My favorite picture of myself and my son. I’m the old, scruffy one.
“I was born, which came as a bit of a shock but I rallied quickly. I survived childhood, which is hardly surprising considering the time period during which this occurred. I also survived adolescence, which surprised the hell out of everyone who knew me back then. I attended college twice – once when I was too young to properly appreciate it, and once when I was old enough to know better. I have two degrees, neither of which gets much use these days. I have had a plethora of jobs but really only one career. Truth is I’m interested in pretty much everything, which doesn’t really pay very well. I am married to a long-suffering, saint of a woman who honestly deserves much better. We have the perfect child. In my life all things map related take the form of a hobby, albeit a surprisingly persistent one. I have only gotten paid to be a Map Dork once (twice if you count the time a local brewery gave me a case of beer for a map showing where their beer could be found). I haven’t yet died.”
Q: Please tell us about your background. How did you end up working with GIS? I am an archaeologist by training and education. While still in college, I took a class called ‘Computer Mapping’, which had the lot of us create a road atlas using MapInfo 5.0. I immediately saw the usefulness of GIS applied to archaeology, so over the course of the following Summer I contacted ESRI and secured myself a copy of ArcView 3.2 (back then ESRI gave students substantial discounts). The rest is archaeology (with a little bit of history and GIS thrown in).
Q: What do you think has been the most promising recent (within the last three years) development in GIS? What do you think is the most concerning?
To be honest, I don’t have an answer for this one. I’ve been out of the loop for some time now. It’s not that GIS no longer fits into my life (it does), it’s just that I no longer spend any of my time dallying on the bleeding edge. These days, when I play with maps I want tools that just work. Being at the forefront of any tech requires more troubleshooting than I’m willing to engage in at the moment.
Q: What does your typical work day look like and how do you typically use GIS in your work?
I was going to answer this with an apologetic explanation about how I pretty much don’t really use GIS any more. But then yesterday I began work on a banner graphic for my campaign page for my city council run. There is a landmark atop a ridge in our town: Poet’s Seat Tower (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poet%27s_Seat_Tower). I thought a profile view of the ridge and tower would make a nice banner graphic. While normal humans would probably just open up Photoshop and whip up something nice, the Map Dork in me stirred grumpily and insisted I do things differently. So I downloaded some elevation data and used QGIS to convert it into a DEM. I then downloaded a model of the tower from 3D Warehouse (luckily, the model in question was one I did myself years ago, so no recompense or attribution is needed), packed both the DEM and the model into a 3D modelling program (Bryce, in this particular instance), then exported a nice profile view using a distance mask for easy conversion to color. Now I just have to add a little color and I’ll be in business.
Q: Not surprisingly, you have written about your use of historical maps in the past. You have also occasionally written about techniques to produce historical-looking maps with modern GIS tools. What are some of the maps that have influenced you? What about cartographers?
I cannot point directly at any particular maps or cartographers – I love them all. And what I love most about old maps is the ease with which they (usually) can be interpreted. I am referring here to their relative lack of keys/legends. One glance at an old map and you can immediately pick out and identify features. Mountains, forests (many even differentiate between coniferous and deciduous forests), towns, wetlands. Modern maps are not good about this (although some meaningful progress has been made). I think it’s because modern maps are often trying too hard to be too many different things at once. One of the things I love so much about the GeoHipster calendar is that it usually showcases maps that deftly avoid this trap. Maps that instead focus on providing concise, easily interpreted information on a given subject as it applies to a given landscape. When done correctly (as they usually are) these maps are truly beautiful.
Q: Do you have any maps displayed in your home? If so, what are they?
We have three maps on display in our home. One is a stylized isometric map of Manhattan. Another is a subway map of the valley where we live (although this valley does not, in fact, have any subways). Lastly, we have a cloth map of Italy which identifies regions according to the wines and cheeses produced there. Because wine. And cheese.
Q: Despite your public break with social media, your recently joined Facebook. (I will admit that I almost contacted you first to tell you an account had been hacked.) What prompted you to do this now?
Truth is, I’ve been toying with the idea of joining Facebook for some time now. It seems to have an exclusive lock on local news around these parts. Is the town pool open? Did they change the venue for that Human Rights Commision meeting? Is the protest on the town common still being held despite the rain? The answers to these and a host of other hyper-local questions can only be found on Facebook.
What finally made me take the plunge, though, was my decision to run for local office (relax – it’s just the city council). On the local level, running for office is virtually impossible without a Facebook presence.
Q: In what ways do you think the pervasiveness of Facebook benefits local politics and in what ways might it be a detriment?
I think Facebook’s usefulness to local politics lies in communication. Despite all its shortcomings (which are legion), FB is a decent vehicle for interpersonal communication. It allows for community-driven rules, which is an absolute necessity for civil discourse (don’t take my word for it – just look at Twitter if you want to see what happens to communication when there are no rules). As far as I can tell, the major detriment FB poses to local politics lies in participants being haunted by their past. Luckily, this does not (yet) affect me, since I only took the plunge when I decided to enter into the local political scene. So my profile isn’t already full of embarrassing photos of my sordid past.
Q: What prompted you to run for office and what are you hoping to accomplish? How do you think your background in geography informs or affects your campaign or your positions on issues?
There is a portrait of my grandfather (August) that hangs on the wall in our stairwell. August was born in Germany in the year 1900. He had a highly refined sense of duty, so when his native land went to war August was quick to enlist in the navy. He survived The Great War and returned home to Germany, where he married his sweetheart, Mary.
In time the Nazis came to power in Germany, and one day they knocked on August’s door and ‘requested’ that he enlist in their navy. August refused, so the Nazis took him away and threw him in jail on imaginary charges. They released August after a day or so, since what they really wanted was more soldiers for their wartime ambitions. A short time later another knock came at the door, followed by another ‘request’, another refusal, more jailtime.
This routine repeated itself a total of nine times. August was fairly certain he wouldn’t survive a tenth repetition, so he and my grandmother grabbed whatever they could carry and fled for their lives. They made their way to upstate New York, where they quickly settled down to raise a family. Their third and last child was my mother, Ruth.
It turned out the Nazis did indeed return for August a tenth time. In his absence they instead arrested his brother, Karl, either by mistake or out of sheer bloody-mindedness. Karl died in a concentration camp.
When the United States entered into World War II, August immediately enlisted in the American navy. He was an intensely patriotic man and when his adopted country needed him he did not question or hesitate. When the United States later became embroiled in a conflict in Korea, August volunteered yet again. My grandfather believed in obligation and duty and he was fiercely loyal to the country that took him in when his native land betrayed him.
I walk by that portrait of my grandfather repeatedly every day. I usually smile and/or nod a greeting, grateful for the level of comfort my family enjoys thanks to the sacrifices August’s generation made on our behalf. Lately, though, passing by my grandfather’s portrait has become a rather more thoughtful process. I am fully cognizant of the current state of our nation and the world and I am, of course, concerned. I do not fear overmuch for my immediate family – we are middle-class white people deep in the heart of Liberal America – but I am nonetheless concerned. It’s not that we have nothing to fear – we just have less to fear than pretty much every other demographic in America. Which makes me think about personal duty and whether my privilege obligates me to do more than I have been.
Nowadays, encountering my grandfather’s portrait gives me pause. I watch the news and I see what’s going on and when I walk by August’s portrait I hear his voice ask: “So what are you doing about it?”
Frankly, I don’t have a satisfactory answer. For most of my life I have felt that voting constituted a sufficient level of personal participation in our participatory democracy. But a one-word answer no longer seems adequate when responding to my grandfather’s spirit. And trying to convince myself that participation in social media constitutes a meaningful contribution falls well short.
And so I find myself feeling honorbound to roll up my sleeves and wade into the rising waters of America’s current mess and do my part for the cleanup detail. And the best and most immediate way I can think to do this is to get involved in local politics.
Q: What do you do for fun?
Hang around with my kid.
Q: What does the term “geohipster” mean to you and do you consider yourself one? Feel free to respond with all of the irony you can muster.
To me, ‘geohipster’ describes a person who has a deep-seated love of GIS, but mainly just wants to use it to locate the nearest cup of pumpkin spice latte. Oftimes bearded – and always partial to flannel – geohipsters are the standard bearers for modern GIS. Let’s be honest here – the overwhelming majority of the population only use GIS as a tool to find their way to food, coffee, and beer (not necessarily in that order). Geohipsters are especially well suited to provide just such services.
I myself am not a geohipster. In fact, I am instead a geohippy. The two are very similar, except geohippies wear tie dye instead of flannel, our facial hair is considerably less well-groomed, and we tend to replace coffee with other – stronger – mind-altering substances. Also, there was a promise of free sex, but that one has yet to materialize and frankly I’m getting a little pissed off about it.
The 2017 GeoHipster calendar is available to order (NOTE:“Starting Month” defaults to the current month at the time of order. Remember to change to January 2017). Thanks to all who submitted maps for the calendar. If your map made it into the calendar, we will send you a complimentary copy (please email your shipping address to firstname.lastname@example.org).
Many thanks to Jonah Adkins and Ralph Straumann for the thought and effort they put into this year’s design. Also, special thanks to Mapbox for their continued support in helping to make the calendar possible.
Happy GIS Day! We couldn’t think of a better way for GeoHipster to celebrate GIS Day than to announce the selections for the 2017 GeoHipster calendar. Every year has yielded fantastic work and this year was no exception.
This was the first year we had a student track and we got two submissions. To help us work through the remaining submissions, we enlisted the help of three guest reviewers. This was a way to ensure that the process included fresh perspectives in addition to those of the members of the advisory board. So, we’d like to take time to thank Gretchen Peterson, Terence Stigers, and Brian Timoney for lending their professional and creative expertise to the review process.
Thanks also Jonah Adkins and Ralph Straumann, who acted as this year’s design team. I think you’ll be impressed when the calendar comes available. Speaking of that, we expect the calendar to be ready for purchase before Thanksgiving. Keep an eye out for an announcement!
So, without further delay, here are the cartographers whose work was selected for the 2017 GeoHipster calendar:
Michele Tobias – NASA Moon Trees
Mark Brown – Photorealistic Terrain Model from UAV Photogrammetry
Philip Steenkamp (student) – Netherlands Deltawerken
Damian Spangrud – Redefining Tornado Alley
Johann & Juernjakob Dugge – Raised Relief of Mount St. Helens
Ralph Straumann – Boston Summer Farmers’ Markets Walkability
Langdon Sanders – Sandy Springs, Georgia Sidewalk Network
Nathaniel Jeffrey – Melbourne, Australia Suburban Frontier
Alison DeGraff – Historic Hurricane Tracks
Alex Hersfeldt (student) – The Unified Republic of Tangland
Jan-Willem van Aalst – Amsterdam Canals from Open Data
Andrew Nelson – Visualization of Multi-Beam Bathymetric Survey Data
As you can see, the topics were wide-ranging; demonstrating the versatility of maps and imagination of cartographers. As for the maps themselves…you have to wait for your calendar to arrive in the mail!
Congratulations to all whose work was selected. Thanks to everyone who submitted. All will be featured on the GeoHipster web site.
CEO, United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation
*Member of the Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Advisory Committee on Commercial Remote Sensing
*Member of the Department of Interior’s National Geospatial Advisory Committee
*Councilor of the American Geographical Society
Q: Thank you for agreeing to talk with GeoHipster. Let’s start by discussing your background. Please tell us about your educational background and your overall experience in the geospatial field.
A: I have a BA in Political Science from Gettysburg College, and that liberal arts education gave me an appreciation for the integrated nature of physical geography, political geography, and human geography. I was first thrust into the world of imagery and geospatial when I was selected to command a unit at Fort Bragg, NC supporting XVIII Airborne Corps responsible for ingesting, analyzing, and transmitting imagery and electronic intelligence from “national assets” down to tactical forces. It was a remarkably sharp learning curve, especially the technical pieces of how the national imagery and signals intelligence systems worked, and the broad range of skills my soldiers needed to know to succeed at their missions. The XVIII Corps topographic engineers depended on us for source material, and I successfully fought a bureaucratic battle for them to be co-located with us, inside our classified facility. So, as far back in 1994, I had religion regarding the powerful synergy between imagery and geospatial information. I’ve carried that on through successive positions on the Army Staff, at NIMA, and later NGA.
Q: Please explain the role of the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF). Why was it formed? What are some of its significant accomplishments? What benefits does it hope to achieve for the geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) community and the wider geospatial community?
A: USGIF was created in January 2004, shortly after NIMA was morphed into NGA. The USGIF founders very deliberately determined that they would create a 501(c)(3) educational nonprofit foundation, as opposed to a trade association. So, from its inception, the Foundation was focused on supporting GEOINT education, training, and tradecraft. By sitting at the intersection of industry, government, the military, and academia, USGIF was, and remains, uniquely positioned to support the development of the (then-new) discipline. We have remained steadfastly focused on our tagline: Build the Community | Advance the Tradecraft | Accelerate Innovation. We’ve doubled the size of our corporate and institutional membership over the last 8 years to just about 250. We recently launched an individual membership program and are on pace to welcome our 1,000th member in early 2016. After next year’s scholarship cycle, we will have awarded over $1M to students studying in the field. We have accredited 12 (soon to be 15) colleges and universities to grant GEOINT Certificates, and over 500 students have earned them to date. We are working on individual professional certification, under a cooperative research and development agreement with NGA, and in coordination with a number of organizational and corporate partners. Our volunteer-led working groups coalesce around ideas to encourage discourse, debate, and discovery. Finally, we maintain our place as the convening authority for GEOINT and related discussions by producing a number of events and programs, large and small, including the largest gathering of GEOINT professionals in the world, our annual GEOINT Symposium, which last year drew about 5,500 total attendees and 300 exhibits. We see a bright future, where GEOINT has transcended its national security roots, expanding beyond governments to multiple industry sectors. This will only increase the demand for educated, trained, and certified GEOINT professionals, and USGIF is poised to lead the way to meet that demand.
Q: Please describe a typical workday for the CEO of the USGIF.
A: I’m sort of hesitant to answer this question because I think I have one of the best jobs in our field, and I don’t want to inadvertently encourage anyone to try to unseat me. On any given day, I can be found lecturing on a campus and meeting the faculty and students in one of our accredited programs; meeting with senior national security leadership; “petting” a satellite in a factory; trying out new open source software; hosting one of our events or programs; having lunch with an executive from one of our member companies; engaged in a discussion with one of our working groups, or hanging out with the USGIF team at our offices by Dulles Airport. I subscribe to ‘management by walking around.’ I find it’s a great way to get to know our team, understand their individual concerns, and to feel the pulse of the organization. And, of course, to procrastinate.
Q: I’ll ask a question that we typically save for the end of an interview: What does the term “geohipster” mean to you?
A: The term conveys to me the idea of people who creatively challenge the status quo and who speak truth to power. They don’t conform to traditional norms, and uniquely express themselves across myriad mediums. Geohipsters are open to taking personal and collective risk in pursuit of progress, and have a sense of community. They take pride in their skills — their tradecraft — and have a passion for learning and growing. Importantly, I am convicted that this status has nothing to do with age, and while the proportion of younger geohipsters to older is likely skewed towards the former, geohipsters are comprised of people of all shapes, colors, and vintages. Finally, there does seem to be some correlation between geohipsters and alcohol.
Q: Based upon your answer to the previous question, what aspects of the geospatial intelligence field do you think are more “geohipster” than people outside of the field would expect?
A: I know that there are change agents at all levels of the traditional GEOINT Community, inside of the national security arena, spanning from the Intelligence Community, to the Department of Defense, to the Department of Homeland Security. We exist in sort of an underground network, operating both inside and outside of the bureaucracy to get things done. We establish and maintain relationships, identify new additions to the herd, and groom and mentor the geohipsters who are coming along with and behind us. I do a lot of mentoring, both because I feel a responsibility to ‘pay it forward’, and because I always emerge from mentoring sessions smarter and more informed. So, in a more direct response to your question, I’d urge geohipsters to resist the temptation to wholesale write off the suits, the seniors, the leaders and managers who seem totally invested in the way things are / have always been. Working among them, often in hiding for their own bureaucratic survival, are people who think differently, who are patiently effecting change, and who are challenging The System. Find them, join them, and be part of creating the future.
Q: You have held senior leadership positions at both NGA and USGIF for over the past ten years. From this vantage point, how has the GEOINT community evolved over the past decade?
A: I think that GEOINT, as one of the intelligence disciplines and now well beyond, has grown up. A few folks gathered to create the idea in 2003. As the shotgun marriage that was the National Imagery & Mapping Agency transmogrified into the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, it was important to think differently about the future, and the change in names represented a very deliberate inflection point. I believe that the fabric that is the GEOINT Community has been woven slowly over the past 12 years, but that the pace of change and the impact of outside forces have accelerated dramatically over the last 24-30 months. For the most part, the most significant innovation taking place in the GEOINT field is in local hotbeds of creativity around the globe. GEOINT, forged in the cleanrooms of the defense and intelligence sectors, has escaped its confines and spread virally. The challenge now for government, industry, and academia is to keep up. Geohipsters will play a critically important role as the glueware to pull all of this together, mashing up traditional approaches with new ones, and blazing new trails.
Q: What are the greatest opportunities you see for GEOINT of the next five to ten years? What significant challenges do you foresee?
A: I recently penned an article for our official magazine, Trajectory, titled The GEOINT Revolution. (Shameless plug: http://www.trajectorymagazine.com/business-and-technology/item/2077-the-geoint-revolution-html) In that article I’ve identified ten technologies which I believe are coming together to create a unique synergy that is taking the idea of GEOINT, born in the national security context, and propelling it into the B2B, B2G and consumer space. I think this represents both an incredible opportunity and a huge challenge. How are we going to best share all that we’ve learned in our decade-plus of experience, and in turn, how will we learn from the thousands of bright minds working GEOINT for commercial enterprises and humanitarian relief, and their unbridled, unconstrained engagement with these technologies and data. In my article, I posit that the greatest challenge to the traditional national security GEOINT Community is going to be recruiting, educating, training, and retaining an appropriately skilled workforce to take advantage of the revolution which is underway.
Q: As we wrap up 2015, what could GEOINT be doing better and how is the USGIF helping to bring it about?
A: First, I think we ought to pay attention to this GEOINT Revolution that’s underway. Whether or not you agree with all the details in my recent piece, I think we can all agree that there is massive change taking place, and we can either throw ourselves into helping to guide it productively, or we can be dragged along behind it. Additionally, I think there is an old guard who believe that GEOINT is inherently a national security activity. They aren’t comfortable with the viral spread of GEOINT to almost every sector of the economy, nor are they comfortable with the idea that these ‘newbies’ are neither constrained by the approaches we’ve developed, nor burdened with the restrictions that accompany the national security approach to GEOINT. USGIF has a mandate to address all of this, to be at the forefront of integrating all of these discussions, and to ensure that both our academic certification and our professional credentialing efforts are reflective of this new reality.
Q: You mentioned that there will soon be 15 colleges and universities accredited to grant GEOINT certificates. What is the breakdown of those institutions between four-year schools and community colleges? How do community colleges figure into the USGIF educational outreach strategy?
A: At the moment, all of those schools are (at least) four-year schools. The bulk of the GEOINT Certificate programs are at the graduate level, with two notable exceptions being West Point and the Air Force Academy. We are very excited to have done some initial work with Northern Virginia Community College and the NSF-funded GeoTech Center run out of Jefferson Community and Technical College in Kentucky to embark upon a community college program. I’m confident that we’ll ultimately develop a meaningful credential based on the community college model.
Q: The impacts of sequestration on the intelligence community have been well-documented. What unexpected or surprising positives, if any, have you seen in the GEOINT community as a result of sequestration? Assuming sequestration comes to an end, how do you see these positives informing GEOINT going forward?
A: Going back to the roots of sequestration, the original intent was to have it be so gruesome and objectionable that it would force the polarized Congress to come to some sort of compromise to avoid it. When that didn’t work, and it hit, and the world didn’t cease to exist, it suddenly became acceptable. But it’s incredibly insidious by its very nature. I was on the Army Staff during the late 1990s as we sought to realize a peace dividend at the end of the Cold War. We were able to rationally plan a massive drawdown, strategically managing people and equipment and bases/camps/stations. It wasn’t perfect, but there was discretion allowed for how each service would walk itself back. Sequestration, especially initially, allowed for no such discretion, forcing salami-sliced cuts across every program. Imagine if I told you to cut your household budget by 10% — but that you couldn’t do it by simply getting rid of cable TV, or buying fewer groceries – rather that you had to cut 10% off your mortgage, your car payment, your cable bill, your groceries, your power bill, etc. It would be ridiculous, but that’s what sequestration forced on our government — and the national security GEOINT Community. As for positives, I’m sure that some fat was trimmed and some efficiencies were realized. Sequestration is a nonsensical way to do business, and the myriad negative impacts will be felt for years to come.
Q: It’s been interesting to see open-source projects such as Hootenanny released from the traditionally-cloistered world of GEOINT. Does this signal a culture shift and, if so, how much more can we expect to see?
A: I absolutely love the efforts of NGA to open up and to lead the way for transparency in the Intelligence Community. Edward Snowden, while a traitor who sold out our country and did unspeakable damage to the collective safety of the American people and our allies, did force a long-needed, difficult conversation regarding balancing privacy and security. I believe that NGA is on an unwavering path to opening up to the maximum extent practicable, creating trust and confidence in the American people, and delivering more value to a broader set of users. This is important for the privacy/security issue, but also because it signals that NGA recognizes the tremendous shift that’s underway, and appreciates that it has to be ‘all in’ if it wants to continue to be viable. I see leaders across academia, government, and industry who recognize what’s happening and who fully support the culture shift required to maintain relevance.
Q: In the wake of 9/11, security concerns caused a significant contraction in the availability of government-produced geospatial data sets that had previously been freely available. In recent years, that trend has been reversing with the push for open data across government. For example, the State of Maryland has legislated all of its data open by default. What role does the USGIF play in this issue and what do you see as a “happy medium” that accounts for appropriate security while also ensuring open government and public access to data?
A: I think this goes to the larger idea of the new global transparency. The hyper-availability of remote sensing and the ability to crowdsource massive open geospatial datasets has changed the game forever. Should sensitive critical infrastructure information (and other select datasets) remain protected? I think that’s a matter of common sense, but I think that this new transparency demands that geospatial data be open by definition, and protected by exception. There were kneejerk reactions on multiple fronts after 9/11, and this is just one example. Additionally, governments won’t necessarily be the producers or owners of the authoritative data. The GEOINT Revolution incentivizes business of all types to integrate imagery and geospatial data, and to conduct analytics with it in order to gain a competitive advantage. Multinational corporations are better positioned financially in many cases to invest in creating these data than most governments. USGIF’s role is to be the convening authority for discussions around this topic. Our Geospatial and Remote Sensing Law and Policy Working Group, for instance, is trying to sort out frameworks for dealing with this new technology, data, and information.
Q: The GEOINT field is known for its heavy reliance on single-source, highly curated data sets (often termed “authoritative”). How are crowd-sourced data sets being leveraged and do you see their role increasing?
A: I discovered this very early on during my first gig at the (then) National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA, now NGA). I referred to it as the “sanctity of the seal.” This reverence for exacting quality control of highly curated data was a source of great pride. If the NIMA seal was on a product, you could — and often had to — bet your life on it. And, to be sure, when it was produced, based off the data that was available, it was superbly accurate. The lag time for that production was sometimes measured in decades due to the standing requirement for NIMA to cover (almost) the entire globe. As a former Army Infantryman, I would challenge the mappers. I’d ask about the ability, in the digital age, to have a special ops team enter a notation into the (rapidly aging) authoritative database that a certain bridge in Afghanistan was no longer intact. The digital pedigree could be noted for all the other users, allowing them to make their own call about the veracity of that entry. For instance, rather snobbishly, I might be more inclined to believe the notation of that special operations unit, over say, a water purification unit. So, moving from the sanctity of the seal — still very much alive, especially in the world of aero and maritime safety of navigation — to a world in which crowd-sourced data are integrated into the larger whole is no small cultural shift. It is happening, and it will be more accepted as time passes. However, we must remember the differing nature of how these data are used. If your crowd-sourced map gets you and your wife to the wrong end of the block for a holiday party, you shrug your shoulders and adjust. If a vertical obstruction is improperly noted, a military aircraft is destroyed and its crew perishes. If a Marine unit evacuating an embassy has improper routing to an extraction point, they and their Department of State colleagues perish. I’m not suggesting that crowd-sourced data and information doesn’t have an important place in national security GEOINT, just that the stakes are a little bit higher, and we’ve got to figure out how to raise the confidence level to meet a very high bar.
Q: Somewhere, a geospatial analyst is going about her daily tasks as part of her job in a municipal or state government. For what tools does she have GEOINT to thank?
A: First of all, she’s probably incorporating overhead imagery, from space and/or from aircraft in her work. The technology on those spacecraft and aircraft and those sensors can trace back their heritage to national security efforts. She’s probably used Google Earth at some point, and it was created with the investment of Intelligence Community monies in a company called Keyhole, prior to its acquisition by Google in about 2004. Further, the digital elevation model in Google Earth is built on Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) data, collected in 2000 during an 11-day mission by the Endeavour shuttle. That mission was supported by investments from NASA, NGA, the Army, and some international partners. The subsequent processing, storage, and distribution of the data were managed by NGA, working with NASA. Regardless of what GIS package she is using, it has almost assuredly benefitted from engagement with the GEOINT community over time. Finally, increasingly, her education and/or training may be have been related to GEOINT-based curricula, and this will continue to increase in the future. From my perspective, she’s a GEOINTer, whether she knows it or not!
Q: What do you do for fun when you are not at work?
A: My wife and I have five children, ranging in age from 13 to 22. Parenting is a large part of what I do when I’m not at work, and (most of the time) it’s a blast. I was listening to a radio show on a late night drive many years ago, and a guest said that you could identify what was important in your life by identifying a succinct epitaph for yourself. Without a pause, I knew that I would want it to be: “He was a great father.” In addition to that, I am a certified soccer referee and love the game of soccer, having played myself, and having coached all of my children over time. I used to really enjoy relaxing and watching NFL football on Sundays (and Mondays…and Thursdays…), but then my sons got me into fantasy football, and now Sundays during the NFL season are stress-filled days of watching every game at once on NFL Red Zone, eyes darting from my phone to the screen, leaving me utterly exhausted every Sunday evening.
Q: Which teams in each kind of football do you root for?
A: We only had one TV initially when I was growing up in New York, and my father was a diehard Mets fan (having been a baseball Giants fan, he was obliged to despise the Yankees). His baseball commitment interfered with shows I wanted to watch. So, he felt if I became a baseball fan, I wouldn’t feel as aggrieved. Being fair-minded, he named all the baseball teams. I thought Pirates sounded cool, so I chose them. I extended this to the Steelers. As it turns out, the decade of the 70’s wasn’t a terrible time to be rooting for the Pirates and Steelers: Two World Series wins and four Super Bowl wins. They’ve been my teams ever since. As for the “real” football, I am a NY Red Bulls fan and a Borussia Dortmund fan. For the record, and geo-related, I think it’s important to note that it is my position that the Red Bulls, Giants, and Jets all play in New Jersey (where I now reside), and thus New York’s only NFL team is the Bills, and their soccer team is the newly born NYCFC.
Q: What recent books would you recommend for the budding geospatial professional?
A: As a political science guy, I think it’s really important that budding geospatial professionals fully embrace human geography and political geography as totally integral to what they do. I simply can’t fathom someone working in our business who has no appreciation for those particular layers. I would also think that almost by definition, up-and-coming geohipsters would be motivated to understand the global context for their work. Another theme that I stress to junior professionals is the importance of networking. A couple of books that immediately come to mind:
A: Many years (and pounds) ago, I was often told I resembled Harold Ramis who of course played Dr. Egon Spengler. However, my rather sarcastic bent puts me more in the Dr. Peter Venkman category. I’ve had many Venkman moments in my career. Memorably, I was responsible for the global tasking of our imaging “spy satellites” as an NGA senior, so I represented the user community as we worked through critical decisions regarding spacecraft anomalies with engineers from the National Reconnaissance Office (which is responsible for buying, launching, and flying the systems). Early on in my tenure in this position, I had neither a full appreciation for the gravity of these situations, nor any clue about the technical aspects of spacecraft or sensor engineering. So, when it came time to make a decision, and it was my turn to speak, to break up the tension in the room, I’d pull from old movie lines and say things like “just make sure not to cross the streams…it would be bad” or “maybe it’s a stuck Fetzer valve.” No one laughed, so I sort of stopped saying that stuff out loud.
Q: Do you have any parting thoughts for our readers?
A: As I often like to say, the hallmark of my middling career to date is the credo that it’s better to be lucky than good. If you find yourself as an educated, trained, practicing geohipster in 2015, you’ve hit the jackpot. It’s game on, the GEOINT Revolution is underway, and you skated to where the puck was going to be. Pounce now, while the window of opportunity is wide open and your skills are in huge demand. Finally, pay it forward. You are where you are because someone extended you a hand along the way — a teacher, a colleague, a mentor, a boss. It’s your obligation to do so for others.
Lakshmanan (@iamlaksh1) is a domain consultant, GIS enthusiast, developer, and a blogger.
Q: Thank you for agreeing to talk with GeoHipster. Let’s start by discussing your background. Please tell us about the region of India from which you come. Would you also discuss your educational background and your overall experience in the GIS field?
A: First of all thank you very much for giving me this opportunity. I am really excited and happy to connect with GeoHipster. I come from the Southern part of India — State of Tamil Nadu. I did my graduation in Civil Engineering and Masters in Transportation Engineering. I have more than 10 years of experience in spatial software development and domain consulting in Energy industry. Most of my experience is with Esri products, Microsoft technologies, and some bit of open source. I’m still a learner and GIS enthusiast.
I’ve started my career as a researcher in one of the premier technical institute in India (IIT Madras). I have developed a desktop GIS application which tracks vehicle information feed from GPS. We have conducted different experiments, published papers in international journals and conferences. Thereafter I was working in IT industry on various roles (as a developer, technology lead and consultant) in geospatial technology.
Q: Would you mind telling us about your current work?
A: Currently, I work for one of the top IT firms based out of India, and my client is a large Energy major. I play the role of Geospatial Analyst/Domain consultant, and take care of their ArcGIS Portal and custom JS applications along with data management. These days in addition to Geomatics, I do work with lot of other E&P (Exploration and Production) products and tools. Everyday I do different tasks — writing Python code, database activities, upgrading ArcGIS infrastructure, creating reports or preparing road map etc.
Q: What first drew you to software development and GIS? What challenges do you find most exciting today?
A: I learnt BASIC and FoxPro during school days. I am always interested to work in computers and programs. Hence I decided to make a career in the IT industry. As part of the curriculum (in Civil Engineering), I needed to do thesis, when most of my friends decided to design a building or water tank or do some field experiment, I chose GIS. I started working in GIS (in year 2001). I started with ArcView 3.1 (Avenue scripting). Working with shapefiles and preparing thematic maps and charts was so fun. It was a wonderful project and got a good grade too. I decided to stay in GIS.
I have been working in GIS for close to 13 years, challenges are many, solving complex spatial problems; projections; integration between systems, enterprise data management, automations, etc.
Q: When I first started blogging in 2006, your blog was one of the first I found. You may not know this, but the format of your blog was an influence on mine in that you blogged about concrete, useful solutions to technical issues. I realized I wanted to strike the same tone. You have since moved on from blogging and I am curious how valuable a resource you find blogs and social media to be today? How, if at all, do you use them in your daily work?
A: Thanks for your appreciation. I’m not moved from the blog because I was lazy to be honest.
I have plan to convert my blog to my own website near soon. This is in my To-do list in 2016.
One fine day, I decided to start the blog on my own. Initially I don’t know what to write and how. I decided to share my day to day technical challenges and solutions. I read a lot those days (even now); in addition to Esri forums, I started posting solutions to technical problems and tutorials on my blog. A lot of people liked this and many students, professionals connected with me through the blog. Blogging has opened new doors to me. I have connected with many professionals and fellow developers across the globe.
I receive at least one email per day on career guidance or technical problems. Several people appreciated me via emails, phone calls, and in person. I treasure appreciation from Jim Barry of Esri on my blog, and your appreciations and feedback.
I still believe individual blogs and technical forums were main source for learning new things or finding tips to solve any technical issue. GeoDev meetups, online events and organization level meetings were other sources for learning and development.
I like Twitter these days, where we can get an all updates/news in a quick glance.
Q: How has the GIS industry changed since you began your career? Which changes have had the most impact on you? What advice would you give to a young person entering the GIS industry today?
Q: As someone who has implemented geospatial systems for a long time, what recent developments in the geospatial industry have you most excited? How do you hope to integrate them into your current work?
A: Few weeks before, I was in meeting — where one of Esri product manager participated, we were discussing about Hadoop and tools for big data processing. In energy industry, there is so much heavy weight data that needs to be processed quickly for taking a decision in a timely manner. This is one of interesting areas which I would like to work on.
Q: What do you like to do in your free time?
A: During weekends, I will play cricket with my friends. My kid occupies most of my time these days. I read a lot via Facebook and Twitter feeds. I’m preparing for some technical certifications too.
Q: Complete this sentence: If I were Jack Dangermond for a day, I would…
A: Be more open (now they have started) to users unlike standard support process. I’ll make sure to simplify the licensing terms (especially credits) and costs.
Q: What does the term “geohipster” mean to you? Based on that response, what is the most geohipster thing you’ve done?
A: Geohipster means something new or different. Individuality I would say. Crafting their own future. In one of client presentation — I coined a term “#We Map your success”, it was well received and appreciated. My mind automatically converts any object into point/line/polygon. When my wife texts me “Where are you?”, I usually respond with coordinates 🙂
We would have loved to have simply used all of the maps we received, but Pope Gregory XIII gave us a calendar that only had room for twelve. So we are happy to announce the authors whose work you will be seeing throughout 2016 (in no particular order): Meg Miller, Asger Petersen, Jacqueline Kovarik, Terence Stigers, Katie Kowalsky, Rosemary Wardley, Ralph Straumann, Gretchen Peterson, Jonah Adkins, Stephen Smith, Mario Nowak, and Andrew Zolnai. Congratulations to each of you, and thank you for your support of GeoHipster and your dedication to the craft of mapmaking.
GeoHipster has adopted a mission of exploring the state of the geospatial industry from the eyes of those working in it, and the response from the community has been humbling. Part of that mission is celebrating the great work and creativity resident in the community. As part of that celebration, GeoHipster will be publishing a feature on each map throughout 2016 so our readers can learn a bit more about how and why each map was created. We will be doing this not only for the 12 maps selected for the calendar, but for all of the maps submitted this year, in recognition of the support and creativity shown by all who participated. We are excited to expand GeoHipster to include the art of our community.
Finally, we’d like to give a shout out to Mapbox for their continued support of GeoHipster’s independent content, this time by sponsoring the 2016 calendar. Their support will help expand the types of content we offer next year, including reprising the “young professionals” showcase of up-and-coming talent that was debuted this month.
The calendar is currently being designed, and will be ready to order by the US Thanksgiving holiday. It makes a great gift, and is a super way to answer the inevitable question we all field from our family during the holidays: “So what is it that you do?”
Abdishakur Hassan is GIS Officer at UN-Habitat Somalia Programme in Mogadishu. He returned back to his home country to work and take part in rebuilding the nation. He is a survivor of Black Hawk Down as a child.
Interviewer’s note: I did not have a personal connection with Shakur prior to this interview. I noticed a new Twitter follower from Somalia a few months ago, as well as corresponding hits on my blog from Mogadishu. I decided I wanted to know more and contacted Shakur about doing an interview. I’m glad to have gotten to know him and learn more about his work on behalf of the homeland he so clearly loves.
Q: Would you mind sharing a little bit of information about your background, including your education, and any past professional experience?
A: I am from Somalia. I studied Geoinformation Science and Earth observation from ITC, Twente University in the Netherlands. My Geo experience spans over the last four years working with UN-Habitat Somalia Programme as GIS officer. On weekends, I am part time lecturer at Mogadishu University. Before joining UN-Habitat, I briefly worked with NGO consortium based in Mogadishu.
Q: What first attracted you to the geospatial field in general and GIS in particular?
A: I came across GIS while attending Makerere university in Uganda. Later on, scholarship from Erasmus Mundus to study Geoinformation was my stepping stone into the GIS world. It has not been smooth transition from undergraduate degree in Business administration to GIS and remote sensing graduate classes, but ever since, I am in love with GIS and what we can do with it.
Q: Please tell us a little bit about your current work.
A: Well, in general our work involves in Urban planning and Development. We strive in building a better urban future for cities in Somalia. Our GIS projects include Mapping Internal Displaced People (IDPs) camps, Site planning for relocation purposes, Public space mapping, and GIS database creation for property taxation.
Q: Somalia has faced many challenges in recent times. GeoHipster has interviewed others who are active in relief and development activities, but you may be the first we’ve interviewed who is doing so in his own homeland. Please describe what it is like to bring your skills home and apply them to such significant issues.
A: Yes, you are right, Somalia faces many challenges, but we often associate the word Somalia with a lot of negativity. Somalia is getting better each and every day. The economy is recovering and the security is getting better. Over the last four years, the sound of hammer replaced the sound of bullets as new constructions and rebuilding the bullet-ridden homes became widespread.
Thousands of Somali Diaspora have returned home to take part in rebuilding the country. Some have come back with investing millions in the country and creating employment opportunities. Others have returned to contribute to the country with their experience and education by serving the country as ministers, civil servants, educators, and other professional services needed in this country.
Unfortunately, GIS skills are very rare among both Somali diaspora and locals, and I am glad to at least fill that void and spread the Geo skills.
Q: Please describe your typical work day. What tools and datasets do you use most often? What challenges do you face as a GIS practitioner where you are? What are some things that you currently lack that would make your work more effective?
A: A typical day for my job as GIS officer requires on-the-job training to municipal staff, designing Geodatabases and data collection forms, spatial data collection and entry supervision, and managing the whole project from planning to monitoring. And of course staying up-to-date and learning new techniques in the GIS field. Python, Mapbox, QGIS and leaflet are my priority list in this year.
Currently we run ArcGIS Desktop concurrent licences on our server. As the number of licences available are limited, we also make use of QGIS at times in spatial data manipulation processes.
The adoption of GIS in Somalia is at its nascent stages. The UN and INGOs are in the driver’s seat to promote GIS and Remote sensing. UNFPA recently finished Population estimation exercises with the help of GIS. FAO SWALIM collects land and water information across the country. It is worth mentioning also how HOT OSM helped Somalia fight against the 2011 famine by mapping remote areas.
However, in East Africa Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda are applying GIS. It looks promising, especially with the recent increases in mobile usage. Ushahidi is a great example.
Q: What are your personal interests outside of your professional activities?
A: I am passionate of all soccer. I play soccer at my free time.
Q: What position do you prefer to play? What teams do you follow?
A: I prefer playing as midfielder. I am Liverpool fan and ‘You Will Never Walk Alone’ as Liverpool supporter.
Q: What would a first-time visitor to Mogadishu find most surprising? What would challenge their expectations or pre-conceived notions?
A: As Mogadishu has been dubbed as “The most dangerous place”, you might find it surprising that this part of the world is not that much different than your typical city. For Somalis, peaceful weekends in Liido Beach at the heart of Indian ocean and the afternoon stroll around the old parts of the city with its stunning architecture are part of their peaceful life. It might not be that far to open our borders for tourists, but meanwhile ordinary citizens of this city enjoy their lives fully.
Q: The standard GeoHipster interview question: What does the phrase mean to you and are you a geohipster?
A: It is a matter of defining geohipster. If we are talking about functions (mapping out the world, doing cool GIS Analysis and Visualization, following the new GIS trends) not the style, then I am in.
Todd Barr (blog, Tumblr, website) has been bouncing around the Beltway for 16 years, working in the spatial industry for the past 14. He holds an MSc in Geography from the University of Denver, and keeps considering getting another one in BioDefense. When he’s not peeing on Esri’s leg, he can be found either in a park playing Hide and Go Drone with his daughter, or wasting time on the internet. Todd is currently a Spatial SME 2 at Eglobaltech. That being said, all opinions are his own and are not that of his employer. He also secretly wishes he was a hat guy.
Q: You have worked in the government services sector for a long time. What do you see as the greatest challenges or difficulties in that area? What do you see as the greatest opportunities?
A: I really see three major challenges facing the feds:
How limited the use of GIS is. It seems that once it’s “on a map”, it’s good enough. I know it’s a time-and-money thing, but if we could just push it a bit more, and dive deeper into the science and analysis part.
Not enough sharing of data. When I was working with Transportation for the Nation (TFTN) it was amazing to see how much savings would occur with a single, albeit it huge, open data set.
The lack of innovation, or a culture of innovation. This isn’t just in geo, but geo is what I have the best view of. Geoplatform is GOS 2.0, ArcGIS Online for Organizations is just an obfuscated Server and SDE. There are champions out there, but they are too few and too far between.
Case in point: During my time on platform, I was shocked as to how many times Jack would drop by the governing department, especially when we were building two stacks. It was so bad that a stakeholder would hide when Jackie D would drop by.
Opportunities: From a vertical market perspective, Public Health has the greatest opportunity and compatibility with GIS. I really think that if someone pushed the predictive aspect of GIS into the BI of an organization, there would be doors flying open.
Q: You have a passion for emergency management, which you have channeled into a focus of your career. The emergency management field has gotten a lot of attention over the last 15 years in the wake of events such as 9/11, the 2004 hurricane season, Katrina, Haiti, Sandy, and unfortunately many others. What have been the most effective applications of geospatial tools you have seen over that time and in what ways does the geospatial industry still fall short?
A: GIS falls short across the board in all implementations in the field of Emergency Management. Geovisualization does really well. This has been my COP rant for years. Sure — you know where it is, and what is happening — but that just puts you in reactive mode, not proactive mode. With the recent Ebola scare, sure we knew were the cases were, but why weren’t there predictive models being rolled out to help the people “on the ground”? I think that Emergency Managers, and that whole community — even those that think they “get it” — don’t. There aren’t a lot of “geo preparedness models”. They are normally built after the event, not in preparation for.
And Esri doesn’t really do much in the realm of selling the hard-core analysis part of GIS as much as VIPER, or whatever they’re hawking now.
OpenStreetMap — hands down, OpenStreetMap. When the Haitian earthquake hit, I was on a National Guard contract. The difference between the ways this “institution” reacted, and the way the community reacted, was night and day. That first weekend made me an OSM advocate. Sure, it has its issues, but it’s hands down the best spatial platform for response.
Q: In your recent blog post, “Looking for a job as a Geo Silverback,” you allude to “whistleblowing” as one of the factors affecting your employment situation. What led you to take that step and how has it affected you since?
A: Ethics, balance, and being able to sleep at night knowing I did the right thing. Contractors have a bad enough perception as it is, we don’t need to feed into that by actually doing things that reinforce that perception. There are times when contractors are handed contracts on a silver platter, and all they have to do is run a find-and-replace in an RFI from “The Contractor” to “<!–Insert Large Contractor Here–>”. But this wasn’t that, it was an under-the-table slide of inside information. Not something we teased out of the client, or we had better insight into the document than the other competitors. Which, I’m sure, the employer would have. But — and this is the economist in me talking — it fundamentally altered the playing field, giving one actor an unparalleled advantage. Not because of insight, not because they had the best team or the best price, but because they had inside information that no one else was privy to.
The feeling when I read the email made my stomach turn, and watching my coworkers rationalize why it was okay, how “this might not be the final document.” Or that “it was because the client wanted us to win.” It’s the same thinking errors that go into a 15-year-old shoplifting. This is becoming a rant, I’ll stop now.
Tl;dr: I don’t like to compete with people when the field isn’t level.
Q: As a self-proclaimed GeoSilverback, what observations or advice do you have for an undergrad just getting started on a career in geography? Do you think there will be such a thing as a “career in geography” in the coming years?
A: I’m actually working on that blog entry for later this week. Two things here: Own your personal brand — because that’s what you are, you are a product. Jobs come and go, but build your career. Two, 90% of life is just showing up.
As for the future — no, Location Tech/Geospatial is going to be absorbed by the Big Data/Data Scientists tsunami that’s coming. We’ll be specialists within the greater field of Data Crap. Coincidentally, that’s what the DC in Washington DC will stand for in the future.
By the time this is posted I should have the blog entry up, so go there. #shamelessselfpromotion
Q: You have active presence across various social media channels. In fact, it is how we originally connected. Which channel do you find most effective? How has social media benefitted you professionally and in general?
A: The Twitters. I often quote this one line I ran across a while back “Facebook is for people you knew in high school, and on Twitter you meet the people you’re supposed to meet.” I’m sure my Twitter feed would make a personal branding expert drop a deuce in her pants right there, but I don’t like to put on airs. I’m good at what I do, I say “fuck” a lot, and I clean up well.
For three years I tried to figure out where G+ fits into my social media ecosystem. Which is why I stand by my “G+ is the Detroit of social media. Lots of infrastructure, but no one lives there.”
Social media has amplified my professional network by a factor of 4-ish. Increased my knowledge of obscure/non mainstream tech. Point-blank Twitter has made me better at managing the nooks and crannies of my career.
Q: Prior to your life in geo you spent time in comedy. This penchant comes through, for example, in your “Drunken Geographer” Tumblr. Whom do you consider to be your comedic influences? Do you have any future plans with comedy?
A: WC Fields, Groucho Marx, Woody Woodberry, Benny Hill, George Carlin, and Kevin Smith.
Kevin Smith isn’t so much a comedian as a wordsmith with a humorous edge; he also shares my birthday. There you go haters, now you can find out my yahoo mail password.
Growing up where I did, we had to get a special antenna to get the Kansas City stations. There was an independent station — Channel 41 — that would play “Up All Night”. I would sneak up and watch Benny Hill, Groucho, and WC Fields. Fuse them with Carlin, and you can see where my belligerent, filthy, pointing-out-the-clay-feet-of-bullies, direct sense of humor comes from. For whatever reason, I can say things others can’t and generally walk away unscathed, so it’s working for me.
Woody Woodbury was a chance find in my dad’s vinyl collection. My love of him can only be explained through the U Tubes. Someday I will play that at an AA meeting.
I have 3 things that are in the works. Drunken Geographer “The Podcast”: The setup is based on Fat Man on Batman and a couple of other podcasts. I get someone who is “popular” in geo, we sit around, drink, and talk about why we love geography and what we would do with it if we got a grant from a foundation to just “Do Something”. I’m going to lasso Liz Lyon in on this, because when I start going raunchy, she can reel me back. I honestly run all the Tumblr posts past her before they go live. She’s a good gauge for what is too racy. I have no sensor for that.
Also, I have mapped out and written a “choose your own adventure” ArcGIS Desktop story that should be up on drunkengeographer.com.
The second thing, which is ready to go (I’m just looking for a venue), is a one-man show called “Tubing with Fags”. Basically it’s me looking at the end of my marriage, my medical issues, the duke out for custody, and its aftermath. I really think the mental quill and paper, and writing all that stuff down in my memory really got me through.
The third is a collaborative effort with a law dog friend of mine. We both were in Washington Improv Troupe, just at different times. Ed Gein the Musical. I wrote the intro song on her Facebook page during a really boring meeting.
I also have a couple of pop-up comedy things planned, one around GIS Day, and the second one around the Esri FedUC.
Q: I think this is the part of the interview where I ask you about hipsterism, but I can’t bring myself to do that. So, I’ll ask if you have any final thoughts you’d like to share with the GeoHipster readers?
A: Dammit, I had prepped an answer to this one. I’m not a GeoHipster, I’m a Spatial Punk.
Your ideas and dreams aren’t stupid, what if Frederick F. Russell was all like “I just don’t know how much of typhoid fever I should try to cure. What if I look stupid, what if I fail.” WE’D ALL HAVE DIED OF TYPHOID and apes would rule that planet, since typhoid isn’t a species jumper.
Don’t be close-minded, don’t be a zealot for one tech or the other, no one ever has all the answers to a problem, and never trust a bully.