Monthly Archives: July 2015

Paul Ramsey: “The jungle is very very large, and there’s always a bigger gorilla”

Paul Ramsey
Paul Ramsey
Paul Ramsey is a Solutions Engineer at CartoDB. He has been working with geospatial software for over 15 years: consulting to government and industry, building a geospatial software company, and programming on open source. He co-founded the PostGIS spatial database project in 2001, and is currently an active developer and member of the project steering committee. In 2008, Paul received the Sol Katz Award for achievement in open source geospatial software. Paul speaks and teaches regularly at conferences around the world.

I’m writing this article for GeoHipster almost simultaneously with the Esri User Conference (UC) plenary session, which feels appropriate. If being a “hipster” means being in some way unconventional, then I’m missing out on the peak event of the “conventional” GIS community, and what could be more “GeoHipster” than that?

It’s been a long time since I attended the UC, probably 10 years or so, and the dominant feeling I remember coming away from the last event was one of absolute dejection and depression.

I was at the time, as I am now, a proponent of doing things “differently”, of exploring other options than the dominant enterprise mainstream, and it’s very hard to sit in a room full of over 10 thousand people applauding the dominant enterprise mainstream and still think your ideas have much merit. And as much as I enjoy GeoHipsterism and all its proponents, one of the dangers of our little echo-chamber is that we forgot just how fundamentally irrelevant our ideas are to the actual practice of professional GIS in the world.

The source of my dejection while sitting in the UC plenary had a lot to do with the futility of my position: here were 10K folks who would never care a whit about what I was working in. Here also was a company with so many resources that they could afford to waste the efforts of huge development teams on products and ideas that would never pan out.

That particular plenary, back in 2005, included lots of 3D technology that has never seen the light of day since, and felt like a festival of technological spaghetti throwing. There was not a wall left unfestooned with spaghetti. And it wasn’t random either. They were comprehensively going down every possible track of future technology, even though 75% of them were going to end up dead-ends, just to avoid missing out on the one track that turned out to be relevant for the future.

And this brought yet more dejection. Even, if by some amazing chance, I did hit on an idea or technology that was important enough to gain a market presence or interest, Esri would turn their vast development resources upon the problem and render it an also-ran in short order.

Why even bother?

It took me about a month to recover.

Since what I was working on then and what I’m working on now is open source, my ability to keep on working and growing it are never at issue. Open source can’t be driven out of business. What is at issue is relevance: whether the work is helpful and worthwhile and useful to people to make the world a better place. Even with 99% of the professional geospatial world locked up and working in the Esri ecosystem, the remaining 1% (pick whatever numbers you like) is still a lot of folks, and a lot of those folks can do things with open source that they could never do with Esri.

So I saw the NGOs and First Nations and academics and innovative governments still doing cool things with open source, and I got happy again and kept soldiering on.

Fast forward ten years.

Heading into this years UC, there was a brief twitter-storm around Esri’s use of vector tiles, which is worth following through several of the conversation chains if you have the time.

In an earlier era, it would not have been hyperbole to state that having Esri use your code/steal your idea guaranteed its relevance in ways that having them ignore it never would. Andrew Turner once told me that one of the big plusses of being acquired by (big, bad) Esri was that his ideas had a much better impact than they did when he was working in his (teeny, tiny) start-up.

But this is a new era, and the people Esri will be serving with their adoption of Tom’s vector tile technology are almost completely separate from the people Tom’s company (Mapbox) will be serving with that technology. There truly is a win-win here. There’s also lots of relevance to be had beyond the now tiny world of “professional” GIS.

And this is where the “GeoHipster” thing gets a little weird. If being a “hipster” means standing outside the mainstream, what becomes of your status when the former mainstream itself becomes marginalized? When I read the list of interviewees and their interviews, it’s clear that mostly we “geohipsters” share a history within the old mainstream and that we have to varying degrees decided to look beyond that mainstream.

But with the growth of the industry “geohipsters” are becoming a minority within a minority. The new kids can’t identify, because they’ve never had to break out of the old paradigm. Tom MacWright, whom I quoted above, and who has already built so much amazing open source geospatial software in his career, has no experience with Esri tools. Outside the solutions engineers, none of my colleagues at CartoDB have any Esri experience either.

To call Esri the dominant company in our field these days is to radically misread what our field actually is, and who is leading it. What technology has changed our field in the last ten years?

  • Slippy maps and JavaScript web technology (Google)
  • Globe visualization and ubiquitous access to imagery (Google/Keyhole)
  • Mass access to mobile location (Apple/Samsung)
  • Mobile maps and vector mapping (Google/Apple)
  • Oblique imagery and model extractions (Microsoft)

Esri isn’t calling the tune, and neither is open source — we’re all just fast followers now.

So I can take some comfort that — some 10 years after I sat in the Esri UC plenary and wondered why I bother to get up in the morning — some poor Esri exec is going to have to sit in the Google I/O plenary and have the same experience. The jungle is very very large, and there’s always a bigger gorilla.

Maziyar Boustani: “GISCube is unique because it offers geoprocessing on the web”

Maziyar Boustani
Maziyar Boustani
Maziyar Boustani received his bachelor’s degree in Iran, then moved to US to receive his master's degree in GIS. After finishing his school in 2012, he started working at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena since. He is working as a GIS developer and Software Engineer, focusing on earth science projects and big data.

Q: So Mazi, we met at FOSS4GNA 2015 in San Francisco (technically Burlingame). Where do you work?

A: Yes, it was nice meeting you at FOSS4GNA at your QGIS talk. I am currently working at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Q: What do you do at JPL?

A: I am working as GIS developer and software engineer at JPL for 3 years, working on a variety of earth science projects, finding solutions for big data problems, as well as being involved in some interesting open-source projects.

Q: So what sort of Big Data Problems are you working on (if you can tell us)? Big data and GIS together? That seems to get a lot of discussion these days.

A: At JPL our team deals with a variety of data received from satellites, as well as model data generated by scientists.

Also within the last two years our team is working on two projects from DARPA called Memex and  XData to find some solutions for big data problems. Provided data can be public tweets, financial, employment, and more. Some challenging questions have been asked, such as visualizing data geographically, as well as finding the connections between different data.

For example, in terms of geospatial data, I had a challenge of visualizing big point data on a map. I found the solution by using D3 JS library with generating vector point tiles using Python SciPy k-means clustering by running in Apache Spark. You can find the repository on my GitHub page at (https://github.com/MBoustani/Khooshe).

Q: I see you graduated with a bachelor’s degree in civil surveying and Geomatics from Iran. How is the GIS field in Iran, and how were your classes? That’s an area in the world we haven’t seen on GeoHipster as of yet — educate us!

A: The GIS field in Iran is booming and growing very fast. At the time I was studying (2004) there was no university major called GIS — it was part of Civil Surveying major, but in terms of classes, we had a very updated curriculum and were using mainly ArcGIS Desktop for GIS analysis and processing.

Q: At FOSS4GNA 2015 I did a QGIS workshop and you came to it — afterwards you demoed this small program (I say that jokingly) that you have been working on called GISCube. What is it and why did you make it?

A: So when I started getting into the field of GIS (back in 2005) ArcGIS was the only software for doing GIS processing and making maps. I was mainly using ArcGIS for many years (until 2012) before I started working at JPL. Our team at JPL was one of the early groups using and distributing open source code and software. Because of that I started  researching for open source alternatives to ArcGIS and found out about QGIS and GDAL/OGR.

We have some scientists who are working with geospatial data but they are not familiar with GIS software like QGIS and not comfortable writing Python code using GDAL/OGR. So I came up with the idea about making GIS processing and visualization easier by developing a web-based GIS application that can be run internally on the JPL server for all employees.

Q: And that’s what GISCube does, correct? It allows you to visualize GIS data using a web browser? It also allows you to do simple GIS analysis things like buffers?  

A: Yes, to start you first upload your geospatial files (such as shapefile, GeoTIFF, GeoJSON, and more), after which you can visualize them on a map, get metadata, and extract it to other metadata file formats. And most importantly, a series of geoprocessing tools lets users implement processing in the browser.

Q: And you gave all that work away on github (https://github.com/MBoustani/GISCube)? Why?

A: Making your project open source not only helps to have broader user base, but also helps to have a community of developers around the project to help you expand the project at no cost.

Q: In the middle of our interview you went back to Iran to visit friends and family. You get to see all the news reports on Iran like I do, but you just went back for a visit. Were you born there?

A: Actually I was born in Boston, MA, but grew up in Iran for 23 years, came to US for education and work. I am not following the news, but definitely I know it creates a very wrong image of Iran for non-Persian people. It was very impressive to see the number of US tourists visiting Iran increasing day by day. It’s a place worth visiting for sure.

Tabiat bridge -- Tehran, Iran
Tabiat bridge — Tehran, Iran

Q: Would you consider yourself a geohipster?

A: Can you define geohipster for me?

Q: That’s a good question. So we took a poll, and the ultimate answer we came up at the time was that geohipsters more or less shun the mainstream GIS world, have a sense of humor, and like to do things differently. So do you feel like one now? Because it appears you’re doing all sorts of things differently, and doing it quite well.

A: Yes, I am considering myself a geohipster, it sounds cool. However, I have noticed most of the questions in the poll were about visualization, so I would like to see more GIS people thinking about GIS as processing and generating data instead of just visualization. I believe GISCube is unique because  you can’t find many projects that focus on geoprocessing on the web.

Unfortunately when you talk about GIS, most people are talking about Mapbox, Leaflet, OpenLayers, map projections, and more. I would like to see more geohipsters focusing on developing libraries and applications to make the GIS processing much easier and faster than what we have now.

Q: I always leave the last question for you to say whatever you would like. Mazi – what would you like to tell the world?

A: Be creative, come up with crazy ideas, and yes, you can make it happen, just work hard 🙂

Javier de la Torre: “There are a ton of European geo-startups trying to conquer the world”

Javier de la Torre
Javier de la Torre
Javier de la Torre is the CEO of CartoDB, a global startup democratizing data analysis and visualization on maps. He is a former scientist with a research focus on biodiversity informatics and global environmental change, and is a recognized expert on open data, open source software, and data visualization.

Q: I have the impression many users of CartoDB are people who wouldn’t otherwise have the technical ability or skills to bring a map to life. Who uses it? How?

A: That is correct. We believe that GIS and mapping in general should not be a niche domain, but that everybody should be able to take advantage from it. We have many different types of users, some of them using it more professionally for development, sales, marketing or BI, and others use it for data exploring and communicating stories with maps.

Q: So people are using CartoDB to tell stories with maps. What are the top three hippest examples?

A: Something I love about CartoDB is the community behind it, so probably most impressive is to see everyday maps of what is happening around the world. It is like you can watch the news just by looking at the maps being created on CartoDB.

But for my personal favourites, I love stories about biodiversity and conservation. Here goes my top three:

Q: But of course it’s not just about trying to make pretty maps, you also need to make money. As we like to say here at GeoHipster HQ, EU branch: “If it doesn’t make Euro, it doesn’t make sense.” On the CartoDB pricing page the most expensive package is named after Mercator, while the middle tier is named after Coronelli. Do you really think Mercator’s contribution to geo is twice as valuable as Coronelli’s?

A: Ha! Mercator gave us the projection we now see in all 2D maps, and Coronelli gave us 3D globes… I think Mercator clearly won 😀

Now, what you are looking at is our basic plans, but we have a set of Enterprise plans https://cartodb.com/enterprise. In those cases we provide extra enterprise services, more capacity, SLAs, performance, and many more things. This is where we make most of the money. We have a really long tail of clients, which I think is important — to provide service to a larger audience — but right now the money is in the enterprise.

Q: It’s a cliche, but we often hear “A downturn is the best time to start a company.” You started CartoDB in the middle of Spain’s worst economic crisis in living memory. What was that like?

A: Well, the good thing about starting in the middle of a crisis is that things only get better! So for us honestly it was not really something we thought about. We bootstrapped this client for a looong time growing carefully based on our resources. That made us really care about the use cases, the users, and the sustainability of our business models.

Q: We’re seeing more and more geo-product companies like CartoDB (or Mapbox with their B round announcement a few weeks back) taking the VC funding route. Why, and why now? More importantly, how does the story end? How will the VCs get their money (with a tidy profit, natch) back?

A: Well, there has never been a better moment to create geospatial technology. There are many changes going on at the same time that are calling for a disruption on the technology, business models, and market in general. Geo has been special for way too much time, but now is infiltrating everywhere. There are several open fields from a business perspective. Mapbox is going for the LBS market with OpenStreetMaps, Planet Labs is disrupting at the Satellite, and we are going after the Enterprise data. There is multi-billion-dollar business in all those areas, and there has never been a bigger demand than now. So it makes sense for the VC world to show their interest in the field.

For us the return is very clear — we aim to provide a great ecosystem where organizations find value and pay for it. In other cases it might be hard to figure out how they will monetize, but in our case big revenues will provide big returns to our investors.

Q: If you weren’t doing CartoDB, which geo start-up would you work for?

A: Actually my second love is in Precision Agriculture http://agricgear.com/ 🙂 There is something amazing about solving a real problem in the most simplistic way. And most people don’t know I am an agriculture engineer.

Q: You’re a Spanish company developing in the open, last year OpenStreetMap’s State of the Map was held in Argentina, and now the first SotM LatAM has been announced for Santiago, Chile in the autumn. It feels like OSM is really taking off in the Spanish-speaking world in the last two years or so. Is that perception correct, and if so why is it happening?

A: I would not say it is just about the Spanish-speaking world. OSM is catching on everywhere, and it was a matter of time that the Spanish-speaking world would get into it. In Wikipedia Spanish is the second language after English. Now, more specifically about Latin America, I think it has to do also with the development of an Open Data movement, and the realization that crowdsourcing will often provide better results than relying on private or governmental data. I would expect in the future for OSM to have more contributors in Santiago de Chile than in New York, honestly.

Q: Let’s delve a bit into your background. Is it true you were very unhip as a child, and then only really blossomed during your studies in Berlin, the current epicentre of EU hipdom?

A: What? No way! Before Berlin, Madrid was the capital of fun in Europe. Although I have lived in London and Rome too, and I have to recognize that Berlin is one of the most fun cities to live now in Europe, that’s for sure.

On the other hand, Germany is a country that teaches you how to destroy and reconstruct potatoes in 1,000 different ways, that must have helped somehow.

Q: It’s great to see an EU company trying to conquer the world. Any other up-and-coming players in the European geo space that geohipsters should be keeping tabs on? Who’s doing hip stuff?

A: Hey! I think there are a ton of European geo-startups trying to conquer the world! Take a look at Mapillary or Nutiteq for example.

Q: Any final advice for geohipsters out there?

A: Take a look at our jobs page https://cartodb.com/jobs 😉