Steve Pousty: “Never go full spatial”

Steve Pousty
Steve Pousty

Steve is a Dad, Son, Partner, and Director of Developer Relations for Crunchy Data (PostgreSQL people). He goes around and shows off all the great work the PostgreSQL community and Crunchy Committers do. He can teach you about Data Analysis with PostgreSQL, Java, Python, MongoDB, and some JavaScript. He has deep subject area expertise in GIS/Spatial, Statistics, and Ecology. He has spoken at over 75 conferences and done over 50 workshops including Monktoberfest, MongoNY, JavaOne, FOSS4G, CTIA, AjaxWorld, GeoWeb, Where2.0, and OSCON. Before Crunchy Data, Steve was a developer evangelist for DigitalGlobe, Red Hat, LinkedIn, deCarta, and ESRI. Steve has a Ph.D. in Ecology. He can easily be bribed with offers of bird watching or fly fishing.

Steve was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.

Q: How / why did you get into GIS? Or is it geo? Or spatial? What did you get into?

A: Ever since I was a little kid I LOVED maps – especially those cartograms in the atlas books, like Rand-McNally. Then in college I took an ink and vellum cartography class and loved it as well. In my junior year of college I did a research experience for undergraduates (REU) at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in the Oregon Cascades. I chose to look at windthrow across the landscape. They had a GIS system with Arc/Info on Sun machines with the shelf full of manuals. I said: “What is this magic, computers and maps together” –  I was instantly hooked for life. I digitized in their forest cover map on a big ole’ digitizer stand with a puck digitizer. From then on during my Masters and PhD I made sure to include spatial elements so I could get my hands on spatial technology: GIS, remote sensing, GPS…

Q: Are you more or less geo these days? How do you feel about that?

A: Working at Yale, I was an internal consultant to faculty, building all sorts of technology integrations for them, some of which was spatial. When I was at Red Hat I was less geo. Both of these experiences were really exciting – especially being able to bring the spatial examples and ideas to the larger technology world. But it was also great to bring the larger technology world back to spatial. I have always been a person who likes to mix different worlds and mixing these areas has been really fun for me. So I am not full spatial now (never go full spatial) but in certain ways I have more exposure to deep spatial expertise.

Q: You recently took a role with Crunchy Data. What does Crunchy Data do, and what will you be doing there?

A: Crunchy Data is a PostgreSQL company based off a similar model to Red Hat. We hire core contributors to PostgreSQL, like Tom Lane, Paul Ramsey, and Martin Davis. All software development gets contributed back upstream or at least Open Sourced, like our container work. We make our money off of support, training, and being the experts when people need it. My role there is to help application developers (end users) appreciate all the greatness of PostgreSQL. I focus on creating content and spreading information to make developers happy and successful on PostgreSQL in general and the Crunchy Data work in particular (like our work in containers).

Q: You are known as a strong advocate for open source, and a strong environmentalist. Are these two related?

A: Actually I think it comes more from my science and financially poor grad student background. Science usually pushes for open sharing of results and data, FOSS provides the ability to actually see the algorithms. As a grad student I was always resentful of being at the mercy of software companies about whether or not they would make their software available with decent pricing. And then, finally being in an ecology program, and then working at Yale in the social sciences, there was also a lack of funding and lack of size to drive feature development in software companies. So using software like Apache, R, PostGIS (QGIS wasn’t really around then), allowed us to do reproducible work, fund small features we wanted, and deploy them or give to students to run anywhere they want. In summary I think the strong correlation in me comes from FOSS and Science. 

Q: Can a person be idealistic and pragmatic at the same time? How about an organization? Explain.

A: For sure, because they can operate at different scales. Idealistic can be a way to set long-term goals and vision, but you can be pragmatic in your tactics to get to your goal. Even so for an organization. That said you do need a careful balance. If you translate pragmatic to huge profits or exponential growth then this becomes much harder. 

Q: Can you explain to me Kubernetes in a way that I can use in a social setting and sound smart?

A: Containers allow you to both install software and the configuration so that you can just do “container run” which gets everything running. This is game changing for both normal server software like geoserver or apache HTTPD but also for custom-built applications. But once you get the container running you run into all sorts of issues of how you run this for real. Like how do you route traffic to the application, how do you scale it up and down, how do you keep it running if it crashes. Kubernetes handles all those issues for you. It allows you to do that by writing a JSON or YAML file that defines how everything is “installed” and configured (this is called declarative infrastructure). So now on a developers machine running minikube (a small developer install of Kubernetes) they can develop their containers and the architecture. They can then give that to ops who can take the same containers, tweak the declarations to match staging or production, and away they go. 

Q: You are a frequent speaker at tech conferences. Where do you stand on happy hour vs teatime at conferences?

A: I prefer tea time. I think alcohol should be left for people going out personally at bars afterwards. Alcohol being served at events, while making some social interactions easier, can actually lead to some negative consequences as well, especially around sexual harassment. Also, if I have one drink it usually just makes me sleepy – so tea time and fresh berries please. Tea has just as much variety as beer (if not more) so we can get all hipster with it as well.

Q: You have publicly challenged our own Randal Hale and his trademark phrase “Holy crap”, claiming prior art. How would you like to see the issue resolved?

A: Simple as Randal declaring me supreme ruler of the universe – that should suffice.

Q: You have been very open about your bout with cancer. In a recent tweet thread you addressed the fake “You can do it!” positivity that is common in today’s social discourse in general, and almost expected when talking to cancer patients. Why is this so prevalent, and what does it say about our society?

A: My main point with the response is that you should start by asking the person what they want, not just assume that the popular narrative of how people deal with cancer is the way this particular person is dealing with it. For me, the whole “kick its ass” didn’t really resonate with me – I preferred more of a “I hope you have an interesting experience and finding peace with it all”. Who knows if I would have gone to a different place had my cancer been terminal. Anyway, I think humans have a tendency to take a mental model (which are helpful in general) and overuse it for every situation they get into.

Q: What do you look forward to?

A: Spending time with my partner, Angelina, hiking and chilling with my dogs, watching anime and hiking with my kids, playing video games, fly fishing, and finally some good birdwatching. Those are things I look forward to, the good things in life.

Q: Are you a geohipster? Why / why not?

A: Hell no, I generally do not like the whole hipster movement except as something to make fun of. I mean I appreciate people who are hipsters and can laugh about it. But really I am more about average geo person, helping them get shit done, and hoping they feel good about themselves when doing it. 

Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our readers?

A: You are good enough, you are smart enough, and gosh darn it people like you. 

Maps and Mappers of the 2019 Calendar: Aly Ollivierre

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: I work full-time as a Cartographer at National Geographic Maps, part-time conducting freelance work as Tombolo Maps & Design, and part-time working with the conservation NGO BirdsCaribbean. I’m rounding up on 10 years of experience at the end of 2019 and am passionate about beautiful maps, participatory mapping, bird conservation, addressing climate change, and working in small island developing states. I recently published a co-authored book entitled Birds of the Transboundary Grenadines, which is part bird guide, part atlas, part photo-book-pretty-enough-for-your-coffee-table, and part historical and sociological dive into the connection between birds and the people of the Grenadines. This was the culmination of 7 years of collaboration with my incredible co-author, Juliana Coffey, and the local communities in these tiny islands which are split between the Eastern Caribbean countries of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Grenada (where I’ve lived on and off since 2011). Morale of the story: I have a lot of overlapping passions, which is how I ended up deciding to study geography anyway. (Did I mention I also make map jewelry?)

Q: Tell us the story behind your map (what inspired you to make it, what did you learn while making it, or any other aspects of the map or its creation you would like people to know).

A: As a history minor, some of my favorite courses in undergrad at Middlebury College were on historical geography (taught by the exceptionally inspiring Dr. Anne Kelly Knowles). I profoundly appreciated how historical geography could be used to understand how and why things happened and decisions were made (flashback to Historical Geography of North America and reading topographic maps which visualized how Civil War battles were lost or won). 

Today, like any normal person with a map obsession, I spend my fair share of time keeping an eye on David Rumsey’s Map Collection and, during one of my stints living in Maine, I found this historic map of Portland from 1851:

I was surprised to see how dramatically the coastline had been changed in the past century and a half, and—as most cartographers are inclined to do—I immediately wanted to map it and show the amount of land reclamation on the peninsula, particularly in Back Cove. It is also really cool to see how the downtown buildings changed from small houses and businesses to city block-sized multi-purpose buildings made up of storefronts, office space, and apartments.

While it took me a while to make the time to fit this just-for-fun map into my crazy schedule, I’m glad I finally made it happen!

Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.

A: This map was made by combining the 1851 Map of the City of Portland, Maine (from original surveys by Henry F. Walling, Civil Engineer) with current data for Portland in ArcGIS and Adobe Illustrator with Avenza MAPublisher. I started by georeferencing the historic map with contemporary data in ArcGIS and then I completed the cartographic design work in Illustrator. To break that down further, I spent a considerable amount of time in Photoshop cleaning up the historic map (removing the sketches and labels and adjusting the different shades in which it had faded) so that I could have a clean and not overly distracting background on top of which I could add current data and my own labels. I also digitized the coastline from the historic map to make sure it stood out and went through quite a few design iterations before choosing one whose color scheme was historical with a modern pop, and still allowed for full visibility of all of the historic and modern data.

Rosemary Wardley: “Coding is foundational knowledge that can help you in any career”

Rosemary Wardley is a Cartographer at National Geographic where she works on a variety of custom print and digital products. Outside of work, Rosemary stays active in the larger geo community through her position on the Board of NACIS and through the many geospatial meetups that take place in Washington D.C. Whenever possible she likes to combine her love of maps with her other passions, LGBTQ rights, empowering women & girls, sports, and of course, her home state of Rhode Island!

Working as a senior cartographer at National Geographic sounds like it could be a mapmaker’s dream job. Was it yours, or did you navigate there by chance, or perhaps via a scenic route on the back roads and bike paths of your geo-journey? How is it being surrounded every day by people who live and breathe geography?

Working for National Geographic was, and is, my dream job. Back in college when people learned I was a geography major they would usually ask me if I was going to teach (seemingly the only career people thought geographers could have at the time) but in response I would always say “I’m going to work at National Geographic”. That always seemed to appease people, but it wasn’t something I honestly thought would happen. At the time I wasn’t even sure how many geographers worked at National Geographic and I wasn’t specializing in cartography in my studies.

I arrived at National Geographic the summer after I graduated from college as a Geography Intern in the Education Division. NatGeo has always been at the forefront of supporting Geography Education in the United States, through teacher training, classroom resources, and internships. My summer at NatGeo was also my first exposure to the Maps Division. After working elsewhere for a year (editing Flood Insurance Rate maps for FEMA) I knew I wanted to get back to National Geographic and I was fortunate to be hired as part of the GIS team to work on our Cartographic Databases. In the decade plus that I’ve worked here my position has grown and expanded and I now focus on production cartography rather than GIS database analysis. Working here in the Maps, Graphics, and Art Division is amazing and allows me to learn from masters of their craft day in, day out. And National Geographic as a whole is such an inspiring place full of geographers, explorers, photographers, and driven people trying to change the world!

Since geography is where it’s at, you’re hip by default. But I’ll ask anyway: are you a geohip/sister? Are you post-labels? I’m also intrigued by your mention of participation in “esoteric sports”. I vaguely imagine a composite of meditation, ultimate frisbee, and cycling…please enlighten me.

Labels are an interesting thing. They can be positive and something that bonds people together, or on the flip-side, they can be divisive when applied to groups without their consent. That being said, when I choose my own labels I would most definitely consider myself a geohipster and DEFINITELY a geosister! I only recently heard of that phrase (I believe you coined it!) and I think it’s a great way to unite the women of our field! I have gotten much more involved in supporting my fellow women in geography over the last few years, not because I’ve felt injustice myself in my career, but because I’ve come to recognize how much institutionalized inequality there is. I strongly believe in empowering and supporting minorities in geography and if proclaiming I am a geosister loud and proud can help in some small way, then that is an easy thing to do!

My love of esoteric sports is possibly a bit of an exaggeration! I played rugby for 15 years, which is a rather unknown sport in the US, but fairly popular worldwide! It is another great connector, like geography, and if you find a rugby player anywhere in the world you immediately have a common bond! I have always loved learning about sports that are unique to certain places, such as hurling in Ireland or Aussie Rules Football in Australia. Basically I like to stay fit by playing games, and the crazier the game the better I guess!

The Prejudice and Pride map you worked on for Nat Geo is stunning. Who inspired it and what’s the story behind making it? Are there other projects you’re proud of?

The Prejudice and Pride map was directly inspired by a presentation that the data author, Jeff Ferzoco, did at NACIS 2018. Jeff has created this amazing interactive map, OutgoingNYC, detailing the location of queer nightlife in New York city over the past century. His passion for this topic was infectious and both myself and my colleague, Riley Champine, were inspired after his talk and approached him about presenting this data in the magazine. Jeff was a joy to work with and was extremely supportive in our cartographic interpretation of his data and working with us to make it the best visualization it could be. This project was personally important to me as a lesbian since it helped me to learn more about my community and it was extremely rewarding to share this history with a larger audience. I am proud of many other projects I’ve worked on, but there isn’t one that is quite as personal to me or that I am quite as proud of 🙂

What needs to change for there to be gender and racial equality and equity in the geospatial realm?

I think the first step is recognizing that there are problems in gender and racial equality and having a frank discussion on how these can be addressed. There are great strides being made with the creation of groups such as Women In Geospatial and the way that social media can connect and support people across the globe. I believe that the root of the issue comes down to who has exposure to the geospatial field early on in their education and the support to pursue further studies in it. Locally I try to work with school groups here in D.C. to teach them about geography and the opportunities it can provide, and professionally I work to empower and highlight the amazing work done by my fellow female and minority colleagues.

How’d you get involved with NACIS and Maptime? Tell me some stories — your contributions and the fun, surprising, rewarding, confusing, or unexpected stuff that has happened.

I attended my first NACIS Annual Conference in 2010 and I have been an enthusiastic attendee ever since. The atmosphere of NACIS is pretty unique, I immediately felt welcomed by the more seasoned members and was enamored to be surrounded by so many map and geography lovers who were also so easy to talk to and share their expertise. As I realized how unique NACIS was, I felt the urge to get involved further, which led to my work helping to organize Practical Cartography Day and then my position on the Board. I highly encourage anyone interested to attend a NACIS conference to experience #NACISisNicest for yourself!

Maptime was founded in San Francisco in 2013 out of a desire to teach and learn web mapping technologies in an open and collaborative space. I heard Lyzi Diamond speak about it at a FOSS4G conference the next year and volunteered with a few other folks to start a D.C. chapter. We had a super successful chapter for a couple of years as D.C is a bit of a hot-bed for folks in the geospatial community. But honestly, I was most surprised at the amount of new folks who would attend each month from a variety of backgrounds and the thirst for knowledge there is out there for learning about maps! I had to step back from organizing duties with Maptime as I started Grad School, but the spirit of communal learning and knowledge sharing continues virtually via Slack Channels like the Spatial Community and Women in Geospatial.

I could relate to your blog post about feeling like an intermediate of many and master of none after completing a master’s degree in cartography (aka an intermediate’s degree). There are so many web/digital mapping tools; how do you prioritize and choose what to learn and use? Which do you use most at work and want to learn more of?

One of the biggest reasons that I decided to pursue my Master’s Degree in Cartography was because I was finding it difficult to keep up with and learn the ever-expanding list of web mapping tools on my own. Some people are great self-learners and can take a tutorial online and run with it, but I found out that I am not that person! As I mentioned in my blog post, the program at Wisconsin-Madison worked for me because it did a good job at giving an overview of the many tools available, but more importantly they taught the structure of web mapping and how each coding language and library works together. It’s really up to each person to figure out which tools work best for them and to create their own personal stack, as they say. Due to my cartographic background I tend to focus more on the design oriented languages like CSS, and D3, with a heavy emphasis on Python for data processing and wrangling!

On a related note: do you have advice for students, grads, and any aspiring cartographers and geospatialists?

My number one advice for anyone I meet in the geospatial field is to learn some basic programming (whichever language seems most relevant to your interests). I took the requisite coding course for ArcGIS in undergrad but quickly determined it was not for me and then avoided it like the plague. But now, a decade later, I have come to realize that even just having a rudimentary understanding of a couple of coding languages is like learning how to write a compelling essay, it’s foundational knowledge that can help you in any career.

You’ve done a lot of real-life, armchair, and desk-chair adventuring (do you have a standing desk?). Has mapmaking changed your perspective of otherwise unknown places? Has travel influenced the way you feel about home, and about cartography?

Haha, I do have a standing desk, and you’ve just reminded me that now would be a good time to stand up! Mapmaking has certainly given me a great appreciation for the cartographers of yester-year who mapped the world without ever using digital data or satellite imagery, and oftentimes without ever visiting the place they have mapped. I still can’t quite comprehend how cartographers could draw the coastline of a country as accurately as they did from a few surveying angles (I know there is a lot more to it, but seriously, it is mind-boggling!). I still love to take paper maps with me as I travel, as well as pick up whatever maps are locally available. Like many cartographers, I admit the convenience of digital maps and apps, but I miss the tactile feel of a paper map and the ability to see not only your destination but the things that surround it. Traveling takes me back to my cartographic roots of envisioning the map in my head and connecting it to my real world surroundings and it also exposes me to different mapping styles and conventions from other parts of the world!

What’s your next adventure, cartographic or otherwise?

My family and I (my wife and 1.5 year old son) will be heading up to New York City at the end of June to celebrate New York and World Pride! This is actually cartographically connected because the trip was envisioned while researching the Prejudice and Pride map I referenced earlier. I have visited New York City many times before, but it will be so fun to look at it through a new lens of our LGBTQ history and to take part in some historical events of our own!

John Gravois to GeoHipster: “Lift while you climb.”

John Gravois is a developer at https://showrunner.io. Previously, as a Product Engineer at Esri he helped build ArcGIS Hub, maintained a handful of Leaflet plugins and coordinated with developers across the company to steer Open Source strategy. He has a tattoo of a California Raisin and when he's not in front of a computer you can often find him tangled up in poison oak somewhere near his mountain bike.

Q. You’re the OGG (original geogangster ). How did you get into mapping/coding at Esri?

I was pretty much computer illiterate when I started college. GIS pricked my ear because it would force me to wrestle the dragon and allow me to procrastinate a few more years before picking an actual ‘specific’ career track. The more data I wrangled, the more maps I made and the more analysis I organized the more interested I became in writing code to automate the boring stuff and share my work with folks who had other jobs to do than cracking open ArcGIS Desktop.

I worked for an environmental consultant before i started in tech support. Being ‘the’ GIS guy was okay, but the pace of my learning skyrocketed when i started in Esri tech support in 2009. It was also just a lot more fun working with so many talented, non-territorial, strong communicators in my own discipline.

When I told them I wanted to spend more time programming, it was a trial by fire, but the lessons I had already learned about troubleshooting and isolating reproducible test cases are just as relevant when you’re writing code. Sometimes I handed my simple apps over to our developers to demonstrate bugs in our APIs, sometimes they went back to customers to show them where they made a mistake.

Q. Several years ago I attended an Esri Leaflet talk you gave. Toward the end you shared some thoughtful points from your experience as a maintainer of Esri-Leaflet about creating documentation, usable examples, most importantly the “You’re part of the team“ mentality. Can you share some of your experience and philosophy on cultivating new coders?

Of course! The gist of it is that there are way too many a&*#hole open source maintainers out there making other folks feel small on purpose.

I had the luxury of working on open source at my day job, so it was easier for me to make a conscious decision to set aside time to be welcoming to new contributors, to try and lead by example and to be gracious and patient.

I learned so many crucial lessons from this:

  1. Its not hard!
  2. It pays dividends. When someone asks a question or fixes a typo and is treated with basic courtesy its really encouraging to them! Often it leads to them increasing the scope and frequency of their participation. I know this because I’ve been on both sides of the fence.
  3. Being patient and kind != agreeing to do someone else’s work for them or allowing random people on the internet to hijack your project and take it in a direction of their own.

This isn’t just an open source thing. Its relevant to all online (and IRL) communities. I’ve been pleased to see The Spatial Community bloom over the last few years. Esri employees have definitely chipped in, but often customer colleagues have even more insight to share.

To put it another way, I’ve always made it a point to share my knowledge with others to pay forward a favor to my own mentors and because I know that it’s what keeps the virtuous cycle turning. I don’t know where it is now, but I read an article once that listed this as a key ingredient to being fulfilled in your career. I can certainly attest that it has worked for me!

Q. Is tag-team wrestling more fun than singles competition? Explain!

If you’re asking whether “Open Source + ArcGIS” is more fun than “Open Source vs. Esri”, of course!

Q. You recently said that 95% of the code you wrote at Esri is on GitHub – tell us about your favorite projects.

I found out the other day that I’ve contributed to almost 100 different Esri open source projects. Some of those were typo fixes, other times I was dogfooding to explain to the core team whether their work made any sense to someone making a quick flyby.

I learned a ton maintaining Esri Leaflet, but over the last couple years after that project matured I had a lot of fun getting my feet wet with TypeScript maintaining a new project called ArcGIS REST JS.

The core library is ~10x smaller than Leaflet and its sole purpose is to make it easy to talk to ArcGIS Online and Enterprise from Node.js and the browser.

We’ve had customers use it to create Chrome Extensions, browser apps, Lambda Functions and a bunch of other cool stuff, but I was particularly gratified to see contributions come in from lots of different dev teams within Esri who previously rolled implementation after implementation of their own.

The library is downloaded ~1000 times a week and is used to make literally millions of requests to ArcGIS Online each month from ArcGIS Hub, https://developers.arcgis.com, Storymaps and other Esri offerings.

Q. You love OpenStreetMap! Hey, I love OpenStreetMap!! Tell us a cool OpenStreetMap story.

The single most gratifying experience of my professional career was working on the technical implementation to grant the OSM community access to Esri’s World Imagery service.

Other folks at Esri did the hard work of getting legal sign off with half a dozen commercial imagery providers and a lot of customers in our Community Maps program.

All I had to do was write ~100 lines of JSON and a blog post.

The impact really hit home when Tyler Radford shared the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap statistics with me a year later. IIRC, they now recommend ArcGIS World Imagery in ~half of their projects!

Q. One of the first things I remember about you was your love of bikes and your work at the Redlands BikeBBQ. What’s the Redlands bike scene like?

There are a lot more weekend warriors here than commuters, but its a bike friendly town with wide streets and lots of accessible trails. Years ago we opened up a volunteer DIY repair shop to share tools and teach folks how to maintain their bicycles. As far as community outreach/activism goes, it’s a lot more fun and effective than standing on a corner holding a sign.
Besides the Redlands Classic, the other high holiday in town for cyclists is Strada Rossa . Its a fun, friendly mixed surface fundraiser for charity that has concluded with an afterparty in my backyard more than once. This year the course went up and over Seven Oaks Dam and It’s been really fun to see gravel get more and more popular over the last couple years.

Q. You’re moving on from Esri after 10 years, what’s your greatest memory of your time there and tell us about what’s next.

We already shared one tweet earlier, but folks can find the whole love letter here:

https://twitter.com/geogangster/status/1132029218194198530

I’m only two days in at Showrunner (link: https://showrunner.io) but I’m already having a ton of fun and learning a lot working with a few dear old friends. It’s bittersweet to take a break from geo though. I’m happy to be staying in Redlands. It means I can still keep up with folks online and pedal to grab lunch with my old coworkers.

Q. Finally, what does “geohipster” mean to you?

The point (I hope anyway) is to poke fun at folks for wanting to be different for the sake of being different and simultaneously to preach that “geo” is bigger than ArcGIS.

Learning how to make computers do what you (and your boss) want them to do is hard enough without someone else telling you that the tools you’re using aren’t cool. Whether you can step through the raw source or not, there are plenty of opportunities for learning, being inclusive, and mentoring others.

If there are two suggestions I can pass along in the age of social media outrage, they would be:


Maps and Mappers of the 2019 GeoHipster calendar — Pete King, June

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: I work in Wellington, New Zealand, as a GIS analyst/ spatial developer at Land Information New Zealand (LINZ) in the Topography team. Day to day, I mostly work in a small team developing inhouse QGIS plugins or processing data using open source tools, but I try to find opportunities to create maps, icons or posters whenever I can. Sometimes its communist style posters about hot desking or Map Man (my coworker who gets called on to save the day with map emergencies), other times it’s more serious, like the Matariki Map.

Q: Tell us the story behind your map (what inspired you to make it, what did you learn while making it, or any other aspects of the map or its creation you would like people to know).

A: The Matariki map came from some really nice constellation design I had come across, which just sat in the back of my head for a while until I finally put two and two together as Matariki was getting closer last year. Matariki is becoming more and more popular in New Zealand, and I live in a small seaside town just out of Wellington that hosts amazing Matariki celebrations with great stories for the kids and walks to find the glow worms, but I still hadn’t delved too deeply into the history of Matariki. I am lucky enough to have amazing tikanga (customs) advisors at LINZ who were able to help me to understand its importance and give the design I had some real depth and background. For me personally the most interesting part of the journey was learning about Matariki’s shifts through history: once, it was a significant celebration, then it was almost entirely forgotten, and now it’s experiencing this amazing revival (including its widespread embrace by Pākehā [settler] culture) due to the emergence of tikanga and Te Reo Māori (Māori language) initiatives.

Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.

A: This map was made using QGIS, Inkscape and open data from LINZ (data.linz.govt.nz) so I’m gonna use this to tell you about how much I love open source, and throw in a shameless plug for FOSS4G SotM Oceania! I was lucky enough to get my first GIS job after uni at LINZ, where there were already strong champions of open source and open data. Even though my job was a lot different to what it is now, I was still using QGIS and plugins we had developed in house. My passion for open source started properly two years ago, when I was able to go to FOSS4G Boston and more importantly the amazing QGIS users conference in Nødebo, Denmark. I’ve always been an empathetic person (one of my first jobs was a veterinary nurse), and more of a sharer than a hoarder, so it’s no surprise that the incredible community and ideas behind open source made a real impression on me at these conferences. I also love great food and Nødebo was up there with the best I’ve had, which would definitely have helped win me over. Since these conferences I have been tinkering more and more with creating maps in QGIS and using my inkscape poster design skills to add those finishing touches. As well as getting deeper and deeper into plugin development at work, don’t get me started on how amazing automatic testing is. But there is one thing I love more than open source and that’s having a FOSS4G in our own backyard, and this year it is in Wellington and LINZ is helping to organise it! I missed out going to last year’s conference in Melbourne and everyone keeps going and on about how amazing it was so I won’t be missing out on this year’s. Though I did get to go to Boston and Denmark, and a tea towel with my map and logo design was brought back for me, so I probably shouldn’t complain. So if you want to see some of the amazing open source work going on in Oceania, or drag along coworkers to expose them to open source, you should definitely come along on the 12-15 November. https://foss4g-oceania.org/ Shameless plug over.

For the map itself I used a combination of populated places data from Koordinates, as well as highways and elevation data from LINZ. I styled the populated places so that larger cities appeared as brighter stars, and joined them using the major highways as a guide. To create the milkyway like cloud in the background I played with different elevations till I found a coverage I liked the look of. Once the map had been designed I exported to svg and loaded in inkscape. I used inkscape to create the custom font for the title by turning the text to a path (treating it like vector data) and adding in the koru like circle at the end of some letters. I also used it for placing and aligning the text on the side, I personally find aligning easier in inkscape.

(Not my tea towel, mines is locked inside a vault for safe keeping.)

Chris Whong to GeoHipster: “How we build is as important as what we build.”

Chris Whong is an NYC-based civic hacker, urbanist, mapmaker, and data junkie. He most recently worked as the founder and director of NYC Planning Labs, promoting the use of agile methods, human-centered design, and open technology to build impactful tools at the NYC Department of City Planning. He’s perpetually tinkering with open source geospatial technology, open data, and web projects, sharing his work via tweets, blog posts and speaking events. He teaches graduate level technology courses for Urban Planners at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service, promoting the use of open source tools for mapping, data analysis, and visualization.

Chris was interviewed for GeoHipster by Mike Dolbow.

Q: Whong’s law states that “Every government agency, everywhere is working on a ‘new system’; It will solve all of their data problems and will be ready to use in 18-24 months.” My 20+ years in government have taught me that you’re 100% right on this, and I can’t believe I didn’t think of it myself. Please tell me this will be the subject of your first TED talk.

A: I actually came up with this a few years ago when I was in sales, and was speaking to different state and local governments several times a week. There was always a huge amount of faith everyone had that the “new system” would solve all of their data woes in the near future, but it never seemed to actually arrive. I’d love to do more research on this front, as every government technologist I’ve encountered has some version of this story for “new systems” large and small.

Q: Even after all the gigantic government IT failures, I still can’t believe how many ginormous contracts I see being awarded. (Despite their past success, I’m still looking at this $26 million award with side eye.) But they can’t all be failures, right? Maybe just the billion dollar ones?

A: I think the ones you hear about are the BIG ones… there are probably hundreds of little ones that are just as bad but not big enough to show up on anyone’s radar. There has been some reporting recently in NYC about ballooning construction costs for what should be simple projects like park restrooms. I think you’ll find a lot of the same incentives and poor practices at play in both construction and IT projects. My hunch is that it’s the bigness of NYC that allows for these kinds of things to slip through the cracks. A $14M bathroom is peanuts in a $11B capital budget… and you can’t really inspect that budget unless you’re willing to slog through hundreds of pages of screen printouts published as a PDF.

Q: You recently left your post at NYC Planning Labs. What was your favorite project to work on in that job?

A: That would be ZAP Search. It’s a frontend search tool for looking up information on land use applications in NYC. Basically, anyone who wants to change zoning (including the city) has to go through a governmental process, and there’s an information system that tracks each action. I love this project because we were able to seamlessly integrate spatial data into a non-spatial database. You and I know it’s just a simple join to add geometries to a row in a table, but this has eluded everyone and been a huge excuse for years. In government, spatial is still the realm of “GIS people”, who tend to not be the same thing as app developers.

When you’re dealing with a city that’s the size of New York, the map becomes a critical part of the search UI for making individual projects discoverable. Adding geometries and displaying them on a map goes a long way towards making the data instantly relatable to people. Nobody knows obscure project names or even addresses of things being built near them, but everyone knows where they live and can relate to things happening nearby.

I should add that the GeoSearch API comes in at a close second. (GeoSearch is the autocomplete geocoder API that powers address search in all of our apps) We didn’t even build it, the heavy lift for us was transforming the city’s official address database into a format that would work with the Open Source Pelias geocoder built at Mapzen. It’s a wonderful open source story, and I like to think a contract to build a highly-available autocomplete geocoder in government would have taken years and millions of dollars. We did it in a few weeks, basically for free, by leveraging open source.  We also made it publicly available and wrote a nice little documentation site to help people get started using it.

Q: Can you tell us what’s coming next for you? And whether or not you’ll need to add a corollary to Whong’s law?

A: I’m planning to write a book about my 3-year stint in local government (but I know I’ll just get consumed with side projects during my time off!) I want it to be a relatable easy read full of anecdotes and things I’ve learned being a solo open source developer and building a small (but highly effective) digital team. I’ve accepted a position at Qri (qri.io), an open source startup building technology for distributed data collaboration, discovery, and version control. It touches on a lot of the pain points I’ve experienced working with, publishing, and sharing data over the years. I’ll be exploring use cases, building tooling around the core platform, and trying to grow the Qri user community.

Q: Do you think every government organization needs “an 18F” to show the way towards better IT, better user experiences, better designs in government apps?

A: Yes, and it’s important to remember that the culture change is the most important thing these teams bring. The tech tooling is just a fraction of the overall environment. Openness, collaboration, good design practices, continuous learning, introspection/retrospection, sharing, focusing on the user, iterating and shipping code continuously, etc. are what lead to better products. These things require culture change way beyond just saying “use open source software”.

I’ve also described all of the above characteristics as values that are at odds with the way government is usually structured when it comes to tech delivery.

It’s important to think about the long-term sustainability of these progressive values. How do you get them out of the 18F-style team and into the regular standing operating procedure of an agency? How to you make the myriad controls and requirements codified into tech policy support this new way of working? These are things I didn’t stick around NYC Planning Labs long enough to tackle, but they remain issues that my former colleagues are faced with every day.

Q: Have you always been a New Yorker? What do you like – or dislike – about the city?

A: I came here in 2011 to study Urban Planning at NYU. Someone once told me that it takes 7 years to finally call yourself a New Yorker, so I guess I’ve passed that milestone. I always say that once I started getting involved in civic tech, I began bumping into the same people at meetups and events all over the city, and found “my scene”. After that, the big, busy, hectic city got a lot smaller and really felt more like home.

I love that there is so much opportunity here. Whatever you’re interested in, the best and brightest people on the planet who do that thing are either already here or will be passing through regularly. There’s always a meetup or conference, there’s always someone who wants to grab a coffee or a drink, and there’s always someone who knows someone who wants to chat about their bold idea or passion project.

Q: I’m an old school jQuery guy. But I know you’re more impressed with the modern frameworks. What’s your preference and why?

A: My lead developer and I had a healthy React vs Ember debate when I first stood up Planning Labs, and he won because he had better arguments for why Ember was a better fit for a small scrappy team. It’s opinionated, but it brings everything you need for building single-page apps so you can prototype quickly and not have to worry about the myriad parts of the app architecture you would if you were assembling things from scratch. I am still a fan of React, if only because I don’t have to have 3 files open to manage the same component, and I actually like JSX (don’t hate, congratulate!). I was able to squeeze a little React into our portfolio via gatsby.js, the static site generator that powers planninglabs.nyc. Everything else is made with Ember, which we’ve built some powerful mapping integrations with and has served us well.

Q: As a former Carto employee, your GeoHipster cred is already well established, as far as I’m concerned. Now’s your chance to embrace the label, or provide evidence to the contrary.

A: I’m proud of the progressive spatial stack we put together at Planning Labs. We were pulling vector tiles out of the carto maps API before they were officially released (you know, “before it was cool”), and figured out how to consume them with MapboxGL. We even got to play with the new PostGIS ST_AsMVT() function to produce vector tile protobufs right from the database. We pioneered print-friendly web map layouts using paper.css, and even got to automate print map creation for New York Land Use Applications, effectively building GIS on the web with automated data and a custom UI. So yeah, I’m a geohipster and proud! I’m bummed to miss JSGeo this year 🙁

Q: As a geographer, does it bug you that so many “New York” teams actually play in New Jersey?

A: I care so little about professional sports that I didn’t even know New York teams play in New Jersey. I didn’t care before and I still don’t care.

Q: What are the merits of a saltwater reef aquarium, and do you provide treasure maps to the inhabitants?

A: A reef tank was something I really wanted to do back in 2010, but I was about to move to NYC and it wasn’t a good time to start the hobby. My wife finally gave permission last year and I’ve been obsessive over starting up the tank. We’ve got a nice 34-gallon reef set up in our apartment with a few fish, some corals, a shrimp, and a crab. It’s high-maintenance, and requires a lot of water production, saltwater mixing, water chemistry testing, cleaning, etc. The payout is worth it, my kid loves to help with feeding and water changes, and the critters all have their own little habits and personalities. The tank is a big stress-reliever, and it’s just fun to nurture a little ecosystem and look to the community for advice and support. I have not integrated mapping or open source technology or into my fish tank yet.

Q: I’m sure our readers in between jobs, or considering a change, would appreciate any final words of wisdom.

A: We were successful at Planning Labs because I refused to compromise on the really important things. I always said “how we build is as important as what we build”, and that meant not doing things the way government IT is comfortable doing them. We still had lots of government cruft in our way over the years, but the basics of modern technology-building were not up for debate, and that made all the difference. By the way, sharing is a BIG part of what I consider to be part of the basics, and is probably our most progressive trait. Half the fun of working on something is sharing the achievements and lessons learned (and the finished product) with others in your community. In my experience, talking openly about what you are working on in government is either discouraged or flat out forbidden.

In summary, figure out what your values are, and apply them to every decision, every project, etc. If your personal values don’t align with your organization’s you will need to fight, defend, and evangelize them at every turn (or go find another organization whose values match yours). The former is preferable if you’re in public service.

Maps and Mappers of the 2019 GeoHipster calendar — Gretchen Peterson, May

Peterson is a geo expert working in the realm of GIS analysis and cartography. Peterson is the author of several cartography how-to books and the co-author of the recently-published QGIS Map Design, 2nd Edition along with Anita Graser of the Austrian Institute of Technology. Peterson’s consulting work has included the creation of numerous map styles for world-wide OpenStreetMap and Natural Earth based vector tiles using Mapbox GL JS including nautical, topographic, humanitarian, and specialty styles for clients such as Digital Globe and Microsoft. Peterson’s work also includes all manner of GIS data management, analyses, cartography, and tools for salmon and shellfish management in the Pacific Northwest.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition map was created for potential inclusion in a future book, which Peterson would like to produce but has not found the time to create as of yet.

The expedition route line was obtained from the Esri Schools and Libraries Program. Basemap data is from Natural Earth. US Historic Territories and States is from the Newberry Library and processed for the date of the expedition (yes, the current states of Maine and Massachusetts both fell under the name “Massachusetts” in 1804) with different colors for states, territories, and unorganized territory. The Missouri river was offset from the route line even though they physically overlap on much of the route. This was done for visualization purposes. A texture was obtained for the background. The Gabriola font is employed throughout. The elevation graph, which shows the extreme elevation changes encountered by the expedition group, was computed with the QGIS profile tool plugin and then exported and re-styled. QGIS and Inkscape were used to further process and finish the map.

Maps and Mappers of the 2019 GeoHipster calendar — Team Bright Rain, April

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: I was surprised that we were the only collaboration to submit an entry, we are a team of two strong here at Team Bright Rain:

David Puckett

Bright Rain Solutions’ owner, operator, geospatial developer, data wrangler and self professed Grand Poobah. I’ve been part of the Geo Community for over twenty years and still get fantastically excited about all things geo. I’ve been known to run a workshop or two and have taught a class on web mapping. I consider myself a ‘bridger’ between the proprietary and open source worlds. And some of my best friends are “proprietarians”.

Andrew Lindley

Bright Rain’s Dynamic Technologist with an earnest mission to change the way you put boots and hats on maps. Drew has been with Bright Rain for two years and earned a degree in Geography from the University of British Columbia. He was also the star student in my GIS programming class, from which I promptly drafted him.

Q: Tell us the story behind your map (what inspired you to make it, what did you learn while making it, or any other aspects of the map or its creation you would like people to know).

A: When it hit me, I literally jumped out of my chair and hollered, “Hexes in Texas!,” with a rousing “Yes! Divorce Rates in Texas!” and All My Hexes Live in Texas was born. It could have been the boots… I happened to be wearing cowboy boots that day… It could have been the H3 hexagon project we had going. But it was definitely cosmic inspiration.

The map is honest to goodness tongue-in-cheek grit but it also brought several interests together for us and that’s why we were excited (and committed enough) to create and submit it. It’s funny yet not so silly that we couldn’t actually wrangle some real data and present it in, dare I say, a (geo)hip way. We love the slight clash between the slick, modern feel of the web map and the old timey western feel of the title text, hat and boot.

Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.

A: We are web (map) developers so our toolset in making this map definitely embodies that. The map was created as a web map and later exported and enhanced in Adobe Illustrator to create the final image output. Mapbox GL was used to display and extrude counties as hexagons based on the divorce rate within the county. The hexagons themselves were generated using Uber Engineering’s H3 Hexagonal Hierarchical Spatial Index (Javascript) library (at scale level 5).

DATA

Data was gathered from the state of Texas (population per county and divorces per county) and the US Census Bureau (us states: Tennessee).

Texas 2012 Population Estimates by County

https://www.dshs.texas.gov/chs/popdat/ST2012e.shtm

Texas 2012 Marriage and Divorce by County

http://www.dshs.state.tx.us/chs/vstat/vs12/t39.shtm

Texas County Boundaries (shapefile, SHAPEFILE!)

http://gis-txdot.opendata.arcgis.com/datasets/9b2eb7d232584572ad53bad41c76b04d_0

ANALYSIS

Analysis was conducted in QGIS where the divorce rate per thousand was calculated and the hexagons were assigned a value for extrusion (based on divorce rate calculation). The resulting hexagons with divorce rates assigned were exported as geojson for direct use in the web application.

AND

An interactive, web map version is here:

http://dev.brightrain.com/hexes-in-texas/

Denise McKenzie: “I love the challenge of making open geo standards hip”

Denise McKenzie
Denise McKenzie
Denise is an Aussie who lives in England in the historic town of Winchester. She joined OGC in 2012 and spends her time managing the Communication and Outreach program globally for the consortium. The program handles the planning and execution of marketing, communication and education to raise awareness and increase implementation of open geospatial and location standards by technology providers and users worldwide. Part of Denise's role is to oversee OGC Alliance Partnerships including representation at the United Nations Global Geographic Information Management (UNGGIM) committee. She is a member of the Board of the Association for Geographic Information in the UK and the Global Advisory Board for the Location Based Marketing Association. Prior to her role with OGC, she worked for over 12 years with the Victorian Government (Australia) in areas of geospatial strategic policy, collaboration and innovation.

Denise was interviewed for GeoHipster by Alex Leith and Michael Terner.

Q: Tell us about how you came to work for OGC.

A: It’s a serendipitous story, like most of my career, to be honest. I had been back working for the Department of Sustainability and Environment in Victoria, Australia for just over a year after maternity leave from my second child. Apart from the huge challenge of the VicMap API project, one of the other activities I had been leading was to set up the first OGC Australia and New Zealand Forum. As anyone who tries to work from Australia with people in other parts of the world will know – this included a lot of late night calls. It was during one of these calls that I was chatting with the CEO of OGC and he asked me if I had seen that the position for Executive Director for Marketing and Communications was being advertised. I said yes, and simply asked how their search was going. The response I got was “actually I was wondering if you had considered applying?” I think it would be fair to say that my face somewhat resembled that of a guppy fish (jaw on the floor and no words coming out – was so grateful that I did not have video for that moment). In my daze I asked a few more questions, finished the call and wandered into the kitchen where I then asked my husband what he thought of the idea of moving to a different country for work? He said sure… so I applied and rest is history.

Q: You travel a lot. What’s the best and worst thing about this?

A: Most days I really think I have one of the best jobs you can have in our industry. I love meeting new people, seeing new places and in the 6 years of working in OGC I realised how much I love seeing and learning about the amazing things people use location data for and how that changes the world for the better in so many ways. I feel really privileged to be able to represent the OGC membership throughout the world and to be able to tell their stories and to share the benefits that open geospatial standards can achieve.

It may sound cliche but the worst thing about travel is the time it takes me away from my family at home. Though my kids would say that it is not all bad because mum brings back presents! My rule is that they only get presents if the travel has been to a country I have never been to before and I always look for something that has a cultural connection to where I have been. It does make for some funny stories though. My son when he first started school explained to his teacher that “mum was away on the space station.” He had been confused when I said I was going to the European Space Agency (Frascati, Italy).

Q: You’ve been living in the UK for six years, do you miss Australia?

A: Of course! I will be an Aussie till my last day, but I do love my new country and am pretty lucky to be able to enjoy both places. The coffee scene is slowly improving (Winchester Coffee Roasters has been a life saver – though I did laugh when I discovered the owner learnt how to make coffee in Sydney).

But things I miss most include:

  • Beaches where the sand stretches for miles
  • Flake & potato cakes from the fish and chip shop
  • Sydney rock oysters
  • Rust orange sunsets – the ones in the UK are more pink in color
  • The smell of lemon-scented gums after it rains
  • The sound of magpies carolling in the mornings.

Q: Where does spatialred come from? Is it the blue hair?!

A: Hmm, there are only 5 other people who were involved in the creation of that twitter handle and how it came about is now a bit of an urban legend 😉 All I can say is that it was during a conference in New Zealand. I did have red hair at the time, but no that is not what inspired it. However seems to have stuck over the years and to be fair I do wear red pretty often.

Q: While standards are undeniably important, they are also boring. Can you convince us that they are hip?

A: Oh I love this question! Because I honestly believe they are anything but boring. They are one of the most powerful tools for sharing information and knowledge that we have. They bring people together around common problems and give them a pathway to solving them. Standards cross boundaries and borders in ways that enable us the greatest global insights into our planet that we have ever been able to access. One of my current favorite examples of this is the Arctic SDI, where 8 nations are now sharing data across international borders using OGC’s open standards.

At the end of the day it will be the standards we all agree on and the data that will flow through them that will help the world’s leaders make better decisions.

Location standards in particular help us to share data for all kinds of purposes, like understanding climate change, managing city infrastructure, getting planes safely to their destination and so many other world-changing benefits.

In short standards are the infrastructure that enable us to enjoy access to the incredibly rich information resources the web now provides. You can have the best data in the world, but if you can’t share it with anyone then of what benefit is it? Open location standards are one of the most powerful tools for data sharing around and that is why I think they are hip!

Q: What’s your take on the organically emergent standards, like shapefile, or GeoJSON that did not come out of standards setting organizations? Are they better or worse than OGC standards?

A: The truth is that most of the OGC standards start life in some way outside of the formal standards creation process. New standards are driven by innovation. Yes, you did read that correctly – standards happen because of innovation, not after the innovation has happened as I think many believe sometimes. No set of standards that operate in the web exist without interaction with other standards. We need to all work together to ensure the ecosystem works and the data flows and is visualized where it needs to be. Innovation will always help to create new and better ways of doing things and that is why you get communities developing standards like GeoJSON – though remember this standard is now part of a formal standards body at IETF.

A standard that is created outside OGC is no better or worse than an OGC standard – the most important thing is that the standard meets the needs of the users. I think one of the best developments in OGC in the past 5 years has been the creation of the Community Standard process. This now allows standards that are developed outside of that formal process but are mature, stable and being regularly used to be proposed as an OGC standard and come into the organisation with minimal change.

Q: How, and why did KML (originally a de facto standard) become an OGC standard?

A: In some ways, KML was really our first community standard (though we didn’t have formal process for it in those days). It was before my time in OGC, but from what I understand there was a recognition in Google that the standard would enable more data to be made available in this format if it was an international open standard than to remain a proprietary format in Google. Perhaps a good question to pose to Ed Parsons  ;-).

Q: Can you talk about the difference in the process involved in WFS 3.0 and the ‘old’ way of developing standards? Also, are the other WxS services being reviewed?

A: This is my new favorite topic and one that excitingly you will see a lot of progress on in the next twelve months. I have watched a lot of change in the way we make standards in OGC. Word docs have given way to GitHub, PDF has given way to HTML, the range of market domains in OGC have increased, and hackathons have been introduced to complement our technical meeting process. It is important to note that our web service standards are not going away any time soon, but with the innovation in use of APIs it is time we developed some new standards to help ensure we can keep sharing geospatial data. The way we have started to describe what is happening is the following analogy.

Picture a brick house with great sturdy foundations that has been improved and matured over a long time and is currently being very well lived in and serves much of the world’s geospatial data. This is our OGC web services house and inside is WMS, WFS, WPS, WCS, WMTS and OWS Common. But we now have new building materials and methods of creating a house so we need some new standards to help us continue to share our geospatial data in an innovating world. This new house will be called the OGC API. In this house you will find OGC API – Features (formerly known as WFS 3.0), OGC API – Common, OGC API – Maps, OGC API – Processes, OGC API – Tiles and so on. The idea is that both these two houses will continue to co-exist for a long while yet, they will draw from the same data lakes and we will be building bridges to help developers move from one house to the next. Hopefully without too much trouble.

There is a hackathon that will push the development and testing of new specs for a number of these new standards in June this year just prior to our Technical Meetings in Belgium. Keep an eye out for more details and how to get involved. These need industry-wide support, review and participation to make them a great new generation of OGC standards.

Q: Ok, big question: Is spatial special?

A: No and yes. Sorry, fence sitting answer I know. In the big wide world of data – it is just another data type. But it has some unique and important elements about it that mean if you handle spatial data incorrectly you will get really bad outcomes. So I think that there is still an important role for spatial professionals in helping ensure that we use spatial data the right way and ensure we support good evidence-based decisions.

Maybe the question isn’t whether spatial is special or not, but why there still seems to be so much of the world that does not harness the power of spatial data or understand what it can do. Perhaps it is more a question of whether we as a community of practice think we are too special and are yet to really reach outside of our community to the broader world of data users to ensure that the goodness that spatial data can bring is shared globally.

And for what it is worth, I like the words location and place over geospatial or spatial (maybe our language is part of the problem?).

Q: Among your work experience on LinkedIn you list ‘mother’, which is awesome! Can you talk about this a bit?

A: Oh man, do not get me talking about my kids or we will be here for pages more 😉…but you have touched on something that is increasingly becoming an important topic for me and that is diversity. Not just gender diversity, but diversity in all areas – age, culture, language, experience, skills. I am sure it would be unsurprising to many of the readers here when I say that I am commonly either the only or one of a few women in many work situations I find myself in (unless of course it is International Women’s Day). Whilst I will say it is improving, it does not seem to be fast enough.

This year I ran an International Women’s Day event in London titled Women in Geospatial. I invited 3 women who are midway through their working careers to talk about their experience in the geospatial industry and how they got there, but the speakers on the day that had the most impact for me were the 4 women on our early careers panel. Whilst saying that they loved working in the industry, they all still had stories of intimidating all-male interview panels, some but not enough female role models in senior leadership positions and comments on their university degrees not having enough of the practical skills that they need now for their current jobs.

Another pivotal event was during FOSS4G last year in Tanzania when Rebecca Firth (from the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team) and I ran a Diversity in Geo session and had close to 40 people turn up at 4pm on the second day of the conference. This helped to realise just how important it is to be a good role model and that when you are in a visible international role such as mine that we have an obligation and responsibility to help drive and be part of the necessary change.

So yes, I list “mother” as a job and I am very proud to do so, as the balance between work and family is paramount for me. To be honest I have learned so much by having this role in life and it enables me to bring many diverse perspectives to what I do, particularly now that my kids have reached an age where they are explaining the latest tech to me! #DiversityInGeo #WomenInGeospatial

Lastly a shout out to the lovely ladies that have started the WomenInGeospatial network recently, which I highly recommend getting in touch with if you are looking to network with other women in the industry.

Q: What’s #1 on your bucket list?

A: Hmm, I think (and I am sure my mum would laugh in agreement with this) I have always wanted to do something that would help change the world for the better. I definitely have been able to do a lot in my time both at DSE in Australia and now in OGC that has helped, but we have so much more that we can do and I am really excited to be part of the OGC journey and working with our new leadership. I definitely can’t say that I have totally completed this bucket list item yet, but I am on my way and guess we will need to wait another 25 years or so of my career before I will know if I really achieved it or not ;-).

Q: And finally, what about you makes you a geohipster?

A: I simply love what geospatial can do and I love evangelizing about it. It is such a good news story and really has the power to change the world for the better. Oh and I love the challenge of making open geo standards hip.

Tobin Bradley: “The open source community and ethos feels like home to me”

Tobin Bradley
Tobin Bradley is an indoor enthusiast. His hobbies include staring at screens (computers), staring at screens (books), staring at screens (movies), and staring at screens (video games). He wrangles code at Mecklenburg County Government in North Carolina and occasionally writes about it on his blog. 

Tobin was interviewed for GeoHipster by Mike Dolbow.

Q: Good gracious, you’ve been blogging over at Fuzzy Tolerance since 2005! When you started, did you ever think it would last over 14 years? What does that first post make you think of?

A: Something Jeff Atwood of Stack Overflow fame said that stuck with me is the worst code he’d ever seen was the code he wrote six months ago, and that that was always the case. Looking at my first blog post from 14 years ago on Loading .NET User Controls at Run Time, complete with poorly formatted code from one of my 47 blog engine migrations, makes me contemplate the sturdiness of the window across from me and the elevation of this floor.

But it also makes me realize why I’ve never gone back and edited those old blog posts, even the ones that make me cringe. It’s me, or at least the part of me I choose to share. Fuzzy Tolerance started even earlier as (oh it pains me to write this) The Programming Consultant Newsletter, a PDF I’d share with our staff and other local GIS folks every month. I’m an introvert and slightly autistic, the kind of person you’d see at a conference pretending to be part of a wall while eyeing the exits. Writing has always been the way I can help people and express myself. So it doesn’t surprise me that I’ve been doing it for so long, and in the event of a civilization-ending zombie apocalypse, I’d probably still write blog posts with spray cans on the sides of abandoned grain silos.

Plus it’s a good way to archive my aging brain. Recently somebody thanked me for a bit of complicated PostGIS-related SQL I shared that I had no recollection of whatsoever. I was pretty sure I was being confused with a smart person until I found the blog post.

Q: All right, let’s back up a little for our readers here. How did you get into GIS…or geospatial…or whatever we’re calling it these days?

A: Accidentally.

I was always headed for something related to problem solving and technology. My parents bought me a Commodore VIC-20 in my formative years, a 5KB of RAM powerhouse (if you had the Commodore 64, (a) congratulations and (b) I hate you). It marked the point in my life when I became an indoor enthusiast. The things I managed to do with BASIC are probably still illegal in most states.

Naturally I went to college expecting to become a programmer. Two classes later and I was disabused of that notion. I could do the work, but I didn’t enjoy it. This is a failing on my part; I have an awful time learning things if I don’t have an immediate practical application for them. I realized I didn’t like programming per se, I just liked solving complex and interesting problems. If I weren’t an indoor enthusiast with an aversion to dirt I’d be perfectly happy being an auto mechanic.

During that existential crisis I happened to take Geography 101 as an elective with an amazing professor, Dr. Tyrel Moore. I went in thinking I’d memorize the state capitals, which was what I thought geography was at the time. Boy was I wrong. I was fascinated by the breadth and scope of the subject matter, but I’ve often thought if my first geography professor wasn’t an amazing teacher, I could have gone in an entirely different direction. Thanks, Dr. Moore.

I had no idea GIS was a thing when I became a geography major. With my programming background, it was a natural fit, and the rest is a succession of lucky breaks and happy accidents. We still call it GIS in Mecklenburg County, but once Data Science becomes a hackneyed term nobody uses anymore, I’m sure local government will switch to it.

Q: Your second Fuzzy Tolerance post was on Open Source Software. Even though the first FOSS4G conference (under that moniker) was only a year away, that still seems awfully prescient to me, especially considering that you work in public sector IT. Did you have a crystal ball hidden somewhere? And did you feel like a lonely voice back then?

A: A nice thing about local government is the antiquated technology actively encourages one to experiment with other things. Combine that with my natural nerd inclinations and I was playing around with things like Linux and MySQL and PHP very early on. At that point I had a loose understanding of what open source was; my interest in open source software was born out of practical rather than idealistic considerations.

The big turning point for our GIS group was when we launched an important website using new internet mapping software from our proprietary GIS vendor with much public fanfare, only to have it explode in a furious ball of nothing. We were battling “server unavailable” messages around the clock. We threw more hardware at it. It crashed faster. We brought the vendor in, who gave us a very expensive shrug. It was black-box proprietary software, so we couldn’t fix it. We couldn’t even tell what was wrong.

Fortunately that wasn’t one of my apps, but I had some apps coming down the pipe, and there was no way I was building them around that software. Some people looked cool and important with a pager strapped to their waist; I was not one of those people.

So I tried UMN’s MapServer, not overly optimistic about it because I thought web mapping was too niche for open source software. MapServer was better than our proprietary product in every imaginable way. It was faster. It was stable. It scaled better. And from a programming perspective it was much easier to work with. I released a couple of apps using it, and we had zero problems. It was…awesome.

That opened our eyes. We’re still a mixed proprietary and open source shop, but it’s exceedingly rare that we create something that doesn’t use open source software, and many of our projects are built entirely with open source software. We also release a lot of our software under an open source license. While I love the ethos and spirit of open source software, our use of open source is still entirely for practical reasons. For many problems, it’s the best tool for the job.

Personally, I’ve been rocking Linux at home (currently Manjaro KDE) exclusively for 15+ years. The open source community and ethos feels like home to me.

Q: You’ve been working for Mecklenburg County for a long time. Is there anything special about this organization that keeps you interested and invested?

A: Oh, not really. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great place to work, but it has the perks and pitfalls of most local governments. If our GIS group can be said to have accomplishments, I don’t think they’re accomplishments other local governments couldn’t achieve.

I’ve been very lucky in two ways. First, I’ve managed to have great bosses. One bad boss and I would have fallen back on my rock guitar god/professional video gamer career. Second, our GIS group does work with all of our government agencies, making for a wide variety of interesting and ever-changing problems to solve. Even after 20+ years (!), I still look forward to coming to work.

Q: I think I first caught on to your blog around when you started writing about customizing Google Maps, which inspired me to do the same for the organization I was supporting. Back then, they were one of the few choices for a slippy map API, but now there’s probably a dozen, depending on how you count. How do you keep up with technology changes, and how do you decide what to recommend/implement at work?

A: Without the constant technology changes, I’d have left GIS at some point. It’s the constant learning that makes this job so interesting.

At the start of every month I write out the things I want to learn more about. It’s my job to investigate these things, but in all honestly I’d do it even if it wasn’t, and I think it’s something everybody should do. It’s very easy to turn on autopilot and keep doing the same thing the same way over and over, but if you aren’t learning, you aren’t growing, and if you aren’t growing, you’re shrinking. Literally. You’ll shrink.

I try not to steer the ship by recommending or advocating a particular technology direction unless I’m directly asked or I see an iceberg ahead. I tried that early in my career with limited success. I’ve found it’s much more effective to drop guideposts and let people come to them on their own. When people notice my apps are always up, or that an app does a particular thing they’ve been struggling with, they move in that direction naturally. Otherwise it’s whip-cracking and cat-herding, and I have no talent for those things.

Q: You’ve got a lot of code on Github, like your Bootstrap and Leaflet template. Does your organization actively support you open sourcing your apps, or do you just ask for forgiveness later?

A: Ug, that’s an old one. I should probably redirect that repo to Bryan McBride’s Bootleaf, which is much better. Mine was first (ha!), but as with most things, if Bryan McBride and I both did it, you should go with Bryan’s version.

I wouldn’t say my organization actively supports open sourcing apps (I don’t know of anybody else in the organization that has), but it isn’t opposed to the idea. In the early days it was something I did and waited patiently to see if I was going to be flogged, but these days even crusty old mainframe programmers know what GitHub is. Most people I talk to don’t share their code because they think it’s terrible, which is true. What they don’t understand is everybody’s code is terrible. No matter how terrible your code is, there are people it can help, and there are people that will help you make your code better.

My county has a park locator app. So do all 100 other counties in North Carolina. So does every county in the United States, and probably every local government around the world. The wasted effort and money in government because we aren’t sharing code with each other should be an outrage. I’m not big into leadership by fiat, but making all publicly funded code open source is a law I would wholeheartedly support.

You’ve also open sourced your current GeoPortal, which when I use it, strikes me as the “anti-portal”. This app is so simple, I can use it and browse it even though I live over 1,000 miles away. I have to believe there will be other local governments using this somewhere. Are you aware of any?

A: GeoPortal is a fun project. It’s one we initiated within our group, which is different — most of our projects are initiated by our customers, aka other county agencies. That gives us leeway in terms of design and functionality that we often don’t have on our projects (read: when you see one of our apps with 37 buttons, know that a battle was lost). It’s also very fun modern tech: vector tiles, reactive UI components, progressive web app, etc. It’s good to have one project your group completely owns that can be used to try new things and blaze trails for future apps.

I know places that are using our projects like GeoPortal and the Quality of Life project and our Dirt Simple PostGIS HTTP API, and if they want to give us a hat tip for that, that’s very nice. I don’t like to call them out myself though. Taking something we wrote like GeoPortal and customizing it for their own jurisdiction is a herculean effort (I’ve seen my code), and I don’t want a smidgen of credit redirected from somebody that worked really hard on their app to us. But I’ll say this to others that may be functionally autistic/dead inside like myself: knowing that something you shared is helping other people will touch and affect you in ways you won’t expect. When people thank me for a project I’ve shared, I hide in my office for an hour.

Speaking of hat tips, GeoPortal needs to give a giant one to Brian Timoney. His blog posts on how people actually interact with web sites was a real eye opener, and it got me started on a path of learning more about UI and UX, to the point where the map on GeoPortal is now an optional click (gasp!). For my money, good design is still the most glaring problem in government websites today, and unfortunately it’s an area governments rarely invest in.

Q: Judging by your Twitter bio picture, you’re both a musician and a dad, like me. I personally find that lessons I learn in those two roles can be applied in GIS, in IT, and in public sector work. Have you found the same thing, and if so, are some experiences more influential than others?

A: To call me a musician is stretching the term a bit. 23andme has officially confirmed the dad part though.

My first lesson as a father was that I owe my parents an apology. Beyond that, it’s hard to pick out individual things, as I am a fundamentally different person since my son was born. I have a lot more patience. I understand that people have their own motivations and histories, and if I want to connect with and motivate people I need to understand those things and not judge them. A number of children’s cartoons no longer piss me off. It’s a really strange experience going from not understanding people at all to having a wife and son that I’d step in front of a bus for without a second thought, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Being a musician, aside from the expense of new gear and the noise complaints, is a total quality of life improvement. It builds focus, tenacity, patience, confidence, and peace of mind, all of which translate to your life in positive ways. I did not pick up the guitar at 16 for any of those reasons. I picked it up because I thought it would help me woo women in ways that my personality and stick-like figure did not. Turns out an autistic stick-figure kid carrying a guitar around everywhere is mostly just weird.

Q: Tube amps or solid state? Seriously.

A: If your gear inspires you to play and create music, it’s the right gear. If it doesn’t inspire you to play and create music, it’s the wrong gear. If a Squier Strat plugged in to a Peavey Bandit is what inspires you, make your music and tell all of the gear snobs to stuff it.

But the correct answer is tube amps.

Q: OK, the evidence is building. But I’m starting to feel like I don’t have to ask EVERY interviewee if they’re a geohipster. Would you be OK if I skipped it this time?

A: I have never owned a non-functional scarf, which I think rules out the hipster part. I have also never intentionally achieved “cool”, though after many years of work I have “non-threatening” down pat. It mostly involves smiling a lot without showing teeth. I do own a tie that plays Christmas carols. Do with that what you will.

Q: Any words of wisdom or parting shots for our readers?

A: For my fellow local government tribe, I try to encourage people to be present and thoughtful about everything they do. The most common answer to why a local government does something the way it does is because that’s the way it did it yesterday. This is always a bad answer.

But for everybody, my biggest wish is that people would realize how amazing they are, how important they are to other people in ways they don’t understand, how smart they are and the ways they can and do contribute. Imposter syndrome isn’t a new thing, but it seems to hit the tech field pretty hard. The next time your inner voice is giving you an itemized list of your failures, ask yourself if that inner voice was an actual person, how long would you listen to it before you punched it in the mouth. If the answer is not very long, feel free to ignore that voice and go do awesome things with whatever time you have on this planet. And share some code along the way.