All posts by Ed Freyfogle

Mark Iliffe: “Maps show us where to direct our resources and improve the lives of people”

Mark Iliffe
Mark Iliffe
Mark Iliffe (@markiliffe) is a geographer/map geek working on mapping projects around the world. He leads Ramani Huria for the World Bank, is Neodemographic Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham after completing his PhD at the Horizon Institute, and a mentor for Geeks Without Bounds.

Q: Suitably for a geohipster, your OpenStreetMap profile says “I own a motorbike and have a liking to randomly spend weekends finding out ‘what is over there’”. What have you found?

A: I think I wrote that around a decade ago while getting into OSM, while on a foreign exchange trip in Nancy, France! I found out a lot of things, from that time trying to take a 125cc Yamaha (a hideously small and underpowered motorcycle — think Chimpanzee riding a tricycle) around Europe was slow and cold to new friendships. Also, a career path in maps and a love of all things geospatial, via counting flamingos in Kenya…

Q: Everyone has to start somewhere, and for you I believe that was mapping toilets (or places toilets should be). Indeed I think we first met when you presented your sanitation hack project Taarifa at #geomob by squatting on the table to demonstrate proper squat toilet technique. Tell us about Taarifa.

A: Taarifa is/was a platform for improving public service delivery in emerging countries. It came out of the London Water Hackathon in 2011, basically as an idea that we could do more with the data that is being generated by the many humanitarian mapping projects that had been enabled by OSM at the time, such as Map Kibera, Ramani Tandale and Haiti Earthquake mapping. As a community open-source project, it showed the potential of how feedback loops between citizens and service providers could be used to fix water points or toilets. We used Ushahidi as a base, adding workflow for reports; we tried to push these back to their community, but the core developers had other objectives — fair enough. We as the Taarifa community though we had something special regardless, but it was a hack, it wasn’t planned to be deployed anywhere.

In January 2012 I was in a meeting with a colleague at the World Bank who’d head that Taarifa had been suggested to fill a need on monitoring the construction of schools in Uganda. He arranged a meeting with the project manager for me, went along, and a week later I was coding on the plane to Uganda to pilot Taarifa across 4 districts around the country. Ultimately, it ended up being scaled to all 111 districts at the request of the Ugandan Ministry of Local Government.

From this the Taarifa community started to grow, expanding the small core of developers. In 2013 we won the Sanitation Hackathon Challenge, then received $100K World Bank innovation award to set up Taarifa in the Iringa Region of Tanzania. Taarifa and collaborators on that project, SNV, Geeks Without Bounds and ITC Twente then went on to win a DFID Human Development Innovation Fund award of £400,000. Since then it’s gone in a different direction, away from a technical community focus to one that concentrates on building the local social fabric that is wholly embedded and ran locally in Tanzania.

I feel that this was Taarifa’s most important contribution — not one of technology, but one which convenes development agencies and coders to innovate a little. Now, the main developers of the code haven’t worked on the main codebase for over a year, but Taarifa’s ideas of creating feedback loops in emerging countries still move on, in its grants, but also have been absorbed into other projects too.

Q: Actually I think I’m wrong, even before Taarifa you were an intern at Cloudmade, the first company to try to make money using OpenStreetMap. Founded by Steve Coast (and others), the VC-funded business hired many of the “famous” names of early OSM, before eventually fizzling out and moving into a different field. What was it like? Any especially interesting memories? What sort of impression did that experience leave on you? Also, what’s your take on modern VC-funded OpenStreetMap companies like Mapbox?

A: Cloudmade was fantastic, learned a lot from each of the OSMers that worked there — from Steve Coast, Andy Allen, Nick Black, Matt Amos, and Shaun McDonald. At Cloudmad, I wrote a routing engine for OSM — now common tools like PgRouting weren’t really around — I tried to build pgRouting from source, wasted three days, so started from scratch. In hindsight, I should have persevered with pgRouting, got involved in developing the existing tool instead of starting from scratch.

As it was my first tech company to work at, they were based in Central London and I was broke. I had to stay with my uncle in Slough about 30 miles away. I used to work quite late and slept in the office floor a few times. Once Nick was in early and caught me stuffing my sleeping bag back into the bottom drawer of my desk. The advice was to probably go home a bit more — advice that I’ve used selectively since, but I don’t sleep on my office floor anymore!

The VC situation is always going to be complex. I wasn’t too surprised when Cloudmade eventually pivoted, and their ideas and creations such as the “Map Style Editor” and Leaflet.js live on regardless of the company. At SoTM in Girona I made the comment that OSM was going through puberty. On reflection, I think it was a crude but accurate way to describe our project at that time. We didn’t know what OSM would or could become. OSM didn’t know how to deal with companies like Cloudmade, and neither did the companies know how to deal with OSM; to a certain extent I think we’re still learning, but getting better. Though at the time, like teenagers having to deal with new hormones, emotions ran riot. This all without realising that in the same way OSM has changed the world, OSM also is changed by it — and this is a good thing. Gary Gale has also mused extensively on this.

Now with the generation of companies after — CartoDB, Mapbox etc. — I think that they are much more perceptive to supporting and evolving the OSM ecosystem. Mapbox Humanitarian is one of them, but also their support for developing the ID Editor. In turn, the OSM community is growing as well, especially in the humanitarian space, with Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) supporting numerous projects around the world and acting as a useful interface to OSM for global institutions.

Q: Did you ever think back then that OSM would get as big and as global as it has?

A: TL;DR: Yes.

Recently, I had a discussion with a friend in a very British National Mapping Agency about the nature of exploration. Explorers of old would crisscross the world charting new things, sometimes for their own pleasure, but mostly for economic gain. These people then formed the mapping agencies that data from OSM ‘competes’ with today.

By working with the numerous army of volunteers, OSM embodies the same exploratory spirit — whether mapping their communities, or supporting disaster relief efforts. But instead of the privileged few, it’s the many. Now OSM is making tools and gaining access to data that make it easier than ever before to contribute, whether map data or any other contribution to the community.

Q: Despite those humble beginnings I believe you are now Doctor Mark Iliffe, having very recently defended your PhD thesis in Geography at the University of Nottingham. Congrats! Nevertheless though, doesn’t fancy book lernin’ like that reduce your geohipster credibility? In the just-fucking-do-it neogeo age is a formal background in geography still relevant? Is it something you’d recommend to kids starting their geo careers?

A: Thanks! Doing a PhD was by far the worst thing I’ve ever done, and will ever probably do — to myself, friends, and family. But it wasn’t through book learning, I did it in the field. Most of the thesis itself was written at 36,000ft via Qatar/British Airways and not the library (nb. This was/is a stupid idea, do it in the library).

Hopefully the geohipster cred should still be strong, but I wouldn’t recommend a PhD to kids starting their careers. Bed in for a few years, work out what you want to do, get comfortable, and then see if a PhD is for you. When I started my PhD, I’d done a small amount of work with Map Kibera and other places, and knew I wanted to work in the humanitarian mapping space but full time jobs didn’t exist. Doing a PhD gave the space (and a bit of money) to do that. Now these jobs, organisations, and career paths exist. Five years ago they didn’t.

Q: Though you live in the UK, for the last few years you’ve been working a lot in Tanzania, most recently with the World Bank. A lot of the work has been about helping build the local community to map unmapped (but nevertheless heavily populated) areas like Tandale. Indeed this work was also the basis for your PhD thesis. Give us the details on what you’ve been working on, who you’ve been working with, and most of all what makes it hip?

A: Ramani Huria takes up a lot of my time… It’s a community mapping project, with the Government of Tanzania, universities, and civil society organisations, supported by the World Bank and Red Cross. Ramani Huria has mapped over 25 communities in Dar es Salaam, covering around 1.3 million people. Dar es Salaam suffers from quite severe flooding, partly due as Dar es Salaam is the fastest growing city in Africa with a population of over 5.5 million.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lz75aHQpmf8

Ramani Huria is powered by a cadre of volunteers, pulling together 160+ university students, 100s community members to collect data on roads, water points, hospitals, and schools, among other attributes. One of the key maps are of the extent of flooding, this is being done by residents of flood prone communities sketching on maps. Now that these maps exist, flood mitigation strategies can be put in place by community leaders — this could either be through building new drains, or ensuring existing infrastructure is maintained. That’s the hip part of Ramani Huria, the local community is leading the mapping, with ourselves as the international community in support.

Ramani Huria -- a community mapping project
Ramani Huria — a community mapping project

Q: Over the last years there has been a big push by HOT and Missing Maps to get volunteers remote mapping in less developed areas like Tanzania. Some OSMers view this as a bad thing, as they perceive that it can inhibit the growth of a local community. As someone who’s been “in the field”, what’s your take? Is remote mapping helpful or harmful?

A: The only accurate map of the world is the world itself. With the objective of mapping the world, let’s work on doing that as fast as possible. Then we can focus on using that map to improve our world. Remote mapping is critical for that — but how can we be smarter at doing it?

To make a map of flood extents, so much time and effort goes into its creation. But a lot of it is basic, for example digitising roads and buildings. This is time-consuming — it doesn’t matter who does it, but it has to be done. But the knowledge of flooding is only held by those communities, nowhere else. The faster you can do this, the faster these challenges can be mitigated. Remote mapping gives a valuable head-start.

In Ramani Huria, we run “Maptime” events for the emerging local OSM community at the Buni Innovation Hub — these events grow the local community. Personally, I think we should move towards optimising our mapping as much as possible — whether that’s through remote mapping or image recognition — but that may be a step too far for the time being. I’d love to see interfaces to digitise Mapillary street view data, it’s something we’ve collected a lot of over the past year. Can we start to digitise drains from Mapillary imagery in the same way Missing Maps uses satellite imagery?

Q: You’ve recently been in Dunkirk in the refugee camps with Mapfugees, what was it like?

A: Mapfugees is a project to help map the La Linière refugee camp around Dunkirk, France. Jorieke Vyncke and I met up in Dunkirk to discuss with the refugee’s council — made up of the refugees themselves — and the camp administrators to see how maps could help. The refugees themselves wished to have maps of the local area for safe passage in/out of the camp. The camp itself is surrounded by a motorway and a railway, making passage in and out quite dangerous. Other ‘Mapfugees’ volunteers worked with mapping the surrounding areas with the refugees, leading local amenities and safe routes were identified.

At the same time, the camp itself was mapped, providing an understanding of camp amenities, so services to the camp can be improved. This is very similar to my experience of community mapping elsewhere — the map is a good way of discussing what needs to be done and can empower people to make changes.

Q: As you no doubt know, here at GeoHipster we’re not scared to ask the real questions. So let’s get into it. On Twitter you’re not infrequently part of a raging debate — which is better: #geobeers or #geosambuca? How will we ever settle this?

A: #Geobeer now has my vote. I’m way too old for #geobuccas as the hangovers are getting worse!

Q: So what’s next Mark? I mean both for you personally now that you’ve crossed the PhD off the list and also for OSM in places like Africa and in organizations like the World Bank.

A: For me, in a few months I’m going to take a long holiday and work out what’s next. I’m open to suggestions on a postcard!

Looking back, OSM is just past a decade old and is still changing the world for the better. In OSM, projects like Ramani Huria, but also mapping projects in Indonesia and others are at the forefront of this, but more can be done. I believe that organisations like the UN and World Bank need to move away from projects to supporting a global geospatial ecosystem. This isn’t a technical problem, but a societal and policy based concern.

This doesn’t sound sexy and isn’t. But at the moment, there are over a billion people that live in extreme poverty. Maps show us where to direct our resources and improve the lives of people, the human and financial resources required to map our world will be immense, moving well past the hundreds of thousands of dollars and spent on mapping cities like Dar es Salaam and Jakarta. To build this, we need to work at a high policy level to really embed geo and maps at the core of the Global Development Agenda with the Sustainable Development Goals. Projects like UN GGIM are moving in that direction, but will need support from geohipsters to make it happen.

Maps and geo are crucial to resolve the problems our world faces, to solve this problem we should use our natural geohipster instincts… JFDI.

Q: Any closing thoughts for all the geohipsters out there?

A: Get out there — you never know where you’ll go.

2016 GeoHipster holiday gift guide

The holiday season is now well and truly upon us, and with it the pressure of giving relevant gifts. While you’ve of course long since lovingly wrapped the Null Island t-shirt as a gift to yourself, you may still be on the hunt for gifts befitting of your geo friends. Fear not, GeoHipster is here to help.

It’s our pleasure to present a completely subjective list of the most geohip gifts.

In reverse order of most hip:

  1. The Society for Printable Geography 3D prints jewelry using real satellite data. Get your favorite country’s 3D profile as a pendant for a necklace. We’re not really sure there’s a better way to express geo-love.
  1. Telescope Cards. Think print is dead? Well you are dead fucking wrong, my friend. Have a look at Telescope, which lets you make a beautiful deck of custom city guide cards. From the site: “printed at a family-run printer just outside of London. Each and every deck is checked by hand to make sure it’s perfect.” If that’s not geohip, what is?
  1. The Atlas of Design, Volume II.  32 beautiful, beautiful maps. In a book. The eyes will bleed, these maps are so pretty.
  1. A custom SplashMap. An indestructible, waterproof, fabric map of anywhere in the world thanks to the magical little elves that make OpenStreetMap. So the next time the gang is out mountain biking, instead of faffing about with your phone that has no battery and even less signal, you’ll be plowing into mud and then wiping your face with your map. That, dear friends, is geohip.
  1. You know what’s hipper than an amazing map? An amazing map MADE OUT OF WOOD.  Feast your eyes on 3d Wood Maps by Bella Maps.
  1. What about that friend of yours who loves getting drunk and ranting map design, but then always turns the discussion into a debate about typography and font design? Well, cross his name off the gift list, because this is it: Typographic Maps from axismaps.
  1. Remember up above when I said print isn’t dead? It’s still not. Point your browser over to Mapiful and feast your eyes on these beautiful printed map posters of any town. Which wall wouldn’t look better with one of those on it?
  1. MapOnShirt.com – there is no reason to be subtle with your domain name when you are this damn geohip.
  1. Can it really already be over a decade since OpenStreetMap was just you, Steve, and the cool kids? Sad, but true. But don’t get all down just yet, you can relive the adventure with The Book of OSM, in which Steve Coast (GeoHipster interview here) interviews 15 different people from the early days of the neogeo, crowd-sourcing revolution.
  1. And finally, we close with the best possible geohip gift: the 2016 GeoHipster calendar. A hand-curated, non-digital, Gregorian calendar to hang on the wall. In the age of mass-customization and drop shipping we can’t claim supplies are limited, but we can truthfully claim it is a thing of beauty that your giftee will enjoy every single day of the year (including 2016’s leap day!). Order now and support the GeoHipster cause.

Happy holidays to one and all. Stay hip.

Raf Roset: “If it weren’t for old maps, we would have been lost long ago”

Raf Roset
Raf Roset
Rafael Roset has been working at the Institut Cartogràfic i Geològic de Catalunya (ICGC) for the last 28 years in different positions related to information technologies and geospatial content. Since his training as a computer specialist in 1985, he has been involved in all major projects dealing with paper and digital map dissemination and diffusion, as well as digitization and georeferencing of old maps. For seven years he lead the digital map library of the ICGC. He has published articles and given talks on content management, geoportals and spatial infrastructures, georeferencing, digitization, and other subjects in renowned journals and magazines and international conferences and workshops. 

As a side personal project (in his 0.7% time) he has been deeply involved with the geocommunity in Barcelona, collaborating with the organizing committee of the FOSS4G 2010 congress in Barcelona and also as co-founder, organizer, community manager  and driving force of Geoinquiets Barcelona, the local chapter of OSGeo (@geoinquiets).

Q: You’ve been organizing the Geoinquiets meetups and mailing list in Barcelona for several years now. Tell us about your event and the Catalonian geoscene. Surely a city as hip as Barcelona is producing geocoolness — what should the rest of the world be aware of?

A: We started the Geoinquiets group right after FOSS4G 2010 with the same people who helped organize the conference. Slowly but steadily the number of members has increased, and right now we are a bunch of passionate geonerds meeting, organizing events, providing geocoaching to whoever asks our help, and giving presentations to anyone interested in maps, as wide as the concept of maps can be. The “scene” in Barcelona has changed and is evolving to a more atomized ecosystem of geoenterprises, each with its own specialization and almost all intertwined.

Q: Catalonia has been in the global news lately as the question of independence from Spain rises in the political agenda. Since time started, maps have been a political tool, literally defining who owns what. How does this influence life at the Catalan National Mapping agency? How does the multi-lingual aspect of modern Catalonia play out in maps?

A: The Institut Cartogràfic i Geològic de Catalunya, which is the national mapping agency in Catalonia (the national mapping agency in Spain being the Instituto Geográfico Nacional) has been producing maps in its modern era since 1982. But the first mapping service in Catalonia, from whom we have inherited the tasks and the tradition, was created 100 years ago all because the map the Spanish army (all mapping agencies started in the military everywhere, is it not the case?) produced of Catalunya was not good enough and had a low refresh rate. There’s a good virtual exposition online that tells this story more precisely and with better detail.

As for the multilingual aspect, all maps of the ICGC are published in Catalan, which is our language. And no one questions that since toponymy, and specially local toponymy, does not bear well with translation.

Q: We met up at SotMCAT — the Catalonian State of the Map. Like everywhere else in Europe, OSM is thriving in Catalonia. How do you see the relationship between OpenStreetMap and national mapping agencies, particularly of smaller countries or regions like Catalonia?

A: It’s a tense relation, because natural-born cartographers think of maps as highly detailed and highly precise documents for a specific job or market, something that can be achieved only with high standards of production and specialized tools and personnel. On the other hand, society, and increasingly this collaborative society we live in which is characterized by immediacy in all aspects, needs really up to date maps and is forgiving with the precision of the 6th decimal place of coordinate pairs. So it’s a trade-off, but eventually user-generated content will enter the workflow of mapping agencies, thus producing richer maps at an increased pace. And in turn projects like OSM will benefit of the knowledge and methods and collaboration with mapping agencies.

Q: You are a long time veteran of the geo-industry. Today everyone walks around with a smart phone, consulting digital maps all the time. Have you seen a change in how society relates to maps and cartography over the course of your career?

A: Yes, absolutely, but not really in how but in how much. At some point everyone has had a paper map in their hands, usually on the go, which provided more or less information depending on the map reading skills of the one using it. And nowadays everyone has a digital map within reach, directly or indirectly, more than once a day and not only while moving. Maps are ubiquitous and have colonized areas of life far from their original purpose, and they will reach farther goals yet to come (think of the challenges maps for autonomous vehicles will bring).

Q: A focus of your role at the ICGC is making the historic collection accessible. How are you doing it? We’ve talked a bit about tools like the NYPL’s Map Warper, but what other cool things are out there in this space that geohipsters should know about?

A: Since its inception the ICGC has been increasing the funds of the Map Library of Catalonia, which right now includes almost a million objects like old maps, old atlases and books, aerial images, and private collections related to cartography and Catalunya donated by individuals to be preserved at our facilities. Back in 2006 we started putting maps and images online, and now the Digital Map library (cartotecadigital.icc.cat) is close to 100,000 online maps and images which can be downloaded for free and reused under a CC-BY license. The collection management software CONTENTdm by OCLC has been key in the success of this huge project, but also two other pieces of software because of its innovative approach to cartographic heritage: Georeferencer and Maprank, both by Klokantech lead by genius geogeek Petr Pridal.

Q: What are the most impressive old maps in the collection? Which map is your favourite? Why?

A: That’s a tough question, because there’s plenty to choose from that will suit any taste for old good cartography. But my favourite map is the “Nueva descripcion geographica del principado de Catalunya” from 1720 by Josep Aparici. Three original copies survive, (links: copy 1, copy 2, copy 3) one from 1720 and two from 1769, and are preserved at the Digital map library, one purchased long ago by the ICGC, and the other one from the funds of the Club Excursionista de Catalunya (CEC, mountaineering/hiking club of Catalunya) which we host, while the 1720 copy arrived at the ICGC almost by accident from a particular collector who wanted this piece to remain in Catalunya and specifically at the ICGC. Reasons are multiple: one because it is a good example of different institutions (ICGC, CEC) and society (private collector) collaborating. The second because it is the first printed map of Catalonia drawn by a Catalan author. And third because it’s the first example ever of an easter egg in a map: the author replaced part of the name of his hometown “Caldes de Montbui” and instead wrote “Caldas Patria del Autor” (Caldas, hometown of the author).

Q: I just moved to Barcelona myself, and can confirm it is hip. But from a geo perspective the craziest thing by far is that none of the city’s public maps are oriented with north at the top. Instead they all are oriented to show the coast , which runs southwest to northeast, at the bottom. So as a society Barcelona literally has a different view of itself than the rest of the world has. Any comment on that?

A: Barcelona has always been an open and welcoming city and the port was also the main door to the city. But later on, when Cerdà designed his proposal for a new rational urbanization of Barcelona, he designed the grid in parallel to the sea and mountain areas because these were limiting. Have you tried looking at a modern map of Barcelona north up? It looks awful because Cerdà’s beautiful symmetry is lost.

Q: Most recently at the ICGC you’ve been involved in the Geostart group, where the focus is to innovate and create disruptive products and services. Tell us a bit about this work. What kinds of projects are you focused on, whom are you disrupting?

A: Almost three years ago the ICGC organized a small dynamic party of six with technicians and coders/programmers already working on projects focused on delivering services over the internet. The idea was to produce, at fast pace, modern-looking prototypes of products and services to validate their suitability in different business areas with the goal to increase the reach and diffusion and usage of the geodata of the ICGC and at the same time approach other sectors and the public. All these prototypes have been reunited at our own Betaportal, and a few have graduated and started their own life in production, like Instamaps (an easy online map creator) and Cloudifier (a service that turns any georeferenced image into a map in Instamaps and also produces WMS and TMS services to be used elsewhere).

Q. Every year millions of tourists flock to Barcelona to wander through the medieval maze of Barri Gòtic. One of the projects you’ve worked on is “BCN, Darrera Mirada” where you overlay old maps of this world-famous district one top of a modern satellite view. What has the response been, and what were some of the challenges and learnings of the project?

A: In that project, carried out by Arxiu Històric de la Ciutat de Barcelona, I provided geocoaching regarding the digital processing of the documents (from scanning to georeferencing). The response has been awesome, especially among researchers. The most difficult part in that project was georeferencing the images, but because the original map at 1:250 was so precise and detailed it made it way easier.

As a side note, many maps of the Digital Map library of the ICGC have been georeferenced by crowdsourcing (yes another innovative project I lead in my years at the map library) and are available at the Old Maps Online portal (by Klokantech) which has an app, both for iOS and Android, so that these maps can be used to travel in time: using your smartphone you can load an old map of Barcelona and use the GPS to show your position in it, effectively walking in nowadays Barcelona while looking at how it was on paper back in the day. Really fascinating what technology allows us to accomplish.

Q: Thank you so much for the interview. Any parting words for the GeoHipster readers?

A: If it weren’t for old maps, we would have been lost long ago.

Javier de la Torre: “There are a ton of European geo-startups trying to conquer the world”

Javier de la Torre
Javier de la Torre
Javier de la Torre is the CEO of CartoDB, a global startup democratizing data analysis and visualization on maps. He is a former scientist with a research focus on biodiversity informatics and global environmental change, and is a recognized expert on open data, open source software, and data visualization.

Q: I have the impression many users of CartoDB are people who wouldn’t otherwise have the technical ability or skills to bring a map to life. Who uses it? How?

A: That is correct. We believe that GIS and mapping in general should not be a niche domain, but that everybody should be able to take advantage from it. We have many different types of users, some of them using it more professionally for development, sales, marketing or BI, and others use it for data exploring and communicating stories with maps.

Q: So people are using CartoDB to tell stories with maps. What are the top three hippest examples?

A: Something I love about CartoDB is the community behind it, so probably most impressive is to see everyday maps of what is happening around the world. It is like you can watch the news just by looking at the maps being created on CartoDB.

But for my personal favourites, I love stories about biodiversity and conservation. Here goes my top three:

Q: But of course it’s not just about trying to make pretty maps, you also need to make money. As we like to say here at GeoHipster HQ, EU branch: “If it doesn’t make Euro, it doesn’t make sense.” On the CartoDB pricing page the most expensive package is named after Mercator, while the middle tier is named after Coronelli. Do you really think Mercator’s contribution to geo is twice as valuable as Coronelli’s?

A: Ha! Mercator gave us the projection we now see in all 2D maps, and Coronelli gave us 3D globes… I think Mercator clearly won 😀

Now, what you are looking at is our basic plans, but we have a set of Enterprise plans https://cartodb.com/enterprise. In those cases we provide extra enterprise services, more capacity, SLAs, performance, and many more things. This is where we make most of the money. We have a really long tail of clients, which I think is important — to provide service to a larger audience — but right now the money is in the enterprise.

Q: It’s a cliche, but we often hear “A downturn is the best time to start a company.” You started CartoDB in the middle of Spain’s worst economic crisis in living memory. What was that like?

A: Well, the good thing about starting in the middle of a crisis is that things only get better! So for us honestly it was not really something we thought about. We bootstrapped this client for a looong time growing carefully based on our resources. That made us really care about the use cases, the users, and the sustainability of our business models.

Q: We’re seeing more and more geo-product companies like CartoDB (or Mapbox with their B round announcement a few weeks back) taking the VC funding route. Why, and why now? More importantly, how does the story end? How will the VCs get their money (with a tidy profit, natch) back?

A: Well, there has never been a better moment to create geospatial technology. There are many changes going on at the same time that are calling for a disruption on the technology, business models, and market in general. Geo has been special for way too much time, but now is infiltrating everywhere. There are several open fields from a business perspective. Mapbox is going for the LBS market with OpenStreetMaps, Planet Labs is disrupting at the Satellite, and we are going after the Enterprise data. There is multi-billion-dollar business in all those areas, and there has never been a bigger demand than now. So it makes sense for the VC world to show their interest in the field.

For us the return is very clear — we aim to provide a great ecosystem where organizations find value and pay for it. In other cases it might be hard to figure out how they will monetize, but in our case big revenues will provide big returns to our investors.

Q: If you weren’t doing CartoDB, which geo start-up would you work for?

A: Actually my second love is in Precision Agriculture http://agricgear.com/ 🙂 There is something amazing about solving a real problem in the most simplistic way. And most people don’t know I am an agriculture engineer.

Q: You’re a Spanish company developing in the open, last year OpenStreetMap’s State of the Map was held in Argentina, and now the first SotM LatAM has been announced for Santiago, Chile in the autumn. It feels like OSM is really taking off in the Spanish-speaking world in the last two years or so. Is that perception correct, and if so why is it happening?

A: I would not say it is just about the Spanish-speaking world. OSM is catching on everywhere, and it was a matter of time that the Spanish-speaking world would get into it. In Wikipedia Spanish is the second language after English. Now, more specifically about Latin America, I think it has to do also with the development of an Open Data movement, and the realization that crowdsourcing will often provide better results than relying on private or governmental data. I would expect in the future for OSM to have more contributors in Santiago de Chile than in New York, honestly.

Q: Let’s delve a bit into your background. Is it true you were very unhip as a child, and then only really blossomed during your studies in Berlin, the current epicentre of EU hipdom?

A: What? No way! Before Berlin, Madrid was the capital of fun in Europe. Although I have lived in London and Rome too, and I have to recognize that Berlin is one of the most fun cities to live now in Europe, that’s for sure.

On the other hand, Germany is a country that teaches you how to destroy and reconstruct potatoes in 1,000 different ways, that must have helped somehow.

Q: It’s great to see an EU company trying to conquer the world. Any other up-and-coming players in the European geo space that geohipsters should be keeping tabs on? Who’s doing hip stuff?

A: Hey! I think there are a ton of European geo-startups trying to conquer the world! Take a look at Mapillary or Nutiteq for example.

Q: Any final advice for geohipsters out there?

A: Take a look at our jobs page https://cartodb.com/jobs 😉

Jenny Allen: “Build applications and services that delight the geo-nervous or geo-reluctant”

Jenny Allen
Jenny Allen
Jenny Allen is a Product Manager in the Search Team at HERE. She's worked in and out of the geo-industry for many years and lives happily in Berlin, Germany. You can follow her on twitter @sjen.

Q: You started your career in geo in the field, working for the Geological Survey of Ireland. That is hip. Tell us a bit about it.

A: It was indeed both geo and hip. I was just out of university and had rather romantic notions of working somewhere that mapped the earth. And that’s what happened.

My time was spent digitising maps from the field, analysing data from drilling records, and a spot of field mapping. I say “analysing data”; what I was doing with the drilling data was perfecting the art of manual geocoding to the National Grid. I learnt all about the techniques for mapping based on aerial photography, interpolation of point data, and the hard graft of digitising with a click pointer.

One of the greatest pleasures of working at the GSI for a map-nerd (should I say “geo-hipster”?) like me was that we had access to the original bedrock mapping done in the mid 1800s done by geologist-artist George Victor du Noyer. These are beautiful watercolours painted on-top of 19th century 6-inch maps, and have exquisite details of the landscape represented on them. I got map-goose-bumps every time I held one.

Q: Any truth to the rumour that you felt compelled to leave Ireland due to the lack of postal codes? Will you be heading back now that they’re being introduced? What’s your opinion?

A: Well of course that’s the reason I left, I couldn’t find anything. Not true actually, I was pretty nifty with National Grid co-ordinates by the time I left! (See above comments about geocoding.)

Just to clarify for those who don’t know Ireland’s postal system too well: for a long time we’ve got by fine without post codes as the Postman very often knew who was living in each house in his area. We knew our Postman by first name (Chris), and would have chats on the doorstep. I lived in a house with a number, street name, town, and county in the address. We got our post. Some of my friends in rural areas have only their name, townland, and county.  They could have the exact same address as their Auntie who lives about two miles away.  They got the right post.

But perhaps this is the rose-tinted view of the world I used to live in. I am of the opinion that postcodes are good for people and society. They unitise our geography to a level that brings real human benefits like accurately delivered post, routing for navigation, and geographic analysis.

I am looking forward to seeing what comes out of the Eircode work (Ireland’s soon to be launched new postal code system). It is a shame that the new codes won’t be totally intuitive. I like the hierarchical nature of postcodes like those in the UK and find it fascinating how a postcode can become part of the lexicon of geography. One of my pet projects is to tune in to the ways that non-map-nerds talk about location, such as this question overhead in London: “Who’s in the SW3 area this afternoon. Want to meet up?”.

Q: Today you live in Berlin, widely hailed as the hippest city in Europe, if not the world. Obviously it also has a thriving geo scene with HERE, skobbler, komoot, a new wave of location-based service start-ups seemingly every week, and regular events like wherecamp.de. What’s your take on the Berlin scene? What are you and the kids talking about while out sipping your Schwarzbier in Kreuzberg?

A: Is Berlin the hippest city in the world? Hell yeah! Berlin’s push-pin on the world technology map is strong and steady. It’s a great place for people with ideas for technology, music, art, everything else, and all that combined. The city is bathed in creativity and openness. You can hang out in the betahaus and get advice on your start-up; hack with the Berlin Geekettes, or join one of the numerous Meet-ups on coding.

That’s the hip part, what about the geo? Without a doubt HERE occupies a vital part in Berlin’s geo and technology scene. This isn’t a shameless plug, it’s just as it is. I know this as I have been working at HERE for over four years and I know the people and teams who develop our great products. It’s a global company and the Berlin site (around 1,000 people) includes developers, cartographers, developers, data collectors, developers, product managers, developers, designers and more developers. Did I say developers? What’s key about what we do in Berlin is that we are building the APIs, SDKs and technologies behind many of our key business services in Automotive, for example, such as routing and traffic. This is on top of the beautiful maps that everyone can use on here.com, and the HERE maps app on Android and iOS.

The bit I said earlier about “creativity and openness” in Berlin is important, because the connection between different technology groups in the city is strong. Plenty of HERE’s development community take part in the numerous hackathons, meet-ups and conferences available in the city.

Schwarzbier?  Mine’s an IPA please.

Q: Relatedly, almost from the beginning the German speaking world embraced OpenStreetMap in a way not really seen elsewhere. Why is that? Is it strange working for a proprietary mapping provider in Germany?

A: I’m not sure I can provide a definitive view on why Germany has embraced OSM so much. But let me offer my point of view on Berlin at least: I think it’s down to the “creative and open” culture of the technology community. Take the open-source movement in technology; this is part of the fabric here. It means you’re being generous and that you’re part of something meaningful.

Q: Before moving to Berlin you worked for the UK’s Ordnance Survey. As someone looking from the outside, any thoughts on the transitions going on there?

A: Ordnance Survey has a very special place in my geo-heart, and I’m very proud to have had a small part in such an illustrious organisation. Since I’ve left they’ve moved office, undergone a huge refactoring of data collection, revolutionised access to data for developers with their APIs, and have now started a GeoVation Lab in London.

It looks like things are going well and I’m quite pleased to see that they’ve done very well without me!

Q: Speaking of transitions, now you’re at HERE, which it seems Nokia wants to sell. Can you share the opinion of someone on the inside?

A: If we were sipping a Schwarzbier in a Biergarten in Berlin I would tell you all about it. But as we’re not, I shan’t.

Q: As someone who is hip, but also has a considerable geo career under her belt working for a mix of different players, what are your thoughts on the state of the industry? What’s your advice to the kids?

A: Am I hip? I prefer to call myself a map-nerd.  But I take the compliment.

Yes, the industry has changed, and it’s changed for the better. The big disrupter has become the standard, and the new disrupters just keep on pushing. We need quick and efficient ways to acquire data (such as vehicle image capture and community sourcing), advanced indexing technologies (think machine learning for better search), and compelling location based applications for users and businesses alike.

Something that’s important for the geographers of the world like me: you should step out and step back in. It helps to work in a different industry, experience a different domain, work with people with different skills, and to understand what it’s like to not be a geography map crazed geo-hipster. I left mapping for a few years and learnt so much about software development, user interaction, and customer satisfaction from people who are passionate about things other than mapping.

Q: Any final thoughts for all the geohipsters out there?

A: I belong to the cadre of people who love, eat, sleep, drink and breathe maps — lucky me. But I came to work here because I wanted to get back to mapping, so it wasn’t really luck — it was my ambition that got me here.

If it’s what you love, just go do it. If there isn’t a company out there doing what you want to do, go get the data and do it yourself.

Thinking back to the topic of the state of the geo-industry, I’d say that there is one key element to becoming a map champion: build applications and services that delight the geo-nervous or geo-reluctant. Make it useful, beautiful, fast and simple — then everyone will be a geo-hipster.

Frank Jacobs: “I’m in the vinyl section of the shop, listening to some old Mercators”

Frank Jacobs
Frank Jacobs

Frank Jacobs (@FrankJacobs) is a journalist, blogger and author. Originally from Belgium, he currently lives in Denmark with his girlfriend Hanne. He thought his map obsession was a rare affliction until 2006, when he started blogging about Strange Maps. Seventeen million hits and one book later, he’s still looking for next week’s strangest map.

Frank was interviewed for GeoHipster by Ed Freyfogle.

Q: What makes a map strange? Would you say you have an innate sense of geohipsterism that allows you to declare a map strange at a glance?

A: I could tell you. But then I’d have to kill you. Seriously, though: Strange Maps is my attempt to stay in touch with the sense of wonder that cartography instilled in me back when I was ten years old and got my first atlas. Maps are not just about other places, they’re a place unto themselves: a playground where the world and your imagination can meet.

That playground-like quality is what I look for in maps, at least when I’m looking for maps to post on the blog. There has to be a eureka moment. Looking for a new one is exciting, because I never can tell exactly what gives a map that extra dimension. Perhaps it’s the historical anecdote it illustrates. It could be the painstaking detail — or the lack of it.

I never know where the next map will come from. That element of chance makes hunting for strange maps fun, even eight years into the blog. Nevertheless, I do know that the next strange map will fit at least three criteria: it will have a compelling backstory, it will look nice, and it will be too strange for my old school atlas.

Q: Many of your maps delve into the realm of alternative histories. Others cover historic anomalies. Some just have crazy designs. Tell us a bit about the different maps and how you find them.

A: Put a few alternative history buffs in a room — a chatroom, most likely — and soon you’ll be inundated with maps. No other community produces as many potential candidates for Strange Maps as the alt-history crowd. Many are beautifully made. Yet I generally steer clear of them, because the historical hypotheticals they’re built upon are generally too fanciful or too obscure to interest me. There have been a few exceptions, unsurprisingly often involving Nazis, as recently with that map of The Man in the High Castle, the TV series based on Philip K. Dick’s eponymous ‘What If’ classic.

I’m happy for Strange Maps to just be a grab bag of maps from as many different backgrounds as possible. There’s lots of great examples of maps used as art, for example, some of which I’ve featured on the blog: Kim Dingle’s sublimely simple United Shapes of America — a canvas filled with the shape of the U.S. as drawn from memory by a high school class. Or Grayson Perry’s Map of an Englishman, obsessively detailing his obsessions over Englishness. On the other end of the spectrum, there are statistical maps, like Joseph Minard’s stunning chart of the deadly carnage that was Napoleon’s Russia campaign. Or the Inglehart-Welzel map, which plots out countries according to the secularity and self-expressiveness of their society on a map that is cultural rather than geographic. In between are fantasy maps like Tolkien’s, adventure story maps like Treasure Island, maps made for propaganda or satire. As long as I can mix it all up, I’m happy.

Q: You’re from Belgium, a cartographer’s delight of a country with three official languages, a rich history of border changes, and of course the famous Baarle-Hertog exclave. Do you think this caused your interest in strange maps?

A: Growing up where I did was a bit surreal for a map-lover: travel south for 30 kilometres, and you’re in a different culture, but still in the same country. Go east for as far, and you’re in the same language area, but in a different country. It certainly reinforced my fascination with those man-made lines that traversed the maps in my atlas. Baarle might be Belgium’s best-known border anomaly, but there are other, equally fascinating ones. Like the Esperanto micronation of Amikejo, set up in a neutral zone that transformed Belgium’s border tripoint with the Netherlands and Germany into one of the world’s rare international quadripoints. Or the five German exclaves, separated from the Heimat by a railway track that was placed under Belgian sovereignty after the First World War.

Some say Belgium itself is an experiment in surrealism: an accident of history, a collision of cultures, and the frequent object of mockery by our more important neighbours. Belgians have a hard time convincing themselves they live in a ‘proper’ country. No wonder Magritte — he of Ceci n’est pas une pipe — is our ‘national’ painter. So yes, growing up in that anomaly of a country definitely shaped my interest in surreal cartography.

Q: Relatedly, has any specific culture, region, or time period produced more strange maps than others?

A: Yes — although it’s a bit unfair to hold it against them: the cartographers of the Age of Exploration produced a mass of maps of new lands, many of them drawn up on little more than hearsay. Take the history of California’s depiction as an island, which occurred on and off well into the 1700s. Or all those phantom islands dotting the North Atlantic, products of tall tales, wishful thinking or just an attempt by failed explorers to get enough funding to have another go at glory.

Q: What makes for a good border dispute? Do your maps ever lead to flame wars?

A: If you value your free time, steer well clear of Balkan irredentism. Once — fortunately, a long time ago by now — I posted a map of Greater Albania, which included not only Kosovo, but also parts of Montenegro, Macedonia and Serbia proper. It didn’t take very long before commenters from all countries involved were insulting each other, and each other’s mothers in the comments section.

Another example of maps ruffling feathers was that faulty Google Map of the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Both countries came quite close to fighting over the disputed border as a result.

Q: As more and more people use maps all the time via their phone, it seems maps are increasingly moving out of the realm of the cartonerds and into the mainstream. What’s your take on this trend? Are maps a fad or is this the new norm?

A: Humans made maps before they could write. I think that’s why they appeal so directly to us: they’re humanity’s primeval common language, in a way. As technology embeds maps in ever more aspects of our daily life, I suspect we’re going towards a schism in cartography, separating the merely utilitarian from the purely beautiful. It’s pretty clear which side I am on. I’m in the vinyl section of the shop, listening to some old Mercators, scratches and all, while the kids figure out how to upload their jogging route to the interweb.

Q: Does the burden of having to decide what is strange ever weigh on you?

A: No, it’s a joy, and that’s why I’m still doing it. Also, I get so many great ideas and maps sent in by readers of the blog that it would be a shame to stop before I’ve gone through all of them.

In case you’ve sent one in back in 2010 and are still waiting: there’s about 5,000 suggestions waiting for an answer. That does weigh on me. How much does a secretary cost?

Q: What’s your personal favourite map?

A: It’s like with your own children: it varies. And sometimes I hate them all. But honestly, I get asked that question a lot, and I usually have a different answer. So I guess I don’t have a favourite map. I do have a few favourite mapmakers. How much I wouldn’t give for a nice long talk with Heinrich Bünting, who made the Whole World in a Cloverleaf map back in the 16th century. And while I’m at it, I’m also inviting Richard Edes Harrison, whose brilliant map perspectives arrived just in time to give people a sense of the global scale of World War Two. And how about all those British generals who drew half of the world’s borders? To misquote Jaws: I think we need a bigger map room.

Steven Ramage: “Fitness for purpose is one of my favourite terms”

Steven Ramage
Steven Ramage

After a number of years working with internationally-recognised organisations (Navteq, 1Spatial, OGC, and Ordnance Survey (OS)), Steven is now working for what3words, based in London; they’re helping to simply and precisely communicate location using only words. He also consults for OS, the World Bank, and is a Visiting Professor at the Institute for Future Cities at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland. He is a fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), and of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS).

Steven was interviewed for GeoHipster by Ed Freyfogle.

Q: You’ve had a long and diverse geo career that’s taken you around the world. Briefly take us through your experiences. What makes you a geohipster?

A: Less of the long please! I’m still ONLY in my 40s. I started thinking about geo in my first job in container shipping, so I’m probably more of a geoshipster than geohipster :d)

I wanted to track container shipping in the early 90s, something akin to DHL Smart Sentry today, but the tech just wasn’t there. Then I moved to the marine survey and offshore services arena and was thrown in at the deep end (no pun intended) having to learn the basics of dredging, rig positioning, cable lay surveys, and seismic surveying. Spent considerable time in Aberdeen, Great Yarmouth and IJmuiden in the Netherlands. With the word GPS in my CV, a headhunter contacted me for a job with Navteq (now Nokia HERE) and I was the first market development manager for what was called the Wireless and Internet division. I had a blast dealing with Mapquest, Ericsson, Nokia, Telcontar, Vodafone, and all the other LBS players in the early days, and used to attend GSM in Cannes before it became MWC in Barcelona. I also lost a small fortune when I left Navteq (prior to the Nokia acquisition) and gave up my stock options — a lesson that cost me but also taught me well.

I joined Laser-Scan in 2001 (and helped rename it to 1Spatial) as Product Manager for some spatial tools that operated in databases, essentially server-side topology management in Oracle9i. I stayed there 9 years and was part of the Management Buyout team in 2003, which again taught me a lot but also challenged me considerably. In 2004 my son, Thomas, was born and unfortunately later that year my wife, Nina, was diagnosed with cancer. She’s much better now but I owe a great deal to my colleagues at 1Spatial for their support. In 2010 several people, whom I would call mentors, highlighted a vacancy for an Exec Director position at the OGC – Geoff Zeiss, Maurits van der Vlugt, and Peter Woodsford. So I dropped a note to Mark Reichardt and after a Skype interview with half a dozen people in the US I took on the marketing and communications role. I focussed the comms round ‘location’ reusing an existing strapline (c/o Sam Bacharach): Making location count. I also changed the website (for better or worse) to reflect domains and communities of interest. The biggest topic for me in international geospatial standards is business value and after 4.5 years as the initiator and chair (with some interims) I’ve just stood down from the business value committee. Publishing a paper on standards and INSPIRE, as well as a joint paper on international geospatial standards with INEGI, Mexico for UN-GGIM are some of the small achievements in this area.

Latterly I was invited by Vanessa Lawrence CB (former DG and Chief Exec of OS) to join Ordnance Survey to head up their international activities. I REALLY didn’t want to leave Norway where I had been living near a mountain with a fjord at my back door, but the opportunity was too good to miss and I really admired all the directors and hoped I could learn from them. So for just over two years I ran Ordnance Survey International, building a very competent team of industry experts. The opportunity for OSI to highlight the major investments, lessons learned, and their capabilities around national mapping are massive and a large number of countries can learn from them. Due to health issues I took 3 months off international travel for the first time in 20 years and during that time a number of opportunities arose, which meant I would have to step down from my position as Managing Director. That’s when I joined what3words as a director. I’ve not seen anything this new in geo since Google Earth, at least from the perspective that it can truly have a global impact if adoption happens.

So lots and lots of geo, but I prefer to focus on the policy, strategy and business elements. There’s enough tech experts now today like Scott Morehouse, James Fee, Paul Ramsey, Chris Holmes, Carsten Roensdorf, Joanne Cook, Seb Lessware, Rob Atkinson, Sophia Parafina, Bill Dollins, Anne Kemp, Brian Timoney, Katherine Prebble, Simon Greener, Albert Godfrind, Jo Walsh, Gretchen Peterson, etc.

Q: The geo industry uses software to describe the world. And yet many participants in the industry focus very much on tasks in a single market. National mapping agencies are typically exactly that: national. It’s rare to meet industry insiders considering the global picture. What are the megatrends you see happening globally?

A: Back in 2006 I supported something called ePSIplus, which is now quite fashionable and important around open data and public sector information reuse. I’d like to think that in 8 years’ time what3words will be as important. Addressing is a topic that is being tackled by the UN in Africa, CRCSI in Australia, it’s a topic for debate around OpenStreetMap etc. To me this is more of a policy debate than a technological one. The same for sensors or drones or UAVs and other obvious trends around open data, open source and open standards. I see considerable support and investment coming through collective or community activities, such as CitiSense for the World Bank or UN-GGIM.

As I travelled the world with the OGC and OS, I often saw different flavours of the same problem: how to access, share and benefit from geospatial information resources (also how to fund them nationally). I also see many individuals and organisations jumping on the IoT, smart/future/connected cities, big data etc. bandwagon, and actually not enough attention being paid to data quality and access/sharing issues; all the technology in the world is not particularly helpful if the fundamentals are not there. Fitness for purpose is therefore one of my favourite terms.

Q: You were executive director of the Open Geospatial Consortium, a global body with many governmental organisations around the world developing open geospatial standards. But one of the biggest innovations in geo in the last decade has been the rise of crowdsourcing, most notably OpenStreetMap, which has no real defined standards, no one specifically “in charge”, and, by design, only a very rudimentary structure. Many attribute OSM’s success precisely to its simplicity. So which is it? Is the future top-down standards or bottom-up innovation?

A: The OGC, OSGeo, OSM and all the other open initiatives function based on communities and volunteer support, but communities need leaders. Not dictators or people with a personal, vested interest, but those with vision and tough skin. I watched Steve Coast from afar and thought he did a fabulous job, but he obviously decided to move on. It may need some more similar energy and enthusiasm to reinvigorate the community. The smart money is probably on Kate Chapman and the teams working on Humanitarian OpenStreetMap and Missing Maps. I’ve been fortunate that some of the leading open mapping and crowdsourcing people in the UK are friends, Muki Haklay, Peter Ter Haar and the #geohippy Steven Feldman, better to ask their views, they’re better qualified on this topic.

But to answer your question explicitly, I think it’s a balance of government policy driving procurement language for existing, proven geospatial standards and therefore vendor software compliance with those standards. Then bottom-up technological advances that move faster than government policy and where the crowd determines the usefulness and value of the solution.

Q: You recently left one of the oldest, most traditional geo brands in the world, the UK’s Ordnance Survey, to join the geo start-up what3words. Explain your reasons, beyond the obvious hipster points of being able to say you work at a start-up.

A: As mentioned earlier, I still support Ordnance Survey (in my spare time) through my consulting firm, advising them on geospatial standards and smart cities. When I met Chris Sheldrick, the cofounder and CEO of what3words, I completely understood  his passion for simply and precisely communicating location, and I was impressed that he came from running a music events company! Chris won’t mind me saying, but he wasn’t really aware of organisations such as Esri or Pitney Bowes, and he certainly hadn’t had much exposure to geocoding prior to setting up what3words. Kevin Pomfret introduced Denise Mckenzie to Chris, and Denise then introduced me. I’m sort of the geo industry veteran in the team, and so I have seen and done some of the things we want to try, and so hopefully I add value. After 20 years working in the location sector, I also have a fairly decent international network that we are connecting with daily.

It’s not really about making it trendy for me (any more). My mother was nominated as Scottish person of the year 2006 and she was awarded an MBE for her services to the community, so I’ve got major aspirations to try and do something similar to what my parents achieved in Scotland. Since geo is where it’s at, I’m hoping I can make a difference through what3words.

Q: One complaint leveled against What3Words is that it is not open. Is it possible to be hip and closed?

A: Twitter. Facebook. iTunes. At least one of these apps is used by us, our friends, or family daily. I think this shows that it is possible. However, for a number of people it is not necessarily a simple case of open or closed — what concerns them is how they will be charged in the future and to that end we come up with a model that doesn’t charge citizens or end users in the event of humanitarian assistance or international development activities.

Q: You’re a guest lecturer at Southampton University. What’s the advice you’d give to the geohipsters out there at the start of their geo careers. Should they be trying to land a job at a “big name”? Should they be joining (or founding) a geo-focused start-up?

A: Interestingly enough I was a guest lecturer at the Business School, not the Geography Department, presenting to MSc students on global entrepreneurship, strategy and innovation. I’ve obviously done both and I think it does pay to gain experience in different-sized organisations, different industry footprints, and different visions and missions. If you can put up with trying to navigate through large organisations and cope with the bureaucracy and communication challenges, you certainly learn a lot and have more resources available. But nothing beats doing it firsthand where you understand innately cash flow and customer service — the basis for any business.

Q: Any closing thoughts for all the geohipsters out there?

A: There are some fabulous people in the geospatial community, and that’s what makes doing our jobs fun. My global network is not all geohipsters, and that’s good because we need different kinds of people to challenge us to keep us awake and relevant. Also many of my network have become friends over the years and that means places to stay!  A large number of people have done the groundwork for future geohipsters, and so it’s a great time to build on all that work and take it to the next level.

Finally, a shameless plug. Think about the 135 countries out there that have poor or no addressing and how what3words could help support economic growth, international development, financial inclusion and other areas.

Disclosure: Ed Freyfogle is a co-founder of Lokku Ltd, which is a seed investor in What3Words.

Steven Feldman: “Geohippies want to make a difference through disruption, geo-evangelism, and a bit of altruism”

Steven Feldman
Steven Feldman

Steven Feldman (@StevenFeldman) is founder of geo consultancy KnowWhere, chairman of geo.me, chairman of Exprodat Consulting, a strategic advisor to Astun Technology, a Special Lecturer at the School of Geography at the University of Nottingham, and chair of the Local Organizing Committee for FOSS4G 2013. He is part of the Taarifa team and helped start the OSM-GB project. Previously he was head of professional services at whereonearth.com and UK Managing Director of MapInfo.

Steven was interviewed for GeoHipster by Ed Freyfogle while the two were at #WhereBerlin.

Q: You’re a long-time regular on the geo scene here in London, diving into OpenStreetMap many years ago and sponsoring #geomob the last few years. And yet you’re fairly far from the typical neogeo stereotype. Putting it gently, you’re a bit more experienced than the typical web2.0 code jockey. Indeed geo is actually your second career. What’s your geostory?

A: Let’s get the experience thing out of the way — I just had my Beatles Birthday, you can work that out. I am a commercial animal through and through — I’ve never written a line of code, my biggest technical achievement is tweaking the CSS on my blog.

I graduated from Cambridge with an Economics degree, an idea for a PhD but no funding, and no other idea what I wanted to do. I was offered a job in a mirror manufacturing business, I thought I would take it for a few months while I looked for something interesting to do, and I ended up staying in the building materials industry for over 20 years. I finished up running a division of Pilkington (the glass makers) and then got made redundant at 45. A short stressful and not very successful investment in environmental monitoring tech followed, including a lesson about flogging dead horses which I should share with any startups that I advise. Then I bumped into a friend who owned GDC, a data capture business, that was about to merge with one of those then-exciting internet startups which was about to become whereonearth.com. It sounded like fun and it was a million miles from glass and mirror manufacture so I joined up and headed up the professional services and GIS team at whereonearth. A few years later the whereonearth burn rate was exceeding investors’ patience and we had the opportunity to buy out the old GDC software business which no one thought was sexy enough in the dot com era. We knew that e-government was about to take off in the UK and with some trepidation took the opportunity with all but one of our 18 staff investing their money to buy the business. Less than 5 years later we sold GDC to MapInfo for quite a lot of money and made most of our staff/investors a good bit wealthier. I stayed on for a couple of years as Managing Director of MapInfo UK and headed up product and industry management across EMEA, two years was enough for them and me!

Since 2008 I have been having fun investing and working with startups, doing lots of open stuff because it’s disruptive, advising businesses in the geo industry, and doing a tiny bit at Nottingham University.

Q: When I told you I wanted to interview you for GeoHipster you replied that you’re more of a geohippy than hipster. What’s the difference?

A: I am not sure that I know what a ‘hipster’ is, I hope it is more like James Dean than Henry Winkler. I guess you mean someone who does ‘cool’ or innovative stuff with geo; I don’t think that’s me. I don’t really do anything with geo on the tech front, I am probably too late in my career to start another business even if I had a big idea, but I do know how to build and run a business and I am always up for an investment of time and money in someone else’s great idea. I think I am a reasonable marketeer and evangelist for things I am passionate about (and there are quite a few of those), which can be noisy but isn’t really hip.

I grew up in the sixties listening to Dylan and the Dead, demonstrating against apartheid and the Vietnam war, and believing that our generation could change the world. A first life in building materials grinds some of that idealism out of you, but the last 10 years in geo have rekindled that passion and belief that people can make a difference, particularly with a combination of Geo and Open. Add to that the fact that I banked the ‘fuck you’ money, and I now have the freedom to try and give something back and make a difference — so let me be your first Geohippy interview.

Q: A few years back you were one of the people behind the now defunct OSM-GB project. Tell us about the project and why it’s no longer operating. Was it just too soon? Is OSM the future?

A: That was at the Nottingham Geospatial Institute. We got the funding to use some heavyweight rules-based quality technology from 1Spatial (which is used by Ordnance Survey) to try and build an automated quality improvement process on OSM, and then to explore how OSM might be used by ‘professional users’, particularly in the public sector.

We discovered that we could generate some geometric improvements to the OSM data and we could identify some potential errors both in the geometry and the attribution, but we didn’t want to push our potential corrections back into the master dataset (a lot of what we identified were only potential errors rather than certainties), and we never worked out how to get engagement with the OSM mappers.

We served our ‘corrected’ version of OSM as a WMS and a tile service in OSMGB so that it would be simple for professional GIS users to consume. I was disappointed how little usage we actually got from the public sector despite a lot of initial interest at pretty high levels. The project was funded for about 16 months, we managed to keep it running for a bit longer, but eventually with no one interested in funding us we had to wrap it up.

I love OSM, I think it can be a game changer in some sectors where it is more than good enough. But let’s be honest, in the spaces where I usually work the data is too far from complete, consistent and accurate to be used as authoritative data in most public sector and mission-critical applications. I doubt that will ever change given the producer-centric focus of OSM (we map what we want because we can), but I would love to be proven wrong. OSM, even as it is now, has enormous potential to complement authoritative data from other sources, and we should be continuing to explore how we can make use of it in the public sector.

Q: Relatedly, any thoughts on the recent meltdown of OSMF? Can OSM succeed without a well organized OSMF?

A: Here’s some troll food for you. OSM and OSMF have never really worked out a comfortable relationship. OSMF seems to me to have little or no control or even influence over ‘the map’, its vision, licensing, organisation or strategy. OSMF is split into three camps at the moment:

  • Camp 1 wants to keep things ultra-light-touch and leave every decision to the activists amongst the mappers (and probably to not make many decisions, preferring to let everyone ‘do their thing’).
  • Camp 2 would like to create a more professional organisation that could raise funding and would provide direction to the project and be able to represent the project to governments and businesses that wanted to engage with OSM (I am definitely in this camp).
  • And the majority, even within OSMF, aren’t interested.

The wider OSM community is largely not interested in this stuff and just wants to get on with mapping what they want to map.

The recent meltdown as you describe it is a storm in a teacup with a relatively small number of people shouting at each other in public through the corrosive medium of email lists. You can’t have a conversation on an email list, most people in OSMF don’t even know or care what the argument is about. We talk about a community with over a million contributors, but less than 200 people voted for the new OSMF board; no one cares or understands. So now we have a board which is predominantly Camp 1 and likely to become more so over the coming year with motions for mandatory resignations, etc.

Not the way I would like to have seen things develop, but hey that’s what happens in a ‘community’, and you have to work from where we are. Maybe things will change in the coming years, I would like to see OSM/OSMF realising the vision of becoming the best and the most open map of the world that was used and supported by a colossal number of people and organisations for everyone’s benefit. I don’t think we can do that without fundamental change in the organisation of the project.

Q: Last year you helped organize FOSS4G in Nottingham. For years you’ve been a vocal advocate of open source in geo, and the need for companies to give back to the OS movement (a topic you’re presenting about here at wherecamp.de). As someone with long experience in the industry, tell us your perspective on the rise of open-source and where you see things moving in the future.

A: I am struggling to find the metaphor, “rise of open-source” just doesn’t describe what seems to be an unstoppable torrent or an overwhelmingly inevitable transformation of IT. I am going to confine myself to a short reply on Open Source Geo or we will be here till next year!

Much of what we do with geo today is pretty much ‘known stuff’ — we store data (in vector or raster formats) in a database, we edit it, we catalogue it, we query and render it to the web, mobile or desktop, and that’s most of what we do. That stuff is quite commoditised nowadays and it is inevitable that open source will get wide and growing adoption in those circumstances.

Add to that the fact that most surveys suggest that well over half of GI usage is in the public sector, who are experiencing massive financial pressures around the world and are looking to save costs by reducing their proprietary software inventory.

Oh, and if you want another thought, a lot of users and suppliers are looking to move their geo infrastructure to the cloud to provide a more flexible and scalable solution. Open Source provides a more ‘commercially scalable’ solution because you are not paying a software tax on the success of your application.

Q: You’re an advisor to / investor in several UK geo start-ups. What do you see for the future of the scene? What do you look for in a start-up?

A: That’s simple — people, people, and people. Of course you have to have a good concept and some idea of how that might make money in the future, I sort of take that for granted. I’ve looked at dozens of start-ups and invested in a few, for me it always comes down to people. If the people pitching the concept to me come over as smart, committed, and have integrity, then I get interested (it helps if I like them too). Otherwise just move on, there are plenty of fish in the sea.

I’m a bit cautious and boring as an investor — I want to see some early signs of revenue and a credible business plan. These seem to be quite scarce in the London start-up scene, particular amongst people who have had a great idea involving location.

Q: You blogged once about someone from the corporate world asking why you “waste” your time with small companies. Geo is dominated by giants like Esri, Google, TeleAtlas, Navteq, or national mapping agencies like the Ordnance Survey. Do start-ups have a chance to be globally relevant, or are they consigned to the niches? In your post you conclude small, nimble, OSS companies will eat the lunch of the incumbents. Still feel that way?

A: Hah, I guess that article was bound to come back to haunt me. You can’t consider a dominant software player like Esri (or some of the smaller long term players), a national mapping agency, and a couple of big navigation data providers as if they were the same.

If the big software vendors can’t adapt their business models rapidly they will lose a lot of market share to companies basing their offers on open source, that is already happening in the UK public sector.

I don’t see the mapping equivalent of open source — OpenStreetMap — eating Ordnance Survey’s lunch for a whole host of reasons, e.g. detail, authority, coverage, and consistency. The navigation market is going to come under increasing pressure as OSM moves from ‘good enough’ to pretty darn good, they could find themselves squeezed into high value niches.

Q: Your next challenge is as a non-exec director of the Open Addresses project getting moving here in the UK. This feels like a topic that has been going around forever, I can remember submitting postcodes to the old FreeThePostcode site a decade ago. What’s different now?

A: The Address Wars have been going on for a heck of a long time and we in the open data community are still battling away to get government to recognise that a single comprehensive address dataset is a piece of national information infrastructure that needs to be freely available to everyone for whatever use they may have.

We seemed to have taken steps backwards when the Ordnance Survey mopped up a big chunk of addressing provision by acquiring Intelligent Addressing and the data contributed by all of the Local Authorities, then there was a further setback when the government left the Postal Address File with the privatised Royal Mail. Open Addresses is trying to resolve this long-standing problem by creating a GB address database from a variety of Open Data sources and contributions through crowdsourcing (both bulk contributions and individuals). We think we can get to a fairly usable dataset within a year and have got funding to cover the initial beta phase. Maybe this will be a game changer for addressing in GB?

Q: Any closing thoughts for all the geohipsters (and hippies) out there?

A: You can’t choose to be a geohipster, it seems to be a label that others apply to you if they think that what you have done is in some way cool; I don’t think that is me. I have done pretty regular mainstream things in geo that worked for local and central government, police forces, insurance and oil exploration, that’s probably not geohipster and I’m fine with that.

Geohippies want to make a difference through disruption, geo-evangelism and a bit of altruism (I coined the term so I get to have first try at defining it). Sounds like fun to me.