All posts by Alex Leith

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.