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

 

Steve Coast to GeoHipster: “You try stuff and 90% of it’s gonna fail, and you should be happy with that”

 

Steve Coast
Steve Coast

Steve Coast is the founder of Open Street Map and Head of OSM at Telenav.

Steve was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev, incorporating question suggestions from Renee Sieber and Christina Boggs.

Q: Last week was the 10th anniversary of Open Street Map, which you founded. Congratulations! OSM and you personally got a lot of press, all of it good. Will that further the cause or OSM?

A: It’s a key part of the PR effort. At least it used to be. I’m not sure it has the same importance today, because there are so many people doing the same thing, but it’s part of that.

Q: My wife is my one-person focus group who has been remarkably accurate on most things Internet. She doesn’t use OSM. How will you convince her to start using it?

A: Open Street Map itself is not particularly designed to be used as a consumer product. It’s other people that make stuff on top of Open Street Map that package it in such a way that it’s usable by anybody. An example in the United States and now in the rest of the world would be Scout — a navigation client that Telenav makes. So we take Open Street Map and we spend a lot of time making it usable, so consumers can use it for turn-by-turn navigation. But today the focus of Open Street Map itself is about getting people to contribute data, not necessarily to use it. So it’s perfectly fine if your wife or anyone else wants to use another product, that makes a lot of sense.

Q: You currently work for Telenav, whose mission is to make people’s lives less stressful. Does your job make your life less stressful? What do you do for Telenav?

A: Historically I have been working on making sure that Scout works for consumers. Making sure the navigation information is there, making sure the addressing works, making sure the consumer experience is great behind Open Street Map. So I work with a team of a large number of people, 120 now we are up to, to make it all work. My official title is Head of OSM.

Q: In your most recent video you talk about why “Open Street Map is going to win”. What do you mean “to win”? Win what?

A: I mean having the best map in the world. Not necessarily the best consumer experience but the best map data. It’s already the best display map, right? So the next question is can it also be the best addressable map and the best navigable map. Those are the next two things to go after.

Q: What is the future of OSM? Gamification? Monetization?

A: Lots of people have monetized Open Street Map, including Telenav. The gamification, personally I love that, but OSM today is a lot of communities and lots of people, and you have to make a case for those people that it should be gamified. And in fact people do make apps on the side to try and gamify things like the collection of data on mobile devices, but getting changes and integration into the main site is hard because it affects a lot of people. But that doesn’t stop you from making your own app on the side to do these things.

Q: Is there a future in which the majority of contributions to OSM will be from passive sensing of location?

A: Again, with Telenav we’ve purchased a lot of GPS traces to get the navigable information into the map itself. So people already do that. OSM itself started with GPS traces, before we had aerial imagery. So I guess you can say we started with passive stuff and we just got better at it over time.

Q: What do you think of CC BY-SA?

A: I think Creative Commons is great. It’s fantastic. It works very well for creative works like books and photos. Unfortunately it didn’t work super well for data, like we have in OSM. Which is why we spent a lot of time on the Open Database License. Which is designed to be actually very similar to Creative Commons, just different enough that it covers the data use cases.

Q: Some have asked “Why not just release the data in the public domain?”, but isn’t the issue that in some countries in Europe (not in the US), you just can’t release your work into the public domain? You must release it under some kind of license?

A: That exists. In some countries it’s called the moral right. You can’t give up the copyright in the same way you can’t sell yourself into slavery. Do I particularly care? No, as long as I don’t live in one of those countries, and you can always sign a waiver that effectively does the same thing.

Q: Does OSM have a moral imperative? Is OSM out there to do good? Should the GUI be developed to maximize the diversity of participants? Enhance democracy? Is there such goal?

A: I think that it’s good that there are people involved in the project that do want to do that, and they are interested in OSM from a different perspective. That enhances what we get done, because of the diversity of opinion. Me personally, I was just out to create a map. Those other things are good things, it just wasn’t my focus, but it’s good that there are people on OSM who are focused on that.

Q: Little is known about Steve Coast, the person. Tell us more about yourself — any hipstery hobbies? I hope you ride a unicycle or grow your own hops. Do you?

A: I go hang gliding. I am completing my private pilot’s license. I ride bicycles. I think that’s it.

Q: What is going on with Map Club?

A: I shut it down. Everyone in OSM is a volunteer, and the question was could we create some sort of membership organization that could be self-supporting and go do things. Whether those things are building tools, or collecting more data. We have two choices: either everyone’s a volunteer or everyone works for a company. The companies tend to have overlapping interests with OSM but they are not the same interests. We can work together, and it can be beneficial, but it’s not like you have directly identical goals. So the question is could you do something in-between? A membership organization came to be the one way to go. Unfortunately wasn’t convincing enough so it didn’t work out. But it was worth a try.

Q: What is the takeaway from this experience? What’s the lesson learned? That people don’t want to pay for mapping?

A: I don’t think it is that people don’t want to pay. It’s two things. One: The amount of money required was a bit more than I’d hoped. You could pick $100/year but then you’d need a lot of people, but if it could be $50/month — which is what people are paying for their cell phone — then you can get a lot more done. The actual model could work if it was slightly different. I was undercharging. Second: What is the value that you are offering. And there wasn’t a clear value proposition. It was an experiment. What can we achieve? And it was difficult to find out what we could go do because we didn’t have any money. It was very chicken-and-egg.

Q: This from a GeoHipster contributor: You are so playful and fun… After being in the industry so long, how do you keep a smile?

A: Ha ha ha. That’s a really good question… I just don’t take this stuff seriously I guess. On one level I take it very seriously because obviously finishing the project and getting the data out there is important, but on another level, I think, the simple answer is being very aware that you’re going to die one day. So it’s hard to get upset and angry about stuff when you realize that. It’s more important to go build things and show people and just be happy that 90% of the stuff that you’re gonna do is going to fail, like Map Club, for example. Most people never try to do anything at all. So you try stuff and 90% of it’s gonna fail, and you should be happy with that.

Michael Byrne: “Make things easier”

Michael Byrne
Michael Byrne

Michael Byrne is currently a Project Director in the Technology and Innovation Division at the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau.  He is the lead for implementing the technology supporting Home Mortgage Disclosure Act activities for CFPB.  Prior to joining CFPB, he was the Geographic Information Officer at the Federal Communications Commission.  Prior to that, he was the Geographic Information Officer for the State of California.

This interview is a personal response.

Michael was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.

Q: You are the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act Operations Lead at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. What does your job entail? What kinds of projects do you work on, and what kinds of technologies do you use?

A: The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is a great organization, and I am honored to be an employee. I lead the technology team that will be implementing the new technology around the collection of Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) data. HMDA requires many lenders to report information about the home loans for which they receive applications or that they originate or purchase. The public and regulators can use the information to monitor whether financial institutions are serving the housing needs of their communities and identify possible discriminatory lending patterns. You can read more about what CFPB is up to on HMDA here and here.

Q: Your GIS career spans two decades, yet you are best known (and widely revered) for spearheading the National Broadband Map effort at the FCC in 2013. Why do you think that is?

A: I would like to set a few things straight before I answer. First, the National Broadband Map was the statutory obligation of the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). NTIA worked with the FCC to implement the technology. So my role was on the tech implementation side. Really NTIA’s stellar efforts to set up the program, ensure the data was collected, and truckloads of other details needs to be highlighted and need all kinds of credit. Second, I won’t say I am revered. I can hope that my sons love me back; that is as far as I will ever go.

I think I have had the benefit of good timing. My second job in GIS in California state government was at the California Department of Forestry, an early pioneer in GIS (ESRI user #46). I met people there which set me on a great path. I went on to become the first Geographic Information Officer for the State because of the people I met in that first job; really it was timing. The same pattern holds true with the work at FCC. There was kind of a perfect storm, and I had the fortune of being there for the ride.

We were able to develop a team of exceptional people. Not sure if that was luck, or something else, but a handful of them were already at FCC and I had the great fortune to work with them.

Open Source was just becoming a buzzword in federal IT, and we latched on to it. I think in some case we became a poster child but honestly there was a timing issue we were just fortunate to be open to at the time. I am very proud of the work we did there, and the web metrics really point to it. Just this past spring we passed half a billion API requests. So I think we had the timing to be open to new ways of thinking, but we also had the timing to build something that lots and lots of people wanted to use. Had we built something super shiny that no one wanted to use, I doubt we would be having this conversation.

Q: Was open source a hard sell at the FCC? If yes, how did you overcome the hurdles? If no, why not?

A: Open Source was not really a hard sell at FCC. I would say there were basically three things that went on that contributed to the use of open source there. First, FCC has a culture of disparate technology uses. So you ended up with an IT infrastructure that was highly blended from ColdFusion to Java to you-name-it and everything in-between. So when we proposed something new, our infrastructure team was like, sure we maintain all kinds of things so no problem.

Second was funding. The National Broadband Map was initially funded with American Reinvestment and Recovery Act funding. When we tried to look at out-year funding we had all kinds of constraints. So we switched out Oracle for PostGIS. We never intended to make a wholly tooth to tail open stack, we intended to use the best tool for the job, and it happened to be wholly open source.

Third there was support from leadership including Chairman Genachowski who was a significant figure in technology and had an interest in the idea that open source and in particular innovation in technology is a disruptive force, as well as the Chief Data Officer who had a big background in open source and helped along the way with inspiration, and the managing director VanRoekel.

Q: How will you top the National Broadband Map at the CFPB? Any “coming attractions” announcements?

A: You’ll have to stay tuned. What I do know is that the telecom and broadband landscape was very, very opaque. The National Broadband Map, and in particular http://www.fcc.gov/maps  opened up the opportunity to make that more transparent to many many people who never had the chance to know the underlying structure of advanced communications and how it affects them personally.

My hope is to use my skills and background to support the Bureau’s incredible mission and to leverage technology on projects like HMDA to support and advance the CFPB’s work and more informed consumers. If I have the opportunity to work towards that end, I will feel very fortunate.

Q: Do you think the current open/closed source balance — within and without the geo industry, and within and without government — will change significantly in the near future? Will open source continue to gain market share?

A: I think open source will continue to gain in market share. In particular I think we will see more robust models of how open source works. What I see going on is that we are entering a phase where the rapidity of change is increasing at such a rate that we will all need to continue to scale at increasingly exponential rate. Because of this rate, we will see a lot of new innovation.

What happens when we can write code in a super short time, because all the libraries we need are already lined up, but the same amount of time is consumed in our security review? Well, new advancements in open source will focus on problems like scaling security review to make authority to operate time to market faster (see gov ready). Or in data collections how do we flip things again to offer scale? One way is to look at distributed federated models à la git (see dat). I think we will see more and more company pricing models which support service models (e.g., pay for support) where the code is entirely open (Red Hat works this way).

Finally, I think we will see smaller and smaller software implementations that have bigger and bigger influences (take a look at D3). If we assume that the web is the platform, then the basic building blocks are CSS, JavaScript and HTML. In that construct, very small libraries or services can add tremendous value. I want to build systems that are working towards fewer and fewer moving parts (as in no database, no enterprise service bus, nothing other than data in JSON and some serving technology). This paradigm necessitates a lack of proprietary software (someone will figure out a way to manufacture something everyone needs), but in the meantime, I think keeping it simple will continue to foster open source gaining in market share.

Q: We define hipsters as people who think outside the box and often shun the mainstream (see visitor poll with 1106 responses). Since I launched GeoHipster, I learned that for many the term “hipster” has a derogatory connotation. For others it is meaningless. You wear Doc Martens every day and ride a fixie. You listen to punk rock and the Grateful Dead. Do people call you a hipster? Does it bother you if they do?

A: So I just want to make sure that the circle is complete here. First, Doc Martens have been part of my life. Second, fixie for me is a way of life. Third, I have seen the Grateful Dead 40 times. Finally, fourth, the best show I have ever seen is fIREHOSE at Slim’s in the early ’90s (and it wasn’t because I was flying the flannel while crowd-surfing over the pit, but they nailed a version of A Quick One, While He’s Away by The Who as an encore (FWIW, the night Les Claypool and the Flying Frog Brigade played Pink Floyd’s Animals in its entirety is a close second), but I digress.

It wouldn’t bother me if I’m referred to as a hipster, but I think we should be careful of labels. I think what we should do a lot of instead, is offer tons of affirmation. I think we should all strive for making sure we take the time to tell people when they have made cool things, and why its why its impactful. I think we should spend lots less time telling people why things are wrong, not working and how they have messed up.

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. Do you agree with those criticisms? Do you implement open source just to be different?

A: I think innovation requires being different, perpendicular to the mainstream. A smart friend always says, if you want the same results, keep doing what you are doing now. I definitely agree with that. I don’t choose a piece of software or a solution to be cool, I do it because it is the right tool for the job, or it provides me a positive return. I do think that being different for difference’s sake is perhaps not a great thing. I work in government, because in the end, I think that service to the public is super important. If we can implement functions and technologies to do that by being innovative, then that’s a tremendous outcome.

Q: I have yet to get on a fixie, even though I commute by bike every day, year-round. Am I missing out?

A: Not at all; I like my fixie because it works for me. You should try to see if it works for you. I love that you can hose it down, even with winter sludge. Your question caused me to write this blog post. I mean really it did. I don’t ride a fixie to be cool. I started riding one a long time ago. I recommend riding (whatever bike), because I love the freedom the bike gives.

In 1998 I took a bicycle frame building class at the UC Davis Experimental College where I actually welded the bike myself. I drew the plans for the frame dimensions with some Arc Macro Language and plotted on a large format plotter at work (I’ll find the code some day and post it). This was my second fixed gear, and to this day still ride it; one of my favorite all time bikes. I just want to be clear, that I have been riding fixies long before hipsters were zygotes and will ride it long after Portlandia goes off the air, but I only do this for me.

Q: Thank you very much for the interview. Is there anything else you would like to share with the GeoHipster readers?

A: Make things easier.

Adena Schutzberg: “What will change GIS education is interest in and support for competency-based learning”

Adena Schutzberg
Adena Schutzberg

Adena Schutzberg is Executive Editor of Directions Magazine and the Principal of ABS Consulting Group, Inc., a GIS consulting firm providing services to clients including GIS software, data, and imagery companies. She has a passion for education and has taught geography and GIS informally, in residence and on-line. She holds a BA in Chemistry from the University of Chicago and an MS in Geography from Pennsylvania State University.

Adena was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.

Q: You have been writing about GIS for a long time. Do you consider yourself a journalist first and a GIS professional second, or vice versa?

A: I’m most definitely a GIS person who writes about the topic. I’ve never studied journalism formally. If you saw the comments from my college and grad school professors about my writing, you would wonder how I got here!

I learned to write on the job from some great editors at Esri, TenLinks, Professional Surveyor and Directions Magazine. What they say is true: if you write about things you really care about, you write far better.

Q: We first met 20 years ago when you gave an ArcCAD presentation at Esri-Danvers. You chided the preceding presenter — a salesperson — for apparently spending too much time on learning PowerPoint and not enough time to learn ArcCAD. Have things changed? Is form and the wow factor still considered more important in GIS sales presentations than substance and function?

A: Wow, I don’t remember that comment, but it sure sounds like something I’d say! Back when we rolled out ArcCAD, both AutoCAD and PC ArcInfo users were anxious to see how it worked and what it looked like. I think my point was to address what people wanted to know, vs. what we (as sales and marketing people) thought they should know.

The big change today is that users and potential users are more savvy about geospatial products and services. The technical, and even some management staff want to get their hands on them and see how the products work.

I like to think the majority of dull sales presentations and demos are behind us! Except for the most complex or customized solutions, today’s sales cycle is much more likely to involve a free evaluation of some kind. I think we are over the hump of “wow” stuff; that reflects the relative maturity of both GIS software and the user and potential user community.

Q: I loved ArcCAD. It was a great product, and it had dedicated following. Apparently not enough to keep it alive, though. But this begs a bigger question: Do users want GIS and CAD to work together? Or GIS and data visualization, or GIS and geodesign, or GIS and BIM. Over the years I have seen many attempts to marry GIS to some other discipline and field, but the marriage never happens, or ends up in divorce. Why do you think that is?

A: My sense after following CAD/GIS integration for many years is that many people thought they wanted tight integration. At the end of the day, the horizontal offerings never really yielded the promised synergy. That’s why products like GeoSQL, ArcCAD, AutoCAD Map, MGE, MicroStation Geographics and others never really made it big.

The integrated CAD/GIS products that bring in some money for their developers today are vertical solutions for electric, gas, pipeline and other areas.

I’m reminded of a marketing story where a focus group of teens were asked about and shown a new MP3 player. When queried if they thought they’d buy the pink one or the black one, almost everyone in attendance said they wanted a pink one. On the way out of the meeting, the organizers as a thank you asked attendees to take home a device from a pile of pink and black ones. They all (boys and girls) selected the black players.

Q: You work three jobs: Executive Editor at Directions Magazine, President of your own company ABS Consulting Group, and Senior Lecturer at Penn State University. Tell us what you do at each.

A: At this point I’m really doing just the first two. I left Penn State a few years back. I was teaching in the online Masters in GIS program. Now I serve on the advisory board for the degree.

My work at Directions is mostly writing All Points Blog, putting together articles, and covering conferences. My favorite part of the job is covering GIS education, a relatively new beat for the magazine.

My consulting firm in recent years has taken on short term projects addressing the state of the industry and evaluating potential products for the market.

Q: Do you think Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are the future of education? Or of training? Do you think a MOOC will replace the Esri Authorized Teaching Program or other such vendor-specific programs?

A: I think MOOCs are part of the future of education. At this point it’s still the the wild west with MOOCs. Providers and students are still figuring out what they are for, how to teach and learn within the unique environment, and how to ensure a return on investment.

Esri’s Authorized Training Program is already being phased out. I think changes in student demand and corporate expectations related to timing, flexibility and cost caused its demise. I don’t think vendor-specific programs will go away; there’s a lot of money to be made in them! Vendor-penned and -taught courses and vendor certifications seem to carry extra weight with students and employers, whether they deserve it or not.

What will change education, in GIS and elsewhere, is interest in and support for competency-based learning. At the Esri Education GIS Conference Douglas Miskowiak of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point introduced what will likely be the first competency-based certificate in GIS.

Q: We define hipsters as people who think outside the box and often shun the mainstream (see visitor poll with 1106 responses). Since I launched GeoHipster, I learned that for many the term “hipster” has a derogatory connotation. Do you consider yourself a hipster? Do you think “hipster” is a pejorative term?

A: I don’t consider myself a hipster. I think the most important thing for those who do think outside the box is to do so not to shun the mainstream per se, but to follow one’s own path. If that makes me a hipster, so be it!

Q: You run ultramarathons, and play clarinet in a local band. Definitely not mainstream. Between your three jobs and these two activities, where do you find the time?

A: To me these activities are mainstream; they are what me and my friends do! I’ve been playing the clarinet since I was eight and running since I was 16.  As for finding the time… I’ve been doing them so long, and they are so important to me, I just fit them in.

That said, I do multitask, especially while running or driving. I’m always listening to tech and education podcasts to provide context for my work at Directions or listening to my band’s “practice CDs” to master those 5/8 and 7/8 tempos in our repertoire.

Q: Any future plans you would like to share? More teaching? More running? More writing? More of everything?

A: I would like to be more involved in teaching. We have to get beyond the classic GIS education involving watching a lecture, then doing a lab following cookbook-style instructions. Educators need to explore new ways to engage students whether face-to-face or online.

Q: Thank you very much for the interview. Is there anything else you would like to share with the GeoHipster readers?

A: I want to thank you for inviting me to participate; it was fun.

David Bitner on the open source advantage: “It’s not just the money — it’s the scalability”

David Bitner
David Bitner

David Bitner is the owner of dbSpatial LLC, an independent consulting firm providing services that focus on the use of geospatial open source software. A 14-year veteran of the GIS industry, David has served on the board of the Sahana Software Foundation, is an OSGeo Officer, and was Conference Chair for FOSS4GNA 2013.

David was interviewed for GeoHipster by Mike Dolbow.

Q: How did you get into mapping/GIS?

A: I started working with GIS during my undergraduate work in geology, when I took a class in GIS and remote sensing. For my Master’s degree, I decided to roll straight into studying GIS and remote sensing in forestry at the University of Minnesota. I had a very unique opportunity to work with the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, studying the benefits of geospatial data sharing with Will Craig. My graduate work was spent interviewing professionals in the Twin Cities learning about how they used geographic data. That work set a great foundation for my career in this region.

After that, I worked for the National Weather Service for almost four years, then the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) for nine years.

Q: Last year you left a full time job at the MAC to focus on your consulting work with dbSpatial. Was there something specific that prompted that change? What is different now that you’re your own boss?

A: Well, during nine years at a small agency like the MAC, one of the nice things was having a lot of flexibility and encouragement to go and learn new things and technology. The flip side of that was, being the only GIS person at the agency meant nine years of doing the same thing over and over. So, I had been moonlighting for several years, and then finally had some good opportunities that enabled me to take the leap and go out on my own. It’s been the best move I’ve made in my career — I’ve been able to stay in touch with my colleagues at the MAC while still branching out into different work.

Working for yourself, you never really get a full vacation because you always have to be on call if something you’ve made goes down. But you can also work from anywhere. Next week I’ll be working from the shore of Lake Superior – as long as I have my laptop and an internet connection, I can work anywhere. While I might not get a full vacation, I can stretch out a lot more.

Q: Is there anything you didn’t expect with the transition?

A: I’ve been lucky in that most of my work has been in a small number of long term projects. It’s nice to have the variety; I’m kind of an ADD personality, so having a mix of projects is a great fit. Working with larger teams on some of the projects has taken some getting used to compared to my prior situation. It takes a lot more discipline when you know the code you’re writing is going to be seen by more than just you. Instead of just hammering through something to get it to work, you need to have a lot more discipline because it has to work and others need to understand it.

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

A: There are two big projects that have taken most of my time and both are really interesting. The first is working on NOAA’s emergency response management application (ERMA), which is a portal that NOAA uses to provide a Common Operating Picture (COP) as well as some analytical capabilities for emergency response. For example, it’s being actively used for the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Another project is working with FireStats, a consulting outfit that helps with Fire Departments, providing analyses for accreditation and services like siting stations. They also provide a tool that allows individual fire chiefs to explore their own data. As a subcontractor, I’m building out their analytical engine, which provides a lot of powerful information for Fire Departments, such as their response time, incident locations relative to resources, and other analytics. It’s been nice to get in-depth with those two groups.

Q: Running a small business is hard. Does specializing in open source software implementations make it harder or easier?

A: I would say that specializing in open source makes it possible. The things that I do and the products that I’m able to provide are only possible because I build on top of open source solutions. First, being able to deliver a full package that someone can implement without any strings attached makes the price point very competitive and marketable. When you’re a very small outfit (dbSpatial is just two folks, David and Dan Little), it’s hard to demand a premium price. But when we can provide a turnkey product that can be implemented without additional software licensing, it’s a tremendous advantage.

Also, the reason I got into open source software was not because of the cost. All of the work I did in government was on the fringe of what was possible with the proprietary desktop solutions provided by Esri and ERDAS. I always needed to tweak and go beyond the standard solutions, because those solutions didn’t’ fit the projects I had.

My work at the MAC, for example, was with four-dimensional data such as flight tracks with an X,Y,Z, and time for every point. Nothing handled that out of the box at the time. So my only recourse was to extend things myself and work with other open source providers such as Paul Ramsey’s Refractions Research. I was able to contract with Refractions to extend PostGIS to meet my needs, and then use the results within a few weeks. Compared to relying on proprietary software solutions, the turnaround was much faster, and the result was a tool that met the exact specifications of what I needed.

Also, I was able to more quickly stand up highly responsive services with open source software. When an airport noise lawsuit was settled with the MAC, that proved advantageous. We had a web map where people could see where they were in relation to the contours. This was the first time an airport was going to provide noise mitigation to this degree, so it hit the national news. And given the surge in traffic, that server came crawling to its knees. Luckily, I had moved everything to use MapServer a few weeks before, so within a few hours, we were able to repurpose a few other servers to distribute the load (without worrying about license limitations). If I had had a node-locked license, we would have been dead in the water; the acquisition process to get more licenses would have been too onerous to respond to the demand, and then we’d be stuck paying for higher licenses even after we had overcome the initial wave of higher traffic. It’s not just the money – it’s the scalability.

I got started in open source because it was the only way to actually solve the problems I needed to solve. Then, I was also able to show my employers how much money we were saving. As a result, I got more buy-in and was able to participate more actively in the community.

Q: Your Twitter handle is “bitnerd”. Did you consciously arrange your last name and first initial to include “nerd” in the name?

A: That is the first e-mail name I was given when I went to college. So, I was given that handle by the IT people at Carleton College, and it stuck and became a nickname, especially among anyone working with computers.

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? How do you feel about the term hipster?

A: Can someone who has a GISP be considered a GeoHipster? I don’t think I would consider myself a hipster because I tend to try to work within the mainstream, although I do try to push the boundaries. I try to do things as efficiently as possible, which often means using different tools than the ones used in the mainstream.

Plus I could never be a hipster because I like good beer too much.

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 have advocated for open source software for years. Did you do it to be different?

A: I did it to get the job done. I think that there are too many walls and too much dismissiveness by folks in both the “neo geo” and “traditional geo” worlds. I think too many folks in the traditional geography world are leery of change and just want to do things the way they always have. I think too many folks in the “neo geo” camp are dismissive of the technical expertise and experience that a lot of the traditional geographers have. I try to sit in the middle, and definitely come from the more traditional background, but I understand that the tools move fast, and if you can stay current with the new tools and apply the traditional knowledge, you can grow along with the industry, while still maintaining the quality control and standards you have the formal training in.

In many presentations I’ve given on open source and proprietary solutions, I describe a tendency – not an inherent property, but a tendency among the two types of software. With proprietary software, it often tends to be a giant swiss army knife that will do anything you want it to. But if you need it to do one thing, like drive a screw, you’re better off with a screwdriver. Open source software tends to follow the UNIX philosophy of being more specific and focused on specific needs. It does make it harder to approach in that you need to know what specific tool to use during specific situations, but once you have that knowledge, the tools are typically much more efficient and faster at that task.

Q: You volunteer to support the City of Lakes Loppet Ski Festival, and you’re an active bike rider. Do you think it’s a coincidence that a lot of Minnesota geographers are skiers, bikers, and “outdoorsy”?

A: I don’t think it’s something that is inherent to Minnesota geographers, I think it’s common among geographers in general – from both the traditional and “neo geo” camps. If your job is expressing geography and knowing where you are, I think you’re likely to be someone who likes to be out, traveling, skiing, biking, running. When you look at the MN GIS/LIS Consortium conference, you see people getting up in the morning to do fun runs before sessions, and I don’t find that surprising. I think you see a lot of people who are interested in geography are also people who like being outdoors and engaged in the areas they study on maps or in data, and I definitely identify with that.

Call for maps for the 2015 GeoHipster calendar

We are planning to publish a 2015 GeoHipster wall calendar, and we invite you to submit your GeoHipstery maps or other images for the calendar (email to atanas@entchev.com). We will credit the authors, obviously.

The first submission (below) has come from Markus Mayr in Vienna, Austria (thanks, Markus!).

[UPDATE August 25, 2014] There is no deadline for submissions. We have received submissions from 12 authors [count updated 2014-09-13]. Submissions from the first 13 mapmakers will make it into the 2015 GeoHipster calendar.

Jonah Adkins from Newport News, Virginia was the second to submit. See his map below Markus’s.

Trees of Türkenschanzpark by Markus Mayr, Vienna, Austria
Trees of Türkenschanzpark by Markus Mayr, Vienna, Austria
The Noland Trail map by Jonah Adkins, Newport News, Virginia
The Noland Trail map by Jonah Adkins, Newport News, Virginia

Josh Livni: “Depth is important; breadth is more useful”

 

Josh Livni
Josh Livni

Josh Livni has been making maps ever since he started getting lost in the wilderness. He works on the Google Crisis Response team, helping to make actionable information more accessible during times of disaster. Before joining Google, he ran a consulting company, integrating cartographic and statistical tools on the web.  He cuts his own hair, likes his beers bitter, and his salsa spicy.

Josh was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.

Q: How did you get into mapping/GIS?

A:  Well, my wife thinks it’s because I can’t find my way around anywhere. Which is generally true: I don’t have a great sense of direction.  Starting in high school I spent a lot of time in the wilderness, and maps were like magic to me as I figured out different routes.  By the time I got to college I started to think that the integration of technology and maps was imminent and I really wanted to be part of it all.

After working at a streaming media startup during the first “.com” boom, I decided to make a career for myself that allowed me to focus on technology and the environment. I had a degree in environmental studies, and GIS seemed like a great way to mix some computer skills with figuring out how the earth works, and hopefully having a positive impact.

I started out volunteering at an environmental non-profit, where I taught myself how to use Esri and related proprietary software. From there, I slowly switched to using open source as I needed to programmatically handle bigger datasets, longer running processes, and webmaps. I never turned back and I’ve been working in geo now for over 12 years. I feel lucky to have found a profession that is so perfect for me and that I enjoy doing everyday.

Q: You recently transferred within Google from being a geo developer advocate to the Crisis Response team. What will your new duties include? Will you be doing more or less geo stuff than before?

A: There’s almost always some spatial component in getting useful information to people who have been affected during a disaster, so I’ll still be working with lots of geo data. But as always, there are many more ways to effectively communicate spatial data than simply placing it within the context of a map. My colleagues on the Crisis Response team have put a lot of thought into this (and many other areas), and I’m going to be focused on helping automate and scale more of our response processes to bring actionable information to those affected, more quickly, across the world.  The exciting part here is mixing spatial content with other data, where the concept of geo goes beyond maps and cartography.

Q: I was an early user of your shpEscape tool, which loads shapefiles into fusion tables and now also converts shapefiles to GeoJSON and TopoJSON. I love shpEscape — it fills an important void. Will you continue to enhance and add functionality to shpEscape?

A:  shpEscape was actually a weekend project of mine many years ago.  The Fusion Tables API doesn’t accept shapefiles as an input, but it was gaining a following amongst non-GIS folks who weren’t sure what to do with this “shapefile” thing they had downloaded. The code was originally designed to be throwaway, and the site was never really advertised; I’m constantly surprised it’s still running, let alone used.  But I’m glad you like it!  When people tweet me if the queue seems stuck (usually when someone uploads a few very large complex files), I often say:  ‘Yup, I should really think about working on that sometime.’  Maybe it’s that time now and I’ll check it out again: What enhancement would you like to see?

Q: How about the ability to handle all features of the “enhanced” KML output of Google My Tracks, which currently comes across as just two points (beginning and end) in most mapping applications?

Well shpEscape only accepts shapefiles as input.  But adding more formats, including KML, is definitely a good idea.  I’ve had in the back of my mind a total rewrite that turns it into a general interchange site for any spatial data for a while now.

You may also be interested to know the OGC KML Standards Working Group is currently discussing whether to put gx:Track into the upcoming 2.3 spec. While some of the gx: extensions to KML don’t make sense for 2D-only applications, or those without robust temporal visualizations, this one certainly does.  If and when it becomes part of the KML namespace, I’m optimistic we’ll see more applications accepting it.

Q: Do you think the current open/closed source balance — within and without the geo industry — will change significantly in the near future? Will open source continue to gain market share?

A: There are a lot of different markets, and in some niche verticals open source may never gain traction.  But overall yeah, I expect open source software will continue to play a bigger and bigger role in both geo and the rest of the software ecosystem.

Q: Heartbleed and the recently-discovered OpenSSL vulnerability have bolstered skepticism regarding one of the main advantages of open source. Does it make a difference that the code is available for review if nobody reviews it?

A: I’m not convinced that security is a priority for most developers.  That is the real problem, and I think it affects both open source and proprietary software similarly.  There are exceptions on both sides, but developers are mostly interested in features, like ease of use, or interop, or whatever.  Getting stuff to work is hard, so most developers focus on just getting stuff working, which is why everything is broken.

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? How do you feel about the term hipster?

A: I think that poll has me nailed: I almost always prefer GeoJSON (my only complaint is no explicit winding order), and I would never refer to myself as a GeoHipster.

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 have published the source code for shpEscape. Did you do it to be different?

A: Cliques can be important for building depth within a specific community, but I lean towards breadth as being more useful (at least for me).  When webmaps became popular, the neo-geography crowd purposely avoided a lot of knowledge from the GIS community. By passing up a lot of unnecessary complexity, one result was a tremendous upswell of simple and elegant tools, but also a lot of mistakes and miscommunication that still hinder us today.

Looking at the poll results it seems like people who responded to being geohipsters are bridging that divide more than coming up with anything particularly exclusive, which wouldn’t have been my initial definition of a hipster, but I think it’s good in this case.

As for publishing the source code for ShpEscape, I did it because open sourcing stuff like that just makes sense.  I recall being a bit embarrassed by the code quality, but that wasn’t the point of the demo, nor is it a good excuse to keep it hidden.  I doubt many people have actually tried to deploy it though; I’d like to go back to it one day with a fresh rewrite as a generic swiss army knife for transforming data, with a more reasonable architecture.

Q: You fly paragliders, which is something I always wanted to try. How did you get into that? Did you do that to be different? :)

A:  No, I tried paragliding to see if it would be awesome. For as long as I remember I’ve had dreams of flying, and when I first heard about paragliding I thought it might be boring (sitting in some kind of chair didn’t compare to my superman-style vision).  But a friend of mine convinced me to give it a shot, and I was totally hooked.  In some ways, it’s more amazing than my childhood dreams were.  Unfortunately I have not been up for a long time.  As a personal goal, I’m going to go flying before I work on shpEscape.  Sorry!

Anita Graser: “Cooking is similar to coding: there are rules, cookbooks, and if you practice you’ll get better”

Anita Graser
Anita Graser

Anita Graser (Twitter, blog) is an open source GIS advocate and data visualization geek with a background in geographic information sciences, working with the Mobility department at the Austrian Institute of Technology, Vienna. She is part of the QGIS project steering committee and an OSGeo Charter member.

Anita was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.

Q: How did you get into mapping/GIS?

A: Since my parent’s house is reasonably difficult to find, I had to learn how to draw a map of the neighborhood quite early on if I wanted to have a new friend come over and visit.

My first encounter with projections was in upper elementary Geography class when I realized that all those maps I had collected for my presentation about Hungary just would not fit together. I gave my best to hand-draw a combined map anyway. It would definitely have been great to have a GIS at hand back then.

I discovered the Geomatics study program when I was touring some local universities after high school. It looked like a great way to combine my love for maps and technology and that’s how I got into GIS.

Q: You work for the Austrian Institute of Technology in Vienna, Austria. What do you do there?

A: I am working as a researcher at the AIT’s Mobility department. The focus of my work lies on spatial data analysis and visualization. Naturally, this means lots of GPS tracks and street network data. My recent work (http://anitagraser.com/publications/) includes, for example, analyzing OpenStreetMap suitability for vehicle routing or the impact of elevation data accuracy on estimating electric vehicle energy usage.

Q: At Geohipster we are fascinated with what drives people such as yourself to embrace open source. How did you get into open source? What is your reason?

A: Like most students, at university, I first got introduced to proprietary desktop GIS before my first experience with open source GIS in the form of PostGIS and UMN Mapserver. I really learned to appreciate the freedom of open source during my internship at Arsenal Research (now part of AIT) where I was able to set up my own PostGIS databases to experiment with different datasets and build web visualizations around them.

I started looking into QGIS mostly because I needed a tool which allowed me to automate data preparation and visualization to evaluate algorithm results. I ended up writing my first QGIS Python plugin which I was also able to use in my thesis. This success, the welcoming and helpful community, as well as the increasing range of QGIS functionality, motivated me to stick with open source. Additionally, I found it very liberating not to have to go to the university labs whenever I wanted to do some GIS work. Instead, I was able to have my GIS with me and install it wherever needed. For my use cases, I simply found the flexibility of open source GIS tools more convenient and better suited.

Q: You are part of the QGIS Project Steering Committee (PSC) and an OSGeo Charter member. This is both a great recognition and a great responsibility. What is your function on these boards?

A: OSGeo Charter members, like regular members, can support the foundation in a variety of ways including coding, teaching, documenting and much more. Additionally, charter members have the responsibility to elect the OSGeo board. To become a charter member, one has to be nominated and elected by the existing members.

On the QGIS PSC, I’m currently acting as design advisor. This role includes overseeing activities related to branding, user experience, icons, and other graphical elements of the application and the website. With QGIS 2.0, I think we took a big step towards a more professional look of the application. We also relaunched the website and started a new usability mailing list (http://osgeo-org.1560.x6.nabble.com/QGIS-UX-f5095867.html) to name just a few of the recent activities in this field.

Q: You are informally referred to as the High Priestess of QGIS. How involved and time-consuming is your involvement with OS and QGIS? How many hours/week do you spend on OS- and QGIS-development-related tasks?

A: On workdays, when the QGIS mailing list and GIS.StackExchange are busy, I spend my time on user support mostly. Depending on the number of issues raised, I spend somewhere between one and two hours most of the time. Weekends are generally less busy and I’ll  try out new features, write blog posts, or prepare other material as needed. Additionally, the QGIS PSC meets once a month to discuss organizational issues.

I also really enjoy when I get around to doing some development work, for example, on my Time Manager plugin or testing new Processing script ideas. But that’s only a relatively small part of the time I spend on the project.

Q: Your mother tongue is German, but your English is impeccable. Does it bother you when native English speakers are too cavalier with English spelling and grammar?

A: Thank you for the compliment! In my experience, most English speakers I’ve met will try to help people who are not native speakers even if it’s sometimes difficult to grasp the exact meaning of the question or issue raised. A spelling error here or there usually won’t bother anyone but unfortunately, misunderstandings can become very common if some people in a discussion are less familiar with the workings of English grammar.

Q: Your Twitter handle is @underdarkGIS. How did you come up with that? What does it mean?

A: I like reading fantasy books. One thing led to another and I registered underdark.wordpress.com and started blogging. When I joined GIS.StackExchange and then Twitter, it just seemed to make sense to choose a username or handle which people could recognize and connect with my other web presences.

Q: I understand that you enjoy cooking. Is it a coincidence that a disproportionately high number of software designers and developers love to cook? Is there a similarity in the processes of software design and cooking?

A: On some level, cooking is very similar to coding: there are rules, cookbooks if you want, and if you practice, you’ll eventually get better at it. On the other hand, I find cooking has the clear advantage that it’s an activity with a clear and most of the time rewarding end. You cook, you eat, and that’s it. Coding is quite different in this regard. You can write code, test it and use it but once you put it out in the real world, the actual work of bugfixing and updating has just started.

Q: What is your favorite dish to cook? What is your favorite dish to order when you eat out? Wiener Schnitzel is mine (really), when on the menu (rarely in the US).

A: I really enjoy cooking curries and pasta. If I would have to pick a favourite, it would probably be chicken with carrots in red coconut curry sauce. That’s something I cook – with slight variations – at least twice per month.

When eating out, I always try to order either local specialities or uncommon dishes which I would or could not prepare at home. I like to experiment and there are only few things which I don’t eat at all.

Q: Do you ever cook for a large number of people? If you do, how do you handle the inevitable differences in tastes and preferences of the diners? The parallels with QGIS development should be obvious.

A: Luckily my family is not particularly picky but if I cook for a group of people and I’m not sure about the preferences, I’ll usually prepare a couple of smaller courses and different side dishes so that everyone should be able to find at least a couple of things they like. I guess I’m building a modular meal if you want to put it that way, and everyone can customize their dining experience.

Q: Thank you very much for the interview. Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

A: Thanks for having me! You can find out more about my work with open source GIS as well as my research on http://anitagraser.com and if you want to get in touch, just contact me on Twitter or drop me an email.