All posts by Christina Boggs

Martin Isenburg: “May the FOSS be with LAZ”

Martin Isenburg
Martin Isenburg
Martin Isenburg received his MSc in 1999 from UBC in Vancouver, Canada, and his PhD in 2004 from UNC in Chapel Hill, USA -- both in Computer Science. Currently he is an independent scientist, lecturer, and consultant. Martin has created a popular LiDAR processing software called LAStools that is widely used across industry, government agencies, research labs, and educational institutions. LAStools is the flagship product of rapidlasso GmbH, the company he founded in 2012. Martin's ultimate goal is to combine high-tech remote sensing and organic urban farming in a "laser farm" that promotes green projects as hip and fun activities for the iPad generation.
Martin was interviewed for GeoHipster by Christina Boggs and Randal Hale.

Q: Thanks, Martin, for taking the time to have a chat with GeoHipster! Tell us about your ideas on “Front yard chickens”. Chickens are so awesome. We’ve heard that your chickens were about to be equipped with lasers. How did that go?

A: Happy to talk geospatial chickens. See, in the backyard chickens are a fun way to be green. But put three (not twenty!) in the front yard, and they create green communities. You meet your neighbors (dragged to your fence by their kids), and soon you are bartering eggs for kale because Lori and Dan across the street now have “front yard veggies”. And why lasers? Not for arming or roasting the chickens (common mistake), but for filming them in real-time 3D. Sort of like Radiohead’s video “House of Cards”, but better. A “happy feed” of urban farm bliss to lure folks beyond this neighborhood into green fun. Troubles over “cluster-bombing” the homeland with garden-fresh zucchinis forced me to put this project on hold.

Q: Can you give us an overview of LiDAR and how it works?  

A: Fire a really short burst of laser light, and measure the exact duration until its reflection comes back. That allows you to compute the distance to whatever object was hit. Record the exact position from where and the exact direction in which you fired the laser, and you can calculate the exact position of these hits. Repeat this several hundred thousand times a second with an airborne LiDAR whose laser beam sweeps out the terrain, and you get enough information to model ground, buildings, and vegetation in 3D.

Q: How has LiDAR data storage evolved over the years?

A: The LiDAR points were first stored and exchanged as plain text files: x, y, z, intensity. But ASCII becomes inefficient as a storage format as point numbers go up. Several industry players got together and created a simple binary data exchange format — the LAS format — that was eventually donated to the ASPRS. LAS has become a huge success, and everybody supports it. Nowadays the specification is maintained by the LAS Working Group (LWG) of the ASPRS. That sounds fancy, but is really just a dozen or so email addresses that get cc-ed when an issue is discussed.

Q: You explained that LiDAR data is huge. How much data are we talking about?

A: One LiDAR return — how the hits are called — is typically 28 bytes. An airborne survey with 4 shots per square meter may average 8 LiDAR returns per square meter. For a small area of 100 square kilometers this is over 20 GB of raw LAS. Subsequent processing steps often create multiple copies of this data. Nowadays countries either have, or are going for nation-wide LiDAR coverage. So many terabytes of LiDAR are already out there, and petabytes are going to come.

Q: You developed the compressed LAZ format. Can you give us some background?

A: I spent years of graduate work on compressing polygon meshes, but few people have such data. When I stumbled upon folders of LAS files, I figured having a compressor for these point clouds may actually be useful. I wrote the LASzip prototype mainly to supplement an academic paper, but people found it on my web pages and used it. In 2010 I was asked to release LASzip with an open license to defeat a proprietary format that federal agencies feared would make compressed LiDAR costly. Eventually the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) sponsored the open-sourcing of LASzip.

Q: What is the development process that you use for making changes to the compressed LiDAR format?

A: I am very careful with changes, and try to be as transparent as possible about them. First I seek community input on new features via the “LAS room” and the “LAStools” forums. Once discussed, the new feature is implemented as a prototype for testing. If the prototype proves itself over time, these features are moved into the new release. But maybe the time has come to make LASzip an official standard with a committee overseeing future changes.

Q: The release of LAS 1.4 means new point types. This is a disruption of the LAS format in general. What opportunities does this present for LASzip?

A: I have held back extending LASzip to LAS 1.4. Like you say, the new point types in LAS 1.4 are a “natural break” in the format that offers the opportunity to improve the compressor without creating incompatibilities. An open “call for input” was issued to get feedback on features the community wants to see in the next generation of LASzip.

However, LASzip can already compress LAS 1.4 content. NOAA stepped up to sponsor the “LAS 1.4 compatibility mode” where new point types are re-coded into old ones by storing their new attributes as “extra bytes”. Added bonus: many older software packages can read re-coded LAS 1.4 content without upgrade.

Q: You’ve released a simpler interface to LASzip in 2013. How did that turn out?

A: When Esri came knocking, saying the LASzip code was too complicated, I asked them to sponsor the effort for a simpler DLL. But then I decided to create this DLL without further delay. LAZ was the de-facto LiDAR compression standard, and I wanted to remove any possible hurdle for its adoption. It is disappointing that Esri has still not added LAZ support to ArcGIS. The new DLL was essentially written for them.

Q: Recently Esri announced a variation of the open LAS standard called “Optimized LAS”. Can you describe the changes to how LAS files are supported?

A: The name is rather misleading. “Optimized LAS” is a closed format that compresses the content of a LAS file into a proprietary file. The resulting ‘*.zlas’ files are very similar to the ‘*.laz’ files produced by LASzip, which is why the new Esri format is also known as the “LAZ clone”.

Q: So from your view, how do they stack up?

A: The technical differences between LASzip and “Optimized LAS” are minimal. In terms of compression and speed, the two are almost identical. In terms of features, Esri includes spatial indexing information into the *.zlas files whereas we had been storing it as separate *.lax files. It took just a couple of hours to “upgrade” LASzip to match the feature set of “Optimized LAS” by adding one option for spatial sorting and another option for integrating the spatial index into the file. The argument that Esri could not use LASzip due to missing features is obviously a dud. The “LAZ clone” was created to tie LiDAR folks long-term to the ArcGIS platform.

Esri likes to point out that their format contains point statistic summaries. This is so trivial that any developer could add this in an afternoon. Such summaries are a good idea. I encourage Esri to propose a new “Variable Length Record” for that purpose as an addendum to the LAS specification. This is why they are part of the ASPRS LAS Working Group.

Q: Some readers may have seen this post back in 2014, believing the LASzip controversy was resolved. The post was your April Fools’ Day prank. Why did you do it?

A: I modified LASzip just a few days before April 1st 2014 to feature-match the “LAZ clone”. The triviality of these modifications made it obvious that further technical reasoning with Esri was moot. My last hope was to show Esri management how much applause they would garner from working with the community. So I wrote a prank press release, stating that Esri and rapidlasso were developing a joint compressor. Almost everything in this press release was true, except that Esri had not agreed yet to such cooperation. The response was incredible as the collected comments show…

Q: What are the ramifications of dueling data formats? What’s the point the entire GIS community at large should take home?

A: The instant loser is the user who will have to convert data back and forth. The instant winners are companies that provide data converters. Hey wait, that includes me! 🙂 The long-term loser is the GIS community that will find more and more LiDAR locked to a single platform. The long-term winner is the provider of this platform (or so they hope).

A proprietary format can only be read via the interface the vendor provides. This prevents access to the content on other operating systems or from other programing languages. In contrast, an open format allows unrestricted access to the content. For example, Howard Butler and Uday Verma have created a pure JavaScript version of LASzip that can decompress LAZ inside a web browser. As the saying goes, closed formats go to hell (but open formats go everywhere)… 😉

Q: You just mentioned processing LiDAR in a web browser. Is that a new thing?

A: Yes, plas.io and potree have paved the way for LiDAR in the browser based on JavaScript and WebGL. Now several commercial offerings have emerged. Compression is an even more pressing concern as the data will often come via the web. Having a pure JavaScript decompressor for LAZ allows plugin-free rendering of compressed LiDAR via all modern web browsers, including on mobile devices.

Q: But closed formats cannot be decompressed with JavaScript?

A: Exactly! JavaScript is — by definition — open source. A format cannot compete in the world of plugin-free decompression without providing an open implementation. Plugin-free WebGL rendering of compressed LiDAR in the web browser via JavaScript is a force to be reckoned with. That’s why I like to call them “jediscripts” in the context of this “laser war” with Esri.

Q: The term geohipster is bestowed affectionately. With your urban farming and your front yard chickens, I feel like using Steven Feldman’s geohippy term. Do you feel more like a geohipster or a geohippy?

A: The original idea behind downtownfarm — the mash-up of chickens and lasers — was to get away from the granola-hippy image of urban farming and make green more trendy and cool. How about geoyuppy?

Q: Before we let you go, is there anything you’d like to add for our GeoHipster readers?

A: Defend “open LiDAR formats”, practice the art of “LAS liberation”, and fork plugin-free “jediscripts”. We all know “The Force Awakens” later this year. May the FOSS be with LAZ… 😉

Mano Marks: “The map is just a piece of what’s going on”

Mano Marks
Mano Marks

Mano Marks is a Staff Developer Advocate on the Google Developer Platform team. He works to help developers implement Google’s APIs in their applications. He has a Masters in History, and another in Information Management and Systems. His career has taken him from database management at non-profits, to keynote addresses at Google Developer Days around the world. Mano has been with Google for 8.5 years, and was the founding member of the Maps Developer Relations team, working back then with KML and then the Maps API. Now he works across the Google Developer Platform. You can find him on Google+, Twitter, and Github.

Interviewer’s note: In 2013 CalGIS had the privilege of getting Mano Marks (@ManoMarks) to speak at our conference. Since then, I’ve found out how much more of a geohipster he was than I realized at the time. Thanks, Mano, for spending some time answering questions for the GeoHipster readers!

Mano was interviewed for GeoHipster by Christina Boggs.

Q: You have degrees in history as well as in information management and systems. How did you get into the geospatial universe?

A: Of course I’ve always loved maps. Who doesn’t? When I was a kid, I had a subscription to National Geographic, and I pored over the maps trying to understand them. I was really into games, role playing games and board war games, which were really map-related. Match that with my Masters in History, where I focused on Eastern Europe, where the map was constantly changing, and I was set up to try to crave knowledge of the world from a spatial point of view. I just never considered it from a career point of view.

I got my Masters from the School of Information at UC Berkeley in 2006. At the time, XML was the major data interchange format and I spent a lot of time understanding the XML universe and document construction. So when I started at Google on what became the Developer Relations Team, they had me work on KML. So I backed into it, but as soon I was there, I started learning everything I could.

Q: One of the neat things about the geohipster community is how diverse we are. You’ve been with Google for more than eight years now, what do you do with them?

A: I work on the developer relations team, helping developers learn how to use Google’s developer platform in their applications. This resulted in spending a lot of time on the road for a few years, talking to tens of thousands of developers around the world. One trip in 2011, I literally flew around the world over the course of a month, from San Francisco to China to Australia, Tel Aviv, several stops in Europe, and then home to San Francisco.

Recently, I’ve worked more internally, helping out other members of the team and working on code samples. I helped out on this project, which shows developers how to create sites using JSON-LD, Web Components, and Schema.org markup. Of course there’s a strong mapping component to it.

Q: In times past you have functioned as a liaison between developers and geofolk. If you could give advice on how these two groups could better interact together, what would you say?

A: Honestly, I’d say to geofolk it’s time to learn how to code. There will always be a place for people who are GIS specialists. And, more and more GIS-only folks are getting left behind by focusing on just using complex applications to create a map that is divorced from everything around it. The map is important — it’s a star in whatever platform you’re using. But it’s just a piece of what’s going on. Location, identity, interaction, and more are where people are spending their time. The vast majority of developers using maps don’t want to know how the maps technology works, they want to know that it’ll be stable, and provide their users with what they need.

Q: Google Maps just turned 10! I was just reading an article from Directions Magazine where Diana S. Sinton said:

“Over the last decade, what Google has done to build up the public understanding and awareness of maps and mapping, particularly through the web, has been priceless for GIS. They made the inaccessible accessible, and produced a common point of reference to be able to communicate about GIS. “It’s a little like Google Earth” may be one of the most effective GIS conversation starters ever. Whatever may happen to that technology in the future, it will have left an indelible cultural impact.”

She’s right, it was a change in our culture. What do you think is going to be the next thing imprinted on our culture? Any upcoming developments that you’d like to leak on GeoHipster first?

A: Ha ha, yeah…unfortunately I can’t leak anything. And I can say that the core technologies that our platforms are built on are evolving at a rapid pace. We carry around these super computers in our pockets. I’m using a Nexus 6 right now, which is akin to having a small laptop in your pocket, both in power and size. People have talked for years about “location-based apps” but that time has come.

And what’s amazing to me is how much people just expect it. It’s a little like the early days of Google Earth, when people would say to me “My Google Earth is broken. I left my car in the driveway but it doesn’t show up when I zoom in on my house.” People now get confused when there’s a new business that hasn’t shown up yet in their app. I think we’re going to see a lot more of, well, I wouldn’t say “real-time” data in maps, but more up-to-date data.

Q: You put Mountain View on the GeoHipster map. I think of Mountain View for Shoreline Amphitheatre but I drive by Google every time I’m going into the parking lot there. Silicon Valley has been the driver for tech and geo trends and now I might even extend the sphere to the entire Bay Area (San Francisco Bay Area). Do you think your region is going to continue to drive tech and geo trends into the future?

A: I absolutely think that it’ll be a big driver of world tech. Fortunately for Google there are smart people who like to work everywhere. I just spent a year in the Zurich office and loved it. I think you’ll increasingly see developers in countries like Mexico, Brazil, Kenya, and other countries contributing to driving tech.

Q: Speaking of trends and developments … HTML5, JavaScript, turf.js, dat, do you think these are the next game-changers, or are these passing fads? As folks make technology choices, how much do you think the sexy/cool/hip factor drives those choices?

A: Hmmm…I definitely think that there is a coolness/hipness factor to many new technologies. I don’t think that means they are not important or really good at what they do, but remember when XML was the big thing? Sure, it’s still used a lot, but it’s not growing dramatically. Or PHP? There’s a language whose time in the sun is gone. What I wonder about instead is what is the next HTML? That was the most important game changer, it made creating a presentation easy, super easy. KML did that for geospatial data, to an extent. I’ve seen a lot of people who were not developers create KML files and really get into it. But what’s the next thing that someone who doesn’t really understand programming can get into? What can they use to create something that communicates with millions? That’s the real game changer.

Q: I’ve seen you post cool pictures and photo spheres from your travels. Many of the most hip of the geohipsters have passion projects that they’re able to either incorporate into their work or they work on outside of work. What are you working on right now?

A: You know, the last thing I worked on was the semantic markup plus web components project. I wrote a small reference Node.js app to take arbitrary data from a MySQL database and return it as a JSON-LD feed in Schema.org markup. Yes, Node.js is very hipsterish right now :-). I think the question of transforming data to semantic markup in non-XML format is not well settled. There aren’t great libraries for it — in part because JS developers have so many frameworks already, I think they’re afraid of something complex and potentially slow. Especially if it smacks of XML.

That question interests me, but that specific project is wrapping up, at least on my end. So I’m not sure. I am really interested in photography, games, and old maps. One thing I wish someone would do is develop a really good way to OCR old maps to capture location data that we don’t have any more. I’m not sure that’s me, but if anyone has any ideas that would be great.

Q: Last question, while you’ve got the ear of the geohipster community — do you have anything you’d like to share?

A: Pity the poor developer. Remember that creating a new data format doesn’t solve all your problems. Chances are it just creates more.

Most geohipster types I know code, but if you don’t code, start. And spread the word.

Amy Smith: “One of the things I love about Maptime is that it’s open to all skill levels and backgrounds”

Amy Smith
Amy Smith

Amy Smith is a Geospatial Data and Technology Specialist with Fehr & Peers in San Francisco. She’s had some great opportunities working with geographic information systems in a variety of fields, including environmental studies, satellite imagery analysis, water resources, and transportation planning. Amy currently spends her days working with an amazing group of people focused on improving transportation in our communities. In her free time she enjoys exploring the hills of San Francisco.

Amy was interviewed for GeoHipster by Christina Boggs.

Q: A few years back we used to work together but I don’t actually remember how you got into GIS. You have a master’s in it right?

 A: I do! I have a Master’s in Geography and Regional Studies. I got into GIS through a chance encounter with a geography professor whom I passed in a hallway on campus. Somehow we started talking about geography. I was undeclared at the time. I was trying to decide between GIS and intro to computer science for a general requirement. He told me a bit about GIS and geography, and that really won me over. Who knows, I could have been a computer scientist if I hadn’t met him!

Q: You didn’t leave computers entirely though, you’re pretty slick with code… In fact, you’re a great promoter of Python. Which came first – GIS or coding?

A: My first programming/scripting language was Matlab. I learned it while I was working on my master’s studying space-based synthetic aperture radar data in the Florida Everglades. Through learning Matlab, I learned the basics of programming logic. When I started using desktop GIS every day for work, it got me thinking about ways I could be using programming for spatial analysis, which led me down the path to Python. Since then, I use it almost every day, and not just for spatial analysis.

Q: What other tasks do you use Python for?

A: Lately I’ve been using it to prepare transit data for travel demand models. Since many of the inputs of the models are text-based, Python lends itself well to these types of tasks. It can also come in handy for automating things you’d rather not do manually. For example, I had an Excel spreadsheet with multiple worksheets that needed to be saved as individual CSVs. Instead of exporting them one by one, I wrote a script to iterate through each worksheet and save it as a CSV. Kind of a mundane example, but it’s this type of thing that I think can save lots of time at the end of the day.

Q: Speaking of time, you did a transportation study and saved time by scripting some node-based analysis of road segments to bicycle accident occurrences. I saw your talk at the ESRI UC where you talked about becoming one of the points. Do you know if that study has been reviewed by any of the traffic safety folks out in your area, has it helped any?

A: That was one of the first projects where I got a chance to develop a custom script tool for ArcGIS. The tool uses a roadway network and collision data to pinpoint high incident collision areas that might need attention. The tool was applied most recently by Placer County here in California to run a collision analysis of their entire county-maintained roadway network, which used to be a manual review process. They used some of the results to apply for grants and received several grants funding highway safety projects. Another benefit of the tool is that the county can continue to use it with new data in their safety programs.

Q: You’ve taught workshops on Python and even done some online workshops. Do you have any more in the future, or are you branching out to something different?

A: I’m planning some internal Python training here at Fehr & Peers for our planners and engineers who’d like to learn more about it. I’m always happy to talk with others about Python, so I hope there are more opportunities out there for workshops. I’m still learning too, so I’m always on the lookout for workshops and meetups others are hosting. In terms of branching out, I’ve recently been diving into JavaScript. There’s a library I’ve been learning about called D3 that has some great spatial as well as non-spatial capabilities. I’m still in the “stumbling through it” phase, but luckily there’s a great user community online and here in the Bay area that’s eager to share knowledge.

Q: A few months back you attended my first #maptimeSF with me; now that you’ve moved out to San Francisco I see you get to go to #maptimeSF more often. For someone who is thinking about attending their first Maptime, how do you think it helped you as an advanced GISer?

A: Maptime is a meetup that’s happening in many cities around the world where folks can get together, learn about maps, make maps, talk about maps, or maybe just hang out with friends. One of the things I love about Maptime is that it’s open to all skill levels and backgrounds. People are encouraged to ask questions and learn from each other. It’s a very welcoming environment. I’ve learned a lot about how others outside of my industry are using geospatial data and technologies. It’s also encouraging to see a thriving interest and enthusiasm for maps.

Q: Hearing about your work in transportation is really interesting. The water side still misses you. What are you up to at Fehr & Peers? Any interesting projects you can share with us?

A: I have so many great memories from my time with the Department of Water Resources in West Sacramento — it’s where I really started to get my feet wet (pun intended) with Python! It’s also where I learned to drive a boat. I definitely miss the field work collecting bathymetry data in the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta (picture below for proof), and of course the people too!

Amy Smith collecting bathymetry data in the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta
Amy Smith collecting bathymetry data in the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta

 One of the great things about GIS is that it’s applicable in many different industries. Transportation planning has a lot of great uses for GIS too. One of the more recent projects I worked on focused on improving cyclist and pedestrian access to transit stations. The project had a large data organization component that involved gathering available spatial data and organizing it in a consistent way so that we could use it in a series of network analyses. We looked at some of the ways that a well-connected network might help improve access to transit, making it easier for people to walk and bike to stations. I’m currently working on a project, also transit-related, that involves improving transit in an area that doesn’t have a lot of existing transit. It can be a challenge to anticipate how new facilities will affect travel in an area if you don’t have many observations on how people are currently using transit. In this case, we’re identifying places that have developed transit networks and that share similar characteristics with the study area that’s considering improving or expanding their transit system. Both of these projects are very much rooted in spatial analysis, but also require local knowledge. Another fun part of my job is getting to know new areas and talking with people to learn about qualities specific to their region that might not be obvious from just looking at the data.

Q: If people are looking to check out some of your cool stuff, where can you be found online?

A: I tweet about spatial topics, transportation, and my endless appetite for spinach @wolfmapper.

Q: Geohipster Amy Smith is awesome! How do you feel about being part of spreading the geohipster gospel?

A: I’m a big fan of GeoHipster! I was trying to disguise myself a bit by using a seriffed font, but I think you found me out anyway. 🙂

Q: Speaking of transportation, I’ve got to wrap this interview up so I can cycle to work. Is there anything else you would like to share with #geohipster readers?

A: I recently learned about a spatial data format called topoJSON that’s one of my new favorite things. I found out about it at a recent Maptime on D3 and have been reading more about it on Mike Bostock’s wiki. Also, I’ll be helping host a webinar on transit planning with Code for America next month. Tune in if you’re interested!

Happy cycling!

Jonah Adkins: “Engaging with other like-minded geo people via Twitter provides a great unfiltered look at what’s working and what’s not”

Jonah Adkins
Jonah Adkins

Jonah Adkins (@jonahadkins) is a Sr. Geospatial Analyst with GISi out of his home office in Newport News, Virginia. He has been in GIS since 1999 working for local governments, federal agencies, and most recently as a consultant. Jonah is a published cartographer who enjoys time with his family, maps (duh), Disney, Pro-Wrestling, has a tattoo of Esri North Arrow 51 and was told by Pharrell Williams that he looked like Freddie Mercury.

Jonah was interviewed for GeoHipster by Christina Boggs.

Q: Hey Jonah, thanks for taking the time to sit down with me! I know you from Twitter but many of us know you from your incredible Lost Map or they fall in love with It’s A Small World all over again through your cartography. What do you do for your daytime job?

A: For the last few years I’ve worked as a Sr. Geospatial Analyst for GISi. The majority of my work entails cartography, graphic design, UI/UX for applications, and traditional GIS work for many of our clients. I’ve spent a good portion of last year doing some awesome things with the Navy Shore Energy Program.

Q: Your maps are beautiful, beyond just being a method to convey information; they’re art. Do you have a background in design or some other art media?

A: Nope. I was always a doodler growing up, but never took any classes. I wouldn’t call myself a designer or anything like that, but I think I can tell when something looks “good” — at least to my tastes.

Q: I stumbled upon a great video where you presented great cartographic design elements to keep in mind. Have you thought about teaching this to other GISers? Beyond the occasional conference talk?

A: It’s a funny thing. I’ve always thought that you can’t really teach “making a pretty map.” Books and the like can give you helpful info, but I feel it’s something that’s unique to the person creating the map. Your current emotions, likes and dislikes, all that stuff is in anything you create, for the most part. Then someone told me, “yeah that’s great and all but we want you to show us how to make a pretty map”. So I had to get my thoughts on paper and decided I could at least give some pointers on guiding the creative side to a desirable output.

Q: Gretchen Peterson wrote an incredible book on cartography, have you thought about writing?

A: Never. I have Gretchen’s awesome book “Cartographer’s Toolkit,” a signed first edition!!! It’s been my starting point on several projects where I’m struggling to find my inspiration and I need something to get me started. It’s very good because it’s a tool to guide you, it’s not, to me, an instruction manual. Water doesn’t have to be blue, it’ll be ok, and I’ll be damned if you use Comic Sans as your title font!

Christina: Haha I really did spend some time selecting what font to do this interview in.

Q: You have a robust github, tell us about some of your projects you’ve got going up there…

A: I really love maps, mapping tech and all that goes with it. Basically any of my free time, and some of my not so free time, I’m usually trying out something new or working on an idea. This usually happens with one or both of my daughters watching Saved By Bell in my lap. GitHub is great, it’s collaborative and social, which is something I tend to thrive on.

Weekend Update was one of my first github projects, it’s a riff on Project Linework, a not-so-standard basemap themed after Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update segment.

Amazing-er Maps is a cartographer’s plea to make online maps better — not that I know better, but with all the open/free map technology out there, certainly some of these “Amazing” maps on the web could be improved.

Custom Backgrounds In AGOL – Probably one of the more popular ones, is a guide to adding another provider’s maps in ArcGIS Online projects. I’m not the first to write about it, but I think it’s safe to say that people are ready, and want control over every aspect of online maps.

Q: Speaking of your daughters, we just had the 10th anniversary of OSM. Your daughter contributed to OSM with you, how did you do that? If you could give advice to other dads out there, how can you inspire your daughters to get involved with mappy stuff? What did she map?

A: My sweet Sophie 🙂 She really thinks what I do is cool, and after a few years of talking to her school classes about maps, she’s been bugging me to teach her something. What better way than through OpenStreetMap? She’s 10 and starting 5th grade, the iD editor was really easy for her to pick up. We talked about what she wanted to do, she decided on schools and parks, because “I think kids like me would like to know where playgrounds and schools are.” She loves the fact that everyone can see the work she has done. She wants to teach her friends at school once she goes back next week.

Q: So recently you started up a Hampton Roads, Virginia #maptime, how’s that going?

A: Like most I’d seen some ramblings of #maptime over the last several months on Twitter, and after hearing Lyzi Diamond talk about it (twice) at the Esri UC, I was really inspired to get one started. I like helping and sharing about maps, and have been struggling with a way to do that locally with more than the typical GIS crowd. I’d started attending the local Code For America Brigade meet-ups earlier this year and @maptimehrva is a great extension of that hack night concept. Come hang out, and let’s talk maps. Doesn’t matter what you know, you’re gonna learn something tonight.

Q: I find the cartography you do with ArcGIS Desktop breathtaking but honestly, I get excited when I toss in a drop shadow or I do a transparency mask to highlight my area of interest. If you were to put three pieces of low-hanging fruit out there for other Desktop users to implement in their maps, what would they be? (READ: a couple of cool “tricks” in Arc that have good cartographic payoffs?)

A: Regardless of what software you use, practical knowledge of concepts helps greatly, experience helps too! To me it’s fun to learn the ins and outs, push its limitations and figure out ways to do things it easily can’t. Something I tell people who ask for cartographic help: GIS people make GIS maps — which is a bad way of saying GIS people tend to make maps they can read and understand. A friend made a great analogy of that — people would rather read “SF Earthquake: 6.1” than be shown a seismograph.

My three tips would be:

  1. Use a color palette. Colors are better when they are not fighting with each other for paper space supremacy. But also be mindful of too much color. Nothing stands out when everything is on the same color ramp. Finding the right balance pays off in the end.
  2. Never accept the defaults. Things I’ve seen overused for the last 10 years: ArcMap Yellow (hex #fcfbab) in the legend or graphic background, Esri North Arrow 9, Layer_and_field_names_like_this_in_the_legend… Change something, change everything. You’ll gain experience just by exploring the options.
  3. The One “Thing” — before you start a map, determine what is the one “thing” the viewer should take away from the map. Is it the neato font? Keep going. Is it the pattern on the water? Keep going. Keep going until it’s the purpose of the map. All of those design elements should only help tell the story, they shouldn’t be the story.

Q: I love the term geohipster, I take it as a playful comment. How do you feel about the term, do you self-identify as a geohipster? What does it mean to you?

A: It’s a playful comment I can relate to. I get regular comments about my mustache, and I’m like, I’ve had this thing since sixth grade, and I’ve only been without it once. Then all these people started growing ‘staches out of novelty, or because it was the new cool thing, and I get lumped in with that crowd. Maps have been around. It’s only natural for those of us that have been around with them to say “yeah, but I’ve been mapping since before Google.”

Q: Five awards at ESRI UCs, first place at Virginia’s GIS Conference last year, Runner Up, Best Cartographic Design at last year’s FOSS4G, 2nd Place in this years GISCI-GISP Map Contest — do you have any award winning pieces in the works?

A: I try to do several personal projects a year. It helps me keep my skills sharp, and gives me a chance to just have fun mapping something for myself. All shrouded in secrecy of course, sorry.

Q: Some weeks I see you at #gistribe, here’s your opportunity for a #shamelessplug — do you have anything you would like to share with geohipster readers?

A: #gistribe, #geowebchat and others provide such a great social resource. My #shamelessplug would be to invest your time in social discussions like those. Company feeds are good for updates and examples, but only provide one view of the technology. Engaging with other like-minded geo people via twitter provides a great unfiltered look at what’s working and what’s not. It’s the biggest downer to me when I talk to someone in our field who’s never heard of OpenStreetMap, Github, Leaflet, Tilemill, etc. And it happens often. There’s so many great things happening in Geo that you’ll never know about unless you step outside of your bubble and explore.

Jubal Harpster: “Get comfortable using GitHub to help find the pockets of innovation happening all over the place”

Jubal Harpster
Jubal Harpster

Jubal Harpster (@jharpster) is principal and co-founder of Spatial Development International based in Seattle. He has been a geo person in a variety of positions over the past 20 years, and his current focus is on data and applications primarily for international development and food security challenges in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Jubal was interviewed for GeoHipster by Christina Boggs.

A common question is to ask folks how they got into GIS but you went to school for Geography, what drew you to that major in the first place?

It’s a long story actually, but when I entered college I started as a political science major. I was completely bored with the exception of one geopolitics class. I’ve always enjoyed maps, as I’m sure most of your readers do, but the final assignment for this class was to create a choropleth map by hand (remember, it’s 1990). After that, I was hooked.

I took a break after my sophomore year and spent six months traveling through Central America. During that trip, I spent a good deal of time at various mapping agencies trying to find decent back country maps for places like Nicaragua and El Salvador. When I finally did make it back to Seattle, I was pretty laser-focused on Geography as a discipline. The GIS thing just sort of happened along the way.

What has kept you in the geospatial field?

I continue to be amazed at the pace of innovation over the 20+ years that I’ve been doing this. Recently someone on our team was showing off their work with WebGL and vector tiles from PostGIS. I can remember very clearly developing MOIMS and ArcIMS sites back in the day, and the difference between that and where we are now is incredible.

When you take a step back and look at what’s happening in the field, it’s pretty remarkable. Open Street Map is incredible; commodity satellites and other high resolution imagery are changing the way we see the world.  And with cloud-hosted infrastructure, we can do some really amazing things quite cheaply and in a way that’s never existed before.

You’re one of the founders of SpatialDev, what was it like starting a company up after working for other private companies and even a government position?

It was actually quite terrifying. I worked at a global civil engineering company, which was and still is a great company to work for, but one that is very risk-averse. We found ourselves with a great team in Seattle and largely responsible for finding work and delivering our own projects. There was a sense that the big company was slowing us down so when they sold the whole business unit, it created the perfect opportunity to jump ship.

Fortunately several members of our team from that engineering company form the core of SpatialDev. Now we have the freedom to create the company and culture we want, and pursue the work we like to do. It’s still terrifying from time to time, but we have the best team imaginable so I do occasionally get some sleep.

I noticed that your team has a lot of women on it, what’s your secret to recruiting #geoladies?

We actively recruit diversity into the team, which can be a challenge in this business. We are able to attract great team members by establishing a creative, flexible, and fun work environment, and providing lots of exciting opportunities and projects.

What are some of the cool projects that SpatialDev is working on right now?

We’re working on a number of different things. SpatialDev is continuing to expand our international footprint by doing projects in Bolivia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania. That’s incredibly exciting and challenging at the same time.

We’re also doing a lot of thinking around native mobile and responsive applications, and how people interact with dynamic maps on those form factors. To date, there aren’t many examples of where the dynamic map experience of desktop web applications transfers to awesome mobile experiences. Creating great user experiences on devices other than the desktop is high on our priority list right now.

We’ve put a lot of work into creating a simple node.js wrapper around PostGIS that anyone can install and be up and running with a web framework in a couple of minutes. We’re now using this on a number of applications that we host and maintain for clients. And from this starting point, we’re working on a purely open source stack that works completely offline or in semi-connected environments. This includes the database, offline map tiles, as well as the application.

You guys make some crazy sexy maps, what advice would you give people who want to make their visualizations clearer and more eye-catching?

First, I’d say hire a good designer. When we first started out, the developers on the team (myself among them) would implement our own designs. We developed some very sophisticated web applications, but many of them looked terrible and weren’t that easy to use. We now have a Creative Director at SpatialDev who focuses on UI/UX. She has an eye for detail and usability like no one else on the team. This has had a profound impact on our work.

Second, we work with our clients to implement common sense. We won’t make an application with 900 layers or try to show a million points on the map at once. We demonstrate that in many cases, less is more. That way, our clients don’t end up with applications that have 20 different slide-outs with tools, buttons, settings, preferences, and so on. We try as best we can to help our clients simply make logical and beautiful sites.

What are you working on outside of work time?

I’m involved with a number of activities related to work that I continue to pursue during my off hours. This past spring, I convened a group in Washington DC specifically for people that work with international boundary data sets (it’s more interesting than it sounds!). I’ll continue to be involved in organizing some geo-events in Seattle as well as in Africa this coming fall. And when I have time, I still contribute code to some of the SpatialDev GitHub repos.

But really, I have two kids, an awesome wife, and a garage full of bicycles. So when I’m not working or traveling for work, I’m spending time with the family mostly riding around the Northwest.

You’re an open source supporter, what recommendations would you have for someone thinking about dabbling in open source?

I would actually encourage people to get familiar with the entire ecosystem around geotechnology and not focus too much on a single set of technology. At SpatialDev, we’re not wedded to any particular set of technology; we implement the best tools that get the job done. But I’m amazed at how the open source universe has matured dramatically over the past few years, both in terms of the business models and the tools.

When people start at SpatialDev, we always push them to get familiar with PostGIS and QGIS since those are the environments where we do most of our work. PostGIS is behind just about all the stuff we currently work on, so we like everyone to be able to navigate that environment and write at least some SQL. We also encourage team members to get comfortable using GitHub to help find the pockets of innovation happening all over the place. Those would be the recommendations I’d suggest for people starting to work in open source.

You’re into cycling but you don’t have a handlebar mustache, you could be wearing skinny jeans but this interview isn’t happening in person so I can’t be sure, I couldn’t find any pictures of food or coffee on your twitter… I’m going to go out on a limb and guess you probably wouldn’t be described as a hipster. The term geohipster is a much friendlier and loving term, how do you feel about being a geohipster?

Although I drink a lot of locally brewed IPA, drown my mornings in blonde roast drip, own an impressive collection of nerdy t-shirts, and have a fixie that I ride on the local velodrome occasionally, I wouldn’t consider myself a geohipster (or geodinosaur). Fortunately, I get to travel to places where the whole geo-ecosystem is not quite as developed as it is in Seattle. So in these places at least I can pull off being the ultimate geohipster. But I draw the line at facial hair.

Do you have anything else to share with GeoHipster readers?

Thanks, this has been fun. You can see some of the stuff we’re working on here http://spatialdev.com/ and here: http://spatialdev.github.io/ . Do I get a t-shirt now?

Ed.: Yes