All posts by Alex Leith

Adam Steer, Doctor of Mischiefology: “We really exist in at least 5D”

Adam Steer
Adam Steer
True to the hipster theme, Adam is a consultant-at-large on open source spatial systems and problem solving. He’s a real doctor in the academic sense, and has a truly multidisciplinary outlook on geospatial and web technology, as seen through the lens of developing human capacity to evolve and create a better world as we work out our existence in the one we have.

With a CV covering field research on sea ice, infrastructure-scale data services, professional bicycle repair, and cat herding on wilderness walking trips, he’s a stander-upon-the-shoulders-of-giants, and definitely thinks way too hard about society, human evolution, infrastructure-scale technology, geospatial magicking, and penguins.

Adam was interviewed for GeoHipster by Alex Leith.

Q: First off the bat, you recently attended FOSS4G in Dar es Salaam. What did you think?

A: I’ve been sitting on a blog post about it for a month. It’s been super hard to wrap up because it’s Africa + FOSS4G rolled into one. This FOSS4G really impressed on me more than anything how open source geospatial software, open data, and the communities around it can make real, on-ground change in the world.

I’d never been to Africa before, and really was swept away by the experience. I made a point of travelling by foot as much as possible, trying to see the rhythm of the city, and how it works – what happens outside the western tourist cocoon (as much as that is possible). I drank a bunch of coconuts, and wished I could speak Swahili.

I saw a lot of excellent technical talks. Some I didn’t expect to see, some on my ‘must-see list’. There was also a huge amount of discussion on the human and community aspects of our geospatial world. I listened to many stories, and came home with a soul full of hope about the future. However, to realise that future I’ll quote Mark Iliffe: “It’ll take all our resources, and all our privilege”. That’s an undisguised call – especially to people like me who really have very few barriers to overcome – to listen, reflect, and act. See the barriers other people face, and use our privilege to help tear them down.

What sticks in my mind most from this iteration of FOSS4G was a real focus on overcoming challenges. Getting over 100 people to a conference via travel grants. Wow! Running a 1,000 person event in Africa. Wow! Walking the streets of Dar Es Salaam every day for a week. Wow!

Q: How was Zanzibar?

A: Personally, I’d intended Zanzibar to be a full switch off. Maybe at most walking to a beach every day or something. Instead, I offered space in an AirBnB I’d booked to some of the OpenDroneMap team, and ended up in a whirlwind.

Still, it was inspirational. Having just finished a big conference, I did have some time to absorb and reflect on the conference in the context of Africa. One thing which struck me was the extreme inequality of life there. Literally next door to each other were 5 star tourist resorts and locals in basic homes cooking over fire.

Another was how well society appears to function in chaos. Australia seems really rigid and afraid by comparison.

I also appreciated the ‘on ground’ experience of the OpenDroneMap team, in particular Stephen Mather (a Zanzibar regular). It inspired an idea about how the geospatial community can be similar. We’re all trying to make progress, but like Zanzibar, there can be myriad and strange labyrinths to navigate. A friendly guide can go a long way.

Q: You live and work in our nation’s capital Canberra, what’s that like?

A: It’s awful, don’t come here. It’s seriously unaffordable.

…actually it’s one of two cities in Australia I’d live in, the other being Hobart. Canberra’s most famous attribute is that it’s two hours from everything – the sea, the snow… and actually about 45 minutes from splitter cracks and heinous slabs on chunky granite if that’s your thing. It’s sometimes my thing.

Its secret attribute is that in most suburbs, you can be in relatively uncurated bushland in about ten minutes on foot. As a full time cycle commuter, I also like that I can pick a bunch of routes through forests and parks, instead of battling cars.

Unfortunately, like many places, Canberra is losing its urban wilderness in favour of cookie cutter housing estates.

Q: Your job involves doing a lot of work with PDAL. Do you like it?

A: Yes – PDAL is a fantastic toolkit. I really only explore a tiny part of it at the moment; there’s as much I don’t know what to do with it as I do know. It’s a real case of standing on the shoulders of giants.

It has its limitations. One of the best things is that Howard Butler and team are very much cognisant of those up front – and provide as many means as possible for others to add new tools in ways which suit them. It’s an honest toolkit, one that doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is. One of things that it is, however, is being really useful!.

Q: What’s something interesting we don’t know about LiDAR?

A: All LiDAR instruments quite literally capture a point cloud – a little fuzz around whatever surface is being measured. I did a lot of work tracking down noise in LiDAR measurements, ending with hanging a LiDAR scanner in a lab and scanning a concrete floor for a few hours.

Did we get a flat scan? No. We could fit a flat regression line to the data with high confidence, but the points themselves sat inside a neat biconcave envelope described by a function of range, scan angle and angular encoder uncertainty.

The shape of this envelope is different for different instrument styles – line scanners, circular/ellipse pattern scanners, solid-state beams – but the fuzz is common to all LiDAR instruments and measurements.

Q: Does working with point clouds make you look down on the 2.5-D nature of regular GIS?

A: Not at all. In fact I barely understand a lot of ‘regular GIS’ things. My geo-training started with a lot of concern about minutiae – getting data right for an incredibly specific task (sea ice research); so in ‘standard GIS’ domains I’m still almost completely lost. I get there, with a lot of help from friends.

And so much can still be done with good old 2D/2.5D analysis!

I still like to push toward a 4, or 5D world – we can capture reality in 3D; capture time plus space, then time plus space plus insight – what we glean from analysing the world in space and time. We humans do this all the time, in fact, you’re doing it right now reading this – we really exist in at least 5D…

Q: Shapefile or GeoPackage?

A: GeoPackage! Although to be honest, I’d be hard pressed to have a proper discussion about why. Although – I can store a neat little SQLite database in there with points, or data boundaries… plus metadata… and it’s nicely self contained.

Q: You did an undergraduate in Neurobiology, Honours in Antarctic studies, and a PhD in Surveying. Why?!

A: The glib answer is why not? The true story is this (grab a beverage and a seat..):

I actually applied to art school as a fresh out of high school kiddo – and didn’t get in. I hated school and did the bare minimum to pass. So my creative work really wasn’t up to scratch.

Finding jobs was hard in the early 1990s, but I did OK at science and based on that, found employment as an assistant in a neurophysiology research lab. Mixing chemicals, making electrodes, anaesthetising sheep, slicing up brains and mounting slides. A couple years in, I figured it was university time – and naturally started a brand new degree program on cognitive science. This morphed into psychology/neurophysiology because I failed uni level maths (little did I know… I ended up doing two more years of solid stats…  same same).

A final year elective in Medical Anthropology made me question everything. So I quit, went to work as a teaching aide in a technical college, then picked up a job as a web developer based on a side job I’d had making websites back in the late 1990s.

Fast forward a few years – career change time again. I applied for an honours year (4th undergrad year/masters year) multidisciplinary program in Antarctic science, got in, moved to Hobart, and went through an intense ‘in the deep end’ education in Antarctic physical and ecological systems, logistics and international law. Plus a research thesis on estimating ice floe sizes from airborne imagery.

I went straight to work (a few days after I dumped in the thesis) guiding people on Tasmania’s Overland track for a couple of summers, and being a semi-homeless outdoorsy drifter. In 2007 I was offered a job as a tech officer to support a sea ice research voyage – and abandoned my plans to move to New Zealand and become a mountain guide. I went south three years running – operating an aerial photography program and field validation measurements, progressing to LiDAR flight operations and running a bunch of GPS units until, in 2009, a PhD project was devised. I was awarded a scholarship and I went for it!

The project was all about measuring sea ice elevation using airborne LIDAR, then estimating ice thickness based on some empirical modelling from that. I also needed to know the uncertainty of every single point in the point cloud – so a lot of maths (that thing I suck at) ensued. And geodesy. And three years discovering that most of the data we had so far are terrible and designing an experiment to fix that. Finally, in 2012, the plan came to life and we got what we needed to finish the job. In summary, we surveyed moving objects. I deployed the first ever robotic total survey on East Antarctic sea ice, using it to set up a coordinate system that drifted with the ice. And then, used the data to link airborne, on-ice and under-ice observations and create a PhD thesis. I got to ski around sea ice with a surveying prism; and also drilled a lot of holes in the ice.

Oddly enough, my best topic at high school was geography – so the circle completes eventually…

Q: Along with others, you’re organising the inaugural FOSS4G SotM Oceania, tell me more…

A: Oh man. This is absolutely terrifying! And the momentum is huge! So late in 2017 there was a bit of noise in a Slack channel about organising a conference. And fast forward to now it seems to have just happened organically, and hugely.

As the sponsorship coordinator my life has been really easy — the sponsors come to us! It’s been great to work with the committee, we disagree quite a lot and I have some really crazy ideas – some of which made it (yay!) – and others which really needed some moderation/re-appraisal. Whatever happens, we always manage to get something done – we all seem really good at compromise where it’s appropriate – and importantly in directions which aim to make a positive change. Which is always the grease that gets stuff moving, right?

I’ve learned an awful lot from everyone in the process.

We haven’t met all our goals – we wanted a perfect gender balance, we wanted to have much greater representation from indigenous communities, we wanted … the universe on a plate.

What we *have* done is tapped into a rich vein – and exceeded our expectations about community interest. We have a fantastic program, and can do our best to make some audacious moves in shaping how this community can evolve as we steam ahead.

I’m really looking forward to turning up – and all the buzz that happens to get the final wrinkles ironed out. I really hope we can keep this momentum going, and engage even more of the open geospatial community in our region next year!

Q: Ok, what’s the deal with Business Penguins?

A: It’s a call back to my psychology days – we discussed a lot how our environment shapes how we are able to perceive the world. One trip to Antarctica I was watching penguins cross fast ice for a while, and had a lightbulb moment that made me giggle – the parallel between conformist work environments and penguins is obvious. The hilarious part was how penguins solved these seemingly simple problems – and this dawning realisation that humans can fall into those same patterns.

At the end of the day I hope it’s a way to encourage reflection on the rules we make up for ourselves, and have some fun.

Q: Favourite craft beer?

A: Right now, when I order a bespoke beer, I’ll grab a Bent Spoke crankshaft IPA. Or a Velvet Cream Stout from the Wig n Pen. Canberra has a couple of awesome microbreweries, all within cycling distance of course!

Q: What’s #1 on your bucket list?

A: That’s a tough one. To pick on one thing – getting to South America, the last continent I’ve never visited. With my skis and climbing gear. And banging out perfect telemark turns down huge mountains.

I’ve only been in airports in Asia, come to think of it.. So there’s #2.

Q: And finally, what about you makes you a geohipster?

A: To tick off some boxes? I telemark ski in the backcountry, ride bikes, climb rocks, have a beard, and have a collection of obscure paper maps…

January Makamba, the introductory speaker at FOSS4G 2018 summed it up well: we are a socially conscious community. We want to help create and maintain amazing tools that are well crafted, functional, accessible, and contribute to a world we want to keep living in. The core hipster ethos of care about what we do, and how it impacts our world, definitely resonates with me strongly. Add some geo, and there we are…

Anna Riddell on monitoring relative sea level change, accounting for the wiggle of the centre of the Earth

Anna Riddell
Anna Riddell
Anna works for Geoscience Australia as a Geodesist, but is currently doing a PhD at the University of Tasmania. Her research is focused on using Global Positioning System (GPS) data from Australian sites to derive a spatially-comprehensive vertical velocity field for the continent.

Anna was interviewed for GeoHipster by Alex Leith.

Q: You’re a Geodesist-hipster, right? So what is hip in the world of geodesy currently?

A: Geodesist-hipster doesn’t roll off the tongue as nicely as Geo-hipster, but we’ll stick with it for now.

There are so many exciting projects and new things popping up in geodesy, so these are just a few of them that I am excited for.

In Australia, it is predicted that by 2020 there will be in excess of 30 GNSS satellites visible at any one time. With the regular launch of new satellites, the major GNSS constellations are soon to reach maturity, creating a whole new world of multi-frequency, multi-constellation applications.

Other Earth observation missions are also being launched in the near future, one of which is the GRACE follow-on, which will enable the monitoring of changes in ice sheets and glaciers, the amount of water in large lakes and rivers and changes in sea level by observing changes in gravity.

In the realm of relativistic geodesy, there is some excitement around using optical lattice clocks for measuring elevation changes as well as the possibility to use the new clocks to redefine the SI unit of time and frequency (the second), effectively re-defining time… A bit closer to home we have the National Positioning Infrastructure capability and the Satellite Based Augmentation System trial, which is testing next-generation SBAS, a world first, in Australia.

Q: Australia has a new datum (GDA2020) that has just been released, and one day it might be dynamic. Do you think we can actually have one, considering the software challenges?

A: ‘Dynamic datums’ sound scary, but aren’t as daunting as they sound. The International Terrestrial Reference Frame (ITRF) could be considered as a datum that is continuously updated, where a new frame is realised every 4 years or so as new data becomes available and realignment is required. The new time-dependent Australian Terrestrial Reference Frame (ATRF), to be implemented in 2020, will be similar with periodic updates and realignment with the global frame. I wouldn’t say that it will be a major challenge for software, as the tools and resources needed are available and will be updated with each release. Noting that GDA2020 (current release) will still be available for users who do not need a time-dependent reference frame.

Q: Precession or nutation: which is your favourite?

A: Nutation! It’s more of a short term wiggle of the Earth’s spin axis due to the effect of the moon’s orbit, and more interesting to look at over short time spans (months to years).

Q: You studied at the University of Tasmania (same as me!); who was your favourite lecturer?! (You don’t have to answer this…)

A: Picking favourites is always dangerous (considering that I work with some of my lecturers now).

Christopher Watson (while teaching us least squares via first principles), for his entertaining idiosyncrasy of starting nearly every written sentence (on the white board) with ‘So,…’. I think the maximum count during one lecture was ~35 ‘So,…’ sentences.

Volker Janssen gets an honourable mention for the infiltration of AC/DC flavoured questions in some of our assessments.

Q: And after graduation, you joined Geoscience Australia, the largest geo-organisation in Australia, as part of their grad program, how was it?

A: The graduate program was an exciting year allowing me to experience the diverse range of earth-science related research undertaken to provide advice to the Australian Government. It was a fast-track introduction to the whole agency where we were encouraged to ‘step outside our comfort zone’ and explore areas that were not within our speciality/focus of our uni degrees. My 3 projects during the 12-month grad program were focused on:

  • Assessing the vulnerability of buildings to earthquake damage in Papua New Guinea;
  • Understanding the operation of Geoscience Australia’s geodetic networks, including the construction and installation of CORS and conducting a levelling survey from the Majuro tide gauge to the GNSS site in the Marshall Islands;
  • Classifying islands in the south Pacific on their vulnerability to climate change, specifically for groundwater storage and availability.

Q: GA are sponsoring your PhD, what is your elevator pitch for your thesis?

A: My PhD research is focused on looking at the vertical motion of the Australian tectonic plate, using permanent GPS sites all over the continent to track surface deformation. Part of my research is looking at reducing the error sources in precise GPS analysis, such as accounting for the wiggle of the centre of the Earth which presents as noise in the reference frame (ITRF2014). Having more accurate and precise estimates of vertical land motion in Australia will also enable more reliable observations of sea level change at tide gauge sites around the Australian coastline. Observations of sea level from tide gauges are made relative to the land that the tide gauge is attached to. Without knowledge of the vertical motion of the land (most commonly from GPS), our observations of sea level change can be biased. Relative sea level measurements are important for understanding local effects such as flooding and inundation, but the combination of sea level estimates from satellite altimetry and tide gauges requires knowledge of vertical land motion.

Q: What’s a surprising fact about plate tectonics that we don’t know yet?

A: There are around twelve tectonic plates that make up the surface of the Earth, but one plate (the Pacific plate) accounts for about 90% of all earthquakes, aka the ring of fire! This video is a great visualisation of earthquakes over a 15 year period. Plate tectonics (from the Late Latin tectonicus, from the Greek: τεκτονικός “pertaining to building”) a.k.a Earth’s lego blocks?!

Q: You grew up in a small town, Wynyard, Tasmania, and then lived in our nation’s capital, Canberra. What’s different and what’s the same?

A: Although Canberra is our nation’s capital, it could still be considered as a rural city (not big and bustling like Sydney). My moving progression has been steady with a moderate change from rural Wynyard to Hobart and then a smaller change from Hobart to Canberra. I am not a big city person, so Canberra suits me well. It is hard to compare what it was like living in Wynyard to living in Canberra as they were such different stages of my life. When I was in Wynyard, I was living with my family and growing up (still doing that now too…). The move to, and then working in Canberra was the first step into the working world, and so the comparisons are hard to draw.

The biggest difference for me would be not being near the beach and seeing open water. Living on the NW coast of Tas meant that you were nearly always in sight of water (river, dam, ocean), or driving along the coast with the salty tang of the sea. In Canberra, Lake Burley Griffin doesn’t quite compare with its brown colouring and periodic blue-green algal blooms.

Canberra also has a much larger temperature differential than Wynyard with hot highs (> 35 degrees celcius) and freezing winter mornings (sub-zero). I do prefer the crisp, clear and sunny winter days of Canberra in comparison to the (mostly) dreary and grey Tassie winter!

Q: I found another interview with you that says you used to ride horses, do you still ride?

A: Moving to Hobart was the end of my competitive horse riding era, which mostly focused on Show Jumping and Eventing. During my undergrad I worked at a racing stable, which was a great way to keep riding and get my horsey fix without having a horse of my own. I still occasionally ride for pleasure, but no longer competitively. My horse, Flynn, is now retired and enjoying the good life in a paddock full of lush grass out the back of Sheffield.

Q: And what else do you do in your free time that isn’t GeoRelated?

A: I enjoy team sports, with football (soccer) taking up most of my Sundays during the season. We are just about to start our Summer Cup games as a pre-season warm-up before getting into the football season, running from March to September.

While in Tasmania I have a list of walks/experiences and adventures to undertake which I am slowly accomplishing on weekends that don’t involve football. (e.g. Tahune airwalk, Russell Falls, Cape Pillar, Cape Hauy, Maria Island, sampling all the wine and cheese…).

Darren Mottolini: “Not just creating pretty maps that still require interpretation”

Darren Mottolini is a Business Development and Research Manager -- WA (Western Australia) at CRCSI (Cooperative Research Council for Spatial Information)

Darren has worked in the spatial information sector for over 16 years – working within the private sector,  government, and now academia, identifying and enabling businesses to use data and information to meet specific needs, and consulting on the best use of spatial data and tools in the on-line service delivery space.

He comes recently from Western Australia’s Landgate (Land Agency) as the manager of the Shared Location Information Platform (SLIP) Program – the State's core infrastructure for location information. Within the spatial community, Darren has chaired committees for the Surveying and Spatial Sciences Institute and the Intergovernmental Committee for Surveying and Mapping. He has open data and start-up community experience, he is a past recipient of the of the Young Spatial Professional of the Year Award (WA), and currently heads up Research Management focussing on collaborative research opportunities.

Q: How did you end up in geospatial?

A: Quite by accident. I graduated in the IT systems field picking up programming and network design jobs. I took a job at a company called ER Mapper as one of their technical analyst, which was my first foray into geo. From there I quickly transferred from behind the computer to in front of it branching out into solutions design and picking up up my geo skills from workshops, single units and conferences. Haven’t looked back since.

Q: You are ‘Sir Darren of Rabble’ on Twitter, is there a story there?

A: No story really. In Australia under a certain Prime Minister, he re-introduced Dames and Knights, and so a bunch of us changed our handles to Sir and Dame so and so. Rabble comes from my involvement in Perth coordinating GeoRabble events. Since then the moniker has grown on me so it has stuck.

Q: How’s the GeoCommunity in Perth?

A: Perth is a strange place. One, we are very isolated, with the closest main city four hours’ flight away. Two, everyone knows everyone so getting together is easy and organising events (such as a Georabble) picks up on everyone’s network. WA/Perth is still quite mining-focused, yet if you look across the state there are significant challenges. Biodiversity in the State’s agriculture and mining areas poses challenges, not only to understand the ecosystems but also to manage it. Also, due to the vast size of WA (which is 33% of Australia equalling about 4x the size of Texas, or covering more area than Western Europe) mapping and adding knowledge is a continual challenge for a population which is roughly around 2.5 million statewide.

Q: You used to work in the Western Australian state government, what was the technology stack like there and were there benefits in being forced to rebuild twice?! (After Google end-of-lifed Google Earth Engine…)

A: What I learnt from working in government (8 years) is that the stigma of government workers is nowhere to be seen. There is so much that happens behind the scenes that the public at large and private sector simply don’t see. Most of the stigma is due to spending public funds and the accountability that has to go with it yet if you understand the system, you can make it work. Managing a technology stack for the state’s Shared Location Information Platform (SLIP — the State Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI)) had its challenges, yet the reward of making a difference, from concept to execution, rather than simply selling software or consulting on short projects, is what really kept me in government. Depending on the government agency, there is a lot of legacy systems which are used to manage the fundamental data within the state. Due to this, simply pulling a new dataset together, its impact on live systems etc. requires testing and creative design in order to respond to the industry need. Yet, all in all, managing SLIP, rebuilding it under Google Maps Engine, the demise of GME proved tiring for me and lacked new learning hence why I jumped at the chance to join a user-focused research organisation which really aligns to my take of technology that the consumers and suppliers needs are first, the technology is second.

Q: You are currently working at CRCSI, can you explain what the CRCSI is and what you do there?

A: The CRC (Cooperative Research Centre) for Spatial Information is a collaborative research body delving into the challenges facing both Australia and New Zealand. The research that the CRCSI conducts is user-driven, that is, our partners lead and sponsor the projects and we coordinate the research for them. It was this fact that attracted me to the CRCSI, being that it is not research for the sake of research, that it had a need founded in our users that could not be solved through traditional and pre-existing means. My role is to coordinate and ensure that our partners benefit from the research (i.e., they can use it) as well as brokering new research projects.

Q: CRCSI’s government funding ends soon, how’s it looking for the future?

A: It is looking good. One of the strengths of the CRCSI is that our partners are engaged and that our research is delivering benefits. As our government (federal) funding only accounts for a portion of our operation budget, we have already generated new partnerships and projects that will ensure Australia and New Zealand have a peak Spatial Information research body that is also an advocate for increasing the wealth of the industry by exploring emerging sectors and their needs for spatial knowledge.

Q: What can you tell me about the 2026 Agenda project?

A: The 2026Agenda (https://2026agenda.com/) is a joint initiative between the CRCSI and the Spatial Industries Business Association (SIBA) to put in place measurable and accountable actions that will drive towards greater awareness of spatial methods, data, and tech with new and emerging industries. As an industry we always say that ~80% of all data is spatial, but what does this really mean? The roadmap being generated will seek to ensure that the spatial sector is recognised as a proactive underpinning element to the Australian digital economy.

Q: What about some of the other projects CRCSI is working on?

A: How long have you got? As I remain partner-focused, it allows me to delve into all the projects the CRCSI is working on. My background is in SDIs, so the research we are conducting here is to explore how spatial processes can be delivered through the semantic technology area (Web 3.0). By doing this, achieving true automation — that is easily repeatable, shareable workflows that are facilitated through machine to machine understanding — aims to generate new tech that recognises spatial as a commodity anyone can plug into. For me it means that is a real opportunity for spatial to play its role in leading analytics processes that derive knowledge to assist decision making — not just creating pretty maps that still require interpretation.

Another area that piques my interest is the adaptation of spatial in the health sector. Taking 3D stereophotogrammetry to mapping faces for example has the potential to assist practitioners in detecting facial anomalies which could be signs of genetic diseases. The same principles are being applied to burns management for the debriding process.

In the agriculture space, assisting land managers with spatial data and query tools that draw on a massive historical earth observation imagery archive means that for the first time people can manage change over time by understanding the impacts of change.

Finally, the positioning research: ubiquitous 2cm accuracy is near-real-time from multi GNSS — it sounds easy yet the maths behind this level of research and its potential benefits to all those who want high accuracy data that is placed in its correct location when overlapped has massive potential. We are starting to see the benefits of this positioning research with the move to GDA2020 (Australia’s new datum), real time precision agriculture through remote controlled farm tractors, and the move to dynamic datums in the future.

Q: On your LinkedIn profile you mention Edward de Bono. What’s he got to do with anything?!

A: HA! I’m a strategist, it’s what I enjoy. Facilitation, consultancy and strategy development requires a person to think in different mindsets and assist others to think differently so that you can develop a rounded strategy. Edward de Bono developed a suite of ‘thinking tools’ that are well utilised globally. The ‘six thinking hats’ are an example of one of this developed tools. (see: http://www.debonothinkingsystems.com/tools/6hats.htm ). I use these constantly to help me engage, facilitate thought leadership sessions, and develop strategies that work to the needs of the target user groups. Would never leave home without them. 🙂

Q: I assume that means you like lateral thinking, do you have a favourite riddle or, failing that, favourite dad joke?

A: Ask my kids, I am not a joke teller, not even dad jokes. Riddle me this though, when you get asked a question, how best do you question the questioner back? If you ask any of my staff (when I had staff), I always get them to learn through seeing if they can answer their own question. It is a lateral thinking exercise that I feel builds the best staff, increases their confidence and success, means you work yourself out of a job.

Q: What do you do in your free time that is not geo-related?

A: Isn’t everything geo-related? Camping, cycling, running are my favourite things to do. Of course, I track my cycling and running tracks, look for camping spots, and everything you can do around them. Having a geo focus to these activities usually sees me always looking towards a map.

Q: And finally, what do you do in your free time that makes you a geohipster?

A: Coffee! Maybe it’s my Italian heritage, yet it is the first machine I turn on in the morning, it is how I generally conduct my meetings, it is what gets me through the day. That, and a desire to care for the environment, a love of local music, and generally the wearing of Chuck Taylor shoes with no care to how my hair looks. 🙂

Hugh Saalmans: “No amount of machine learning could solve a 999999 error!”

Hugh Saalmans
Hugh Saalmans
Hugh Saalmans (@minus34) is a geogeek and IT professional that heads the Location Engineering team at IAG, Australia & New Zealand’s largest general insurer. He’s also one of the founders of GeoRabble -- an inclusive, zero-sales-pitch pub meetup for geogeeks to share their stories. His passion is hackfests & open data, and he’s big fan of open source and open standards.

Q: How did you end up in geospatial?

A: A love of maths and geography is the short answer. The long answer is I did a surveying degree that covered everything spatial from engineering to geodesy.

My first experience with GIS was ArcGIS on Solaris (circa 1990) in a Uni lab with a severely underpowered server. Out of the 12 workstations, only 10 of us could log in at any one time, and then just 6 of us could actually get ArcGIS to run. Just as well, considering most of the students who could get it to work, including myself, ballsed up our first lab assignment by turning some property boundaries into chopped liver.

Besides GIS, my least favourite subjects at Uni were GPS and geodesy. So naturally I chose a career in geospatial information.

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

A: Being a general insurer, we cover about $2 trillion worth of homes, motor vehicles, farms, and businesses against bad things happening.

Geospatial is a big part of what we do. Knowing where those $2tn of assets are allows us to do fundamental things like providing individualised address level pricing — something common in Australia, but not so common in the US due to insurance pricing regulations. Knowing where assets are also allows us to help customers when something bad does happen. That goes to the core of what we do in insurance. That’s when we need to fulfill the promise we made to our customers when they took out a policy.

Q: What on Earth is Location Engineering?

A: We’re part of a movement that’s happening across a lot of domains that use geo-information: changing from traditional data-heavy, point & click delivery to scripting, automation, cloud, & APIs. We’re a team of geospatial analysts becoming a team of DevOps engineers that deliver geo-information services. So we needed a name to reflect that.

From a skills point of view — we’re moving from desktop analysis & publishing with a bit of SQL & Python to a lot of Bash, SQL, Python & Javascript with Git, JIRA, Bamboo, Docker and a few other tools & platforms that aren’t that well known in geo circles. We’re migrating from Windows to Linux, desktop to cloud, and licensed to open source. It’s both exciting and daunting to be doing it for an $11bn company!

Q: You’ve been working in the GIS industry for twenty years, how has that been?

A: It’s been great to be a part of 20+ years of geospatial evolutions and revolutions, witnessing geospatial going from specialist workstations to being a part of everyday life, accessible on any device. It’s also been exciting watching open source go from niche to mainstream, government data go from locked down to open, and watching proprietary standards being replaced with open ones.

It’s also been frustrating at times being part of an industry that has a broad definition, no defined start or end (“GIS is everywhere!”), and limited external recognition. In Australia we further muddy the waters by having university degrees and industry bodies that fuse land surveying and spatial sciences into a curious marriage of similar but sometimes opposing needs. Between the limited recognition of surveying as a profession and of geospatial being a separate stream within the IT industry, it’s no real surprise that our work remains a niche that needs to be constantly explained, even though what we do is fundamental to society. In the last 5 years we’ve tried to improve that through GeoRabble, creating a casual forum for anyone to share their story about location, regardless of their background or experience. We’ve made some good progress: almost 60 pub meetups in 8 cities across 3 countries (AU, NZ & SA), with 350 presentations and 4,500 attendees.

Q: How do you work in one industry for twenty years and keep innovating? Any tips on avoiding cynicism and keeping up with the trends?

A: It’s a cliche, but innovation is a mindset. Keep asking yourself and those around you two questions: Why? and Why Not? Asking why? will help you improve things by questioning the status quo or understanding a problem better, and getting focussed on how to fix or improve it. Saying why not? either gives you a reality check or lets you go exploring, researching and finding better ways of doing things to create new solutions.

Similarly, I try to beat cynicism by being curious, accepting that learning has no destination, and knowing there is information out there somewhere that can help fix the problem. Go back 15-20 years — it was easy to be cynical. If your chosen tool didn’t work the way you wanted it to, you either had to park the problem or come up with a preposterous workaround. Nowadays, you’ve got no real excuse if you put in the time to explore. There’s open source, GitHub and StackExchange to help you plough through the problem. Here’s one of our case studies as an example: desktop brand X takes 45 mins to tag several million points with a boundary id. Unsatisfied, we make the effort to learn Python, PostGIS and parallel processing through blogs, posts and online documentation. Now you’re cooking with gas in 45 seconds, not 45 minutes.

Another way to beat cynicism is to accept that things will change, and they will change faster than you want them to. They will leave you with yesterday’s architecture or process and you will be left with a choice to take the easy road and build up design debt into your systems (which will cost you at some point), or you take the hard road and learn as you go to future-proof the things you’re responsible for.

Q: What are some disruptive technologies that are on your watch list?

A: Autonomous vehicles are the big disruptor in insurance. KPMG estimate the motor insurance market will shrink by 60% in the next 25 years due to a reduction in crashes. How do we offset this loss of profitable income? By getting better at analysing our customers and their other assets, especially homes. Enter geospatial to start answering complicated questions like “how much damage will the neighbour’s house do to our insured’s house during a storm?”

The Internet of Things is also going to shake things up in insurance. Your doorbell can now photograph would-be burglars or detect hail. Your home weather sensor can alert you to damaging winds. Now imagine hundreds of thousands of these sensors in each city — imagine tracking burglars from house to house, or watching a storm hit a city, one neighbourhood at a time. Real-time, location-based sensor nets are going to change the way we protect our homes and how insurers respond in a time in crisis. Not to mention 100,000+ weather sensors could radically improve our ability to predict weather-related disasters. It’s not surprising IBM bought The Weather Channel’s online and B2B services arm last year, as they have one of the best crowdsourced weather services.

UAVs are also going to shake things up. We first used them last Christmas after a severe bushfire (wildfire) hit the Victorian coast. Due to asbestos contamination, the burnt out area was sealed off. Using UAVs to capture the damage was the only way at the time to give customers who had lost everything some certainty about their future. Jumping to the near future again — Intel brought their 100-drone lightshow to Sydney in early June. Whilst marvelling at a new artform, watching the drones glide and dance in beautiful formations, it dawned on me what autonomous UAVs will be capable of in the next few years — swarms of them capturing entire damaged neighbourhoods just a few hours after a weather event or bushfire has passed.

Q: What is the dirtiest dataset you’ve had to ingest, and what about the cleanest?

A: The thing about working for a large corporation with a 150-year history is your organisation knows how to put the L into legacy systems. We have systems that write 20-30 records for single customer transactions in a non-sequential manner; so you almost need a PhD to determine the current record. There are other systems that write proprietary BLOBs into our databases (seriously, in 2016!). Fortunately, we have a simplification program to clear up a lot of these types of issues.

As far as open data goes — that’d be the historical disaster data we used at GovHack in 2014.  Who knew one small CSV file could cause so much pain. Date fields with a combination of standard and American dates, inconsistent and incoherent disaster classifications, lat/longs with variable precisions.

I don’t know if there is such a thing as a clean dataset. All data requires some wrangling to make it productive, and all large datasets have quirks. G-NAF (Australia’s Geocoded National Address File) is pretty good on the quirk front, but at 31 tables and 39 foreign keys, it’s not exactly ready to roll in its raw form.

Q: You were very quick to release some tools to help people to work with the G-NAF dataset when it was released. What are some other datasets that you’d like to see made open?

A: It can’t be understated how good it was to see G-NAF being made open data. We’re one of the lucky few countries with an open, authoritative, geocoded national address file, thanks to 3 years of continual effort from the federal and state governments.

That said, we have the most piecemeal approach to natural peril data in Australia. Getting a national view of, say, flood risk isn’t possible due to the way the data is created and collected at the local and state government level. I’m obviously biased being in the insurance industry about wanting access to peril data, but having no holistic view of risk, nor having any data to share doesn’t help the federal government serve the community. It’s a far cry from the availability of FEMA’s data in the US.

Q: Uber drivers have robot cars, McDonald’s workers have robot cooks, what are geohipsters going to be replaced with?  

A: Who says we’re going to be replaced? No amount of machine learning could solve a 999999 error!

But if we are going to be replaced — on the data capture front it’ll probably be due to autonomous UAVs and machine learning. Consider aerial camera systems that can capture data at better than 5 cm resolution, but mounted on a winged, autonomous UAV that could fly 10,000s of sq km a day. Bung the data into an omnipotent machine learning feature extractor (like the ones Google et al have kind of got working), and entire 3D models of cities could be built regularly with only a few humans involved.

There’ll still be humans required to produce PDFs… oh sorry, you said what are geohipsters going to be replaced with. There’ll still be humans required to produce Leaflet+D3 web maps for a while before they work out how to automate it. Speaking of automation — one of the benefits of becoming a team of developers is the career future-proofing. If you’re worried about losing your job to automation, become the one writing the automation code!

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

A: Mapbox and CartoDB are two of the most interesting geospatial companies to follow right now. Like Google before them, they’ve built a market right under the noses of the incumbent GIS vendors by focussing on the user and developer experience, not by trying to wedge as many tools or layers as they can into a single map.

In the geocoding and addressing space it’s hard to go past What3Words for ingenuity and for the traction they’ve got in changing how people around the World communicate their location.

In the insurance space, there’s a monumental amount of hot air surrounding Insuretech, but a few startups are starting to get their business models off the ground. Peer to peer and micro insurance are probably the most interesting spaces to watch. Companies like Friendsurance and Trov are starting to make headway here.

Q: And finally, what do you do in your free time that makes you a geohipster?

A: The other day I took my son to football (soccer) training. I sat on the sideline tinkering with a Leaflet+Python+PostGIS spatio-temporal predictive analytical map that a colleague and I put together the weekend prior for an emergency services hackathon. Apart from being a bad parent for not watching my son, I felt I’d achieved geohipster certification with that effort.

How a geohipster watches football (soccer) practice
How a geohipster watches football (soccer) practice

In all seriousness, being a geohipster is about adapting geospatial technology & trying something new to create something useful, something useless, something different. It’s what I love doing in my spare time. It’s my few hours a night to be as creative as I can be.