Monthly Archives: September 2015

Alex Leith: “A picture tells a thousand words, a map tells a million”

Alex Leith
Alex Leith
Alex is currently employed as a Spatial Information Analyst at TasNetworks and is a director at the Surveying and Spatial Sciences Institute. Alex graduated with a degree in Surveying and Spatial Sciences with honours in 2011, and has since worked in technical spatial roles. Alex has presented at international, national and local conferences and organises regional spatial events including State of GIS and GeoRabble. Alex lives in Hobart, Tasmania.

Q: You work for TasNetworks. What does the company do?

A: TasNetworks is a transmission and distribution business, which is to say that it’s a power company that manages the really big poles and wires as well as the smaller ones. Electrical engineering is all new to me, and one of the important things about our GIS is the electrical connectivity model, which is like topology, but includes all the switches, fuses, links and other accoutrements of managing an electricity network. TasNetworks is an organisation of around a thousand employees including five hundred field staff.

Q: What software/technology stack do you all use?

A: It’s a big organisation, and there’s a lot of technology. Keeping it just to GIS, we use G/Technology as the master GIS database for editing the electricity network’s spatial data and connectivity and to manage the network model. This database gets de-normalised into a big Oracle ‘Spatial Data Warehouse’ (SDW), and a number of other systems get their data staged into this database too. It’s a really big database, and contains lots of data (and a bit of information!). From the SDW, we move to a number of desktop GIS users, who use GeoMedia Professional. And there’s a couple of installations of GeoMedia WebMap, which has over three hundred unique weekly users internally. GeoMedia definitely feels like a legacy product (both desktop and WebMap) and I’m a technology guy, and love playing with the tools, so I’ve started to use some other things that are new to the business, such as GeoServer and Leaflet for single-purpose web-mapping, and QGIS for desktop data exploration. We’ve got FME, which is really important, but it’s only used for ETL, which is like using an AI to make paper clips! I’m pretty big on open-source, but I can be really efficient with FME, and it’s definitely my favourite piece of technology.

Q: You worked for the Glenorchy City Council for some time. What was the city doing that was innovative? What was it behind on?

A: Glenorchy, as I left, was embarking on a ‘cloud’ migration, shifting a range of IT services to an ‘as a service’ model. This is all well and good, but you still need good people in-house. And there’s a compromise there between letting someone else take responsibility for systems, and internal folks architecting and overseeing and owning what they’re doing. I don’t know how they’re going to go with it, but notching some of the IT capability up is important. It’s often just seen as an expense, IT, rather than an enabler and an efficiency provider. Without an IT solution, you end up with paper work orders and double or triple handling of information. At worst, you enter data into multiple different systems and inevitably have data quality issues. Council was pretty good at core business systems and IT services, and was at the right scale, in that there was good virtualised infrastructure, and not too much bureaucracy locking it down. I had the benefit of having an excellent, technical leader, who trusted me to mess with the crazy stuff I got running. I just hope that I documented enough for those that follow me. (Do you hate me, Steve?!)

Q: What are some lessons you have learned along the way when developing systems for TasNetworks and Glenorchy City Council?

A: I’m only very new to TasNetworks, but at Glenorchy City Council I was privileged in that I was trusted to take some risks. So I designed and implemented an open data and public mapping portal. This went from non-existent to a couple of thousand hits a month over two years, which is great. It was all done using open-source and Amazon Web Services, so, aside from my time, it cost very little to get started. Something I took away from that, though, is that technology and information products are fine, but there is a whole swath of training and education that is required to get people (field staff, in this case) to change their way of working. Getting a system up technically is just step one (or two, after planning) and I had hoped that it would diffuse through the workforce naturally. Looking back, there was n opportunity to increase awareness and usage of the mobile mapping components of the portal with regular training and workshops.

Q: What skill is on your list to master next?

A: There’s always more technology stuff to keep an eye out for, but often it’s pointless until there is a working implementation. Some things I think are going to be important are vector tiles and machine learning. To some extent, the Internet of things and self-driving cars are worth being aware of, but the spatial technology they use, by the time they use it, is infrastructure – you can take it for granted. In terms of what I’d like to master, I think it’s the soft skills. The people stuff. Negotiation and persuasion, for example, probably needs some thought. I tend to think it’s obvious that we should be heading in a certain direction (and it is!), but ensuring that the intuitive thinking that comes from working with the tech gets translated into a convincing argument – and subsequent engagement – is next in line for mastery from me.

Q: How do you think growing up in the southern hemisphere has impacted the way you view maps?

A: Well, the mercator projection has fostered European imperialist attitudes for centuries. I think it’s time people stopped with their ‘top and bottom’ attitudes, let alone the sheer arrogance of the GeoHipster sticker, which leaves 90% of the Australian population off its tartan atrocity! An advantage of living in the southern hemisphere is that we can lay claim to practically everything with ‘it’s the biggest <something> in the southern hemisphere’ and it’s probably true.

Q: What are some of your favorite maps? Why?

A: I’ve been exploring interactive mapping for a while, and really like using Leaflet to build things. But there’s a lot of stuff I really like that uses other tech.

This wind map from Cameron Beccario is fantastic. It’s fast to load, simple to understand, and is really pretty. So much complex stuff hidden behind that interesting map. It uses D3.

Cartograms are really nice, and exploit TopoJSON, which is really cool (data compression using topology is nice, as is topological simplification). This example also uses D3.

I’m also intrigued with the stuff that Michael Bostock does, such as this very hip map using hexagons, but in a pretty unique way. He wrote D3. (I tried to learn D3, but didn’t get far… What’s with the learning curve, eh, Mike?!).

Final map, this housing unaffordability map out of the Guardian is pretty fantastic… I actually don’t know what tech they used, but it’s great to see media companies getting so deep into data visualisation.

Q: What is the biggest hurdle you see in the geospatial field?  

A: Biggest hurdle? Probably communicating the idea that so much business information can be unlocked by putting it on a map. A picture tells a thousand words, and maybe a map tells a million. In local government, the GIS is the hub between the property system, the asset management system and all the external agency data, like transportation, environmental, and geomorphological data. Without a GIS, your decision making gets slowed down considerably, or processes become ad-hoc and inconsistent, or important considerations are missed. And in a bigger place, like TasNetworks, there are huge opportunities in areas such as routing work crews, grouping work orders geographically, and then forward works planning with other utilities and agencies… It’s one thing to know that we could be doing these things and that they’ll save money, and another to convince a business of that and therefore spending money on the GIS. Like investments in information technology generally, geospatial technology is an efficiency driver, but it’s often underappreciated, underinvested or taken for granted.

Q: What is your opinion on imagery drones? Do you envision using one in the next few years?

A: A lecturer of mine at UTAS has been working with UAVs for some time using structure from motion algorithms to generate imagery and point clouds, so I understand how they work. And Chris Anderson’s company sounds like it’s going to be big (if it’s not already). I wonder if drones are a case of legislation being unable to keep up with technology, though.There are uses of drones now, such as real estate photography, which are becoming common, but the businesses are probably not licensed appropriately. In Australia, you need to get CASA certification, which just about requires a pilot’s license, in order to do anything except for recreational flights. That’s a lot of formal shenanigans when you can buy a robot helicopter for $500 and start making money! TasNetworks does have a couple of use-cases for UAVs, though there are so many assets, you need something that can cover a lot of ground. Ergon energy, in Queensland, has been doing some fancy stuff with remote sensing and its massive lengths of transmission lines. This could definitely be replaced with a large drone (and I think theirs is basically that). Generally, I reckon utilisation of drones will become commonplace over the next few years, but I think I’ll be a consumer of a service rather than an operator. I much prefer software over hardware!

Q: What is the Tasmanian mapping community like?  

A: The Tasmanian mapping community is great! There’s the government side, with TASSIC, who do big things in terms of advocacy. The professional arm, the SSSI, run reasonably large events such as the State of GIS every year. And there’s the informal, with GeoRabble, which is inclusive and fun.

Q: What are some startups (geo or non-geo) that you follow?

A: I’m interested to watch MapBox and CartoDB push ahead into the spatial-IT sphere. Fulcrum is a nice software and service too. And I’m interested to see what I can do with Zapier. Web development without a server-side component seems so much easier!

Q: Choices (Which do you prefer?)

  • Data or design
    • Data, gotta have data
  • Functionality or beauty
    • Functionality, the beauty comes from the simplicity of that functionality
  • Historical or futuristic
    • Futuristic. I, for one…
  • Markers or pins
    • Markers (can I choose circular markers?)
  • Clustering or heat maps
    • Clustering, hexbins ftw
  • Markdown or Handlebars
    • Markdown… I’m still just getting used to Bootstrap!
  • GeoServer or MapServer
    • GeoServer, for sure. But we’ve got to do better than bloody SLD…

Q: And other things…?

  • Black and local coffee or pour over with butter
    • Black coffee for me.
  • MapMyRun or Strava
    • Wha?
  • Twitter or Facebook
  • Commuter or road bike
    • Who?

Q: … and one more, what do you do in your free time that makes you a geohipster?

A: Well I did make a hex-map before they were cool (with some inspiration). Did I tell you I knit maps yet? I knit maps, then scan them at 10 µm before faxing them to myself (that’s actually pretty difficult to do these days, have you seen an A0 fax machine around recently?) and print that out with archival quality ink on papyrus, because that way it looks ironically rustic and will last the ages.

But more seriously, I have a young family, which is challenging and a lot of fun. I spend time and energy with the SSSI pretending I’m a professional. And I like GeoRabble events, networking with craft beer and smart folks to solve the world’s problems!

Matthew Baker: “Breaking free from a traditional set of tools is a relief and a challenge”

Matthew Baker
Matthew Baker
Matthew Baker has been in the geospatial industry for 10 years, having studied in Windsor, Ontario and Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia Canada before working at an Urban Planning firm in Ontario, then on to Esri in Redlands, CA. Matt is now the Sr. GIS Analyst at Denver Public Schools, a position which supports the District's planning and analysis of students, schools and boundaries, as well as delivery of spatial data to the enterprise student information system.

Q: You work for Denver Public Schools. What are you all working on? Why do you use maps?

A: As I write this the 2015-16 school year is starting up. We’re tracking enrollments and looking at how neighborhoods in Denver are changing. Soon we’ll have our annual enrollment count that get submitted to the State, and there will be a flurry of analysis that will go along with it that will support the decisions the District will make going into the years ahead.

We use maps to communicate the state of the District to everyone from the Superintendent and the Board of Education through to the Principals of schools throughout the District and parents of students in the schools. We publish maps online for the community to use, we create mailing lists and canvassing maps for our community outreach team, as well as maps used at community meetings around the City to drive discussion on boundary changes; our maps go into the yearly Strategic Regional Analysis, and we’re constantly creating one-off maps for quick-turnaround analysis that comes from senior administration.

Q: What are some lessons you have learned along the way when developing systems for DPS?

A: Working in a relational database system you learn a LOT about real data very quickly, such as what primary keys are for, how spatial indices are built, how joins really work, and most importantly you don’t have to cram all possible information about your spatial data into one table.

When I started at DPS, my first task was to re-build the ArcSDE. I quickly realized, however, that our student enterprise is based in SQL Server, and there is a lot of data that will never live in a geodatabase. Additionally our analysts were already using heavy-duty SQL for their analysis, which almost always had a spatial component, and since the spatial data lived with one person — the ‘GIS’ person — there was always a wall.

So using PostGIS as a guide, I developed a native SQL server spatial environment bringing in our data from ArcSDE, and connected and delivered spatial data to the enterprise. I taught our analysts how SQL spatial functions work, and we finally had spatial analysis tools we could all use.

Q: What is your technology stack?

A: We’ve been using ArcSDE for spatial data editing and ArcMap for cartography, MS SQL Server for spatial analysis and reporting, and FME to bridge the gap between the two formats. The spatial database really works for us, but there are huge glaring holes.

So we spent the majority of this past summer building an open source version of this stack: we dissected our current workflows, outlined strategies for implementing FOSS4G, and identified areas we’d have roadblocks.  We then set up a PostgreSQL database server, enabled PostGIS, loaded our core spatial data and some other enterprise tables, and we’ve been hitting it hard with no sign of looking back, using QGIS for cartography and data editing, SQL to analyze and build spatial datasets, and we’re getting into pgRouting to better analyze student distance calculations. The benefits of PostgreSQL as a central database are a big deal for us, and integrating other tools like PGModeler, LibreOffice, and CartoDB, and of course open source operating systems like Ubuntu and Mint are all icing on the cake.

Q: What you envision for the future of curriculum for geography students?

A: I really have no idea what digital geography is being taught at the K-12 level, if any, and I frankly don’t believe Kindergarten students should be “doing GIS”– contrary to a lot of marketing emails I get.

However, at the post-secondary level, everyone in Denver is ready for a new way of learning about spatial data. There is the FOSS4G Lab at UC Denver that I’ve been participating in, and I really see their work as an important step forward into building new tools into digital spatial learning and beyond. And we’ve got a great monthly meetup to learn from each other.

Q: You worked at Esri for a bit? What were you doing there and what did you get out of it?

A: I lived in Mojave in a Winnebago, got slobberin’ drunk at the Palomino, and got 6 years in San Ber’Dino… I’m talking about The Red Lands!  Well I spent those years learning as much as I could about as much as I could, focussing at work on urban planning applications of GIS, and at home on cooking and vegetable gardening. And since I was doing so much cycling there, I met a group of local bike commuters. We created the Redlands Bike BBQ (with @geogangster), got a covered secure bike parking facility built at Esri, and I’m told we were instrumental in the implementation of the new bike lane system in Redlands. My best friend was a 65-year old ex-surfer, ex-forest service fire-fighter, ex-high school teacher who gave me tours of the area no import to Redlands ever receives, and no matter what dusty corner of the Inland Empire we’d visit, we’d always run into one of his former students…

Q: What did you study at university? How did you find yourself in the geospatial world?

A: At University I went back and forth between geography and communication studies, eventually getting my degree in Communications and a Minor in Geography. I then took a year at the Center of Geographic Sciences in Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia (aka COGS). Since geography was always my favourite subject growing up, and since I have media in my blood (both parents are retired from the CBC), I had a eureka moment when I created my first PDF map! Communications and Geography! Now what to do with it…

Q: You are married to a fellow cartographer. First of all, how did you two meet? How does it feel to be a geo-power couple? How often do you “talk shop”?

A: Mamata and I met in Redlands at a bike rack and both seemed to have a shared philosophy of temporary life in SoCal — she is from Northern California, so we never understood watering lawns at 3pm in July when it was 110F and hasn’t rained in 4 months. Hand-in-hand we both kept one foot out the door, and when the time came, we got ourselves to Denver. I’d say we’re a geo-power couple, but really after a few words about work when we get home, it’s time for dinner and the usual tasks of a married couple. I’m super proud of what she’s done and where she is and looking forward to what comes next for both of us both on and off the field…

Q: What is the biggest challenge you see in the geospatial field?  

A: Breaking free from a traditional set of tools is a relief and a challenge. There is so much information out there on Twitter, blogs, etc., and it’s tough to navigate all off it let alone decide what tools you should use to fit your organization, and then you’ve got to think about how those tools will be supported. Then there is the challenge of breaking the old “GIS” way of thinking, that one application can solve all your problems… as we say around the office, we’ve got to think outside the Arc…

Q: How would you describe the Denver mapping community?

A: From what I can tell, Denver has been an ‘oil and gas’ mapping community for a long time. But with all the new companies and people coming into town, all looking to get spatial going in their organizations, there is a growing community of GeoHipsters, and it’s definitely the next place I see things really popping up for the industry.

Q: What skill is on your list to master next?

A: Open source ETL tools still evade me, and we have a need for a rigorous geocoder, but I haven’t cracked that open yet.

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

  • Data or design
    • Data — however, the medium is the message…
  • Functionality or beauty
    • Functional tools should just BE beautiful
  • Historical or futuristic
    • Historical
  • Markers or pins
    • Markers
  • Clustering or heat maps
    • Heat maps
  • Markdown or Handlebars
    • Huh?
  • GeoServer or MapServer
    • GeoServer

Q: … and one more, what do you do in your free time — that makes you a geohipster? Collect antiques? Ride Denver buses? Drink beer? Cycle around town?

A: I used to be a bike commuter, but finally got so fed up with other cyclists blasting through stop signs and red lights, texting while riding, all of it with no helmet, no gears, no brakes (organ donors), I finally said enough and got on the bus. Now I read a lot and chat with people and do a lot more walking, and now as a pedestrian I find great amusement in blocking the route of cyclists running red lights and exchanging middle-fingers.

I go to one brewery and they do English-style cask-conditioned ales, I brew half-decaf store-bought coffee in an auto-drip (or percolator) and sometimes re-heat it on the stove the next day if no one drinks it. I don’t eat meat (it’s just not healthy, people), but I’m not a vegan (I do love honey and my leather boots).

Q: Any closing comments for the GeoHipster readers?

A: Reading all these tweets and blog posts it’s like we’re at war — from both sides of the open source paradigm. One side seems to want to destroy the other without knowing what they really do and why, while the other side will tell you they support these new tools and companies then turn around and try to buy them up or confuse the education with marketing materials. Swearing and being snarky in your tweets or calling yourself open source because you have a GitHub account is divisive, deceptive, and distracting. I am the user, and frankly I don’t want to support either of you. Like Nathan said, get a hobby!