David Bitner is the owner of dbSpatial LLC, an independent consulting firm providing services that focus on the use of geospatial open source software. A 14-year veteran of the GIS industry, David has served on the board of the Sahana Software Foundation, is an OSGeo Officer, and was Conference Chair for FOSS4GNA 2013.
Q: How did you get into mapping/GIS?
A: I started working with GIS during my undergraduate work in geology, when I took a class in GIS and remote sensing. For my Master’s degree, I decided to roll straight into studying GIS and remote sensing in forestry at the University of Minnesota. I had a very unique opportunity to work with the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, studying the benefits of geospatial data sharing with Will Craig. My graduate work was spent interviewing professionals in the Twin Cities learning about how they used geographic data. That work set a great foundation for my career in this region.
After that, I worked for the National Weather Service for almost four years, then the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) for nine years.
Q: Last year you left a full time job at the MAC to focus on your consulting work with dbSpatial. Was there something specific that prompted that change? What is different now that you’re your own boss?
A: Well, during nine years at a small agency like the MAC, one of the nice things was having a lot of flexibility and encouragement to go and learn new things and technology. The flip side of that was, being the only GIS person at the agency meant nine years of doing the same thing over and over. So, I had been moonlighting for several years, and then finally had some good opportunities that enabled me to take the leap and go out on my own. It’s been the best move I’ve made in my career — I’ve been able to stay in touch with my colleagues at the MAC while still branching out into different work.
Working for yourself, you never really get a full vacation because you always have to be on call if something you’ve made goes down. But you can also work from anywhere. Next week I’ll be working from the shore of Lake Superior – as long as I have my laptop and an internet connection, I can work anywhere. While I might not get a full vacation, I can stretch out a lot more.
Q: Is there anything you didn’t expect with the transition?
A: I’ve been lucky in that most of my work has been in a small number of long term projects. It’s nice to have the variety; I’m kind of an ADD personality, so having a mix of projects is a great fit. Working with larger teams on some of the projects has taken some getting used to compared to my prior situation. It takes a lot more discipline when you know the code you’re writing is going to be seen by more than just you. Instead of just hammering through something to get it to work, you need to have a lot more discipline because it has to work and others need to understand it.
Q: What are some of the more interesting projects you’ve been working on lately?
A: There are two big projects that have taken most of my time and both are really interesting. The first is working on NOAA’s emergency response management application (ERMA), which is a portal that NOAA uses to provide a Common Operating Picture (COP) as well as some analytical capabilities for emergency response. For example, it’s being actively used for the Deepwater Horizon spill.
Another project is working with FireStats, a consulting outfit that helps with Fire Departments, providing analyses for accreditation and services like siting stations. They also provide a tool that allows individual fire chiefs to explore their own data. As a subcontractor, I’m building out their analytical engine, which provides a lot of powerful information for Fire Departments, such as their response time, incident locations relative to resources, and other analytics. It’s been nice to get in-depth with those two groups.
Q: Running a small business is hard. Does specializing in open source software implementations make it harder or easier?
A: I would say that specializing in open source makes it possible. The things that I do and the products that I’m able to provide are only possible because I build on top of open source solutions. First, being able to deliver a full package that someone can implement without any strings attached makes the price point very competitive and marketable. When you’re a very small outfit (dbSpatial is just two folks, David and Dan Little), it’s hard to demand a premium price. But when we can provide a turnkey product that can be implemented without additional software licensing, it’s a tremendous advantage.
Also, the reason I got into open source software was not because of the cost. All of the work I did in government was on the fringe of what was possible with the proprietary desktop solutions provided by Esri and ERDAS. I always needed to tweak and go beyond the standard solutions, because those solutions didn’t’ fit the projects I had.
My work at the MAC, for example, was with four-dimensional data such as flight tracks with an X,Y,Z, and time for every point. Nothing handled that out of the box at the time. So my only recourse was to extend things myself and work with other open source providers such as Paul Ramsey’s Refractions Research. I was able to contract with Refractions to extend PostGIS to meet my needs, and then use the results within a few weeks. Compared to relying on proprietary software solutions, the turnaround was much faster, and the result was a tool that met the exact specifications of what I needed.
Also, I was able to more quickly stand up highly responsive services with open source software. When an airport noise lawsuit was settled with the MAC, that proved advantageous. We had a web map where people could see where they were in relation to the contours. This was the first time an airport was going to provide noise mitigation to this degree, so it hit the national news. And given the surge in traffic, that server came crawling to its knees. Luckily, I had moved everything to use MapServer a few weeks before, so within a few hours, we were able to repurpose a few other servers to distribute the load (without worrying about license limitations). If I had had a node-locked license, we would have been dead in the water; the acquisition process to get more licenses would have been too onerous to respond to the demand, and then we’d be stuck paying for higher licenses even after we had overcome the initial wave of higher traffic. It’s not just the money – it’s the scalability.
I got started in open source because it was the only way to actually solve the problems I needed to solve. Then, I was also able to show my employers how much money we were saving. As a result, I got more buy-in and was able to participate more actively in the community.
Q: Your Twitter handle is “bitnerd”. Did you consciously arrange your last name and first initial to include “nerd” in the name?
A: That is the first e-mail name I was given when I went to college. So, I was given that handle by the IT people at Carleton College, and it stuck and became a nickname, especially among anyone working with computers.
Q: We define hipsters as people who think outside the box and often shun the mainstream (see visitor poll with 1106 responses). Would you consider yourself a hipster? How do you feel about the term hipster?
A: Can someone who has a GISP be considered a GeoHipster? I don’t think I would consider myself a hipster because I tend to try to work within the mainstream, although I do try to push the boundaries. I try to do things as efficiently as possible, which often means using different tools than the ones used in the mainstream.
Plus I could never be a hipster because I like good beer too much.
Q: Geohipster (and geohipsterism as a concept) is sometimes criticized for being exclusive and/or attempting to foster divisions within the industry. Or sometimes for being different for the sake of being different. You have advocated for open source software for years. Did you do it to be different?
A: I did it to get the job done. I think that there are too many walls and too much dismissiveness by folks in both the “neo geo” and “traditional geo” worlds. I think too many folks in the traditional geography world are leery of change and just want to do things the way they always have. I think too many folks in the “neo geo” camp are dismissive of the technical expertise and experience that a lot of the traditional geographers have. I try to sit in the middle, and definitely come from the more traditional background, but I understand that the tools move fast, and if you can stay current with the new tools and apply the traditional knowledge, you can grow along with the industry, while still maintaining the quality control and standards you have the formal training in.
In many presentations I’ve given on open source and proprietary solutions, I describe a tendency – not an inherent property, but a tendency among the two types of software. With proprietary software, it often tends to be a giant swiss army knife that will do anything you want it to. But if you need it to do one thing, like drive a screw, you’re better off with a screwdriver. Open source software tends to follow the UNIX philosophy of being more specific and focused on specific needs. It does make it harder to approach in that you need to know what specific tool to use during specific situations, but once you have that knowledge, the tools are typically much more efficient and faster at that task.
Q: You volunteer to support the City of Lakes Loppet Ski Festival, and you’re an active bike rider. Do you think it’s a coincidence that a lot of Minnesota geographers are skiers, bikers, and “outdoorsy”?
A: I don’t think it’s something that is inherent to Minnesota geographers, I think it’s common among geographers in general – from both the traditional and “neo geo” camps. If your job is expressing geography and knowing where you are, I think you’re likely to be someone who likes to be out, traveling, skiing, biking, running. When you look at the MN GIS/LIS Consortium conference, you see people getting up in the morning to do fun runs before sessions, and I don’t find that surprising. I think you see a lot of people who are interested in geography are also people who like being outdoors and engaged in the areas they study on maps or in data, and I definitely identify with that.