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.