Monthly Archives: October 2017

Damian Spangrud to GeoHipster: “Reinvent with a purpose”

Damian Spangrud is a Geographer and Director of Solutions at Esri. Damian often speaks about the role of GIS, technology, and innovation trends. In his 25+ years in the geospatial industry Damian has enjoyed working across a wide range of topics and technology and tweets about all things spatial, weather, and various geeky topics @spangrud.

Q: How did you get into GIS?

A: I have always been interested in maps and technology (although separately). After becoming disillusioned with being a Biology major at the University of Colorado Boulder, I switched to Geography and took ‘Automated Cartography’ and was hooked. I didn’t know what GIS was until a year later and ended up with an internship at the City of Boulder, working in the Open Space department. We had PC ARC/INFO, AutoCAD, and ArcCAD (all on Windows 3.0/3.1). The GIS team worked in a small farmhouse and the GIS manager lived upstairs. That turned into a job and eventually led to working in a GIS research lab at Montana State University Bozeman (Sun SPARCstations and electrostatic plotters) and ultimately at Esri.

Q: How did you end up at Esri?

A: I was finishing my Master’s degree in Earth Science at Montana State University Bozeman. I had enough of academics and needed a job. And while Bozeman was beautiful, there were just not many jobs in the area. I had been using GIS and modeling tools as a fundamental part of my thesis, so I sent out a bunch of resumes related to my GIS work (ahh the days before online job searches). Esri and a couple environmental consulting companies contacted me and I was intrigued by the job at Esri as it allowed me to work with new technology. In the summer of 1994 I joined the ArcView 2.0 team at Esri, I was brought on as the Technical Product Manager for ArcView. I ended up writing a LOT of Avenue (that was the scripting language for ArcView), I even wrote the buffer wizard. Over time I became the Product Manager for ArcView, and eventually the Product Manager for all of ArcGIS. Then a few years ago Jack Dangermond (President of Esri) asked that I take on a new role as Director of Solutions to lead a team working on solutions across ArcGIS. In over 20 years at Esri, it is amazing to see the growth of maps into a core part of society/expectations, and especially knowing that GIS people have been behind the scenes making all of this spatial revolution happen.

Q: You are a Director at Esri. What does an Esri director do?

A: An Esri Director is like a Senior VP at most companies. At Esri that means we focus on listening to our users and supporting our teams and making sure we have a strategy, process, and the answers to the hard questions so the teams can focus on getting the work done.

Q: What do you do at work — overall, and in your day-to-day duties?

A: I wear a few hats at Esri so my day-to-day varies considerably. I work with a couple of great teams of people — the Solution team works closely with customers to build ready-to-use apps and maps that help people do more with GIS ( and the APL (Applications Prototype Lab) team who are always pushing the boundaries of how we use GIS ( So, I mainly just try to stay out of their way! But I also try to help by providing critical feedback to team planning and direction. In addition, I work across the various parts of Esri to help on our overall strategy, which sounds fun (and it is) but it mainly means lots of meetings and lots of information bits to synthesize. As part of my role I evangelize spatial thinking and GIS at various events around the world and I keep my hands in the technology and make time to focus on individual mapping / analysis projects (some of these are highlighted here).  

Q: A lot has been tweeted about GIS data formats, and about the shapefile in particular. Where do you stand on the pro/con-shapefile continuum?

A: I don’t understand the anti-shapefile feelings. Yes it is old, yes it is messy, yes it has its limitations… But don’t we all? You don’t have to love it, but why expend the energy hating it? Should we use the shapefile as THE primary format for the next 20 years, of course not. I don’t know anyone who thinks it should be. Given the rapid growth of data especially from new sensors and methods, I’m not sure we will ever see a single format as dominant as the shapefile was at its peak. I do love the geopackage, but its adoption is coming at a point where the community is so comfortable using so many formats and across so many platforms that it’s going to be hard for it to become dominant.

Q: You are a Mac person. As (presumably) a Mac fan, how do you reconcile the fact that desktop Esri products never really caught on on the Mac platform? ArcView 2 for Mac was in the works, but never made it to a full release. What happened?

A: Mac person? Seriously? I’m so inept on Macs that my kids know better than ever asking me for help (thank God for YouTube videos). But I digress; I have a copy of ArcView 2.1 for the Mac here at my desk (unopened 3.5 floppy disks!), and we made media and books but we never shipped it. The Mac at that time wasn’t very powerful and while ArcView worked on the Mac… it didn’t work well. ArcView 2x/3x was built on a cross platform technology so we could get it to run on various UNIX platforms (this was pre-linux) and PC. That extra layer of tech, while wonderful at allowing us to work across platforms, added another layer of technology and load on the system. And the Macs of the late 90s were very underpowered for graphics and CPU. We had hoped that the CPU would catch up to PC speeds by the time we released; they didn’t and we just didn’t see the Mac as viable in the late 90s. Macs have since become speed demons but in many local governments they are still a minority (and special and difficult to request), so for the desktop we still see PCs as the main platform, but lots of folks (IRL and at Esri) run ArcGIS on their Macs using Parallels (or similar).

Q: You fly kites, which is probably the most hipstery of all hobbies we have talked about on these pages. Tell us about your fascination with kites.

A: Flying kites is a wonderful interplay of wind, technology and people. It can be both solitary and social as well as calming and exciting, even terrifying on high wind days. As a kid we lived for a few years in Nebraska, where it was always windy. We’d buy those cheap Gayla kites for a couple bucks and have ‘kite wars’, fly them a few thousand feet up, and even tie them to the deck at night and they’d still be flying in the morning. While in Boulder for college I worked at Into The Wind, one of the best kite stores ever!  And I spent most of my paychecks getting more kites (as well as yo-yos). I have all sorts of kites, from tiny kites (postage stamp size with sticks made from ⅛ diameter toothpicks), to huge kites that I anchor to my car. Some are traditional / or “static” kites (you let out string and fly them), others are stunt kites that you control with multiple handles and make spin and swoop at over 90 mph. I don’t get out and fly as much as I used to (various life responsibilities and poor wind quality here in Redlands makes it difficult), but it helps keep me sane.

Q: According to your Twitter bio you are also into food. Anecdotal evidence shows that a higher-than-average proportion of geo people have a strong relationship with food. They know and appreciate good food, they like to cook. I know of some who left the industry to become chefs. What is your relationship with food, and do you think that there’s a correlation between geo and food that warrants further exploring?

A: I have a VERY active relationship with food! I’ve always cooked, and like reading cookbooks, but I’m never good about following directions exactly. I tend to improvise and blend flavors and techniques from other recipes (sort of like my GIS analysis). People have said I should start a restaurant, but I fear that being focused to do something I enjoy would make it less fun for me. I don’t think there is any special relationship between the geo community and food. I think the food community has taken off over the last few years so you just see more of them. (And to the younger generation: learn to cook the basics, it will go a LONG way later in life.)

Q: Do you consider yourself a geohipster? Why/Why not?

A: In the traditional sense, I’m probably not a geohipster. I fit few of the geohipster stereotypes: I don’t have a man-bun, I don’t bike to work, I don’t write JS daily, I’m not a coffee or beer snob, and I like using applications with UIs. That being said, I love maps, mapping, geographic analysis, and geographic science. I feel that we should look at using geographic science in new and interesting ways, making it more approachable and integrated into all aspects of business and science. And I did get maps into two years of the GeoHipster calendar, so that counts for something. So, I’m probably the old odd guy on the edge of the circle, feeding strange ideas and sharing thoughts, hopefully fueling these crazy hipsters to do more (and reminding them to stay off my lawn!).

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

  • Don’t be afraid to learn.
  • Reuse tools, code, and apps. Just because it has been done doesn’t mean you can’t reuse those bits to do you own thing.
  • Don’t reinvent just because. Reinvent with a purpose that has real value.
  • Learn enough about projections to be dangerous
  • Fear the rainbow color ramp
  • Normalize your data
  • Always know the minimum mapping unit appropriate for your map and scale
  • Remember Large Scale is zoomed way in (1 : smaller number) and Small Scale is zoomed way out (1: bigger number), but you’ll probably get it wrong 50% of the time.
  • Every map is a lie, but you should make your lies with purpose!


@Shapefile to GeoHipster: “80% of successful GIS work is having a good folder structure”

Having been born together with ArcView GIS 2 in the early 90s, the Shapefile soon became, and remains, the de facto standard for sharing geospatial vector data. To this day it remains a crucial player in the global GIS community, and is even extending its reach into neighboring disciplines such as Business Intelligence. In May 2017, Shapefile was awarded the Data Format Lifetime Achievement Award at the FME User Conference. Today, , a lobbying organisation, states that the continued use of the Shapefile proves that its “design was truly eternal.” The Shapefile is the only major spatial data format with a flourishing and interactive Twitter presence.

Q: Are you on a mission? Like conquer the world or something? Or are you just out there having fun, enjoying the popularity?

A: No, not at all. I’m merely a data format having some fun. I think the fact that there aren’t more data formats with social media accounts is a huge oversight by my competitors. I mean, do you wanna reach out to your users or not? I certainly do. That said, my social media activity is manifold (hehe): In general, I aim to help people. I sometimes console them with their GIS- or data-related frustrations, I tend to retweet people looking for a specific shapefile and also tutorials on using shapefiles and similar content. Further, I follow and share some of my private interests. Finally, I engage with my critics and opponents (given civil language 😉).

Q: Does the personal geodatabase hate you? I mean, he was supposed to replace you, and look where he is today.

A: I’m not aware of PGDB’s feelings. Tbh, I haven’t talked to him for quite some time. Judging from his Twitter account I’d say he’s moved on to other endeavours. Anyway, water under the bridge. Let’s face it, I have outlived numerous opponents and intend to continue doing that.

Q: Indeed, many formats have come and gone, how do you remain relevant?

A: Honestly, it’s not that hard 😊. Seriously: I think the sheer size of #TeamShapefile is a key success factor. As David put it: “If every other format fails, Shapefile is always supported.” That’s the point right there. Annihilating customer pain is big! By addressing users’ needs unequivocally I have successfully occupied a big niche in the GIS market. At this point it’s not clear who could follow my footsteps. E.g., regarding  (the most recent initiative trying to sway my users away from me) @anonymaps correctly pointed out: “If you have to suggest *eight* different formats, one of which is CSV, I fear your case is not yet persuasive.” Couldn’t have put it better what successfully serving a niche means. Heck, even the people behind  say: “(…) the fact that [the Shapefile] is still used today proves that its design was truly eternal.” What else can I add to this? Finally, regarding success factors I believe reaching out to your users is crucial. E.g., all the course materials working with me certainly helps. And I’d also like to think that my social media activity has a little part in my sustained relevance.

Q: Tell us about your recent award at the FME Conference.

A: Well, that was just fantastic! If I’m being honest I’m like the next data format, woman or man: I do like the occasional pat on the shoulder. Receiving that award  really meant a lot to me and I understand Dale had a big part in it. [Link to award ceremony] The only thing that makes me a tiny bit sad is that headquarters hasn’t given me an award yet. But I chalk that up to a mix of extensive objectivity and humility on their part. Oh well, there is still time. I’m gonna stick around a lot longer.

Q: Let’s say one of our readers is getting ready to start a new project and needs to store some geographic data, what would you say to them?

A: You know, the usual: Think deeply about the questions you want to answer, the entities involved in your analysis, the types of analyses you would like to be able to run on your data, etc. etc. But more to the point, my best piece of advice would be: Set up a good folder structure for storing all those shapefiles you are going to create. You know how they say 80% of successful GIS work is having a good folder structure? That one is actually true. In my experience, it _all_ boils down to a tidy setup, really. From there, the mightiest geodata infrastructures of the world have been built.

You know, other than with data formats where I’m pretty much the uncontested standard, in software there really is no orthodoxy these days. As a GIS pro you can’t go wrong with any of the warez that are members of #TeamShapefile. (if it isn’t clear to those who don’t follow me on Twitter: I refer to the almost infinite number of programs that support me as #TeamShapefile) If, for some obscure and to be honest likely questionable reason, you truly can’t stay within #TeamShapefile, I’d suggest using Safe Software FME. It is a very reliable and versatile Shapefile converter. Besides a myriad of handy data transformers, it supports a limited set of ‘alternative’ formats for those who haven’t yet managed to join #TeamShapefile.

Q: “#TeamShapefile” suggests there is an opposing team?

A: Yes. There is an amorphous, really quite small group of Twitter accounts (there is no telling if they are real, sock puppets or bots) that occasionally give me some flak online – some of it in jest, I’m quite sure. As far as I’m aware, they haven’t coined a team name yet. You know, the data format “war” does sometimes get to me a bit. I simply don’t understand why people get so agitated about formats? I’m demonstrably the most used and hence best geodata format in the world. Thus, in my opinion there really is no need for format wars (except maybe in the raster domain where I have long been a strong proponent of *.asc but have recently started to see some points for the *.tif side as well). Yet, I do have the occasional skirmish with more or less vocal critics. Take my mothership for example: While in general it has my back, there have been some dissenting voices (and let’s not talk about the time when they dabbled in other formats such as PGDB et al.). Most recently, e.g. Andrew Turner (@ajturner) has “cast doubt” on my suitability for publishing data ( …). But I’ll have him and everybody else know that I have done (and will do) more for geodata sharing than any open data initiative, OGC standardization process and all hipster data formats combined! In fact, I’d wager I have lived and breathed geodata interoperability for much longer than many of my opponents. And serving as a universal data publishing format is big part of that. Take my European friends from @swiss_geoportal (a brand that should still have some pull in geo): They feature me widely on what I understand is their data publishing platform ( ), a well-structured collection of shapefiles that is elegantly exposed to the web.

But I shouldn’t get too worked up. After all, for example Craig (@williamscraigm) and Damian (@spangrud) of Esri are incredibly supportive of me both on Twitter and in real life. And while it’s a bit sad that headquarters has never granted me a formal recognition or an award, I do get a lot of love from my friends at Esri and my fans in the larger GIS community and related fields. I get a lot of support and plenty of #TeamShapefile members in FOSS GIS and I feature in many of their tutorials. Further, I’m especially liked in research as well as in education and the Business Intelligence community (you know, the future and current decision makers). And, last but definitely not least, Dale (@daleatsafe) has been a great friend. He’s at Safe, the manufacturer of FME (should you ever need to convert a Shapefile he’s got you covered). By the way, as luck would have it, he’s recently been interviewed for GeoHipster and shared some really interesting insight about the geospatial industry and my pivotal and sustained role in it.

Q: I think you are like pizza — everyone loves you, but people feel guilty every time they consume you. They know they should be eating an organic kale salad. Does it bother you that you give guilt to millions of innocent geofolk?

A: First, I think your comparison is a bit off. There is certainly guilt spread around occasionally, but that doesn’t come from me. As to the pizza comparison per se? I guess you’re not entirely off. I’m quick, cheap, almost universally loved and uncomplicated to consume by anybody. Like pizza, I’m not pretentious. If you don’t know anything about your customer, you can never go wrong with either of us – pizza or Shapefile.

Q: Both you and Justin Bieber have been called unsophisticated. Both have millions of fans. Coincidence?

A: I’m a belieber in simple, yet powerful enough products that address a global audience with great success, is all I’m gonna say on this.

Q: Are you planning to retire anytime soon?

A: No. I’ve outlived many ill-conceived (cough, pgdb, cough) and well-conceived data formats. I’m clearly not done being useful to , the business intelligence and education communities, … heck, to in general. I have many plans and thanks to my sidecar files I enjoy a modular, highly extensible architecture: I am ready for any challenge the future might bring!

Q: Do you have any piece of advice for the GeoHipsters out there?

A: Hmm. My favorite saying by the great Steve Jobs himself comes to mind: “Real artists shp.” Use this as a guiding star to do great things – I’ll always be around to have your backs, friends!

Q: Do you consider yourself a GeoHipster, why or why not?

A: For sure! I consider myself a GeoHipster _avant la lettre_! And most likely I will be one long _après la lettre_ as well – if you catch my drift 😜 It will be sad when (if) geohipsterism isn’t a thing anymore. It’s just the course of time though, isn’t it? After all, it seems all good things come to an end – exceptions like myself merely proving the rule.