Randal Hale: “80% of hipsters have a spatial component”

Randal Hale
Randal Hale
Randal Hale runs North River Geographic Systems. He enjoys long walks on the beach, talking about your feelings, and spatial databases. You may find him at your local conference, possibly in a canoe, or on a bike -- but not all at once. 

Q: How and why did you get into GIS?

A: So way back in 1989 (it’s not that long ago, right?) young Randy started college. I ended up through some twists and turns as a Geology Major. About a year or so before graduation, it hit me that in order to use this degree for anything I was going to have to go to grad school and A) Work for an an oil company or B) Teach. Ugh.

My department received a phone call about that time from the Tennessee Valley Authority mapping department. Hence started my career in the Federal Gov’t — I went in and interviewed for the wrong job and was hired for a summer job that didn’t start until October. TVA has a long history in Mapping. They are probably the 2nd or 3rd oldest mapping organization in the nation. At the time they also had a store that sold aerial photography (9×9 prints) and topographic maps. The map folding and selling turned into a my first foray into GIS.

TVA had just started using this new software called ARC/INFO and they had a huge job that required a lot of digitizing of data from 7.5-minute quadrangle maps. So I would digitize streams and roads and then get the GIS IT guy to print out a map at a known scale. I would then take the map and measure all the roads and streams using a planimeter (that’s what they told me to do). One day the IT guy came back and asked what I was doing and when he finished yelling he sat down and taught me how to extract that information from the data I was producing. I received a day or so of instruction. He gave me a stack of manuals. I read those at lunch. I was hooked. That led to AML development, shell scripting, and the eventual loss of most of my hair (at least that’s what I blame it on). I was there for about 16 years and learned a lot on life, mapping work flows, and data standards.

Q: You have been running your own GIS consulting business for 10 years. If you could do it over again, would you take the same path? What would you do differently?

A: Oh — things I would have done differently. I think I might stay on the same path. With a few exceptions:

  • I would tell anyone that is starting a business — actually learn about running a business. I can do complicated things with maps — I didn’t understand taxes. If you assume my work week is 40 hours I’ll spend about 8 hours bookeeping, 8 hours advertising, and 40 hours working (that’s the joke). I still question if I’m “doing it right”. Friends would go “Oh running a business is easy”. HAH.
  • Say No to people. It took me forever to learn to tell clients no. It’s easy to lose money on a job. It’s really easy if you work for yourself. There were jobs I took on I should have walked away from — but it’s hard to say no. In 2016 I think I walked away from 3 jobs where I didn’t think I was the best fit. Best thing I’ve done.
  • Learn to take a break from work. I will sit and worry about business. I like worrying — I’m good at it. This year I actually learned to step away and find hobbies that don’t involve GIS.

Q: Tell us about some of the cool projects you are working on and the technology you use.

A: Cool Projects. Heh. I’m not sure how cool they are.

So my first project as a consultant was with a small forestry firm within driving distance of Chattanooga. It started out simple enough. Soon 4 shapefiles turned into 8. 8 turned into 100. It was painful. I couldn’t manage the data easily. We needed to upgrade to ArcEditor or ArcInfo. They couldn’t afford the price tag. So I migrated them to QGIS and PostGIS. We are running an enterprise database that churns out a lot of data on cheap computers. It’s not glorious or cool — but it’s functional and pain-free. I guess that makes it awesome. We’re on the verge of having a thing called a “web map”.

One job involves a water utility. I’m still working on that one. That project is migrating data out of an Esri file-based geodatabase into PostGIS. We are installing QGIS alongside ArcGIS. There’s a few things they need ArcGIS for — but all data maintenance will be QGIS/PostGIS. They also are using Fulcrum to help with data maintenance/collection. I actually had to open ArcGIS for this one and muck through domains and subtypes in the file-based geodatabase. Which really this is more about making the client comfortable with the transition. There’s no question on it working or not working — it’s all comfort level.

A volunteer job I’m working on — Caribbean SEA (http://www.caribbean-sea.org/). They are a 501(c)(3) that operates in Chattanooga. They work locally and in the Caribbean educating people on the benefits of clean water. So after helping do things like help run their website and make sure email works — we’re diving into GIS. They will have one of their projects in PostGIS/QGIS. They are also about to embark on a mobile app for people to report water quality problems. Every water quality report has a point. Every point goes on a map. It’s going to be a game changer for them and the people they help.  

Q: These days you are all about PostGIS and QGIS. How and why did you take that route? Do you use Esri software?

A: I think I’ve been an Esri software user for nearly 23 years. I started with ARC/INFO 6 and stayed current up until 10.2. One of my clients has 10.5 I think (we’ve not opened it so I’m not sure entirely). In 2009 I even went so far as to be an Esri Business Partner and Certified Trainer for a short span.

In early 2013 I worked on a job that took me to the Caribbean. I worked alongside AppGeo (www.appgeo.com) and Spatial Focus (www.spatialfocus.com/) on assigning addresses in the US Virgin Islands. When you’re standing on St. Thomas you can’t say “Take me to 123 Main Street”. Addresses are by parcel number. Many streets weren’t named. Your address might be “Az42” and that’s it. It’s hard to order a pizza and almost impossible to get an ambulance to your location. Addressing is complicated. It’s also a bit fun to figure out. We built an address repository from scratch. The addressing repository was to reside in PostGIS.

I was incredibly worried because I knew nothing on PostGIS except it didn’t “work” with ArcGIS. I had QGIS installed (1.7.x) and started learning how it all functions together. QGIS and PostGIS are flexible enough to run on anything. I went and bought a cheap laptop for $350 (4GB of RAM and a 300GB hard drive). I loaded Linux on it. I loaded PostGIS, QGIS, and a few other pieces of software. I took a copy of the address repository and off we went.

Over the course of 4 months I learned a lot. I had one co-worker there who was great at improvising — Zac. We would hit a problem and he would sit down and write a solution. I had one co-worker Carol who was excellent at designing processes. So by the end of the project we had built a process that combined commercial and open source software to churn out address information from the MAR (master address repository) for the good people of the US Virgin Islands. Up until that one point I always assumed you couldn’t mix commercial and open source software. We had strung together Fulcrum, ArcGIS, Google Docs, QGIS, Python, and PostGIS into possibly not the most elegant solution — but it worked and it worked well.Total software purchase for the job was about $300 US. All on a $350 laptop. Run your current commercial software on a laptop with those specs.

When consulting you run into a lot of clients that go “Look — we don’t have any money — but we’ve budgeted $30,000 to buy software to run our GIS”. When I came back from the Caribbean I started asking “Why is software the centerpiece of your GIS and not your data?”. It completely changed the way I look at geo. With my toolset of QGIS and PostGIS (and Fulcrum) I can do about anything that needs done. GIS is fun again. I don’t spend 4 hours listing out software a client has to buy — I spend 4 hours discussing data and what problems they need solved.

Q: Do you miss ARC/INFO on Solaris? Do you miss coverages? (I do, for which I get ridiculed occasionally.) Why / why not?

A: I do miss it. I used to do a lot of remote sensing. All of our landcover went into coverages — I mean everything at the time went into coverages — roads, streams, landcover, etc. It had polygons. The polygons were also standalone arcs. You had labels — those were also the centroids for the Polygons. You could attribute nodes if I remember correctly. The move away from coverages was painful. I swore for a long time file-based geodatabases were just less functional coverages.

My first dive into GIS was on Solaris. I enjoy Unix. So these days thanks to the flexibility of the tools — Linux is my operating system of choice. I have one laptop that is running Windows 10 and one Virtual Machine running Windows 7. About once a month I stop and go “Oh god — why am I running Linux” and then I remember I haven’t rebooted my workstation in 3 weeks and haven’t bought virus software in 5 years.

The other thing I miss about ARC/INFO Workstation: You actually had to know what you were doing to use it. That sounds mean. It’s true though. ARC/INFO was a time investment. You had to know the commands. You had to know what happened when you used those commands. For a while I taught a model builder class I had written for ArcGIS. Most taking the class didn’t know model builder existed or what half the ArcToolbox tools did. I feel like now it’s just push buttons until you don’t get an error. Make PDFs. Woot. Sigh.

It’s hard to explain — coverages are ancient history. Sometimes you need to see where you came from to appreciate where you are.

Now that I re-read this — I’ll go back to yelling at clouds and tie an onion to my belt.

Q: How long did it take you to become comfortable with PostGIS? How long will it take for an old phart? (Asking for a friend.)

A: A year before it started to make sense. I’m not a database person — most desktop GIS people (there are a lot of them out there) never think in terms of databases. Spatial SQL didn’t make sense for a while. I was used to a desktop GIS way of thinking. If you wanted a buffer you had to create a file. If you wanted to do some analysis — there was a lot of pre-processing that you might have to do before hand. Most people look at a desktop GIS and go “shapefiles!”. I’ve run into QGIS users and ArcGIS users who produce shapefiles all day every day. When you’re able to comprehend that PostGIS/PostgreSQL and QGIS give you an enterprise-level database — for free — it will change your life.

Eh — about 5 years ago — maybe 6 I was at a conference. I was exploring Free and Open Source at that point. I had a salesman with a commercial company start a conversation over support. He argued — FOSS4G has no support. I argued back “well you’ve got the internet.” Actually — I was a bit wrong — you’ve got email lists, commercial firms, conferences (unofficial plug — FOSS4G in Boston for 2017), books, etc. So I leverage all of those. You’ve got so much support — it may not be typical as in you have a 1-800 number to scream at someone — but I’ve not been compelled to yell ever in the last 4 years at developers in the FOSS4G world.

The really awesome part — it makes GIS fun again.

So Join a listserve. Buy a book. Participate in the discussion. I’ve emailed developers with suggestions and in a few cases I’ve felt like I’ve affected the software. I like filing bug reports.

Q: I enjoy reading your blog. I learn from the technical articles, but I enjoy the personal pieces even more. I like your folksy storytelling style. Will we see more of this?

A: Everyone (including yourself upon occasion) has told me to write something and write more. Heh — I enjoy it. The work blog provides that outlet. So I use it to vent — I talk about technical and I talk about life.

I tend to get lost in work. Figuratively as I will sit here for hours wondering over some technical problem and literally I think at times I “lose me”. I will catch myself at times during the week going “Oh man I can’t go do that I need to work”. It’s hard to get up and walk off. Sometimes if I’m stuck I start typing. I’ll talk about finding a nifty tool in QGIS and Grass or accidentally eating squirrel. Writing helps me find my way out of work. It’s also a great mental health check. I’ve started a lot of blogs and halfway through I realize something was eating at me and I’ve vented enough to make it go away. Many of you are probably saying “Thank you” for me not finishing an article and hitting the trash button.

Not getting as lost has been easier as of late because I’ve taken a sabbatical from boards and other things. I’m going to do my best in 2017 to write 52 articles. I’m already a bit behind. Some may be “cheats” and just reposts of emails — BUT — 52 things. They will probably lean in to the technical but there will be more family and friends that get brought into the mix. I look around and my family has never been “this old” before. Aging parents, aging pets, and changing thoughts make for an interesting life.      

Q: You own a canoe and a bicycle. As far as I can tell, you spend more time in the canoe than on the bike. Why is that?

A: Well… Hah. Growing up my first taste of freedom was a bicycle. I would ride for a while after school. I would ride a bike to work. Bike riding has always been a thing I do — but the canoe…

So when I was around 14 or so my friend Danny called and said “Hey — I’ve saved up some cash and I’m gonna go buy a canoe”. We drove up to Ocoee TN and he bought a 17-foot Kennebec Old Town Canoe. We immediately drove to Parksville Lake and threw it in the water. 15 minutes later we had flipped it. I was hooked. We did a lot of trips to places I’d never have gotten to see had I not been in a canoe.

It’s relaxing. It’s fun. It’s a low maintenance hobby. I can throw my canoe in any body of water and just explore. No gasoline needed. No new tires required. Give me about 15 minutes and you’ll never know I was there. Being in a canoe opens up a whole new transportation network you never think about — lakes and streams and rivers. I have threatened to take up fishing again. My one problem with that — it adds a level of cursing back into my relaxing sport. It’s like ruining a perfectly good walk in a field with a golf club.

When I graduated college my gift to me was a canoe — a 15-foot, 8-inch Old Town Discovery. I’ve had it for 23 years now.

    This year I’ve got two plans:

  • Do an overnight trip because I haven’t done one of those in forever.
  • The second is to take my laptop and do something with QGIS while floating down a river.

Q: Not until I got involved with GeoHipster did I realize that in some parts of the US “hipster” is a dirty word. Is that the case in your home state of Tennessee? If yes, why do you think that is?

A: Nah — not a dirty word here. Of course it doesn’t stop me from poking at people and calling them hipsters and implying it’s bad.

Hipsters seem to push outside of the norm. Depending on what you are doing here in The South that can be a bonus or a detriment. I have one client that no doubt calls me a “hipster”. If I head down to the local organic market, I’m going “ugh hipsters”. Hipster might have an implication of being “not that useful” since you’re working outside the norm. So ultimately I don’t know why it’s bad — except people love giving labels to everyone. Plus people love getting offended over anything and everything.

Q: So, are you a geohipster?

A: Am I? I suppose in some circles yes and others no. Let’s figure it out. I don’t program in JavaScript (-1). I do sometimes touch GeoJSON (+1). I’ve never made a vector tile (-1). I hate GitHub 80% of the time (-1). I did build a Docker image the other day though (+1). I don’t run my website in GitHub (-1). I do have a cat — a lot of geohipsters have cats (+1). I didn’t renew my GISP so that should give me some street cred (+1). I own a business so that removes some street cred (-1). I don’t have skinny jeans (+2). I’m not a huge fan of coffee (-1). Wait – I HAVE A BEARD (+1) … but it’s not long or weird like some hipster beards (-1). Most bands I like everyone has heard of (-1). I like tacos (+11) which means nothing except I like tacos.

I’m going to go with probably. I may be 80% geohipster. That’s how the saying goes, right — 80% of hipsters have a spatial component?

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

A: Words of Wisdom. I can finally read my manifesto to the world.

People of the world — turn off your snapbook, your facegram, your tweetchat, and go outside. Find your nearest neighbor. Talk to them. I enjoy social media — but we’re missing a lot by not talking to people. Find someone you wouldn’t normally talk to and engage them in conversation.

GIS people of the world — if you’ve only ever used one type of Geographic Information System — try a different one. You may be going “OK you want me to use QGIS!”. Try them all — gvSIG, OpenJUMP, ArcGIS, etc. Of course — if you’ve ever been worried about trying QGIS and other open source alternatives to you commercial software — give them a shot, it will change your life. QGIS is coming up on a major release soon — help them out. It’s a great community of people.

Finally — go find a cause and volunteer. Want to help animals? People? Take a few hours a week and make it happen. It doesn’t take much to make a difference.

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