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. 🙂