Monthly Archives: May 2015

Marc Pfister: “I enjoy that I can see my work get turned into large physical objects”

Marc Pfister
Marc Pfister
Reading his bio, one might get the impression that Marc Pfister is the prototypical geohipster. After studying mechanical engineering, he was a bicycle designer by day, and DJ by night. He then took his CAD skills and turned them into a 10-year GIS career. As a tinkerer who has to take everything apart, he began to focus on Open Source geospatial programming. Along the way he helped reverse-engineer Esri’s SBN spatial index, and started making statewide maps of gravel roads. Then in 2012 he bounced around the midwest and became an artisan cheesemaker with his wife, starting Longview Creamery.

Q: You are among a growing number of people I know who have left the GIS industry. Why did you leave, and why do you think others do?

A: My wife has worked as a cheesemaker on and off over the years, and we had always thought about starting our own cheese company. It’s a daunting task to go from zero to a fully operational facility. Some friends who were starting up a goat cheese operation in Nebraska needed some help and had a place we could stay in, so we decided it looked like a good opportunity to try something out. We would help them with their operation, and in exchange we could use their facility to start testing some potential cheeses. So we quit our jobs, threw some minimally viable furniture into a small trailer, and moved to Nebraska. While we were working on that, some equipment came up for sale in Colorado. It was in a really nice facility and it seemed like a shame to have to move it, so when we bought the equipment the owner leased us the building and let us take over the existing business.

While this was going on, I was still doing geo work on the side. I worked for Boundless on GeoNode and MapStory, which was a neat project to be involved in. But lately the business has grown so much that I’ve been sucked into it more and more, so there hasn’t been much geo-anything going on. Honestly, I like working with physical equipment, so at this point if I left cheesemaking I could see going into dairy engineering. But on the other hand, I like the geo field and would probably go back with the right opportunity and team.

I don’t know anyone who has left geo due to a beef with some aspect of the industry. It seems like most ‘geo’ people have come into it from some other career path, so they have options to leave geo to go back to environmental work, or programming, or whatever. It’s almost like geo is an adjective you can stick on any career. It’s like saying you work in the color red, and you could be growing strawberries or painting fire trucks.

Q: You are still very active on the geotwitters, though, so it’s not like you have shut the geodoor. Or have you?

A: I’m doing almost zero geo work other than the gravel road maps. People still email me questions about SBNs and Google Static Maps, so I help out where I can. I’m active on the geotwitters mostly because I’ve absorbed enough technical jargon to come up with good jokes. I love a good geojoke, especially if it involves some photoshopping.

Breaking NAD
Breaking NAD

Q: What is your fondest memory from your geo times? What is the worst?

A: The fondest? In 2008, when I lived in rural Northern California, there was a huge lightning storm, and several wildfires started within a few miles of my house. I was frustrated because I could see the flames from my porch but the online information was terrible. The MODIS heat detects were on one site with a horrible base map, and the fire perimeters were on another that had an outdated clunky interface. So in the best 2008 mashup spirit I bodged together some scripts to pull in that data and put it together on Google Maps. I also did a little cleanup, like converting the MODIS detection time stamps to local time. It ended up being a big hit. The Los Angeles Times posted it on their website and it slashdotted our server, which is both terrifying and gratifying at the same time. I also got a lot of ‘Thank You!’ emails, including some from USFS and Cal Fire staffers who preferred it to their in-house mapping.

The worst moment, I don’t know if I can think of anything geo-specific that would qualify as the worst. The most frustrating was getting into turf wars with the Board of Professional Land Surveyors. I worked for a scrappy little GIS, environmental, and planning consulting company, and we did everything in house. Orthoimagery, LiDAR, GPS, you name it — we DIYed it. We’d try to sell LiDAR data, and we’d get a nasty letter. We would have to explain that we’re just reselling elevation data that was collected by a company that of course had a licensed land surveyor involved. It got so silly at one point — we ran an ad in a planning magazine advertising that we did ‘Surveys’, as in public opinion surveys for proposed projects, and we got a C & D letter over it! So now you have the backstory behind the Breaking NAD image and a lot of my other jokes about a dystopian future where rogue GIS techs sling illicit elevation data on the black market.

Q: Unlike most GIS practitioners and opinionators (myself included) who are too close to the problem and often can’t see the forest from the trees, you have the unique position and distinct advantage of looking at the industry from a distance. What do you see?

A: Even while inside it, I’ve seen it from a lot of different perspectives. When I started doing GIS work we hadn’t moved to ArcView yet and were doing everything in AutoCAD and Adobe Illustrator. We eventually transitioned to ArcView, but around the same time I found #geo on IRC and the geowanking mailing list, which led to WhereCamp and getting a whole different outsider perspective from people who were programmers discovering that maps were fun to mess with.

So I see two things going on: people who are totally entrenched in the Esri stack and would really benefit from branching out — that’s contrasted with people who are trying too hard to be innovative and are missing the fact that a big part of GIS work is making a PDF site location map that’s going to go into a forgotten report. The eye candy is fun but it’s often the boring stuff that pays the bills.

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?

A: Fashion can mean a lot of things. In terms of self-expression, and as a signifier of belonging to a certain group, definitely. Is the choice of Python, with a focus on readability and whitespace, any different from choosing minimalist Scandinavian furniture?

Software for us is generally a practical tool, so there seems to be a pragmatic limit where getting stuff done trumps outwards appearance. To an outsider, the proliferation of MacBooks in the geo developer world might seem like a fashion thing, but honestly it’s because OS X seems to do the best job of getting out of your way.

I also think there’s a parallel with the low barrier to entry and often easy mix ‘n match pluggability of software. A ‘look’ is really just the sum of parts of component pieces, as much as software is a sum of the underlying libraries. To get into programming you don’t have to start with writing a language and compiler, and to get into fashion you don’t have to start with spinning your own thread.

Q: What is the geo equivalent of normcore? If you see me wearing dad jeans, how would you know whether I am normcore or just lame?

A: If you’re wearing dad jeans when driving your kids around in a minivan, then you’re probably lame. Normcore has to be out of place in order to be referential. So I guess the geo equivalent would be trying to edit ways at an OSM mapathon using ArcView 3 just because you like the menu bars.

Q: You make steel bicycles by hand. You and your wife own and run a creamery. Tell us about your day-to-day activities.

A: They sound terribly hipster — steel bikes, artisan cheese. But it’s really not that cool. I’m a small business owner, so I wear a lot of hats which I’m simultaneously juggling. Usually at least one of those hats is on fire. The hipster sheen wears off quickly. We hear a lot from people who want to get into cheesemaking, and they always have idealized the cheesemaking process to soft-gloved curation of what are essentially precious living objects that have to be nurtured and massaged, like they’re kittens or something. And that you’re carrying on this ancient and noble tradition, yada yada. The reality is that it’s a lot of hot and sweaty manual labor and doing dishes over and over.

The making of a steel bike
The making of a steel bike

Q: Colorado is a geo hub, but is it also a hipster hub? Is the Colorado brand of hipsterism the same as the Brooklyn or Portland or Berlin or Shoreditch variety? How does it differ?

A: I live in a rural farming town that’s turning into a retirement/bedroom community, so I don’t have the best perspective. I spend some time in Fort Collins which is a college town so there’s some ‘hipster’ visibility. There is a sort of coherent ‘coloRADo’ style that’s a mix of snowboarding/skate style with a hippie/raver jam band 420 overtones, but with some tech gear conspicuous consumption. White guys with dreds and rallyed out Subaru turbos. What seems to distinguish them from their peers in places like Lake Tahoe, California, is that they have a high degree of stoke for their state. The Colorado flag is on everything. In California you might see the bear on some things, but stoke seems to be much more regional and often oppositional. You have the Norcal/Socal divide (one of my favorite geo topics), and smaller ones like Oakland/SF or LA/San Diego. I don’t see that in Colorado, even though it has diverse regions (except at the political level).

Q: “New and improved” vs. slow food/slow code. Is the race to develop newer and “better” things at an ever accelerating pace the mark of progress? Is it a good thing? A necessary evil? Or a temporary madness?

A: I find it especially frustrating that ‘upgrades’ these days break so many things. My phone was obsolete the day I bought it. I just upgraded my OS, which ‘upgraded’ Python which broke certain modules that cascaded down into other tools I use. Working with machinery I accept that entropy is going to break things — bearings wear out, metals corrode, on so on. But these upgrades really seem to be the opposite of entropy.

That’s one thing about making cheese that I really enjoy. It’s a process that’s thousands of years old and it’s not going to go obsolete in a month. I have some modern luxuries, like a digital pH meter, but for the most part I don’t expect it to change significantly in 20 years. It’s not a fast process — making cheddar takes 12 hours to go from milk to cheese, several more hours the next day to get it ready for aging, and then a two-month wait before the cheese is ready. But software? I’m deliberately avoiding learning about any specific JavaScript framework because by the time I need to know one I’m pretty sure it won’t be relevant anymore.

Some of my equipment is over 50 years old, and it will run for at least another 50. I like to think about what would be the equivalent of a web map with a 50 year lifespan, when languages and OSes are EOLing after 5 years. Could you get 50 years out of code in ANSI C?

Also on the subject of cheese versus code, I enjoy that I can see my work get turned into large physical objects. I go into our cheese cave and there’s cheese stacked from floor to ceiling, and that feels pretty good, you know? We made all that. And the best part is that it only gets better with age! It can’t disappear with one simple refactor. Of course, physical output means physical labor. There’s no shortage of articles these days about how soul-satisfying physical labor can be. But it’s hard and breaks down your body, and I’m glad I have the luxury that I could go back to a desk job. I hate to romanticize it when I know people who don’t have that choice and are slowly killing themselves.

The worst thing about working with physical products is when you screw up and you have to throw your hard work and money away. Bits are free! I always tell people who are nervous about learning programming that you can screw up as much as you need and there are almost never any consequences. Go crazy and break things.

Q: On closing, what would you say to geohipsters who may have toyed with the idea of trying another career? Go for it, or stick with geo?

A: Go for it. And if it doesn’t work out, geo will take you back.

Ann Johnson: “I’m never gonna be as cool as Eric Gundersen”

Ann Johnson
Ann Johnson
Ann Johnson is a technology industry veteran with close to 30 years of progressively responsible experience in all sectors of the industry. With a long career spanning many companies including Data General, EMC and RSA Security, Ms. Johnson has always enjoyed applying technology to solve real customer business problems and driving value to organizations. Ms. Johnson is a subject matter expert in network architecture, mobile security, fraud reduction, transaction fraud reduction, and online banking security, as well as maintaining competence in storage and systems infrastructure. She enjoys the process of building highly successful, highly performing organizations. Outside of work, Ms. Johnson is a strong advocate for animal welfare organizations, and is an avid historian. She is a graduate of Weber State University completing a dual major in Political Science and Communication with a minor in History.

Q: Thank you for taking the time to interview for GeoHipster. While most of our US readers are surely familiar with Boundless, many in our international audience (~50% of our readership) are probably not. For their benefit, please explain what Boundless is about.

A: Boundless is the preeminent open source geospatial information systems company. We have a full stack of open source tools — GeoServer, QGIS, PostGIS database, and OpenLayers 3. We do a lot of value-added enhancements around that open core, driving down customers’ project costs, and we have services that we help deploy, and make your project successful.

Q: Boundless is one of the community leaders for support of open source options. Where do you see the open source market heading?

A: This is a great time to be in open source. With the INSPIRE Regulations in Europe, with the US federal government promoting open source, and with our commercial customers looking not only for lower-cost alternatives but also for more openness in their code, they are looking for more community contribution. I think that open source is only going to grow. We are seeing more and more open source companies in all kinds of adjacent technology areas. If you think about what Red Hat did with Linux, what’s been done with Hadoop, there’s a lot of different areas where open source is becoming very, very prominent, and I don’t see that slowing down at all. As a matter of fact, I think it’s going to become more open, because customers are just really tired of not having the visibility and the access and the ability to contribute positively to closed-source type projects.

Q: Judging from your bio, it appears you had little exposure to geospatial prior to joining Boundless. What attracted you to geospatial? What are some of the unique challenges you’ve encountered since joining? Is spatial special? How hard is to run something like Boundless? Is it “business is business” at the end of the day?

A: I am a technologist at heart. In the 30 years of my professional career I have been in technology the entire time. I started out in software, did a lot of work with network infrastructure, did work in storage and then in security. I think all of these segments are special. I they are all unique. There’s different business drivers, there’s different reasons people participate and purchase in each segment, there’s different problems that need to be solved. For me learning spatial was something I wanted to do. When the opportunity came to me, it was a conscious decision to go out and learn a different technology. It was exciting to me to learn the market, to learn the technology. I have a degree in political science and a minor in history, so I have a passion and a love for history — history as it deals with cartography, how society is evolved, all kinds of mapping lends itself to that. If you think about the things that Chris Tucker is doing with his MapStory project, those are the types of things that are really, really interesting to me, just from a pure historical context, so it was natural for me to move into the space. Yes, I think it’s special, but I think it’s special like every segment of technology is special. It has its uniqueness, and I have developed a lot of passion for it over the nine months I have been at Boundless.

Q: A significant topic of discussion around geospatial events over the past year has been the staggering amount of turnover at Boundless. How do you answer those who question the health of Boundless? What do you see as drivers of such turnover? With such a significant core of project contributors gone, what differentiates Boundless from other companies that provide professional support to PostGIS, GeoServer, QGIS, and the other projects that you bundle into the OpenGeo Suite?

A: I am glad to be able to respond to this question. Boundless is not a new company. Boundless started under the OpenPlans Charity many years ago with Chris Holmes leading the ship. Two years ago it spun out to be a venture-funded company. When people make decisions about where their employment is, they look at the company they are joining at the time. In the past two years Boundless has undergone an awful lot of evolution, an awful lot of change. People made decisions about their career, that it wasn’t necessarily the company they joined. They joined the company for their reasons. But one thing that no one is discussing about Boundless is the amount of talent we’ve recruited in. We have attracted and recruited a lot of talent, because of business, we are actually growing from both a people standpoint, also from a revenue standpoint, so Boundless is a really healthy organization. We have refocused to make sure we stay really true to that open source core. I am very data-driven, and I look at GitHub, and I make sure that we have the top two or three committers in every project that we are working on are employees at Boundless. I think it’s really important. We also have a gentlemen in the organization, Jody Garnett, who is chartered as our community liaison. So Jody is on the GeoServer steering committee, and I have made him the community liaison. His job is making sure we are meeting all of our requirements in our participation within the community. The other is developing talent, and making sure they become valid community contributors. I am bringing in young new talent, or talent from other parts of the industry, folks who really want to learn geo, and make them part of the community, and I think that just makes the community better. So, yes, there have been some high profile exits, some really talented people have gone on to other things. But we’ve also brought in some really high quality talent, and I think that’s the piece that gets overlooked.

Q: Feature-level versioning of geospatial data remains a largely unsolved problem. In the federal government, records retention rules make it a vital issue. With the shuttering of Versio, how is Boundless planning to address this need?

A: Version control is really important. If you look at the announcement that CCRi made yesterday with GeoMesa on top of Google Cloud, I think data is hugely important, and big data is becoming a big problem in spatial. Versio itself was a bit architecturally challenged — candidly, the product was. It wasn’t the right solution to the problem. But the problem does need to be solved. I’m a technologist at heart, I think the problem has to be solved in a much different way, with a big data backend, something that can actually do the analysis, something that has the power, and Versio, while there were a lot of really talented developers and talented architects on the project, I think it started off as a great idea, and has evolved into something that wasn’t quite the right solution. But absolutely the problem needs to be solved, and we are looking at ways, at things we can do with GeoNode, with Hadoop, I don’t have the answer today, but we know it’s a real problem that needs to be solved. Versio just wasn’t quite the right solution for it.

Q: What are your thoughts on dat?

A: My comment on open source as a whole is that the only successful open source companies have been really successful because they partnered. So we’ll look for a partner strategy there, and to the extent that you have an open standard API that can convert data formats, it’ll lend itself to that partnership. As an open source company we have to be very open, and dat will allow us to do that. As long as the API is robust enough, and really does allow cross-data formatting, I think it’s a very worthwhile project, and we will participate.

Q: OpenLayers is clearly Boundless’s preferred solution for web mapping, and it has been a solid open source solution for years. How does Boundless view the rapid adoption of Leaflet as a lighter-weight alternative? Is it a threat to your business model, or just another component of potential hybrid solutions?

A: They coexist. Mapbox solves a different problem than we solve — a “many” problem, whereas Boundless, like Esri, solves “deeper-but-not-as-many”. I don’t think it’s one versus the other. I think they solve different use cases, and people will use them differently. I also think we need to do a better job promoting OpenLayers. One thing I think Leaflet has is better marketing, candidly. It solves a different problem, but they’ve definitely done a better job promoting it, and we need to do a better job with the community promoting OpenLayers.

Q: You tweeted about upcoming exciting news — HERE partnership, etc. Can you share more details?

A: I’ll foreshadow a few announcements we’re going to be making over the next couple of months. The first thing is we have signed up a partnership with Nokia HERE. We can talk about it openly, we are working with Nokia on a press release. As a big organization that requires a lot of layers of approval, but you’ll see that. It was important to us that we had a data strategy that we can augment our customers’ data, or augment open data, so Nokia is our first step there. You’ll see more data partnerships coming. You’ll see an announcement coming soon about our AWS and our Azure offerings. We are really making a concerted effort to move toward a cloud delivery platform, because our customers are asking us to. We are doing a lot of work with LiDAR, you’ll see in short order a blog post around the work we are doing on open LiDAR standards, and why it’s important to keep those standards open. And the final thing is we are recommitting to QGIS. Even though I think the future is web and mobile, there’s still a lot of things you need to do on the desktop, and we are really recommitting and making sure we have a supportable QGIS platform, particularly for the US federal government. All those things are queued up to come up in the next four to six week, as well as our 4.6 release of the OpenGeo suite.

Q: You’re a geolady. Last year you became CEO of a major geocompany. What advice do you have for other women in the geocommunity?

A: I’ve been in technology forever, and women are seriously underrepresented everywhere. The best advice I can give to women is ignore the fact that you are a woman. I hate to say it, but you need to focus on what’s important. Focus on your skills, focus on what you bring to the table, and put aside anything that is what I call noise to the system. It’s tough. It’s tough to be in a room with 30 people, and you are the only one that looks like you look. But you just have to set that aside and realize what you are there for, what’s important. I also think it’s really important to become a subject matter expert. As you mentioned, I’m new to this. So I’ve done a lot of self-study, a lot of online tutorials, just to try to get myself up to speed. If you’re going to have credibility — whether you are a man or a woman — you need to have a basic knowledge of what the customers are using, and a basic knowledge of the technology, and I think some people overlook that, and it’s super important. And the other thing is don’t give up. Bias exists everywhere. It doesn’t matter if you are a woman, or a minority, or someone who is not a US citizen by birth, bias exists everywhere. You just have to ignore it and move past it and don’t ever give up.

Q: Do you consider yourself a geohipster? Why/why not?

A: I might be too old to consider myself a hipster, and I’m never gonna be as cool as Eric Gundersen, I can tell you that [laughs]. That said, I think this is a really nascent market, I think geo is just now emerging, there is so much we can do with it, and there is so much we can do to put it on the radar. I think it’s new, I think it’s fun, and I think we need to have some fun with it. There has to be fun with the industry, so yes, I do consider myself pretty hip with the industry, even if I am not as cool as Eric on any day of the week.

Q: Thank you for the interview. Do you have any parting words for our readers?

A: I’ll go back to something Paul Ramsey advocated and still advocates: Geo doesn’t need to be held by the GISP department in an organization. We need to make the tools easier to use so your average IT analyst or your average business analyst can use them, and that’s when we’ll become really relevant. We’ll need to make sure we mainstream geo while maintaining the specialness of it. We need to embrace the spatial IT concepts, and everything you see Boundless doing moving forward, with our application templates, some of our SDKs and APIs, is going to be toward doing that. And I encourage the industry to also work toward making the tools more usable. Because that’s the way we’ll become really relevant. Geo will become really relevant when the tools become much more useful for everyone to use within a business organization, and that’s the focus of Boundless, and I think that’s a really good focus for the industry, too.

Martin Isenburg: “May the FOSS be with LAZ”

Martin Isenburg
Martin Isenburg
Martin Isenburg received his MSc in 1999 from UBC in Vancouver, Canada, and his PhD in 2004 from UNC in Chapel Hill, USA -- both in Computer Science. Currently he is an independent scientist, lecturer, and consultant. Martin has created a popular LiDAR processing software called LAStools that is widely used across industry, government agencies, research labs, and educational institutions. LAStools is the flagship product of rapidlasso GmbH, the company he founded in 2012. Martin's ultimate goal is to combine high-tech remote sensing and organic urban farming in a "laser farm" that promotes green projects as hip and fun activities for the iPad generation.
Martin was interviewed for GeoHipster by Christina Boggs and Randal Hale.

Q: Thanks, Martin, for taking the time to have a chat with GeoHipster! Tell us about your ideas on “Front yard chickens”. Chickens are so awesome. We’ve heard that your chickens were about to be equipped with lasers. How did that go?

A: Happy to talk geospatial chickens. See, in the backyard chickens are a fun way to be green. But put three (not twenty!) in the front yard, and they create green communities. You meet your neighbors (dragged to your fence by their kids), and soon you are bartering eggs for kale because Lori and Dan across the street now have “front yard veggies”. And why lasers? Not for arming or roasting the chickens (common mistake), but for filming them in real-time 3D. Sort of like Radiohead’s video “House of Cards”, but better. A “happy feed” of urban farm bliss to lure folks beyond this neighborhood into green fun. Troubles over “cluster-bombing” the homeland with garden-fresh zucchinis forced me to put this project on hold.

Q: Can you give us an overview of LiDAR and how it works?  

A: Fire a really short burst of laser light, and measure the exact duration until its reflection comes back. That allows you to compute the distance to whatever object was hit. Record the exact position from where and the exact direction in which you fired the laser, and you can calculate the exact position of these hits. Repeat this several hundred thousand times a second with an airborne LiDAR whose laser beam sweeps out the terrain, and you get enough information to model ground, buildings, and vegetation in 3D.

Q: How has LiDAR data storage evolved over the years?

A: The LiDAR points were first stored and exchanged as plain text files: x, y, z, intensity. But ASCII becomes inefficient as a storage format as point numbers go up. Several industry players got together and created a simple binary data exchange format — the LAS format — that was eventually donated to the ASPRS. LAS has become a huge success, and everybody supports it. Nowadays the specification is maintained by the LAS Working Group (LWG) of the ASPRS. That sounds fancy, but is really just a dozen or so email addresses that get cc-ed when an issue is discussed.

Q: You explained that LiDAR data is huge. How much data are we talking about?

A: One LiDAR return — how the hits are called — is typically 28 bytes. An airborne survey with 4 shots per square meter may average 8 LiDAR returns per square meter. For a small area of 100 square kilometers this is over 20 GB of raw LAS. Subsequent processing steps often create multiple copies of this data. Nowadays countries either have, or are going for nation-wide LiDAR coverage. So many terabytes of LiDAR are already out there, and petabytes are going to come.

Q: You developed the compressed LAZ format. Can you give us some background?

A: I spent years of graduate work on compressing polygon meshes, but few people have such data. When I stumbled upon folders of LAS files, I figured having a compressor for these point clouds may actually be useful. I wrote the LASzip prototype mainly to supplement an academic paper, but people found it on my web pages and used it. In 2010 I was asked to release LASzip with an open license to defeat a proprietary format that federal agencies feared would make compressed LiDAR costly. Eventually the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) sponsored the open-sourcing of LASzip.

Q: What is the development process that you use for making changes to the compressed LiDAR format?

A: I am very careful with changes, and try to be as transparent as possible about them. First I seek community input on new features via the “LAS room” and the “LAStools” forums. Once discussed, the new feature is implemented as a prototype for testing. If the prototype proves itself over time, these features are moved into the new release. But maybe the time has come to make LASzip an official standard with a committee overseeing future changes.

Q: The release of LAS 1.4 means new point types. This is a disruption of the LAS format in general. What opportunities does this present for LASzip?

A: I have held back extending LASzip to LAS 1.4. Like you say, the new point types in LAS 1.4 are a “natural break” in the format that offers the opportunity to improve the compressor without creating incompatibilities. An open “call for input” was issued to get feedback on features the community wants to see in the next generation of LASzip.

However, LASzip can already compress LAS 1.4 content. NOAA stepped up to sponsor the “LAS 1.4 compatibility mode” where new point types are re-coded into old ones by storing their new attributes as “extra bytes”. Added bonus: many older software packages can read re-coded LAS 1.4 content without upgrade.

Q: You’ve released a simpler interface to LASzip in 2013. How did that turn out?

A: When Esri came knocking, saying the LASzip code was too complicated, I asked them to sponsor the effort for a simpler DLL. But then I decided to create this DLL without further delay. LAZ was the de-facto LiDAR compression standard, and I wanted to remove any possible hurdle for its adoption. It is disappointing that Esri has still not added LAZ support to ArcGIS. The new DLL was essentially written for them.

Q: Recently Esri announced a variation of the open LAS standard called “Optimized LAS”. Can you describe the changes to how LAS files are supported?

A: The name is rather misleading. “Optimized LAS” is a closed format that compresses the content of a LAS file into a proprietary file. The resulting ‘*.zlas’ files are very similar to the ‘*.laz’ files produced by LASzip, which is why the new Esri format is also known as the “LAZ clone”.

Q: So from your view, how do they stack up?

A: The technical differences between LASzip and “Optimized LAS” are minimal. In terms of compression and speed, the two are almost identical. In terms of features, Esri includes spatial indexing information into the *.zlas files whereas we had been storing it as separate *.lax files. It took just a couple of hours to “upgrade” LASzip to match the feature set of “Optimized LAS” by adding one option for spatial sorting and another option for integrating the spatial index into the file. The argument that Esri could not use LASzip due to missing features is obviously a dud. The “LAZ clone” was created to tie LiDAR folks long-term to the ArcGIS platform.

Esri likes to point out that their format contains point statistic summaries. This is so trivial that any developer could add this in an afternoon. Such summaries are a good idea. I encourage Esri to propose a new “Variable Length Record” for that purpose as an addendum to the LAS specification. This is why they are part of the ASPRS LAS Working Group.

Q: Some readers may have seen this post back in 2014, believing the LASzip controversy was resolved. The post was your April Fools’ Day prank. Why did you do it?

A: I modified LASzip just a few days before April 1st 2014 to feature-match the “LAZ clone”. The triviality of these modifications made it obvious that further technical reasoning with Esri was moot. My last hope was to show Esri management how much applause they would garner from working with the community. So I wrote a prank press release, stating that Esri and rapidlasso were developing a joint compressor. Almost everything in this press release was true, except that Esri had not agreed yet to such cooperation. The response was incredible as the collected comments show…

Q: What are the ramifications of dueling data formats? What’s the point the entire GIS community at large should take home?

A: The instant loser is the user who will have to convert data back and forth. The instant winners are companies that provide data converters. Hey wait, that includes me! 🙂 The long-term loser is the GIS community that will find more and more LiDAR locked to a single platform. The long-term winner is the provider of this platform (or so they hope).

A proprietary format can only be read via the interface the vendor provides. This prevents access to the content on other operating systems or from other programing languages. In contrast, an open format allows unrestricted access to the content. For example, Howard Butler and Uday Verma have created a pure JavaScript version of LASzip that can decompress LAZ inside a web browser. As the saying goes, closed formats go to hell (but open formats go everywhere)… 😉

Q: You just mentioned processing LiDAR in a web browser. Is that a new thing?

A: Yes, and potree have paved the way for LiDAR in the browser based on JavaScript and WebGL. Now several commercial offerings have emerged. Compression is an even more pressing concern as the data will often come via the web. Having a pure JavaScript decompressor for LAZ allows plugin-free rendering of compressed LiDAR via all modern web browsers, including on mobile devices.

Q: But closed formats cannot be decompressed with JavaScript?

A: Exactly! JavaScript is — by definition — open source. A format cannot compete in the world of plugin-free decompression without providing an open implementation. Plugin-free WebGL rendering of compressed LiDAR in the web browser via JavaScript is a force to be reckoned with. That’s why I like to call them “jediscripts” in the context of this “laser war” with Esri.

Q: The term geohipster is bestowed affectionately. With your urban farming and your front yard chickens, I feel like using Steven Feldman’s geohippy term. Do you feel more like a geohipster or a geohippy?

A: The original idea behind downtownfarm — the mash-up of chickens and lasers — was to get away from the granola-hippy image of urban farming and make green more trendy and cool. How about geoyuppy?

Q: Before we let you go, is there anything you’d like to add for our GeoHipster readers?

A: Defend “open LiDAR formats”, practice the art of “LAS liberation”, and fork plugin-free “jediscripts”. We all know “The Force Awakens” later this year. May the FOSS be with LAZ… 😉