Michael came to the Geo-field accidentally, burned brightly across the early GIS skies, relished being a small fish in a small pond, fought hard to keep the mystic arts secret from the unwashed masses, was an unapologetic ESRIalite, and then experienced a conversion to the “GIS is just a tool” doctrine, and now looks at any single-solution disciple with disdain...or at least a heavy dose of skepticism.
Michael’s only dedicated online presence is an embarrassingly sporadic blog...about climbing, and other pedestrian adventures.
A: Completely by mistake. Two years of pursuing Civil Engineering was abandoned, in a fit of frustration…while suffering through Differential Equations with Linear Algebra (DiffEQ for short), for the more “squishy” liberal arts degree in Geography. It appealed to my love of history, culture, and…of course, maps. I figured I would end up teaching. But, in my senior year at University of New Hampshire, I joined my housemates (all geography/geology students) in an on-campus work-study opportunity. We were all using workstation (I believe it was 5.0) ArcInfo to digitize South American deforestation. I blame two years of squinting at black and white LandSAT photos through a digitizing puck crosshair for my currently degraded eyesight.
Q: You and I worked together over 20 years ago. Do you miss GIS in the 1990s? ArcView, shapefiles, coverages…
A: 20 years ago? Those were good times. Yes…and no. I don’t necessarily miss the technology. I actually loathed ArcView when it first appeared on the scene. And…ArcCAD? PC ArcInfo? Ugh! What I do miss was the “newness” of the field at that time. We were kinda rockstars….at least in our own nerdy minds.
Q: Do you miss New Jersey?
A: Again…yes and no. I don’t miss the Garden State as much as I miss friends and family that still reside there. When I moved to Oregon in 2011, my new boss nicknamed me “Jersey.” After a while, I stopped fighting it, and just embraced the moniker.
Q: Your name is on the 1999 Digital Parcel Mapping Handbook published by URISA and the NJ State Mapping Advisory Committee. Are you still involved with digital parcel mapping? Has the methodology changed in the last 20 years?
A: That thing is still around?!?!? Maybe that’s a sign that parcel mapping HASN’T changed as much as I would have thought. I’m not involved in parcel mapping anymore. I did work for a while at Oregon Department of Revenue, in their Property Tax Mapping section. Similar work, but a lot more concerned with utilizing property survey source data to construct the tax parcels. I would hazard a guess that the basic premise is still the same, just a lot more snazzy tools available to the practitioner.
Q: Tell us about your current job. What do you do at work?
A: Five months ago I accepted a position with Oregon Department of Transportation. For the first time in over 20 years, I am doing something that is not directly connected to GIS. I am a “hybrid” Project Manager and System Analyst with Transportation Application Development (TAD). Our particular team supports the Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) business within ODOT. It was a huge leap for me to leave my GIS comfort zone, but I believe it was time for me to grow, expand, and be challenged.
Q: I know you use QGIS. Exclusively or not? What other tools do you use on a daily basis?
A: Now that I don’t have access to ArcGIS at work…yes, I’m striving to learn the ins-and-outs of QGIS. It’s purely for personal use. I have a pretty extensive collection of local hiking trail data that I’ve collected with GPS, and am undertaking to port that data from the personal geodatabase that it’s stored in to something more useable with QGIS.
Q: How does QGIS fit in within the mission of your organization?
A: Within ODOT? It doesn’t. ODOT’s GIS shop falls squarely in the Esri camp.
Q: Where do you stand in the data formats wars? Team Shapefile or Team Geopackage?
A: I always disliked shapefiles. They never felt “stable” or precise enough for my tastes. My desire for data integrity was more satisfied by the geodatabase…ESPECIALLY when it came to enforcing topology rules. As a QGIS novice, I felt like I was having to take a step back, and settle for shapefiles. So, when I “discovered” the geopackage option, I was an immediate convert. Time will tell if I actually chose the “BetaMax” (or not) of GIS data formats.
Q: You commute on an antique store bike. This is super hip. Geared or fixie? Tell us all about that.
A: I would dispute the antique label. My current bike (a 1996 Univega Rover 304) is neither “belonging to ancient times” nor is it “of high value because of its considerable age.” I picked it up for $35. Because of its LACK of monetary value, I am much less fearful of it getting stolen and I’m much less hesitant to experiment with performing repairs on it myself. It’s geared. I’ll tell you a secret, but you have to promise not to tell anyone. I don’t even KNOW what a fixie is. Single speed? That doesn’t make sense to me. Maybe I should look into it someday.
Q: Do you have any other hipster attributes we should know about?
A: Portland is where all the hipsters reside. I don’t have the time to compete with that scene. Salem has some occasional glimmers of hipster, but my theory is that Salemites maintain a perverse sense of pride in not buying into the pressure of competing with the Portland scene. Salem’s response to “Keep Portland Weird” is “Keep Salem Lame”. Not to get overly philosophical about it, but I think if you are TRYING to be a hipster…you’re doomed to failure. Reminds me of the late 80s when a lot of my brother’s friends thought “being punk” consisted solely of spiking their hair and wearing a lot of studded leather. Hipster or punk. It’s an individual state of mind, not a fashion statement. Here ends the lesson.
Q: What do you do for fun?
A: 2009 through 2012 was a particularly turbulent time in my life. Moving cross-country away from friends, family (especially my kids) was the hardest decision I ever had to make. The only thing that kept me sane and grounded was getting out into the wilderness to hike, backpack…and eventually climb. Check out my sporadic personal blog for an essay regarding “Why I Climb” (https://mikestracks.wordpress.com/2013/11/26/why-i-climb/) if you are so inclined (no pun intended). Coincidentally, the essay had its genesis in an innocent comment by this blog’s very own founder (thanks AE). My life has much less personal drama now, but the love of the outdoors remains. It is still a healing and rejuvenating activity for me. I’ve seen and done things that I previously thought weren’t possible for “normal people” like me. Besides this new-found adventurous side of me, I can totally “geek-out” with a group of friends playing tabletop board games or role-playing games. I have a lazy indulgent side also. On a warm, dry, summer Oregon day, nothing beats sitting on a winery’s veranda, overlooking the vineyards, sharing a bottle (or two) of local wine with someone special.
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our global readership?
A: “The place where you lose the trail is not necessarily the place where it ends.” –Tom Brown, Jr.
Courtney is a product manager at the Canadian Digital Service. Before joining the public service, she worked at Esri building products to connect local governments and their communities using open data. She has a BA in Urban Systems and GIS from McGill University. She lives in Ottawa and is moderately active on Twitter.
A: Growing up I was enamoured with big cities (living in the suburbs where they’re just out of reach will do that) and was glued to the computer (see: suburbs). I took an elective geography class in high school because it had an urban geo unit, and that’s where I learned about GIS. We used ArcView 3. I remember creating shapefiles of the neighbouring plaza’s building footprints and mapping the GPS points of garbage. I loved the mix of art and science that GIS brought — the data collection, analysis, and communicating information in a clear and appealing way. It was a way I got to flex whatever creativity or eye for design I had while being rooted in science, which was typically more of my strong suit. I also got to be on the computer, so, bonus! My first GIS map is still kicking around in my dad’s basement somewhere. It’s not The Garbage Map, but it is definitely a garbage map.
I was amped to learn more in university and dive deeper into urban applications of GIS. I wanted to be a transportation planner but got wooed by the open government data movement that was taking off, and that set my course.
Q: You currently work for the Canadian Digital Service. What is the mission of the Service, and what do you personally do there?
A: The Canadian Digital Service uses digital skills and knowledge to make it easier for people to access and use government services. We partner with other federal departments and work to improve the services they provide Canadians, and while doing so we’re sharing with our colleagues a different way of working in government – a way that’s open, interdisciplinary, and puts the user first. We’re trying to make everyone’s day a little bit easier.
I’m a product manager, so I work on a delivery team of designers, researchers, and developers, and engage with partners across government to make sure the right thing gets built at the right time. It’s a lot of different hats.
A: Yeah! The team really is fantastic. I think it’s incredibly important that we stay humble in the kind of work we do, especially when we’re the new kids in town and we’re working with public servants that have been doing this hard work for years. We’re not sweeping into departments and shaking them up, but aiming to empower folks who have been moving to work in a more modern way all along. I feel incredibly supported as an individual working at CDS, but I don’t feel like it’s really about us in the end. I’d encourage anyone who wants to tackle some big issues for the greater good to apply–we’re looking for roles across the organisation and you don’t need to be Canadian.
Q: Prior to your current position you worked at Esri DC, where you focused on ArcGIS Open Data. Was that big / open geodata, or just data?
A: It was just data. ArcGIS Hub (née Open Data) supports both spatial and non-spatial data, though of course the majority of datasets people published were spatial — raster or vector. I think that’s mostly of a function of it being Esri but also that the majority of data out there has a spatial component.
Q: Is spatial still special?
A: I’m not sure spatial is inherently special, but local gov GIS teams are incredibly well equipped to spearhead a city’s open data strategy and open data services. They hold a ton of data, and we’ve seen more GIS folk use their data to tell stories and share information rather than simply sharing shapefiles — they’ve moved beyond reaching only the civic hacker or data journalist. Your average person on the street doesn’t care what a shapefile is. Lots of people just want to know if they’re buying a home in a safe area and to make sure their kid can walk to school without a high chance of getting run over. Having those kinds of geo-infomediaries that put insights beside data empowers more users to make decisions and insights of their own.
Over my four years at Esri we saw incredible information resources emerge from what started as simple open data sites. Some of Esri’s users went from being GIS analysts at their local government to being the city’s Chief Data Officer, others have developed partnerships with Waze, others are engaging with schools and showing students the value of open data. GIS shops can really open the door to greater public uses and applications of information beyond just sharing data.
Q: Tell us about life after Esri.
A: Life after Esri was tough at first. Leaving Esri was tough. It took a long time to feel comfortable and productive at my first long-term job out of university, which I imagine a lot of young women in tech can relate to. I had established relationships, a community of practice, and a reputation, and then I took a leap and moved to a new city to start a new job in a new field where I didn’t have any of that. So it was a bit of a lonely reset. The first few months were challenging and scary and uncomfortable, but I need to feel challenged and scared and uncomfortable in order to grow, and I don’t regret it. Plus my rent is cheaper.
I miss geography, GIS, and DC’s incredible geo community. Twitter provides me an endless stream of geo FOMO.
Q: What drove you to come work in the US? What drove you to return to Canada?
A: Both times were for jobs; I’m very lucky I could pick up and move like that. I attended the 2014 OpenStreetMap conference in DC and met people from Esri which led to the move south of the border. It was the best thing I could have done at the time and I didn’t think twice about it.
During my time in DC I was introduced to 18F and the United States Digital Service, and then gradually followed Canada’s growth into digital government — Code for Canada forming, the province of Ontario hiring a Chief Digital Officer and creating the Ontario Digital Service, and then the Canadian Digital Service being born. I wanted a closer look at how government works and it’s an exciting time to work in digital government in Canada. It’s also great to be back closer to my family and to have real winters again.
Q: PBR features regularly in your Instagram feed. Also bikes. Any other hipster attributes we should know about?
A: Ha! Damn, outed. In my defense, PBR is a fine dock beer and we recently got out of dock season here in Ontario. Back in DC my pal Max hosts an annual hipster triathlon: swim 20 laps of a public pool, run around a track for a while, then bike to a brewery wearing funny clothes. I loved it. Other than that, I don’t think about what it means to be a hipster or what hipster attributes are. Maybe that makes me one. Whatever.
Q: Canadians are nice and generous. What else are they?
A: I struggle a bit with defining Canadian identity because It’s filled with so many different types of people from different geographies. I think Canadians have a witty, satirical, sometimes dark sense of humour. We are incredibly diplomatic and while polite, our politeness is often just a way to mitigate our fear of confrontation, and sometimes that turns into passive aggression. We have great musicians that we’re fiercely defensive of. We get excited when anything Canadian appears in American pop culture and we take the jokes in stride. We have parental leave!
We also have our fair share of hate crimes and racist harassment, a version of Breitbart, a history of Indigenous genocide that still carries through to today, and a white nationalist running for mayor of the largest city in Canada. That’s harsh, but I feel Canada is frequently cast in this utopian light where the only news is a deer strolling in a Tim Hortons drive-thru. It’s a mix of good and bad. It’s like any place.
I often pass this book in the window of a local bookstore, and I think it sums it up:
Q: Are you a geohipster? Why / why not?
A: I’ll hang onto whatever variation of geographer identity I can get nowadays.
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our readers?
A: If you’re wavering about moving to a new place where you don’t know anyone, just go for it, especially if you’re young. As my new coworker Lyn says, what’s the better story when you’re eighty?
Also, here is my favourite song that features map projections:
*The irony of this video not working in Canada is not lost on me.
Bill Dollins is the Chief Information Officer at Spatial Networks, Inc., where he is responsible for leading information management and security strategy. He works remotely from his home office in Southern Maryland, leading a team that is focused on optimizing the acquisition, management, analysis, and delivery of geospatial data. Outside of work, he can usually be found spending time with his family, wearing out a pair of Brooks running shoes, or figuring out how to lift heavier things. He blogs less frequently than he used to and is planning to remedy that situation. He can be found on Twitter, LinkedIn, and GitHub. He is a fan of Washington, DC area sports teams, as well as the Alabama Crimson Tide, due to multi-generational family loyalties.
A: I didn’t know that and I feel slightly intimidated. I guess I need to make this good. I’m setting precedent, so should I go with dry sarcasm, self-deprecation, or over-the-top hyperbole? I think I’ll just wing it and see where it goes.
Q: A lot has changed since we last conversed on these pages. Tell us about your new gig.
A: I’ve been working at Spatial Networks, Inc. since February 2017. Many may know us as the company that makes Fulcrum, the leading mobile data collection application for iOS and Android. I joined at a fortunate time, at the outset of a significant period of growth for the company. As a result, we’ve done a lot of hiring and reorganized a couple of times to position the company for continued growth.
In my current role, I wear two hats as CIO and GIO. In the former role, I oversee the implementation and use of corporate systems and also address our corporate technical compliance with regulations such as the EU’s GDPR. In the latter role, I lead the management of our corporate geospatial data assets.
Those assets primarily take the form of data collected to support our Foresight data-as-a-service offering. With Foresight, we offer on-demand geospatial context on any topic in any geography for any duration. Combined with a global footprint, that can make for some unique data challenges and that’s where our data management team picks up. The data goes through QA/QC, normalization and restructuring to make it more consumer-friendly and ready for delivery. We’re using a mix of in-house, commercial, and open-source tools to build and automate processes to ensure consistency and shorten time-to-market. As a result, the last 18 months have seen SQL become my primary development language. I was always comfortable with it, but now it’s where I do most of my hands-on work.
That said, my role in the company is primarily strategy and leadership. That has given me the opportunity to work with an outstanding leadership team to steer the direction of the company and its product line. It’s also given me a chance to appreciate the roles played by design, product management, customer support, sales, and marketing in building successful products. I always understood that conceptually, but seeing people talented in those disciplines performing at a high level has really driven it home for me in a practical way.
I could go on, but I’ll sum it by saying I’m even happier in this role than I expected and I’m looking forward to the growth ahead. Oh….and we’re hiring!
Q: Any other important changes since 2014?
A: In addition to leaving the company in which I was a partner for 15 years, I also sold the house in which I grew up and built a new one. That happened shortly after the first interview, so it’s been quite a while now. It was a freeing experience that I could probably write about at length.
I also dipped a toe back into academia for the first time in a couple of decades by teaching an online course in the Salisbury University Geography program. It’s been a rewarding experience working with the students. It’s a masters-level course, so most are already into their professional careers, which brings a variety of perspectives.
Additionally, my alma mater, UMBC, knocked off 1-seed Virginia in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament (Go Retrievers!), Alabama won their 16th and 17th college football national championships (Roll Tide!), and the Washington Capitals won their first Stanley Cup (C-A-P-S, Caps, Caps, Caps!).
Q: In your 2014 interview you talked a lot about layers in GIS. What precipitated that, and has your outlook on layers changed since then?
A: I think I was working on some sort of network modelling behavior, which is something I’ve circled back to many times during my career. I re-read that response and I think I was inarticulately trying to say that I find traditional GIS inadequate for modeling our world. I still think that’s true, but maybe that’s also okay. Maybe traditional GIS isn’t meant to do that kind of modeling.
It’s been observed over the last few years that spatial technology is becoming more componentized and spatial analysis is getting embedded within other software tools. This is probably most obvious in things like R and Pandas, which present as more traditional statistical and data analysis tools, rather than primarily as a GIS. It is possible to do sophisticated spatial analysis in those environments, but they don’t drag along all of the overhead of an ArcGIS or a QGIS. I think that trend is accelerating.
There remains, and there probably always will be, a core constituency for traditional GIS. These are things like local government planning, natural resources management, parcel mapping, as well as a fairly exhaustive list of other use cases we can intuitively think of as the core audience for GIS as we’ve come to know it. These aren’t going away anytime soon and I don’t necessarily think they need the kind of modeling that I was discussing previously.
Q: You coined the term “shapefiled”, meaning geodata whose quality has been degraded by converting it (them?) to shapefile format. Yet the shapefile popularity continues to grow. How do you explain an (allegedly) inferior data format’s undisputed reign?
A: Whoa, good pull. I had totally forgotten about that.
Giving the shapefile grief is like shooting fish in a barrel, but there’s an old saying: “Don’t let ‘perfect’ be the enemy of ‘good enough.’” The shapefile is an ideal example of something that is good enough at what it does to meet the needs of a broad audience.
Context matters. The shapefile wasn’t even the best format in the Esri stable at the time of its inception. That was the ARC/INFO coverage and I don’t recall anyone being in love with the shapefile back then. It isn’t conceptually much different than one of its 90s contemporaries, the MapInfo TAB, which was (is?) also a collection of sidecars. So why did the shapefile take off?
In 1998, Esri was under a lot of pressure to publish the binary specification of the ARC/INFO coverage. It was also feeling some heat from the nascent Open GIS Consortium for openness in general, so they published the shapefile. Anecdotally, I had friends who worked for Esri at the time who said the shapefile, since it was non-topological, wasn’t considered a serious format, so it was published to take the heat off the demand for the coverage.
I’m pretty sure that was never an official stance and I could never verify it beyond the anecdotes, but the end result is that the industry finally had the published, royalty-free binary specification of a geospatial format that was already in wide use. It took off. Within a couple of years, all of Esri’s commercial competition supported read/write of the shapefile, but it went beyond that. You (Atanas) may remember that, in its pre-Microsoft days, Visio had a “maps” plug-in where you could make Visio-style cartoon maps. It also supported the shapefile…an office productivity app supported reading a real geospatial format prior to 2000. It was a time when geospatial data was still a mystery outside of GIS, so a useful, open format was pounced upon.
Which brings us to today. The shapefile was so widely adopted so quickly that it litters file systems everywhere. It won’t ever really go away. And, because it is good enough, it presents a challenge to any potential successor that the shapefile simply never had to meet: the compelling reason to change. Thus far, no one has really come up with that reason for people who use shapefiles.
So, while the GIS world continues to search for/debate the perfect format, the one that’s good enough keeps going.
Having said all of that, I will gleefully roast marshmallows over the shapefile’s funeral pyre.
Q: Where is GIS headed? Today “spatial analysis” and “data visualization” are considered parts of “GIS”. But is the term GIS even appropriate anymore? Is spatial still special? When I went to grad school, we called it “Computer Applications in Planning”. These days many universities offer graduate programs in GIS. Is GIS a profession? Or it is a splintering set of tools that many different professions increasingly incorporate into their arsenal?
A: I view technology, especially software, as a concrete manifestation of the knowledge base of its developers and of the discipline in which they operate. So, “GIS,” as a set of software tools is a manifestation of the geographic body of knowledge. In terms of the body of knowledge, I think spatial is still special. A good example of this is a recent Twitter discussion I saw in which Morten Nielsen described the issues involved with unprojecting spatial data (https://twitter.com/JimBarry/status/1014702749102034944). It’s a great encapsulation of what I mean.
Projections are a core concept in geography, and using them incorrectly can result in bad data, erroneous results, and faulty decisions. Morten correctly describes how this works. That’s the body of knowledge. It is manifested in great software tools that have everything you need to correctly address such issues, but many people today see coordinate transformation as plugging a “from” EPSG code and a “to” EPSG code into a dialog box or a function call. That’s a great way to get bad data.
“GIS” as a distinct technological entity is disappearing, as it should. Spatial and cartographic techniques are gradually getting modularized and incorporated into other environments. Most vertical domains already understand how to use location in their activities. They want “just enough” GIS to do what they already know they need to do. For example, is R a GIS? I don’t think of it as one, but it has spatial analysis and visualization capabilities.
But that’s the technology, which doesn’t represent 100% of the knowledge base. Back to the projection example above. Any organization can plug proj4 or something into a piece of software, but they probably still need someone like Morten, who understands the appropriate use of the tools.
So, I see GIS splitting apart and diffusing across application domains. But, as the technology becomes more commoditized, the need for spatial understanding will increase and the value of the larger geographic knowledge base will grow. For the foreseeable future, I see the value of the technology in something of an inverse relationship with the value of the knowledge base.
Q: What would you say to a high school graduate who wants to go into GIS?
A: Don’t. Become proficient at something else and learn how to apply geography and spatial analysis to it. That’s not as contrary to the previous answer as it may seem. If you understand geography at the conceptual and practical level, and aren’t afraid to get your hands dirty with code or technical integration, I think there’s probably still a lot of mileage in being the geographer in an organization that does something else for a living.
Q: The war on cubicle body is raging. Update us on its origins, and the current theatre of operations.
A: I covered the origins in some detail here, but the short version is that 24 years as a defense contracting cube dweller had left me in the worst physical shape of my life. I weighed more than I ever had, I was diagnosed with asthma, and I my cardiac health was not perfect — though not terrible. I have a family history of cardiac issues, so I sat up and paid attention.
I joined a gym and started working with a trainer. The “war on cubicle body” was something I dreamed up to keep myself motivated, as that’s been an issue for me with regard to fitness. I started tweeting and my social media circle, many of whom read GeoHipster, has been incredible in its support. I can’t thank everyone enough.
I chose running as my main line of attack. I find that I need to organize my efforts around a central activity, so I chose running because it’s got a low barrier to entry and it’s easy for me to put on shoes and get a few miles in at lunch time. All of my other strength and core training is centered around getting better at running.
I am currently training for the Army 10-miler in DC in October. It’ll be my longest run yet and I’m looking forward to it. It will be the last race I run in my 40s and is an early birthday gift to myself. I’m certainly not fast, I’m simply looking to enjoy the training process and finish the race.
Q: Levi’s or Carhartt?
A: Mostly Under Armour and Nike Dri-Fit these days. When I have to actually wear long pants, it’s Levi’s 550 relaxed fit, never skinny (see the aforementioned cubicle body).
Carhartt is for people who do real work for a living. I have soft programmer hands and donning Carhartt would be a disservice to those who really need to wear it.
Q: Starbucks, Dunkin, or gas station coffee? Why???
A: Truck stop coffee. I realize there’s debate on this, but coffee is primarily a caffeine delivery mechanism. The best coffee starches your shirt from the inside out and no place does that better than a place that caters to long haul truckers. My order of preference is Flying J, Love’s, and then TA.
Since truck stops are not ubiquitous, I’ve been known to darken the door of a Starbucks or two. Dunkin coffee is generally weak to the point of being worthless.
At home, I brew my own. <shameless plug>I have gotten hooked on the French roast by Maryland’s own Rise Up coffee roasters.</shameless plug>.
Tim is a British geospatial developer, based in the north of England. Active within the OpenStreetMap community where he is known as “chippy”, Tim also has an interest in historical geography. Graduating with a degree in Environmental Science and later with a GIS Masters, he has worked for a number of organisations, including GeoIQ (of Geocommons and Esri acquisition fame) and Topomancy LLC developing historical mapping services for the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress. Tim currently works for himself and is available for hire. You might be familiar with his work on Mapwarper.net https://mapwarper.net/ ,-- the open source, free to use, collaborative georectification tool.
Q: You have somewhat of an enigmatic online persona. Care to lift the veil and tell us more about yourself?
You are not the first to say that I have an obscure online presence, but each time I’m a little bit surprised as it implies that others have a more public online life. Perhaps I’m European and we have different ideas and feelings about one’s private life? I’m also a bit older than most digital natives — perhaps that’s it? Also, given the current Facebook news event, one could understand why people might not want to share personal stuff online so much, but I wouldn’t say online privacy drives my activities. I also tend to dislike self promotion and blowing my own trumpet, so if you want advice on how to not share too much online, hire me as I’m a globally-recognised world-class thought leader in enigmatic social media practices!
Q: We met IRL in NYC at the 2015 SOTMUS conference, but we “met” on Twitter years prior, where you have been sharing witty commentary since early 2007. What brought you to Twitter in the first place, and what keeps you there?
A: I joined Twitter during one of the first WhereCamps in the Bay Area about a decade ago. A WhereCamp is a geo unconference. Free to attend and mostly self organised, WhereCamps were the fun after-party/conference usually straight after the O’Reilly Where 2.0 Conference. Anyhow, Twitter and geo at that time was quite similar. Early adopters, outlook and usage was quite similar. More optimism, smaller community, and more experimentation. The era of LBS was just around the corner! “Neogeography” was coined. There were no celebrities using Twitter, and it was never talked about by the chattering classes or your parents. Back then, people communicated mostly via desktop-based instant messenger clients, where you could set your away status to let your contacts know what you were up to if you were offline. Because of that “tweets” were called “statuses” for years. It’s quite different now of course and I mainly use it to read jokes, industry news, and alerts for various projects; it’s also good for direct messaging. I periodically delete all my tweets, except my likes and tweets that have certain words (e.g. “psychogeography” see below) in there. Thinking about this question and my own relationship with Twitter I’m forced to agree with Stephen Fry’s assertion that Twitter has become like a swimming pool that someone has done a poo in. My mute list contains most current political keywords that make up a little bit of the fecal matter. For several years I was accused of being both FakeSteveC (now Anonymaps) and FakeEdParsons, which I completely refute, but I was flattered of course, and I do enjoy Anonymaps greatly! In previous years, as further proof of my global thought leader status in social media frivolity, I achieved media coverage for starting the first truly global-wide meme on Twitter (https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/sometimes-i-just-want-to-_n_696318) and for creating a tool for making funny London Tube signs. An image created using an instance of that open source tool (not associated or managed by me) was shared virally via Twitter and made it into the UK Parliament with our Prime Minister herself commenting on it! (https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/media/2017/03/man-who-created-fake-tube-sign-explains-why-he-did-it)
The veil truly gets lifted!
Q: You are clearly passionate about OSM. Tell us more about your involvement with OSM — what and why.
A: OpenStreetMap started in the UK. And the reason why it started there was because we proto-geo-hipsters were starting to do cool stuff online with maps but we didn’t have any free data to play with. I was working for a city council at the time and I had nice data in the office but I couldn’t put it online for people to play with. The Americans had Tiger at least and a number of other datasets, but all the Brits had was blurry Landsat and hand-scanned out-of-copyright maps. So OSM was a solution to that itch. It was also a fun activity mapping from scratch, and got a fair bit of interest from the wider grassroots computing communities in Europe — Linux user groups in particular it seemed. Early on I hacked on a plugin for JOSM to read in WMS map images, and actually started Mapwarper as a way for people to easily get scanned out-of-copyright paper maps and balloon / kite imagery into a format for tracing over into OSM. I am also involved with Ben Dalton from the RCA on mapping the physical infrastructure of the internet within OSM: The New Cloud Atlas. http://newcloudatlas.org The things we map are data centres, cell towers, undersea cables etc. These days I’m also interested in OpenHistoricalMap http://www.openhistoricalmap.org which uses a separate OSM stack to make a map of literally everything that has ever existed in history and time! I think it’s a very modest mapping project.
I’m a supporter of the OSM Community, and worry when the community as a whole gets targeted for the behaviour of a small number of people. Those who seem to me to complain most about the community are also those who appear to work for companies that would benefit most from changes to OSM. Of course the problem of how to deal with a small number of troublesome people still remains and should be addressed. However, I’m quite the optimist and know that the wider OSM community is pretty healthy on the whole. It’s also worth saying that OSM, the organising entity, wouldn’t have been successful if it was bigger. It’s amazing, awesome, and crucial that the OSM Foundation remains small and focused, and that because of this leanness the ecosystem of tools, applications and services has been able to grow around it and flourish.
Q: You blog about Psychogeography. Tell us what that is, and what got you interested in the subject.
A: Psychogeography means many things. I’m very inclusive on what it means, many other people with definitions are more exclusive. So apologies for any long-winded explanation! So, what does it mean? There’s a number of definitions. It’s the cross-over of geography, psychology, and art. It can cover games, sound, locative art, walking art, architecture, urban planning, cartography, literature, blockchain, and even Virtual Reality. The famous geographer / cartographer Denis Wood can be said to do it, and New Yorkers might remember the Conflux Festival as having a number of psychogeographic-like events. I like this definition best: Psychogeography is exploring space where you can learn three things: You can learn about a particular place (local), you can learn how places and space works (geography), and you can learn about yourself (your own perceptions, interpretations). Psychogeography is often classically done through something called the Derive (French for drift) and that mainly comes from the boozy French group The Situationists, led by a fella called Debord. Debord came up with the idea of the Society of the Spectacle — which essentially is our consumerist culture of where it’s only the look that counts, where appearances matter more. A hipster is actually the perfect citizen within the Spectacle. They consume, but they consume because it looks authentic. They want the appearance of authenticity. A smaller number of hipsters create, and they create to appear authentic, handmade and artisan. Non-hipsters know it’s all fake, that’s why they mock hipsters. Ever notice how hipsters seem oblivious to this mockery? Because deep within themselves, hipsters know it too. But this feeling of fakeness is actually the crucial central thing! This fakeness drives the search for authenticity within hipsters, leading to the strengthening of the Spectacle. All this was predicted by Debord in the 50s. Hipsterism might be the perfect form of the human in the Spectacle, but we all have a greater or lesser participation in it, according to Debord. (I’m about 50% hipster.) Hipsters politically have been described as neo-liberal — they will support changes that appear progressive rather than those that might be more concretely beneficial or more socially minded. Hipsters will happily work in Silicon Valley venture capital-funded firms while thinking themselves as socialist. In the urban environment, hipsters get the blame for gentrification.
A geohipster would create tools to appear to be bespoke and artisan. Other geo hipsters will use them to support this. It’s not the technology that makes the hipster — it’s the way this is communicated, how it’s consumed. Twitter, blogs, and GitHub are the main way tech-hipsters communicate their images of what they are to one another. You also don’t seem to get shy hipsters online, do you?
Anyhow, the Drift, according to the Situationists, is an unstructured walk though varied environments. It’s a walk, or a way of using space that the space doesn’t prescribe. Think about travelling to the shops or to the pub. Now think about moving through that space at random, or by alternating a left or right turn. No one else would have used that space in that way before. By doing a drift you can uncover how the spectacle works. By doing things in non-prescriptive ways you see how they really work. It’s essentially a hacking activity.
Debord said that the Derive is the way to smash the Spectacle, or at least expose it, and capitalism. I don’t really believe that theory at all. But it would show you how things work, and I prefer the three types of learning theory as given above. It’s changed a bunch over the years anyhow, and I’m not sure what the current form is — we will find out what is happening now when it’s over. At FOSS4G conference a few years ago I did a talk about Psychogeography and its relevance to geographers, map makers, etc. — the key idea is that it’s a perception awareness activity — how can we make maps of a place if we don’t really know the place? I’m running the World Congress of Psychogeography this year in September, http://4wcop.org/. You should come too! Last year Irish national broadcaster RTE ran a radio show about the conference and psychogeography in general, so I’d suggest giving this a listen https://soundcloud.com/insideculture/s2-28 .
Q: I found this YouTube video where you explain dowsing as related to mapping. Is this the original map story technique? Tell us more about dowsing.
A: Dowsing, or divining, is a technique to find things. The classic dowsing is using rods to find water. Most of the water companies in the UK employ dowsers to find leaks, even against the ire of scientists and newspapers. The companies say “it works, why stop it?”.
We had both pendulums and copper dowsing rods during the event in the video. The event was during the festival of Terminalia, the roman god of Terminus, the god of boundaries and landmarks. If ever there was a deity for geographers, it would be Terminus. We found locations on the map by hanging pendulums over them, and slowly moving them around the map. If the pendulum starts moving differently, then we mark down that on the map.
There are three theories on how dowsing works: the ideomotor effect — your body moves the thing subconsciously based on some kind of stimulus or thought, so perhaps your body might pick up water or electric fields and you let your hands move the instrument on their own. In our example, the pendulums would move when your brain picks out a suitable place over the map subconsciously. The second way, and least believable, is that some external force moves the instrument, this occult interpretation in our example would be Terminus moving the pendulum instead of us. The third way is that we move the instrument manually! I mean, no one else can tell that you are not moving the pendulum consciously, after all. In our example one would look at the map, think “I want to go there”, and manually move the pendulum over that area.
In my event, participants identified areas, new boundary markers to go to and then we went to those locations. Then, those who chose that point would explain why they chose it. It was a fun event!
Gregory Marler, a prolific OSM mapper and a very funny chap made that video.
Q: I love your humor, but I’m guessing it’s not everybody’s cup of tea. How do you react when people don’t get your jokes? (Asking for a friend.)
A: I like this question. Does it say more about me — humour that is hard to get, what to do when someone doesn’t get a joke — or does it say more about your friend? Hah! I suppose the main thing is that I’m British. We like banter, absurdism, irony, self deprecation, mockery and lists of cliched stereotypes. I suppose I don’t aim to be funny, nor do I think I’m that funny as a person either.
How should one behave if someone doesn’t get a joke? Tell another one until they laugh?
Does it say more about your friend? Maybe!
Q: Any (geo)hipstery traits we should know about?
A: For my previous words about hipsters and geo hipsters, I do actually look up to geo hipsters, they are the cool kids on the block. And cool stuff is often good. Artisan coffee is actually pretty tasty after all. I want to be like them, and I crave their approval. New technology often starts on the edges and this is where the geo hipster performs their work. So we all benefit from geohipsters. Personally I like the tried and tested stuff. Some people like working with new technologies, it makes it interesting for them. I’m rather more interested in the end result, or doing a good job of it. If a new tool appears and it’s going to give a better result, then I will be more likely to use it. I can imagine that in some jobs where the end result might be not that exciting, one can put one’s enthusiasm in the technology. A privilege of working for yourself is that one can choose what to work on, that’s a freedom something the majority of technologists don’t have. So I understand that making and using new technology does not make you a geohipster.
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our readers?
A: The main interest for me and geospatial is democratizing access to these wonderful tools we play with. The open source software side complements this nicely. We get to work with great services and techniques, and wouldn’t it be great if everyone could get the same level of usage and productivity and joy as we do, without needing a Masters in GIS!
Kumiko Yamazaki* is a tech manager at MapQuest, Inc. in Denver, Colorado. She has spent her entire career in the geospatial industry as a cartographer, GIS analyst, and software engineer. You can follow her on Twitter at @kyamazaki.
Q: How did you get into GIS?
A: I was always into maps. When I was a kid, I could point out every state/province/prefecture in the U.S., Canada, and Japan, and name all its capitals. Then came naming every country and all of its capitals, major rivers, mountain ranges, and other geographical features. When I went to college, it just felt natural to take a few geography courses and these few courses ended up turning into an entire degree in the field. My cartography and GIS classes were my favorite and I was ready for a career in the mapping industry!
Q: You work for MapQuest (or is it “mapquest”?). Tell us what you do there.
A: I work on the MapQuest developer brand as a part of Verizon Location Services. I’m currently the tech manager for the Developer Services engineering team and we are primarily responsible for all of the API documentation, the provisioning and management of API keys, and our self-serve platform that allows customers to pay for additional usage of our services. All of this can be found at https://developer.mapquest.com.
In general, we’re a very fast-paced team and we jump from one project to another at incredible speed. Some days I feel we’re THE mapping team, but that could just be me forcing my way into tackling more map-related projects.
Prior to this role, however, I’ve also had several other positions at MapQuest which includes being a cartographer, technical writer, and software engineer. There are a few special individuals here who have helped me along the way and I owe everything to them… at least a few beers, anyway.
Q: Tell us about some of the technologies you use at work. Are they mostly open source, or mostly proprietary?
A: Lately I’ve been using QGIS on a daily basis to analyze TomTom and OSM data and I admit I’m a bit rusty with this. I understand GIS concepts and know what I want, but I simply can’t find the one icon out of the 50 million icons on multiple toolbars that are shown.
Q: You are from New Jersey (which is my adopted home state). Why is New Jersey the butt of so many jokes?
A: Well these days, you can probably blame Chris Christie! Also maybe spillover from Filthadelphia? I don’t know, I really love New Jersey (Exit 16E before anyone asks, “what exit??”). You grow up with a certain toughness living there, especially in the densely populated areas, that prepares you for the rest of your life.
Q: You now live in Colorado. What do you miss most about New Jersey?
A: The shore, the cultural diversity, and Bruce Springsteen. I love that NJ has an identity unlike, for example… Delaware! It never leaves you, it defines you, and you make sure everyone knows you are from Jersey.
Q: What do you like most about Colorado? How is the geo scene there? How about the geohipster scene?
A: That’s an easy one – hiking in the Rocky Mountains. The geo scene is quite good, although I haven’t been as good at attending many meetups here. It seems most major companies are opening offices in the Denver area so it’ll be interesting to see what mapping divisions and even potential startups will make it here.
Q: What do you do for fun?
A: It’s difficult to get away from coding and mapping even when I’m not “working” because this is what I enjoy doing. My next side project is to create some artwork using OSM data that I can put up on all my empty walls. No details yet as the idea is still forming in my head!
If I’m not at my computer though, I enjoy hiking, craft beer, oxford commas, and playing modern board games.
Q: Do you consider yourself a (geo)hipster? Why / why not?
A: I love maps and I ride bicycles. Does that qualify me as a geohipster?
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our global readership?
A: Take care of each other. Be kind, be courteous, be professional. This was the first community I “joined” on Twitter, not fully understanding the purpose of Twitter or what I was supposed to be doing. But you know, you make some friends along the way, maybe even lifelong friends – all because you had a common interest in maps. So do your part and keep the community going, and someday, it may even lead to an interview with the GeoHipster team 🙂
*The above interview represents Kumiko’s views. Not those of MapQuest or Verizon.
Hanbyul Jo is a New York-based software engineer. She works at the open source mapping company Mapzen, where she develops tools to make web mapping more accessible.
Q: How did you get into mapping/GIS?
A: It was a lot of connecting dots. Mapzen, where I work currently, is where I got into mapping. Before working at Mapzen, I was at the intersection of visual arts and technology. I did some random things including installations and performance. I was not sure what I was doing at that time, so went to a 2 year master program covering technology and arts hoping to figure out what I can/want to do. (Now that I reflect, I was more lost in the program…it was fun wandering.) In the 2nd year of the program, I got into making physical objects in a parametric way with digital fabrication tools. For my thesis project, I wanted to fabricate the map of Brooklyn out of paper. The problem was that I did not have any clue about how to get the shape of Brooklyn at that time. Any concept of geo data at that time was foreign to me. Repeating some unfruitful tries, I started getting into this whole map thing. Looking back, my thesis project was a hot mess… However I didn’t fail! As I was leaving school, I had to start thinking about what the next step would be. As I narrowed down my interests, I thought that maps are a combination of many things I like, such as programming, cities, visuality, data. I looked up map companies that I could find in New York City, and here I am now.
Q:Tell us about your work with Mapzen. What’s your latest exciting project?
A: It is Mapzen.. we don’t put that much emphasis on zen 😉 (This was Hanbyul’s response to me originally capitalizing the “Z” –Ed.) I work as a front-end developer at Mapzen. It is my main job to develop tools that can make web mapping accessible for non-tech/geo-data savvy people. Since Mapzen is not a big company, I’m also responsible for some general front end work such helping other teams’ demos, UI work etc.
A new project that I am excited about is a tool for people to generate basemaps easily. Our cartography team is trying to offer basemaps in a modularized form so that they can be assembled as user needs, e.g.. making labels super dense with a yellow theme. This project just started and is still in a very early stage. If you are a cartographer in need of basemaps that are easily tweakable, we will reach out to you soon!
A: I sometimes think I would never have put anything on GitHub if it were not for my job. All the thoughts such as, ‘What if some people point out this is not the best practice? What if I am doing something totally ridiculous?’ really freaked me out at first. I anyway had to do it on daily basis because my current job requires as many things as possible to be open source, and then I finally got used to it.
Thanks for checking out Seoul Building Explorer. That was one of my full-stack projects that I got to every bit of what it takes to make a web map out of geospatial data. As a person who develops tools for cartographers, I often try to get my hands on the full workflow that cartographers should go through (from geospatial data to web map). When I was looking at how to deal with tiles, I noticed South Korea started making a lot of geospatial data open source. That was the basic foundation of Seoul Building Explorer. The map was iterated several times. The original data had a really wide range of building data such as materials, purposes of the buildings etc. It was so exciting that there is data openly available for me that I put all of them at once at first. Then I realized maps trying to tell everything often fail at telling anything. I started thinking about what I want to see in the map as a person who spent a lot of time in that city, and I also got some feedback from my coworkers with urban planning and design backgrounds. With some inspirations such as built:LA and the NYC PLUTO dataset map, Seoul Building Explorer got shaped as it is now.
Q: As far as I’m concerned, you delivered the coolest talk at JSGeo 2017 (among a pretty amazing slate of presenters), wowing the audience with pictures of 3D printed maps in materials like chocolate and ice! How on earth did you ever come up with that?
A: Did I? 😊
I am always jealous of people who grew up reading maps. Top down view maps were not part of my growing up. All buildings and landmarks were relatively positioned around me: the post office is next to the supermarket, my friend’s house is two units next to mine. Maybe this is because there was no street number system in Korea (where I grew up)? Even after mobile devices became prevalent, I didn’t often have to go somewhere that I was not familiar with, so didn’t really use maps that much.
After moving to NYC, maps became part of my life. I started looking at maps much more often than before as a newcomer of the city. While struggling to read the directions from it, my illiteracy of maps left me room to consider them as visual objects. Just like how letters look like paintings when you don’t know the language.
As I answered before, I first got interested in maps to fabricate with them. Working at Mapzen, I discovered many ways to convert/export maps into easily fabricatable forms (which was my js.geo talk topic. I gave a similar talk at NACIS 2017, you can check it out here). Also some of my great friends and classes at grad school taught me a great deal of craftsmanship and tips when dealing with real life materials. It really helped me to go through the whole fabrication process to know what to expect from real life materials.
Q: Geohipsters are often described as thinking outside the box, doing interesting things with maps, and contributing to open source projects. So, the evidence is stacking up: do you think you’re a geohipster?
A: I have really problem with labeling myself in my life. Hehe… but if I am a geohipster, why would I be in a geohipster box? 🙂
Q: When your chocolate maps become an international sensation, what words of wisdom will you deliver to your adoring fans?
Damian Spangrud is a Geographer and Director of Solutions at Esri. Damian often speaks about the role of GIS, technology, and innovation trends. In his 25+ years in the geospatial industry Damian has enjoyed working across a wide range of topics and technology and tweets about all things spatial, weather, and various geeky topics @spangrud.
Q: How did you get into GIS?
A: I have always been interested in maps and technology (although separately). After becoming disillusioned with being a Biology major at the University of Colorado Boulder, I switched to Geography and took ‘Automated Cartography’ and was hooked. I didn’t know what GIS was until a year later and ended up with an internship at the City of Boulder, working in the Open Space department. We had PC ARC/INFO, AutoCAD, and ArcCAD (all on Windows 3.0/3.1). The GIS team worked in a small farmhouse and the GIS manager lived upstairs. That turned into a job and eventually led to working in a GIS research lab at Montana State University Bozeman (Sun SPARCstations and electrostatic plotters) and ultimately at Esri.
Q: How did you end up at Esri?
A: I was finishing my Master’s degree in Earth Science at Montana State University Bozeman. I had enough of academics and needed a job. And while Bozeman was beautiful, there were just not many jobs in the area. I had been using GIS and modeling tools as a fundamental part of my thesis, so I sent out a bunch of resumes related to my GIS work (ahh the days before online job searches). Esri and a couple environmental consulting companies contacted me and I was intrigued by the job at Esri as it allowed me to work with new technology. In the summer of 1994 I joined the ArcView 2.0 team at Esri, I was brought on as the Technical Product Manager for ArcView. I ended up writing a LOT of Avenue (that was the scripting language for ArcView), I even wrote the buffer wizard. Over time I became the Product Manager for ArcView, and eventually the Product Manager for all of ArcGIS. Then a few years ago Jack Dangermond (President of Esri) asked that I take on a new role as Director of Solutions to lead a team working on solutions across ArcGIS. In over 20 years at Esri, it is amazing to see the growth of maps into a core part of society/expectations, and especially knowing that GIS people have been behind the scenes making all of this spatial revolution happen.
Q: You are a Director at Esri. What does an Esri director do?
A: An Esri Director is like a Senior VP at most companies. At Esri that means we focus on listening to our users and supporting our teams and making sure we have a strategy, process, and the answers to the hard questions so the teams can focus on getting the work done.
Q: What do you do at work — overall, and in your day-to-day duties?
A: I wear a few hats at Esri so my day-to-day varies considerably. I work with a couple of great teams of people — the Solution team works closely with customers to build ready-to-use apps and maps that help people do more with GIS (http://solutions.arcgis.com/gallery) and the APL (Applications Prototype Lab) team who are always pushing the boundaries of how we use GIS (https://maps.esri.com/). So, I mainly just try to stay out of their way! But I also try to help by providing critical feedback to team planning and direction. In addition, I work across the various parts of Esri to help on our overall strategy, which sounds fun (and it is) but it mainly means lots of meetings and lots of information bits to synthesize. As part of my role I evangelize spatial thinking and GIS at various events around the world and I keep my hands in the technology and make time to focus on individual mapping / analysis projects (some of these are highlighted here).
Q: A lot has been tweeted about GIS data formats, and about the shapefile in particular. Where do you stand on the pro/con-shapefile continuum?
A: I don’t understand the anti-shapefile feelings. Yes it is old, yes it is messy, yes it has its limitations… But don’t we all? You don’t have to love it, but why expend the energy hating it? Should we use the shapefile as THE primary format for the next 20 years, of course not. I don’t know anyone who thinks it should be. Given the rapid growth of data especially from new sensors and methods, I’m not sure we will ever see a single format as dominant as the shapefile was at its peak. I do love the geopackage, but its adoption is coming at a point where the community is so comfortable using so many formats and across so many platforms that it’s going to be hard for it to become dominant.
Q: You are a Mac person. As (presumably) a Mac fan, how do you reconcile the fact that desktop Esri products never really caught on on the Mac platform? ArcView 2 for Mac was in the works, but never made it to a full release. What happened?
A: Mac person? Seriously? I’m so inept on Macs that my kids know better than ever asking me for help (thank God for YouTube videos). But I digress; I have a copy of ArcView 2.1 for the Mac here at my desk (unopened 3.5 floppy disks!), and we made media and books but we never shipped it. The Mac at that time wasn’t very powerful and while ArcView worked on the Mac… it didn’t work well. ArcView 2x/3x was built on a cross platform technology so we could get it to run on various UNIX platforms (this was pre-linux) and PC. That extra layer of tech, while wonderful at allowing us to work across platforms, added another layer of technology and load on the system. And the Macs of the late 90s were very underpowered for graphics and CPU. We had hoped that the CPU would catch up to PC speeds by the time we released; they didn’t and we just didn’t see the Mac as viable in the late 90s. Macs have since become speed demons but in many local governments they are still a minority (and special and difficult to request), so for the desktop we still see PCs as the main platform, but lots of folks (IRL and at Esri) run ArcGIS on their Macs using Parallels (or similar).
Q: You fly kites, which is probably the most hipstery of all hobbies we have talked about on these pages. Tell us about your fascination with kites.
A: Flying kites is a wonderful interplay of wind, technology and people. It can be both solitary and social as well as calming and exciting, even terrifying on high wind days. As a kid we lived for a few years in Nebraska, where it was always windy. We’d buy those cheap Gayla kites for a couple bucks and have ‘kite wars’, fly them a few thousand feet up, and even tie them to the deck at night and they’d still be flying in the morning. While in Boulder for college I worked at Into The Wind, one of the best kite stores ever! And I spent most of my paychecks getting more kites (as well as yo-yos). I have all sorts of kites, from tiny kites (postage stamp size with sticks made from ⅛ diameter toothpicks), to huge kites that I anchor to my car. Some are traditional / or “static” kites (you let out string and fly them), others are stunt kites that you control with multiple handles and make spin and swoop at over 90 mph. I don’t get out and fly as much as I used to (various life responsibilities and poor wind quality here in Redlands makes it difficult), but it helps keep me sane.
Q: According to your Twitter bio you are also into food. Anecdotal evidence shows that a higher-than-average proportion of geo people have a strong relationship with food. They know and appreciate good food, they like to cook. I know of some who left the industry to become chefs. What is your relationship with food, and do you think that there’s a correlation between geo and food that warrants further exploring?
A: I have a VERY active relationship with food! I’ve always cooked, and like reading cookbooks, but I’m never good about following directions exactly. I tend to improvise and blend flavors and techniques from other recipes (sort of like my GIS analysis). People have said I should start a restaurant, but I fear that being focused to do something I enjoy would make it less fun for me. I don’t think there is any special relationship between the geo community and food. I think the food community has taken off over the last few years so you just see more of them. (And to the younger generation: learn to cook the basics, it will go a LONG way later in life.)
Q: Do you consider yourself a geohipster? Why/Why not?
A: In the traditional sense, I’m probably not a geohipster. I fit few of the geohipster stereotypes: I don’t have a man-bun, I don’t bike to work, I don’t write JS daily, I’m not a coffee or beer snob, and I like using applications with UIs. That being said, I love maps, mapping, geographic analysis, and geographic science. I feel that we should look at using geographic science in new and interesting ways, making it more approachable and integrated into all aspects of business and science. And I did get maps into two years of the GeoHipster calendar, so that counts for something. So, I’m probably the old odd guy on the edge of the circle, feeding strange ideas and sharing thoughts, hopefully fueling these crazy hipsters to do more (and reminding them to stay off my lawn!).
Q: On closing, any final words of wisdom for our global readership?
Don’t be afraid to learn.
Reuse tools, code, and apps. Just because it has been done doesn’t mean you can’t reuse those bits to do you own thing.
Don’t reinvent just because. Reinvent with a purpose that has real value.
Learn enough about projections to be dangerous
Fear the rainbow color ramp
Normalize your data
Always know the minimum mapping unit appropriate for your map and scale
Remember Large Scale is zoomed way in (1 : smaller number) and Small Scale is zoomed way out (1: bigger number), but you’ll probably get it wrong 50% of the time.
Every map is a lie, but you should make your lies with purpose!
Dale Lutz (@daleatsafe) is the Co-CEO and Vice President of Development of Safe Software. Along with co-founder Don Murray, Dale created Safe Software’s core product, FME, a data integration platform which helps 20,000 organizations across the world get their data from where it is to where they need it to be. Don and Dale have driven the company’s success for over 20 years, leading FME development from vision to delivery, and pushing the edge of data technology. Dale is a big fan of hockey, Star Trek (a new series is coming -- yeah!), and geospatial data.
Q: Tell us about yourself, and what led you to found Safe Software
A: I’m a simple country farm boy from Alberta, Canada, who had an interest in computers before, well, you could even buy them. During my last year of comp sci at the University of Alberta, I took two masters level courses in Remote Sensing and Cartography. Got to write FORTRAN code to read LandSAT tapes! So I was always interested in the application of computing to mapping. After graduating, I got a job in Vancouver at MDA, and got to work with weather data and later a variety of custom-built in-house mapping systems. There I met my good friend and co-founder Don Murray, and when he left MDA and had time on his hands, he asked if I’d be game to join him and start a company to work on a data format called SAIF. I said YES! We really thought SAIF (Spatial Archive and Interchange Format) was going to change the world (but somewhat hedged our bets — we went for safe.com and Safe Software, thinking we were being clever). SAIF sputtered out, but the software we wrote that was capable of working with that do-all-things-for-everyone data format ended up being more than flexible enough to take on all comers. Yes, even XML.
Q: You registered safe.com in 1994 — what a catch! Your internet game was strong. What do you think the domain name is worth today?
A: Yes, we could have had anything back then. Cost us $50! Canadian! We get propositioned for it at least once a month. But remember, I’m a farm boy from Alberta. I’ve never forgiven Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington for selling Wayne Gretzky for $18 million back in 1988. Selling safe.com, for any amount of money, would make us no different than him. And that’s something I’m not willing to wear. So it doesn’t matter what it’s worth. It’s not for sale 🙂
Q: Safe Software is best known for data conversions, but FME does more than just convert data from one format to another. Tell us what else it does.
A: Yes, FME is so much more than a simple conversion tool. Called the ‘Swiss army knife’ of data, FME is a data integration platform that helps users move data exactly where, when, and how it’s needed. FME delivers all of the tools for seamless system integration in one package: data extraction, transformation, loading, validation, and automation. And its interface allows users to build graphical data workflows without coding. Over 350 different applications and data formats are supported in FME, including our spatial favourites like the almighty @Shapefile, MapInfo TAB, Esri Geodatabase, PostGIS, Oracle Spatial, GeoJSON, KML, and GML. And hey, we do BIM, raster, and point clouds for good measure too.
Q: To paraphrase Safe Software’s mission from your website, you are out to free the data. Where do you stand on open vs proprietary formats? Aren’t proprietary formats good for business?
A: We like open data formats, ideally ones where we can help fund an open source development by the OGR/GDAL folks so all can get at it (and help us support it) equally. The biggest seller formats for us include the host of XML variants (all of those are open) and the ever popular and even award winning Shapefile (also open). Proprietary formats can be good for business, provided we can broker an arrangement to get some API to read and write them (the days of reverse engineering binary are long over for us). But even with an API, proprietary formats end up being much more effort for us. Our differentiator is not so much the next format we can do, but what we can do with the data, how easily, and how fast, as it moves from source to destination. Therefore, we’d actually be happy if the world stopped making new formats of any kind. As the poet wrote: “Imagine there’s no formats. It’s easy if you try. Imagine all the people. Sharing all the data. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…”
Q: Are simple data formats too simplistic? Are complex formats too complex? Is there a happy medium?
A: Yes and yes and yes. Next question.
Seriously, there really is a happy medium. ArcInfo Generate — way too simple. Can’t do attributes. Can’t tell the difference between a line and a polygon. GML — very powerful and as a result can be made to be very difficult for software builders to cope with. But something like Geopackage aims to hit a sweet spot. Built on the easily-understood SQLite framework, but extends it with a powerful geometry model and even high performance raster support. As a result, it can both be used as an operational format (i.e. software can work on it directly) as well as an exchange format (the specifications and underlying technology are well documented and ubiquitous enough to remove hurdles for use). Our friend the Shapefile threads this needle surprisingly well too, for an old timer, and that is a key part of its success. I mean, when you look at it, it was built on the dBase framework!
Q: My first GIS experience was with PC ARC/INFO coverages in 1991. I see the format listed on your website as one of the 350+ FME supports. Do you still convert data out of PC ARC/INFO coverages in 2017?
A: I hadn’t tried out PC ARC/INFO reading on my mac EVER, so I just found an old (old) input file and give it a spin:
Works like it was 1991!
Doing a bit more digging, the team finds this trend underway for the PC ARC/INFO usage in FME:
In 2017, fewer than 1 in 50000 of the tracked translations involved PC ARC/INFO. So it’s still in use out there, but just barely. I suspect it is a bit jealous of @Shapefile’s trendline…
Q: It is cool to bash the shapefile, but it’s not going away, is it? Or is it?
A: Honestly, I really thought that with all the choices out there, the Shapefile’s share of the popular vote would be decreasing. Imagine my surprise when I saw the graph of the Shapefile’s share of writer usage in FME over the past 10 years:
If only my investment portfolio looked like that! Even in the face of stiff headwinds (i.e. more choice offered by new formats being continually invented), more Shapefile writers are being used in FME today than ever before. And our usage stats also show that the most popular FME translation goes from Shapefile to Shapefile.
So how could this be, when there are so many more sophisticated and modern choices to be had? The number of consumers of spatial data has grown substantially over the years, and their ranks have swelled by the inclusion of large numbers of business and other non-GIS professionals, who are more than happy enough to get their maps in a simple format that is supported everywhere. I’d look for Shapefile’s popularity to tank around the same time as Americans start getting their weather forecasts in degrees Celsius instead of Fahrenheit.
Q: What is the tech scene in Vancouver like? How about the hipster scene?
A: Metro Vancouver has a very vibrant tech scene. Being a short flight from and in the same timezone as Seattle and San Francisco makes our city an attractive place for American satellite offices, which in turn fuel a burgeoning startup culture. We’re located in Surrey (just outside of the City of Vancouver), which is one of the fastest growing cities in Canada. Next summer we’ll be moving to ‘Innovation Boulevard,’ Surrey’s new tech hub. Our brand new building is under construction as we speak, and we’ll be taking over the top four floors (and rooftop terrace!). We’re very excited.
As for the hipster scene, Vancouver is pretty well-known for its craft breweries, vintage clothing shops, and farmers markets. Every 3 months our teams at Safe get to pick a team-building exercise, and a recent fan favourite has been local foodie tours. So yes, it’s pretty hipster-y here.
Q: Tell us about your personal hipstery traits
A: I’m a big believer of eating healthy and supporting local whenever I can. I like to start each day with a customized smoothie, using Canadian-grown hemp protein, cashew milk, and acai berries, topped off with some organic fruit I planted, watered, picked, and froze on my own.
I developed web pages before it was cool. Check out www.dalelutz.com for the retro proof. Last updated August 1996.
I’ve also been to Portland twice in the past year to line up for hours to get Voodoo donuts.
Q: Are you a geohipster? Why / why not?
A: If being a geohipster means being as comfortable with an E00 as with a Geopackage, stopping to take a picture when you cross the equator on a trip, wondering how you could get your latest spatial tech innovation out there faster than those cool Mapbox cats, and having tcsh-command-line scripts running in an amber-on-black terminal on a Mac named after an obscure HBO sci-fi series company at the ready to bulk rename Shapefiles, then yes, guilty as charged.
Q: I think the FME socks are the best marketing idea to come out of a geo company in a long time — awesome idea! Whose is it? Are there more FME-branded garments in the works?
A: We are very proud of our Safe Sockwear. I still remember the meeting long ago where Employee #3 of Safe (a developer) came up with the concept. We’ve had sports socks for years and years, but only this May did we introduce the new Argyle look as swag for our FME International User conference. And has it ever been popular. #FMESockFriday is now a thing.
There is talk of branded slippers, but we will always prefer to be remembered as the company that encouraged its customers to have Safe Socks.
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our global readership?
A: Keep your fieldnames less than 10 characters long, keep your data formats open, keep your input going to your output, and most importantly, keep your stick on the ice — always be ready to take advantage of whatever opportunity gets thrown your way.
Jim McAndrew is a Geospatial Database Developer. Before adding ‘geospatial’ to his job title, he worked on large Oracle databases for pharmaceutical and manufacturing companies. For the last few years, he has been working with the US Geological Survey and the National Park Service to create tools that provide public access to government data.
A: I have loved maps for as long as I can remember. I used to study the maps in the phonebook, and I knew where every local road went. In college, I decorated my apartment with maps I had purchased from the Department of Transportation.
After a few years working as a software developer in manufacturing, I saw something called a “Mapping Party” for this open source mapping project claiming to be a “Wikipedia of Maps”. I was in luck, they would be holding a party in New York City the next weekend. I bought a bus ticket to New York, paid the extra fee to bring my bike, and I was introduced to OpenStreetMap.
I was hooked, and I thought that maybe getting into mapping could actually be a viable career option. I started attending different conferences and meetups that sounded interesting, and tried to learn all I could about the industry. I started a graduate certificate program in GIS, and eventually got a GIS job.
Q: Where do you work and what do you do there?
A: I am a researcher at Colorado State University working for the National Park Service (NPS) as a Software Developer. I started working on a new system to collect data from all the NPS units using an OpenStreetMap-style approach. I work on tools that allow data from this, and other internal systems, to be displayed on web maps. Now I am the Lead Developer on some of the NPS tools, including the internal side of the NPS mobile app project.
Q: Tell us about a cool project you are working on
A: The NPS mobile application project is the coolest thing that I’m working on, because it’s easy for everyone to access and use. It also involves working with Park Rangers that are extremely knowledgeable about their parks and are excited about sharing that knowledge. The coolest part of it for me is the opportunity to visit the parks and to do a little bit of field work.
Q: What technology (GIS and otherwise) do you use?
Q: Open source — Y/N? Why?
A: I prefer to use open source software whenever possible. The best part about open source software is that if you can’t figure something out from the documentation, you can always go look right at the source. If there is a bug in the source, you can find it yourself and suggest a patch. It is also easy to package software in a VM or a Docker image and share it with others as a working system without worrying about licensing.
Q: Is open source for everyone, or just for tinkerers?
A: Open source is for everyone! Open source tools tend to be a little less user-friendly and sometimes lacking in support. This has created a market for companies such as Red Hat and Boundless Spatial to provide support and integration for businesses. While the “Linux on the Desktop” dream may never really come true, the future will include more open source tools packaged in commercial software.
Q: Biking, hiking, any other hipster attributes?
A: I enjoy biking, hiking, and kayaking whenever I get the chance. I enjoy craft beer, I sometimes homebrew beer, and I enjoy working with yeast to make breads, pretzels, and pizzas. I was on a locally-roasted-coffee kick for a while (OQ Coffee in Highland Park is very good), but I have recently switched to drinking mostly tea and tisanes. I enjoy listening to a lot of obscure music. I also love emojis. 🎉
Q: Are you a geohipster? Why / why not?
Q: Words of wisdom for our global readership?
A: A few years ago I went skiing in Aspen, Colorado. If there’s still snow on the mountain, they open on Memorial Day, and charge a severely discounted price. I brought my skis that were a hand-me-down from the 1980s. People started commenting on how cool and “retro” my skis were. They were so out of date that they were cool again.
There’s always going to be some next big thing, but the basics remain the same. Don’t focus on doing what’s cool now, but instead focus on what you want to work on or learn, even if it’s something completely different than what you’re doing now; eventually, it’ll be cool again.
Grew up on a farm in Iowa. Started my GIS career as an intern for Emmet County, working on first iteration of E-911 for the sheriff's department. Moved to South Dakota from there and worked for the SDDOT for a while with the esteemed title of “Automated Mapping Specialist”. Really enjoyed the work but was looking for a faster pace and more of a challenge. Ended up taking a project-related position with a consulting firm working for DM&E railroad out of Sioux Falls. Had great fun learning all about rail, sidings and frogs. When that project ended, I decided to take a position with HDR and moved down to Omaha, Nebraska, where I am currently.
A: I had been doing in-home child care, I have an Associates degree in Early Childhood Education. I was bored and broke and wondering what I should do. Driving down the road I heard a radio ad for the local community college that talked about computers and mapping. I thought… “I love maps!” and went and signed up for the program after that.
Q: You work for HDR, an engineering company. Tell us what you do there.
A: What I do day by day really varies based on the projects I’m on. The funnest part of my job is the variability of what I am involved with on a week by week basis and meeting new people and learning about what they do. I work on hydrology projects where we are looking at flood zones, levees, or stream flows for one project, and then I am managing the GIS database for a large transportation project and dealing with right of way, utilities, and shifting contracts. I also like to code, so I will put together web maps or write some scripts to automate work flows. It’s really fun to listen and evaluate what is currently being done and then to apply some type of technology to help streamline and document the work as well. Recently I’ve gotten involved with the sustainability group here at HDR, and now there is great potential to mix my love for GIS with my desire to make the world a better place.
Q: Do engineers “get” GIS?
A: Yes! I would say there are varying levels of “get” involved. I find that if you are on a project, and learn as much as you can about the overall big picture, then it is easy to plug GIS into it in ways that make sense and help meet those project goals. If someone isn’t getting the point of using GIS then it could be that you aren’t getting what the big picture is for them.
Q: What technology — GIS and other — do you use at work? What do you / don’t you like about it?
A: This project was for the World Food Program (WFP) and the information Management and Mining Action Program (iMMAP). We digitized features like roads, cities, rivers, and rail from historical maps. The idea was to create this data to support their humanitarian efforts. I got involved since I had been listed as a GISCorps member for some time and was waiting for a volunteer opportunity to come up that I could do at home. This project was great and I was able to put a couple hours in on a weekly basis. I am always trying to save the world and it really gives me a great sense of satisfaction to be able to do something with the skillset I have to help the world be a better place.
Q: You do lots of volunteer work, not just GIS. Tell us about your other volunteer activities.
A: I do like to do volunteer work, it’s my desire to make a difference that drives it. Though I would say I’m not doing a ton right now, there are a few things I’m involved in. I do manage a website for a local grassroots organization. For the last couple years I’ve been able to create some mapping for a local group that puts together garden tours in Omaha and hosted for them as well. Over the years I’ve done things like volunteer for Boys and Girls Homes, and also was a baby rocker at a NICU for some time. I think volunteering really does add a lot to your life and gets you out in the community, which is fun.
Q: What is the tech scene like in Omaha?
Q: What is the hipster scene like in Omaha?
A: Isn’t that the same as the tech scene? 😉 Ok, maybe not but there is some crossover. The hipster scene is good. There are some known areas in town where you will find great local music, food, and events. One of my favorite is the Benson First Friday Femme Fest — it’s an amazing opportunity to see all kinds of females taking the lead role and sharing their music, poetry, and art to the masses.
Q: Knitting and Dr. Who — is that hipster or what?
A: Probably. I still need to knit my Dr. Who scarf, I think once that is completed then I can really grab the hipster trophy. My list of nerd interests is strong and I think if I could pull together a group of geohipsters to crash the UC dressed in Dr. Who cosplay, then my life would be complete.
Q: Do you consider yourself a geohipster? Why / why not?
A: Sure. You know, unless in considering myself one I negate the title. 🙂 I think a geohipster is anyone who is constantly striving to do new and cool things with geospatial data. With that definition, I’m 100%.
Q: On closing, any parting words of wisdom for our global readership?
A: Keep pushing the arbitrary boundaries between geospatial and IT. Data is data and we all can and should be playing and working together. Also — volunteer for something. You do need to get away from the computer once in a while, and it will change your life to do so. And finally, if you love Dr. Who we should talk. 🙂