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. 🙂
Guido Stein is a Geospatial Data Alchemist who has been working for Applied Geographics for the last 10 years. He is also the founder of AvidGeo, a Boston area meetup group that hosts events for the geospatially inclined, and he is the Co-Chair of FOSS4G Boston 2017. Having lived in Somerville, MA for over a decade, he has truly absorbed some hipster characteristics including growing a beard “ironically” and riding to work on a bike with his little dog Beau.
Q: You are the Conference Co-Chair for the 2017 FOSS4G conference in Boston. Isn’t that like a lot of work? Why do you do it?
A: It is a lot of work. I have been working and organizing community events in the Boston area for over a decade. I do this work because I want to attend these events and the only way these events happen is if someone is willing to do the work. I am not afraid to be that someone. I really enjoy being involved in community work. I like to learn about what cool things everyone else is up to. I also like sharing in the victories and commiserating around failures specific to our community. If these events didn’t exist, who would share a beer with me over the limitations of using shapefiles?
Q: Tell us about the conference. How did you get involved?
A: I think that it was my boss, Michael Terner, who first approached me about it. I have been a big fan of the Open Source Geospatial (OSGeo) community for a long time. Sadly, other than participating as a user, I did not have much interaction with the community. Michael had participated in a few FOSS4G conferences and was ready to get more involved. He approached me to put together a bid knowing that I would jump at the chance to build a stronger tie between OSGeo and Boston.
The reason I want to see FOSS4G in Boston is that I think that there are many groups locally that would benefit from exposure to the OSGeo community and from getting a chance to show off what they are up to. I have been trying to unite people in the Boston area around geospatial for over a decade, and there is such a great and exciting group here doing things in business, government, academia, as well as in the startup tech world.
Q: You and I first met in Boston in 2011 in the offices of Applied Geographics. You are still there, so you must like it. What do you do for AppGeo?
A: I recently celebrated my 10th anniversary at Applied Geographics. When I started I worked on parcel edits, parcel generation using scanned plans and COGO input, utility system development all working with many Esri tools. Since then, I have been really happy to explore many different tools from FME to QGIS to PostGIS for editing, collaborating on, and analyzing data.
My mantra these days is “Spatial, not special”. My work these days focuses on how to use spatial knowledge to solve data problems. I am very happy becoming a more powerful user of all the tools I use, but I feel super powerful when I figure out complex SQL queries to solve problems. I love working on the database solutions.
Q: How did you get into GIS? Why?
A: My father introduced me to GIS in high school. He was a city planner (since retired), and knew that I would really enjoy this use of technology. I have always liked playing and working with computers.
I attended Clark University. Initially I was interested in the psychology department, but found coursework in geography to be very fulfilling and soon started to work with the Clark Labs. I was very fortunate to work closely with the staff and Ron Eastman. They were very supportive of my thirst for knowledge.
Q: Tell us about some of the cool tech you use these days. Describe a cool project that you currently work on.
Cool tech, well… the thing I think is coolest right now is my $10 Raspberry Pi Zero W. It is so exciting to have such a cheap computer with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth built in. It is a powerful tool for building IoT projects and also gives me a chance to improve my Linux chops. I really want to buy a bunch of these and create some simple navigation tools around them.
The last year has had me working on projects using Python, FME, PostGIS, CARTO, SQL Server, Oracle, and many other tools. My co-worker Calvin Metcalf has been trying to get me to switch from Python to Node. I really like the work CARTO has done to make mapping and PostGIS available online, it’s really quite powerful.
Q: Do you like open source for pragmatic or ideological reasons? Explain.
A: Both. I like tools that work and I want tools that I can contribute to. I think libre software is the ideal, but I think there is a lot of useful and good grey area in the open source community that is far superior to proprietary solutions.
Q: You knit, which is amazing. I did try it, but didn’t have the patience. Tell us how you got into knitting, and whether you see parallels between knitting and coding.
A: I started knitting when my wife took it up many years ago now. I really love making something with my hands and I also enjoy spending time with people in knitting circles; it’s like the ticket to enter a reality TV show of some very interesting and creative folks. I highly recommend it to everyone.
There is a wonderful tie between raster-based geospatial and knitting; they are both based on basic data principles. Both have rows and columns. Someday I really want to knit some NIR imagery into a hat.
Q: You ride a bike, which — along with knitting and the beard — puts you in the running for the perfect hipster. Is there a hipster attribute that you wish you had but lack?
A: Wait, there are so many more hipster attributes:
I live in a hipster community
I prefer artisanal chocolate and farm-to-table dining
The only hipster attribute I wish I had that I lack is the hipster gene that makes them all slender and buff. I am now getting ready for a 9K in July and this non-skinny-jean-wearing butt is just not as easy to move around as I would like it to be.
Q: Are you a geohipster? Why / why not?
A: I am a poser. I am a pretender. I am an imposter.
I am not good at defining myself as any particular thing. I love to learn and I love to listen. This makes me less a specific type of person as much as it makes me a person who enjoys being in the presence of others who are specific about who they are.
I have been running a hipster web site for years trying to figure out what being a hipster means and as far as I can tell, no one really knows. Hipster is used as both a positive and negative, so I don’t know if I am or am not.
But let’s do the checklist once more:
Lives in hipster community, check
Rides his bike to work, check
Has a beard, check
Goes to farmers markets, check
Can tell you about local beer, chocolate, and cheese makers, check
Has skinny jeans, nope
Can describe a bespoke projection, nope
Q: On closing, any parting words of wisdom for our global readership?
A: Get out of your silo. Spatial, not special.
Spatial is now a first-class citizen in most databases, so we should use databases and other data tools and not be totally reliant on vendor to solve our spatial needs.
Dave Smith is with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Office of Environmental Information in Washington D.C. Dave has a background of over 25 years of experience in working with geospatial technologies in applications ranging from emergency response and field data collection to modeling, analysis, and web mapping. Dave is also a licensed civil engineer and professional land surveyor, where he also worked on writing code and practical applications of using computers to automate data analysis and design. He is currently working with EPA's Chief Data Scientist Robin Thottungal on building out a big data analytics cluster to improve EPA's analytical capabilities.Outside of the office, Dave has done a lot of volunteer work with various organizations, having been a top contributor to OpenStreetMap, aiding rescue and rebuilding efforts after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, as well as supporting organizations like Red Cross, U.S. State Department, and Team Rubicon in humanitarian and disaster relief mapping. Prior to that, Dave also volunteered his engineering and geospatial knowledge to support Engineers Without Borders on potable water and sanitation infrastructure for communities in Cameroon, Honduras, Rwanda and other communities in need.You can find Dave on Twitter at @DruidSmith and on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/davidgsmith
Q: How did you get into GIS?
A: Maybe I was born to map. As a kid I grew up reading books such as Lord of the Rings and loved Tolkien’s hand-drawn maps. I started emulating his maps, creating my own maps of the locales in the fantasy and sci-fi books that I would read. You could say mapping was ingrained in me even as a pre-teen and then continued to weave its way through my life.
As a kid we lived in Germany for 10 years, and I was into scouting — I participated in both the German Pfadfinderschaft and a U.S. military-based Boy Scout troop in Germany where we would do orienteering, hiking, camping, and other activities with these wonderfully detailed, large-scale German topographic maps. These maps were essentially their version of our USGS topo quads, which had the funny-sounding name of “Messtischblatt”, as they were originally created with an alidade and plane table (“Messtisch” meaning “measuring table”) and compiled into a published map sheet (the “Blatt”).
Those scouting activities introduced me to more robust concepts like map scale and symbology, for example: differing symbols for hardwood versus pine forests, or contours and hachures to represent terrain. I started incorporating some of those concepts into the maps I would create for the fantasy realms I was reading about in my favorite books at the time. I first got into digital mapping while surveying in high school, with my first exposure to what we think of as GIS today being ARC/INFO in college.
Q: You are a licensed land surveyor and professional engineer. Do you feel that the career move to GIS was a step up from engineering and surveying? Why / why not?
A: Wow, picking between careers feels like asking a mom which is her favorite child. On the other hand, did I really ever leave one discipline for the other? In my case, the various disciplines I’ve been involved in seem to have merged and morphed, with various threads from academic and work pursuits becoming interwoven. I’ve tried steering myself toward the Venn diagram of intersecting circles of “things you enjoy” versus “things you are good at” and “things you can make a living at” to find the sweet spot where they intersect. Over time, I’ve found myself in that sweet spot.
When we moved back to the U.S. I was a teenager. One year in high school I managed to get a summer job with a land surveying firm. That job was great: getting to go out into the woods with the crew, recording a bunch of measurements, and bringing that data back into the office, reducing the notes and using the calcs to create maps. Plus, it was better money and less messy than washing dishes, landscaping, painting houses, or other summer jobs I had been doing. So, I was already a “professional mapper” when I was still in high school. It helped with school too, as I was taught about the techniques and how to do the math, which turned me into a trigonometry ninja. And, later on it helped with some of my college expenses too.
When I first started working in surveying, the company was a small mom-and-pop outfit founded in 1959. They were old school, hand-drafting maps and using transits and programmable HP calculators. Since I had taken drafting in high school they let me test my chops at drawing maps. I found myself already taking shape as a young geohipster, occasionally exercising my artistic side with artisanal hand-drawn north arrows and other creative design elements. A bit later we were in a building boom and needed to modernize to keep up. We hired additional field crews and got electronic total stations and data collectors for the field as well as computers, a plotter, and software for the office. That’s how I learned things like AutoCAD, coordinate geometry software, and digital elevation modeling. To support some of the subdivision and land development work, I also learned about stormwater runoff modeling, storm drainage, roadway design, and other civil engineering basics.
I really enjoyed working with the computers, and I taught myself how to do some automation for some of the repetitive tasks, such as LISP programming to support the CAD work, and writing code to help with many of the design calculations. At home I had a TRS-80 computer that I had saved up for and bought when I was 13. Later, in high school, I saved up and built my first homebrew PC-compatible computer from components, and was endlessly hacking around with it.
When it was time to go off to college, I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with myself. I started out in computer science, but became frustrated as the initial coursework seemed like a step backwards when I had already been writing code for several years. As someone interested in such a huge variety of things, whether archaeology, astronomy, or history, I changed majors several times. But I kept working summers and holidays at the surveying firm, and took surveying and civil engineering courses as those seemed a viable and responsible path for my otherwise unfocused youthful exuberance.
But one day I happily stumbled across my university’s Geography department and its GIS program, and I changed majors one final time. Here, the coursework gave me new inspirations, adding new concepts like remote sensing and satellite imagery, human geography, and interesting methodologies for analysis and spatial statistics. One of my favorite professors was Peter Gould, who taught complex statistical methods, analysis of variance, kriging, and other things; no textbook, his class was reinforced via real-world challenges and computer analyses. I recall getting something like a 43% on my first exam. Dejected, I wondered if I would make it through his class. Professor Gould walked over, patted me on the shoulder and said “great job, you got one of the top grades.” I ended up with my degree in Geography — with a specialization in Cartography, Remote Sensing, and GIS. As a student, I also got to work on some interesting projects, like working with the City of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on developing their GIS concept and framework.
The challenge of getting into GIS almost 30 years ago, however, was that GIS jobs were pretty scarce. I continued working in surveying and then various civil engineering firms, including working for some of the top engineering firms in the country. As things progressed, I gained enough experience to sit for the exams to become a Land Surveyor, and then for a Professional Engineer. In that engineering journey I ended up being appointed by Governor Rendell to the Pennsylvania Engineering Board overseeing licensure in the surveying, engineering, and geology fields. I chaired that Board for two years, and was heavily involved with NCEES and other organizations on examinations and other aspects of licensure.
In my engineering pursuits I found that civil engineering and GIS are interwoven. Engineering design depends on maps and data, and I was often called on to help out with urban and regional planning. In the early 1990s I was involved in one of the largest land use analyses east of the Mississippi. It required assembling huge amounts of data across paper maps, disparate files, and databases. This project required a lot of digitization, data optimization and management, data reprojection, and data transformation before we could even get to analysis and mapping. Nowadays the GIS kids just push a button; we old timers had to do it uphill, both ways, in 4 feet of snow – and remind me to tell you about the couple of weeks I spent surveying up on the Canadian border, waist deep in snow. At any rate, I ended up writing a bunch of homebrew GIS code to augment and extend the commercial tools we had. In the engineering world I also did a lot of work with hydrology and modeling, HEC-2 water surface profiles, transportation networks, even 3D modeling and rendering, and the worlds of engineering, GIS and code became more and more blurred over the years.
To this day I still rely on engineering principles, like solving complex technical challenges by deconstructing them into their constituent parts, trying to understand the interconnections and dependencies, and figuring out an architecture — whether hydrologic networks, transportation systems, or IT architectures, there are a lot of engineering principles and techniques for approaching them.
Q: How and why did you end up at the EPA?
A: I like to challenge myself and try new things. So, around 12 years ago, I took a big step and started a consulting at an engineering and GIS firm. Eventually, I teamed up with a guy who was also doing environmental and GIS consulting. As my partner was a disabled veteran, we structured as a Service-Connected Disabled Veteran Owned Small Business (SDVOSB), and we approached some larger government contractors about providing geospatial capabilities as a subcontractor. We quickly ended up working as a niche geospatial consultant with companies like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and CGI Federal on a variety of interesting projects for the military and other agencies. But because both of us were more interested in environmental protection, we put our main focus on EPA. We provided EPA with GIS support for Hurricane Katrina, and worked on many of EPA’s public-facing web mapping capabilities. While the company grew, I started to tire from the challenges of running a small business; the feast and famine cycles, writing endless proposals, and bouncing from customer to customer, when I really wanted to focus most on supporting a mission around using GIS to understand our environment and help protect it.
During the course of our EPA contracting, I learned that an EPA colleague was retiring. He had been managing EPA’s Facility Registry Service, which integrates and conflates geospatial data from many systems for millions of facilities and sites, and which serves as a geospatial underpinning for a lot of what EPA does. I knew the system well, and when the job announcement came out, I applied and got an offer.
Since then, I’ve been innovating with EPA. Here, I work with groups like the Homeland Infrastructure Foundation Level Data Workgroup (HIFLD) to provide new datasets to support emergency response. I cut costs through automation, improve match logic, and develop web services, including a reusable widget for reporting applications. The widget retrieves and prepopulates information, it validates, standardizes, and geocodes locations. It also allows users to fine-tune the location via a web map. It has since been deployed to a half dozen reporting systems, improved data quality at the source, and helped reduce burden significantly (140,000 hours of annual burden in one program).
Q: What do you do for the EPA? What kind of role does GIS play in supporting EPA in its mission?
A: At EPA we recently created a data analytics division, and hired a Chief Data Scientist. I now work for the Chief Data Scientist, Robin Thottungal, pursuing not only geospatial tech but also big data, machine learning, and other types of analytics. Currently I’m building cloud-based infrastructure to support distributed computing using Apache Spark and other technologies. We’re interested in offloading some of our geoprocessing and analysis to the cloud, along with better leveraging external data sources and emergent technologies for analysis. I’m also looking at how we can handle sensor data more robustly, and how to apply remote sensing for a variety of applications such as detection of Harmful Algal Blooms.
EPA’s mission is to protect human health and the environment. That covers broad territory, whether Emergency Support Function 10 and responding to oil or hazardous materials releases after a disaster, remediating a contaminated former industrial site, or assessing water quality. Environment is all about place, and so much of what we do has that spatial component. GIS is a core piece of support infrastructure at EPA, we have great GIS people across the agency. We’ve had a robust GIS workgroup for well over 20 years, and have had a Geospatial Information Officer for over 10 years. Our people are improving how we collect GIS data in the field, conducting advanced modeling and analysis, and expanding the use of mapping across the agency. We also train with the intent of democratizing technology across the agency, making it easier for non-technical users to map and visualize their data.
Q: What kind of technology do you use at work?
But we’re also looking at how to handle streaming data, big data, and distributed computing clusters — so I’ve started to experiment with an Apache Spark cluster on Mesos, along with Elasticsearch and other technologies that can bring us scale. As we look at deploying in the cloud, I’ve been delving into Docker as a means of containerizing, deploying, and managing our infrastructure in a replicable, maintainable, and cloud-agnostic way. We are working in a test environment in Amazon Web Services (AWS) with our eye on production, one of the big pieces being putting together the Authorization to Operate (ATO) documentation for the AWS environment. I also deployed JupyterHub in our test environment in AWS, which allows a user to create notebooks containing executable code (Python, R, Julia and others) along with annotation, embedded graphics, and other capabilities, with an eye toward supporting some of our scientific computing needs for more technical users in a self-service way. Esri recently rolled out their Python API that enables Jupyter-based approaches. Our little team is also digging into machine learning and analysis in the test Jupyter environment.
Q: Tell us about some of the cool projects you are working on.
A: Aside from building out some cool new infrastructure in the cloud, I get to tinker with a pretty wide variety of projects. For example, I recently built a tool to visualize streaming water sensor data, using Open Geospatial Consortium sensor standards. The tool allows users to slice and dice the data temporally; almost immediately we detected a recurrent anomaly in the data that the sensor operator hadn’t previously detected. Additionally, it provides dynamic, interactive ways to look at relationships between different sensor parameters, such as suspended solids, nitrates, and e. coli concentrations. I’d love to be able to set that up so that it can traverse upstream or downstream, pulling in other related sensor data from the stream network, since the devices are now all spatially indexed to the National Hydrology Dataset (NHD). I’ve also been building out tools that provide better insight on environmental impacts affecting tribes and American Indian country, using a combination of spatial queries and other approaches.
Q: You ride a bike and like craft brews — two mandatory geohipster attributes. Do you have any other?
A: For the male geohipsters, I possess an epic beard, however I’ll pass on the waxed handlebar mustache. And for the foodie geohipsters, I’ve brewed my own beers, I make things like pickled daikon, homemade mustard, gochujang chicken and Thai curry, and while I have been known to eat hipster foods like kale and quinoa, you won’t find me washing it down with a can of PBR. And I definitely have hipsterishly eclectic music tastes, ranging from funk to punk, blues to ska, a lot of artists not well known in the mainstream. I do actually own vinyl discs and a turntable, but I confess: most of what I listen to is digital.
But to get serious, I’ve noticed that the real geohipster attribute is to be innovators, makers, creators with broad interests and backgrounds. I came from a creative and resourceful “maker” family. When my parents settled in Pennsylvania, I was a nerdy city kid – born in Massachusetts, spent most of my childhood in Germany, then to El Paso, Texas. As I grew up, I became a country kid on a hundred-acre farm in the wooded Pocono mountains of Pennsylvania. There we raised goats, sheep, chickens, and other animals. We had a huge garden and did a lot of canning. We would hunt and fish, and were pretty self-sufficient. My mom and stepdad make a great team. She is a very talented sculptor and painter, and he is incredible at woodworking. She spins and weaves with their sheep’s wool, and he researches and rebuilds damaged antique spinning wheels using his lathe. My mom, with her undergrad in Chemistry and grad work in Germanic languages does things like reading Old Norse sagas in the original tongue to pick out tidbits on ancient Viking wool dyeing, spinning, and weaving.
So, I grew up in a very resourceful and creative “maker”-oriented environment: I did pen and ink drawing and sculpture; I learned to work on cars, solder electronics, and hang sheet rock; I learned how to build and make things. And that creativity and tenacity to figure out how to make things still influences how I approach many things, even if these days it involves a multidimensional dataset, or a homebrew sensor built with a Raspberry Pi.
Q: Do you consider yourself a geohipster? Why / why not?
A: We grizzled geohipster silverbacks might be tempted to say something hipsterish like “I was geo before geo went mainstream,” but one look at me and you’d probably think more geohippie than geohipster. I don’t possess any colorful skinny jeans (not that I’d fit into skinny jeans), I don’t wear Vans or ironic t-shirts under a blazer. My natural state is more likely to involve hiking boots and a tie-dye. But hipster jokes aside, it’s actually what’s on the inside that makes one a geohipster. It’s about out-of-the box thinking, being creative, passionate and innovative, and weaving together a lot of different knowledge and experience into your work.
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our global readership?
A: For one thing, remember that Venn diagram of things you enjoy / things you are good at / things you can get paid for. I’ve found that many of the most satisfied, creative and talented folks I’ve met in geo were multidisciplinarians. Some came into geo from another field, some were folks who started in geo but who then did a deep dive into another field. I also think that shows that we need to mix it up, keep thinking outside of the box and looking across the sciences.
Don’t get too hung up on specific tools and technologies or stay in your comfort zone. Instead, get comfortable being uncomfortable, get outside of your comfort zone, and stay curious. Keep learning. Focus on outcomes, keep adding new techniques and approaches to your toolbox, and apply your knowledge to a wider variety of problems.
And, get involved in your local geo and tech community. Here in the nation’s capital we are particularly blessed to have a number of great geo and techie Meetup groups like Geo DC, always bringing new presentations and insights and great networking over beer – but even if you don’t have a strong local geo and tech community, there’s a strong and vibrant online geo community on twitter and social media.
Kristen Grady is a GIS Specialist at NYC Emergency Management and has over ten years of experience working in GIS. Prior to working at NYCEM she spent about six years working in academia trying really hard - but eventually failing - to avoid working a 9-5 office job. (Although saving the city from the apocalypse turned out to be a pretty cool job, so it’s OK). She’s loved airplanes even longer than geography and hopes to combine her two passions into an actual paying job someday. But for now, she makes maps and writes python code by day and stares at her airplane emergency card collection by night, which currently stands at an impressive 139. (And yes, they all very clearly read “PLEASE DO NOT REMOVE FROM AIRCRAFT.” She says she’s sorry!) Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.
Q: How did you get into GIS?
A: I think it happened about six or seven miles up, somewhere near where the troposphere meets the stratosphere. I was flying from New York to California in June 2006 — my first time flying jetBlue — and I had never seen a live flight-tracker map before. I was enthralled! It was a perfectly clear day all the way across the country, and my 8 megapixel camera was pointed out the window for the entire six-hour flight. I’d take a picture of something neat on the ground and then immediately snap a photo of the map. When I got back to New York a few days later I sat with these photos and Google Earth, which I had just downloaded for the very first time, and spent hours trying to figure out what was in my photos…
A few months later, my Weather and Climate instructor was giving a lecture on remote sensing. He was going through slides of satellite images and having us guess what they were of. I knew them all! At the time I was a philosophy major, but I immediately went and switched my major to geography. The next semester, while taking the required geo-technologies course for the geography major I finallygot to play with desktop GIS software and made some (pretty terrible) maps. But I knew that this was what I wanted to do. Someone in the geography department back then had made a comment that geography was a perfect discipline for “someone with ADD” because the variety of projects and aspects of GIS that you could focus on were truly infinite. That sealed the deal for me.
Geography and mapmaking were always passions of mine. I had my face buried in atlases and had been making pretty intricate maps since I was a kid, like this one that I made at age eleven. But I took a *very* circuitous route through college, losing myself about a hundred times, before finally taking that life-changing jetBlue flight that reminded that, at my core, I was born to be a geographer. So after seven long years in undergrad, I finally got that geography degree, and found GIS, and I’m so glad I did!
Q: You have a Master of Science degree in Geographic Information Science. What is the one most important (or most valuable) thing you got out of your course of study?
A: I graduated with a B.A. in 2008, probably the worst year in recent history to start looking for a “real” job. So I ended up mashing together some part-time GIS research jobs and continued taking graduate-level GIS and cartography courses for fun. This eventually led me into a PhD program, which I was in for two and a half years before deciding to call it quits with a Masters. (A story for another time!)
So unlike in an undergrad program, where you’re essentially just learning how to use tools (at least in my experience), in a graduate program you are also being taught how to think critically about those tools, as well as how to think critically about the disciplines of GIS and geography themselves. You have to think about the consequences of your analyses, the ethics of your maps, the ethics of your tools. You have to think about things like the effects of aggregation, the cultural implications of using a certain color on a map…
Then there’s learning about different geographic “paradigms” and critical geographies, such as feminist geography or Marxist geography… I had no idea while I was in undergrad that there was such a rich philosophy of geography. I feel lucky to have been exposed to that. Having that experience at the graduate level has definitely made me a better, more critical map-maker.
Q: You work for NYC Emergency Management. Is your job stressful? Last week Amazon S3 went down because of a typo. If *you* make a typo lives are at stake. Do you ever think about that? Does it stress you?
A: Oh totally. I put a lot of pressure on myself because I am a perfectionist. But the paradox of working in emergency management, where your maps and your data really ought to be showing the most correct information, is that when sh*t hits the fan, there is rarely any time to go over everything in painstaking detail. It is not my nature to work this way *at all* so it’s been an interesting challenge for me.
There is always a struggle between balancing the quality of your work and being efficient. This is why I try to automate things using Python and by using map templates that I created a while back. This way we can spend more time on making sure the map and data are accurate and less time on things like creating a layout from scratch, or worse, creating an Esri scale bar from scratch (it’s the worst!). I have actually written a Python script that automates that process for us. Hooray!
Q: I interned for Manhattan Borough President’s Office in 1992. We used MapInfo then. Have things changed in NYC? What technology do you use these days?
As for the rest of the city, I think it varies. My sense is that it is largely Esri-based. But I am familiar with a few agencies that are moving toward open source technologies, like DoITT, who I believe is using QGIS for their desktop mapping. A colleague of mine at DOHMH uses R, D3, Leaflet, and PostGIS for her mapping projects, and DCP’s new Capital Planning Division has just used all open source technology to create their Facilities Explorer, which I love and was just released to the public.
Q: Tell us about a cool project you work on right now.
A: As I’ve said, things happen really fast in emergency management. A typical work day for me is pretty calm and laid back… until of course, something happens. One of the big ideas last year in the Public Safety Data Development Center (the group I work in within NYCEM GIS) was to create a dataset that answers the question, “What is there?” Meaning, if there is a sudden event, such as a building collapse or an explosion, we immediately want to know all of the facilities that exist in the affected location. Is there a hospital there? A nursing home? A restaurant? A school? We used to do this by adding a bunch of datasets one by one — that we had to think of off the top of our head — to an ArcMap document. But that is both inefficient and prone to oversight (like forgetting a dataset, for example).
Answering this question sounds easy enough (“Why not just use Google?!”) but what is so challenging is bringing all of these disparate datasets, most from different sources and with very different schemas, together into one dataset. The City of New York cannot simply rely on Google’s databases alone for its spatial awareness. We cannot verify the accuracy of their data.
Many of us worked on this project, but my job was to write an ETL in Python that would extract as many datasets as we could (currently 23, but eventually 50 or more) from our database, transform them — perform selections, map the fields, etc. — and then load them into one singular dataset. We still have a long way to go, but at least now, we can pull in this one dataset, which we call “Facilities Master,” select all the points that fall inside a building or within a given radius, and know an awful lot about the facilities in an area, with just a few mouse clicks. And this way you don’t have to think too much, which is always my goal. Plan and prepare when times are calm (think!), and then respond quickly when things get hectic (do!).
Q: You are a Pythonista. What advice will you give to someone who is just getting started with Python in GIS?
A: Wow. What a great word, Pythonista. Can I use that on my resume?!
Learning to code can follow a totally different path for everyone and really depends on your learning style. Some people can start copy/pasting other people’s code right away and fairly quickly manage to build something new that actually works. This approach didn’t work for me. I wasn’t easily able to break through the wall that stood between me wanting to learn to code and unshackling code from abstraction, and so I was a little paralyzed at first. But now I know that in order to learn code, you have to just start writing it and stop pussyfooting. You have to have faith that all those neural connections that you’re creating in your brain will eventually result in some pretty spectacular “eureka!” moments.
As for the more practical aspect of learning to code, you need simply to start out by learning the basics (variables, lists, conditional statements, loops, etc.), and then start playing. If you aren’t able to take a class, there are a million online code-learning sites, most of which are free. Once you know some really basic stuff and have learned what a module is, play around with the Python turtle module, which was originally created to help kids learn to code. It’s a great way to make really cool things happen pretty quickly, and it’s included in the Python Standard Library.
If you want to write scripts and create tools for ArcGIS, you’ll need to learn ArcPy, the Python site package that lets you interact with ArcGIS. Esri has pretty good documentation on how to use arcpy, and GIS Stack Exchange is also a great arcpy resource.
Here are a few rules I think the budding Python coder should follow:
Know that coding requires incredible self initiative and self learning. Learn how to ask the right questions and become a master Googler. GIS Stack Exchange is indispensable, but users and moderators will publicly shame you if you haven’t done your homework before posting a question. I love that.
Errors are learning tools, you’ll never stop getting them, and they will only get more complicated over time. Accept them. When you’re comfortable, learn about debugging and error handling.
Pleeeeease comment your code. You willforget what you have written if you haven’t looked at your script in two weeks. More importantly, if someone else has to read it, explanations in a human language are key. Don’t be lazy. Don’t write sloppy code. Include script headers.
Q: Enough about work. What do you do for fun? Being a Brooklynite, whatever it is surely must be hipster, no?
A: Brooklyn is a pretty special place to live. It is also very hipster. One of my favorite things to do, and fortunately for my budget and my liver I don’t do this too often, is try to find really good craft cocktails. There are some amazing ones to be found in this borough, but obviously also in Manhattan. I have not yet ventured to the other three boroughs in search of craft cocktails, but I should! One of my favs in Manhattan is Amor Y Amargo. They are the standard to which I hold all other craft cocktail bars. A place I love to go to in Brooklyn is Blueprint. They also have incredible bar snacks. Yum!
When I’m not consuming spirits, I am doing much healthier things like snowboarding, taking pictures, hanging with any number of my enormously huge family, including my two little nephews whom I adore, seeking out some top-of-the-line self-serve froyo with my other half, or geeking out hardon airplanes…
Q: You also like airplanes. How did you develop that passion (for it is a passion, right)? Tell us more about it.
A: I could spend hours answering this question! There are so many amazing spatial things going on with airplanes. But to be honest with you, I’m not really sure why I became enamored with them as a kid. I’d give anything to go back to early 1991 and ask that 8-year old girl, who just found out that she was going to be flying Continental Airlines from Newark, New Jersey to Orlando, Florida, why she instantly became so obsessed with them (and with the airline itself).
I think there are a few things going on. For one, I just think the airplane is a beautiful machine. But it’s also a symbol of escape, adventure, and change, and I have always liked all of those things. Also, the airplane affords anyone lucky enough to sit in a window seat an incredible and rare view of the surface of the Earth, which is a pretty spectacular experience for anyone who loves geography, although I didn’t have that particular experience until I was a bit older. My initial obsession mainly involved planespotting, which is at its most basic simply identifying aircraft types and airline liveries.
As I’ve gotten older and as technology has allowed for easy access to all kinds of flight-related goodies, the passion has evolved into an actual hobby. An #avgeek session for me might include using multiple flight-tracking apps (Flightaware, PlaneFinder, Flightradar24) and live ATC feeds to track a single flight or multiple flights that satisfy certain criteria. Sometimes I like to freak people out by “planestalking” them. (I actually coined the term Planestalker in the Urban Dictionary, and as of the time of this writing, it has 4 likes! ha!) Recently, I was planestalking my cousin’s flight from EWR to DEN, and it made a go-around in DEN. They were only feet off the ground before they aborted their landing due to wind and flew around to land on another runway. Nowadays you can go to Flightaware and just download a KML file of your flight. I sent him a picture of his go-around, and he thought it was hysterical (but also pretty cool!).
Some of my favorite airplane “games” or challenges are trying to catch and then follow my pilot talking to ATC from one feed to the next (e.g. from Ground to Tower or from Departure to ARTCC), or predicting where an airplane overhead is coming from or going to and which runway it either took off from or is about to land on (which I am a total expert at predicting, btw!). I had a lot of fun making an animated map of some “Flights over Queens!” a few years ago, but unfortunately it got a little (irreparably) messed up when Carto switched from Editor to Builder.
Even more recently, I’ve developed an affection for aviation-related maps, like VFR sectional charts,arrival and departure procedures, and IFR Enroute High Altitude charts. I mean, talk about not being able to make a mistake! And having to think critically about the implications of your cartographic choices! Who makes these wonderful maps?! I am convinced that they are made by sweet little garden gnomes, working tirelessly in the night, running their maps from tree to tree… There is just so much magic, and a bit of mystery, in flying… it’s fun to uncover it all.
Q: Do you consider yourself a geohipster? Why / why not?
A: You know, at first I didn’t think I was at all, but then I realized that maybe I was a little bit when I was completely unable to answer the first question in the interview — which is a pretty simple and straightforward question: “How did you get into GIS?” — without launching myself into a paralyzing debate on my feelings on the word “GIS.” Did I want to be associated with such a contentious word, what seems now to be a target for people who don’t want to be boxed in and who instead feel that they are part of something bigger than GIS, something geospatial? Just the fact that I was freaking out about the connotation of a word, in a very academic way… that must be somewhat geohipster, no? (Fortunately for the geohipster readership, I decided to scrap the eight-page essay that accompanied that manic thought spiral and instead tell you all a nice little story about flying… hee)
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our global readership?
A: I wish I could take credit for this perfectly succinct and beautiful advice that I’m about to give, but I can’t, as it was offered as a suggestion to me by my partner when I read this question to him out loud…
“If you’re on the ground, look up, and if you’re in the sky, look down.”
It’s exactly what would have taken me multiple paragraphs to articulate, but he did it in just one sentence. He knows me so well. I think I’ll just leave it at that.
Randal Hale runs North River Geographic Systems. He enjoys long walks on the beach, talking about your feelings, and spatial databases. You may find him at your local conference, possibly in a canoe, or on a bike -- but not all at once.
Q: How and why did you get into GIS?
A: So way back in 1989 (it’s not that long ago, right?) young Randy started college. I ended up through some twists and turns as a Geology Major. About a year or so before graduation, it hit me that in order to use this degree for anything I was going to have to go to grad school and A) Work for an an oil company or B) Teach. Ugh.
My department received a phone call about that time from the Tennessee Valley Authority mapping department. Hence started my career in the Federal Gov’t — I went in and interviewed for the wrong job and was hired for a summer job that didn’t start until October. TVA has a long history in Mapping. They are probably the 2nd or 3rd oldest mapping organization in the nation. At the time they also had a store that sold aerial photography (9×9 prints) and topographic maps. The map folding and selling turned into a my first foray into GIS.
TVA had just started using this new software called ARC/INFO and they had a huge job that required a lot of digitizing of data from 7.5-minute quadrangle maps. So I would digitize streams and roads and then get the GIS IT guy to print out a map at a known scale. I would then take the map and measure all the roads and streams using a planimeter (that’s what they told me to do). One day the IT guy came back and asked what I was doing and when he finished yelling he sat down and taught me how to extract that information from the data I was producing. I received a day or so of instruction. He gave me a stack of manuals. I read those at lunch. I was hooked. That led to AML development, shell scripting, and the eventual loss of most of my hair (at least that’s what I blame it on). I was there for about 16 years and learned a lot on life, mapping work flows, and data standards.
Q: You have been running your own GIS consulting business for 10 years. If you could do it over again, would you take the same path? What would you do differently?
A: Oh — things I would have done differently. I think I might stay on the same path. With a few exceptions:
I would tell anyone that is starting a business — actually learn about running a business. I can do complicated things with maps — I didn’t understand taxes. If you assume my work week is 40 hours I’ll spend about 8 hours bookeeping, 8 hours advertising, and 40 hours working (that’s the joke). I still question if I’m “doing it right”. Friends would go “Oh running a business is easy”. HAH.
Say No to people. It took me forever to learn to tell clients no. It’s easy to lose money on a job. It’s really easy if you work for yourself. There were jobs I took on I should have walked away from — but it’s hard to say no. In 2016 I think I walked away from 3 jobs where I didn’t think I was the best fit. Best thing I’ve done.
Learn to take a break from work. I will sit and worry about business. I like worrying — I’m good at it. This year I actually learned to step away and find hobbies that don’t involve GIS.
Q: Tell us about some of the cool projects you are working on and the technology you use.
A: Cool Projects. Heh. I’m not sure how cool they are.
So my first project as a consultant was with a small forestry firm within driving distance of Chattanooga. It started out simple enough. Soon 4 shapefiles turned into 8. 8 turned into 100. It was painful. I couldn’t manage the data easily. We needed to upgrade to ArcEditor or ArcInfo. They couldn’t afford the price tag. So I migrated them to QGIS and PostGIS. We are running an enterprise database that churns out a lot of data on cheap computers. It’s not glorious or cool — but it’s functional and pain-free. I guess that makes it awesome. We’re on the verge of having a thing called a “web map”.
One job involves a water utility. I’m still working on that one. That project is migrating data out of an Esri file-based geodatabase into PostGIS. We are installing QGIS alongside ArcGIS. There’s a few things they need ArcGIS for — but all data maintenance will be QGIS/PostGIS. They also are using Fulcrum to help with data maintenance/collection. I actually had to open ArcGIS for this one and muck through domains and subtypes in the file-based geodatabase. Which really this is more about making the client comfortable with the transition. There’s no question on it working or not working — it’s all comfort level.
A volunteer job I’m working on — Caribbean SEA (http://www.caribbean-sea.org/). They are a 501(c)(3) that operates in Chattanooga. They work locally and in the Caribbean educating people on the benefits of clean water. So after helping do things like help run their website and make sure email works — we’re diving into GIS. They will have one of their projects in PostGIS/QGIS. They are also about to embark on a mobile app for people to report water quality problems. Every water quality report has a point. Every point goes on a map. It’s going to be a game changer for them and the people they help.
Q: These days you are all about PostGIS and QGIS. How and why did you take that route? Do you use Esri software?
A: I think I’ve been an Esri software user for nearly 23 years. I started with ARC/INFO 6 and stayed current up until 10.2. One of my clients has 10.5 I think (we’ve not opened it so I’m not sure entirely). In 2009 I even went so far as to be an Esri Business Partner and Certified Trainer for a short span.
In early 2013 I worked on a job that took me to the Caribbean. I worked alongside AppGeo (www.appgeo.com) and Spatial Focus (www.spatialfocus.com/) on assigning addresses in the US Virgin Islands. When you’re standing on St. Thomas you can’t say “Take me to 123 Main Street”. Addresses are by parcel number. Many streets weren’t named. Your address might be “Az42” and that’s it. It’s hard to order a pizza and almost impossible to get an ambulance to your location. Addressing is complicated. It’s also a bit fun to figure out. We built an address repository from scratch. The addressing repository was to reside in PostGIS.
I was incredibly worried because I knew nothing on PostGIS except it didn’t “work” with ArcGIS. I had QGIS installed (1.7.x) and started learning how it all functions together. QGIS and PostGIS are flexible enough to run on anything. I went and bought a cheap laptop for $350 (4GB of RAM and a 300GB hard drive). I loaded Linux on it. I loaded PostGIS, QGIS, and a few other pieces of software. I took a copy of the address repository and off we went.
Over the course of 4 months I learned a lot. I had one co-worker there who was great at improvising — Zac. We would hit a problem and he would sit down and write a solution. I had one co-worker Carol who was excellent at designing processes. So by the end of the project we had built a process that combined commercial and open source software to churn out address information from the MAR (master address repository) for the good people of the US Virgin Islands. Up until that one point I always assumed you couldn’t mix commercial and open source software. We had strung together Fulcrum, ArcGIS, Google Docs, QGIS, Python, and PostGIS into possibly not the most elegant solution — but it worked and it worked well.Total software purchase for the job was about $300 US. All on a $350 laptop. Run your current commercial software on a laptop with those specs.
When consulting you run into a lot of clients that go “Look — we don’t have any money — but we’ve budgeted $30,000 to buy software to run our GIS”. When I came back from the Caribbean I started asking “Why is software the centerpiece of your GIS and not your data?”. It completely changed the way I look at geo. With my toolset of QGIS and PostGIS (and Fulcrum) I can do about anything that needs done. GIS is fun again. I don’t spend 4 hours listing out software a client has to buy — I spend 4 hours discussing data and what problems they need solved.
Q: Do you miss ARC/INFO on Solaris? Do you miss coverages? (I do, for which I get ridiculed occasionally.) Why / why not?
A: I do miss it. I used to do a lot of remote sensing. All of our landcover went into coverages — I mean everything at the time went into coverages — roads, streams, landcover, etc. It had polygons. The polygons were also standalone arcs. You had labels — those were also the centroids for the Polygons. You could attribute nodes if I remember correctly. The move away from coverages was painful. I swore for a long time file-based geodatabases were just less functional coverages.
My first dive into GIS was on Solaris. I enjoy Unix. So these days thanks to the flexibility of the tools — Linux is my operating system of choice. I have one laptop that is running Windows 10 and one Virtual Machine running Windows 7. About once a month I stop and go “Oh god — why am I running Linux” and then I remember I haven’t rebooted my workstation in 3 weeks and haven’t bought virus software in 5 years.
The other thing I miss about ARC/INFO Workstation: You actually had to know what you were doing to use it. That sounds mean. It’s true though. ARC/INFO was a time investment. You had to know the commands. You had to know what happened when you used those commands. For a while I taught a model builder class I had written for ArcGIS. Most taking the class didn’t know model builder existed or what half the ArcToolbox tools did. I feel like now it’s just push buttons until you don’t get an error. Make PDFs. Woot. Sigh.
It’s hard to explain — coverages are ancient history. Sometimes you need to see where you came from to appreciate where you are.
Now that I re-read this — I’ll go back to yelling at clouds and tie an onion to my belt.
Q: How long did it take you to become comfortable with PostGIS? How long will it take for an old phart? (Asking for a friend.)
A: A year before it started to make sense. I’m not a database person — most desktop GIS people (there are a lot of them out there) never think in terms of databases. Spatial SQL didn’t make sense for a while. I was used to a desktop GIS way of thinking. If you wanted a buffer you had to create a file. If you wanted to do some analysis — there was a lot of pre-processing that you might have to do before hand. Most people look at a desktop GIS and go “shapefiles!”. I’ve run into QGIS users and ArcGIS users who produce shapefiles all day every day. When you’re able to comprehend that PostGIS/PostgreSQL and QGIS give you an enterprise-level database — for free — it will change your life.
Eh — about 5 years ago — maybe 6 I was at a conference. I was exploring Free and Open Source at that point. I had a salesman with a commercial company start a conversation over support. He argued — FOSS4G has no support. I argued back “well you’ve got the internet.” Actually — I was a bit wrong — you’ve got email lists, commercial firms, conferences (unofficial plug — FOSS4G in Boston for 2017), books, etc. So I leverage all of those. You’ve got so much support — it may not be typical as in you have a 1-800 number to scream at someone — but I’ve not been compelled to yell ever in the last 4 years at developers in the FOSS4G world.
The really awesome part — it makes GIS fun again.
So Join a listserve. Buy a book. Participate in the discussion. I’ve emailed developers with suggestions and in a few cases I’ve felt like I’ve affected the software. I like filing bug reports.
Q: I enjoy reading your blog. I learn from the technical articles, but I enjoy the personal pieces even more. I like your folksy storytelling style. Will we see more of this?
A: Everyone (including yourself upon occasion) has told me to write something and write more. Heh — I enjoy it. The work blog provides that outlet. So I use it to vent — I talk about technical and I talk about life.
I tend to get lost in work. Figuratively as I will sit here for hours wondering over some technical problem and literally I think at times I “lose me”. I will catch myself at times during the week going “Oh man I can’t go do that I need to work”. It’s hard to get up and walk off. Sometimes if I’m stuck I start typing. I’ll talk about finding a nifty tool in QGIS and Grass or accidentally eating squirrel. Writing helps me find my way out of work. It’s also a great mental health check. I’ve started a lot of blogs and halfway through I realize something was eating at me and I’ve vented enough to make it go away. Many of you are probably saying “Thank you” for me not finishing an article and hitting the trash button.
Not getting as lost has been easier as of late because I’ve taken a sabbatical from boards and other things. I’m going to do my best in 2017 to write 52 articles. I’m already a bit behind. Some may be “cheats” and just reposts of emails — BUT — 52 things. They will probably lean in to the technical but there will be more family and friends that get brought into the mix. I look around and my family has never been “this old” before. Aging parents, aging pets, and changing thoughts make for an interesting life.
Q: You own a canoe and a bicycle. As far as I can tell, you spend more time in the canoe than on the bike. Why is that?
A: Well… Hah. Growing up my first taste of freedom was a bicycle. I would ride for a while after school. I would ride a bike to work. Bike riding has always been a thing I do — but the canoe…
So when I was around 14 or so my friend Danny called and said “Hey — I’ve saved up some cash and I’m gonna go buy a canoe”. We drove up to Ocoee TN and he bought a 17-foot Kennebec Old Town Canoe. We immediately drove to Parksville Lake and threw it in the water. 15 minutes later we had flipped it. I was hooked. We did a lot of trips to places I’d never have gotten to see had I not been in a canoe.
It’s relaxing. It’s fun. It’s a low maintenance hobby. I can throw my canoe in any body of water and just explore. No gasoline needed. No new tires required. Give me about 15 minutes and you’ll never know I was there. Being in a canoe opens up a whole new transportation network you never think about — lakes and streams and rivers. I have threatened to take up fishing again. My one problem with that — it adds a level of cursing back into my relaxing sport. It’s like ruining a perfectly good walk in a field with a golf club.
When I graduated college my gift to me was a canoe — a 15-foot, 8-inch Old Town Discovery. I’ve had it for 23 years now.
This year I’ve got two plans:
Do an overnight trip because I haven’t done one of those in forever.
The second is to take my laptop and do something with QGIS while floating down a river.
Q: Not until I got involved with GeoHipster did I realize that in some parts of the US “hipster” is a dirty word. Is that the case in your home state of Tennessee? If yes, why do you think that is?
A: Nah — not a dirty word here. Of course it doesn’t stop me from poking at people and calling them hipsters and implying it’s bad.
Hipsters seem to push outside of the norm. Depending on what you are doing here in The South that can be a bonus or a detriment. I have one client that no doubt calls me a “hipster”. If I head down to the local organic market, I’m going “ugh hipsters”. Hipster might have an implication of being “not that useful” since you’re working outside the norm. So ultimately I don’t know why it’s bad — except people love giving labels to everyone. Plus people love getting offended over anything and everything.
Q: So, are you a geohipster?
I’m going to go with probably. I may be 80% geohipster. That’s how the saying goes, right — 80% of hipsters have a spatial component?
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our global readership?
A: Words of Wisdom. I can finally read my manifesto to the world.
People of the world — turn off your snapbook, your facegram, your tweetchat, and go outside. Find your nearest neighbor. Talk to them. I enjoy social media — but we’re missing a lot by not talking to people. Find someone you wouldn’t normally talk to and engage them in conversation.
GIS people of the world — if you’ve only ever used one type of Geographic Information System — try a different one. You may be going “OK you want me to use QGIS!”. Try them all — gvSIG, OpenJUMP, ArcGIS, etc. Of course — if you’ve ever been worried about trying QGIS and other open source alternatives to you commercial software — give them a shot, it will change your life. QGIS is coming up on a major release soon — help them out. It’s a great community of people.
Finally — go find a cause and volunteer. Want to help animals? People? Take a few hours a week and make it happen. It doesn’t take much to make a difference.
I’m an AICP-certified planner working as a consultant to small towns and rural communities in upstate New York. I provide planning and GIS services for municipalities, not-for-profit organizations, and other planning consultants that require extra capacity or specialized geospatial analysis they cannot perform in house. I started my business, Don Meltz Planning and GIS, in 2002 (www.donmeltz.com) and work out of my home office in Stockport, Columbia County, NY.I’ve recently started working as an Adjunct Professor at Marist College teaching a fall semester Intro to GIS course and a spring semester Advanced GIS course.I’m the Chairperson of my town’s Planning Board, a member of the American Planning Association NY Upstate Chapter, the New York Planning Federation, and the New York State GIS Association. For the NYS GIS Association I participate in the UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) Professional Affiliation Group and the Communications Committee.Personal Twitter - @DonMeltzBusiness Twitter - @Don_Meltz
Q: You have a Master’s in Regional Planning. How and why did you go into GIS?
A: It was a long and winding road, but I’ll try to concentrate on the main points.
I’ve always been a map person. I was the designated navigator on every trip we went on as a kid. I’d pore over the road map in the back seat, calling out turn-by-turn directions. I have a vivid memory as a pre-teen, the moment I realized those little grey numbers along the roads on the map represented miles. That’s when I became the back-seat GPS, reading the map, looking at the speedometer, and calculating how long it would be before reaching the next turn, or our destination.
The rest of the flow chart looks something like this:
An interest in sciences in high school leads to a Bachelor’s degree in Biology.
As an undergrad, taking a computer language class and a philosophy logic class in the same semester was an eye-opening experience.
Reagan gets elected during my junior year in college, which leads to downsizing and defunding many science-related agencies.
A biologist with a new degree and zero experience enters the family construction business.
A land use controversy with a neighbor, plus the frustrating limitations of working in a family business, added to the realization my body would not last in the construction field forever, leads to a life changing decision — grad school.
A Planning degree from U Albany with a personal interest in all things computer-related leads to working with GIS.
It took me a while to discover how planning lets me accommodate both my interest in protecting the environment, and my desire to build things. I like to tinker with things, figure out how they work, and how they fit into the rest of the world. Planning is the career that lets me satisfy nearly every curiosity I have about the world. And GIS is the tool that helps me do that.
Q: Your company, Don Meltz Planning and GIS, offers planning and GIS services. Which do you do more of — planning or GIS? Why do you think the breakdown is what it is?
A: I am a planner, and I’m a geospatial analyst. In my mind these job titles are one and the same. I truly make no distinction between my planning work and my GIS work. GIS is a tool I use as a planner to help me advise my clients on how to make knowledgeable land use decisions. There are times when I’m called in purely as a GIS consultant to help some town or village set up their own system. But the majority of my work is as an analyst, using GIS to identify and prioritize natural resources, or to model the impacts of a proposed land use.
I was a geodesigner before it became a thing.
Q: What are some cool GIS projects that you are currently working on? What GIS technology does your consulting company use?
A: Truth be told, most of my work is pretty mundane. I work on a lot of comprehensive plans and zoning laws for small towns, and agriculture protection plans for counties. I use primarily Esri ArcGIS with a smattering of QGIS. However, whenever I work for a town that wants to set up their own GIS, I always steer them in the open source direction — QGIS. I also keep an eye on what Boundless is doing. I’m really excited about how they’re integrating QGIS, GeoServer, and their new OpenLayers-based WebApp builder. I’ve been using all these tools for a few years now. And every iteration of the Boundless stack gets better and better.
My proximity to the Catskills, and their being the source for NY City drinking water has led to a few interesting projects. I worked on a very complex erosion model for a town in the NYC drinking water watershed using some of NOAA’s geospatial tools, including N-SPECT, which they’ve now turned into an open source tool.
There is a project coming up that involves a national non-profit and Marist College. I can’t go into too much detail, as the paperwork hasn’t been finalized. But, it includes analysis of a significant portion of the Hudson River ecosystem using historic data going back to the 1980s, and students acquiring new data based on what we discover through that analysis.
Another area I’m moving into is Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS). I recently purchased a Phantom 4 Pro, and I’m now studying for my FAA Part 107 Remote Pilot’s Certificate so I can do some commercial work. I’d like to provide services for other planners and landscape architects doing site design work and 3D modelling. The technology surrounding these little aerial robots is amazing. They’re going to totally transform how we collect spatial data and how we incorporate it into GIS. This, and self-driving cars, will leave the world unrecognizable 50 years from now.
Q: You teach GIS at Marist College. What technology do you use in the GIS classroom? Why?
A: I came into the environmental science program at Marist on short notice. All of the previous professors had used and taught Esri products exclusively. I’m quickly moving them into a mixed environment. I added the FulcrumApp to a few assignments my first semester. Next semester I’m adding QGIS and some online mapping platforms. If I can convince the IT folks to let me set up a GeoServer instance, I’d like to be able to use that, too.
One thing I try to drill into my students’ heads is, if they want to become proficient at GIS, and stay ahead of the constant changes in the technology, they should use GIS every day. One of the problems I see with teaching pure Esri is, unless the student gets a job immediately after graduation, they won’t have access to the software. It’s usually too expensive for them to keep using on their own after they graduate. Another problem is it doesn’t work on a Mac, which probably applies to over 60% of the students in my class. If the software isn’t convenient to use, they aren’t going to use it every day. QGIS and open source tools in general overcome both of these hurdles.
Q: Suppose a student of yours tells you they are considering starting a GIS consulting business and asks for your advice. What would you tell them? Is there money in GIS consulting?
A: There is. But it’s not like the late 1990s, when if you knew what the letters GIS meant, you’d be hired on the spot. I teach my students to take a broader view of what GIS is. GIS is diffusing, spreading out into every industry you can think of. There will probably be opportunities for pure GIS consultants for quite a while. But most of the growth I see is in all the related fields. Environmental planners with GIS skills will always be in higher demand than those without. The same goes for engineers, surveyors, software programmers, system administrators, and even website designers. Anyone with some knowledge of how GIS fits into any of these fields will have an advantage.
Q: Open source is cool. “Open” is also the buzzword du jour. But can one make a decent living in open? A career? Or does it come down to a choice between coolness and moneymaking, romantic vs. practical?
A: When I started my business, one of the first questions a client would ask is “Do you have ArcView?” And nine times out of ten, answering yes was enough to get the job. But it’s probably been close to ten years since I’ve been asked what kind of software I use. The only thing my clients want to see is results. They don’t care if I made a map using ArcGIS or QGIS or a 20-year-old beta version of MapInfo (which I do have sitting on my bookshelf BTW, just in case). I still use ArcGIS mainly because that’s what I cut my teeth on. I’m familiar with it and I feel more productive using it. It also comes in handy when a client wants to share an MXD or a map package with me. I use QGIS when I run into something ArcGIS can’t handle, or when I want to try something new. Having open source tools at my disposal allows me to try new things on my own, at my own pace, without relying on a review by a third party to decide how a particular piece of software might fit into my workflow. Open source is a very practical solution for me.
Q: “The dogs bark, but the caravan goes on” — so goes an ancient proverb. Does this apply to the current GIS ecosystem? Are there too many mapping platforms?
A: I like to keep up on what’s going on in the GIS world. I follow a bunch of GeoNerds on Twitter and I read the blogs. But there comes a point where keeping up with the latest shiny gadget takes up more time than it’s worth. I have to make a living. And that means billable hours. I’d never say there are too many mapping platforms. But there are too many for me to check out on my own. This is where my Twitter feed comes in handy. I scan it continuously during the day. If something new pops up, I’ll check it out if I have time. But I concentrate on those tools that are mentioned the most. I’ve settled on ArcGIS Desktop, QGIS, GeoServer, FulcrumApp, and the Boundless stack as the tools I focus most of my attention on.
Q: What do you think about Arcade, the new programming language from Esri? Is launching a new proprietary programming language that only works within the Esri ecosystem arrogant, oblivious, or brilliant?
Q: You collect antique and classic cars and trucks. How did you get into this? Do you also work on and maintain the engines? Do you mess with the carburettor, valves, timing belt?
A: My father has always been a car guy. His family raced stock cars in the 40s and 50s. He started collecting in the early 70s, bringing me to every car show and swap meet he went to. He currently has eight classic vehicles on the road, including a Concours-restored 1959 Impala, a 1927 Gardner that was once part of the Harrah collection, and a fully restored 1932 Ford Roadster.
I’ve helped my father restore a dozen or more vehicles. I’ve done everything from sandblasting Model T frames to applying finish to the wood-spoked wheels of a 1920s Federal truck. The biggest restoration job I worked on was a 1931 chain drive AC Mack Dump Truck that we brought back from the grave, so to speak.
I’ve completely disassembled and rebuilt a 289 engine and C4 transmission from a 1968 Mustang Fastback I owned during my college days. Right now I have a lightly modified 1960 Ford F100 pickup that’s on the road, and a 100% original 1966 Ford Bronco that needs a lot of work.
I like to build things and figure out how they work.
Q: You camp, hike, run. I admire your vast portfolio of extracurriculars. Where do you find the time for everything you do?
A: All things in moderation. And don’t try to multitask. This is also where running my own one-person business comes in handy. I have complete flexibility with my schedule. As long as I meet my clients’ deadlines, I’m good. It doesn’t matter when I do the work, as long as it gets done. It also means I spend way too many days working until 2 or 3 AM.
My extracurriculars also seem to happen in spurts. There was a time when I was bagging Catskill Mountain peaks every weekend. I spent a few years spending a lot of time (and money) on photography. I still enjoy these activities, but I don’t participate in them as much as I once did. It’s the same with my classic car and truck hobby. It all but stopped when I got married and had children. But now that the kids are grown, and my father needs more help moving things around, I’ve started getting back into it.
Q: Do you consider yourself a (geo)hipster? Why / why not?
A: I believe one of the defining features of geo-hipsterism is eschewing labels. The moment a geo-hipster becomes self-aware, or proclaims to be one, they cease being a geo-hipster.
No, I am not a geo-hipster.
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our global readership?
A: Wow. This is the most difficult question of them all. I mulled over a few answers in my head, but they all seemed a little too pompous to me. Do I really have any special insight into how the world works? Some tidbit of knowledge that I could impart on others that they don’t already know?
No. I don’t.
But I do try to live by a few simple rules which I’ve actually never written down until now. So I’ll leave you with them. I’m not saying everyone should follow them. But they work for me.
I am a geospatial analyst with nearly three years of professional GIS experience. Originally from Canada, the search for adventure brought me to Wellington, New Zealand a little over a year ago. Things have worked out well, as I managed to quickly find meaningful GIS employment that aligns with my passion for nature, conservation, and the environment. I have been very fortunate to be able to explore many of New Zealand’s beautiful places in my spare time. My partner and I are currently planning to move to Melbourne, Australia in the new year, but we hope to come back and travel to some of the areas we missed!More about my professional background can be found on my LinkedIn account.
A: It can be quite difficult to pick an instagram handle! The name geohipster emerged because while I consider myself a geography geek (geogeek), I’d like to think I also have a few cool/quirky hobbies and interests that make me less of the stereotypical “geek” and more of a “hipster”. GIS does seem to work its way into my hobbies though. For example, I’ve started getting into brewing beer and making metal jewelry and inspiration is often drawn from geography, nature, and GIS.
Q: How did you get into GIS?
A: I was a geography major at the University of Toronto and discovered GIS towards the end of my degree. Starting off in GIS can be quite intense, there is a lot to know! My first introductory course was challenging but opened my eyes to a whole new discipline. After graduating, I took a postgraduate program in GIS at Algonquin College in Ottawa. This was a great program and allowed me to really immerse myself into all things geospatial. It provided a good foundation to start into my career. A lot of the time I am learning things on the job. GIS is a changing and growing industry, there is always more to know!
Q: You are a Canadian who lives in New Zealand, about to move to Melbourne, Australia. What inspired you to move down under?
A: I’ve had the idea in the back of my mind to travel to New Zealand and Australia for several years but struggled to find the right timing. After finishing school, paying off my student loans, and gaining some work experience, I had a bit of a crossroads moment of deciding whether to settle where I am, or try something new. So I wrapped up my last contract at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. I packed a bag, sold my furniture, and bought a one way ticket to New Zealand. I thought, worst case scenario, I don’t find any work and just have a really nice holiday. After a week of being in Wellington, I had a contract to work at the Department of Conservation. I have now been working there almost 15 months.
It was just one of those moments that anyone could have. I decided I wanted to do something, and I gave it a go.
Soon after moving to New Zealand, I met my partner. He has a job opportunity in Melbourne starting in the new year and we’ve decided to make the move. I will miss Wellington and my colleagues and friends, but I must admit, the same sense of adventure that brought me to New Zealand is starting to bubble up again as I get ready for the next move. I have been told wonderful things about Melbourne and the GIS community there. I’m really looking forward to getting involved and meeting new geogeeks and geohipsters!
Q: Was it easy to find a GIS job in New Zealand? What is the GIS scene like there?
A: There is a really strong community of geospatial professionals in Wellington and around New Zealand. For me, it was easy to find a job but perhaps I got a bit lucky being at the right place at the right time. I’ve enjoyed being part of two networks in Wellington — the Emerging Geospatial Professionals group, and the Women in Spatial group. These groups meet up every so often for a guest presentation along with drinks, nibbles, and general chatting. This is a great way to meet people outside of your organization and there is often discussions around current job vacancies. People are often very passionate about their work and I find that inspiring.
I’ve found the geospatial industry in New Zealand to be quite progressive. There is a lot more openness to collaboration between organizations and a strong desire to get things done. An example of a strong collaboration can be seen in New Zealand’s earthquake preparations. We are sitting on a lot of active faultlines that cause a lot of earthquakes. Often these are just little wobbles, but there have been a few major shakes recently. There was a lot learned from the devastating Christchurch earthquake in 2011, and again more recently in Kaikoura in November. There is a need for a strong geospatial plan for national emergencies such as these. Up-to-date national datasets must be readily available offline, as well as a GIS action plan for possible future earthquakes.
Q: Tell us about your current job — what you do, what technologies you use, what cool projects you work on.
A: I am a geospatial analyst at the Department of Conservation (DOC). The department has a GIS team of around 30 people spread across the country that provide geospatial support to the rest of the organization and its partners. There is a variety of work we do, which can keep things interesting! A lot of my work is generally for published projects, such as information panels, brochures, wall maps, and public reports such as the Conservation Management Strategies. I have a love for cartography and take great pride putting together a polished map.
New Zealand has a big problem with invasive species like possums, stoats, and rats preying on the native bird population. There are also a lot of species of weeds sprawling over the landscape. Much of DOC’s work is focused on pest eradication and we provide geospatial support for this. With the recent announcement by the government to have New Zealand predator-free by 2050, we have a new spring in our steps to keep track of eradication activities around the country.
In terms of technology and software, we primarily use Esri software for our work, Skype for team chatting (it’s very helpful to have team support at your fingertips), and Garmin GPS units out in the field.
Q: What’s a hip thing to do in New Zealand? Cycling? Skiing? Deconstructed coffee?
A: There is so much to do and see in New Zealand! Skiing and cycling are certainly popular, as well as going on a tramp (hike). I’m personally a big fan of some of the geothermal areas in New Zealand, that means soaking in hot springs! There are also quite a few white water rafting spots around the country that can be a lot of fun.
Wearing shorts in any weather is also the hip thing to do, as well as walking around barefoot! People here are just doing their own thing, and I really respect that. I think the culture in New Zealand is pretty relaxed and has also helped me to relax a little too. And I must say, the coffee here is out of this world, I’m not sure I can go back to drinking the North American stuff…
Q: Are you insulted by maps that omit New Zealand? Why / why not?
A: Ha ha, oh dear, poor New Zealand! I wouldn’t say it’s insulting but I would perhaps question the quality of the map. Sometimes New Zealand appears twice on a map, so maybe it all evens out.
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our global readership?
A: I can only compare my experience in New Zealand to the one I had in Canada, but I must say how impressed I am with the geospatial industry here. I think there is a lot of good stuff going on and other organizations in other countries could perhaps look to New Zealand as a model.
In terms of any personal “wisdom”, I would just encourage people to branch out a little and not be afraid to try new things! Don’t let ‘playing it safe’ stop you from taking a risk and doing something you really want to do.