Monthly Archives: June 2015

Jenny Allen: “Build applications and services that delight the geo-nervous or geo-reluctant”

Jenny Allen
Jenny Allen
Jenny Allen is a Product Manager in the Search Team at HERE. She's worked in and out of the geo-industry for many years and lives happily in Berlin, Germany. You can follow her on twitter @sjen.

Q: You started your career in geo in the field, working for the Geological Survey of Ireland. That is hip. Tell us a bit about it.

A: It was indeed both geo and hip. I was just out of university and had rather romantic notions of working somewhere that mapped the earth. And that’s what happened.

My time was spent digitising maps from the field, analysing data from drilling records, and a spot of field mapping. I say “analysing data”; what I was doing with the drilling data was perfecting the art of manual geocoding to the National Grid. I learnt all about the techniques for mapping based on aerial photography, interpolation of point data, and the hard graft of digitising with a click pointer.

One of the greatest pleasures of working at the GSI for a map-nerd (should I say “geo-hipster”?) like me was that we had access to the original bedrock mapping done in the mid 1800s done by geologist-artist George Victor du Noyer. These are beautiful watercolours painted on-top of 19th century 6-inch maps, and have exquisite details of the landscape represented on them. I got map-goose-bumps every time I held one.

Q: Any truth to the rumour that you felt compelled to leave Ireland due to the lack of postal codes? Will you be heading back now that they’re being introduced? What’s your opinion?

A: Well of course that’s the reason I left, I couldn’t find anything. Not true actually, I was pretty nifty with National Grid co-ordinates by the time I left! (See above comments about geocoding.)

Just to clarify for those who don’t know Ireland’s postal system too well: for a long time we’ve got by fine without post codes as the Postman very often knew who was living in each house in his area. We knew our Postman by first name (Chris), and would have chats on the doorstep. I lived in a house with a number, street name, town, and county in the address. We got our post. Some of my friends in rural areas have only their name, townland, and county.  They could have the exact same address as their Auntie who lives about two miles away.  They got the right post.

But perhaps this is the rose-tinted view of the world I used to live in. I am of the opinion that postcodes are good for people and society. They unitise our geography to a level that brings real human benefits like accurately delivered post, routing for navigation, and geographic analysis.

I am looking forward to seeing what comes out of the Eircode work (Ireland’s soon to be launched new postal code system). It is a shame that the new codes won’t be totally intuitive. I like the hierarchical nature of postcodes like those in the UK and find it fascinating how a postcode can become part of the lexicon of geography. One of my pet projects is to tune in to the ways that non-map-nerds talk about location, such as this question overhead in London: “Who’s in the SW3 area this afternoon. Want to meet up?”.

Q: Today you live in Berlin, widely hailed as the hippest city in Europe, if not the world. Obviously it also has a thriving geo scene with HERE, skobbler, komoot, a new wave of location-based service start-ups seemingly every week, and regular events like wherecamp.de. What’s your take on the Berlin scene? What are you and the kids talking about while out sipping your Schwarzbier in Kreuzberg?

A: Is Berlin the hippest city in the world? Hell yeah! Berlin’s push-pin on the world technology map is strong and steady. It’s a great place for people with ideas for technology, music, art, everything else, and all that combined. The city is bathed in creativity and openness. You can hang out in the betahaus and get advice on your start-up; hack with the Berlin Geekettes, or join one of the numerous Meet-ups on coding.

That’s the hip part, what about the geo? Without a doubt HERE occupies a vital part in Berlin’s geo and technology scene. This isn’t a shameless plug, it’s just as it is. I know this as I have been working at HERE for over four years and I know the people and teams who develop our great products. It’s a global company and the Berlin site (around 1,000 people) includes developers, cartographers, developers, data collectors, developers, product managers, developers, designers and more developers. Did I say developers? What’s key about what we do in Berlin is that we are building the APIs, SDKs and technologies behind many of our key business services in Automotive, for example, such as routing and traffic. This is on top of the beautiful maps that everyone can use on here.com, and the HERE maps app on Android and iOS.

The bit I said earlier about “creativity and openness” in Berlin is important, because the connection between different technology groups in the city is strong. Plenty of HERE’s development community take part in the numerous hackathons, meet-ups and conferences available in the city.

Schwarzbier?  Mine’s an IPA please.

Q: Relatedly, almost from the beginning the German speaking world embraced OpenStreetMap in a way not really seen elsewhere. Why is that? Is it strange working for a proprietary mapping provider in Germany?

A: I’m not sure I can provide a definitive view on why Germany has embraced OSM so much. But let me offer my point of view on Berlin at least: I think it’s down to the “creative and open” culture of the technology community. Take the open-source movement in technology; this is part of the fabric here. It means you’re being generous and that you’re part of something meaningful.

Q: Before moving to Berlin you worked for the UK’s Ordnance Survey. As someone looking from the outside, any thoughts on the transitions going on there?

A: Ordnance Survey has a very special place in my geo-heart, and I’m very proud to have had a small part in such an illustrious organisation. Since I’ve left they’ve moved office, undergone a huge refactoring of data collection, revolutionised access to data for developers with their APIs, and have now started a GeoVation Lab in London.

It looks like things are going well and I’m quite pleased to see that they’ve done very well without me!

Q: Speaking of transitions, now you’re at HERE, which it seems Nokia wants to sell. Can you share the opinion of someone on the inside?

A: If we were sipping a Schwarzbier in a Biergarten in Berlin I would tell you all about it. But as we’re not, I shan’t.

Q: As someone who is hip, but also has a considerable geo career under her belt working for a mix of different players, what are your thoughts on the state of the industry? What’s your advice to the kids?

A: Am I hip? I prefer to call myself a map-nerd.  But I take the compliment.

Yes, the industry has changed, and it’s changed for the better. The big disrupter has become the standard, and the new disrupters just keep on pushing. We need quick and efficient ways to acquire data (such as vehicle image capture and community sourcing), advanced indexing technologies (think machine learning for better search), and compelling location based applications for users and businesses alike.

Something that’s important for the geographers of the world like me: you should step out and step back in. It helps to work in a different industry, experience a different domain, work with people with different skills, and to understand what it’s like to not be a geography map crazed geo-hipster. I left mapping for a few years and learnt so much about software development, user interaction, and customer satisfaction from people who are passionate about things other than mapping.

Q: Any final thoughts for all the geohipsters out there?

A: I belong to the cadre of people who love, eat, sleep, drink and breathe maps — lucky me. But I came to work here because I wanted to get back to mapping, so it wasn’t really luck — it was my ambition that got me here.

If it’s what you love, just go do it. If there isn’t a company out there doing what you want to do, go get the data and do it yourself.

Thinking back to the topic of the state of the geo-industry, I’d say that there is one key element to becoming a map champion: build applications and services that delight the geo-nervous or geo-reluctant. Make it useful, beautiful, fast and simple — then everyone will be a geo-hipster.

Nathan Woodrow: “Having non-programming hobbies is super important to your health”

Nathan Woodrow
Nathan Woodrow
Nathan Woodrow is a QGIS developer, blogger, father, and reborn Warhammer 40K lover. He has been an active developer and member of the QGIS project for the last five years. His QGIS/GIS blog at nathanw.net showcases some of the upcoming features in QGIS, as well as offers tips and tricks for developers and users. Previous to moving into the private sector, he worked as a GIS officer in local government for seven years. His bio pic is also a lie, as he has cut off all of his hair but has no good photos :)

Q: Nathan, how is life in the Land Down Under? I believe you are on the Gold Coast, Australia?

A: Good, thanks, and no shortage of Vegemite that is for sure; so delicious! — but let’s not talk about the current government, OK?  Yes, I currently live on the Gold Coast. I have been living here with my wife and two children for almost three years. I was born and raised in Warwick, a town about 150km south-west of Brisbane, where it gets nice and cold in winter and bloody hot in summer — mind you I have become a bit softer in my tolerance of the cold since moving to the coast.

My GIS career started in the local council in Warwick fresh out of high school, not even knowing what GIS was, and after starting with Digital Mapping Solutions (DMS) I moved to the Gold Coast to be closer to the airports for travel accessibility. Also so we’d have family around, as that’s where my wife is from originally.

Q: You are one of the developers on QGIS. How many of you are there out there working on this project?

Lots. Spread all around the world. There are 32 developers with direct commit rights to the code base, including myself. However, if you don’t just count core contributors, which you shouldn’t because that is what open source is all about, we have a large number of other contributors. “Contributors” includes people who just commit fixes and/or features but never come back, it also includes people who hang around the project regularly but just don’t have direct commit rights.

There are also people working on the docs, website, managing the tickets that come in, all jobs that make the cogs in the wheel that is QGIS turn. It’s a very friendly project to work on, which I think has helped in our success in being a large community of project maintainers and users.

Q: I ran into you on Twitter several years ago (@madmanwoo) with some wayward question on how QGIS works. How did you get involved in the QGIS project? Was the local council in Warwick using it?

A: In fact if my Twitter search didn’t fail me, it was Bill Dollins (@billdollins) who introduced you to me in a tweet when talking about me moving from MapInfo to QGIS.  (https://twitter.com/madmanwoo/status/135338467524743168)

My first involvement with the project, from a contribution point of view, was when I added expression-based labels (http://nathanw.net/2011/10/27/expression-based-labeling/). I had started to use QGIS at council for data entry, but expression labels were something that MapInfo had that I really missed in QGIS; without it I was never going to be able to use QGIS more in my day job.  After opening a ticket and sitting on it for a while, I sat down over a weekend, hacked in an expression-based label to see how it would work, and was pretty impressed at the speed and how easy it was to get going. It still took me about two months to add the UI and finally get it added to the core project. After that I was added as a core contributor and here we are now.

I was the first one at council to use QGIS in a full production setup. The first version I used was 1.7, but at that stage it just wasn’t ready for full time usage. After 1.8 I pretty much stopped using MapInfo and started using QGIS for all my tasks. Readers of my blog would have seen the progression. It didn’t take long for the bug to bite and for me to promote QGIS to other councils, and anyone else that would listen. It wasn’t our “official” desktop GIS, however I started to move other people onto it for all their mapping tasks. I was quite happy when I managed to get an older foreman using it to update our kerb and footpath assets, including splitting and joining.

Q: There’s been some discussion on when QGIS 3.0 comes out. With every release the software grows. In your opinion, what’s the next big hurdle for QGIS as a desktop software?

A: For the me the biggest thing is the user experience of the whole package as one thing. QGIS is getting very large in code, usage, and function. At times things can go into the application without full thought on how the overall workflow fits together, which can leave the user confused when moving through to get their work done. To do this correctly you really need to design full workflows around a user story and not just a single feature for a single use case, which can leave a function hanging on the side and not really fitting in. I will also add that I am fully guilty of doing the single function style of developing myself — it’s much easier.

Of course this is a complicated process, because QGIS has a massive user base with very different use cases, but I think as we evolve we need to address some of the workflow issues within the application. This is not to say we are not already doing it, or getting better. Every release adds new custom controls that are used throughout the application for consistency. Things like data-defined buttons, layer combo box, etc., are all generic controls that we can reuse to help the flow and feel of the application. Consistency is almost always the key.

I guess that also raises the question does QGIS have a future in a world that is moving “all the things” to the web? My answer is of course yes it does, but I’m also biased.

Q: In order to do all of this you have to know something about programming. Are you more programmer or GIS person?

A: I consider myself more of a programmer these days, although my imposter syndrome is quite strong at times as there are some super smart people, and reading past GeoHipster interviews does help that feeling. My current job and involvement in QGIS still keeps me in the GIS space, which I very much like, just more on the programming side and less on the map-making and data entry work. GIS is still great though, and I enjoy it when I can. The people in the GIS circles are excellent, and the problems in this space are fun to work on, but I guess just out of natural evolution of my current work I have landed more on the development style of things.

Personally I believe good programming knowledge helps you in GIS every day, even if you are just better at scripting things — you have just saved yourself some money and time where someone else couldn’t.

Q: How did you get started in programming, and what was the first programming language you learned?

A: My first programming language was Borland Delphi in the programming course at high school. If I remember right the first thing we wrote was a fake cash register application, after that I did a small bit of game programming making a Pokemon shooting game that lasted on the school network years after I left. Pokemon + sniper rifle = awesome fun!1! (don’t judge me I know you think it’s awesome)

Once at council, the other GIS guy and myself took the intro MapBasic course, the scripting language that comes with MapInfo. The plan was to cut down some of the tasks we had to do every week but took ages to do. After plain MapBasic I “progressed” into using VBA with Access and embedding MapInfo maps into Access forms for custom applications — you can almost hear the screams from here but hey at least they worked for the tasks. Once I saw that you could also use MapInfo in .NET, I started to use VB.NET for everything, moving onto C# after that — because who really uses VB.NET any more. Once I picked up QGIS, my only path there was C++ so I left C# and MapInfo for Qt/C++ and QGIS.  After using QGIS for a long while, I started to really like writing Python, and now that is my go-to language for most things these days.

Q: With everything you did, you also developed Roam. What is Roam? I see it starting to pop up everywhere.

A: It’s nice to see you are starting to see it used by others. I think unless you hit critical mass with a project, it can be hard to see who is really using your stuff.

Roam is a Python-based QGIS application that is mainly focused around easy tablet-based data collection. Roam, which used to be called QMap, started as a plugin I developed while working for my old council to aid in our data collection process. The first version was very very primitive. It ran as a plugin in QGIS and had pretty poor UI, but it worked quite well for our needs.

After starting with DMS we invested a lot of time in making it a lot better and released it under a new name as most of the code was redone. Roam was the first project using QGIS and Python outside of a plugin that I had done, so there was a lot of learning involved in how to do it, but I am quite happy with what it has become and the number of users — there was even a Roam workshop at the recent QGIS conference. It’s also GPL, just like QGIS, which makes me quite happy as it gives people a good (bias warning) data collection application for Windows.

Q: Have you ever eaten kangaroo? If not, what’s the most random thing you’ve eaten in Australia?

I’ll pass on kangaroo, some tell me it’s good others tell me it’s bad so I will just stick to what I know 🙂

Not very many out there, but I do like my typical Aussie Vegemite and Milo in the mornings though. Tend to have more Milo in a glass than milk, and Vegemite nice and thick on toast.

Q: What is Milo?

A: THE BEST THING EVER!!

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milo_(drink)

This was full about a week ago.

Milo -- "THE BEST THING EVER!!"
Milo — “THE BEST THING EVER!!”

My son also loves it, so that isn’t all just me 🙂

However I did just read this on Wikipedia:

Milo contains some theobromine, a xanthine alkaloid similar to caffeine which is present in the cocoa used in the product; thus, like chocolate, it can become mildly addictive if consumed in quantities of more than 15 heaped teaspoons per day

That might explain it. *eats spoon of Milo*.

Q: I always leave the last question wide open for the interviewee — now’s your chance to tell the entire world what you wish to tell them.

A: I see a lot of people in GeoHipster interviews giving out good GIS advice. I’m not sure I have anything like that I can give out. However, I will try to offer something a bit more general which has helped me recently.

Outside of family and friends, hobbies are the most important things you can have in life, especially if you are a programmer. Having non-development hobbies is super important to your health. After my daughter died two years ago I realised I didn’t have any hobbies outside of programming, and it drove me into a massive hole. My answer to the question “what do you do in your free time?” was “programming”; after Eloise died it turned into “nothing”, as I had lost interest in anything programming-related because that is all I had and burnt myself out on it. Bit boring I know, but the moral of the story is: For your own mental health get something that you can do when the normal thing you do gives you the shits and you need a time out.

Some lighter general advice is to get involved in your local open source project. It’s not always a rose garden, but it’s normally a lot of a fun to be involved in a project that other people put their love into. Luckily there is a lot of great GIS open source stuff coming out to get involved in.

Eric Gundersen & Alex Barth: “Working in the open lets us meet really cool people”

Eric Gundersen (top) and Alex Barth
Eric Gundersen (top) and Alex Barth
As CEO of Mapbox, Eric Gundersen coordinates product and business development. Eric has been with the team since the start, and splits his time working on projects in San Francisco and Washington, DC.

Eric got his start in the mapping and open data space at Development Seed, building open source tools for international development agencies. He holds a master's degree in international development from American University in Washington, DC, and has dual  bachelor's degrees in economics and international relations.
Alex Barth is an open data expert with years of practice in developing and implementing open data strategies and solutions on behalf of multinational organizations like the United Nations and World Bank. At Mapbox, he leads our data team to raise the availability and quality of freely accessible open data.

Before joining Mapbox, Alex was a developer and strategist for Development Seed. Prior to that, Alex managed information technology for an international development organization in Central America, where he became involved in the Central American open source community. In his free time, Alex has designed interactive robots and virtual reality interfaces, organized a traveling exhibit depicting life in Nicaragua and its sweatshops, and taken photos of his life and travels in Washington, DC, Nicaragua, and Austria.

Q: Mapbox is currently one of the coolest geo companies to work for, attracting top talent at neck-breaking speed. How do you do it, and how do you maintain the coolness factor?

A: So much of our work is out in the open, us coding on GitHub or editing on OpenStreetMap — working like this in the open lets us meet really cool people. When we find people who do cool stuff we ask them: You’re doing great stuff, would you like to get paid to do that?

Q: OpenStreetMap (OSM) relies on volunteers to map the world. Mapbox is relying on OSM to make maps. How do you help make sure there are people to map? How do you help recruit people to the platform?

A: We invest in tools to make it easier to map. We helped build the iDEditor, we love sponsoring mapping parties, collaborate with cities to do large data imports, and most recently have been designing micro-tasking interfaces like to-fix.

Q: With all that you’re doing — will you always be tied to OpenStreetMap as a basemap?

A: Our platform is totally data agnostic. We have customers using TomTom or HERE data to power their basemaps in addition to OpenStreetMap. For us it’s all about being a platform and providing the building blocks for developers to do whatever they want to locations. That said, you know our bet is all on open data in the long run.

Q: Do you aim to rewrite GIS in JavaScript?

A: Working on it.

Q: Verizon, Aol, MapQuest — what’s going on there?

A: Finally we can talk publicly 😉 — what’s so exciting for us is that MapQuest still accounts for an insane amount of map traffic, and it’s growing. Their team is going to use our building blocks to make their next generation mapping product on both mobile and web. And while I can’t comment on specifics, what I have seen looks really hot.

Q: An official Mapbox-MapQuest partnership announcement was made after our initial talk. Congratulations! Still no word on the Verizon mobile location data stream, and whether the ODbL OpenStreetMap license will be a barrier to using it. Can you comment on that?

A: Mapbox maps are 100% owned by Mapbox and licensed under our TOS. So everyone using Mapbox never has to worry about any data licenses from the dozens and dozens of sources we all pull together to make our map.

Q: What meat will Mapbox barbecue on the funeral pyre of HERE?

A: Obviously brats if the German auto consortium wins. But I’m starting to get excited to cook Peking Turducken — looking like the Chinese are making a for-real play, maybe with an American partner. If our bid wins, and we get a snapshot of the data, it’s going to be tallboy beer can chicken coast to coast.

Q: Mapbox is opening offices in South America and India. What are the business opportunities there for Mapbox to explore?

A: The data teams in Peru and India have been amazing! These are our dedicated teams for making OpenStreetMap better. From processing probe data we collect, to analyzing errors in OpenStreetMap, to tasking new satellite imagery — these teams run 24 hours a day 5 days a week feedback loop letting us be ultra-responsive and laying the groundwork to grow even more.

Q: Where do you see Mapbox in 2020?

A: NYSE: MPBX

Q: Do you consider yourselves geohipsters? Why / why not?

A: Ah, you saw the garage full of fixies?

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

A: It’s the early days, and that is not meant to be prophetic.