dolbow suggests?)

BT: The hippest thing I’ve ever done was switch from pleated khakis to flat-front khakis.

I also shave every morning and tuck in my shirt during business hours.

But if hipsterism is essentially about alternative status hierarchies, then count me in. Ever since Boundless named me the 26th most influential Geospatial tweeter, I’ve been looking for a new lunch table to sit at.

While I ski, it’s only in the context of enjoying the finest in chairlift technology, for which I happily pay a pretty penny. Mike is correct: in Colorado, “real skiers” are the tele-markers who ascend mountains using skins and free-heel down in knee-deep powder off-piste. To them I say “we will each go to our respective graves with very different ideas of ‘fun’”.

MD: What’s up with the “Geospatial Amateurs”? Has your intentional irony achieved the desired result? Can those meetups only take place where weed is legal?

BT: Geospatial Amateurs was the brainchild of Peter Batty (@pmbatty) and Nate Irwin (@nateirwin) and was very much informed by experiences with previous iterations of developer groups and meetups where well-intentioned sponsorship by vendors ended up creating environments that weren’t really what was originally envisioned. By putting “Amateurs” in the title, we accomplish two important goals: it’s a signal to vendors that this isn’t really anything you need to bother with, while communicating to curious outsiders that while it might be a bit nerdy, it’s not self-serious and insular nerdery.

As for weed, clearly you fall into the pattern of most of my East Coast friends for whom it holds an exotic allure akin to a 19-year-old frat boy pondering topless beaches in Europe. I’m within a 5-minute walk of three retail outlets and yet I guarantee you have given it more thought than me over the past few months. But to reassure you, the Geo Amateurs seem much more into craft beer.

AE: Thank you for the interview. Any parting words for the GeoHipster readers? Is spatial special?

BT:  Stop reading blogs during working hours.

Oh, you’re waiting for your buffer intersection to finish?

Cool — you’re still billable. Carry on.

Carl Anderson: “Rejecting your own work as the path forward is an important but painful thing”

Carl Anderson
Carl Anderson

Carl Anderson (@candrsn) started hacking on a TRS-80 in the 70s, quickly upgraded to an Apple II+, and has used all sizes and types of computer systems in his career. He is a polyglot and seeks answers using technology instead of seeking specific technology to answer questions. He is dogmatically pragmatic. In the last 30+ years he has worked for and supported local county, state, and federal government, the private sector and universities, and volunteered for too many things. He is the President of URISA, has served in many roles in local and international GIS organizations, and really enjoys working with the people he meets.

Carl was interviewed for GeoHipster by Randal Hale.

How did you get into GIS/mapping?

I have always been interested in the spatial relationships between things, and that interest drew me to measuring and representing those relationships. Specifically, in the early ‘80s I came across a book on microcomputer computational graphics and I was hooked. (Myers, Roy E. (1982) – Microcomputer Graphics).

So that interest drove you to pick a college major? Or was this a learn-on-the-job (as many of us did) career?

The path I took was in no way linear. I had taken programming courses while in high school, started out as an art major in college and later switched to engineering sciences. All the while I kept picking up odd jobs that included measurement, design, spatial analysis and information management components.

I’m currently fascinated with hybrid setups — taking commercial and open source, and building a hybrid system. You did that at Fulton County (Georgia), where you were the GIS Manager?

I was at Fulton County for a long time. I filled many roles while there, from traffic analysis in Public Works, to GIS management in the Planning department and later IT department, to leading a Business Intelligence division of the IT department. That last division included GIS, Database Development, Web Development and Data Integration, and was quite a challenge.

With regard to hybrid setups, I am proud of what we achieved at Fulton County. I had learned that things can really hum along when each component does its own one thing well. Back in the early 90s it took a lot more heavy lifting to connect components. Today, using REST, GeoJSON, WFS, WMS, XAML, OBDC, and others it is really easy to hook things up. We used to run into issues with every piece of software we tried, and had to patch code in Perl, PHP, the Linux kernel, mars NWS (a Novell emulator), TN 5470 (to talk to the IBM mainframe), and too many others. I took a bit of grief over building systems that combined both open and proprietary components, but it was the only way forward as we knew that as long as we did not require a line item in the budget, we could do nearly anything we wanted.

That hybrid approach allowed us to be super responsive to our client base and keep up and leverage the changing technology and internal (county-government-wide) standards. We were able to build custom GIS apps for Planning, the Tax Assessor, the Tax Commissioner, 911 and EMA, the Police and Sheriff, Voter Registation, and more. Using a hybrid approach, the end users were not affected when we upgraded core GIS software, or even when we switched databases.

One particular technology journey was especially interesting. We had to change the data storage system several times, and we were never completely in control of the timing. We started out moving from ARCStorm to SDE 3.0, but had to backtrack due to a need to reload data from original sources. We then moved to Oracle for a few years but were using a license borrowed from a different department that wanted it back. I had been playing with Postgresql95, and we moved everything from Oracle during a stressful week of dump as SQL, refactor as a PostgreSQL95 variant, and load SQL. After migration we managed to keep systems in sync using a mixture of Perl and PHP. PostGIS did not yet exist, so we developed our own spatial storage and predicates. In late 2001 we got turned on to PostGIS. As the 2000s progressed, it got easier to move and model data, so we started to connect live to client data systems and integrate on the fly with data caching. When I left we were connecting systems using MSSQLServer, PostgreSQL, Oracle, Berkley DB, MS Access, SharePoint, and others. The whole journey required us to reject what we had been doing, refocus on what we really needed, and find a solution — any solution — that fit our true needs. Rejecting your own work as the path forward is an important but painful thing.

While you were chugging along at Fulton County, you ended up helping co-write something called FGDC-STD-016-2011? How painful/fun was that?

Otherwise known as the FGDC Address data standard, it was a lot of work and a lot of fun in a geeky kind of way. The most important thing I learned is that developing a standard takes a long time. The Address Standard took 5 years from kick-off to adoption. Reviewing addressing practices in the US revealed many odd things that you might not suspect exist. Part of that work was informed by a custom geocoding engine we wrote at Fulton County. It used a more natural linguistic pattern to locate candidate addresses instead of the more literal matching engines available to us in commercial GIS software. Currently I am helping on an international address framework standard (ISO 19160-1), likewise lots of fun in an internationally-geeky way.

So I’m going to slow-pitch one question, then stick you on another one. You are now President of URISA. Given the whole idea of GeoHipster (people who work/think outside the box) I’ve been questioning as of late how effective the big organizations are (URISA, ASPRS, GITA) at maintaining a connection with the industry when it seems to be changing at a rapid pace. First off — what is URISA? Secondly — how is URISA adapting to the needs of its members (assuming it is)?

URISA, officially the “Urban and Regional Information Systems Association”, got started in 1966 as an organization to help share ideas and results using a (then) new-fangled thing (computers) to solve problems in urban and regional planning and government.

Our tagline is “Fostering Excellence in GIS”, and we take that to heart; we exist to help GIS practitioners succeed. One of the big roles URISA continues to fill is to help make newer, useful techniques and technology feel safe for GIS practitioners to implement. As a community of GIS practitioners, URISA allows people to see what their peers are doing in GIS, what is working, what is not, how people can repeat successful ideas. It is also working to identify practices in setting up and managing GIS systems that are particularly useful, effective or efficient.

I was at a conference a few months back and someone said “Blah blah I know a guy who maps caves” and I responded “Blah blah blah I know a guy who maps caves”. We both knew the same guy. I know how busy we get and it’s been a while since I sat in a canoe. Are you still a member of the Athens Speleological Society? How did you end up mapping caves?

At the moment I am only an armchair caver, but I do feel then need to get underground again. I have always felt a stronger affinity to the Dogwood City Grotto, in Atlanta GA. than the Athens Speological Society near the University of Georgia.

When I was at Georgia Tech I ran into several great people who used the mapping and survey of caves as a way to investigate the spatial relationship of caves. People like Bill Putman, Ed Stausser, Steve Attaway, Marion Smith, Jim Smith — they all stirred up my curiosity and got me mapping caves. Cave surveying is quite different from modern above-ground survey techniques. The equipment has to be super rugged, be able to get completely wet, and fit into a small backpack. At Georgia Tech and later, some super-cool armchair caving projects were undertaken, like running 100s of paper topo maps through a scanner and digitally automating the plotting of 1000s of caves. Did you know that paper topo maps shrink over time, and that they do not shrink in a uniform way? Figuring out how to account for that was a problem.

You’re currently working with Spatial Focus and are working with the U.S. Census Bureau. What are you doing with Census?

I am supporting the LEHD program that produces statistics on jobs, workers, workplaces and the connections between them. I focus on making sure that we always get the geography right.

Finally — I haven’t asked you about skinny jeans, your favorite capa mocha half caf latte (I have no idea what I’m saying), or your bike or whether it’s a fixie or a flexie (I think I made that word up) or how your record collection is coming along. We define hipsters as people who think outside the box and often shun the mainstream (see visitor poll with 1106 responses). Would you consider yourself a geohipster?

I am pretty sure that I do not entirely fit in anywhere. A friend recently mentioned that if I am hip, it is entirely by accident and not planned. As some examples, in the ‘80s I frequented a PBR bar in Atlanta and I have had long hair and a beard most of the past 30 years, including a fabulous mullet in the ‘80s. Possibly cool now, but at the time — not so much.

With regard to the mainstream, as a polyglot I think that I am pretty good at making choices for software / language / tool for each task I encounter. I don’t think that I choose what I already know, but what will cause the best outcome.

Oops, almost forgot… Favorite Linux distribution?

I installed my first Linux distro in 1993, it fit onto two 1.44MB floppies, and was released by a Portuguese telco company. Ironically, I do not speak Portuguese. It had exactly what I needed. Later I have used Debian, Redhat, SUSE, and all sorts of other distros. Using a polyglot parallel, my favorite distro is the one that has the tool that I need that day. As an aside, I really loved the Enlightenment Window Manager in the late ’90s. For its time, it was really creative and challenged the boundaries of what window decorations and widgets could be.

Finally — any parting words of wisdom for the good-looking and smart readers of GeoHipster?

Try to live life one, or less, mistakes at a time. Try to make the successes big and the mistakes small. Try nearly everything once — if it is not good, don’t do it again. Lastly, living in the present is much more fun than living in the past.

Bill Morris: “There’s a lot of value in questioning the establishment”

Bill Morris
Bill Morris

Bill Morris is a passable developer, a derivative cartographer, and a GIS refugee. Having cleared a decade as a geospatial professional and founder of Geosprocket LLC, Bill is now mapping renewable energy markets as the Lead Visualization Engineer at Faraday Inc., where he has yet to pay for a software license but is getting nervous that the streak can’t possibly hold forever. Bill is a lifelong Vermonter, with furtive dashes into the outside world.

Bill was interviewed for GeoHipster by Mike Dolbow.

Q: How did you get into mapping/GIS?

A: I was a music major at Middlebury College about 15 years ago when a friend convinced me to take a geography class. Fortunately that was about the time I realized that I was a pretty bad musician, so it made a lot of sense to shift into a field that seemed to offer both a series of structural worldviews and a technical skillset. I keep running into awesome Middlebury geography grads in the wider world; I know I’m lucky to have stumbled into that department and be launched into the world with the uncontrollable desire to map stuff.

Q: Earlier this year you put your own business, GeoSprocket LLC, on hold, to join Faraday. After about six months, what is different today from when you made that transition?

A: I’m a lot less stressed.

In all seriousness, as a freelancer I grew accustomed to reaching critical stopping points – letting documentation searches drag on way too long – before putting out a question on StackOverflow or begging help from someone via Twitter. But the Faraday team seems like a hive mind most days. Pretty much any block in my technical knowledge can be covered really quickly by one of my colleagues, and I know I can offer the same to them. The efficiency that comes from a complementary team can’t be understated, and I know this because I’ve been the squeaky wheel a few times elsewhere.

I’m also a bit more pragmatic about the umbrella of GIS technology. Learning how to optimize PostGIS with a hundred million data points – in tens of thousands of configurations – has given me new perspective on limits. I’ve started to understand the database admins who reflexively scoff at spatial; whenever there’s a choke point in our data processing, it’s usually a buffer or a point-in-polygon operation. Removing the abstraction of the desktop GIS platform speeds things up a lot, but geospatial analysis is still the slow donkey bringing up the rear of the wagon train.

Q: What are some of the more interesting projects you’ve been working on lately?

A: Faraday is letting me go a little crazy with visualizations. Some things are sticking (MOAR HEXAGONS) and others aren’t (not all datasets look good as a pulsar), but it’s an amazing iterative environment for trying out ideas. We’re aiming for a distinctive, map-centric design in our platform, and over the past few months Mapbox Studio has been invaluable for tying the cartography to the app design. Our clients are also looking to us to make sense of some pretty abstract statistical concepts, so I’ve been getting into the weeds of practical information design, then emerging and hammering something together with D3. Combined with our goal of increasing renewable energy’s market share, this fulfills most of my “dream job” prerequisites.

My side projects have slowed down this year, but I’m hoping to get back to a greater level of involvement with the Humanitarian Openstreetmap Team. Crisis and development work are really motivating for me as hard-edged examples of the power of maps.

Q: You once said: “I didn’t know the first thing about code when I got into this world, but it was amazing how easy it was to adapt a little bit” with help from free resources like CodeAcademy. I have found the same thing, but also found others in the “traditional GIS space” reluctant to take the plunge into things like Javascript and HTML. What advice would you give geographers who aren’t sure if coding is for them?

A: I take it for granted that this question is settled. That obviously everyone should learn how to code, what’s the big deal? But it doesn’t take much self-awareness to realize that it was my good fortune to have both the need and the resources to learn programmatic approaches to mapping. There are plenty of GIS analysts who can keep on working without javascript or python, and I think many more who simply don’t have the time or the support. I’d like to help those in the latter group and not alienate those in the former, but my patience is waning for the anti-developer reactionary set.

To the geographers who only know the GIS desktop and feel its limits: ask for help. It’s more readily available than you think. Hell, ask me for help.

Q: Your Twitter handle is “vtcraghead”. I get the VT part, but I had to Google “Craghead”. Is that a reference to the village in England, or something else?

A: I wanted to have a unique email after college, and I was climbing like a madman at that point so I registered “vtcraghead@hotmail.com” and joined the brave new digital world. The handle stuck with me, but by the time I registered it with Twitter it was more of a joke about how I used to tie in a lot.

Although it’s curious to see that Craghead is in Durham, which reminds me of my favorite song about surveyors and the broader impact of mapping lines in the dirt . . .

Q: We define hipsters as people who think outside the box and often shun the mainstream (see visitor poll with 1106 responses). Would you consider yourself a hipster? (Who else would aspire to play in a “low profile funk band”?) How do you feel about the term hipster?

A: As with most of the previous interviewees, I subscribe to the middle ground. I admire the geohipsters (none would self-identify, I’m sure) who helped me break out of incumbent technologies, and those who are innovating geospatial tools in ways we could only dream about a decade ago. But I’m not a fan of the brash contrarian hipster archetype, either in real life or as a straw man.

As far as my own identity? I ride my bike constantly, but it has ten gears. Skinny jeans on me would be a war crime. This is Vermont, and inside these borders PBR is outlawed. However, I think there’s a lot of value in questioning the establishment.

Q: Geohipster (and geohipsterism as a concept) is sometimes criticized for being exclusive and/or attempting to foster divisions within the industry. Or sometimes for being different for the sake of being different. You once rolled your own basemap tileset (using Mapbox’s guidelines). Did you do that to be different?

A: Oh jeez – that sounds like metahipsterism.

I did that as an experiment in self-reliance. I feel so poisoned by my experience with a single-vendor-technology career track that I’m always watching the exits. I love Mapbox, but I wanted to know if I could make an attractive web map without paying them anything, which is the occasional promise of open source tools.

Geohipsters fostering divisions? I see this as the current manifestation of an endless social dynamic: A new group enters a space, with new ideas. The old group finds it easier to feel threatened and defensive than to adapt. The new group can always do a better job of assisting the adaptation. </overlysimplisticparable>

Q: Like me, it’s pretty clear you’re an active dad. Loving your kids comes second nature, but let’s face it, they also require a lot of attention. What’s more tempting to compare to your kids: your projects or your customers?

A: Projects for sure. Mostly adorable and exhausting in equal measure. Thankfully, my customers neither throw legos at me nor tell me they love me.

Q: I’ve always had a theory that New England states are like siblings from the same family: they have rivalries and unique characteristics, but when challenged will band together and “defend their identity” to other states. As a fellow geographer from New England, what’s your take on that?

A: New Hampshire is definitely Vermont’s evil twin, but we’ll take it over Texas. Don’t even get me started about Sox-Yankees.

I can be a bit of a Vermont nationalist, but I’d say our industry (probably not uniquely) has flattened the cultural obstacles to collaboration. The folks I interact with on Twitter are everywhere, and it’s almost a non-issue for my career that I don’t live in D.C. or the Bay Area. That’s why I’m a technophile, in a nutshell.

Q: Admittedly, it was over 25 years ago, but Vermont is the only place I’ve observed this phenomenon. Have you seen this, and can you possibly offer an explanation?

A: Witch windows were a cheap alternative to dormers for venting and light on the upper floors of old farmhouses. I worked on a house years ago that had one, but I admit this is the first I realize they’re just a Vermont thing :)

Q: Any final words for GeoHipster readers?

A: I don’t personally want to be defined by my struggles against Esri. That comes up a lot in projects that I’m passionate about, but for better or worse they are the “incumbent” in this space, and they are the portal through which many of us enter the world of mapping. I’m probably just mellowing with age, but I’d rather emphasize the positivity of flexible skillsets and robust community in mapping than rant about vendor lock-in. We’ll probably all get more done with that perspective.

Jonah Adkins: “Engaging with other like-minded geo people via Twitter provides a great unfiltered look at what’s working and what’s not”

Jonah Adkins
Jonah Adkins

Jonah Adkins (@jonahadkins) is a Sr. Geospatial Analyst with GISi out of his home office in Newport News, Virginia. He has been in GIS since 1999 working for local governments, federal agencies, and most recently as a consultant. Jonah is a published cartographer who enjoys time with his family, maps (duh), Disney, Pro-Wrestling, has a tattoo of Esri North Arrow 51 and was told by Pharrell Williams that he looked like Freddie Mercury.

Jonah was interviewed for GeoHipster by Christina Boggs.

Q: Hey Jonah, thanks for taking the time to sit down with me! I know you from Twitter but many of us know you from your incredible Lost Map or they fall in love with It’s A Small World all over again through your cartography. What do you do for your daytime job?

A: For the last few years I’ve worked as a Sr. Geospatial Analyst for GISi. The majority of my work entails cartography, graphic design, UI/UX for applications, and traditional GIS work for many of our clients. I’ve spent a good portion of last year doing some awesome things with the Navy Shore Energy Program.

Q: Your maps are beautiful, beyond just being a method to convey information; they’re art. Do you have a background in design or some other art media?

A: Nope. I was always a doodler growing up, but never took any classes. I wouldn’t call myself a designer or anything like that, but I think I can tell when something looks “good” — at least to my tastes.

Q: I stumbled upon a great video where you presented great cartographic design elements to keep in mind. Have you thought about teaching this to other GISers? Beyond the occasional conference talk?

A: It’s a funny thing. I’ve always thought that you can’t really teach “making a pretty map.” Books and the like can give you helpful info, but I feel it’s something that’s unique to the person creating the map. Your current emotions, likes and dislikes, all that stuff is in anything you create, for the most part. Then someone told me, “yeah that’s great and all but we want you to show us how to make a pretty map”. So I had to get my thoughts on paper and decided I could at least give some pointers on guiding the creative side to a desirable output.

Q: Gretchen Peterson wrote an incredible book on cartography, have you thought about writing?

A: Never. I have Gretchen’s awesome book “Cartographer’s Toolkit,” a signed first edition!!! It’s been my starting point on several projects where I’m struggling to find my inspiration and I need something to get me started. It’s very good because it’s a tool to guide you, it’s not, to me, an instruction manual. Water doesn’t have to be blue, it’ll be ok, and I’ll be damned if you use Comic Sans as your title font!

Christina: Haha I really did spend some time selecting what font to do this interview in.

Q: You have a robust github, tell us about some of your projects you’ve got going up there…

A: I really love maps, mapping tech and all that goes with it. Basically any of my free time, and some of my not so free time, I’m usually trying out something new or working on an idea. This usually happens with one or both of my daughters watching Saved By Bell in my lap. GitHub is great, it’s collaborative and social, which is something I tend to thrive on.

Weekend Update was one of my first github projects, it’s a riff on Project Linework, a not-so-standard basemap themed after Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update segment.

Amazing-er Maps is a cartographer’s plea to make online maps better — not that I know better, but with all the open/free map technology out there, certainly some of these “Amazing” maps on the web could be improved.

Custom Backgrounds In AGOL – Probably one of the more popular ones, is a guide to adding another provider’s maps in ArcGIS Online projects. I’m not the first to write about it, but I think it’s safe to say that people are ready, and want control over every aspect of online maps.

Q: Speaking of your daughters, we just had the 10th anniversary of OSM. Your daughter contributed to OSM with you, how did you do that? If you could give advice to other dads out there, how can you inspire your daughters to get involved with mappy stuff? What did she map?

A: My sweet Sophie :) She really thinks what I do is cool, and after a few years of talking to her school classes about maps, she’s been bugging me to teach her something. What better way than through OpenStreetMap? She’s 10 and starting 5th grade, the iD editor was really easy for her to pick up. We talked about what she wanted to do, she decided on schools and parks, because “I think kids like me would like to know where playgrounds and schools are.” She loves the fact that everyone can see the work she has done. She wants to teach her friends at school once she goes back next week.

Q: So recently you started up a Hampton Roads, Virginia #maptime, how’s that going?

A: Like most I’d seen some ramblings of #maptime over the last several months on Twitter, and after hearing Lyzi Diamond talk about it (twice) at the Esri UC, I was really inspired to get one started. I like helping and sharing about maps, and have been struggling with a way to do that locally with more than the typical GIS crowd. I’d started attending the local Code For America Brigade meet-ups earlier this year and @maptimehrva is a great extension of that hack night concept. Come hang out, and let’s talk maps. Doesn’t matter what you know, you’re gonna learn something tonight.

Q: I find the cartography you do with ArcGIS Desktop breathtaking but honestly, I get excited when I toss in a drop shadow or I do a transparency mask to highlight my area of interest. If you were to put three pieces of low-hanging fruit out there for other Desktop users to implement in their maps, what would they be? (READ: a couple of cool “tricks” in Arc that have good cartographic payoffs?)

A: Regardless of what software you use, practical knowledge of concepts helps greatly, experience helps too! To me it’s fun to learn the ins and outs, push its limitations and figure out ways to do things it easily can’t. Something I tell people who ask for cartographic help: GIS people make GIS maps — which is a bad way of saying GIS people tend to make maps they can read and understand. A friend made a great analogy of that — people would rather read “SF Earthquake: 6.1” than be shown a seismograph.

My three tips would be:

  1. Use a color palette. Colors are better when they are not fighting with each other for paper space supremacy. But also be mindful of too much color. Nothing stands out when everything is on the same color ramp. Finding the right balance pays off in the end.
  2. Never accept the defaults. Things I’ve seen overused for the last 10 years: ArcMap Yellow (hex #fcfbab) in the legend or graphic background, Esri North Arrow 9, Layer_and_field_names_like_this_in_the_legend… Change something, change everything. You’ll gain experience just by exploring the options.
  3. The One “Thing” — before you start a map, determine what is the one “thing” the viewer should take away from the map. Is it the neato font? Keep going. Is it the pattern on the water? Keep going. Keep going until it’s the purpose of the map. All of those design elements should only help tell the story, they shouldn’t be the story.

Q: I love the term geohipster, I take it as a playful comment. How do you feel about the term, do you self-identify as a geohipster? What does it mean to you?

A: It’s a playful comment I can relate to. I get regular comments about my mustache, and I’m like, I’ve had this thing since sixth grade, and I’ve only been without it once. Then all these people started growing ‘staches out of novelty, or because it was the new cool thing, and I get lumped in with that crowd. Maps have been around. It’s only natural for those of us that have been around with them to say “yeah, but I’ve been mapping since before Google.”

Q: Five awards at ESRI UCs, first place at Virginia’s GIS Conference last year, Runner Up, Best Cartographic Design at last year’s FOSS4G, 2nd Place in this years GISCI-GISP Map Contest — do you have any award winning pieces in the works?

A: I try to do several personal projects a year. It helps me keep my skills sharp, and gives me a chance to just have fun mapping something for myself. All shrouded in secrecy of course, sorry.

Q: Some weeks I see you at #gistribe, here’s your opportunity for a #shamelessplug — do you have anything you would like to share with geohipster readers?

A: #gistribe, #geowebchat and others provide such a great social resource. My #shamelessplug would be to invest your time in social discussions like those. Company feeds are good for updates and examples, but only provide one view of the technology. Engaging with other like-minded geo people via twitter provides a great unfiltered look at what’s working and what’s not. It’s the biggest downer to me when I talk to someone in our field who’s never heard of OpenStreetMap, Github, Leaflet, Tilemill, etc. And it happens often. There’s so many great things happening in Geo that you’ll never know about unless you step outside of your bubble and explore.

Jubal Harpster: “Get comfortable using GitHub to help find the pockets of innovation happening all over the place”

Jubal Harpster
Jubal Harpster

Jubal Harpster (@jharpster) is principal and co-founder of Spatial Development International based in Seattle. He has been a geo person in a variety of positions over the past 20 years, and his current focus is on data and applications primarily for international development and food security challenges in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Jubal was interviewed for GeoHipster by Christina Boggs.

A common question is to ask folks how they got into GIS but you went to school for Geography, what drew you to that major in the first place?

It’s a long story actually, but when I entered college I started as a political science major. I was completely bored with the exception of one geopolitics class. I’ve always enjoyed maps, as I’m sure most of your readers do, but the final assignment for this class was to create a choropleth map by hand (remember, it’s 1990). After that, I was hooked.

I took a break after my sophomore year and spent six months traveling through Central America. During that trip, I spent a good deal of time at various mapping agencies trying to find decent back country maps for places like Nicaragua and El Salvador. When I finally did make it back to Seattle, I was pretty laser-focused on Geography as a discipline. The GIS thing just sort of happened along the way.

What has kept you in the geospatial field?

I continue to be amazed at the pace of innovation over the 20+ years that I’ve been doing this. Recently someone on our team was showing off their work with WebGL and vector tiles from PostGIS. I can remember very clearly developing MOIMS and ArcIMS sites back in the day, and the difference between that and where we are now is incredible.

When you take a step back and look at what’s happening in the field, it’s pretty remarkable. Open Street Map is incredible; commodity satellites and other high resolution imagery are changing the way we see the world.  And with cloud-hosted infrastructure, we can do some really amazing things quite cheaply and in a way that’s never existed before.

You’re one of the founders of SpatialDev, what was it like starting a company up after working for other private companies and even a government position?

It was actually quite terrifying. I worked at a global civil engineering company, which was and still is a great company to work for, but one that is very risk-averse. We found ourselves with a great team in Seattle and largely responsible for finding work and delivering our own projects. There was a sense that the big company was slowing us down so when they sold the whole business unit, it created the perfect opportunity to jump ship.

Fortunately several members of our team from that engineering company form the core of SpatialDev. Now we have the freedom to create the company and culture we want, and pursue the work we like to do. It’s still terrifying from time to time, but we have the best team imaginable so I do occasionally get some sleep.

I noticed that your team has a lot of women on it, what’s your secret to recruiting #geoladies?

We actively recruit diversity into the team, which can be a challenge in this business. We are able to attract great team members by establishing a creative, flexible, and fun work environment, and providing lots of exciting opportunities and projects.

What are some of the cool projects that SpatialDev is working on right now?

We’re working on a number of different things. SpatialDev is continuing to expand our international footprint by doing projects in Bolivia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania. That’s incredibly exciting and challenging at the same time.

We’re also doing a lot of thinking around native mobile and responsive applications, and how people interact with dynamic maps on those form factors. To date, there aren’t many examples of where the dynamic map experience of desktop web applications transfers to awesome mobile experiences. Creating great user experiences on devices other than the desktop is high on our priority list right now.

We’ve put a lot of work into creating a simple node.js wrapper around PostGIS that anyone can install and be up and running with a web framework in a couple of minutes. We’re now using this on a number of applications that we host and maintain for clients. And from this starting point, we’re working on a purely open source stack that works completely offline or in semi-connected environments. This includes the database, offline map tiles, as well as the application.

You guys make some crazy sexy maps, what advice would you give people who want to make their visualizations clearer and more eye-catching?

First, I’d say hire a good designer. When we first started out, the developers on the team (myself among them) would implement our own designs. We developed some very sophisticated web applications, but many of them looked terrible and weren’t that easy to use. We now have a Creative Director at SpatialDev who focuses on UI/UX. She has an eye for detail and usability like no one else on the team. This has had a profound impact on our work.

Second, we work with our clients to implement common sense. We won’t make an application with 900 layers or try to show a million points on the map at once. We demonstrate that in many cases, less is more. That way, our clients don’t end up with applications that have 20 different slide-outs with tools, buttons, settings, preferences, and so on. We try as best we can to help our clients simply make logical and beautiful sites.

What are you working on outside of work time?

I’m involved with a number of activities related to work that I continue to pursue during my off hours. This past spring, I convened a group in Washington DC specifically for people that work with international boundary data sets (it’s more interesting than it sounds!). I’ll continue to be involved in organizing some geo-events in Seattle as well as in Africa this coming fall. And when I have time, I still contribute code to some of the SpatialDev GitHub repos.

But really, I have two kids, an awesome wife, and a garage full of bicycles. So when I’m not working or traveling for work, I’m spending time with the family mostly riding around the Northwest.

You’re an open source supporter, what recommendations would you have for someone thinking about dabbling in open source?

I would actually encourage people to get familiar with the entire ecosystem around geotechnology and not focus too much on a single set of technology. At SpatialDev, we’re not wedded to any particular set of technology; we implement the best tools that get the job done. But I’m amazed at how the open source universe has matured dramatically over the past few years, both in terms of the business models and the tools.

When people start at SpatialDev, we always push them to get familiar with PostGIS and QGIS since those are the environments where we do most of our work. PostGIS is behind just about all the stuff we currently work on, so we like everyone to be able to navigate that environment and write at least some SQL. We also encourage team members to get comfortable using GitHub to help find the pockets of innovation happening all over the place. Those would be the recommendations I’d suggest for people starting to work in open source.

You’re into cycling but you don’t have a handlebar mustache, you could be wearing skinny jeans but this interview isn’t happening in person so I can’t be sure, I couldn’t find any pictures of food or coffee on your twitter… I’m going to go out on a limb and guess you probably wouldn’t be described as a hipster. The term geohipster is a much friendlier and loving term, how do you feel about being a geohipster?

Although I drink a lot of locally brewed IPA, drown my mornings in blonde roast drip, own an impressive collection of nerdy t-shirts, and have a fixie that I ride on the local velodrome occasionally, I wouldn’t consider myself a geohipster (or geodinosaur). Fortunately, I get to travel to places where the whole geo-ecosystem is not quite as developed as it is in Seattle. So in these places at least I can pull off being the ultimate geohipster. But I draw the line at facial hair.

Do you have anything else to share with GeoHipster readers?

Thanks, this has been fun. You can see some of the stuff we’re working on here http://spatialdev.com/ and here: http://spatialdev.github.io/ . Do I get a t-shirt now?

Ed.: Yes