Monthly Archives: January 2017

Don Meltz: “I was a geodesigner before it became a thing”

Don Meltz
Don Meltz
I’m an AICP-certified planner working as a consultant to small towns and rural communities in upstate New York. I provide planning and GIS services for municipalities, not-for-profit organizations, and other planning consultants that require extra capacity or specialized geospatial analysis they cannot perform in house. I started my business, Don Meltz Planning and GIS, in 2002 (www.donmeltz.com) and work out of my home office in Stockport, Columbia County, NY.

I’ve recently started working as an Adjunct Professor at Marist College teaching a fall semester Intro to GIS course and a spring semester Advanced GIS course.

I’m the Chairperson of my town’s Planning Board, a member of the American Planning Association NY Upstate Chapter, the New York Planning Federation, and the New York State GIS Association. For the NYS GIS Association I participate in the UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) Professional Affiliation Group and the Communications Committee.

Personal Twitter - @DonMeltz

Business Twitter - @Don_Meltz

Q: You have a Master’s in Regional Planning. How and why did you go into GIS?

A: It was a long and winding road, but I’ll try to concentrate on the main points.

I’ve always been a map person. I was the designated navigator on every trip we went on as a kid. I’d pore over the road map in the back seat, calling out turn-by-turn directions. I have a vivid memory as a pre-teen, the moment I realized those little grey numbers along the roads on the map represented miles. That’s when I became the back-seat GPS, reading the map, looking at the speedometer, and calculating how long it would be before reaching the next turn, or our destination.

The rest of the flow chart looks something like this:

  1. An interest in sciences in high school leads to a Bachelor’s degree in Biology.
  2. As an undergrad, taking a computer language class and a philosophy logic class in the same semester was an eye-opening experience.
  3. Reagan gets elected during my junior year in college, which leads to downsizing and defunding many science-related agencies.
  4. A biologist with a new degree and zero experience enters the family construction business.
  5. A land use controversy with a neighbor, plus the frustrating limitations of working in a family business, added to the realization my body would not last in the construction field forever, leads to a life changing decision — grad school.
  6. A Planning degree from U Albany with a personal interest in all things computer-related leads to working with GIS.

It took me a while to discover how planning lets me accommodate both my interest in protecting the environment, and my desire to build things. I like to tinker with things, figure out how they work, and how they fit into the rest of the world. Planning is the career that lets me satisfy nearly every curiosity I have about the world. And GIS is the tool that helps me do that.

Q: Your company, Don Meltz Planning and GIS, offers planning and GIS services. Which do you do more of — planning or GIS? Why do you think the breakdown is what it is?

A: I am a planner, and I’m a geospatial analyst. In my mind these job titles are one and the same. I truly make no distinction between my planning work and my GIS work. GIS is a tool I use as a planner to help me advise my clients on how to make knowledgeable land use decisions. There are times when I’m called in purely as a GIS consultant to help some town or village set up their own system. But the majority of my work is as an analyst, using GIS to identify and prioritize natural resources, or to model the impacts of a proposed land use.

I was a geodesigner before it became a thing.

Q: What are some cool GIS projects that you are currently working on? What GIS technology does your consulting company use?

A: Truth be told, most of my work is pretty mundane. I work on a lot of comprehensive plans and zoning laws for small towns, and agriculture protection plans for counties. I use primarily Esri ArcGIS with a smattering of QGIS. However, whenever I work for a town that wants to set up their own GIS, I always steer them in the open source direction — QGIS. I also keep an eye on what Boundless is doing. I’m really excited about how they’re integrating QGIS, GeoServer, and their new OpenLayers-based WebApp builder. I’ve been using all these tools for a few years now. And every iteration of the Boundless stack gets better and better.

My proximity to the Catskills, and their being the source for NY City drinking water has led to a few interesting projects. I worked on a very complex erosion model for a town in the NYC drinking water watershed using some of NOAA’s geospatial tools, including N-SPECT, which they’ve now turned into an open source tool.

There is a project coming up that involves a national non-profit and Marist College. I can’t go into too much detail, as the paperwork hasn’t been finalized. But, it includes analysis of a significant portion of the Hudson River ecosystem using historic data going back to the 1980s, and students acquiring new data based on what we discover through that analysis.

Another area I’m moving into is Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS). I recently purchased a Phantom 4 Pro, and I’m now studying for my FAA Part 107 Remote Pilot’s Certificate so I can do some commercial work. I’d like to provide services for other planners and landscape architects doing site design work and 3D modelling. The technology surrounding these little aerial robots is amazing. They’re going to totally transform how we collect spatial data and how we incorporate it into GIS. This, and self-driving cars, will leave the world unrecognizable 50 years from now.

Q: You teach GIS at Marist College. What technology do you use in the GIS classroom? Why?

A: I came into the environmental science program at Marist on short notice. All of the previous professors had used and taught Esri products exclusively. I’m quickly moving them into a mixed environment. I added the FulcrumApp to a few assignments my first semester. Next semester I’m adding QGIS and some online mapping platforms. If I can convince the IT folks to let me set up a GeoServer instance, I’d like to be able to use that, too.

One thing I try to drill into my students’ heads is, if they want to become proficient at GIS, and stay ahead of the constant changes in the technology, they should use GIS every day. One of the problems I see with teaching pure Esri is, unless the student gets a job immediately after graduation, they won’t have access to the software. It’s usually too expensive for them to keep using on their own after they graduate. Another problem is it doesn’t work on a Mac, which probably applies to over 60% of the students in my class. If the software isn’t convenient to use, they aren’t going to use it every day. QGIS and open source tools in general overcome both of these hurdles.

Q: Suppose a student of yours tells you they are considering starting a GIS consulting business and asks for your advice. What would you tell them? Is there money in GIS consulting?

A: There is. But it’s not like the late 1990s, when if you knew what the letters GIS meant, you’d be hired on the spot. I teach my students to take a broader view of what GIS is. GIS is diffusing, spreading out into every industry you can think of. There will probably be opportunities for pure GIS consultants for quite a while. But most of the growth I see is in all the related fields. Environmental planners with GIS skills will always be in higher demand than those without. The same goes for engineers, surveyors, software programmers, system administrators, and even website designers. Anyone with some knowledge of how GIS fits into any of these fields will have an advantage.

Q: Open source is cool. “Open” is also the buzzword du jour. But can one make a decent living in open? A career? Or does it come down to a choice between coolness and moneymaking, romantic vs. practical?

A: When I started my business, one of the first questions a client would ask is “Do you have ArcView?” And nine times out of ten, answering yes was enough to get the job. But it’s probably been close to ten years since I’ve been asked what kind of software I use. The only thing my clients want to see is results. They don’t care if I made a map using ArcGIS or QGIS or a 20-year-old beta version of MapInfo (which I do have sitting on my bookshelf BTW, just in case). I still use ArcGIS mainly because that’s what I cut my teeth on. I’m familiar with it and I feel more productive using it. It also comes in handy when a client wants to share an MXD or a map package with me. I use QGIS when I run into something ArcGIS can’t handle, or when I want to try something new. Having open source tools at my disposal allows me to try new things on my own, at my own pace, without relying on a review by a third party to decide how a particular piece of software might fit into my workflow. Open source is a very practical solution for me.

Q: “The dogs bark, but the caravan goes on” — so goes an ancient proverb. Does this apply to the current GIS ecosystem? Are there too many mapping platforms?

A: I like to keep up on what’s going on in the GIS world. I follow a bunch of GeoNerds on Twitter and I read the blogs. But there comes a point where keeping up with the latest shiny gadget takes up more time than it’s worth. I have to make a living. And that means billable hours. I’d never say there are too many mapping platforms. But there are too many for me to check out on my own. This is where my Twitter feed comes in handy. I scan it continuously during the day. If something new pops up, I’ll check it out if I have time. But I concentrate on those tools that are mentioned the most. I’ve settled on ArcGIS Desktop, QGIS, GeoServer, FulcrumApp, and the Boundless stack as the tools I focus most of my attention on.

Q: What do you think about Arcade, the new programming language from Esri? Is launching a new proprietary programming language that only works within the Esri ecosystem arrogant, oblivious, or brilliant?

A: It’s an interesting development. From the few articles I’ve read, it appears to be an attempt to bridge the gap between Esri’s desktop software, which relies on Python for scripting, and ArcGIS Online, which relies on JavaScript for customizing. But so far, I believe it’s limited to customizing how layers are rendered in a map without making changes to the underlying data. That’s not enough for me to put much effort into learning more about it right now. If it morphs into something more wide-ranging, like what Avenue used to be, I’d be more interested. I spent a lot of time in my early GIS days searching through the Esri Avenue script sharing site. I learned a lot there, about what GIS can do, and how it works. There was a sense of community there. I miss those days.

Q: You collect antique and classic cars and trucks. How did you get into this? Do you also work on and maintain the engines? Do you mess with the carburettor, valves, timing belt?

A: My father has always been a car guy. His family raced stock cars in the 40s and 50s. He started collecting in the early 70s, bringing me to every car show and swap meet he went to. He currently has eight classic vehicles on the road, including a Concours-restored 1959 Impala, a 1927 Gardner that was once part of the Harrah collection, and a fully restored 1932 Ford Roadster.

I’ve helped my father restore a dozen or more vehicles. I’ve done everything from sandblasting Model T frames to applying finish to the wood-spoked wheels of a 1920s Federal truck. The biggest restoration job I worked on was a 1931 chain drive AC Mack Dump Truck that we brought back from the grave, so to speak.

I’ve completely disassembled and rebuilt a 289 engine and C4 transmission from a 1968 Mustang Fastback I owned during my college days. Right now I have a lightly modified 1960 Ford F100 pickup that’s on the road, and a 100% original 1966 Ford Bronco that needs a lot of work.

I like to build things and figure out how they work.

Q: You camp, hike, run. I admire your vast portfolio of extracurriculars. Where do you find the time for everything you do?

A: All things in moderation. And don’t try to multitask. This is also where running my own one-person business comes in handy. I have complete flexibility with my schedule. As long as I meet my clients’ deadlines, I’m good. It doesn’t matter when I do the work, as long as it gets done. It also means I spend way too many days working until 2 or 3 AM.

My extracurriculars also seem to happen in spurts. There was a time when I was bagging Catskill Mountain peaks every weekend. I spent a few years spending a lot of time (and money) on photography. I still enjoy these activities, but I don’t participate in them as much as I once did. It’s the same with my classic car and truck hobby. It all but stopped when I got married and had children. But now that the kids are grown, and my father needs more help moving things around, I’ve started getting back into it.

Q: Do you consider yourself a (geo)hipster? Why / why not?

A: I believe one of the defining features of geo-hipsterism is eschewing labels. The moment a geo-hipster becomes self-aware, or proclaims to be one, they cease being a geo-hipster.

No, I am not a geo-hipster.

Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our global readership?

A: Wow. This is the most difficult question of them all. I mulled over a few answers in my head, but they all seemed a little too pompous to me. Do I really have any special insight into how the world works? Some tidbit of knowledge that I could impart on others that they don’t already know?

No. I don’t.

But I do try to live by a few simple rules which I’ve actually never written down until now. So I’ll leave you with them. I’m not saying everyone should follow them. But they work for me.

  • Think logically.
  • Learn continuously.
  • Analyze everything.
  • Work diligently.
  • Practice humility.
  • Act accordingly.
  • Enjoy life.
  • Have faith.

 

Making GeoHipster an independent business

When a door opens

Making GeoHipster an independent business

By Mike Dolbow, GeoHipster CEO

Mike Dolbow
Mike Dolbow

Someone somewhere, with a similar addiction to being busier than humanly possible, said that when a door opens, you should walk through it. In other words, when opportunity knocks, if you’re at all interested, you should pounce. I guess that’s what I was thinking about this time last year when Atanas Entchev reached out to the GeoHipster advisory board to see if anyone was interested in undertaking an effort to make GeoHipster a business independent from his previous ventures. I immediately said yes, and convened a hangout with several other board members to go over the options.

Fortunately for me, two other board members, Jonah Adkins and Amy Smith, also expressed interest in taking on new duties, and Atanas agreed to stay on once he knew he wouldn’t have to run the entire operation himself. It took a while for us to figure out the optimal formal business structure: a sole proprietorship LLC registered in Minnesota, which allows me to take over most operational and financial duties while the others focus on communications, editorial duties, and creative efforts. And yes, I fully realize and enjoy the irony that drips from the phrase, “CEO of GeoHipster, LLC”…and the fact that our fiscal year will start on Groundhog Day.

On the outside, however, very little will change about GeoHipster as a website and a collaborative effort. Our mission remains the same, we still rely on volunteer authors to help us generate content, and our editorial policy is unchanged. By undertaking this transition behind the scenes, we hope the result is a more sustainable GeoHipster, so we can continue interviewing interesting geohipsters from around the world, and our readers can learn from their experiences.

A few of my family members and colleagues have asked me why I decided to do this. Perhaps I was inspired by my good friend and fellow dad Justin Bell, who holds down a day job, plays in two bands, owns a side business, and teaches classes at night. I figure if he can make time for all those things plus family time, I can make time for something that I enjoy. And ever since that first interview I conducted with David Bitner, I’ve very much enjoyed my involvement with GeoHipster. It’s a major change of pace from my day job, a place where I can promote my tutorial on REST endpoints, and probably the only way I’ll ever be able to use a basin wrench as a metaphor.

Or maybe it’s all just a ploy to score another GeoHipster t-shirt. Might as well look stylish when walking through that door that just opened.

Andrew Dearing: “It is such an amazing time to be in the geospatial profession”

Andy Dearing
Andy Dearing
Andy Dearing is the CEO of Boundless and previously held the role of the Vice President of Professional Services. A commercial pilot and self-taught geographer, Andy has been working with GIS for nearly 15 years. He can often be found working from one of Boundless' many locales, or at a number of industry events and philanthropic endeavors throughout the year. Andy resides in Missouri with his wife and four kids, where he enjoys hiking, fishing, and woodworking - when he is not out camping with his son’s Boy Scout troop.

Q: For those in our audience who do not know, please describe Boundless.

A: Boundless provides a commercially-supported open geographic information system (GIS) ecosystem, which includes a unique combination of technology, products, and experts. We provide expertise and support around many world-class open source geospatial projects – PostGIS, GeoServer, OpenLayers, QGIS, GeoNode, and more.

More than 90 fantastic team members call Boundless home. Although we are a pretty virtual company, we have offices in St. Louis, New York, Washington DC, New Orleans, and Victoria, BC. We work with many organizations worldwide who understand the value of GIS, the power of open source, and the world-class support Boundless is known for.

Q: Did you find your career in spatial or did the spatial career find you?

A: You can definitely say spatial found me! My college degree was in Aviation Science and Aviation Management, where I was a certified flight instructor and commercial pilot. However, this was not too long after 9/11, when the aviation industry had hit rock-bottom. So with few pilot jobs available, I by chance went to a job fair where a mapping startup was looking for pilots to make aeronautical charts in GIS. From then on, I have been in GIS… it’s been a fun ride!

Q: Each city’s geo community has its own flavor; how would you describe the spatial community in St. Louis?

A: I would consider St. Louis a very strong center for GIS. There are a couple anchor tenants in St. Louis who drive the vocation – namely the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), Monsanto – as well as many more local organizations who have adopted and are using GIS extensively in their business operations.

There are several organizations around the area that are evangelizing GIS. The Maptime STL chapter has been a strong group, promoting open data and GIS technologies for collaborative learning, exploration, and map creation. The St. Louis GIS User Group is also a fairly active group in the area.

There are several educational institutions in and around St. Louis that have fantastic geography and GIS programs. Southern Illinois University Edwardsville has a phenomenal Geography department with focused programs in GIS, cartography, sustainability, and more. Washington University and Saint Louis University also have growing geography programs and GIS labs as well.

Q: What have you found to be the largest hurdles to organizations adopting an open source solution? What strategies have you developed to alleviate these concerns?

A: Many organizations still have not heard about open source, nor are they aware of what open source geospatial tools are out there. So many times, we have to help organizations understand how open source works, how the community around open source governs the code (contributors, steering committees, etc.), how new features are contributed to the product, and for Boundless, how the projects can be supported. Once organizations understand what open source is, they quickly realize all the benefits of adopting open source for their operations.

The second challenge we see organizations (including many of our customers) experience is understanding where to start. Open source geospatial projects are extremely powerful, robust technologies. But for customers transitioning off proprietary technologies or new to GIS, it can sometimes be overwhelming to figure out where to start. Boundless helps make open source geospatial technologies easier to adopt and integrate through training courses, certification programs, and professional services… all backed by our helpdesk and online support.

The biggest hurdle we see is that many business do not want to completely scrap all the work they put in with proprietary solutions. Having been in the GIS community since the early 2000s, we know that, historically, there have only been two options – proprietary or open source – and not much in between. Boundless makes it easy to have a hybrid solution that utilizes both open source and proprietary tools. The product is affordable and user-friendly, yet very powerful and professional, enabling organizations to have the best of both worlds.

Q: I volunteer at CSU, and the students I interact with simply haven’t heard of open source solutions. Is Boundless currently doing outreach to students or planning on doing so in the future?

A: Yes! Boundless has developed an Academic Engagement initiative, where we support colleges and universities with software, documentation, and training to jump-start their programs – for free! Also, with the recent launch of Boundless Connect, we offer a full suite of software, videos, training, tutorials, documentation, and more to make the most out of your open source experience – this is all free for students and educators as well.

From an outreach perspective, Boundless staff supported many GIS Day and Geography Awareness Week events – a detailed recap can be found in this blog post.

For me, one of the most inspiring events was being able to sponsor 51 teachers to participate in the Geography 2050 Symposium on November 17-18. These high school AP Human Geography teachers and American Geographical Society AP Teacher Fellows participated in a Mapathon to learn about OSM and open data, as well as listened to powerful presentations on sustainability from industry leaders. These educators are transforming the next generation of geographers, and we could not be more honored to support them.

Q: With the “stew” of GIS, data science and big data all fusing together, there have been a number of open source projects, like GeoMesa, popping up. How is Boundless adapting?

A: This is a great example of how quickly open source projects have been established to handle and support emerging IT trends. We are seeing many great projects, like GeoMesa, become the technology of choice to handle specific big-data analysis and visualization. This is not easy, but smart engineers (like the folks at CCRi) have been able to assemble code that massively scales to crunch through all the information you throw at it. We see numerous open source projects popping up that are solving some of these complex problems: GeoWave for big data analytics, GeoTrellis for imagery and rasters, and many more.

The cool part about all these projects is their interoperability with GIS projects like GeoServer. There is a great case study from CCRi on how GeoMesa integrates with GeoServer here. And likewise, we package the GeoMesa plugin for GeoServer with Boundless Suite, so our users can seamlessly set up and start seeing value from their big/large data sources.

So what is Boundless’ position? We do GIS, and we do it pretty well. If there are other open source projects out there that feature complex data science, imagery processing, or data analytics, we want to build connections to those projects. Let the GIS technologies do GIS, and likewise, let the big data / analytics technologies do big data / analytics. The beauty of open source is we can make these things work together, without trying to crack proprietary code, and give the users the most powerful technology platform to solve their business needs.

Q: Is there anything exciting coming out of the Boundless Skunkworks you can share?

A: C’mon, there’s always something exciting coming out of Boundless! We have been working hard on several cool projects recently and I am super excited to give you a sneak peek.

First, we are set to unveil a massively scalable version of GeoServer for large-scale enterprises in early 2017. This will blow any existing server-tier GIS platform out of the water. Code-named GeoServer EC, we are able to instantly scale up/out hundreds, if not thousands, of GeoServer microservices to process however much geospatial data you throw at it. So as the amount of location-based information exponentially increases over the next five years, GeoServer EC can scale up/out to meet those demands:

Second, we are going to be launching our Connect API, which will sit behind Boundless Connect, to stream content and services directly to your Desktop and Web applications. And to let you in on a little unannounced secret – we have established data partnerships with two premier geospatial content firms just recently… so you will soon be able to directly access beautiful base maps, driving directions, imagery, and more, directly inside the Boundless suite of products with your existing Boundless subscription. And we will be continually adding more data services throughout 2017:

Q: According to your LinkedIn profile, one of your hobbies is woodworking. Do you have any piece you’re particularly proud of?

A: Ha! Let’s just say I am a very amateur woodworker and am humbled by all the amazing work out there from those who are true artists. Me, I tend to hack at it when I get a few free moments – which seem to be fewer and farther between these days!

For me, woodworking is an opportunity to actually produce something (outside of emails) with my hands. Even if the output is not perfect, it is something you can call your own. Whether you are molding clay or carving wood or knitting or crocheting, it is so rewarding to be able to spend time making something you are proud of with your own two hands.

Personally, there are two (different) pieces that I am proud of. My favorite piece of furniture that I made was a hutch that took me, well, it took me forever to make. But I learned so much along the way.

The second was more of a “construction” project, creating built-ins in the laundry room to attempt to tackle all of my four kids’ coats, shoes, book bags, and whatever other junk they can manage to fill them with. This was one of the more fun projects, and it made my wife rather happy. 🙂

Q: Lastly, do you consider yourself a geohipster?

A: Ah, this question… I figured I would get away without you asking it. I consider myself in the “GeoHipster Fan Club.” I have a GeoHipster shirt, attend geo meetups, and get excited when I see dots on a map. Now I just need a GeoHipster sticker…

But in all seriousness, there are so many awesome geohipsters out there who continue to push the science of geography, GIS, remote sensing, and spatial analysis further and deeper. It is such an amazing time to be in the geospatial profession, and I could not be happier to be a part of a company and a community who continue to push it forward in new and more open ways.