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

Bill Morris
Bill Morris

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

Bill was interviewed for GeoHipster by Mike Dolbow.

Q: How did you get into mapping/GIS?

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

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

A: I’m a lot less stressed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A: Oh jeez – that sounds like metahipsterism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: Any final words for GeoHipster readers?

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