Monthly Archives: December 2014

What will be hot in geo in 2015 — predictions from the GeoHipster crowd

GeoHipster asked several GeoFolk to predict what will be HOT in geo in 2015 (see 2014 predictions from December 2013). Here are their answers:

Nicholas Duggan, Dragons8mycat

Thanks for the opportunity, let me first get into smug mode and say that I wasn’t too far off the mark with Boundless’ OpenGeo being prime place for 2014. Even if it was trumped by the presence of CartoDB this year, people were still talking about it. So, CityEngine never really exploded the way I was expecting, it was beaten by ArcGIS Pro and the fantastic QGIS2Threejs which is still a win in my book.

My thought is that 2015 is going to see QGIS become the cartographers’ software of choice, already with many great effects and styling choices. The next year is only going to see those tools expanding and getting more relevant for the cartographer & casual mapper alike.

With the latest Snapdragon chipsets in the current Samsung & HTC devices, locational accuracy can be better than 3 metres anywhere in the world through an off -the-shelf mobile device. I can see this being a springboard for many GIS companies to bring out better mobile mapping/ tracking solutions and also the return of “job manager” systems to quality-control the input & output of this sourced data.

With the UK testing autonomous cars next year, I can see huge advances in LiDAR & data collection appearing… and maybe the reappearance of the indoor mapping…

Tim Waters

  • 2015 will be the year of specialized personalized OSM maps EVERYWHERE
    • maps on e-paper watches
    • OSM maps going to Mars. There will be a hashtag #mapstomars
    • maps on hats
    • maps on those jackets you put on little dogs to keep them from shivering
    • maps on free tissues given out in Japanese urban areas
  • 2015 will see the first major public lawsuit against the OpenStreetMap Foundation (OSMF) for some frivolous reason, such as “my client used OSM maps on his CartoCrate Corp GPS Routing App on his iPhone and crashed into a Yak. OSM Maps are at fault.” This will cause a crisis in the Foundation, causing a mapping personality to raise a crowdfunding drive to raise legal funds, and in the process, the personality devolves the OSMF board and takes executive control. As a response to the legal mess and the insinuation pointed at them from some mapping extremists that they were involved, CartoCrate Corp will create a Public Domain fork of the OSM database and set about getting the US Govt using it. It’s quite successful.
  • Oh, BTW Mapbox ended up as the company that did the paying mappers idea, although not as large scale.

Bill Dollins, Senior Vice President, Zekiah Technologies, Inc.

I think 2015 will be the year that other industries will catch on to geo and realize they don’t need GIS to do it. It won’t happen overnight, but I think it may be the start of a trend.

It could take any number of forms. Maybe it’s a company or organization not previously associated with geo that releases a narrowly-targeted tool or library that solves an industry-specific set of geo problems. Maybe it’s a large company acquiring a plucky geospatial startup to add some location awareness to its products.

The point is that the variety of open tools available will make it easier for organizations that understand their markets well to plug in “just enough geo” to enhance their domain-specific needs.

In short, 2015 will start to expose the fact that “Enterprise GIS” is really only relevant to GIS enterprises.

Stephen Mather

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” –Alan Curtis Kay

A year ago I predicted the beginnings of artisanal satellite mapping and ended with the phrase: “OpenDroneMap anyone?” After writing the prediction, I felt there was only one way forward. I registered the domain, proposed the project, and a year later (with the help and enthusiasm of many), we have OpenDroneMap. By January 2015, we will have a fully open source toolchain which fills 90% of the niche that Pix4D, Agisoft, and other closed-source projects fill in turning drone photos into geographic data, and it will have advantages that the closed source solutions know not.

Drones will continue to grow and be relevant to GeoHipsters in 2015 — more so in fact. As a result, retrograde coordinate systems, such as ones with promises of equal area, sub-inch accuracy, as well as vertical and horizontal datums galore will rise in prominence again amongst the GeoHipster clans. Geo will continue to converge to engineering scales. Great mock battles will be enacted between GeoHipsters and Survey-Hipsters.

But the great problems to solve in 2015 become ones not of how to process the new data, but how to store, retrieve, and share the data. In short, we will need artisanal pixel platforms like OpenAerialMap, with the need for similar projects specific to elevation models and digital surface models. These will be the great platform problems of GeoHipsters in 2015.

Tom MacWright

Companies exiting the tinkering phase will go all-in on making the killer apps, and building people-infrastructure like education and support. The GDAL/PostGIS/Mapnik stack that’s common to pretty much everything will see some major competition that fits better with the threads, clouds, and GPUs of new tech. Vector maps will finally be broadly available and the client side will eat more of the server side stack.

Randal Hale

So my 2014 predictions were more wrong than right. Maybe all wrong.

OSM did get more national attention and has a lot of companies leaning on it now. I would still argue that the “program” as a whole is unprepared for the World Spotlight. The OSM Foundation rules by not ruling and it can still be a bit of a wild wild west shootout on the listserves… since I was just in one. For me HOT (Humanitarian OSM) is the most desirable component of OpenStreetMap. They are doing it right — and maybe that is what saves OpenStreetMap.

I still think more organizations are moving to hybrid setups. It’s the future. You can’t rely on one software ecosystem to provide all your needs and wants.

I thought Esri would take out MapBox… and I’m so glad they didn’t pull a GeoCommons.

2015

The LAS format dust-up between Esri and rapidlasso finally gets some air time. I think this instance of Esri forking a LPGL format to only run on their software shows exactly how much they are embracing the open source world. They aren’t. If it happens once it will happen again.

Esri starts pushing the pay-for-play option for everyone. It may not be a bad thing at all. You pay for the portions of the ArcGIS ecosystem you want to use by buying “Esri Credits”. Hopefully that push finally kills off the out-of-date three-tiered approach to software sales. For some it will be good — for some it will be bad.

QGIS is my new love long-term affair for desktop software. I think in 2015 it takes off and becomes a tool everyone has on their desktop. Take a portion of your commercial maintenance (I’m guilty for not) and donate it to the program.

Esri makes a play for Spatial Networks. The guys behind Fulcrum are doing everything right. I have developed a severe bromance for that company. I hope I’m wrong on this one.

Finally — all the #geo people stop putting #geo in front of every term. Now I’m going out for a #geobeer to the #geopub and #georemember the one #geoprediction I didn’t #geomake.

Bill Morris

DRONES. Which of course sounds hackneyed and outdated, but UAV capabilities keep leaping forward. In 2014 the hardware matured and reached a broad audience; for 2015 UAV software and data management seems poised to shorten the channel from lens to actionable data. I see it already in disaster response, but I think agriculture is the likely sector to blow the doors off of UAV capabilities.

Paul Ramsey

When asked to look into the future, I generally start by looking into the past and reasoning by analogy. There have been some patterns of development in the last year that are worth at least commenting on.

JavaScript Uber Ales

It’s become pretty clear that MapBox intends to rewrite the whole of geospatial computing using JavaScript. Given the powerful JavaScript team in the company, it’s no big surprise. So starting from Leaflet, which is on the beaten path of JavaScript web mapping; then moving to Id, which is somewhat off the beaten path (and a tour de force of software development, Tom MacWright could retire right now and claim a full and complete career); with little detours through ideas like geojson.io; and more recently into places that look a lot like “GIS” via Turf and Geocoding via Carmen.

The architectural paradigm driving all this is very cloud- and horizontal-scaling-oriented: everything has to be chopped into tiny pieces, everything has to be embarrassingly parallel, everything is a URL, and everything Has-To-Be-In-JavaScript.

As it happens, I saw this movie the last time around, when the Java community arrived in the early 2000s and rewrote all of geospatial. The dominant architectural paradigm of the time was the three-tier, built on open standards, and the software all shows it. Everything was XML-configured, everyone followed the Gang of Four, everything was multi-threaded, and everything Had-To-Be-In-Java.

Applying the Java experience to the current JavaScript rewrite of All Software Everywhere:

  • The pre-Cambrian explosion of JavaScript software options currently underway will naturally be followed by a great die-off as a few dominant solutions take over the marketplace. Unlike the Java iteration, this time around there are almost no serious proprietary alternatives in the space, which is an interesting reflection on the state of software development.
  • By the time the dominant JavaScript solutions have achieved victory, they will be considered hopelessly passé and dependent on antiquated notions (these days everybody has to use Tomcat, but nobody looks at Tomcat’s XML configuration files and says “what an excellent idea”).
  • The architectural foundations of the new JavaScript solutions will also be considered out of fashion, though most of IT will still be humming along happily on those very foundations.
Imagery — Cheap, Cheaper, Cheapest

For a long time, discussion of imagery has been pretty boring stuff: Can you convert formats? Can you ortho-rectify? Can you color-balance and feather a mosaic? But this year at FOSS4G there was quite an interesting collection of talks all pointing towards a blossoming new world of cheap, cheap imagery.

At FOSS4G 2014 in Portland I saw talks by Frank Warmerdam on processing imagery for Planetlabs, and by Aaron Racicot and Stephen Mather on mapping with cheap drone hardware. With cheaper and cheaper sensors — ranging from the shoebox-sized “doves” from PlanetLabs to the sub-thousand-dollar quadcopters — we can and will pile up larger and larger collections of raw imagery. This pile of imagery will in turn drive innovation in image processing software to convert it all into a rationalized view of the world.

The new world of cheap, cheap imagery is enabled by two parallel innovations: really really cheap sensors that produce generally inferior imagery but incredible volumes of it; and really really clever software that can leverage multiple images of the same object to infer extra information, like 3D models, best pixels and so on.

It was only a handful of years ago that Microsoft’s Photosynth technique of building a 3D model out of an unorganized collection of photographs was a computing marvel. That capability is now available on smartphones. At one time the best computer vision software was only available as proprietary licensed SDKs: now it’s all open source.

With cheap sensors and algorithms capable of dealing with the imagery they generate, we’re not far away from a new world of earth observation — both from orbit and from only a few hundred feet above.

I expect that the tools for processing raw drone imagery will only get better, and that once (if?) the FAA sets reasonable rules for use of drones in the civilian sector, the USA will be awash in drones mapping every corner of the country — for the local county, electric company, and real estate board.

More Spatial, Fewer Maps

Over the last couple years I’ve been using the words “spatial IT” a lot, as a description for a trend in the geospatial world: our previously specialized tools are no longer specialized, they are just add-on features to general purpose IT tools.

So databases have a spatial column type. Document indexing systems (like ElasticSearch) have a spatial search capability. “Geocoding” functionality is now built into almost every application that might happen to have an address field.

So IT professionals are now capable of delivering “GIS” results, without “GIS” software. The classic “notification report” of all houses within 100 yards of a re-zoning application is now just a tabular query-and-mailmerge operation. No map, no GIS.

Data visualizations, having run through a brief map-mania after the advent of Google Maps, are now coming back full-circle to a realization that sometimes the best map is no map at all.

Non-spatial actions — like running a web search — are setting up subtle spatial queries in the background: your Google search returns results that are “relevant” to you not just categorically, but also geographically. Just a list of results, no map, but more spatial than before.

And spatial actions, like asking for directions, are returning way-finding results. A list of directions, rather than a schematic. The bar for a useful result from a routing application has moved “up” — away from a schematic cartographic result, to a natural language description of a step-wise route.

I guess it’s no real surprise that, as the wider world moves away from maps and towards embedded spatial everywhere, in our own field there is a growing nostalgia for classic cartography. Who is winning the maps competitions at the spatial gatherings these days? The whooshing pulsing arrows of the data visualizers, or the clear classic cartographers, telling story with the spare language of maps?

Hopefully this is just a moment, and maps will be back, but for now, spatial is the thing.

Ed Freyfogle

Two major trends:

  • More and more consumer services/apps will emerge that assume/require continual knowledge of the consumer’s location. This whole new range of services will require more and more consumers, but also developers, to contemplate location in ways they never have before. Privacy will be a bigger issue than ever. Most of the developers building these services will have no background in GIS or cartography or such things, nor any desire to learn. They will embrace whatever tools help them get the job done.
  • OpenStreetMap’s data volume will continue to grow rapidly, not least due to the introduction of more and more domain-specific editors like Rob Hawkes’ building height estimator or Tom MacWright’s CoffeeDex. More and more data, all around the world, will flow in, in some cases without the consumer even needing to be aware OSM is the underlying datastore. Meanwhile on the usage side, OSM’s “good enough” quality will continue to improve every day. The inevitable march forward will continue, helped on by more and more governments (local, national) embracing open data albeit in a very chaotic, piecemeal manner. More and more best practices and robust toolchains will emerge.

Gary Gale

More Geospatial Visualisations, Maybe Less Maps

One of the great things about having a wife who understands and accepts that you’re a map nerd is getting great Christmas gifts such as “London: The Information Capital” by James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti. The book is subtitled “100 maps and graphics that will change how you view the city”. Reading this book made me realise that there were as many maps as there were visualisations with spatial data, and I also realised that this book wasn’t an isolated instance. More and more geospatial information is being visualised, both online and elsewhere. This means lots of maps but not just maps. This is a trend that will continue into 2015 and beyond as people who aren’t used to maps still want to visualise mapping data.

More Tangible Maps

At home I’ve got gift wrap with maps on it, a notebook covered in maps and even a map on the case of my phone. Walking through our local bookstore at the weekend, I was struck by just how many maps there were in so many shapes, sizes and forms, and with not a single digital map to be seen. Take a brief search through Etsy and you can get a map on all you ever wanted and a lot more besides. Maybe the public has fallen back in love with tangible maps as digital maps become more and more part of our daily lives? Whatever the reason, maps are here to stay.

More Bad Maps

Both of the previous two predictions means we’re going to continue seeing a lot more maps. But that also widens the scope for a lot more bad maps. There’s even a Twitter hashtag for this. Take a search for #badmaps if you want your eyes to bleed and whatever cartographic skill you possess to shriek out in anguish. This is not going to get any better. Now, because anyone can make a map, this means anyone might make a map, regardless of whether they should or not. That’s not to say that cartography should remain the preserve of professional cartographers, but if you don’t have a modicum of appreciation of design, an eye for colours that complement each other, and at least a rudimentary understanding of geography, then making a map might be something you want to pause and think about.

Even More People Doing GIS, Without Knowing They’re Doing GIS

Coupled with the news of the forthcoming demise of Google Maps Engine and existing customers looking to take their web-based geographic visualisations onto another platform or toolset, more people will end up doing GIS, or at least the lower end of the GIS spectrum, blissfully unaware of the fact that what they’re doing is in any way connected with something called GIS. Expect ESRI to make ArcGIS online much less GIS-like and Mapbox’s Turf and CartoDB to pick up lots of Google Maps emigres. Meanwhile people who are used to Javascript and web maps will look at toolkits like Polymaps or Leaflet and end up accidentally doing GIS, and free GIS tools such as QGIS will also reap the benefits of GME power users.

OSM Will Explode

It’s a sweeping generalisation and probably a controversial one too, but OpenStreetMap seems to be divided into 4 tribes. Firstly there’s the utopian tribe, truly believing that OSM is the only way forward for mapping data, that it will dominate across all forms of mapping data, and that if only everyone else would embrace the ODbL and its share-alike clause everything would be so much easier. Then there’s the community tribe, who use and contribute to OSM because they like the community aspect first and the mapping aspect second. Thirdly there’s the map tribe who just want to get on with mapping the world. Finally there’s the pragmatic tribe who want to see OSM flourish in the current business world and realise that something probably has to change in order for that to happen.

Each tribe wants something different from OSM and although there’s overlaps and blurring the lines, the OSM community is a divided one. I have to ask if this is sustainable in its current form.

All of which means that 2015 might be the year OSM explodes. Sadly this doesn’t mean uptake and contributions will explode, but my fearful prediction is that OSM itself will explode and fragment, with the possibility of OSM forking looming on the horizon.

Todd Barr: “If your gut tells you it’s wrong, it is”

Todd Barr
Todd Barr

Todd Barr (blog, Tumblr, website) has been bouncing around the Beltway for 16 years, working in the spatial industry for the past 14. He holds an MSc in Geography from the University of Denver, and keeps considering getting another one in BioDefense. When he’s not peeing on Esri’s leg, he can be found either in a park playing Hide and Go Drone with his daughter, or wasting time on the internet. Todd is currently a Spatial SME 2 at Eglobaltech. That being said, all opinions are his own and are not that of his employer. He also secretly wishes he was a hat guy.

Todd was interviewed for GeoHipster by Bill Dollins.

Q: You have worked in the government services sector for a long time. What do you see as the greatest challenges or difficulties in that area? What do you see as the greatest opportunities?

A: I really see three major challenges facing the feds:

  1. How limited the use of GIS is. It seems that once it’s “on a map”, it’s good enough. I know it’s a time-and-money thing, but if we could just push it a bit more, and dive deeper into the science and analysis part.
  2. Not enough sharing of data. When I was working with Transportation for the Nation (TFTN) it was amazing to see how much savings would occur with a single, albeit it huge, open data set.
  3. The lack of innovation, or a culture of innovation. This isn’t just in geo, but geo is what I have the best view of. Geoplatform is GOS 2.0, ArcGIS Online for Organizations is just an obfuscated Server and SDE. There are champions out there, but they are too few and too far between.

Case in point: During my time on platform, I was shocked as to how many times Jack would drop by the governing department, especially when we were building two stacks. It was so bad that a stakeholder would hide when Jackie D would drop by.

Opportunities: From a vertical market perspective, Public Health has the greatest opportunity and compatibility with GIS. I really think that if someone pushed the predictive aspect of GIS into the BI of an organization, there would be doors flying open.

Q: You have a passion for emergency management, which you have channeled into a focus of your career. The emergency management field has gotten a lot of attention over the last 15 years in the wake of events such as 9/11, the 2004 hurricane season, Katrina, Haiti, Sandy, and unfortunately many others. What have been the most effective applications of geospatial tools you have seen over that time and in what ways does the geospatial industry still fall short?

A: GIS falls short across the board in all implementations in the field of Emergency Management. Geovisualization does really well. This has been my COP rant for years. Sure — you know where it is, and what is happening — but that just puts you in reactive mode, not proactive mode. With the recent Ebola scare, sure we knew were the cases were, but why weren’t there predictive models being rolled out to help the people “on the ground”? I think that Emergency Managers, and that whole community — even those that think they “get it” — don’t. There aren’t a lot of “geo preparedness models”. They are normally built after the event, not in preparation for.

And Esri doesn’t really do much in the realm of selling the hard-core analysis part of GIS as much as VIPER, or whatever they’re hawking now.

OpenStreetMap — hands down, OpenStreetMap. When the Haitian earthquake hit, I was on a National Guard contract. The difference between the ways this “institution” reacted, and the way the community reacted, was night and day. That first weekend made me an OSM advocate. Sure, it has its issues, but it’s hands down the best spatial platform for response.

Q: In your recent blog post, “Looking for a job as a Geo Silverback,” you allude to “whistleblowing” as one of the factors affecting your employment situation. What led you to take that step and how has it affected you since?

A: Ethics, balance, and being able to sleep at night knowing I did the right thing. Contractors have a bad enough perception as it is, we don’t need to feed into that by actually doing things that reinforce that perception. There are times when contractors are handed contracts on a silver platter, and all they have to do is run a find-and-replace in an RFI from “The Contractor” to “<!–Insert Large Contractor Here–>”. But this wasn’t that, it was an under-the-table slide of inside information. Not something we teased out of the client, or we had better insight into the document than the other competitors. Which, I’m sure, the employer would have. But — and this is the economist in me talking — it fundamentally altered the playing field, giving one actor an unparalleled advantage. Not because of insight, not because they had the best team or the best price, but because they had inside information that no one else was privy to.

The feeling when I read the email made my stomach turn, and watching my coworkers rationalize why it was okay, how “this might not be the final document.”  Or that “it was because the client wanted us to win.”  It’s the same thinking errors that go into a 15-year-old shoplifting. This is becoming a rant, I’ll stop now.

Tl;dr: I don’t like to compete with people when the field isn’t level.

Q: As a self-proclaimed GeoSilverback, what observations or advice do you have for an undergrad just getting started on a career in geography? Do you think there will be such a thing as a “career in geography” in the coming years?

A:  I’m actually working on that blog entry for later this week. Two things here: Own your personal brand — because that’s what you are, you are a product. Jobs come and go, but build your career. Two, 90% of life is just showing up.

As for the future — no, Location Tech/Geospatial is going to be absorbed by the Big Data/Data Scientists tsunami that’s coming. We’ll be specialists within the greater field of Data Crap. Coincidentally, that’s what the DC in Washington DC will stand for in the future.

By the time this is posted I should have the blog entry up, so go there. #shamelessselfpromotion

Q: You have active presence across various social media channels. In fact, it is how we originally connected. Which channel do you find most effective? How has social media benefitted you professionally and in general?

A: The Twitters. I often quote this one line I ran across a while back “Facebook is for people you knew in high school, and on Twitter you meet the people you’re supposed to meet.” I’m sure my Twitter feed would make a personal branding expert drop a deuce in her pants right there, but I don’t like to put on airs. I’m good at what I do, I say “fuck” a lot, and I clean up well.

For three years I tried to figure out where G+ fits into my social media ecosystem. Which is why I stand by my “G+ is the Detroit of social media. Lots of infrastructure, but no one lives there.”

Social media has amplified my professional network by a factor of 4-ish.  Increased my knowledge of obscure/non mainstream tech. Point-blank Twitter has made me better at managing the nooks and crannies of my career.

Q: Prior to your life in geo you spent time in comedy. This penchant comes through, for example, in your “Drunken Geographer” Tumblr. Whom do you consider to be your comedic influences? Do you have any future plans with comedy?

A: WC Fields, Groucho Marx, Woody Woodberry, Benny Hill, George Carlin, and Kevin Smith.

Kevin Smith isn’t so much a comedian as a wordsmith with a humorous edge; he also shares my birthday. There you go haters, now you can find out my yahoo mail password.

Growing up where I did, we had to get a special antenna to get the Kansas City stations. There was an independent station — Channel 41 — that would play “Up All Night”. I would sneak up and watch Benny Hill, Groucho, and WC Fields. Fuse them with Carlin, and you can see where my belligerent, filthy, pointing-out-the-clay-feet-of-bullies, direct sense of humor comes from. For whatever reason, I can say things others can’t and generally walk away unscathed, so it’s working for me.

Woody Woodbury was a chance find in my dad’s vinyl collection. My love of him can only be explained through the U Tubes. Someday I will play that at an AA meeting.

I have 3 things that are in the works. Drunken Geographer “The Podcast”: The setup is based on Fat Man on Batman and a couple of other podcasts. I get someone who is “popular” in geo, we sit around, drink, and talk about why we love geography and what we would do with it if we got a grant from a foundation to just “Do Something”. I’m going to lasso Liz Lyon in on this, because when I start going raunchy, she can reel me back. I honestly run all the Tumblr posts past her before they go live. She’s a good gauge for what is too racy. I have no sensor for that.

Also, I have mapped out and written a “choose your own adventure” ArcGIS Desktop story that should be up on drunkengeographer.com.

The second thing, which is ready to go (I’m just looking for a venue), is a one-man show called “Tubing with Fags”.  Basically it’s me looking at the end of my marriage, my medical issues, the duke out for custody, and its aftermath. I really think the mental quill and paper, and writing all that stuff down in my memory really got me through.

The third is a collaborative effort with a law dog friend of mine. We both were in Washington Improv Troupe, just at different times.  Ed Gein the Musical. I wrote the intro song on her Facebook page during a really boring meeting.

I also have a couple of pop-up comedy things planned, one around GIS Day, and the second one around the Esri FedUC.

Q: I think this is the part of the interview where I ask you about hipsterism, but I can’t bring myself to do that. So, I’ll ask if you have any final thoughts you’d like to share with the GeoHipster readers?

A: Dammit, I had prepped an answer to this one. I’m not a GeoHipster, I’m a Spatial Punk.

Your ideas and dreams aren’t stupid, what if Frederick F. Russell was all like “I just don’t know how much of typhoid fever I should try to cure. What if I look stupid, what if I fail.” WE’D ALL HAVE DIED OF TYPHOID and apes would rule that planet, since typhoid isn’t a species jumper.

Don’t be close-minded, don’t be a zealot for one tech or the other, no one ever has all the answers to a problem, and never trust a bully.

Lastly, if your gut tells you it’s wrong, it is.

Thierry Gregorius: “Build a unique skill, stay focused, and never grow up”

Thierry Gregorius
Thierry Gregorius

Thierry Gregorius is a GIS professional with nearly 20 years’ experience in the oil & gas, land & property, and environmental sectors. Originally from Luxembourg, he studied geomatics in Germany, Australia and the UK, graduating with a PhD in satellite geodesy. Thierry has worked internationally throughout his career, including Shell‘s global exploration division in the Netherlands and Landmark Information Group in the UK. He is currently a principal consultant with Exprodat, a London-based GIS consultancy delivering services to the global energy industry.

Thierry is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and serves as External Examiner for Geomatics at Newcastle University. He is married with two children and lives in England’s southwest where he spends most of his spare time outdoors, surfing, swimming, cycling or hiking with his family. He also enjoys mountaineering and fine malt whisky. You can find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Thierry was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.

Q: You and I (and several other folks I know) have this in common: Considered careers in architecture, then veered off into GIS. Why did you choose GIS over architecture?

A: I loved how architecture combines opposing fields such as art and science, or design and engineering — in a spatial way. As a kid I basically dreamed of becoming an architect and fighter pilot. Both are highly spatial occupations, so I guess GIS was not such a huge leap. Flying jets was a non-starter as my native Luxembourg had no air force and besides I grew too tall to fit into a cockpit. So yes, I seriously considered architecture as a career. But this was the late 80s and many architects were unemployed and desperate enough to go into interior design. I was interested in spatial relationships, not soft furnishings.

So my career adviser took a look at my profile and suggested geomatics (surveying) for which there was much more demand at the time. I didn’t really know much about it but immediately liked the look of the curriculum. It had many of the spatial elements of architecture (or indeed jet flying), it had maths and science, and it even had a bit of art and design in the form of cartography. I was also really attracted by the outdoor aspect of the profession, although sadly these days most GIS and geomatics jobs are desk-bound — a trend that needs reversing, I feel, as it is important not to lose touch with the world we’re mapping.

There is a saying that goes “An architect knows something about everything, an engineer knows everything about one thing.” The same is true for GIS professionals; we work in a very multi-disciplinary way. So I’ve no regrets — choosing geomatics over architecture provided many job opportunities and allowed me to travel the world (as it happens I’m currently in Australia doing a piece of work for a client). And besides, I still do a bit of architecture and flying in my spare time…

Q: You have 20 years of geospatial experience, most of it in the Oil & Gas industry. What do you do for Exprodat as a GIS analyst? Can you tell us what your typical workday looks like? What technologies do you use?

A: I’m a so-called strategic consultant. People hire me to troubleshoot, audit or design their GIS frameworks in a wider, organisational sense. So it’s more like management consulting. I might call it geospatial acupuncture… you know, optimise data flows, find pressure points, clear blockages, that sort of thing. I basically help organisations make sure that their people have what they need to progress their GIS to the next level — and that goes far beyond technology.

Even though GIS technology has vastly grown and matured, many organisations still find it difficult to make it work for them. Most of the issues I encounter aren’t to do with technology at all. Much of my job involves talking to stakeholders across an organisation to find out what they’re really trying to achieve, what data they need to achieve it, and how they like to work. I then help them create a GIS strategy with clear priorities and a framework that works for them, including the necessary governance, support and skills.

Technology choices should be the final thing to consider after all the other requirements are clear, but it’s amazing how often people still do it the other way round. Technology can be a real distraction when designing a strategy. What I try to do is more about improving people’s awareness and confidence so they can find their own solutions. Once people really know what they want to achieve, the technical solution often designs itself.

The oil industry is a bit of a mystery to outsiders, but thanks to its geopolitical and global nature it provides some really interesting challenges, also for GIS folks. And contrary to what you might read in the media, the people are really nice! The geoscientists I’ve worked with have real passion for what they do, and they’ve been quietly doing 3D and “big” data for more than 20 years. The industry is as advanced as Aerospace and Defence — not many people realise that drilling a deep-water well is as complex as landing a probe on the Moon. But strangely this level of sophistication is not always reflected in the industry’s handling of GIS and spatial data. For many companies it is still an afterthought, like data exhaust, or simply the “topo department” that makes maps. Over the years the industry has gradually woken up to the true power of GIS, but they still have some way to go.

Exprodat is exploiting this niche and has been going from strength to strength. It’s a boutique consultancy that specialises in geospatial services, training and GIS workflows tailored to the world of oil and gas. It’s a real fun place to work, and we’re helping clients all over the world. When I invited Steven Feldman to meet Exprodat’s board they hit it off immediately, even though we’re an Esri partner and he’s an open source evangelist. And working for a privately owned company is like a breath of fresh air after long stints at large corporates — in my two years at Exprodat I’ve not once heard the term “shareholder return”. We just love what we do and aren’t scared to say no to projects that don’t fit our values. Clients see that and appreciate the authenticity. We don’t bullshit people.

Q: I enjoy reading your blog Georeferenced. When I first saw your post “GIS is not as simple as it used to be”, I assumed the title was meant tongue-in-cheek. Then I realized it was not. But wasn’t GIS supposed to get easier, not harder? Or is “powerful and easy-to-use” — the sales folks’ favorite catchphrase — an oxymoron?

A: Well yes, GIS should be powerful and easy but that’s rarely the case. In reality, each solution can lead to new problems and we need to be careful to not just pass the buck. Sure, we can hide all the complexity under the hood and present users with a clean, crisp interface. Google Maps was the first example of that, and there have been many others since. But as soon as users try to go one step further they immediately hit roadblocks.

For a geoscientist, for example, data comes from many sources including hardcopies and other analog data — not just the digital firehose. To this day there is still no satisfactory way of easily assimilating all this data in an organic way, like a scrapbook, on a map that can be queried or analysed in seamless ways. If users like geoscientists — who have a day job other than GIS — want to do something slightly different, they need to go back to their GIS folks and ask them to add another button, include a new query, preload some more data or, worse, clean up a lot more data before they can even load it. People can’t just chuck all their stuff into GIS, and that is a serious shortcoming. A paper scrapbook has no such problem, although obviously it has other limitations.

So with GIS, and technology more generally, it often feels like we’ve just taken an analog problem and turned it into a digital problem — but not solved the problem. The internet, GIS, tablets… all of these are great tools, of course, and I still pinch myself every time I look at Google Earth on my iPhone. But it feels like something’s still missing. We’re not quite getting at the true nature of things.

Hopefully the current state of technology is just a temporary aberration, as evidenced by the slow death of the desktop PC. I’d like to see something more organic, something more human — where the technology works for us, not vice-versa. Maybe in the future we’ll just be able to conjure up a kinetic holographic model in front of us so we can literally handle the data with our hands (or voice), like sculpting clay. Or something like that.

If that’s not going to happen, we might as well go back to drawing maps by hand. Ok, I’m joking of course. But at as it is, drawing maps by hand is more fun, and for many people a GIS interface is still a rectangular hole for round pegs.

Q: I had just laid my claim to the title O.G. (Original Geohipster) when I read your post “King George III was a geohipster”. What a downer! But His Majesty was into maps big time, so I concede. What do you think led the King to collect over 50,000 maps? Practicality or hipsterism?

A: I’ve no idea! I can only guess it was curiosity coupled with obsessiveness — which are not unusual traits in geospatial people, if I dare say so… King George III’s Wikipedia page doesn’t even mention his map collection, so maybe it was his guilty secret. Maybe he just preferred maps to mistresses, unlike other royals.

Q: You blogged about your appreciation for analog gadgets: watches, cameras, etc. Such preferences are often considered eccentric nowadays, when you can wear on your wrist an electronic watch that is also a computer and a camera. How do you explain your “eccentricity” to someone who doesn’t understand why you prefer the less accurate device to the more accurate one?

A: I guess it comes back to what I said before about technology. My self-winding mechanical watch may be slightly less accurate than a digital one, but it never needs a battery and when I hold it to my ear it ticks at 3 beats per second — it’s alive. Digital stuff is nice and convenient but just feels too disposable to have soul. I like things that are well-made, preferably with natural materials, where you can feel with all your senses the creativity, dedication and craftsmanship that have gone into them. I’d much rather have a beautiful and well-made watch that lasts a lifetime and is made of nothing more than metal and glass, than an electronic gadget synced with atomic clocks that bites the dust after 5 years and then becomes toxic waste.

Q: Is there fashion in technology? Does the desire to be different sometimes trump other more “rational considerations” — in tech as well as in couture and in everyday life? Is it wrong if it does?

A: This is very unhipsterish, but I don’t really do fashion, or even pretend to understand it! I’m bewildered by people queuing through the night to get the latest iPhone. I used to follow technology news, but I’ve taken a step back. It’s all just too hysterical — it’s like someone brings out a new sandwich toaster and everyone goes nuts. Maybe these people see in iPhones what I see in automatic watches or well-made bicycles. It’s good to be passionate about something, I just don’t share that particular passion. And that’s not to say I don’t appreciate technology — I do. But to me technology is just the conduit, not the end goal.

As for being different, it really inspires me when people make maps in new and surprising ways, like when those first D3 maps came out. And the people who made them weren’t even GIS people. What a relief! We are not alone in the universe.

Q: You ride a Dutch bike, skateboards, and surfboards. You prefer to draw maps by hand. Have you been called a hipster because of these activities? If you have, did you take it as a compliment or as an insult?

A: Ha, no! The only thing people ever call me is “tall”. And believe me, a dangly 6’7” creature is not a pretty sight on a surfboard. One advantage of having pushed past 40 is that it’s OK to do stuff and not look cool. And I’ve always refused to let my inner child die. It’s important to hang on to your sense of curiosity and wonder. I like learning new things, making connections, asking “why” or “why not” questions. This attitude is also critical for my job. So the worst insult anybody could call me is “grown up”.

The Dutch bike, by the way, is just a relic from my time living in Holland – a 28” frame with double cross bars. It’s simply the best bike I ever had, which is why I keep riding it in the UK despite the strange looks I get. And I rode it way before hipsters found Dutch bikes hip.

Q: Thank you for the interview. Any final words for the GeoHipster readers?

A: If hipsters are defined by being different, then I think all geospatial folks are basically geohipsters. We don’t fit into any camp, really. Let’s face it, anyone working with GIS full-time is not a geographer, computer scientist, engineer, geoscientist, or whatever. If you want to be one of those things, go study their degrees and enter their professions proper. To make your mark in a particular domain you can’t afford to dabble in multiple disciplines because you’ll be up against specialists with many years of dedicated practice and experience.

Over the years there has been much discussion and debate about what career a GIS professional should aspire to, or what a GIS career even is. In my opinion you need to have at least one skill that nobody else has. I once called this the “geomatics striptease” — what expertise and value is there exclusively to us geospatial folks? I came to the conclusion that, if I had to strip off my non-exclusive layers, my naked self would be a geodesist and cartographer. No other field does these things, or at least not as well.

There may be a few other exclusive skills in GIS or geomatics, but many so-called geospatial expertise areas also reside in other professions. They’re not unique and this can be a danger area for career development — unless of course you want to become a multi-disciplinary generalist. In which case, sure thing, go ahead and become that ‘architect’ who orchestrates input from different fields. But whatever you do, it needs to be a conscious decision, and it requires focus. If you dilute yourself too much as a professional you’ll become the Swiss army knife that people only use when there’s nothing better at hand.

So to stay relevant, build a unique skill, stay focused, and never grow up. If you do those things, nobody can eat your lunch.