Monthly Archives: August 2015

Coleman McCormick: “We have enough tools out there that look great and don’t do anything useful”

Coleman McCormick
Coleman McCormick
Coleman McCormick is the VP of Products at Spatial Networks where he leads the product team for Fulcrum, a mobile mapping platform for field collection. He has a degree in geography, but has worked mostly in product development and server management (for geo applications) since. Coleman organizes the local Tampa Bay OpenStreetMap community, gives talks regularly on mapping and GIS, and has a passion for promoting geographic knowledge in education.

Q: You just became a father. Congratulations! Are there any parenting apps or technologies that you have discovered that help you out?

A: Not too many for me actually. My wife’s been using a few along the way. For a tech-friendly household, we’ve been keeping it pretty simple.

Q: It must be fascinating to compare the world you grew up in with the one that your daughter is going to grow up in. Do you think web maps will impact her life in the next ten years?

A: Yeah, it’s pretty unbelievable. I’m still shocked when I think about young people having access to things like Wikipedia for literally any piece of information they want to find out, and web maps to look at any place on Earth without needing an atlas. I have no idea how far we’ll be in 10 years, but I’m sure she’ll have her own device and use location-based stuff automatically without even realizing it. As someone who grew up flipping through atlases for fun, I’ve always wondered what that experience is like for a kid now when instead you can pop open Google Earth and zoom in anywhere, on-demand.

Q: Are you going to teach her how to read a paper map?

A: For sure, I’ll make sure she still knows how to read a map. I have a ridiculous trove of paper maps I’ve collected over the years, so there are plenty to reference for teaching! She’s already got map books she can’t even read yet.

Q: You are the VP of Spatial Networks. Describe the tasks you do in a typical week.

A: My typical week can be pretty hectic. As the head of our products group, any given week consists of lots of meetings with potential and existing customers, working with our dev team on product design, building marketing content, reviewing contracts and agreements, creating budgets, working on partnerships — I’m hardly ever working on the same thing two days straight. Notice that list doesn’t include “GIS” or “making maps”. I still squeeze in some cartography projects and work on OpenStreetMap on the side where I can.

Q: Your corporate bio says that you like to watch English football and have an unhealthy obsession with geography. Do you think those two are related? Maybe watching American football triggers disinterest in geography?

A: I got obsessed with soccer a while back and watch all of the European club leagues pretty consistently. The sport is incredibly international now. Sometimes looking up a player from a place like Ivory Coast will lead me into a maps rabbit hole of finding all the small towns the various players come from.

Q: What does your company do exactly? You build this app called Fulcrum… Why should I care about it?  Aren’t there free form builders out that I can use?

A: Yes, you should care! Our company does a range of different things including data production (creating huge base map datasets), spatial analysis, and building software tools. The software side is my domain, and Fulcrum is my major focus. Back in the early to mid 2000s we were constantly struggling to slap together different technologies for our own mapping projects where we needed data collection capability. Over the years we invested some internal resources on building our own solution. Most of what was out there we’d already tried, including the free options, but everything ended up being a hack job and not an integrated system. In 2011 our unnamed internal data collection tool was mature enough that we decided to take it to market for anyone else with similar needs in the field. Fulcrum is 4 years in now and has a strong, diverse set of customers from over 100 countries.

Q: What libraries and tools does your company use? What have they created?

A: We will use anything that gets the job done. We’re mostly a Ruby on Rails dev team, but lately we’re using tons of different things. The community of open source software tools is incredible. Postgres is our go to for data storage, Leaflet for web maps, the Mapbox API and base maps for the Fulcrum web app. We’re also doing a lot with mobile on both iOS and Android. The Google Maps APIs for iOS and Android give us maps on mobile. We’re still using the MBTiles format for supporting user-generated map packages, waiting to see where we might take that functionality in the coming year. We’ve created a handful of open source tools for working with Fulcrum, and some generalist libraries for working with different spatial data tools and formats.

Q: The company is based in Florida and you have a number of workers elsewhere in the USA. How do you bring together everyone? How do you promote company culture with remote workers?

A: A couple times a year we do all-hands sprint weeks at HQ in St. Petersburg. We’ve got a great office space here, it’s always fun to bring the whole team in for a week to work together in person. As for the communication among the team we use Slack, GitHub, Google Hangouts — whatever we need to share info and data effectively, without having too many tools.

Q: You follow mapping trends and new technologies in depth. Are there any particular tech companies and/or startups that you follow? Any of them going to be the next big bang disruptors?

A: Our community is interesting — the mapping space has threads running through dozens of different industries, which makes it a fun place to be. Most other lines of work stay focused around particular verticals.

I think what Mapbox is doing is fantastic, both for the community of software developers that need maps, and for the map data space with their investment in OpenStreetMap. There aren’t many true “startups” that I know of focused only on maps, but there are a ton out there doing things with maps that they wouldn’t have done if founded in 2005. I love what a handful of independent consultants out there are doing at the grassroots level to bring the open source geo stack to the local level to diversify the tools they’re using. Randy Hale is on a roll with his blog series on QGIS. Flat Rock Geo and AppGeo are both doing great stuff with open source. And I have to mention Brandon and Brian Reavis’s Natural Atlas — such a great concept and has some gorgeous cartography.

Q: What is your current stack for going on a bike ride in a place you don’t know? From initial research to route tracking, what platforms do you use?

A: I usually start by checking out what’s on OSM, the bike trails there are pretty detailed. I’ll look for any places on OpenCycleMap (an OSM-based map customized for cycling features) that show streets with dedicated bike lanes if there are no clear parks or trails to ride in. At any given time I probably have 2 or 3 different GPS trackers running to log data, too.

Q: Which industry do you see as needing more mapping technologies? Are there one or two fields that seem to be pretty behind the times?

A: With Fulcrum we’re heavily involved in the utilities space — telecom, oil and gas transmission/distribution, and electric power. All of those sectors have an understanding of GIS, and some of them do amazingly complex things. At the ground level, though, work with maps and data is often woefully old school. The users doing that type of field work are people that get things done. They don’t want to fiddle with technology unless it’s guaranteed to save them time and effort. I like their focus on results rather than playing with new toys. Since utilities are the circulatory system of the nation’s infrastructure, it’s exciting to get to be at the early stage of a lot of tech adoption for such an important market. And it’s always fun to bring powerful mapping tools to people for their work.

Q: Which do you prefer when it comes to maps?

  • Data or design
    • Data, the good-looking variety
  • Functionality or beauty
    • Function. Beauty is still important, but we have enough tools out there that look great and don’t do anything useful.
  • Historical or futuristic
    • I’m a big sci-fi fan, but for maps I’d have to lean toward the classic historical stuff. I look at old maps all the time for inspiration.
  • Markers or pins
    • Markers for small data, pins for lots of data.
  • Clustering or heat maps
    • Neither! But heat maps if the data support it.
  • Markdown or Handlebars
    • Markdown

Q: And other things…?

  • Black and local coffee or pour over with butter
    • Only black coffee, all varieties as long as it’s not burned.
  • MapMyRun or Strava
    • Strava
  • Twitter or Facebook
    • Twitter, though I find myself looking at them both less and less over time…
  • Commuter or road bike
    • Road bike. I keep racking up miles on my cheap one, but one day I’ll invest in something fancy.

Q: Any closing comments for the GeoHipster readers?

A: Join your local mapping or OSM meetup group. If there isn’t one near you, start one up. I’ve brought in quite a few new folks interested in mapping in our area from the local makerspace and some geocaching enthusiasts. But the GeoHipster audience is probably already on board with this. 🙂

Peter Batty: “I really dislike the whole attitude that GIS is this specialized sacred thing”

Peter Batty
Peter Batty
Peter Batty is a co-founder and CTO of the geospatial division at Ubisense. He has worked in the geospatial industry for 29 years, and has served as CTO for two leading companies in the industry (and two of the world's top 200 software companies) -- Intergraph and Smallworld (now part of GE Energy). He served on the board of OSGeo from 2011 to 2013, and chaired the FOSS4G 2011 conference in Denver. He serves on the advisory board of Aero Glass.

Q: How did you get into GIS and/or mapping?

A: Totally by accident. I studied maths (as we say in England) at Oxford, then stayed on to do a Masters in “Computation”. I took a job at IBM, which was the dominant computer company in the world back then, in 1986. It was a bit like going to work for Microsoft in the 1990s or Google today, but distinctly less “hipster” and with more blue suits. On my first day they told me that they were introducing this new product from the US into the UK, and gave me the manuals and told me to learn about it. It was a product called GFIS, for Geo-Facilities Information System, a GIS focused on utilities and telecommunications applications. By the end of the first week I was the UK expert as I was the only one who had read the manuals, and I’ve been in that field ever since. GFIS ran on IBM mainframes and used specialized high-end graphics terminals which cost around £25,000 ($40,000). We’ve come a long way since then!

I found it a really interesting mix of challenges from a software design and development perspective — lots of interesting database problems, a very graphical focus obviously, which I find appealing, the challenge of designing systems that can be easily configured and customized, and more.

One thing I might mention from IBM days is that I was one of the main advocates in the industry back then for the notion that you should store all aspects of your geospatial data in a single database management system. This was the approach that IBM took, but it was uncommon in the industry at the time. The other main company pushing that approach was a Canadian outfit called GeoVision, led by Doug Seaborn. Esri’s product at the time was Arc/Info, the predecessor to ArcGIS, and it was so called as “Arc” handled the graphical / geographic aspects of the data, while “Info” stored the alphanumeric data. Pretty much all systems back then handled the graphical and alphanumeric aspects of the data separately. I wrote a paper called Exploiting Relational Database Technology in GIS, in 1990. In 1995 by chance I went to the launch of what is now Oracle Spatial, but was originally called Oracle MM (multi-media), at a conference in Vancouver. I chatted with the development manager and he said that they had a copy of my paper posted on the noticeboard in their office, and it had been a big influence on them. Which I thought was cool (though I’m firmly a PostGIS person these days)!

Q: So what did you do after IBM?

A: From IBM I went to work at Smallworld, who were a fairly early stage company at the time — I think I was employee number 30 or so, and  after a year with them in the UK I was the first person to move to the US when we started the company there, and I’ve been in Denver ever since then (that was 1993). I imagine many GeoHipster readers may not have heard about Smallworld, but we revolutionized the GIS industry in the 1990s with a lot of ground-breaking ideas, and became the market leader in GIS for utilities and telecoms — you can read more in a blog post I wrote on the occasion of Smallworld’s 20th birthday.

GE bought Smallworld in 2000 and as with many acquisitions, it was a big culture change, especially for for those of us on the management team. Four of us left to form a company called Ten Sails, which evolved into what is Ubisense today (more of that shortly). In 2005 I took a detour to spend a couple of years as CTO at Intergraph, who were the second largest GIS company at the time, with revenues of around $700m. I had a good experience there working with lots of great people, but in 2007 I decided I wanted to get back to being more hands on with technology and left to start my own venture called Spatial Networking, where I did a variety of interesting consulting projects and also built an app involving social networking and future location called whereyougonnabe. I haven’t looked at this in ages, but I just found that our original web site is still out there, and there are a couple more videos here. I still think it was a cool idea, and don’t think anyone has really implemented what we came up with. Dopplr was the closest thing, but they didn’t have a lot of the geospatial features that we did, and they were acquired by Nokia and subsequently disappeared. I occasionally think about revisiting this idea! But anyway, we didn’t get the traction we hoped for with it, and in 2010 I decided to rejoin Ubisense.

Q: So you went back to Ubisense as CTO of the Geospatial Division. What are some of the more interesting projects you’ve been working on lately?

A: Well one half of Ubisense does RTLS (Real Time Location System) applications, using our precision indoor location tracking technology to power various applications, mainly focused on the manufacturing space. It’s a very cool technology — and I’ve come to learn that indoor location tracking is a surprisingly hard problem to solve!

The other half of the company is the geospatial division, which is where I work. I led a skunkworks project in 2010 to build a product called myWorld, which has really taken off over the past few years. It’s a web and mobile geospatial platform focused on large utilities and telecom companies, the same space I worked in with previous companies. It’s built on open source components — PostGIS, GeoServer and Leaflet being the main ones. Our mantra is “Simple, Smart, Fast” — it’s targeted at the 95% of people in these large companies who aren’t GIS people but can get a lot of value from a really simple Google Maps style interface onto their enterprise data. We’ve had a great response from customers. In fact one of them, one of the largest cable companies in the US, does a satisfaction survey of their end users every time they roll out a new IT system, and myWorld got the highest rating of any application in the 20 years they’ve been doing this, so that was very gratifying! We’ve been doing a lot of work with offline systems for use in the field, syncing data from PostGIS to SpatiaLite — since you still can’t guarantee having a wireless data connection 100% of the time, our customers really need the ability to work without a network connection. We have the core offline capabilities rolled out in some large implementations, and now we’re working on some interesting ideas for hybrid online-offline systems that can really simplify deployment and administration compared to traditional offline systems. We’ve also been building a number of specific applications to address particular business processes, like damage assessment, inspection and maintenance, and outage analysis.

One thing that differentiates us from the traditional GIS vendors is our focus on simplicity — it’s deceptively hard to make useful enterprise applications that really are simple and intuitive for end users. And another is that we are GIS-agnostic — at one of our large utility customers, we integrate with back end systems from GE Smallworld, Intergraph and Esri, and provide a common front end to all of them. The big players tend to work well with their own systems but less well with their competitors.

So it’s been fun. I feel we’re well on our way to disrupting the enterprise geospatial market in large utilities and communications companies, which hasn’t really happened since we did that with Smallworld twenty years ago.

Q: You presented your Geospatial Revolution talk to Minnesota’s GIS/LIS Consortium Conference in 2009. This was an influential talk for me and many of my colleagues here. It was the first time I had heard of the concept of “neogeographers” – did you coin that term?

A: No, it’s not my term, it was quite a widely used term in the industry at the time. At the time I would have said that Andrew Turner coined it — he literally wrote the book on neogeography, which was published by O’Reilly in 2006. However, I asked him if he came up with the term, during this interesting panel discussion at the GITA conference in 2010, and he said no, it originated in 1912 as a term to contrast with paleogeography. He credits Di-Ann Eisnor, then with Platial but more recently with Waze, as coining the recent usage of the term, though Wikipedia attributes Randall Szott with being the first to use it in the contemporary sense.

Anyway, it definitely wasn’t my term, and to be honest it’s not a term I really like, it was just the most widely used label at the time to describe the newer generation of systems that were disrupting the geospatial industry.

Q: What compelled you at the time to compare “paleo” or “neo” geographers?

A: Before I answer that, let me just digress a bit more on the terminology. One of the reasons I don’t like the term neogeography is that I don’t regard myself, nor most of the people doing interesting geospatial applications these days, as any kind of geographer. I’ve never studied geography at all, I’m a software developer and it happens that most of the applications I’ve worked on involve some aspect of location data or maps, but they involve a lot of other things too. Paul Ramsey uses the term “spatial IT”, which I like much better, though it still overemphasizes the spatial part in a way.

An analogy I like to use is that we don’t use the term “numerical information system” just because an application contains numeric data. We don’t have conferences on NIS. It doesn’t make you a mathematician because you develop an application that uses numbers.

Increasingly now, geospatial data is just another datatype, a map is just another aspect of a user interface. This opens up both the development and usage of geospatial applications to a massively broader audience, which is the real significance of the “neogeography” change or whatever you want to call it, the label doesn’t matter. Traditional GIS is a tiny portion of the geospatial ecosystem these days, I really dislike the whole attitude that GIS is this specialized sacred thing, and that you need to be a trained “GIS Professional” to do anything with geospatial data. Nonsense!

Q: Did the word “hipster” ever enter into your mind when considering either camp of geographer? As a Brit living in America, do you have a different take on hipsters?

A: Um, no! Was hipster a thing in 2009? And like I said, it wasn’t my term, I was just using terms that were prevalent at the time.

I have no claim or aspiration to be a hipster. And I’m not nearly as old as Steven Feldman so don’t qualify as a geohippy I don’t think.

Am I a GeoHipster? I had to consult your poll to decide on that, and according to that the joint leading characteristic of a GeoHipster is that they never refer to themselves as one, so it seems as though the only possible answer to give is no, whether I am one or not. But on your other top characteristics I score pretty highly: geoJSON is often the answer, I fired up ogr2ogr just yesterday to convert a shapefile into a 21st century format (geoJSON, naturally), and I have written my own code to roll map tiles (from Smallworld). I don’t think PostGIS is too mainstream though, I think PostGIS is fantastic. We’ve built myWorld on it and it has worked exceptionally well in some very large and challenging enterprise applications.  I’d like to think we’ve been doing our bit to make PostGIS more mainstream — we have managed to get it installed in a number of large utilities and telecom companies where Oracle is the dominant database platform. With most of the customers that I work with, PostGIS would be regarded as very GeoHipster, I think. So maybe I at least score half a point there.

Another one of your poll answers was: “You call him Jack and still hate his company”. Well yes, obviously! I say that rather tongue in cheek, I’m not really a hating person, and I have plenty of friends at Esri. But I have spent my whole career competing against Jack, Esri has always been the “dark side” for me and the companies I’ve worked at. I have been in the geospatial industry for 29 years and have never used ArcGIS , does that qualify me for any sort of special GeoHipster award? Though having said that, we do use the Esri Leaflet plugin in myWorld now to enable integration with ArcGIS Server and ArcGIS Online, and quite a few Esri customers are using myWorld. Good interoperability with Esri is a strong focus for us at the moment.

So anyway, you be the judge on the GeoHipster front. I think maybe I’ve talked myself into getting a GeoHipster T-shirt.

Q: You’ve long been big on usability testing, even pointing out with self-deprecating humor how user testing showed a fatal flaw in one of your initial user interfaces. Do you have any more stories about how usability testing has improved your projects?

A: Yes, I am a huge fan of simple usability testing, as outlined in the book “Don’t make me think” — this is a short read and I highly recommend it to anyone involved in software design or development. I did a 5-minute Ignite talk on the same topic which you can see here. Usability has been absolutely fundamental to the work we’ve been doing with myWorld for the past five years, to make complex geospatial enterprise data accessible to the average person with little or no training. We believe that the growth in enterprise geospatial applications is all about serving the 95% of people in our customer organizations who don’t know what a GIS is and shouldn’t need to know.

Q: Influenced by some of your usability notes, I once held on to the belief that it was important to signal to users that something in a web map was “clickable” by changing the mouse cursor to a pointer. But now, with touch screens eliminating the cursor, this seems much less important. Has this shift been revealed in your usability testing? And if so, is there a new “touch screen friendly” way to tell the user that something is “clickable”?

A: Your first example is an interesting one actually. In myWorld we are typically dealing with very dense utility maps with many items on the screen. We can easily have several thousand selectable features on the screen at a time. These are typically pre-rendered into raster tiles for high drawing performance, which works very well. But of course that doesn’t give you sufficient information to change the mouse cursor when you are over something that is selectable. We could create UTFgrids to do this, but that’s a lot of extra work with our data volumes, and the density of clickable data on the screen is so great that arguably it doesn’t add much value and could impact performance — you would be trying to rapidly change the cursor all the time as it moved over the map. So in our web application we elected to use a fixed “pointing finger” icon instead of a “panning hand” icon over our map, to give users a clue that they can click anywhere on the map. Depending on where they click, they could get no features or multiple features. But we’ve found that works just fine with a wide range of users who are not technical and have had minimal or no training on the system. They also find panning intuitive even though we the icon we use is different.

Of course on a tablet or phone there is no cursor icon, and users still find it very intuitive and realize that they can drag to pan, click to select or pinch to zoom. So in this particular example I think it’s the case that you don’t really need the feedback of a changing cursor for those operations to be obvious and intuitive.

In the more general case, as web applications or native apps based on them are used more and more on touch devices, I think it’s important to design your application so that it doesn’t need mouseover behavior, which in general is very doable. There are quite a few specific suggestions if you google around, for example this discussion on Stack Exchange.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with the GeoHipster readers?

A: I guess one other topic of the moment that we haven’t touched on is vector tiles. There’s lots of interesting work going on in this area at the moment. I do find it ironic though that when I started doing GIS in the 1980s, most systems were based on tiled vector files — systems were designed that way to get over performance constraints. A huge focus in the industry was getting away from tiles to “continuous” vector based systems — having to split line and polygon features into multiple pieces to fit into different tiles caused all sorts of problems, especially for data editing and analysis. All these problems are exactly the same with vector tiles. So people have laughed at me for saying this, but I strongly believe that vector tiles are not “the future of web mapping” which is the message that I hear from a number of people at the moment. Yes they are interesting and you can do some cool things with them, but they have significant drawbacks too. I believe they’ll be a short term transitory phase, and the real winner of the next iteration will be whoever figures out how to handle a continuous non-tiled vector model in the browser, efficiently loading and unloading features as needed.

I also think that in all the excitement over vector tiles, a lot of people underestimate the strengths of good old raster tiles. For the sort of applications that we do, with dense vector maps and very complex display styles, pre-rendered raster tiles have huge advantages in terms of performance, scalability and portability — the ability to work well on low-end devices, and look the same in all environments, etc. I think there’s a good chance that raster tiles will outlive vector tiles.

Q: Any final words?

A: If you’re not using open source as part of your geospatial applications, you should really take a look at what’s out there. After spending 20 odd years working in the closed source geospatial world, I’ve been really impressed over the last eight years or so both with the innovation going on in the open source world, and with how well the products we’ve been using in our solutions have held up in very large enterprise projects.

Oh, and one more last thing: Mapwheel. I think all geohipsters should have a mapwheel!