Monthly Archives: April 2015

Gary Gale: “Dear OSM, it’s time to get your finger out”

Gary Gale
Gary Gale
A self-professed map addict, Gary Gale has worked in the mapping and location space for over 20 years through a combination of luck and occasional good judgement. He is co-founder and director of Malstow Geospatial, a consultancy firm offering bespoke consulting and services in the geospatial, geotechnology, maps and location based services fields. A Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, he tweets about maps, writes about them, and even occasionally makes them.

This is very much an opinion piece of writing, and as such I want to start with a disclaimer. In the past I’ve worked on Yahoo’s maps, on Ovi/Nokia/HERE maps, and these days I’m freelancing, which means the Ordnance Survey — the United Kingdom’s national mapping agency — is my current employer. What follows is my opinion and views, not those of my current employer, not those of previous employers, and certainly not those of future employers. It’s just me. So with that out of the way and stated upfront, I want to opine on OpenStreetMap

***

Dear OpenStreetMap, you are truly amazing. Since you started in 2004 with those first few nodes, ways and relationships, you have — to paraphrase a certain Dr. Eldon Tyrell — burned so very, very brightly. (Those of you who know your Blade Runner quotes will know that just after saying this, Tyrell was killed by Roy Baty; I’m not suggesting that anyone should take this literally.)

Just looking at the latest set of database statistics (over 4.6 billion GPS points, over 2.8 billion nodes, over 282.5 million ways, and 3.2 million relationships as of today’s figures) shows how impressive all of this this is.

The maps and data you’ve created are a key element of what’s today loosely termed the geoweb, enabling startups to create maps at little or no cost, allowing some amazing cartography to be created, stimulating research projects, and allowing businesses to spring up to monetise all of this data — some successfully such as MapBox, some less successfully, such as CloudMade.

After reading all of this amazement and adoration, you’re probably expecting the next sentence to start with “But …”, and I’m afraid you’d be right.

But times change, and the mapping and location world we live in has changed rapidly and in unexpected ways since OSM started in 2004. In just over a decade the web has gone mobile with the explosive growth of sensor-laden smartphones, and location is big business — $3.8 billion’s worth of big in 2018 if you believe Berg Insight.

United Nations of smartphones
United Nations of smartphones

In 2004 if you wanted maps or mapping data then you either went to one of the national or cadastral mapping agencies — such as the UK’s Ordnance Survey — or you went to one of the global, automotive-focused, mapping providers; you went to NAVTEQ or to TeleAtlas. Maps and mapping data are expensive to make and expensive to maintain, and this expense was and continues to be reflected in the licensing charge you paid for mapping data, as well as in the restrictions around what you could and couldn’t do with that data. The high cost of data and the license restrictions were one of the key drivers for the establishment of OpenStreetMap in the first place.

Eleven years on, and the mapping industry landscape is a very different one. NAVTEQ and TeleAtlas are no longer independent entities — Chicago-based NAVTEQ was acquired by Nokia in 2008 after an EU antitrust investigation gave the deal the green light, and Amsterdam-based TeleAtlas has been part of TomTom since 2008. Both companies continue to license their mapping data and their services, with NAVTEQ — now known as HERE — powering the maps for Bing and Yahoo amongst others, and TomTom licensing their data to MapQuest and to Apple as part of the relaunch of Apple Maps in 2012.

There’s also been changes from the national and cadastral mapping agencies, with more and more data being released under various forms of open license — including the Ordnance Survey’s open data program, which in direct contrast to the old licensing regime is now under one of the most liberal of licenses.

In 2007 there was much attention paid to the NAVTEQ and TeleAtlas deals, citing uncertainty surrounding continued data supply to the maps and location industry. It was also predicted that the PND market — those personal navigation devices from TomTom and Garmin that sat on top of your car’s dashboard and announced “you have reached your destination” — would collapse rapidly as a result of the rapid growth of GPS-equipped smartphones.

These concerns and predictions got only half of the outcome right. The PND market did collapse, but the map data continued to flow, although it’s fair to say that as OSM matured and grew a reasonable chunk of revenue and strategic deals were lost — both directly and indirectly — to OSM itself, and to the organisations who act as a business-friendly face to OSM. But as Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, everything changes and nothing stands still.

In the last few weeks it’s been widely reported that Nokia is looking to sell off HERE, the company formed by the (sometimes unwilling) union of NAVTEQ and Nokia Maps. Speculation runs rife as to who will become the new owner of HERE, with Uber seeming to be the pundits’ favourite buyer. But whoever does end up owning HERE’s mapping platform, the underlying map data, and the sizeable mapping and surveying fleet, it now seems to be clear that just as the days of NAVTEQ and TeleAtlas as independent mapping organisations came to an end, the days of HERE are coming to an end. This also has shone the spotlight onto TomTom, who whilst making inroads into NAVTEQ’s share of the automotive data market, seems reliant on their deal with Apple to keep revenue flowing in.

Even before the speculation around HERE’s new owner, there are really only three major sources of global mapping, location and geospatial data: NAVTEQ in their current HERE incarnation, TeleAtlas under the mantle of TomTom, and … OpenStreetMap.

When — rather than if — HERE changes ownership, there’s a very real risk than the new owners will turn the data flow and services built on that data inwards, for their own use and their use only, leaving just two major global maps sources.

Surely now is the moment for OpenStreetMap to accelerate adoption, usage and uptake? But why hasn’t this already happened? Why hasn’t the geospatial world run lovingly into OSM’s arms?

Acceleration
Acceleration

To my mind there’s two barriers to greater and more widespread adoption, both of which can be overcome if there’s sufficient will to overcome them within the OSM community as a whole. These barriers are, in no particular order … licensing, and OSM not being seen as (more) conducive to working with business.

Firstly I want to deal with making OSM more business-friendly, as this is probably the biggest barrier to wider-spread adoption over licensing. For anything other than a startup or SME with substantial geospatial competency already in-house, dealing with OSM and comprehending OSM can be a confusing proposition. What is OSM exactly? Is is the community? Is it the OpenStreetMap Foundation? Is it the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team? Is it one of the companies in the OSM ecosystem that offers services built on top of OSM? All of them? Some of them? None of them?

There’s no doubt that OSM has a vibrant and active map-making and developer-friendly ecosystem in the form of the OSM Wiki and mailing lists alone, even before you factor in the supporting, indirect ecosystem of individuals, community projects and organisations. But this isn’t enough. Business needs to be able to have a single point of contact to liaise with, actually it often insists on this and will look elsewhere if it can’t find this point of contact with anything more than the most cursory of searches. Whether it’s OSM in some shape or form itself, or a single organisation that stands for and represents OSM, this is the biggest barrier to continued OSM adoption that there is, although it may not necessarily be the one which requires the most work to overcome. For that barrier you need look no further than the ODbL, the Open Database License, under which OSM’s data is licensed.

This is a contentious issue and one which is usually met with a deep sigh and the muttering of “not this again“. Prior to 2010, OSM data was licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license, normally shorted to CC-BY-SA. This license says that you are free to …

Share — copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format

Adapt — remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially

With hindsight, adoption of CC-BY-SA made a lot of sense, preserving and acknowledging the stupendous input made by all OSM contributors. It’s not for nothing that the credits for using OSM are “© OpenStreetMap contributors“.

But CC-BY-SA’s key weakness for OSM was that it is a license designed for the concept of “material“; for creative works and not specifically for data or for databases. This is understandable; at the time OSM adopted CC-BY-SA, such a data-centric license simply didn’t exist, and CC-BY-SA was the best option available. But in 2010, after much discussion and dissent, OSM switched to the data- and database-specific Open Database License. The ODbL maintains the same attribution and share-alike clauses, but phrased in legal language specifically for data sets. It seems like the perfect license for OSM, but it’s not.

The attribution clause in both CC-BY-SA and ODbL are not at issue. Such clauses mean that the efforts of those who have made OSM what it is are formally acknowledged. The issue is the share-alike clause in both licenses, although it’s fair to say that there are subtleties at play due to the many and varied ways in which OSM data can be “consumed“.

Be Afraid. Consume.
Be Afraid. Consume.

If your consumption of OSM data is a passive one, then the share-alike clause probably has little or no impact. By passive, I mean that as a user you are consuming data from OSM via some form of service provider, and your consumption takes the form of an immutable payload from that service, such as pre-rendered map tiles.

But what about if your consumption of OSM data still comes from a service, but takes the form of actual data — such as the results of a geocoder, or some other geospatial search? Such results are typically stored within a back-end data store, which means that by doing so the end result is a dataset which comprises the original data, plus the results of a search added to make a new dataset. Does this trigger the share-alike clause? This is still an ambiguous area, although current guidelines suggest that the resulting, aggregate data set is a produced work rather than a derived one and so are exempt from triggering the share-alike clause. But there is also a counter-argument that suggests that such an action is indeed a derived work, and so the share-alike clause does apply. This ambiguity alone needs to be resolved, one way or another, in order to make OSM an attractive proposition for business.

The final share-alike complication rears its head when your method of consuming OSM data is to merge one or more data sets with OSM to use the resultant data for some purpose. This sort of data aggregation is often called co-mingling in licensing and legal parlance.

If all the datasets you are dealing with are licensed under ODbL, then the share-alike clause potentially has little impact, as effectively ODbL plus ODbL equals … ODbL. Things are a little less certain when you co-mingle with datasets which are deemed to be licensed under a compatible license. Quite what a compatible license is hasn’t been defined. OpenDataCommons, the organisation behind the ODbL, only says that “any compatible license would, for example, have to contain similar share-alike provisions if it were to be compatible“, which while helpful isn’t a clear cut list of licenses that are compatible. At the time of writing I was unable to find any such list.

But if the data you want to co-mingle with OSM, or indeed with any ODbL licensed data, is data that you don’t want to share with the “community” — which of course will include your competitors — the only way to prevent this is not to use the ODbL-licensed data, which means not using OSM in this manner. To be blunt, mixing any data with a share-alike clause means you can lose control of your data, which probably is part of your organisation’s intellectual property and has cost time and money to put together. It’s acknowledged that not all co-mingling of datasets will trigger the share-alike clause; that there needs to be “the Extraction and Re-utilisation of the whole or a Substantial part of the Contents” in order for the share-alike, or indeed for the attribution clauses of the ODbL to kick in. The problem is that what’s classed as “substantial” isn’t defined at all, and OpenDataCommons notes that “the exact interpretation (of substantial) would remain with the courts“.

If you pause and re-read the last few paragraphs, you’ll notice that there’s words and phrases such as “ambiguity“, “isn’t defined” and “exact interpretation“. All of which adds up to an unattractive proposition for businesses considering using OSM or any open data license with a share-alike clause. For smaller businesses, finding the right path to navigate through licensing requires costly legal interpretation, and where money is tight such a path will simply be ignored. For larger businesses, often with an in-house legal team, a risk analysis will often result in an assessment that precludes using data with such a license as the risk is deemed too great.

Crossroads
Crossroads

OSM as a community, as a data set, as a maps and map data provider, and as an entity is at a crossroads. It’s been at this metaphorical crossroads for a while now, but with the way in which the industry is rapidly changing and evolving, this means that there’s these two challenges that OSM should be encouraged to overcome, if there’s a concerted will to do so.

In almost every one of my previous corporate roles I’ve tried to push usage and adoption of OSM to the business, with the notable exception of my time with Lokku and OpenCage Data, where OSM is already in active use. Initially, reaction is extremely positive: “This is amazing“, “Why didn’t we know about this before?“, and “This is just what we’re looking for” are common reactions.

But after the initial euphoria has worn off and the business looks at OSM’s proposition, the reaction is far from positive. “Who are we doing business with here? OSM or another organisation?“, “We can’t have a business relationship with a Wiki or a mailing list“, and “Legal have taken a look at the license, and the risk of using ODbL data is too great, I’m afraid” are paraphrased reactions I’ve heard so many times. To date, not one of the companies I’ve worked in has used OSM for anything other than the most trivial of base mapping tasks, which is such a loss of potential exposure for OSM to the wider geospatial and developer markets.

In short, the lack of a business-facing and business-friendly approach, coupled with the risks and ambiguity over licensing, are what is holding OSM back from achieving far more than it currently does. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

More than anything, OSM needs a business-friendly face. This doesn’t have to be provided by OSM itself; an existing organisation or a new one could provide this, hopefully with the blessing and assent of the OSMF and of enough of a majority of the OSM community. It’s also worth considering a consortium of existing OSM-based businesses, such as MapBox or GeoFabrik or OpenCage Data, getting together under an OSM For Business banner.

Coupled with the new approach to engaging with business, the licensing challenges could be solved by re-licensing OSM data under a license that retains the attribution clause but which removes the share-alike clause. Unlike the need for time to pass in order for the ODbL to be created to enable the transition from CC-BY-SA, such a license already exists in the form of the Open Data Commons Attribution license.

I do not claim for one second that making OSM business-friendly and re-licensing OSM are trivial matters, nor are there quick fixes to make this happen. I also do not doubt that some sections of the OSM community will be quick to explain why this isn’t needed and that OSM is doing very nicely as it stands, thank you very much. And I wouldn’t contest such views for a second. OSM is doing very nicely and will, I believe, continue to do so.

This isn’t about success or failure; OSM will continue to grow and will overcome future challenges. But OSM could be so much more than it currently is, and for that to happen there has to be change.

In his widely shared and syndicated post Why The World Needs OpenStreetMap, Serge Wroclawski wrote …

Place is a shared resource, and when you give all that power to a single entity, you are giving them the power not only to tell you about your location, but to shape it

These words rang true in early 2014 when Serge first published his post, and they ring doubly true in today’s world where the number of sources of global mapping data are being acquired, when the number of options available for getting and using mapping data are shrinking, and where there’s a very real possibility that the power to say what is on the map and what is under the map ends up in the hands of a very small, select group of companies and sources.

So, dear OSM, the world needs you now more than it needed you when you started out, and a lot more than it needed you in 2014. OSM will continue to be amazing, but with change OSM can achieve so much more than was ever dreamed when the first nodes, ways, and relationships were collected in 2004 — if you just get your community finger out and agree that you want to be more than you currently are.

(For non-British readers, “get your finger out” is a colloquial term for “stop procrastinating and get on with it”)

Image credits: Acceleration by Alexander Granholm, CC-BY. United Nations of smartphone operating systems by Jon Fingas, CC-BY-ND. Be Afraid. Consume by What What, CC-BY-NC-SA. Crossroads by Lori Greig, CC-BY-NC-ND.

Alan McConchie: “I love it when a great map fits seamlessly into a larger message”

Alan McConchie
Alan McConchie
Alan McConchie is a Design Technologist at Stamen Design, working at the intersection of cartography, open source software, and data visualization. He is also a PhD candidate in Geography at the University of British Columbia, researching the social dynamics of crowdsourced mapmaking in OpenStreetMap. You can find him on twitter at @mappingmashups, where he hosts a monthly twitter discussion called #geowebchat. Along with Lyzi Diamond, Camille Teicheira, and founder Beth Schechter, he helped start Maptime, an international, open source educational community for learning about maps.

Alan was interviewed for GeoHipster by Jonah Adkins (@jonahadkins).

Q: You are coming up on two years with Stamen, and you’ve been a part of some great projects (Social Media & Open Spaces, Every Line Ever, etc.) there. Which project have you learned the most from so far, and what project are you looking forward to working on?

A: Working at Stamen has been a dream come true, and I feel like I learn so much on every project we do. The social media mapping project you mention has taught me a lot, and I’m excited about that one because it’s still ongoing: parks.stamen.com evolved into caliparks.org, and, we have more plans to keep building on it. And yet, through all those iterations, we still don’t quite know how to make maps of social media activity that will be meaningful to the public. There’s a lot of interesting geographic data processing happening under the hood, but if visualizing it doesn’t serve the needs of the overall product, then it doesn’t need to be part of the user-facing app (yet).

A lot of what I’ve learned at Stamen fits into that theme: how do you make amazing maps that are well integrated and appropriately supportive of the rest of your site / app / visualization / product / whatever? For example, the climate change maps we made for the Audubon Society are really fantastic on their own (and I learned a lot about hacking Tilemill in the process), but I’m also really proud of how they fit together with some non-geographic visualizations we did, and of course a beautiful site built by Mule Design. I’m a map guy, so I love a map that’s successful all on its own, but I love it even more when a great map fits seamlessly into a larger message.

There’s a couple of new projects that I’m really excited to get started on: One is an ambitious series of interactive maps of American history in collaboration with the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab. Unfortunately I have nothing public to show for that one yet. The other project is a Knight Foundation-funded reboot of Stamen’s basemap infrastructure, especially our aging Terrain style. We’re blogging our progress at openterrain.tumblr.com if you want to follow along.

Q: You are a huge contributor to OpenStreetMap, and a lot of your doctoral research involves OSM data. What has been your favorite aspect of OSM?

A: I wouldn’t say I’m a huge contributor, and I never have the time to edit as much as I’d like. Although I am proud to have joined the project early enough to get my first name (Alan) as my OSM username!

As an academic, what fascinates me about OSM is that it’s like studying Geography as a discipline: it can be about so many different things. If you’re into politics, you can study Political Geography, if you’re interested in culture, there’s Cultural Geography, if you’re concerned about the environment, there’s Environmental Geography… you get the idea. OpenStreetMap is also like that. It’s kind of a microcosm. It’s about how we deal with the world, and how we deal with each other. So you can use OSM as an example to study so many different things: how people cooperate (or fail to cooperate), how information and knowledge are produced in the age of the internet, the emotional attachment people feel to place, even the differences in the way we all perceive the world. These are all issues that are very close to the heart of OpenStreetMap.

I’m the first to admit that OSM has serious problems (the digital divide between rich and poor areas, a deep lack of diversity, a persistent unfriendliness to newcomers), but I doubt I’ll ever give up on it. I’m optimistic that we all can keep making OSM better, and at minimum I expect it will only keep getting more and more interesting as it grows! Projects like the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team prove the difference that OSM can make in the world. It’s an important project that’s worth fighting for, to help it get better.

Q: Community engagement and education is obviously very important to you — either through your university instruction, presentations, or things like Maptime, OpenStreetMap, #geowebchat. First, where do you find the time? And second, what is the best lesson you could teach someone pursuing a geo career? What about someone involved or getting involved with the geo community?

A: Well, I’m lucky that Stamen strongly supports education and community engagement, so that helps me find some of the time to do all this. For me on a personal level, though, I know I’m extremely privileged and lucky to have learned the things I’ve learned, and to have the opportunity to work on so many interesting projects, both at Stamen and in graduate school. I feel an obligation to share that knowledge with other people, and to help create opportunities for them. This is especially true because I’ve learned so much from open source and open data, which depends a lot on the generosity of others. Teaching and sharing goes with the territory of open source, in my mind. We all find our own ways to contribute, and for me, teaching is my way of giving back to the community.

My advice for someone pursuing a geo career or getting into the community: Start a blog and document everything you learn, build a portfolio of projects, and share your progress. You’ll help other people who are also learning, you’ll build a support network, and you’ll raise your profile when applying for jobs. Be active on social media, but be smart about it. I’m on twitter a lot, but I try to think of it as research. If you’re not learning new things that are useful to your pursuits, then you’re following the wrong people and you’re just wasting your time. Also, use social media to cultivate contacts in real life. You never know where your next job offer might come from.

Q: How excited are you for the upcoming State of the Map US? Any talks planned? And there’s a Maptime summit too? WAT!?!?

A: I’m so excited for SOTM-US! I can’t wait to chat about OpenStreetMap all weekend in the freakin’ United Nations! I submitted a presentation about my dissertation research, wherein I hope to carefully wade into the debate about whether imports are good or bad for OSM.

And the Maptime Summit is going to be so great! We have a full day of events planned for the day after State of the Map, so please stick around in NYC for one more day and join us for that!

Maptime has really started to mature in the last year, and the Summit will be Maptime’s emergence from it’s awkward adolescent phase. There are so many passionate Maptime organizers around the world who are getting the hang of running their local chapters, and have tons of energy to help Maptime grow. I look forward to hearing all great lessons the organizers have to share with other organizers. Meanwhile at HQ, we’re figuring out some systems to help Maptime scale from our current 50 (or so) chapters to the next 500, so expect some announcements regarding that at the Summit. Now’s the time to keep learning from each other, to celebrate all the awesomeness that’s happened so far, and to figure out how to make Maptime even more awesome in the future.

Q: The Pop vs Soda project was a very popular survey (350K responses) showcasing the relation of geography and linguistics. What was the most important takeaway for you as a researcher?

A: When it comes to the Pop vs Soda Page, I’m only an amateur linguistic geographer! I had no idea what I was doing with that project, and it’s definitely not scientific. That was actually my first programming project (at least, the Perl scripts that run the site on the back end), and I had no idea it would become so popular. If I learned anything from that project, it’s that people get extremely riled up over the most trivial things. Who knew that passions would run so high when it comes to stupid carbonated beverages?

Q: Cartographer to cartographer: Your desert island favorite maps?

A: I was afraid this question was coming! Instead of sticking to stand-alone maps, I’m going to cheat a little bit by including a lot of atlases, too (both online and physical ones). Here are some of the touchstones that I keep coming back to for inspiration (but I’m sure I’m forgetting many more amazing ones):

Eric Fischer’s tourists and locals maps are one of my all-time favorites. Sure, the sheer volume of data shown on the map is impressive, but it’s that one insightful tweak (classifying users as tourists or locals based on how often they were active in one city versus other cities) that makes the maps endlessly fascinating. The maps show you so much about social activities, about the structure and landuse of cities, about the grit and noise present in the technological infrastructure of GPS and cell phone towers and so on, it’s just amazing. I could look at them for days.

I’m a big fan of Bill Rankin’s Radical Cartography site, which is a treasure trove of beautiful minimalist maps about all kinds of topics. I can’t pick just one! Along the same lines, I also love Dorothy Gambrell’s maps for Very Small Array. With both Rankin and Gambrell I love how prolific they are, how it seems like any topic of dinner conversation might spur them to go home and find a way to create an interesting map about that topic. They also do a great job of hiding the amount of research that goes into each of their maps. They make it look effortless.

Speaking of “radical cartography”, I’ve always been interested in the potential of maps for activism. Lize Mogel and Alexis Bhagat’s “An Atlas of Radical Cartography” (unrelated to Rankin’s work) is a great collection of creative, political maps on various topics, made by mapmakers who blur the lines between cartographer, artist, and activist.

Within academic Geography — although he eventually got kicked out of academia — “Wild” Bill Bunge is the patron saint of activist mapping. I’d have to pick his 1971 book/atlas “Fitzgerald” about race, economics, and geography in Detroit; the maps are certainly dated, but the topic is as relevant as ever, and the scope and ambition of the project is staggering. The Million Dollar Blocks project by Laura Kurgan and the Columbia University Spatial Information Design Lab is one of the modern day successors to the Fitzgerald atlas. (Interestingly, Adam Greenfield’s newsletter this week made a similar connection. Maybe Bunge’s making a comeback in the zeitgeist?)

And just to show that activist maps don’t have to be so dark and sober when dealing with a serious topic, Julian Busac’s map of Palestine as an archipelago borrows the aesthetics of traditional maps to vividly communicate how space is experienced on the ground by millions of Palestinians. It’s lovely and serious at the same time.

Q: What does the term geohipster mean to you, and as a doctoral candidate what would you prescribe an ailing geohipster?

A: I don’t really know what geohipster means! It’s probably like “hipster” IRL: everybody thinks they know what it means, but nobody can define it. Based on the previous geohipsters interviewed in the blog, it’s hard to find anything they have in common, other than awesomeness.

That said, am a sucker for new words, even ones I don’t fully understand! I’m happy to add “geohipster” to the list of neologisms I started collecting back in my early days of grad school. It includes neogeography, of course, but also neocartography, VGI, f-VGI, CCGI, AGI, web 2.0, GIS 2.0, Maps 2.0, GeoWeb 2.0, web mapping 2.0, new spatial media, WebGIS, GIS/2, alt.GIS, wiki-mapping, the wikification of GIS, map hacks, map mashups, geohacks, mapumentaries, autobiogeographies, geobrowsers, digital earths, virtual globes, cyberplace, digiplace, the cyberspatial web, cybercartography, telecartography, paracartography, social cartography, naive geography, egocarto, geomedia, geospatial media, ubiquitous cartography, ubiquitous mapping, ubiquitous computing, pervasive computing, ambient computing, hertzian space, hybrid space, mixed reality, augmented reality, augmented space, and that’s not even my complete list. I’ll leave the definitions to your imagination and as a test of your google skills.

So, what would I prescribe an ailing geohipster? Maybe revive one of those terms I just listed? Some of those trends are more than ten years old, and are totally ready for a comeback! Doesn’t “cyberspatial” have a catchy, nostalgic feel to it? Or maybe you should resurrect some retro technology like the original Google Maps API from 2005? That sounds like an appropriately artisanal programming project that some geohipster could do over a weekend.

Stephen Mather: “The best way to predict the future is to stake a claim in it and make it happen”

Stephen Mather
Stephen Mather

Stephen Mather has been working in GIS, planning, and related fields since 1998, working for the last 7 years as the GIS Manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He has been interested in the application of computer vision to geospatial analyses since 2004, and has recently initiated the OpenDroneMap project — a project to bring together and extend a suite of open source computer vision software for use with UAS (drone) and street level images. He is also coauthor of the PostGIS Cookbook.

Stephen was interviewed for GeoHipster by Amy Smith at the recent FOSS4GNA conference in San Francisco, California.

Q: How have you been enjoying the conference so far?

A: It’s been consistently good! There were sometimes two or three sessions that I wanted to be in at a time, so I had to figure out if I could clone myself.

Q: Clone yourself?

A: Yeah, well it would make it so much easier (well, probably the easier thing is to watch the video afterwards).

Q: Let me know if you figure out the cloning thing.

A: Oh, I’ll share it. It’ll be on Github.

Q: Awesome. Have you been to this conference before?

A: I went to variants on FOSS4G in DC, Denver, Portland, and Seoul.

Q: Wow, what was Seoul like?

A: That was FOSS4G Korea. It was awesome. The hospitality was amazing, the conference was really interesting. It’s a beautiful city, and it was lots of fun.

Q: Do you speak Korean?

A: Not adequately, no. (*laughs*). Not at all.

Q: You presented at this year’s conference. How did it go?

A: It was really fun. It was similar to a presentation I gave at North Carolina GIS a couple of weeks ago. The slides were already there, but it never ends up being the same presentation. OpenDroneMap is what I presented on, which started off as a GeoHipster joke at first, but then started to become a thing! People are excited about it, and are trying it out with their drones.

Amy and Steve
Amy and Steve at FOSS4GNA 2015

Q: Who started the joke?

A: Well, there was the GeoHipster artisanal vertices, and at the time I was thinking about computer vision and drones and where all that’s going, and the absence of an open source project that addresses that. When I made my prediction about 2014, I said it would be all about the artisanal pixel. We’d go from these global satellite images to these handcrafted satellite images effectively. Then I starting thinking, actually, that’s not a bad idea. The best way to predict the future is to stake a claim in it and make it happen.

Q: I definitely want to pick your brain about that later on in the interview. But before we get there, I wanted to ask you how you got started in the geospatial world.

A: I came from the biology side of things. As an undergrad I actually took a lot of music classes, and a lot of biology classes. At the time, a lot of biologists weren’t really thinking spatially. Everything was about static statistics, which assumes some normality that doesn’t really exist. There were people starting to pull on that thread, but it was the minority. My interest in GIS and the geospatial was applying it to understanding biology and ecology better, and then I never really got out of that rabbit hole.

Q: But you haven’t really left music either. You make custom guitars.

A: Very, very slowly. I’ve been making them for 12 or 13 years. I’m on guitar #2.

Q: That’s a really cool hobby.

A: It’s one of those things that seems like it should be harder than it really is. A lot of people think, “Oh, I couldn’t do that”, but actually it’s not that hard of a hobby, and for a woodworking hobby, it doesn’t require many tools. If you want to become a furniture maker, you need to invest a lot in tools just to start. The total cost for guitar-making is much smaller with a minimum viable set of tools, which is kind of cool. In that way, it’s kind of like open source. The barrier to entry for open source is just a laptop, which you may already have.

Q:  Totally. Let’s go back to drones for a minute. For those who might not be familiar with it, what is OpenDroneMap?

A: OpenDroneMap is an open source project for taking unreferenced images and turning them into geographic data. Maybe you have a balloon, kite, or drone, and you’ve taken some overlapping photos of an area, and you want to turn that into an orthophoto as a TIFF or PNG or a point cloud. It’s basically an extension of the photogrammetric techniques. Back in the day, you’d fly with a nice camera that was well parameterized so that you could correct for all of the optical distortion. You’d have a plane that was flying a known route with inertial navigation and GPS to help you know exactly where the plane is at any given point in time, and then you construct three-dimensional data from that, with contours and orthophotos. If you extend that concept, and instead of having two overlaps with lots of knowledge about your position, you have three overlaps, then you can write an equation that back-calculates where all of your camera positions are. In the process of doing that, you generate a point cloud of all of the features that match, which is something that you can derive other products from. You could create a mesh from that point cloud, then paint those photos back onto the mesh. Now you’ve got the geospatial information you need, and it can be turned into an orthophoto. When I first proposed the project, I thought, well we could license something like this, or we could start an open source project. I had a hunch there was enough existing computer vision code out there to get it 50, 60, or even 70% of the way there, just with the existing code. Fortunately my hunch was right. This leverages years of computer vision stuff done by people all over the world.

Q: It sounds like it was worthwhile to see what other people were doing, and build off of it.

A: Yeah, the stuff that people had been doing was absolutely brilliant, and allowed me to move whole hog and jump into the parts I was interested in.

Q: When I was in college I took some courses in remote sensing and did work with Synthetic Aperture Radar. I’m a little familiar with working with imagery. I’m guessing that working with imagery from drones is pretty different from working with aerial and satellite imagery. What are some of the differences you noticed in working with drone imagery versus something from an airplane or satellite?

A: A plane or a satellite gives you a nice synoptic view. There’s a usefulness, not in the specificity, but in the synopsis. If you think of the world as you view it from the ground, you can observe and make sense of the world; it’s what we’re most familiar with. There’s a wide gap between what’s happening in the plane or the satellite and the first-person view. Drones, balloons and kites fill that gap. Drones fill it particularly well because they can fill large areas. That’s what brought me into working with them altogether.

Q: Speaking of working, you work for the government. Could you tell us more about that?

A: I work for Cleveland Metroparks. We manage about 23,000 acres, which includes forests, wetlands, open areas for people to picnic, a zoo, lakefront parks, and really a whole range of interesting cultural and natural resources. We provide access for passive uses such as picnicking and hiking, and active uses such as events that draw people into those spaces. It’s a really cool park system with a lot of energy and a great history, as well as an amazing staff and a good vision for where we are now and where we’re going.

Q: How long have you worked there?

A: Seven years.

Q: I did some LinkedIn stalking, and I saw that you are a manager there. I’m sure that GIS manager can mean lots of different things depending on whether you’re with the government, a private company, or what industry you’re in. What are the things you think are common descriptors of GIS managers?

A: I’m relatively hands on. I’ll hack a code, I’ll work on data when I get the opportunity, but I also make sure to give a lot of freedom to the people that work with me, because they’re brilliant, and I don’t have to worry much.

Q: You sound like a great manager!

A: I’ve got great employees! There’s coordination and advocating for resources, ensuring that my employees have what they need. There’s also the aspect of ensuring that folks within the organization, as well as outside of the organization, understand what we do, so that they can value and take advantage of it. In addition to giving the degrees of freedom that people need in order to grow, we make sure they have educational opportunities and that they have challenges. There’s a lot of autonomy, which again links back to the open source community, where there’s a lot of autonomy.

Q: You’ve written a book on PostGIS. Can you tell us about the book and how it came about?

A: A couple years ago a publishing company discovered my blog and asked if I’d write an outline on PostGIS. I wrote them the outline, and they said “This is great, when can you start?” And I said, “I can’t, my daughter’s due in a few months, and there’s no way I can write a book.” They said, “Well, you could get a co-author”, and I said, “I can’t even write half a book!” Their response was “Well, you could do 60/40!”, and I said “Alright, but you’ve got to find the co-author”. They found Paolo Corti, who’s an excellent writer and knows his PostGIS stuff, and also knows the middleware level of that, and how to get it out to the web. That adds a nice element. Paolo and I started on that and we realized between the two of us, we weren’t going to get it all done. We found Bborie at the Boston code sprint, and Tom works with me and wrote a chapter. [Interviewer note: Bborie, Tom, and Paolo co-authored the book with Stephen.]

Q: Thanks so much! It’s been a lot of fun talking with you. I have one last question for you. Do you consider yourself a geohipster?

A: I’m a geohipster, absolutely! I’m the guy who predicted artisanal pixels. I don’t ride a fixie, but I do ride an e-bike. When I’m in sound health, I bicycle from 2-3 days a week, so I think I qualify.

Q: I think so, too.

Postscript: Steve gave me a signed copy of his book!
Post Postscript: Steve and I geeked out for a while about Synthetic Aperture Radar. We’ll spare you the nitty gritty details, but tweet at us if you ever want to talk SAR. We’ll talk your ear off. :)