Monthly Archives: November 2014

Steven Feldman: “Geohippies want to make a difference through disruption, geo-evangelism, and a bit of altruism”

Steven Feldman
Steven Feldman

Steven Feldman (@StevenFeldman) is founder of geo consultancy KnowWhere, chairman of geo.me, chairman of Exprodat Consulting, a strategic advisor to Astun Technology, a Special Lecturer at the School of Geography at the University of Nottingham, and chair of the Local Organizing Committee for FOSS4G 2013. He is part of the Taarifa team and helped start the OSM-GB project. Previously he was head of professional services at whereonearth.com and UK Managing Director of MapInfo.

Steven was interviewed for GeoHipster by Ed Freyfogle while the two were at #WhereBerlin.

Q: You’re a long-time regular on the geo scene here in London, diving into OpenStreetMap many years ago and sponsoring #geomob the last few years. And yet you’re fairly far from the typical neogeo stereotype. Putting it gently, you’re a bit more experienced than the typical web2.0 code jockey. Indeed geo is actually your second career. What’s your geostory?

A: Let’s get the experience thing out of the way — I just had my Beatles Birthday, you can work that out. I am a commercial animal through and through — I’ve never written a line of code, my biggest technical achievement is tweaking the CSS on my blog.

I graduated from Cambridge with an Economics degree, an idea for a PhD but no funding, and no other idea what I wanted to do. I was offered a job in a mirror manufacturing business, I thought I would take it for a few months while I looked for something interesting to do, and I ended up staying in the building materials industry for over 20 years. I finished up running a division of Pilkington (the glass makers) and then got made redundant at 45. A short stressful and not very successful investment in environmental monitoring tech followed, including a lesson about flogging dead horses which I should share with any startups that I advise. Then I bumped into a friend who owned GDC, a data capture business, that was about to merge with one of those then-exciting internet startups which was about to become whereonearth.com. It sounded like fun and it was a million miles from glass and mirror manufacture so I joined up and headed up the professional services and GIS team at whereonearth. A few years later the whereonearth burn rate was exceeding investors’ patience and we had the opportunity to buy out the old GDC software business which no one thought was sexy enough in the dot com era. We knew that e-government was about to take off in the UK and with some trepidation took the opportunity with all but one of our 18 staff investing their money to buy the business. Less than 5 years later we sold GDC to MapInfo for quite a lot of money and made most of our staff/investors a good bit wealthier. I stayed on for a couple of years as Managing Director of MapInfo UK and headed up product and industry management across EMEA, two years was enough for them and me!

Since 2008 I have been having fun investing and working with startups, doing lots of open stuff because it’s disruptive, advising businesses in the geo industry, and doing a tiny bit at Nottingham University.

Q: When I told you I wanted to interview you for GeoHipster you replied that you’re more of a geohippy than hipster. What’s the difference?

A: I am not sure that I know what a ‘hipster’ is, I hope it is more like James Dean than Henry Winkler. I guess you mean someone who does ‘cool’ or innovative stuff with geo; I don’t think that’s me. I don’t really do anything with geo on the tech front, I am probably too late in my career to start another business even if I had a big idea, but I do know how to build and run a business and I am always up for an investment of time and money in someone else’s great idea. I think I am a reasonable marketeer and evangelist for things I am passionate about (and there are quite a few of those), which can be noisy but isn’t really hip.

I grew up in the sixties listening to Dylan and the Dead, demonstrating against apartheid and the Vietnam war, and believing that our generation could change the world. A first life in building materials grinds some of that idealism out of you, but the last 10 years in geo have rekindled that passion and belief that people can make a difference, particularly with a combination of Geo and Open. Add to that the fact that I banked the ‘fuck you’ money, and I now have the freedom to try and give something back and make a difference — so let me be your first Geohippy interview.

Q: A few years back you were one of the people behind the now defunct OSM-GB project. Tell us about the project and why it’s no longer operating. Was it just too soon? Is OSM the future?

A: That was at the Nottingham Geospatial Institute. We got the funding to use some heavyweight rules-based quality technology from 1Spatial (which is used by Ordnance Survey) to try and build an automated quality improvement process on OSM, and then to explore how OSM might be used by ‘professional users’, particularly in the public sector.

We discovered that we could generate some geometric improvements to the OSM data and we could identify some potential errors both in the geometry and the attribution, but we didn’t want to push our potential corrections back into the master dataset (a lot of what we identified were only potential errors rather than certainties), and we never worked out how to get engagement with the OSM mappers.

We served our ‘corrected’ version of OSM as a WMS and a tile service in OSMGB so that it would be simple for professional GIS users to consume. I was disappointed how little usage we actually got from the public sector despite a lot of initial interest at pretty high levels. The project was funded for about 16 months, we managed to keep it running for a bit longer, but eventually with no one interested in funding us we had to wrap it up.

I love OSM, I think it can be a game changer in some sectors where it is more than good enough. But let’s be honest, in the spaces where I usually work the data is too far from complete, consistent and accurate to be used as authoritative data in most public sector and mission-critical applications. I doubt that will ever change given the producer-centric focus of OSM (we map what we want because we can), but I would love to be proven wrong. OSM, even as it is now, has enormous potential to complement authoritative data from other sources, and we should be continuing to explore how we can make use of it in the public sector.

Q: Relatedly, any thoughts on the recent meltdown of OSMF? Can OSM succeed without a well organized OSMF?

A: Here’s some troll food for you. OSM and OSMF have never really worked out a comfortable relationship. OSMF seems to me to have little or no control or even influence over ‘the map’, its vision, licensing, organisation or strategy. OSMF is split into three camps at the moment:

  • Camp 1 wants to keep things ultra-light-touch and leave every decision to the activists amongst the mappers (and probably to not make many decisions, preferring to let everyone ‘do their thing’).
  • Camp 2 would like to create a more professional organisation that could raise funding and would provide direction to the project and be able to represent the project to governments and businesses that wanted to engage with OSM (I am definitely in this camp).
  • And the majority, even within OSMF, aren’t interested.

The wider OSM community is largely not interested in this stuff and just wants to get on with mapping what they want to map.

The recent meltdown as you describe it is a storm in a teacup with a relatively small number of people shouting at each other in public through the corrosive medium of email lists. You can’t have a conversation on an email list, most people in OSMF don’t even know or care what the argument is about. We talk about a community with over a million contributors, but less than 200 people voted for the new OSMF board; no one cares or understands. So now we have a board which is predominantly Camp 1 and likely to become more so over the coming year with motions for mandatory resignations, etc.

Not the way I would like to have seen things develop, but hey that’s what happens in a ‘community’, and you have to work from where we are. Maybe things will change in the coming years, I would like to see OSM/OSMF realising the vision of becoming the best and the most open map of the world that was used and supported by a colossal number of people and organisations for everyone’s benefit. I don’t think we can do that without fundamental change in the organisation of the project.

Q: Last year you helped organize FOSS4G in Nottingham. For years you’ve been a vocal advocate of open source in geo, and the need for companies to give back to the OS movement (a topic you’re presenting about here at wherecamp.de). As someone with long experience in the industry, tell us your perspective on the rise of open-source and where you see things moving in the future.

A: I am struggling to find the metaphor, “rise of open-source” just doesn’t describe what seems to be an unstoppable torrent or an overwhelmingly inevitable transformation of IT. I am going to confine myself to a short reply on Open Source Geo or we will be here till next year!

Much of what we do with geo today is pretty much ‘known stuff’ — we store data (in vector or raster formats) in a database, we edit it, we catalogue it, we query and render it to the web, mobile or desktop, and that’s most of what we do. That stuff is quite commoditised nowadays and it is inevitable that open source will get wide and growing adoption in those circumstances.

Add to that the fact that most surveys suggest that well over half of GI usage is in the public sector, who are experiencing massive financial pressures around the world and are looking to save costs by reducing their proprietary software inventory.

Oh, and if you want another thought, a lot of users and suppliers are looking to move their geo infrastructure to the cloud to provide a more flexible and scalable solution. Open Source provides a more ‘commercially scalable’ solution because you are not paying a software tax on the success of your application.

Q: You’re an advisor to / investor in several UK geo start-ups. What do you see for the future of the scene? What do you look for in a start-up?

A: That’s simple — people, people, and people. Of course you have to have a good concept and some idea of how that might make money in the future, I sort of take that for granted. I’ve looked at dozens of start-ups and invested in a few, for me it always comes down to people. If the people pitching the concept to me come over as smart, committed, and have integrity, then I get interested (it helps if I like them too). Otherwise just move on, there are plenty of fish in the sea.

I’m a bit cautious and boring as an investor — I want to see some early signs of revenue and a credible business plan. These seem to be quite scarce in the London start-up scene, particular amongst people who have had a great idea involving location.

Q: You blogged once about someone from the corporate world asking why you “waste” your time with small companies. Geo is dominated by giants like Esri, Google, TeleAtlas, Navteq, or national mapping agencies like the Ordnance Survey. Do start-ups have a chance to be globally relevant, or are they consigned to the niches? In your post you conclude small, nimble, OSS companies will eat the lunch of the incumbents. Still feel that way?

A: Hah, I guess that article was bound to come back to haunt me. You can’t consider a dominant software player like Esri (or some of the smaller long term players), a national mapping agency, and a couple of big navigation data providers as if they were the same.

If the big software vendors can’t adapt their business models rapidly they will lose a lot of market share to companies basing their offers on open source, that is already happening in the UK public sector.

I don’t see the mapping equivalent of open source — OpenStreetMap — eating Ordnance Survey’s lunch for a whole host of reasons, e.g. detail, authority, coverage, and consistency. The navigation market is going to come under increasing pressure as OSM moves from ‘good enough’ to pretty darn good, they could find themselves squeezed into high value niches.

Q: Your next challenge is as a non-exec director of the Open Addresses project getting moving here in the UK. This feels like a topic that has been going around forever, I can remember submitting postcodes to the old FreeThePostcode site a decade ago. What’s different now?

A: The Address Wars have been going on for a heck of a long time and we in the open data community are still battling away to get government to recognise that a single comprehensive address dataset is a piece of national information infrastructure that needs to be freely available to everyone for whatever use they may have.

We seemed to have taken steps backwards when the Ordnance Survey mopped up a big chunk of addressing provision by acquiring Intelligent Addressing and the data contributed by all of the Local Authorities, then there was a further setback when the government left the Postal Address File with the privatised Royal Mail. Open Addresses is trying to resolve this long-standing problem by creating a GB address database from a variety of Open Data sources and contributions through crowdsourcing (both bulk contributions and individuals). We think we can get to a fairly usable dataset within a year and have got funding to cover the initial beta phase. Maybe this will be a game changer for addressing in GB?

Q: Any closing thoughts for all the geohipsters (and hippies) out there?

A: You can’t choose to be a geohipster, it seems to be a label that others apply to you if they think that what you have done is in some way cool; I don’t think that is me. I have done pretty regular mainstream things in geo that worked for local and central government, police forces, insurance and oil exploration, that’s probably not geohipster and I’m fine with that.

Geohippies want to make a difference through disruption, geo-evangelism and a bit of altruism (I coined the term so I get to have first try at defining it). Sounds like fun to me.

James Fee: “If you have spare time this weekend, learn dat”

James Fee
James Fee

James Fee is the creator of Planet Geospatial, which has helped build a community around geospatial blogs. He has also keynoted conferences including the Safe Software FME UC, URISA, BAAMA and many more. You can follow him on Twitter, view his presentations on GitHub, and connect with him on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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

MD: I get the sense that your GIS career has had a few unusual twists and turns. Can you tell us how it all started, and what the biggest surprise has been?

JF: It started with a small job for the City of Mesa, AZ working on the mid-decade census. A Sun SPARC workstation was dropped off and I was the only one who wanted to read the Arc/INFO manuals. So I just started with the “A” commands and worked down to the “Z” commands. Good thing I needed ADDITEM first than WORKSPACE. The biggest surprise has been how easy it is for GIS to adapt to changing technologies. Honestly we are doing the same things we did 25 years ago but quicker and cheaper with less bodies around to get it done. I don’t do GIS in the same way I did it in the early 90s. I don’t even call myself a GIS practitioner. But I do the same basic commands I did with Arc/INFO back in the day, just with JavaScript and PostGIS.

AE: I see a trend in recent years where a number of prominent geogeeks now do “more database, less GIS”. Why do you think that is? Is there money in GIS?

JF:  GIS has always been databases. The difference now is not be so special about it. Why do we need SDE when PostGIS/SQL Server and Oracle can do the same work? Why do we need a special proprietary GIS file format when SQLite, PostGIS and even CSV get the job done easier? That doesn’t mean the skills to run such operations are simple, just the tools are more robust, cross-platform, and easier to learn. Databases are the key to solving spatial problems and they don’t need to be tied to some special GIS silo. Even Esri sees that. I doubt there is money is GIS on its own. We all see that. The money is in spatial and solving problems in those applications and databases that are necessarily spatial by default.

AE: You are one of the earliest geo bloggers, and one of the most opinionated. Have you experienced any adverse effects from your blogging?

JF: If I have I don’t recall. Blogging has opened up thousands of doors for my growth and sanity. I’ve never been told to take something down and I don’t think I’ve ever done so.

MD: I’ve never had the patience to keep a blog updated, but I certainly appreciate the value. Have you ever looked back at old posts like this one and marvel at how much things have changed? Or do you spend more time pursuing current topics like Metadata Madness (which I couldn’t agree more on)?

JF: I started blogging because I was fed up with SDE and Oracle Spatial. I found PostGIS and wanted to learn more. Blogging seemed the very 2005 thing to do. Things have changed for sure but many of the same projects and players are still around doing what they do best. I don’t really go back and look at my old blog posts except when I’m googling a subject and something I wrote is the best result. The old circular reference never fails when you’re in a hurry. I always look forward rather than reflect on debating the need of open-sourcing Avenue.

AE: Last week you announced the end of Planet Geospatial and Spatially Adjusted, and moving all your blogging to Tumblr. Does this signal the end of long-form blogging for you? Do you think long-form blogging is dying?

JF: I moved to Tumblr because it is easier to share and write on the iPhone and iPad. I’m so over “rolling my own” solution with blogging. Twitter and Facebook have taken over for blogs. It’s more democratic these days. Rather than wait for a blogger to write a subject and make a comment, you can just write 140 characters and let the community run with it. I don’t think Tumblr limits me from long-form blogging. It just allows me to share things quicker than WordPress or Jekyll ever did. After over 2,200 blog posts and 10,000+ comments, change is inevitable.

MD: Over the last few years you’ve hosted “Hangouts with James Fee”. Your “10 Years of Steve Coast” hangout lasted almost an hour in August. What inspired you to pursue this kind of format? Is it easier to host a hangout than it is to write an opinion piece?

JF: It’s fun to hear the conversations. We always say that when we’re having beers talking about how much we love the shapefile. It just seemed natural to have such a hangout and the team at WeoGeo did much to get it done. It’s easier to have a hangout of course, there doesn’t go much prep into it. Some things need to be written down though and that’s where the blog still has its point. Generally these hangouts could last hours if we didn’t put up a hour time limit. I wish I had time to get more done, they’re a blast and it’s never hard to find someone to join in.

AE: Is dat the next big thing? Why/why not?

JF: dat is great for working with large datasets. One can stream any format into any format. It’s an ETL but it is so much more than that. I like it because its CLI is so easy to use. So much data resides in huge data stores that are hard to access and use. I envision dat being that key that opens them up and allows me to get at the data in the tools I like to use. I feel like it is the key to open government data moving forward. If you have spare time this weekend, learn dat.

AE: I admire your passion for baseball, even though I don’t understand the sport. Any chance a Euro transplant such as myself can learn to appreciate baseball?

JF: Sure, baseball is all about statistics. That’s why I think spatial geeks love it so much. Every play, every movement of each player, every pitch, every swing is tracked and loaded into a database. It’s such a social sport too. Grab a beer, your friends, and head to a ballpark for a great evening. That and the Giants are World Series Champions again!

MD: Speaking of your fandom, it appears you are a Giants fan for baseball, a Lakers fan for basketball, and and Arizona State fan for football. This is confusing even for a New-Englander-turned-Minnesotan. Can you explain your allegiances?

JF: So there is no simple answer. I’m from Southern California so I grew up a Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Rams and California Angels fan. I disliked the Dodgers because they were everything the Angels were not. Thus I rooted for the Giants just to annoy Dodger fans. The Rams moved away and I swore off the NFL but at the same time I went to college at Arizona State University (thus college football replaced the NFL). Before Phoenix had a baseball team, it was the Triple A Phoenix Firebirds affiliate for the San Francisco Giants so I just started rooting for them. Then after graduation I moved up to San Francisco and the Giants replaced the Angels officially. Of course it made it hard to root for the 2002 World Series but I was pulling for the Giants. Thus it’s Giants in baseball, ASU for all NCAA sports, and the Lakers for basketball (though there isn’t any reason to pay attention this year).

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

JF: Open data is a buzzword but it’s the wave of the future. Projects like dat are going to be critical for any project moving forward. Learn these tools (dat, PostGIS, Python, JavaScript) and you’ll be successful for the next decade.

Sophia Parafina: “Smart people will make you poor”

Sophia Parafina
Sophia Parafina

Sophia Parafina (Twitter, blog) provides janitorial services for data and is fond of firing high velocity projectiles.

Sophia was interviewed for GeoHipster by Randal Hale.

Q: We first met over Twitter. Our first IRL meeting was at the infamous Thea Aldrich baby shower in Austin Texas. But I’ve never asked: How did you start in the geo field?

A: I’ve had an eclectic career. I started with GIS and remote sensing in 1993 in Forest Science at Texas A&M. I was running away from the Geography department because I was done with the squishiness of cultural geography. My first project was redoing Texas Forest Service fire control maps for all of Texas using Landsat and TIGER at Texas A&M. From there, I moved on to routing garbage trucks and dead animal pickup at the City of Austin. I worked for a series of transportation GIS and environmental engineering firms where I routed pipelines, supported environmental impact assessments, and developed integrated GIS systems for railroads and airports.

I took a left turn career-wise and worked for In-Q-Tel — the CIA’s venture capital group — and moved into the world of secret squirrels. I was a founder and CTO of IONIC Enterprise, which was one of the first companies to provide a commercial solution built around OGC standards. IONIC Enterprise was acquired by Hexagon A.B. and Erdas, that’s all I’m gonna say about that because that’s what my lawyer told me to say. Following the acquisition, I was the operations manager at OpenGeo, providing me with a view into the open source world. Lately I’ve been bouncing around various projects, including a stint with Code for America in 2013.

Q: Speaking of Code for America, you spent a year in the program. What did you do there?

A: I was part of the team working on Ohana API while at Code for America. Ohana API is a platform for serving human services data. I submitted a proposal to the Knight Foundation and won a grant that enabled our team to continue our work so that it can be deployed more easily without dependencies on what I call hipster-tech such as MongoDB, Elasticsearch, etc. I’m working on a specification to make distributing human services data easier à la Google Transit Format Specification (GTFS). This will probably be the last time I will ever work on any standard.

Q: When you were at In-Q-Tel you funded a lot of OGC standards, such as the WMS standard. Is WMS still dead (referring to your 2011 WhereCampDC talk)? What evolves next in this arena?

A: Yes, at In-Q-Tel we funded a lot of OGC efforts that included standards and testbeds. WMS was an attempt at interoperability but it was based on ideas from pre-web architecture. It’s essentially RPC over HTTP which kind of works but doesn’t fulfill the promise of service chaining which was pretty much the full expression of interoperability at the time. As a technology, WMS is a dead end. There are still installations of MapServer and GeoServer and they fit a niche, which is usually a mandate for OGC interoperability. WMS is sometimes used for tile generation, but Mapnik has filled that role operationally for most organizations that offer mapping as a service.

I think we’ve already seen what’s next in MapBox, Google, and CartoDB where they offer mapping services. I think Esri will continue on given their installed base, but this market is pretty niche and everyone is looking to the next big thing, which is probably imagery. We’re seeing a prevalence of drone mapping and the launches of micro satellites by Planet Labs are pointing towards near real-time capture, analysis and dissemination of imagery. That’s way more data and information than vector maps.

Q: When we last spoke you said you were slowly moving out of the geo field and working more with databases than geo. You haven’t left geogeekdom, have you?

A: For me, geo has become more of a sideshow. I still occasionally map things for giggles such as this competitor’s map for Brownell’s Lady 3 Gun. I sporadically blog technical stuff, sometimes geo-related.

Geo can be fun, but after working in the field for a couple decades, it feels a bit played out to me. What do I know? I’m a jaded fuck. Today I work more with various forms of semi-structured and unstructured data streams. Internet of Things looms large for me. Oh yeah, building a business around social media data is stupid. That’s so done.

For relaxation, I’m a competitive USPSA (US Practical Shooters Association) pistol shooter as well as 3 Gun Nation member. You can find me at a range most weekends blowing holes into things and reloading ammo in the evenings. I would love to leave all this computer crap and become a professional shooter, but there’s no money in it.

Q: During our recent encounter you were successfully (or unsuccessfully) blowing holes through targets. How did a nice gentle person like you start carrying around three or more guns at something called Lady 3 Gun?

A: The main problem at Lady 3 Gun was that I was too slow when blowing holes into things. I had bird flu and was hospitalized two weeks before the match, and I was happy that I wasn’t keeling over.

I got into guns because I live in a colorful inner city neighborhood where we’ve had drug dealers set up shop across the street in a rental house, infrequent home invasions, and occasional MS13 or Latin Kings gang killings a couple of blocks over. My wife is a politician and public figure, and being the other female half of this dyad can be dicey since we live in Texas.

I believe in knowing how to use a firearm effectively, but regular practice can be boring. So I started shooting USPSA where I can run around obstacles and shoot as fast as I possibly can while off balance. I joined 3 Gun Nation this year so I can be mediocre in not just one gun, but three types of guns. It’s a literal blast and the adrenaline rush can’t be beat.

Q: I never asked about your skinny jeans or record collection… or your favorite PBR craft beer bar. Let me ask instead: What are some of your tools for either ripping apart things or ripping apart data?

A: My favorite tool has to be my Leatherman, but I also carry a Rick Hinderer knife and Smith & Wesson 9mm M&P Shield as everyday carry. Following that, I use Chrome and Sublime Text as my primary tools, but vim has a very special place in my heart because it can open files greater than 200GB in size on my 4 year old MacBook Pro. I use what is handy for mapping: QGIS, Google Fusion Tables, MapBox, CartoDB — whatever I need to do at the moment. No real preference.

Haven’t used Esri products in over a decade, except to occasionally liberate geodatabase files. I cruise through github for tools. Love PostgreSQL/PostGIS, but I’m also very fond of Elasticsearch. I’ve been using Ruby recently, but I’m overcoming my distaste of Python because it has more tools for analysis. I’m pretty good at stupid bash tricks as a lifelong unix devotee.

Q: Last question: Any pearls of wisdom to throw at the readers of GeoHipster?

A: Pearls of wisdom that were passed on to me:

  1. Smart people will make you poor.
  2. You will never get ahead financially until you can make money while you sleep.
  3. “Just walk away and there will be an end to the horror.” –the Humungus in Mad Max http://youtu.be/XPY5P0TaC4k

The 2015 GeoHipster Calendar is available for purchase

We are excited to announce that the first-ever GeoHipster wall calendar is ready for production. We thank all who submitted maps for the calendar, Christina Boggs and Carol Kraemer for co-originating the calendar idea, and Christina again for her ongoing assistance with logistics and curation.

The 2015 GeoHipster Wall Calendar makes a great holiday gift for the geogeek on your list, so pick up a few. The proceeds from the calendar sales will help GeoHipster offset our operational costs, stay ad-free, and maintain independence.

The 2015 GeoHipster Calendar is available for purchase from CafePress. All calendars are made to order (you need to specify January 2015 as Starting Month (as opposed to the default setting — the current month)).

The calendar features maps from the following map artists (screenshots below):

  • Gretchen Peterson
  • Jonah Adkins
  • Ralph Straumann
  • Markus Mayr
  • Bill Morris
  • Andrew Zolnai
  • Stephen Smith
  • Damian Spangrud
  • Farheen Khanum
  • Christina Boggs
  • John Van Hoesen
  • Steven Romalewski
  • Joachim Ungar
GeoHipster 2015 Calendar cover layout
GeoHipster 2015 Calendar cover layout

IMPORTANT! The screenshot below is intended ONLY to give an overview of the overall layout — which map goes on which page, etc. When you order the 2015 calendar, you will get the 2015 calendar. You can verify this by reviewing each individual page online before you order.

GeoHipster 2015 Calendar 12-month layout
GeoHipster 2015 Calendar 12-month layout