Marc Pfister: “I enjoy that I can see my work get turned into large physical objects”

Marc Pfister
Marc Pfister
Reading his bio, one might get the impression that Marc Pfister is the prototypical geohipster. After studying mechanical engineering, he was a bicycle designer by day, and DJ by night. He then took his CAD skills and turned them into a 10-year GIS career. As a tinkerer who has to take everything apart, he began to focus on Open Source geospatial programming. Along the way he helped reverse-engineer Esri’s SBN spatial index, and started making statewide maps of gravel roads. Then in 2012 he bounced around the midwest and became an artisan cheesemaker with his wife, starting Longview Creamery.

Q: You are among a growing number of people I know who have left the GIS industry. Why did you leave, and why do you think others do?

A: My wife has worked as a cheesemaker on and off over the years, and we had always thought about starting our own cheese company. It’s a daunting task to go from zero to a fully operational facility. Some friends who were starting up a goat cheese operation in Nebraska needed some help and had a place we could stay in, so we decided it looked like a good opportunity to try something out. We would help them with their operation, and in exchange we could use their facility to start testing some potential cheeses. So we quit our jobs, threw some minimally viable furniture into a small trailer, and moved to Nebraska. While we were working on that, some equipment came up for sale in Colorado. It was in a really nice facility and it seemed like a shame to have to move it, so when we bought the equipment the owner leased us the building and let us take over the existing business.

While this was going on, I was still doing geo work on the side. I worked for Boundless on GeoNode and MapStory, which was a neat project to be involved in. But lately the business has grown so much that I’ve been sucked into it more and more, so there hasn’t been much geo-anything going on. Honestly, I like working with physical equipment, so at this point if I left cheesemaking I could see going into dairy engineering. But on the other hand, I like the geo field and would probably go back with the right opportunity and team.

I don’t know anyone who has left geo due to a beef with some aspect of the industry. It seems like most ‘geo’ people have come into it from some other career path, so they have options to leave geo to go back to environmental work, or programming, or whatever. It’s almost like geo is an adjective you can stick on any career. It’s like saying you work in the color red, and you could be growing strawberries or painting fire trucks.

Q: You are still very active on the geotwitters, though, so it’s not like you have shut the geodoor. Or have you?

A: I’m doing almost zero geo work other than the gravel road maps. People still email me questions about SBNs and Google Static Maps, so I help out where I can. I’m active on the geotwitters mostly because I’ve absorbed enough technical jargon to come up with good jokes. I love a good geojoke, especially if it involves some photoshopping.

Breaking NAD
Breaking NAD

Q: What is your fondest memory from your geo times? What is the worst?

A: The fondest? In 2008, when I lived in rural Northern California, there was a huge lightning storm, and several wildfires started within a few miles of my house. I was frustrated because I could see the flames from my porch but the online information was terrible. The MODIS heat detects were on one site with a horrible base map, and the fire perimeters were on another that had an outdated clunky interface. So in the best 2008 mashup spirit I bodged together some scripts to pull in that data and put it together on Google Maps. I also did a little cleanup, like converting the MODIS detection time stamps to local time. It ended up being a big hit. The Los Angeles Times posted it on their website and it slashdotted our server, which is both terrifying and gratifying at the same time. I also got a lot of ‘Thank You!’ emails, including some from USFS and Cal Fire staffers who preferred it to their in-house mapping.

The worst moment, I don’t know if I can think of anything geo-specific that would qualify as the worst. The most frustrating was getting into turf wars with the Board of Professional Land Surveyors. I worked for a scrappy little GIS, environmental, and planning consulting company, and we did everything in house. Orthoimagery, LiDAR, GPS, you name it — we DIYed it. We’d try to sell LiDAR data, and we’d get a nasty letter. We would have to explain that we’re just reselling elevation data that was collected by a company that of course had a licensed land surveyor involved. It got so silly at one point — we ran an ad in a planning magazine advertising that we did ‘Surveys’, as in public opinion surveys for proposed projects, and we got a C & D letter over it! So now you have the backstory behind the Breaking NAD image and a lot of my other jokes about a dystopian future where rogue GIS techs sling illicit elevation data on the black market.

Q: Unlike most GIS practitioners and opinionators (myself included) who are too close to the problem and often can’t see the forest from the trees, you have the unique position and distinct advantage of looking at the industry from a distance. What do you see?

A: Even while inside it, I’ve seen it from a lot of different perspectives. When I started doing GIS work we hadn’t moved to ArcView yet and were doing everything in AutoCAD and Adobe Illustrator. We eventually transitioned to ArcView, but around the same time I found #geo on IRC and the geowanking mailing list, which led to WhereCamp and getting a whole different outsider perspective from people who were programmers discovering that maps were fun to mess with.

So I see two things going on: people who are totally entrenched in the Esri stack and would really benefit from branching out — that’s contrasted with people who are trying too hard to be innovative and are missing the fact that a big part of GIS work is making a PDF site location map that’s going to go into a forgotten report. The eye candy is fun but it’s often the boring stuff that pays the bills.

Q: Is there fashion in technology? Does the desire to be different sometimes trump other more “rational considerations” — in tech as well as in couture?

A: Fashion can mean a lot of things. In terms of self-expression, and as a signifier of belonging to a certain group, definitely. Is the choice of Python, with a focus on readability and whitespace, any different from choosing minimalist Scandinavian furniture?

Software for us is generally a practical tool, so there seems to be a pragmatic limit where getting stuff done trumps outwards appearance. To an outsider, the proliferation of MacBooks in the geo developer world might seem like a fashion thing, but honestly it’s because OS X seems to do the best job of getting out of your way.

I also think there’s a parallel with the low barrier to entry and often easy mix ‘n match pluggability of software. A ‘look’ is really just the sum of parts of component pieces, as much as software is a sum of the underlying libraries. To get into programming you don’t have to start with writing a language and compiler, and to get into fashion you don’t have to start with spinning your own thread.

Q: What is the geo equivalent of normcore? If you see me wearing dad jeans, how would you know whether I am normcore or just lame?

A: If you’re wearing dad jeans when driving your kids around in a minivan, then you’re probably lame. Normcore has to be out of place in order to be referential. So I guess the geo equivalent would be trying to edit ways at an OSM mapathon using ArcView 3 just because you like the menu bars.

Q: You make steel bicycles by hand. You and your wife own and run a creamery. Tell us about your day-to-day activities.

A: They sound terribly hipster — steel bikes, artisan cheese. But it’s really not that cool. I’m a small business owner, so I wear a lot of hats which I’m simultaneously juggling. Usually at least one of those hats is on fire. The hipster sheen wears off quickly. We hear a lot from people who want to get into cheesemaking, and they always have idealized the cheesemaking process to soft-gloved curation of what are essentially precious living objects that have to be nurtured and massaged, like they’re kittens or something. And that you’re carrying on this ancient and noble tradition, yada yada. The reality is that it’s a lot of hot and sweaty manual labor and doing dishes over and over.

The making of a steel bike
The making of a steel bike

Q: Colorado is a geo hub, but is it also a hipster hub? Is the Colorado brand of hipsterism the same as the Brooklyn or Portland or Berlin or Shoreditch variety? How does it differ?

A: I live in a rural farming town that’s turning into a retirement/bedroom community, so I don’t have the best perspective. I spend some time in Fort Collins which is a college town so there’s some ‘hipster’ visibility. There is a sort of coherent ‘coloRADo’ style that’s a mix of snowboarding/skate style with a hippie/raver jam band 420 overtones, but with some tech gear conspicuous consumption. White guys with dreds and rallyed out Subaru turbos. What seems to distinguish them from their peers in places like Lake Tahoe, California, is that they have a high degree of stoke for their state. The Colorado flag is on everything. In California you might see the bear on some things, but stoke seems to be much more regional and often oppositional. You have the Norcal/Socal divide (one of my favorite geo topics), and smaller ones like Oakland/SF or LA/San Diego. I don’t see that in Colorado, even though it has diverse regions (except at the political level).

Q: “New and improved” vs. slow food/slow code. Is the race to develop newer and “better” things at an ever accelerating pace the mark of progress? Is it a good thing? A necessary evil? Or a temporary madness?

A: I find it especially frustrating that ‘upgrades’ these days break so many things. My phone was obsolete the day I bought it. I just upgraded my OS, which ‘upgraded’ Python which broke certain modules that cascaded down into other tools I use. Working with machinery I accept that entropy is going to break things — bearings wear out, metals corrode, on so on. But these upgrades really seem to be the opposite of entropy.

That’s one thing about making cheese that I really enjoy. It’s a process that’s thousands of years old and it’s not going to go obsolete in a month. I have some modern luxuries, like a digital pH meter, but for the most part I don’t expect it to change significantly in 20 years. It’s not a fast process — making cheddar takes 12 hours to go from milk to cheese, several more hours the next day to get it ready for aging, and then a two-month wait before the cheese is ready. But software? I’m deliberately avoiding learning about any specific JavaScript framework because by the time I need to know one I’m pretty sure it won’t be relevant anymore.

Some of my equipment is over 50 years old, and it will run for at least another 50. I like to think about what would be the equivalent of a web map with a 50 year lifespan, when languages and OSes are EOLing after 5 years. Could you get 50 years out of code in ANSI C?

Also on the subject of cheese versus code, I enjoy that I can see my work get turned into large physical objects. I go into our cheese cave and there’s cheese stacked from floor to ceiling, and that feels pretty good, you know? We made all that. And the best part is that it only gets better with age! It can’t disappear with one simple refactor. Of course, physical output means physical labor. There’s no shortage of articles these days about how soul-satisfying physical labor can be. But it’s hard and breaks down your body, and I’m glad I have the luxury that I could go back to a desk job. I hate to romanticize it when I know people who don’t have that choice and are slowly killing themselves.

The worst thing about working with physical products is when you screw up and you have to throw your hard work and money away. Bits are free! I always tell people who are nervous about learning programming that you can screw up as much as you need and there are almost never any consequences. Go crazy and break things.

Q: On closing, what would you say to geohipsters who may have toyed with the idea of trying another career? Go for it, or stick with geo?

A: Go for it. And if it doesn’t work out, geo will take you back.

Ann Johnson: “I’m never gonna be as cool as Eric Gundersen”

Ann Johnson
Ann Johnson
Ann Johnson is a technology industry veteran with close to 30 years of progressively responsible experience in all sectors of the industry. With a long career spanning many companies including Data General, EMC and RSA Security, Ms. Johnson has always enjoyed applying technology to solve real customer business problems and driving value to organizations. Ms. Johnson is a subject matter expert in network architecture, mobile security, fraud reduction, transaction fraud reduction, and online banking security, as well as maintaining competence in storage and systems infrastructure. She enjoys the process of building highly successful, highly performing organizations. Outside of work, Ms. Johnson is a strong advocate for animal welfare organizations, and is an avid historian. She is a graduate of Weber State University completing a dual major in Political Science and Communication with a minor in History.

Q: Thank you for taking the time to interview for GeoHipster. While most of our US readers are surely familiar with Boundless, many in our international audience (~50% of our readership) are probably not. For their benefit, please explain what Boundless is about.

A: Boundless is the preeminent open source geospatial information systems company. We have a full stack of open source tools — GeoServer, QGIS, PostGIS database, and OpenLayers 3. We do a lot of value-added enhancements around that open core, driving down customers’ project costs, and we have services that we help deploy, and make your project successful.

Q: Boundless is one of the community leaders for support of open source options. Where do you see the open source market heading?

A: This is a great time to be in open source. With the INSPIRE Regulations in Europe, with the US federal government promoting open source, and with our commercial customers looking not only for lower-cost alternatives but also for more openness in their code, they are looking for more community contribution. I think that open source is only going to grow. We are seeing more and more open source companies in all kinds of adjacent technology areas. If you think about what Red Hat did with Linux, what’s been done with Hadoop, there’s a lot of different areas where open source is becoming very, very prominent, and I don’t see that slowing down at all. As a matter of fact, I think it’s going to become more open, because customers are just really tired of not having the visibility and the access and the ability to contribute positively to closed-source type projects.

Q: Judging from your bio, it appears you had little exposure to geospatial prior to joining Boundless. What attracted you to geospatial? What are some of the unique challenges you’ve encountered since joining? Is spatial special? How hard is to run something like Boundless? Is it “business is business” at the end of the day?

A: I am a technologist at heart. In the 30 years of my professional career I have been in technology the entire time. I started out in software, did a lot of work with network infrastructure, did work in storage and then in security. I think all of these segments are special. I they are all unique. There’s different business drivers, there’s different reasons people participate and purchase in each segment, there’s different problems that need to be solved. For me learning spatial was something I wanted to do. When the opportunity came to me, it was a conscious decision to go out and learn a different technology. It was exciting to me to learn the market, to learn the technology. I have a degree in political science and a minor in history, so I have a passion and a love for history — history as it deals with cartography, how society is evolved, all kinds of mapping lends itself to that. If you think about the things that Chris Tucker is doing with his MapStory project, those are the types of things that are really, really interesting to me, just from a pure historical context, so it was natural for me to move into the space. Yes, I think it’s special, but I think it’s special like every segment of technology is special. It has its uniqueness, and I have developed a lot of passion for it over the nine months I have been at Boundless.

Q: A significant topic of discussion around geospatial events over the past year has been the staggering amount of turnover at Boundless. How do you answer those who question the health of Boundless? What do you see as drivers of such turnover? With such a significant core of project contributors gone, what differentiates Boundless from other companies that provide professional support to PostGIS, GeoServer, QGIS, and the other projects that you bundle into the OpenGeo Suite?

A: I am glad to be able to respond to this question. Boundless is not a new company. Boundless started under the OpenPlans Charity many years ago with Chris Holmes leading the ship. Two years ago it spun out to be a venture-funded company. When people make decisions about where their employment is, they look at the company they are joining at the time. In the past two years Boundless has undergone an awful lot of evolution, an awful lot of change. People made decisions about their career, that it wasn’t necessarily the company they joined. They joined the company for their reasons. But one thing that no one is discussing about Boundless is the amount of talent we’ve recruited in. We have attracted and recruited a lot of talent, because of business, we are actually growing from both a people standpoint, also from a revenue standpoint, so Boundless is a really healthy organization. We have refocused to make sure we stay really true to that open source core. I am very data-driven, and I look at GitHub, and I make sure that we have the top two or three committers in every project that we are working on are employees at Boundless. I think it’s really important. We also have a gentlemen in the organization, Jody Garnett, who is chartered as our community liaison. So Jody is on the GeoServer steering committee, and I have made him the community liaison. His job is making sure we are meeting all of our requirements in our participation within the community. The other is developing talent, and making sure they become valid community contributors. I am bringing in young new talent, or talent from other parts of the industry, folks who really want to learn geo, and make them part of the community, and I think that just makes the community better. So, yes, there have been some high profile exits, some really talented people have gone on to other things. But we’ve also brought in some really high quality talent, and I think that’s the piece that gets overlooked.

Q: Feature-level versioning of geospatial data remains a largely unsolved problem. In the federal government, records retention rules make it a vital issue. With the shuttering of Versio, how is Boundless planning to address this need?

A: Version control is really important. If you look at the announcement that CCRi made yesterday with GeoMesa on top of Google Cloud, I think data is hugely important, and big data is becoming a big problem in spatial. Versio itself was a bit architecturally challenged — candidly, the product was. It wasn’t the right solution to the problem. But the problem does need to be solved. I’m a technologist at heart, I think the problem has to be solved in a much different way, with a big data backend, something that can actually do the analysis, something that has the power, and Versio, while there were a lot of really talented developers and talented architects on the project, I think it started off as a great idea, and has evolved into something that wasn’t quite the right solution. But absolutely the problem needs to be solved, and we are looking at ways, at things we can do with GeoNode, with Hadoop, I don’t have the answer today, but we know it’s a real problem that needs to be solved. Versio just wasn’t quite the right solution for it.

Q: What are your thoughts on dat?

A: My comment on open source as a whole is that the only successful open source companies have been really successful because they partnered. So we’ll look for a partner strategy there, and to the extent that you have an open standard API that can convert data formats, it’ll lend itself to that partnership. As an open source company we have to be very open, and dat will allow us to do that. As long as the API is robust enough, and really does allow cross-data formatting, I think it’s a very worthwhile project, and we will participate.

Q: OpenLayers is clearly Boundless’s preferred solution for web mapping, and it has been a solid open source solution for years. How does Boundless view the rapid adoption of Leaflet as a lighter-weight alternative? Is it a threat to your business model, or just another component of potential hybrid solutions?

A: They coexist. Mapbox solves a different problem than we solve — a “many” problem, whereas Boundless, like Esri, solves “deeper-but-not-as-many”. I don’t think it’s one versus the other. I think they solve different use cases, and people will use them differently. I also think we need to do a better job promoting OpenLayers. One thing I think Leaflet has is better marketing, candidly. It solves a different problem, but they’ve definitely done a better job promoting it, and we need to do a better job with the community promoting OpenLayers.

Q: You tweeted about upcoming exciting news — HERE partnership, etc. Can you share more details?

A: I’ll foreshadow a few announcements we’re going to be making over the next couple of months. The first thing is we have signed up a partnership with Nokia HERE. We can talk about it openly, we are working with Nokia on a press release. As a big organization that requires a lot of layers of approval, but you’ll see that. It was important to us that we had a data strategy that we can augment our customers’ data, or augment open data, so Nokia is our first step there. You’ll see more data partnerships coming. You’ll see an announcement coming soon about our AWS and our Azure offerings. We are really making a concerted effort to move toward a cloud delivery platform, because our customers are asking us to. We are doing a lot of work with LiDAR, you’ll see in short order a blog post around the work we are doing on open LiDAR standards, and why it’s important to keep those standards open. And the final thing is we are recommitting to QGIS. Even though I think the future is web and mobile, there’s still a lot of things you need to do on the desktop, and we are really recommitting and making sure we have a supportable QGIS platform, particularly for the US federal government. All those things are queued up to come up in the next four to six week, as well as our 4.6 release of the OpenGeo suite.

Q: You’re a geolady. Last year you became CEO of a major geocompany. What advice do you have for other women in the geocommunity?

A: I’ve been in technology forever, and women are seriously underrepresented everywhere. The best advice I can give to women is ignore the fact that you are a woman. I hate to say it, but you need to focus on what’s important. Focus on your skills, focus on what you bring to the table, and put aside anything that is what I call noise to the system. It’s tough. It’s tough to be in a room with 30 people, and you are the only one that looks like you look. But you just have to set that aside and realize what you are there for, what’s important. I also think it’s really important to become a subject matter expert. As you mentioned, I’m new to this. So I’ve done a lot of self-study, a lot of online tutorials, just to try to get myself up to speed. If you’re going to have credibility — whether you are a man or a woman — you need to have a basic knowledge of what the customers are using, and a basic knowledge of the technology, and I think some people overlook that, and it’s super important. And the other thing is don’t give up. Bias exists everywhere. It doesn’t matter if you are a woman, or a minority, or someone who is not a US citizen by birth, bias exists everywhere. You just have to ignore it and move past it and don’t ever give up.

Q: Do you consider yourself a geohipster? Why/why not?

A: I might be too old to consider myself a hipster, and I’m never gonna be as cool as Eric Gundersen, I can tell you that [laughs]. That said, I think this is a really nascent market, I think geo is just now emerging, there is so much we can do with it, and there is so much we can do to put it on the radar. I think it’s new, I think it’s fun, and I think we need to have some fun with it. There has to be fun with the industry, so yes, I do consider myself pretty hip with the industry, even if I am not as cool as Eric on any day of the week.

Q: Thank you for the interview. Do you have any parting words for our readers?

A: I’ll go back to something Paul Ramsey advocated and still advocates: Geo doesn’t need to be held by the GISP department in an organization. We need to make the tools easier to use so your average IT analyst or your average business analyst can use them, and that’s when we’ll become really relevant. We’ll need to make sure we mainstream geo while maintaining the specialness of it. We need to embrace the spatial IT concepts, and everything you see Boundless doing moving forward, with our application templates, some of our SDKs and APIs, is going to be toward doing that. And I encourage the industry to also work toward making the tools more usable. Because that’s the way we’ll become really relevant. Geo will become really relevant when the tools become much more useful for everyone to use within a business organization, and that’s the focus of Boundless, and I think that’s a really good focus for the industry, too.

Martin Isenburg: “May the FOSS be with LAZ”

Martin Isenburg
Martin Isenburg
Martin Isenburg received his MSc in 1999 from UBC in Vancouver, Canada, and his PhD in 2004 from UNC in Chapel Hill, USA -- both in Computer Science. Currently he is an independent scientist, lecturer, and consultant. Martin has created a popular LiDAR processing software called LAStools that is widely used across industry, government agencies, research labs, and educational institutions. LAStools is the flagship product of rapidlasso GmbH, the company he founded in 2012. Martin's ultimate goal is to combine high-tech remote sensing and organic urban farming in a "laser farm" that promotes green projects as hip and fun activities for the iPad generation.
Martin was interviewed for GeoHipster by Christina Boggs and Randal Hale.

Q: Thanks, Martin, for taking the time to have a chat with GeoHipster! Tell us about your ideas on “Front yard chickens”. Chickens are so awesome. We’ve heard that your chickens were about to be equipped with lasers. How did that go?

A: Happy to talk geospatial chickens. See, in the backyard chickens are a fun way to be green. But put three (not twenty!) in the front yard, and they create green communities. You meet your neighbors (dragged to your fence by their kids), and soon you are bartering eggs for kale because Lori and Dan across the street now have “front yard veggies”. And why lasers? Not for arming or roasting the chickens (common mistake), but for filming them in real-time 3D. Sort of like Radiohead’s video “House of Cards”, but better. A “happy feed” of urban farm bliss to lure folks beyond this neighborhood into green fun. Troubles over “cluster-bombing” the homeland with garden-fresh zucchinis forced me to put this project on hold.

Q: Can you give us an overview of LiDAR and how it works?  

A: Fire a really short burst of laser light, and measure the exact duration until its reflection comes back. That allows you to compute the distance to whatever object was hit. Record the exact position from where and the exact direction in which you fired the laser, and you can calculate the exact position of these hits. Repeat this several hundred thousand times a second with an airborne LiDAR whose laser beam sweeps out the terrain, and you get enough information to model ground, buildings, and vegetation in 3D.

Q: How has LiDAR data storage evolved over the years?

A: The LiDAR points were first stored and exchanged as plain text files: x, y, z, intensity. But ASCII becomes inefficient as a storage format as point numbers go up. Several industry players got together and created a simple binary data exchange format — the LAS format — that was eventually donated to the ASPRS. LAS has become a huge success, and everybody supports it. Nowadays the specification is maintained by the LAS Working Group (LWG) of the ASPRS. That sounds fancy, but is really just a dozen or so email addresses that get cc-ed when an issue is discussed.

Q: You explained that LiDAR data is huge. How much data are we talking about?

A: One LiDAR return — how the hits are called — is typically 28 bytes. An airborne survey with 4 shots per square meter may average 8 LiDAR returns per square meter. For a small area of 100 square kilometers this is over 20 GB of raw LAS. Subsequent processing steps often create multiple copies of this data. Nowadays countries either have, or are going for nation-wide LiDAR coverage. So many terabytes of LiDAR are already out there, and petabytes are going to come.

Q: You developed the compressed LAZ format. Can you give us some background?

A: I spent years of graduate work on compressing polygon meshes, but few people have such data. When I stumbled upon folders of LAS files, I figured having a compressor for these point clouds may actually be useful. I wrote the LASzip prototype mainly to supplement an academic paper, but people found it on my web pages and used it. In 2010 I was asked to release LASzip with an open license to defeat a proprietary format that federal agencies feared would make compressed LiDAR costly. Eventually the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) sponsored the open-sourcing of LASzip.

Q: What is the development process that you use for making changes to the compressed LiDAR format?

A: I am very careful with changes, and try to be as transparent as possible about them. First I seek community input on new features via the “LAS room” and the “LAStools” forums. Once discussed, the new feature is implemented as a prototype for testing. If the prototype proves itself over time, these features are moved into the new release. But maybe the time has come to make LASzip an official standard with a committee overseeing future changes.

Q: The release of LAS 1.4 means new point types. This is a disruption of the LAS format in general. What opportunities does this present for LASzip?

A: I have held back extending LASzip to LAS 1.4. Like you say, the new point types in LAS 1.4 are a “natural break” in the format that offers the opportunity to improve the compressor without creating incompatibilities. An open “call for input” was issued to get feedback on features the community wants to see in the next generation of LASzip.

However, LASzip can already compress LAS 1.4 content. NOAA stepped up to sponsor the “LAS 1.4 compatibility mode” where new point types are re-coded into old ones by storing their new attributes as “extra bytes”. Added bonus: many older software packages can read re-coded LAS 1.4 content without upgrade.

Q: You’ve released a simpler interface to LASzip in 2013. How did that turn out?

A: When Esri came knocking, saying the LASzip code was too complicated, I asked them to sponsor the effort for a simpler DLL. But then I decided to create this DLL without further delay. LAZ was the de-facto LiDAR compression standard, and I wanted to remove any possible hurdle for its adoption. It is disappointing that Esri has still not added LAZ support to ArcGIS. The new DLL was essentially written for them.

Q: Recently Esri announced a variation of the open LAS standard called “Optimized LAS”. Can you describe the changes to how LAS files are supported?

A: The name is rather misleading. “Optimized LAS” is a closed format that compresses the content of a LAS file into a proprietary file. The resulting ‘*.zlas’ files are very similar to the ‘*.laz’ files produced by LASzip, which is why the new Esri format is also known as the “LAZ clone”.

Q: So from your view, how do they stack up?

A: The technical differences between LASzip and “Optimized LAS” are minimal. In terms of compression and speed, the two are almost identical. In terms of features, Esri includes spatial indexing information into the *.zlas files whereas we had been storing it as separate *.lax files. It took just a couple of hours to “upgrade” LASzip to match the feature set of “Optimized LAS” by adding one option for spatial sorting and another option for integrating the spatial index into the file. The argument that Esri could not use LASzip due to missing features is obviously a dud. The “LAZ clone” was created to tie LiDAR folks long-term to the ArcGIS platform.

Esri likes to point out that their format contains point statistic summaries. This is so trivial that any developer could add this in an afternoon. Such summaries are a good idea. I encourage Esri to propose a new “Variable Length Record” for that purpose as an addendum to the LAS specification. This is why they are part of the ASPRS LAS Working Group.

Q: Some readers may have seen this post back in 2014, believing the LASzip controversy was resolved. The post was your April Fools’ Day prank. Why did you do it?

A: I modified LASzip just a few days before April 1st 2014 to feature-match the “LAZ clone”. The triviality of these modifications made it obvious that further technical reasoning with Esri was moot. My last hope was to show Esri management how much applause they would garner from working with the community. So I wrote a prank press release, stating that Esri and rapidlasso were developing a joint compressor. Almost everything in this press release was true, except that Esri had not agreed yet to such cooperation. The response was incredible as the collected comments show…

Q: What are the ramifications of dueling data formats? What’s the point the entire GIS community at large should take home?

A: The instant loser is the user who will have to convert data back and forth. The instant winners are companies that provide data converters. Hey wait, that includes me! :) The long-term loser is the GIS community that will find more and more LiDAR locked to a single platform. The long-term winner is the provider of this platform (or so they hope).

A proprietary format can only be read via the interface the vendor provides. This prevents access to the content on other operating systems or from other programing languages. In contrast, an open format allows unrestricted access to the content. For example, Howard Butler and Uday Verma have created a pure JavaScript version of LASzip that can decompress LAZ inside a web browser. As the saying goes, closed formats go to hell (but open formats go everywhere)… 😉

Q: You just mentioned processing LiDAR in a web browser. Is that a new thing?

A: Yes, plas.io and potree have paved the way for LiDAR in the browser based on JavaScript and WebGL. Now several commercial offerings have emerged. Compression is an even more pressing concern as the data will often come via the web. Having a pure JavaScript decompressor for LAZ allows plugin-free rendering of compressed LiDAR via all modern web browsers, including on mobile devices.

Q: But closed formats cannot be decompressed with JavaScript?

A: Exactly! JavaScript is — by definition — open source. A format cannot compete in the world of plugin-free decompression without providing an open implementation. Plugin-free WebGL rendering of compressed LiDAR in the web browser via JavaScript is a force to be reckoned with. That’s why I like to call them “jediscripts” in the context of this “laser war” with Esri.

Q: The term geohipster is bestowed affectionately. With your urban farming and your front yard chickens, I feel like using Steven Feldman’s geohippy term. Do you feel more like a geohipster or a geohippy?

A: The original idea behind downtownfarm — the mash-up of chickens and lasers — was to get away from the granola-hippy image of urban farming and make green more trendy and cool. How about geoyuppy?

Q: Before we let you go, is there anything you’d like to add for our GeoHipster readers?

A: Defend “open LiDAR formats”, practice the art of “LAS liberation”, and fork plugin-free “jediscripts”. We all know “The Force Awakens” later this year. May the FOSS be with LAZ… 😉

Gary Gale: “Dear OSM, it’s time to get your finger out”

Gary Gale
Gary Gale
A self-professed map addict, Gary Gale has worked in the mapping and location space for over 20 years through a combination of luck and occasional good judgement. He is co-founder and director of Malstow Geospatial, a consultancy firm offering bespoke consulting and services in the geospatial, geotechnology, maps and location based services fields. A Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, he tweets about maps, writes about them, and even occasionally makes them.

This is very much an opinion piece of writing, and as such I want to start with a disclaimer. In the past I’ve worked on Yahoo’s maps, on Ovi/Nokia/HERE maps, and these days I’m freelancing, which means the Ordnance Survey — the United Kingdom’s national mapping agency — is my current employer. What follows is my opinion and views, not those of my current employer, not those of previous employers, and certainly not those of future employers. It’s just me. So with that out of the way and stated upfront, I want to opine on OpenStreetMap

***

Dear OpenStreetMap, you are truly amazing. Since you started in 2004 with those first few nodes, ways and relationships, you have — to paraphrase a certain Dr. Eldon Tyrell — burned so very, very brightly. (Those of you who know your Blade Runner quotes will know that just after saying this, Tyrell was killed by Roy Baty; I’m not suggesting that anyone should take this literally.)

Just looking at the latest set of database statistics (over 4.6 billion GPS points, over 2.8 billion nodes, over 282.5 million ways, and 3.2 million relationships as of today’s figures) shows how impressive all of this this is.

The maps and data you’ve created are a key element of what’s today loosely termed the geoweb, enabling startups to create maps at little or no cost, allowing some amazing cartography to be created, stimulating research projects, and allowing businesses to spring up to monetise all of this data — some successfully such as MapBox, some less successfully, such as CloudMade.

After reading all of this amazement and adoration, you’re probably expecting the next sentence to start with “But …”, and I’m afraid you’d be right.

But times change, and the mapping and location world we live in has changed rapidly and in unexpected ways since OSM started in 2004. In just over a decade the web has gone mobile with the explosive growth of sensor-laden smartphones, and location is big business — $3.8 billion’s worth of big in 2018 if you believe Berg Insight.

United Nations of smartphones
United Nations of smartphones

In 2004 if you wanted maps or mapping data then you either went to one of the national or cadastral mapping agencies — such as the UK’s Ordnance Survey — or you went to one of the global, automotive-focused, mapping providers; you went to NAVTEQ or to TeleAtlas. Maps and mapping data are expensive to make and expensive to maintain, and this expense was and continues to be reflected in the licensing charge you paid for mapping data, as well as in the restrictions around what you could and couldn’t do with that data. The high cost of data and the license restrictions were one of the key drivers for the establishment of OpenStreetMap in the first place.

Eleven years on, and the mapping industry landscape is a very different one. NAVTEQ and TeleAtlas are no longer independent entities — Chicago-based NAVTEQ was acquired by Nokia in 2008 after an EU antitrust investigation gave the deal the green light, and Amsterdam-based TeleAtlas has been part of TomTom since 2008. Both companies continue to license their mapping data and their services, with NAVTEQ — now known as HERE — powering the maps for Bing and Yahoo amongst others, and TomTom licensing their data to MapQuest and to Apple as part of the relaunch of Apple Maps in 2012.

There’s also been changes from the national and cadastral mapping agencies, with more and more data being released under various forms of open license — including the Ordnance Survey’s open data program, which in direct contrast to the old licensing regime is now under one of the most liberal of licenses.

In 2007 there was much attention paid to the NAVTEQ and TeleAtlas deals, citing uncertainty surrounding continued data supply to the maps and location industry. It was also predicted that the PND market — those personal navigation devices from TomTom and Garmin that sat on top of your car’s dashboard and announced “you have reached your destination” — would collapse rapidly as a result of the rapid growth of GPS-equipped smartphones.

These concerns and predictions got only half of the outcome right. The PND market did collapse, but the map data continued to flow, although it’s fair to say that as OSM matured and grew a reasonable chunk of revenue and strategic deals were lost — both directly and indirectly — to OSM itself, and to the organisations who act as a business-friendly face to OSM. But as Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, everything changes and nothing stands still.

In the last few weeks it’s been widely reported that Nokia is looking to sell off HERE, the company formed by the (sometimes unwilling) union of NAVTEQ and Nokia Maps. Speculation runs rife as to who will become the new owner of HERE, with Uber seeming to be the pundits’ favourite buyer. But whoever does end up owning HERE’s mapping platform, the underlying map data, and the sizeable mapping and surveying fleet, it now seems to be clear that just as the days of NAVTEQ and TeleAtlas as independent mapping organisations came to an end, the days of HERE are coming to an end. This also has shone the spotlight onto TomTom, who whilst making inroads into NAVTEQ’s share of the automotive data market, seems reliant on their deal with Apple to keep revenue flowing in.

Even before the speculation around HERE’s new owner, there are really only three major sources of global mapping, location and geospatial data: NAVTEQ in their current HERE incarnation, TeleAtlas under the mantle of TomTom, and … OpenStreetMap.

When — rather than if — HERE changes ownership, there’s a very real risk than the new owners will turn the data flow and services built on that data inwards, for their own use and their use only, leaving just two major global maps sources.

Surely now is the moment for OpenStreetMap to accelerate adoption, usage and uptake? But why hasn’t this already happened? Why hasn’t the geospatial world run lovingly into OSM’s arms?

Acceleration
Acceleration

To my mind there’s two barriers to greater and more widespread adoption, both of which can be overcome if there’s sufficient will to overcome them within the OSM community as a whole. These barriers are, in no particular order … licensing, and OSM not being seen as (more) conducive to working with business.

Firstly I want to deal with making OSM more business-friendly, as this is probably the biggest barrier to wider-spread adoption over licensing. For anything other than a startup or SME with substantial geospatial competency already in-house, dealing with OSM and comprehending OSM can be a confusing proposition. What is OSM exactly? Is is the community? Is it the OpenStreetMap Foundation? Is it the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team? Is it one of the companies in the OSM ecosystem that offers services built on top of OSM? All of them? Some of them? None of them?

There’s no doubt that OSM has a vibrant and active map-making and developer-friendly ecosystem in the form of the OSM Wiki and mailing lists alone, even before you factor in the supporting, indirect ecosystem of individuals, community projects and organisations. But this isn’t enough. Business needs to be able to have a single point of contact to liaise with, actually it often insists on this and will look elsewhere if it can’t find this point of contact with anything more than the most cursory of searches. Whether it’s OSM in some shape or form itself, or a single organisation that stands for and represents OSM, this is the biggest barrier to continued OSM adoption that there is, although it may not necessarily be the one which requires the most work to overcome. For that barrier you need look no further than the ODbL, the Open Database License, under which OSM’s data is licensed.

This is a contentious issue and one which is usually met with a deep sigh and the muttering of “not this again“. Prior to 2010, OSM data was licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license, normally shorted to CC-BY-SA. This license says that you are free to …

Share — copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format

Adapt — remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially

With hindsight, adoption of CC-BY-SA made a lot of sense, preserving and acknowledging the stupendous input made by all OSM contributors. It’s not for nothing that the credits for using OSM are “© OpenStreetMap contributors“.

But CC-BY-SA’s key weakness for OSM was that it is a license designed for the concept of “material“; for creative works and not specifically for data or for databases. This is understandable; at the time OSM adopted CC-BY-SA, such a data-centric license simply didn’t exist, and CC-BY-SA was the best option available. But in 2010, after much discussion and dissent, OSM switched to the data- and database-specific Open Database License. The ODbL maintains the same attribution and share-alike clauses, but phrased in legal language specifically for data sets. It seems like the perfect license for OSM, but it’s not.

The attribution clause in both CC-BY-SA and ODbL are not at issue. Such clauses mean that the efforts of those who have made OSM what it is are formally acknowledged. The issue is the share-alike clause in both licenses, although it’s fair to say that there are subtleties at play due to the many and varied ways in which OSM data can be “consumed“.

Be Afraid. Consume.
Be Afraid. Consume.

If your consumption of OSM data is a passive one, then the share-alike clause probably has little or no impact. By passive, I mean that as a user you are consuming data from OSM via some form of service provider, and your consumption takes the form of an immutable payload from that service, such as pre-rendered map tiles.

But what about if your consumption of OSM data still comes from a service, but takes the form of actual data — such as the results of a geocoder, or some other geospatial search? Such results are typically stored within a back-end data store, which means that by doing so the end result is a dataset which comprises the original data, plus the results of a search added to make a new dataset. Does this trigger the share-alike clause? This is still an ambiguous area, although current guidelines suggest that the resulting, aggregate data set is a produced work rather than a derived one and so are exempt from triggering the share-alike clause. But there is also a counter-argument that suggests that such an action is indeed a derived work, and so the share-alike clause does apply. This ambiguity alone needs to be resolved, one way or another, in order to make OSM an attractive proposition for business.

The final share-alike complication rears its head when your method of consuming OSM data is to merge one or more data sets with OSM to use the resultant data for some purpose. This sort of data aggregation is often called co-mingling in licensing and legal parlance.

If all the datasets you are dealing with are licensed under ODbL, then the share-alike clause potentially has little impact, as effectively ODbL plus ODbL equals … ODbL. Things are a little less certain when you co-mingle with datasets which are deemed to be licensed under a compatible license. Quite what a compatible license is hasn’t been defined. OpenDataCommons, the organisation behind the ODbL, only says that “any compatible license would, for example, have to contain similar share-alike provisions if it were to be compatible“, which while helpful isn’t a clear cut list of licenses that are compatible. At the time of writing I was unable to find any such list.

But if the data you want to co-mingle with OSM, or indeed with any ODbL licensed data, is data that you don’t want to share with the “community” — which of course will include your competitors — the only way to prevent this is not to use the ODbL-licensed data, which means not using OSM in this manner. To be blunt, mixing any data with a share-alike clause means you can lose control of your data, which probably is part of your organisation’s intellectual property and has cost time and money to put together. It’s acknowledged that not all co-mingling of datasets will trigger the share-alike clause; that there needs to be “the Extraction and Re-utilisation of the whole or a Substantial part of the Contents” in order for the share-alike, or indeed for the attribution clauses of the ODbL to kick in. The problem is that what’s classed as “substantial” isn’t defined at all, and OpenDataCommons notes that “the exact interpretation (of substantial) would remain with the courts“.

If you pause and re-read the last few paragraphs, you’ll notice that there’s words and phrases such as “ambiguity“, “isn’t defined” and “exact interpretation“. All of which adds up to an unattractive proposition for businesses considering using OSM or any open data license with a share-alike clause. For smaller businesses, finding the right path to navigate through licensing requires costly legal interpretation, and where money is tight such a path will simply be ignored. For larger businesses, often with an in-house legal team, a risk analysis will often result in an assessment that precludes using data with such a license as the risk is deemed too great.

Crossroads
Crossroads

OSM as a community, as a data set, as a maps and map data provider, and as an entity is at a crossroads. It’s been at this metaphorical crossroads for a while now, but with the way in which the industry is rapidly changing and evolving, this means that there’s these two challenges that OSM should be encouraged to overcome, if there’s a concerted will to do so.

In almost every one of my previous corporate roles I’ve tried to push usage and adoption of OSM to the business, with the notable exception of my time with Lokku and OpenCage Data, where OSM is already in active use. Initially, reaction is extremely positive: “This is amazing“, “Why didn’t we know about this before?“, and “This is just what we’re looking for” are common reactions.

But after the initial euphoria has worn off and the business looks at OSM’s proposition, the reaction is far from positive. “Who are we doing business with here? OSM or another organisation?“, “We can’t have a business relationship with a Wiki or a mailing list“, and “Legal have taken a look at the license, and the risk of using ODbL data is too great, I’m afraid” are paraphrased reactions I’ve heard so many times. To date, not one of the companies I’ve worked in has used OSM for anything other than the most trivial of base mapping tasks, which is such a loss of potential exposure for OSM to the wider geospatial and developer markets.

In short, the lack of a business-facing and business-friendly approach, coupled with the risks and ambiguity over licensing, are what is holding OSM back from achieving far more than it currently does. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

More than anything, OSM needs a business-friendly face. This doesn’t have to be provided by OSM itself; an existing organisation or a new one could provide this, hopefully with the blessing and assent of the OSMF and of enough of a majority of the OSM community. It’s also worth considering a consortium of existing OSM-based businesses, such as MapBox or GeoFabrik or OpenCage Data, getting together under an OSM For Business banner.

Coupled with the new approach to engaging with business, the licensing challenges could be solved by re-licensing OSM data under a license that retains the attribution clause but which removes the share-alike clause. Unlike the need for time to pass in order for the ODbL to be created to enable the transition from CC-BY-SA, such a license already exists in the form of the Open Data Commons Attribution license.

I do not claim for one second that making OSM business-friendly and re-licensing OSM are trivial matters, nor are there quick fixes to make this happen. I also do not doubt that some sections of the OSM community will be quick to explain why this isn’t needed and that OSM is doing very nicely as it stands, thank you very much. And I wouldn’t contest such views for a second. OSM is doing very nicely and will, I believe, continue to do so.

This isn’t about success or failure; OSM will continue to grow and will overcome future challenges. But OSM could be so much more than it currently is, and for that to happen there has to be change.

In his widely shared and syndicated post Why The World Needs OpenStreetMap, Serge Wroclawski wrote …

Place is a shared resource, and when you give all that power to a single entity, you are giving them the power not only to tell you about your location, but to shape it

These words rang true in early 2014 when Serge first published his post, and they ring doubly true in today’s world where the number of sources of global mapping data are being acquired, when the number of options available for getting and using mapping data are shrinking, and where there’s a very real possibility that the power to say what is on the map and what is under the map ends up in the hands of a very small, select group of companies and sources.

So, dear OSM, the world needs you now more than it needed you when you started out, and a lot more than it needed you in 2014. OSM will continue to be amazing, but with change OSM can achieve so much more than was ever dreamed when the first nodes, ways, and relationships were collected in 2004 — if you just get your community finger out and agree that you want to be more than you currently are.

(For non-British readers, “get your finger out” is a colloquial term for “stop procrastinating and get on with it”)

Image credits: Acceleration by Alexander Granholm, CC-BY. United Nations of smartphone operating systems by Jon Fingas, CC-BY-ND. Be Afraid. Consume by What What, CC-BY-NC-SA. Crossroads by Lori Greig, CC-BY-NC-ND.

Alan McConchie: “I love it when a great map fits seamlessly into a larger message”

Alan McConchie
Alan McConchie
Alan McConchie is a Design Technologist at Stamen Design, working at the intersection of cartography, open source software, and data visualization. He is also a PhD candidate in Geography at the University of British Columbia, researching the social dynamics of crowdsourced mapmaking in OpenStreetMap. You can find him on twitter at @mappingmashups, where he hosts a monthly twitter discussion called #geowebchat. Along with Lyzi Diamond, Camille Teicheira, and founder Beth Schechter, he helped start Maptime, an international, open source educational community for learning about maps.

Alan was interviewed for GeoHipster by Jonah Adkins (@jonahadkins).

Q: You are coming up on two years with Stamen, and you’ve been a part of some great projects (Social Media & Open Spaces, Every Line Ever, etc.) there. Which project have you learned the most from so far, and what project are you looking forward to working on?

A: Working at Stamen has been a dream come true, and I feel like I learn so much on every project we do. The social media mapping project you mention has taught me a lot, and I’m excited about that one because it’s still ongoing: parks.stamen.com evolved into caliparks.org, and, we have more plans to keep building on it. And yet, through all those iterations, we still don’t quite know how to make maps of social media activity that will be meaningful to the public. There’s a lot of interesting geographic data processing happening under the hood, but if visualizing it doesn’t serve the needs of the overall product, then it doesn’t need to be part of the user-facing app (yet).

A lot of what I’ve learned at Stamen fits into that theme: how do you make amazing maps that are well integrated and appropriately supportive of the rest of your site / app / visualization / product / whatever? For example, the climate change maps we made for the Audubon Society are really fantastic on their own (and I learned a lot about hacking Tilemill in the process), but I’m also really proud of how they fit together with some non-geographic visualizations we did, and of course a beautiful site built by Mule Design. I’m a map guy, so I love a map that’s successful all on its own, but I love it even more when a great map fits seamlessly into a larger message.

There’s a couple of new projects that I’m really excited to get started on: One is an ambitious series of interactive maps of American history in collaboration with the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab. Unfortunately I have nothing public to show for that one yet. The other project is a Knight Foundation-funded reboot of Stamen’s basemap infrastructure, especially our aging Terrain style. We’re blogging our progress at openterrain.tumblr.com if you want to follow along.

Q: You are a huge contributor to OpenStreetMap, and a lot of your doctoral research involves OSM data. What has been your favorite aspect of OSM?

A: I wouldn’t say I’m a huge contributor, and I never have the time to edit as much as I’d like. Although I am proud to have joined the project early enough to get my first name (Alan) as my OSM username!

As an academic, what fascinates me about OSM is that it’s like studying Geography as a discipline: it can be about so many different things. If you’re into politics, you can study Political Geography, if you’re interested in culture, there’s Cultural Geography, if you’re concerned about the environment, there’s Environmental Geography… you get the idea. OpenStreetMap is also like that. It’s kind of a microcosm. It’s about how we deal with the world, and how we deal with each other. So you can use OSM as an example to study so many different things: how people cooperate (or fail to cooperate), how information and knowledge are produced in the age of the internet, the emotional attachment people feel to place, even the differences in the way we all perceive the world. These are all issues that are very close to the heart of OpenStreetMap.

I’m the first to admit that OSM has serious problems (the digital divide between rich and poor areas, a deep lack of diversity, a persistent unfriendliness to newcomers), but I doubt I’ll ever give up on it. I’m optimistic that we all can keep making OSM better, and at minimum I expect it will only keep getting more and more interesting as it grows! Projects like the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team prove the difference that OSM can make in the world. It’s an important project that’s worth fighting for, to help it get better.

Q: Community engagement and education is obviously very important to you — either through your university instruction, presentations, or things like Maptime, OpenStreetMap, #geowebchat. First, where do you find the time? And second, what is the best lesson you could teach someone pursuing a geo career? What about someone involved or getting involved with the geo community?

A: Well, I’m lucky that Stamen strongly supports education and community engagement, so that helps me find some of the time to do all this. For me on a personal level, though, I know I’m extremely privileged and lucky to have learned the things I’ve learned, and to have the opportunity to work on so many interesting projects, both at Stamen and in graduate school. I feel an obligation to share that knowledge with other people, and to help create opportunities for them. This is especially true because I’ve learned so much from open source and open data, which depends a lot on the generosity of others. Teaching and sharing goes with the territory of open source, in my mind. We all find our own ways to contribute, and for me, teaching is my way of giving back to the community.

My advice for someone pursuing a geo career or getting into the community: Start a blog and document everything you learn, build a portfolio of projects, and share your progress. You’ll help other people who are also learning, you’ll build a support network, and you’ll raise your profile when applying for jobs. Be active on social media, but be smart about it. I’m on twitter a lot, but I try to think of it as research. If you’re not learning new things that are useful to your pursuits, then you’re following the wrong people and you’re just wasting your time. Also, use social media to cultivate contacts in real life. You never know where your next job offer might come from.

Q: How excited are you for the upcoming State of the Map US? Any talks planned? And there’s a Maptime summit too? WAT!?!?

A: I’m so excited for SOTM-US! I can’t wait to chat about OpenStreetMap all weekend in the freakin’ United Nations! I submitted a presentation about my dissertation research, wherein I hope to carefully wade into the debate about whether imports are good or bad for OSM.

And the Maptime Summit is going to be so great! We have a full day of events planned for the day after State of the Map, so please stick around in NYC for one more day and join us for that!

Maptime has really started to mature in the last year, and the Summit will be Maptime’s emergence from it’s awkward adolescent phase. There are so many passionate Maptime organizers around the world who are getting the hang of running their local chapters, and have tons of energy to help Maptime grow. I look forward to hearing all great lessons the organizers have to share with other organizers. Meanwhile at HQ, we’re figuring out some systems to help Maptime scale from our current 50 (or so) chapters to the next 500, so expect some announcements regarding that at the Summit. Now’s the time to keep learning from each other, to celebrate all the awesomeness that’s happened so far, and to figure out how to make Maptime even more awesome in the future.

Q: The Pop vs Soda project was a very popular survey (350K responses) showcasing the relation of geography and linguistics. What was the most important takeaway for you as a researcher?

A: When it comes to the Pop vs Soda Page, I’m only an amateur linguistic geographer! I had no idea what I was doing with that project, and it’s definitely not scientific. That was actually my first programming project (at least, the Perl scripts that run the site on the back end), and I had no idea it would become so popular. If I learned anything from that project, it’s that people get extremely riled up over the most trivial things. Who knew that passions would run so high when it comes to stupid carbonated beverages?

Q: Cartographer to cartographer: Your desert island favorite maps?

A: I was afraid this question was coming! Instead of sticking to stand-alone maps, I’m going to cheat a little bit by including a lot of atlases, too (both online and physical ones). Here are some of the touchstones that I keep coming back to for inspiration (but I’m sure I’m forgetting many more amazing ones):

Eric Fischer’s tourists and locals maps are one of my all-time favorites. Sure, the sheer volume of data shown on the map is impressive, but it’s that one insightful tweak (classifying users as tourists or locals based on how often they were active in one city versus other cities) that makes the maps endlessly fascinating. The maps show you so much about social activities, about the structure and landuse of cities, about the grit and noise present in the technological infrastructure of GPS and cell phone towers and so on, it’s just amazing. I could look at them for days.

I’m a big fan of Bill Rankin’s Radical Cartography site, which is a treasure trove of beautiful minimalist maps about all kinds of topics. I can’t pick just one! Along the same lines, I also love Dorothy Gambrell’s maps for Very Small Array. With both Rankin and Gambrell I love how prolific they are, how it seems like any topic of dinner conversation might spur them to go home and find a way to create an interesting map about that topic. They also do a great job of hiding the amount of research that goes into each of their maps. They make it look effortless.

Speaking of “radical cartography”, I’ve always been interested in the potential of maps for activism. Lize Mogel and Alexis Bhagat’s “An Atlas of Radical Cartography” (unrelated to Rankin’s work) is a great collection of creative, political maps on various topics, made by mapmakers who blur the lines between cartographer, artist, and activist.

Within academic Geography — although he eventually got kicked out of academia — “Wild” Bill Bunge is the patron saint of activist mapping. I’d have to pick his 1971 book/atlas “Fitzgerald” about race, economics, and geography in Detroit; the maps are certainly dated, but the topic is as relevant as ever, and the scope and ambition of the project is staggering. The Million Dollar Blocks project by Laura Kurgan and the Columbia University Spatial Information Design Lab is one of the modern day successors to the Fitzgerald atlas. (Interestingly, Adam Greenfield’s newsletter this week made a similar connection. Maybe Bunge’s making a comeback in the zeitgeist?)

And just to show that activist maps don’t have to be so dark and sober when dealing with a serious topic, Julian Busac’s map of Palestine as an archipelago borrows the aesthetics of traditional maps to vividly communicate how space is experienced on the ground by millions of Palestinians. It’s lovely and serious at the same time.

Q: What does the term geohipster mean to you, and as a doctoral candidate what would you prescribe an ailing geohipster?

A: I don’t really know what geohipster means! It’s probably like “hipster” IRL: everybody thinks they know what it means, but nobody can define it. Based on the previous geohipsters interviewed in the blog, it’s hard to find anything they have in common, other than awesomeness.

That said, am a sucker for new words, even ones I don’t fully understand! I’m happy to add “geohipster” to the list of neologisms I started collecting back in my early days of grad school. It includes neogeography, of course, but also neocartography, VGI, f-VGI, CCGI, AGI, web 2.0, GIS 2.0, Maps 2.0, GeoWeb 2.0, web mapping 2.0, new spatial media, WebGIS, GIS/2, alt.GIS, wiki-mapping, the wikification of GIS, map hacks, map mashups, geohacks, mapumentaries, autobiogeographies, geobrowsers, digital earths, virtual globes, cyberplace, digiplace, the cyberspatial web, cybercartography, telecartography, paracartography, social cartography, naive geography, egocarto, geomedia, geospatial media, ubiquitous cartography, ubiquitous mapping, ubiquitous computing, pervasive computing, ambient computing, hertzian space, hybrid space, mixed reality, augmented reality, augmented space, and that’s not even my complete list. I’ll leave the definitions to your imagination and as a test of your google skills.

So, what would I prescribe an ailing geohipster? Maybe revive one of those terms I just listed? Some of those trends are more than ten years old, and are totally ready for a comeback! Doesn’t “cyberspatial” have a catchy, nostalgic feel to it? Or maybe you should resurrect some retro technology like the original Google Maps API from 2005? That sounds like an appropriately artisanal programming project that some geohipster could do over a weekend.

Stephen Mather: “The best way to predict the future is to stake a claim in it and make it happen”

Stephen Mather
Stephen Mather

Stephen Mather has been working in GIS, planning, and related fields since 1998, working for the last 7 years as the GIS Manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He has been interested in the application of computer vision to geospatial analyses since 2004, and has recently initiated the OpenDroneMap project — a project to bring together and extend a suite of open source computer vision software for use with UAS (drone) and street level images. He is also coauthor of the PostGIS Cookbook.

Stephen was interviewed for GeoHipster by Amy Smith at the recent FOSS4GNA conference in San Francisco, California.

Q: How have you been enjoying the conference so far?

A: It’s been consistently good! There were sometimes two or three sessions that I wanted to be in at a time, so I had to figure out if I could clone myself.

Q: Clone yourself?

A: Yeah, well it would make it so much easier (well, probably the easier thing is to watch the video afterwards).

Q: Let me know if you figure out the cloning thing.

A: Oh, I’ll share it. It’ll be on Github.

Q: Awesome. Have you been to this conference before?

A: I went to variants on FOSS4G in DC, Denver, Portland, and Seoul.

Q: Wow, what was Seoul like?

A: That was FOSS4G Korea. It was awesome. The hospitality was amazing, the conference was really interesting. It’s a beautiful city, and it was lots of fun.

Q: Do you speak Korean?

A: Not adequately, no. (*laughs*). Not at all.

Q: You presented at this year’s conference. How did it go?

A: It was really fun. It was similar to a presentation I gave at North Carolina GIS a couple of weeks ago. The slides were already there, but it never ends up being the same presentation. OpenDroneMap is what I presented on, which started off as a GeoHipster joke at first, but then started to become a thing! People are excited about it, and are trying it out with their drones.

Amy and Steve
Amy and Steve at FOSS4GNA 2015

Q: Who started the joke?

A: Well, there was the GeoHipster artisanal vertices, and at the time I was thinking about computer vision and drones and where all that’s going, and the absence of an open source project that addresses that. When I made my prediction about 2014, I said it would be all about the artisanal pixel. We’d go from these global satellite images to these handcrafted satellite images effectively. Then I starting thinking, actually, that’s not a bad idea. The best way to predict the future is to stake a claim in it and make it happen.

Q: I definitely want to pick your brain about that later on in the interview. But before we get there, I wanted to ask you how you got started in the geospatial world.

A: I came from the biology side of things. As an undergrad I actually took a lot of music classes, and a lot of biology classes. At the time, a lot of biologists weren’t really thinking spatially. Everything was about static statistics, which assumes some normality that doesn’t really exist. There were people starting to pull on that thread, but it was the minority. My interest in GIS and the geospatial was applying it to understanding biology and ecology better, and then I never really got out of that rabbit hole.

Q: But you haven’t really left music either. You make custom guitars.

A: Very, very slowly. I’ve been making them for 12 or 13 years. I’m on guitar #2.

Q: That’s a really cool hobby.

A: It’s one of those things that seems like it should be harder than it really is. A lot of people think, “Oh, I couldn’t do that”, but actually it’s not that hard of a hobby, and for a woodworking hobby, it doesn’t require many tools. If you want to become a furniture maker, you need to invest a lot in tools just to start. The total cost for guitar-making is much smaller with a minimum viable set of tools, which is kind of cool. In that way, it’s kind of like open source. The barrier to entry for open source is just a laptop, which you may already have.

Q:  Totally. Let’s go back to drones for a minute. For those who might not be familiar with it, what is OpenDroneMap?

A: OpenDroneMap is an open source project for taking unreferenced images and turning them into geographic data. Maybe you have a balloon, kite, or drone, and you’ve taken some overlapping photos of an area, and you want to turn that into an orthophoto as a TIFF or PNG or a point cloud. It’s basically an extension of the photogrammetric techniques. Back in the day, you’d fly with a nice camera that was well parameterized so that you could correct for all of the optical distortion. You’d have a plane that was flying a known route with inertial navigation and GPS to help you know exactly where the plane is at any given point in time, and then you construct three-dimensional data from that, with contours and orthophotos. If you extend that concept, and instead of having two overlaps with lots of knowledge about your position, you have three overlaps, then you can write an equation that back-calculates where all of your camera positions are. In the process of doing that, you generate a point cloud of all of the features that match, which is something that you can derive other products from. You could create a mesh from that point cloud, then paint those photos back onto the mesh. Now you’ve got the geospatial information you need, and it can be turned into an orthophoto. When I first proposed the project, I thought, well we could license something like this, or we could start an open source project. I had a hunch there was enough existing computer vision code out there to get it 50, 60, or even 70% of the way there, just with the existing code. Fortunately my hunch was right. This leverages years of computer vision stuff done by people all over the world.

Q: It sounds like it was worthwhile to see what other people were doing, and build off of it.

A: Yeah, the stuff that people had been doing was absolutely brilliant, and allowed me to move whole hog and jump into the parts I was interested in.

Q: When I was in college I took some courses in remote sensing and did work with Synthetic Aperture Radar. I’m a little familiar with working with imagery. I’m guessing that working with imagery from drones is pretty different from working with aerial and satellite imagery. What are some of the differences you noticed in working with drone imagery versus something from an airplane or satellite?

A: A plane or a satellite gives you a nice synoptic view. There’s a usefulness, not in the specificity, but in the synopsis. If you think of the world as you view it from the ground, you can observe and make sense of the world; it’s what we’re most familiar with. There’s a wide gap between what’s happening in the plane or the satellite and the first-person view. Drones, balloons and kites fill that gap. Drones fill it particularly well because they can fill large areas. That’s what brought me into working with them altogether.

Q: Speaking of working, you work for the government. Could you tell us more about that?

A: I work for Cleveland Metroparks. We manage about 23,000 acres, which includes forests, wetlands, open areas for people to picnic, a zoo, lakefront parks, and really a whole range of interesting cultural and natural resources. We provide access for passive uses such as picnicking and hiking, and active uses such as events that draw people into those spaces. It’s a really cool park system with a lot of energy and a great history, as well as an amazing staff and a good vision for where we are now and where we’re going.

Q: How long have you worked there?

A: Seven years.

Q: I did some LinkedIn stalking, and I saw that you are a manager there. I’m sure that GIS manager can mean lots of different things depending on whether you’re with the government, a private company, or what industry you’re in. What are the things you think are common descriptors of GIS managers?

A: I’m relatively hands on. I’ll hack a code, I’ll work on data when I get the opportunity, but I also make sure to give a lot of freedom to the people that work with me, because they’re brilliant, and I don’t have to worry much.

Q: You sound like a great manager!

A: I’ve got great employees! There’s coordination and advocating for resources, ensuring that my employees have what they need. There’s also the aspect of ensuring that folks within the organization, as well as outside of the organization, understand what we do, so that they can value and take advantage of it. In addition to giving the degrees of freedom that people need in order to grow, we make sure they have educational opportunities and that they have challenges. There’s a lot of autonomy, which again links back to the open source community, where there’s a lot of autonomy.

Q: You’ve written a book on PostGIS. Can you tell us about the book and how it came about?

A: A couple years ago a publishing company discovered my blog and asked if I’d write an outline on PostGIS. I wrote them the outline, and they said “This is great, when can you start?” And I said, “I can’t, my daughter’s due in a few months, and there’s no way I can write a book.” They said, “Well, you could get a co-author”, and I said, “I can’t even write half a book!” Their response was “Well, you could do 60/40!”, and I said “Alright, but you’ve got to find the co-author”. They found Paolo Corti, who’s an excellent writer and knows his PostGIS stuff, and also knows the middleware level of that, and how to get it out to the web. That adds a nice element. Paolo and I started on that and we realized between the two of us, we weren’t going to get it all done. We found Bborie at the Boston code sprint, and Tom works with me and wrote a chapter. [Interviewer note: Bborie, Tom, and Paolo co-authored the book with Stephen.]

Q: Thanks so much! It’s been a lot of fun talking with you. I have one last question for you. Do you consider yourself a geohipster?

A: I’m a geohipster, absolutely! I’m the guy who predicted artisanal pixels. I don’t ride a fixie, but I do ride an e-bike. When I’m in sound health, I bicycle from 2-3 days a week, so I think I qualify.

Q: I think so, too.

Postscript: Steve gave me a signed copy of his book!
Post Postscript: Steve and I geeked out for a while about Synthetic Aperture Radar. We’ll spare you the nitty gritty details, but tweet at us if you ever want to talk SAR. We’ll talk your ear off. :)

Mano Marks: “The map is just a piece of what’s going on”

Mano Marks
Mano Marks

Mano Marks is a Staff Developer Advocate on the Google Developer Platform team. He works to help developers implement Google’s APIs in their applications. He has a Masters in History, and another in Information Management and Systems. His career has taken him from database management at non-profits, to keynote addresses at Google Developer Days around the world. Mano has been with Google for 8.5 years, and was the founding member of the Maps Developer Relations team, working back then with KML and then the Maps API. Now he works across the Google Developer Platform. You can find him on Google+, Twitter, and Github.

Interviewer’s note: In 2013 CalGIS had the privilege of getting Mano Marks (@ManoMarks) to speak at our conference. Since then, I’ve found out how much more of a geohipster he was than I realized at the time. Thanks, Mano, for spending some time answering questions for the GeoHipster readers!

Mano was interviewed for GeoHipster by Christina Boggs.

Q: You have degrees in history as well as in information management and systems. How did you get into the geospatial universe?

A: Of course I’ve always loved maps. Who doesn’t? When I was a kid, I had a subscription to National Geographic, and I pored over the maps trying to understand them. I was really into games, role playing games and board war games, which were really map-related. Match that with my Masters in History, where I focused on Eastern Europe, where the map was constantly changing, and I was set up to try to crave knowledge of the world from a spatial point of view. I just never considered it from a career point of view.

I got my Masters from the School of Information at UC Berkeley in 2006. At the time, XML was the major data interchange format and I spent a lot of time understanding the XML universe and document construction. So when I started at Google on what became the Developer Relations Team, they had me work on KML. So I backed into it, but as soon I was there, I started learning everything I could.

Q: One of the neat things about the geohipster community is how diverse we are. You’ve been with Google for more than eight years now, what do you do with them?

A: I work on the developer relations team, helping developers learn how to use Google’s developer platform in their applications. This resulted in spending a lot of time on the road for a few years, talking to tens of thousands of developers around the world. One trip in 2011, I literally flew around the world over the course of a month, from San Francisco to China to Australia, Tel Aviv, several stops in Europe, and then home to San Francisco.

Recently, I’ve worked more internally, helping out other members of the team and working on code samples. I helped out on this project, which shows developers how to create sites using JSON-LD, Web Components, and Schema.org markup. Of course there’s a strong mapping component to it.

Q: In times past you have functioned as a liaison between developers and geofolk. If you could give advice on how these two groups could better interact together, what would you say?

A: Honestly, I’d say to geofolk it’s time to learn how to code. There will always be a place for people who are GIS specialists. And, more and more GIS-only folks are getting left behind by focusing on just using complex applications to create a map that is divorced from everything around it. The map is important — it’s a star in whatever platform you’re using. But it’s just a piece of what’s going on. Location, identity, interaction, and more are where people are spending their time. The vast majority of developers using maps don’t want to know how the maps technology works, they want to know that it’ll be stable, and provide their users with what they need.

Q: Google Maps just turned 10! I was just reading an article from Directions Magazine where Diana S. Sinton said:

“Over the last decade, what Google has done to build up the public understanding and awareness of maps and mapping, particularly through the web, has been priceless for GIS. They made the inaccessible accessible, and produced a common point of reference to be able to communicate about GIS. “It’s a little like Google Earth” may be one of the most effective GIS conversation starters ever. Whatever may happen to that technology in the future, it will have left an indelible cultural impact.”

She’s right, it was a change in our culture. What do you think is going to be the next thing imprinted on our culture? Any upcoming developments that you’d like to leak on GeoHipster first?

A: Ha ha, yeah…unfortunately I can’t leak anything. And I can say that the core technologies that our platforms are built on are evolving at a rapid pace. We carry around these super computers in our pockets. I’m using a Nexus 6 right now, which is akin to having a small laptop in your pocket, both in power and size. People have talked for years about “location-based apps” but that time has come.

And what’s amazing to me is how much people just expect it. It’s a little like the early days of Google Earth, when people would say to me “My Google Earth is broken. I left my car in the driveway but it doesn’t show up when I zoom in on my house.” People now get confused when there’s a new business that hasn’t shown up yet in their app. I think we’re going to see a lot more of, well, I wouldn’t say “real-time” data in maps, but more up-to-date data.

Q: You put Mountain View on the GeoHipster map. I think of Mountain View for Shoreline Amphitheatre but I drive by Google every time I’m going into the parking lot there. Silicon Valley has been the driver for tech and geo trends and now I might even extend the sphere to the entire Bay Area (San Francisco Bay Area). Do you think your region is going to continue to drive tech and geo trends into the future?

A: I absolutely think that it’ll be a big driver of world tech. Fortunately for Google there are smart people who like to work everywhere. I just spent a year in the Zurich office and loved it. I think you’ll increasingly see developers in countries like Mexico, Brazil, Kenya, and other countries contributing to driving tech.

Q: Speaking of trends and developments … HTML5, JavaScript, turf.js, dat, do you think these are the next game-changers, or are these passing fads? As folks make technology choices, how much do you think the sexy/cool/hip factor drives those choices?

A: Hmmm…I definitely think that there is a coolness/hipness factor to many new technologies. I don’t think that means they are not important or really good at what they do, but remember when XML was the big thing? Sure, it’s still used a lot, but it’s not growing dramatically. Or PHP? There’s a language whose time in the sun is gone. What I wonder about instead is what is the next HTML? That was the most important game changer, it made creating a presentation easy, super easy. KML did that for geospatial data, to an extent. I’ve seen a lot of people who were not developers create KML files and really get into it. But what’s the next thing that someone who doesn’t really understand programming can get into? What can they use to create something that communicates with millions? That’s the real game changer.

Q: I’ve seen you post cool pictures and photo spheres from your travels. Many of the most hip of the geohipsters have passion projects that they’re able to either incorporate into their work or they work on outside of work. What are you working on right now?

A: You know, the last thing I worked on was the semantic markup plus web components project. I wrote a small reference Node.js app to take arbitrary data from a MySQL database and return it as a JSON-LD feed in Schema.org markup. Yes, Node.js is very hipsterish right now :-). I think the question of transforming data to semantic markup in non-XML format is not well settled. There aren’t great libraries for it — in part because JS developers have so many frameworks already, I think they’re afraid of something complex and potentially slow. Especially if it smacks of XML.

That question interests me, but that specific project is wrapping up, at least on my end. So I’m not sure. I am really interested in photography, games, and old maps. One thing I wish someone would do is develop a really good way to OCR old maps to capture location data that we don’t have any more. I’m not sure that’s me, but if anyone has any ideas that would be great.

Q: Last question, while you’ve got the ear of the geohipster community — do you have anything you’d like to share?

A: Pity the poor developer. Remember that creating a new data format doesn’t solve all your problems. Chances are it just creates more.

Most geohipster types I know code, but if you don’t code, start. And spread the word.

Will Skora: “I scraped an electronic list of pantries and set up a website”

Will Skora
Will Skora

Will Skora (Twitter, blog) likes to make and read maps and do geospatial analysis to help others understand the world. During the day, he manages food pantries for a Cleveland non-profit; he’s a member of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team; co-organizes Cleveland’s Maptime chapter Open Geo Cleveland, and Cleveland’s Code For America Brigade, Open Cleveland.

Will was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.

Q: On a scale of Clojure to Leaflet how hipster are you?

A:  I’ve used Esri products for about 10 minutes of my life.

Q: How (and why) did you get into GIS?

A: I was a recent college grad, still uncertain with my career direction, and looking for a map of Cleveland’s neighborhoods to hang on my bedroom wall. I couldn’t find one, so I decided to make my own. Growing up in Cleveland (the actual city, not a suburb), I’ve always been fascinated with cities. I never had taken any geography or GIS classes, so I wasn’t sure where to start. In my free time, I found OpenStreetMap, began editing my neighborhood, and used Osmarender to make my first map. Soon after, I found Tilemill, became addicted to editing OpenStreetMap and making web maps in Tilemill. I’ve participated remotely and in the field with the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team. I’ve fallen in love with maps, geography, and facilitating the use and creation of open data to help people understand things in ways they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to.

Q: You work as food pantry manager in Cleveland, Ohio. Tell us about your job, and how GIS helps you and the food pantry clients.

A: I directly oversee a pantry and am a liaison at 3 others. I spend my time picking up and coordinating food purchases and donations, managing volunteers, answering policy questions and technical support from volunteers; anything that needs to be done so that the 400+ households who need food receive it with dignity. Unfortunately, geo (GIS) is only 5% of my job, although I would love to spend more time on it. I geocode to find out locations of our clients, I do some routing, and I work on the Marillac Hot Meal/Pantry Finder.

Q: I found out about your Marillac project (presumably named after Saint Louise de Marillac) from your blog. This is very unique. How did it start? Was it your initiative?

A: A couple times a week people call me as a pantry manager and ask where they can get food that day. Or clients will ask where else they could go to receive food when they are at the pantry. There was a paper list of locations sorted by zip code that pantries used to skim through and try to find places that would sound close to the client. This process was slow, not always efficient, paper lists would become outdated, and some clients don’t know their zip codes. There had to be a better way than this.

I scraped an electronic list of pantries and hot meals from the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, geocoded them, and using bootleaf, set up a website. Now you can just put in a person’s address, the map will zoom in to the person’s location, and help the user visually see the closest places for clients.

I worked on it quietly on my own initiative until I had a working prototype to show its value. The reaction from my volunteers was mostly positive. They have a wide range of technical literacy and comfortability, so there’s a few who continue to use the paper list. The Food Bank, they’re excited about it. It’s an upgrade from the paper list for them, and they’ll eventually integrate it into their website for other pantries to use. My boss was also impressed.

Q: Open source: Why?

A: I was likely sick of Windows and its lack of customization, and started using Mandrake in high school.

Coming from an outside background, the innovation that I saw happening in the geospatial/GIS communities was from companies and individuals that embraced open-source software (Mapbox and Leaflet; CartoDB) and crowd-sourced/liberally licensed geo data (OpenStreetMap). They enabled me to do things like the neighborhood map that I’m not sure I could have done with closed-source software and proprietary geo data.

Open-source gives people the ability (at least to those who can program) to customize software for their needs. I wouldn’t be where I am right now if I could not have accessed free (as in money) open-source tools when I first started. I would have likely given up (making that map) after a few weeks of trying to run a pirated ArcGIS in Wine. I contribute back by writing tutorials and documentation, some code examples, answering questions on IRC and stackexchange.

Q: Few know that you penned the @geohipster Twitter “bio”, and that you originally registered the account and later let us use it (THANK YOU!!!). You proudly identify yourself as a geohipster. Tell us what the term means to you.

A: A geohipster has a strong sense of curiosity. You’re always very open to trying new software, technologies, ideas, opportunities, and techniques to accomplish your work, and not being afraid to go outside of your comfort zone to do so. You love to learn. I’ve seen these qualities in a lot of fellow interviewees.

Q: Not until I got involved with GeoHipster did I realize (to my surprise) that the word “hipster” — a benign label in my mind — rubs many people the wrong way. Why do you think that is? Do you think Einstein was a hipster? Edison? Tesla?

A: People referred to as hipsters — whether rooted in myth, reality, or both — have been described as judgmental to those who have less dedication, curiosity, or the circumstances (access to resources, time, money) to learn as much about certain interests (particularly music and film) as they do. They also have the reputation of being snobbish to those who don’t already have that knowledge, and those who don’t become aware of something until it becomes widely adopted or increases in popularity.

I’m relieved and happy that the geo community doesn’t fit that stereotype: Maptime intentionally aims to be a very welcoming environment for learning about maps. In the past couple years open-source carto/gis/geospatial tools have become more accessible to users through improved documentation.

With my definition — curious, open to trying new things to accomplish their dreams — all three of them were hipsters.

Q: Any parting words for the GeoHipster readers?

A: I want to thank everyone in the community along the way who has helped me and others learn — through sharing their knowledge, writing tutorials and documentation, given encouragement, and being welcoming. I attended my first FOSS4G-NA recently. Although I was atypically timid there, I really enjoyed it.

Frank Jacobs: “I’m in the vinyl section of the shop, listening to some old Mercators”

Frank Jacobs
Frank Jacobs

Frank Jacobs (@FrankJacobs) is a journalist, blogger and author. Originally from Belgium, he currently lives in Denmark with his girlfriend Hanne. He thought his map obsession was a rare affliction until 2006, when he started blogging about Strange Maps. Seventeen million hits and one book later, he’s still looking for next week’s strangest map.

Frank was interviewed for GeoHipster by Ed Freyfogle.

Q: What makes a map strange? Would you say you have an innate sense of geohipsterism that allows you to declare a map strange at a glance?

A: I could tell you. But then I’d have to kill you. Seriously, though: Strange Maps is my attempt to stay in touch with the sense of wonder that cartography instilled in me back when I was ten years old and got my first atlas. Maps are not just about other places, they’re a place unto themselves: a playground where the world and your imagination can meet.

That playground-like quality is what I look for in maps, at least when I’m looking for maps to post on the blog. There has to be a eureka moment. Looking for a new one is exciting, because I never can tell exactly what gives a map that extra dimension. Perhaps it’s the historical anecdote it illustrates. It could be the painstaking detail — or the lack of it.

I never know where the next map will come from. That element of chance makes hunting for strange maps fun, even eight years into the blog. Nevertheless, I do know that the next strange map will fit at least three criteria: it will have a compelling backstory, it will look nice, and it will be too strange for my old school atlas.

Q: Many of your maps delve into the realm of alternative histories. Others cover historic anomalies. Some just have crazy designs. Tell us a bit about the different maps and how you find them.

A: Put a few alternative history buffs in a room — a chatroom, most likely — and soon you’ll be inundated with maps. No other community produces as many potential candidates for Strange Maps as the alt-history crowd. Many are beautifully made. Yet I generally steer clear of them, because the historical hypotheticals they’re built upon are generally too fanciful or too obscure to interest me. There have been a few exceptions, unsurprisingly often involving Nazis, as recently with that map of The Man in the High Castle, the TV series based on Philip K. Dick’s eponymous ‘What If’ classic.

I’m happy for Strange Maps to just be a grab bag of maps from as many different backgrounds as possible. There’s lots of great examples of maps used as art, for example, some of which I’ve featured on the blog: Kim Dingle’s sublimely simple United Shapes of America — a canvas filled with the shape of the U.S. as drawn from memory by a high school class. Or Grayson Perry’s Map of an Englishman, obsessively detailing his obsessions over Englishness. On the other end of the spectrum, there are statistical maps, like Joseph Minard’s stunning chart of the deadly carnage that was Napoleon’s Russia campaign. Or the Inglehart-Welzel map, which plots out countries according to the secularity and self-expressiveness of their society on a map that is cultural rather than geographic. In between are fantasy maps like Tolkien’s, adventure story maps like Treasure Island, maps made for propaganda or satire. As long as I can mix it all up, I’m happy.

Q: You’re from Belgium, a cartographer’s delight of a country with three official languages, a rich history of border changes, and of course the famous Baarle-Hertog exclave. Do you think this caused your interest in strange maps?

A: Growing up where I did was a bit surreal for a map-lover: travel south for 30 kilometres, and you’re in a different culture, but still in the same country. Go east for as far, and you’re in the same language area, but in a different country. It certainly reinforced my fascination with those man-made lines that traversed the maps in my atlas. Baarle might be Belgium’s best-known border anomaly, but there are other, equally fascinating ones. Like the Esperanto micronation of Amikejo, set up in a neutral zone that transformed Belgium’s border tripoint with the Netherlands and Germany into one of the world’s rare international quadripoints. Or the five German exclaves, separated from the Heimat by a railway track that was placed under Belgian sovereignty after the First World War.

Some say Belgium itself is an experiment in surrealism: an accident of history, a collision of cultures, and the frequent object of mockery by our more important neighbours. Belgians have a hard time convincing themselves they live in a ‘proper’ country. No wonder Magritte — he of Ceci n’est pas une pipe — is our ‘national’ painter. So yes, growing up in that anomaly of a country definitely shaped my interest in surreal cartography.

Q: Relatedly, has any specific culture, region, or time period produced more strange maps than others?

A: Yes — although it’s a bit unfair to hold it against them: the cartographers of the Age of Exploration produced a mass of maps of new lands, many of them drawn up on little more than hearsay. Take the history of California’s depiction as an island, which occurred on and off well into the 1700s. Or all those phantom islands dotting the North Atlantic, products of tall tales, wishful thinking or just an attempt by failed explorers to get enough funding to have another go at glory.

Q: What makes for a good border dispute? Do your maps ever lead to flame wars?

A: If you value your free time, steer well clear of Balkan irredentism. Once — fortunately, a long time ago by now — I posted a map of Greater Albania, which included not only Kosovo, but also parts of Montenegro, Macedonia and Serbia proper. It didn’t take very long before commenters from all countries involved were insulting each other, and each other’s mothers in the comments section.

Another example of maps ruffling feathers was that faulty Google Map of the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Both countries came quite close to fighting over the disputed border as a result.

Q: As more and more people use maps all the time via their phone, it seems maps are increasingly moving out of the realm of the cartonerds and into the mainstream. What’s your take on this trend? Are maps a fad or is this the new norm?

A: Humans made maps before they could write. I think that’s why they appeal so directly to us: they’re humanity’s primeval common language, in a way. As technology embeds maps in ever more aspects of our daily life, I suspect we’re going towards a schism in cartography, separating the merely utilitarian from the purely beautiful. It’s pretty clear which side I am on. I’m in the vinyl section of the shop, listening to some old Mercators, scratches and all, while the kids figure out how to upload their jogging route to the interweb.

Q: Does the burden of having to decide what is strange ever weigh on you?

A: No, it’s a joy, and that’s why I’m still doing it. Also, I get so many great ideas and maps sent in by readers of the blog that it would be a shame to stop before I’ve gone through all of them.

In case you’ve sent one in back in 2010 and are still waiting: there’s about 5,000 suggestions waiting for an answer. That does weigh on me. How much does a secretary cost?

Q: What’s your personal favourite map?

A: It’s like with your own children: it varies. And sometimes I hate them all. But honestly, I get asked that question a lot, and I usually have a different answer. So I guess I don’t have a favourite map. I do have a few favourite mapmakers. How much I wouldn’t give for a nice long talk with Heinrich Bünting, who made the Whole World in a Cloverleaf map back in the 16th century. And while I’m at it, I’m also inviting Richard Edes Harrison, whose brilliant map perspectives arrived just in time to give people a sense of the global scale of World War Two. And how about all those British generals who drew half of the world’s borders? To misquote Jaws: I think we need a bigger map room.