Brian Timoney: “The ‘G’ stands very much for ‘geospatial’ and not ‘GIS'”

Brian Timoney
Brian Timoney

Brian (@briantimoney) is an information consultant based in Denver, Colorado. With 15 years experience primarily in the geospatial sector, he has worked in a variety of sectors including energy, defense, and local government. Brian speaks both English and Spanish with a Philadelphia accent, and is a US Marine Corps veteran.

Brian was interviewed for GeoHipster by Mike Dolbow and Atanas Entchev.

AE: You blog and tweet about geo, data visualization, and business analytics. Which of those is of the most interest to you nowadays and why? Is spatial special?

BT: While analytics are hot (if the prevalence of the term “data science” is any indicator), the usefulness of raw insight often hinges on a visualization that is both accessible and meaningful. As for where Geo fits in, the popularity of map-based listicles e.g. “38 Maps that Explain the Global Economy” either indicates a serious, ongoing demand, or the delight of the otherwise well-educated to engage in geographic thinking for the first time since middle school.

MD: Your blog post summing up findings on How the Public Actually Uses Local Government Web Maps is so succinct and forehead-slapping that I find myself constantly referring customers to it. Do you see any evidence that the tide is turning in local government web maps, moving from overcomplicated user interfaces to simpler designs?

BT: Anecdotally I know of some projects in Europe that were directly influenced by those articles, and some vendors have engaged with the ideas in those articles. Yet we still see local government opting for the visual grammar of desktop GIS because it both feels familiar and risk-free. Or put another way, government websites aren’t punished for the users who leave because of a crappy user experience.

But what is significantly turning the tide is mobile. My new favorite quote is from CartoDB’s Javier de la Torre who said the future of geo “isn’t an application with 100 buttons, but hundreds of apps with one button.”

MD: Your series on Why Map Portals Don’t Work expands on your observations, taking a deeper dive on the subject of simplicity in web mapping. If you had to pick one part of that series for customers to focus on, which one would it be and why?

BT: My kingdom for an auto-complete search text box! Google has made text-based search such an intuitive part of using the web that maps that leave the user no choice but to interact with map elements — pan, zoom, etc. — make discovering user intent much more difficult than it should be. And make no mistake, users end up alienated.

MD: You must feel some validation when you see Vladimir Agafonkin’s recent FOSS4G talk on how simplicity will save GIS. What do you think this means for the future of web mapping?

BT: If you see the world as a Pareto 80-20 proposition, then you could make the case that the history of web mapping interfaces is one of bloating the map out to solve the last 20% of use cases. Vlad’s exclusive focus on the core 80% of map functionality is what has made Leaflet so successful, especially outside the traditional GIS boundaries. He was the star attraction at the recent JS.geo, and his story highlights the need to keep our industry open to outsiders. Just to be clear, there are plenty of workflows out there where an OpenLayers or Google Maps or Esri Javascript API makes the most sense. But Vlad’s commitment to both Leaflet as an open source project and iterating only on a core subset of functionality  has served everyone very well.

AE: FOSS4G 2014 generated a lot of buzz and excitement, but is open source making serious inroads in the geo market space? Esri still rules the geo desktop. Microsoft is still king of the PC. Do you see this changing any time soon? Or will the desktop decrease in market share to a point of irrelevance?

BT: For me, the big takeaway from this year’s FOSS4G was that the “G” stands very much for “geospatial” and not “GIS”. I think back to the 2007 FOSS4G show in Victoria where there was much more seeing the market as the GIS market dominated by ESRI. Today, the opportunities run so much broader and deeper. Take an outfit like the Climate Corporation, who gave a FOSS4G presentation on doing geo things using ElasticSearch: they were an open data/big data/analytics startup that were bought for $1.1 billion. They had a specific operational need — spatial search — and I seriously doubt they spent 15 minutes thinking of it as a “GIS” problem but rather a very specific type of indexing challenge.

When you say “Esri still rules the geo desktop” I think that would be better expressed as “…the GIS desktop”. But what about people doing spatial things elsewhere? People are doing geo things in R Studio. People are doing geo things in IPython Notebooks. To see GIS as having a foregone monopoly on spatial analysis and mapmaking is to miss the much larger picture. Unfortunately, some of the biggest losers in this changing landscape are current students unknowingly suffering from a lazy Geography curriculum that offers little in the way of spatial reasoning and data fluency but instead only a mediocre grasp of a particularly byzantine desktop interface.

AE: I am reminded of this ancient Persian proverb: “The dogs bark, but the caravan goes on.” Microsoft bought Minecraft to keep the caravan going. Should Esri buy SimCity? Because, you know, geodesign…

BT: Everything I know about Geodesign I’ve learned from James Fee’s Spatially Adjusted blog. I have nothing further to add.

AE: Do you consider yourself a (geo)hipster? You are a skier. Is skiing a hipstery pastime? (Or is it only if your heels are disconnected, as Mike Dolbow suggests?)

BT: The hippest thing I’ve ever done was switch from pleated khakis to flat-front khakis.

I also shave every morning and tuck in my shirt during business hours.

But if hipsterism is essentially about alternative status hierarchies, then count me in. Ever since Boundless named me the 26th most influential Geospatial tweeter, I’ve been looking for a new lunch table to sit at.

While I ski, it’s only in the context of enjoying the finest in chairlift technology, for which I happily pay a pretty penny. Mike is correct: in Colorado, “real skiers” are the tele-markers who ascend mountains using skins and free-heel down in knee-deep powder off-piste. To them I say “we will each go to our respective graves with very different ideas of ‘fun’”.

MD: What’s up with the “Geospatial Amateurs”? Has your intentional irony achieved the desired result? Can those meetups only take place where weed is legal?

BT: Geospatial Amateurs was the brainchild of Peter Batty (@pmbatty) and Nate Irwin (@nateirwin) and was very much informed by experiences with previous iterations of developer groups and meetups where well-intentioned sponsorship by vendors ended up creating environments that weren’t really what was originally envisioned. By putting “Amateurs” in the title, we accomplish two important goals: it’s a signal to vendors that this isn’t really anything you need to bother with, while communicating to curious outsiders that while it might be a bit nerdy, it’s not self-serious and insular nerdery.

As for weed, clearly you fall into the pattern of most of my East Coast friends for whom it holds an exotic allure akin to a 19-year-old frat boy pondering topless beaches in Europe. I’m within a 5-minute walk of three retail outlets and yet I guarantee you have given it more thought than me over the past few months. But to reassure you, the Geo Amateurs seem much more into craft beer.

AE: Thank you for the interview. Any parting words for the GeoHipster readers? Is spatial special?

BT:  Stop reading blogs during working hours.

Oh, you’re waiting for your buffer intersection to finish?

Cool — you’re still billable. Carry on.

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