All posts by Katrina Engelsted

Andy Woodruff: “Seriously, buy an actual textbook!”

Andy Woodruff
Andy Woodruff
Andy Woodruff works to design and build custom interactive maps with Axis Maps, a small company that grew out of the cartography program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2006. He is currently one of the Directors at Large of the North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS). Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he’s also a co-organizer of Maptime Boston, and a semi-active mapper of all things Boston for Bostonography.

Q: How did you get involved in geography and maps?

A: I’m a lifetime geographer, that kid who stared at maps in the back seat during family car trips. A map is a wonderful canvas for imagining what the world looks like, and there was always a little thrill in finding myself on the map and seeing imagined places become real. That kind of fascination followed up through my undergraduate and graduate studies in geography and cartography, and on into the start of my career.

Q: How did you learn how to code?

A: The first code I ever wrote was probably BASIC programs on the TI-86 calculator in high school. I have no formal coding background but started learning in earnest in grad school at the University of Wisconsin, in a course on animated and interactive maps. We used Flash, and I became captivated by what ActionScript could do for mapping, so I got really into it and went from there. Flash may be dead to many of us now, but learning it was not at all a waste of time. Those skills transferred well.

Q: How did you meet your company partners?

A: My two partners, Dave Heyman and Ben Sheesley, were the first two people I met when I visited Madison in 2005 to tour the UW Department of Geography, where they were already in the grad program. They started Axis Maps along with a third partner while working on their degrees (the company turns 10 in May!), and then I joined them after finishing my master’s. The roster has varied a bit over the years, and we now also have Josh Ryan working with us, but the three of us have been there for quite a while.

Q: You all work remotely, what tools do you use to keep in touch and organize projects?

A: The usual suspects, probably: Slack for real-time communication, GitHub for code collaboration and issue tracking, Dropbox for other file sharing, Basecamp for project management, Skype for some calls.

Q: What is your company’s typical stack?

A: I never like the word “stack” because it evokes a more rigid workflow or set of tools than I think we have as a company that specializes in custom maps. That said, there are common elements. At the end is most often D3 or Leaflet, and flat geodata files like GeoJSON or CSV. But the road to get there can vary quite a bit. Some things that often enter the mix are QGIS, mapshaper, TileMill (yep, old school TileMill), PostGIS, GDAL, and probably more that I’m forgetting.

Q: You worked with Cindy Brewer on http://colorbrewer2.org/. How many iterations did you go through? What were your goals for the project?

A: ColorBrewer was sort of inherited by Axis Maps for maintenance. Mark Harrower had worked with Cindy to build the original version based on her color research. Around 2009, when Mark was with Axis Maps, he proposed refreshing it, mostly in terms of UI, and we worked with Cindy on that. That was still in Flash though, and a few years ago I started the conversion to HTML and JavaScript to keep up with the times. So it’s really on version 3. The goal is simply to maintain Cindy’s (and Mark’s) original purpose; what we’ve brought to it is relatively minor UI and usability updates, and a few features better suited to the modern cartographer or web developer.

Q: What are some of you favorite examples of work you have conducted?

A: It’s most fun to get to work on something that real, ordinary people will use and enjoy. One favorite from my day job is the Napa Valley map and trip planner we made a year or two ago, which is used by tourists in the area. A favorite side project is the neighborhood mapping project for Bostonography because discussions with people about that have taught me a lot about what neighborhoods mean to people, and about some real-life neighborhood issues in Boston. One other longstanding favorite is typographic city maps, which started as a fun idea and went on to be good for business!

Q: What interesting facts have you learned about the Boston area while working on maps?

A: Too many! It’s a geographically fascinating city. Can’t say that all of these were news to me, but a few interesting things, facts or otherwise:

  • The actual landform of Boston has changed drastically over time. Quite a lot of the city was water 400 years ago.
  • The street layout can be learned but is still really hard to explain. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve failed to give people directions despite knowing the route perfectly. (“Go straight, but it’s not really straight, then turn at the place where seven roads converge, then…”)
  • Everything is closer than it seems; many of us would probably overestimate distance on a map. It’s a compact place and the concepts of “near” and “far” here are a lot smaller than what I grew up with in the Midwest.
  • Nobody can agree on neighborhood boundaries. That’s the subject of an ongoing project.

Q: Which startup/tool/platform do you see paving the future in the geospatial industry?

A: In the world I know best, which is public-facing web maps, I’m excited by what CartoDB does and what they might inspire. They’re doing a great job in the “fast mapping” world that appeals to journalists and others, while also being a gateway to learning more advanced technology, i.e. PostGIS. I think that approach will be good for the future of maps in general.

Q: You are quite involved in the mapping community through Maptime and NACIS.  Where do you think the mapping community is heading? What skills do you see as being important to becoming geographical/map-fluent?

A: When I joined NACIS ten years ago, a transition was starting in cartography from a concentrated few experts to a vast “democratized” array of mappers. Just judging by NACIS membership and conference content over the last decade, there’s a good trend in the mapping community. Where once there was a backlash against so-called amateurs, now they’re mostly embraced and everyone wants to exchange knowledge. The steady attendance of our Maptime chapter in Boston has been good evidence of that! So I think we’re headed in a direction where we all help ourselves get better. Setting aside technical skills, I think important ground to be gained is in cartographic skills and concepts, which have not always spread very far from academic settings. Ideally, academic expertise would be as approachable as Maptime is for technical expertise. We can’t just tell everyone to go back to school, although I’m currently developing a mapping workshop that includes this bit of advice: “seriously, buy an actual textbook!”

Q: Lastly, who inspires you?

A: Inspiration comes from all over the place, but to name a few people on the mind lately:

John Nelson and his consistently breathtaking aesthetics; Eric Fischer for his mapping and finding meaning in “big data”; Mamata Akella and the creative map symbology experiments she’s been doing; Tim Wallace (my partner in crime for Boston maps) for his collaboration and the amazing ideas he shares, and of course his clear and subtly beautiful map design!

Q: And for old times’ sake… which would you choose?

  • Cambridge versus Boston  – They’d chuck me in the Charles if I didn’t say Cambridge.
  • D3 versus R – D3! But I’ve never even used R.
  • WebGL versus vector tiles – they kind of go hand in hand, don’t they?
  • Leaflet versus OpenLayers – Leaflet. Haven’t actually tried OpenLayers since an older version years ago.
  • CartoDB versus Mapbox 😉 – Oh boy, don’t want to make any enemies!
  • Front end versus back end – Front end is a lot more fun.

Will Cadell: “People talk about ‘thinking outside the box’; I don’t think there is a box anymore”

Will Cadell
Will Cadell
Will Cadell is the founder and CEO of Sparkgeo.com, a Prince George-based business which builds geospatial technology for some of the biggest companies on Earth. Since starting Sparkgeo, he has been helping startups, large enterprises, and non-profits across North America make the most of location and geospatial technology.

Leading a team of highly specialized, deeply skilled geospatial web engineers, Will has built products, won patents, and generally broken the rules. Holding a degree in Electronic and Electrical Engineering and a Masters in Environmental Remote Sensing, Will has worked in academia, government, and in the private sector on two different continents, making things better with technology. He is on the board of Innovation Central Society, a non-profit society committed to growing and supporting technology entrepreneurs in North Central BC.

Q: Sparkgeo. What does your company do exactly? Do you have any competitors in the custom geospatial consulting field?

A: At Sparkgeo we put maps on the internet.

I try to keep this description as simple as possible. It goes back to the question of what a GIS person does, which is actually really hard to explain and terribly boring at dinner parties. Instead, I stick to maps and the internet, both of which are critical features of what Sparkgeo does. The other leg of our stool is people. Really, we work in places where maps meet people on the internet.

We find ourselves doing lots of interesting things. Things like building data pipelines, building geospatial compute engines, building UIs, undertaking broad data acquisition and analysis projects. We have found ourselves in the enviable position of only doing interesting things.

With that in mind we end up touching the “full stack”. A web mapping project is actually a full stack effort; you must consider every piece of the data flow to build a great map. The web map is the tip of the spear, but the data supporting that map is really the shaft, it’s the weight of the effort. Understanding the linkages between data and its delivery, and being somewhat flexible about how to sculpt those linkages is why Sparkgeo is useful.

I am sure we have competitors, but there is simply so much important geospatial work to do in the technology sector presently, I don’t feel pressured by it. Really the most competition is for talent. Indeed, that talent gap is to a large extent why we exist.

In the last year or so we have been spending our spare time on maptiks.com, which is like Google Analytics for a web map. Our thinking here is that although lots of organisations spend time on mapping technology, few seem to iterate back over their maps to make them incrementally better, and fewer still inform that process with actual data.

Q: What libraries and tools does your company use? Can you provide some examples of your favorite projects?

A: These are some of our favorite things:

  • Mapnik
  • Python
    • GDAL & OGR
    • GEOS
    • Shapely
    • Fiona
    • Django
    • CherryPy
    • Pillow (PIL)
  • Javascript
    • Mapping APIs:
      • LeafletJS (inc cartodb.js & mapbox.js)
      • Openlayers
      • Google Maps
      • ESRI JavaScript API
      • Cesium.js
    • Turf.js
    • AngularJS
    • ReactJS
  • Amazon Web Services
    • All the things

However, it’s not about the tools or the library; it should be about the question and how best to answer it. Sometimes the best answer is “don’t do this thing”, sometimes the answer is “buy a bigger boat”, and sometimes the answer is “we’ll help you build a thing”. We are in the enviable position of not having to sell licenses for anyone so we can actually be objective (and opinionated) about technology choices.

Q: Tell us about your work with Nextdoor. What technology stack did you use? What lessons did you learn?  

A: Of course I can’t tell you too much about how Nextdoor works. What I can say is that we have helped them achieve a number of their business goals through the development of a custom geospatial datastore accessed through a custom python API. In essence though, we just added some focused geospatial expertise to their already talented engineering team.

We have used this model a great deal in helping technology companies achieve their geospatial business goals. By attending stand ups and taking on the “geo” tickets we can add the capacity necessary to give a typical web engineering team the geo-confidence they need to keep their velocity up. Often these kind of engagements become much longer term relationships.

Although ultimately we are a “professional services” organisation, we have become a lot more about people and relationships than we are about projects and requirements. That way we get to work with some of the biggest tech companies, hottest startups, and most interesting non-profits on Earth.

Q: You are the CEO of your company. Describe the tasks you do in a typical week.  

A: I talk to a lot of people. I write a lot of emails. I pitch ridiculous ideas. I write reports. I do a bunch of administration. I solve problems. I remove barriers. I remind clients about our invoices. I go and buy snacks for the team. I manage payroll. I ponder our future. I talk to our accountant about tax management. I go buy more sticky notes for the office. I stress about project pipelines. In fact I stress about a lot of things 🙂

…and occasionally I get to write some code or make a map. It’s actually the best job I’ve ever had. I’m always having to learn new things and solve new problems. I tell everyone, including our team, if they stop learning they should leave. That’s true across the board, there are too many interesting things to do to waste time being bored.

Q: You recently wrote an article about remote working (http://buff.ly/1OEEWte). What does the breakdown of your company look like? How many are remote and how many work from the office? How do you bring together everyone? How do you promote company culture with remote workers? Explain how you manage/check in with employees that are working remote. What are the strengths/weaknesses in the current setup?

A: I first heard the term “remote first” in terms of the workplace mid last year and I realised it fits us well. We have an office in Prince George, BC (well North of the wall). But on any given day a member of the the team could be anywhere and it’s not a big problem. We typically have a check-in meeting, our version of a stand up — except people are on different projects — at 8:30am Pacific. It lasts for 15 minutes max, plus any necessary bonus rounds. People attend it from where they happen to be. It’s “early” for the Pacific timezone because we have some people on Eastern time. Even a remote company has to figure out timezones 🙂

Remote first means that we communicate first using tools like Hangouts and Slack, it means that people are kept in the loop by default, and things don’t get decided “without the remote guy”. If a team is meeting, then everyone on that team is invited, and that meeting will happen on a common set of tools used by people in or out of the office.

This remote culture is critical for us. The first employee I brought on (@gridcell) was remote, and now 40% of our company is remote. The really important bit, however, is how we interact with our clients. Being based up in the frozen wastes of the North and working for organisations in the tech sector means we must be really good at “being remote” because we are always remote to our clients. So independent of whether Sparkgeoers are in the office or not, we are still operating in a remote manner. This must be true for our clients too; they need to be ok with our periodic on-site presence, and our very present nature on IM or videoconferencing. It’s worth noting that with some clients being remote is not a great fit, and that’s fine. I am happy to say that we do have some great clients whom I have never actually met. Likewise, I also know that sometimes I have to hop on a plane and travel 2000 miles to shake a hand. Remote doesn’t mean not having a personal relationship and remote doesn’t mean distant.

Q: How does your company advertise? SEO? Content? Starting up Slack groups…?

A: Sometimes we do little ads in places across the interwebz (for instance on the GeoHipster website), seeing what sticks. Relevant content, however is the most valuable piece of advertising on the web. Good content has a long tail and brings people back and back.

More recently, our Maptiks growth guy (@julienjacques) suggested starting a Slack group. We did that, and now it’s grown to 900 users. The funny thing is it has turned into a real community, and as such we don’t really advertise on it because that would defeat the purpose that has evolved around it. If we (or others) were to advertise crassly on it, then it wouldn’t actually be a useful community 🙂

Q: You follow mapping trends and new technologies in depth. Are there any particular tech companies and/or startups that you follow? Any of them going to be the next big-bang disruptors?

A: I follow all the usual suspects (CartoDB, Mapbox, Esri, Stamen, Google, Boundless…) and do my best to catch up with contacts in each of them on my travels.

I am especially interested in the satellite space (hahaha) right now. The idea of Imagery As A Service seems to be booming. Planet Labs, Digital Globe, Astro Digital, UrtheCast, SkyBox, Spire all being players to some extent. Then there are companies like Orbital Insight who are taking remote sensing and magic-ing it into actionable broad data products. I think the days where someone would go to a website and purchase an image from a marginally navigable image library, then download an enormous file.zip via FTP are numbered… thankfully.

But there are the big players, too. Apple is very interesting right now; Google has always been in the geo sand box. But with the consumerization of geo I think more players will emerge here. Amazon has a location platform and drones…? UPS…?

Then there is the sharing economy: Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, Nextdoor. The quantified & wearable self: Fitbit, Under Armor (who bought MapMyFitness), Strava, RunKeeper. The nature of our industry and the ubiquity of smartphones & wearables is such that good, hard geospatial questions pop up everywhere. As a result of this phenomenon we’ve worked in the tech space, in hospitality, in finance, in conservation, with satellite companies, in hardware, in software, with government. The point isn’t to consider the tools or be confined to a vertical, the point is the pursuit of interesting questions and how we can use geography and technology to answer them. People talk about “thinking outside the box”, I don’t think there is a box anymore, I wonder if there ever was.

Q: Which industry do you see as needing more mapping technologies? Are there one or two fields that seem to be pretty behind the times?

A: Automotive will be the next industrial geospatial leapfrog.

Consider: A driverless car needs to know a great deal of information about its surroundings and virtually every piece of fixed knowledge (i.e., data not detected by vehicle in transit) will be geospatial in nature. Every major automotive vendor will need a data provider, and that data will be constantly updated. In this scenario the 80/20 rule will not suffice. If that vehicle cannot reach its destination because it doesn’t know the way, then the entire vehicle has failed. That failure might simply be a new subdivision not being present, but nevertheless the lack of a street or a misnamed building will result in the vehicle not being able to drive itself, thus failure. A driverless vehicle needs to have a complete and constantly updating map of navigable routes.

Automotive will drive (hahaha) efforts in open data, in data pipelines, in ETL, in base map production, in data storage, in connectivity, in routing. For the driverless future to happen geospatial needs to be a lot better.

Q: What is your current method for skiing on a mountain you do not know well? Do you use the paper maps that they provide, or a new app (Have you heard of fatmap.com?)

A: I ski a DPS Wailer 99. I love the backcountry, but with a young family I find myself on a ski hill more often these days. That said, my 7- & 9-year-olds are on double diamonds now, so we’ll be hitting some family backcountry soon. We are also lucky enough to have many kilometers of groomed & floodlit XC skiing within city limits (Prince George, BC) so that is a common after-work activity.

The interesting thing about backcountry skiing around central British Columbia is the lack of documentation; every trip is a little bit exploratory. That, combined with relatively poor and out-of-date maps (Canada is big and largely empty) leaves me doing a lot of navigation by feel. It can get pretty cold, too; devices and batteries tend to become less reliable below -20.

I do, of course, appreciate the irony in the mapping guy navigating largely by instinct.  

Q: It must be fascinating to compare the world you grew up in with the one that your daughters are growing up in. Do you mind sharing a little insight you have as a parent and geographer/technologists. Can they read maps? What routing technology do they use to get to a new place?

A: My girls love maps. They have been completely brainwashed by me; they know exactly how important good maps are. Their navigational abilities are somewhat untested, but they do have a good sense of direction; we test that on the trails a lot. Their use of technology is interesting; we keep screen time to a minimum, but the way they interact with touch interfaces is fearless. I think we will see great advances in industrial design as interface designers embrace touch and haptic technologies. We are also trying to expose our girls to what it means to write code; their lives will take them in many different directions, but having some exposure to the discipline of code is valuable.

Which do you prefer when it comes to maps?
Data or design - Both
Functionality or beauty - Again, both. But wait, “functionality” doesn’t mean lots of buttons -- it means fit for purpose. As a community we need to de-couple features from functionality.
Historical or futuristic - Neither; it’s the story that compels 
Markers or pins - These are the same thing 🙂
Clusters or heatmaps - Clusters (unless it’s a weather map) 
Markdown or Handlebars  - Markdown
And other things…?
Black and local coffee or pour-over with butter - Black Americano, no pollution, and lots of it
Fitbit or Strava - Fitbit & MapMyFitness (Fitbit have an interesting geo conundrum presently - Strides or GPS for distance https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/your-device-can-too-smart-will-cadell ). Strava has done an amazing job of socializing athletic pursuit; I started using MMF first though, and most of my data now gets piped into Fitbit.
Twitter or Facebook - Twitter
Commuter or road bike - Both & MTB too
Nordic, alpine, or telemark skiing - Mountain Touring, Skate Skiing, Classic Skiing. Tele is cool but you have to be really talented to ski anything big, and I’m not 🙂

Q: Any closing comments for the GeoHipster readers?

A: Thanks for the opportunity to tell you a little about Sparkgeo. Also, thanks to the geohipster community for keeping things sufficiently geo-weird.

 

Alex Leith: “A picture tells a thousand words, a map tells a million”

Alex Leith
Alex Leith
Alex is currently employed as a Spatial Information Analyst at TasNetworks and is a director at the Surveying and Spatial Sciences Institute. Alex graduated with a degree in Surveying and Spatial Sciences with honours in 2011, and has since worked in technical spatial roles. Alex has presented at international, national and local conferences and organises regional spatial events including State of GIS and GeoRabble. Alex lives in Hobart, Tasmania.

Q: You work for TasNetworks. What does the company do?

A: TasNetworks is a transmission and distribution business, which is to say that it’s a power company that manages the really big poles and wires as well as the smaller ones. Electrical engineering is all new to me, and one of the important things about our GIS is the electrical connectivity model, which is like topology, but includes all the switches, fuses, links and other accoutrements of managing an electricity network. TasNetworks is an organisation of around a thousand employees including five hundred field staff.

Q: What software/technology stack do you all use?

A: It’s a big organisation, and there’s a lot of technology. Keeping it just to GIS, we use G/Technology as the master GIS database for editing the electricity network’s spatial data and connectivity and to manage the network model. This database gets de-normalised into a big Oracle ‘Spatial Data Warehouse’ (SDW), and a number of other systems get their data staged into this database too. It’s a really big database, and contains lots of data (and a bit of information!). From the SDW, we move to a number of desktop GIS users, who use GeoMedia Professional. And there’s a couple of installations of GeoMedia WebMap, which has over three hundred unique weekly users internally. GeoMedia definitely feels like a legacy product (both desktop and WebMap) and I’m a technology guy, and love playing with the tools, so I’ve started to use some other things that are new to the business, such as GeoServer and Leaflet for single-purpose web-mapping, and QGIS for desktop data exploration. We’ve got FME, which is really important, but it’s only used for ETL, which is like using an AI to make paper clips! I’m pretty big on open-source, but I can be really efficient with FME, and it’s definitely my favourite piece of technology.

Q: You worked for the Glenorchy City Council for some time. What was the city doing that was innovative? What was it behind on?

A: Glenorchy, as I left, was embarking on a ‘cloud’ migration, shifting a range of IT services to an ‘as a service’ model. This is all well and good, but you still need good people in-house. And there’s a compromise there between letting someone else take responsibility for systems, and internal folks architecting and overseeing and owning what they’re doing. I don’t know how they’re going to go with it, but notching some of the IT capability up is important. It’s often just seen as an expense, IT, rather than an enabler and an efficiency provider. Without an IT solution, you end up with paper work orders and double or triple handling of information. At worst, you enter data into multiple different systems and inevitably have data quality issues. Council was pretty good at core business systems and IT services, and was at the right scale, in that there was good virtualised infrastructure, and not too much bureaucracy locking it down. I had the benefit of having an excellent, technical leader, who trusted me to mess with the crazy stuff I got running. I just hope that I documented enough for those that follow me. (Do you hate me, Steve?!)

Q: What are some lessons you have learned along the way when developing systems for TasNetworks and Glenorchy City Council?

A: I’m only very new to TasNetworks, but at Glenorchy City Council I was privileged in that I was trusted to take some risks. So I designed and implemented an open data and public mapping portal. This went from non-existent to a couple of thousand hits a month over two years, which is great. It was all done using open-source and Amazon Web Services, so, aside from my time, it cost very little to get started. Something I took away from that, though, is that technology and information products are fine, but there is a whole swath of training and education that is required to get people (field staff, in this case) to change their way of working. Getting a system up technically is just step one (or two, after planning) and I had hoped that it would diffuse through the workforce naturally. Looking back, there was n opportunity to increase awareness and usage of the mobile mapping components of the portal with regular training and workshops.

Q: What skill is on your list to master next?

A: There’s always more technology stuff to keep an eye out for, but often it’s pointless until there is a working implementation. Some things I think are going to be important are vector tiles and machine learning. To some extent, the Internet of things and self-driving cars are worth being aware of, but the spatial technology they use, by the time they use it, is infrastructure – you can take it for granted. In terms of what I’d like to master, I think it’s the soft skills. The people stuff. Negotiation and persuasion, for example, probably needs some thought. I tend to think it’s obvious that we should be heading in a certain direction (and it is!), but ensuring that the intuitive thinking that comes from working with the tech gets translated into a convincing argument – and subsequent engagement – is next in line for mastery from me.

Q: How do you think growing up in the southern hemisphere has impacted the way you view maps?

A: Well, the mercator projection has fostered European imperialist attitudes for centuries. I think it’s time people stopped with their ‘top and bottom’ attitudes, let alone the sheer arrogance of the GeoHipster sticker, which leaves 90% of the Australian population off its tartan atrocity! An advantage of living in the southern hemisphere is that we can lay claim to practically everything with ‘it’s the biggest <something> in the southern hemisphere’ and it’s probably true.

Q: What are some of your favorite maps? Why?

A: I’ve been exploring interactive mapping for a while, and really like using Leaflet to build things. But there’s a lot of stuff I really like that uses other tech.

This wind map from Cameron Beccario is fantastic. It’s fast to load, simple to understand, and is really pretty. So much complex stuff hidden behind that interesting map. It uses D3.

Cartograms are really nice, and exploit TopoJSON, which is really cool (data compression using topology is nice, as is topological simplification). This example also uses D3.

I’m also intrigued with the stuff that Michael Bostock does, such as this very hip map using hexagons, but in a pretty unique way. He wrote D3. (I tried to learn D3, but didn’t get far… What’s with the learning curve, eh, Mike?!).

Final map, this housing unaffordability map out of the Guardian is pretty fantastic… I actually don’t know what tech they used, but it’s great to see media companies getting so deep into data visualisation.

Q: What is the biggest hurdle you see in the geospatial field?  

A: Biggest hurdle? Probably communicating the idea that so much business information can be unlocked by putting it on a map. A picture tells a thousand words, and maybe a map tells a million. In local government, the GIS is the hub between the property system, the asset management system and all the external agency data, like transportation, environmental, and geomorphological data. Without a GIS, your decision making gets slowed down considerably, or processes become ad-hoc and inconsistent, or important considerations are missed. And in a bigger place, like TasNetworks, there are huge opportunities in areas such as routing work crews, grouping work orders geographically, and then forward works planning with other utilities and agencies… It’s one thing to know that we could be doing these things and that they’ll save money, and another to convince a business of that and therefore spending money on the GIS. Like investments in information technology generally, geospatial technology is an efficiency driver, but it’s often underappreciated, underinvested or taken for granted.

Q: What is your opinion on imagery drones? Do you envision using one in the next few years?

A: A lecturer of mine at UTAS has been working with UAVs for some time using structure from motion algorithms to generate imagery and point clouds, so I understand how they work. And Chris Anderson’s company sounds like it’s going to be big (if it’s not already). I wonder if drones are a case of legislation being unable to keep up with technology, though.There are uses of drones now, such as real estate photography, which are becoming common, but the businesses are probably not licensed appropriately. In Australia, you need to get CASA certification, which just about requires a pilot’s license, in order to do anything except for recreational flights. That’s a lot of formal shenanigans when you can buy a robot helicopter for $500 and start making money! TasNetworks does have a couple of use-cases for UAVs, though there are so many assets, you need something that can cover a lot of ground. Ergon energy, in Queensland, has been doing some fancy stuff with remote sensing and its massive lengths of transmission lines. This could definitely be replaced with a large drone (and I think theirs is basically that). Generally, I reckon utilisation of drones will become commonplace over the next few years, but I think I’ll be a consumer of a service rather than an operator. I much prefer software over hardware!

Q: What is the Tasmanian mapping community like?  

A: The Tasmanian mapping community is great! There’s the government side, with TASSIC, who do big things in terms of advocacy. The professional arm, the SSSI, run reasonably large events such as the State of GIS every year. And there’s the informal, with GeoRabble, which is inclusive and fun.

Q: What are some startups (geo or non-geo) that you follow?

A: I’m interested to watch MapBox and CartoDB push ahead into the spatial-IT sphere. Fulcrum is a nice software and service too. And I’m interested to see what I can do with Zapier. Web development without a server-side component seems so much easier!

Q: Choices (Which do you prefer?)

  • Data or design
    • Data, gotta have data
  • Functionality or beauty
    • Functionality, the beauty comes from the simplicity of that functionality
  • Historical or futuristic
    • Futuristic. I, for one…
  • Markers or pins
    • Markers (can I choose circular markers?)
  • Clustering or heat maps
    • Clustering, hexbins ftw
  • Markdown or Handlebars
    • Markdown… I’m still just getting used to Bootstrap!
  • GeoServer or MapServer
    • GeoServer, for sure. But we’ve got to do better than bloody SLD…

Q: And other things…?

  • Black and local coffee or pour over with butter
    • Black coffee for me.
  • MapMyRun or Strava
    • Wha?
  • Twitter or Facebook
  • Commuter or road bike
    • Who?

Q: … and one more, what do you do in your free time that makes you a geohipster?

A: Well I did make a hex-map before they were cool (with some inspiration). Did I tell you I knit maps yet? I knit maps, then scan them at 10 µm before faxing them to myself (that’s actually pretty difficult to do these days, have you seen an A0 fax machine around recently?) and print that out with archival quality ink on papyrus, because that way it looks ironically rustic and will last the ages.

But more seriously, I have a young family, which is challenging and a lot of fun. I spend time and energy with the SSSI pretending I’m a professional. And I like GeoRabble events, networking with craft beer and smart folks to solve the world’s problems!

Matthew Baker: “Breaking free from a traditional set of tools is a relief and a challenge”

Matthew Baker
Matthew Baker
Matthew Baker has been in the geospatial industry for 10 years, having studied in Windsor, Ontario and Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia Canada before working at an Urban Planning firm in Ontario, then on to Esri in Redlands, CA. Matt is now the Sr. GIS Analyst at Denver Public Schools, a position which supports the District's planning and analysis of students, schools and boundaries, as well as delivery of spatial data to the enterprise student information system.

Q: You work for Denver Public Schools. What are you all working on? Why do you use maps?

A: As I write this the 2015-16 school year is starting up. We’re tracking enrollments and looking at how neighborhoods in Denver are changing. Soon we’ll have our annual enrollment count that get submitted to the State, and there will be a flurry of analysis that will go along with it that will support the decisions the District will make going into the years ahead.

We use maps to communicate the state of the District to everyone from the Superintendent and the Board of Education through to the Principals of schools throughout the District and parents of students in the schools. We publish maps online for the community to use, we create mailing lists and canvassing maps for our community outreach team, as well as maps used at community meetings around the City to drive discussion on boundary changes; our maps go into the yearly Strategic Regional Analysis, and we’re constantly creating one-off maps for quick-turnaround analysis that comes from senior administration.

Q: What are some lessons you have learned along the way when developing systems for DPS?

A: Working in a relational database system you learn a LOT about real data very quickly, such as what primary keys are for, how spatial indices are built, how joins really work, and most importantly you don’t have to cram all possible information about your spatial data into one table.

When I started at DPS, my first task was to re-build the ArcSDE. I quickly realized, however, that our student enterprise is based in SQL Server, and there is a lot of data that will never live in a geodatabase. Additionally our analysts were already using heavy-duty SQL for their analysis, which almost always had a spatial component, and since the spatial data lived with one person — the ‘GIS’ person — there was always a wall.

So using PostGIS as a guide, I developed a native SQL server spatial environment bringing in our data from ArcSDE, and connected and delivered spatial data to the enterprise. I taught our analysts how SQL spatial functions work, and we finally had spatial analysis tools we could all use.

Q: What is your technology stack?

A: We’ve been using ArcSDE for spatial data editing and ArcMap for cartography, MS SQL Server for spatial analysis and reporting, and FME to bridge the gap between the two formats. The spatial database really works for us, but there are huge glaring holes.

So we spent the majority of this past summer building an open source version of this stack: we dissected our current workflows, outlined strategies for implementing FOSS4G, and identified areas we’d have roadblocks.  We then set up a PostgreSQL database server, enabled PostGIS, loaded our core spatial data and some other enterprise tables, and we’ve been hitting it hard with no sign of looking back, using QGIS for cartography and data editing, SQL to analyze and build spatial datasets, and we’re getting into pgRouting to better analyze student distance calculations. The benefits of PostgreSQL as a central database are a big deal for us, and integrating other tools like PGModeler, LibreOffice, and CartoDB, and of course open source operating systems like Ubuntu and Mint are all icing on the cake.

Q: What you envision for the future of curriculum for geography students?

A: I really have no idea what digital geography is being taught at the K-12 level, if any, and I frankly don’t believe Kindergarten students should be “doing GIS”– contrary to a lot of marketing emails I get.

However, at the post-secondary level, everyone in Denver is ready for a new way of learning about spatial data. There is the FOSS4G Lab at UC Denver that I’ve been participating in, and I really see their work as an important step forward into building new tools into digital spatial learning and beyond. And we’ve got a great monthly meetup to learn from each other.

Q: You worked at Esri for a bit? What were you doing there and what did you get out of it?

A: I lived in Mojave in a Winnebago, got slobberin’ drunk at the Palomino, and got 6 years in San Ber’Dino… I’m talking about The Red Lands!  Well I spent those years learning as much as I could about as much as I could, focussing at work on urban planning applications of GIS, and at home on cooking and vegetable gardening. And since I was doing so much cycling there, I met a group of local bike commuters. We created the Redlands Bike BBQ (with @geogangster), got a covered secure bike parking facility built at Esri, and I’m told we were instrumental in the implementation of the new bike lane system in Redlands. My best friend was a 65-year old ex-surfer, ex-forest service fire-fighter, ex-high school teacher who gave me tours of the area no import to Redlands ever receives, and no matter what dusty corner of the Inland Empire we’d visit, we’d always run into one of his former students…

Q: What did you study at university? How did you find yourself in the geospatial world?

A: At University I went back and forth between geography and communication studies, eventually getting my degree in Communications and a Minor in Geography. I then took a year at the Center of Geographic Sciences in Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia (aka COGS). Since geography was always my favourite subject growing up, and since I have media in my blood (both parents are retired from the CBC), I had a eureka moment when I created my first PDF map! Communications and Geography! Now what to do with it…

Q: You are married to a fellow cartographer. First of all, how did you two meet? How does it feel to be a geo-power couple? How often do you “talk shop”?

A: Mamata and I met in Redlands at a bike rack and both seemed to have a shared philosophy of temporary life in SoCal — she is from Northern California, so we never understood watering lawns at 3pm in July when it was 110F and hasn’t rained in 4 months. Hand-in-hand we both kept one foot out the door, and when the time came, we got ourselves to Denver. I’d say we’re a geo-power couple, but really after a few words about work when we get home, it’s time for dinner and the usual tasks of a married couple. I’m super proud of what she’s done and where she is and looking forward to what comes next for both of us both on and off the field…

Q: What is the biggest challenge you see in the geospatial field?  

A: Breaking free from a traditional set of tools is a relief and a challenge. There is so much information out there on Twitter, blogs, etc., and it’s tough to navigate all off it let alone decide what tools you should use to fit your organization, and then you’ve got to think about how those tools will be supported. Then there is the challenge of breaking the old “GIS” way of thinking, that one application can solve all your problems… as we say around the office, we’ve got to think outside the Arc…

Q: How would you describe the Denver mapping community?

A: From what I can tell, Denver has been an ‘oil and gas’ mapping community for a long time. But with all the new companies and people coming into town, all looking to get spatial going in their organizations, there is a growing community of GeoHipsters, and it’s definitely the next place I see things really popping up for the industry.

Q: What skill is on your list to master next?

A: Open source ETL tools still evade me, and we have a need for a rigorous geocoder, but I haven’t cracked that open yet.

Q: Which do you prefer when it comes to maps?

  • Data or design
    • Data — however, the medium is the message…
  • Functionality or beauty
    • Functional tools should just BE beautiful
  • Historical or futuristic
    • Historical
  • Markers or pins
    • Markers
  • Clustering or heat maps
    • Heat maps
  • Markdown or Handlebars
    • Huh?
  • GeoServer or MapServer
    • GeoServer

Q: … and one more, what do you do in your free time — that makes you a geohipster? Collect antiques? Ride Denver buses? Drink beer? Cycle around town?

A: I used to be a bike commuter, but finally got so fed up with other cyclists blasting through stop signs and red lights, texting while riding, all of it with no helmet, no gears, no brakes (organ donors), I finally said enough and got on the bus. Now I read a lot and chat with people and do a lot more walking, and now as a pedestrian I find great amusement in blocking the route of cyclists running red lights and exchanging middle-fingers.

I go to one brewery and they do English-style cask-conditioned ales, I brew half-decaf store-bought coffee in an auto-drip (or percolator) and sometimes re-heat it on the stove the next day if no one drinks it. I don’t eat meat (it’s just not healthy, people), but I’m not a vegan (I do love honey and my leather boots).

Q: Any closing comments for the GeoHipster readers?

A: Reading all these tweets and blog posts it’s like we’re at war — from both sides of the open source paradigm. One side seems to want to destroy the other without knowing what they really do and why, while the other side will tell you they support these new tools and companies then turn around and try to buy them up or confuse the education with marketing materials. Swearing and being snarky in your tweets or calling yourself open source because you have a GitHub account is divisive, deceptive, and distracting. I am the user, and frankly I don’t want to support either of you. Like Nathan said, get a hobby!

Coleman McCormick: “We have enough tools out there that look great and don’t do anything useful”

Coleman McCormick
Coleman McCormick
Coleman McCormick is the VP of Products at Spatial Networks where he leads the product team for Fulcrum, a mobile mapping platform for field collection. He has a degree in geography, but has worked mostly in product development and server management (for geo applications) since. Coleman organizes the local Tampa Bay OpenStreetMap community, gives talks regularly on mapping and GIS, and has a passion for promoting geographic knowledge in education.

Q: You just became a father. Congratulations! Are there any parenting apps or technologies that you have discovered that help you out?

A: Not too many for me actually. My wife’s been using a few along the way. For a tech-friendly household, we’ve been keeping it pretty simple.

Q: It must be fascinating to compare the world you grew up in with the one that your daughter is going to grow up in. Do you think web maps will impact her life in the next ten years?

A: Yeah, it’s pretty unbelievable. I’m still shocked when I think about young people having access to things like Wikipedia for literally any piece of information they want to find out, and web maps to look at any place on Earth without needing an atlas. I have no idea how far we’ll be in 10 years, but I’m sure she’ll have her own device and use location-based stuff automatically without even realizing it. As someone who grew up flipping through atlases for fun, I’ve always wondered what that experience is like for a kid now when instead you can pop open Google Earth and zoom in anywhere, on-demand.

Q: Are you going to teach her how to read a paper map?

A: For sure, I’ll make sure she still knows how to read a map. I have a ridiculous trove of paper maps I’ve collected over the years, so there are plenty to reference for teaching! She’s already got map books she can’t even read yet.

Q: You are the VP of Spatial Networks. Describe the tasks you do in a typical week.

A: My typical week can be pretty hectic. As the head of our products group, any given week consists of lots of meetings with potential and existing customers, working with our dev team on product design, building marketing content, reviewing contracts and agreements, creating budgets, working on partnerships — I’m hardly ever working on the same thing two days straight. Notice that list doesn’t include “GIS” or “making maps”. I still squeeze in some cartography projects and work on OpenStreetMap on the side where I can.

Q: Your corporate bio says that you like to watch English football and have an unhealthy obsession with geography. Do you think those two are related? Maybe watching American football triggers disinterest in geography?

A: I got obsessed with soccer a while back and watch all of the European club leagues pretty consistently. The sport is incredibly international now. Sometimes looking up a player from a place like Ivory Coast will lead me into a maps rabbit hole of finding all the small towns the various players come from.

Q: What does your company do exactly? You build this app called Fulcrum… Why should I care about it?  Aren’t there free form builders out that I can use?

A: Yes, you should care! Our company does a range of different things including data production (creating huge base map datasets), spatial analysis, and building software tools. The software side is my domain, and Fulcrum is my major focus. Back in the early to mid 2000s we were constantly struggling to slap together different technologies for our own mapping projects where we needed data collection capability. Over the years we invested some internal resources on building our own solution. Most of what was out there we’d already tried, including the free options, but everything ended up being a hack job and not an integrated system. In 2011 our unnamed internal data collection tool was mature enough that we decided to take it to market for anyone else with similar needs in the field. Fulcrum is 4 years in now and has a strong, diverse set of customers from over 100 countries.

Q: What libraries and tools does your company use? What have they created?

A: We will use anything that gets the job done. We’re mostly a Ruby on Rails dev team, but lately we’re using tons of different things. The community of open source software tools is incredible. Postgres is our go to for data storage, Leaflet for web maps, the Mapbox API and base maps for the Fulcrum web app. We’re also doing a lot with mobile on both iOS and Android. The Google Maps APIs for iOS and Android give us maps on mobile. We’re still using the MBTiles format for supporting user-generated map packages, waiting to see where we might take that functionality in the coming year. We’ve created a handful of open source tools for working with Fulcrum, and some generalist libraries for working with different spatial data tools and formats.

Q: The company is based in Florida and you have a number of workers elsewhere in the USA. How do you bring together everyone? How do you promote company culture with remote workers?

A: A couple times a year we do all-hands sprint weeks at HQ in St. Petersburg. We’ve got a great office space here, it’s always fun to bring the whole team in for a week to work together in person. As for the communication among the team we use Slack, GitHub, Google Hangouts — whatever we need to share info and data effectively, without having too many tools.

Q: You follow mapping trends and new technologies in depth. Are there any particular tech companies and/or startups that you follow? Any of them going to be the next big bang disruptors?

A: Our community is interesting — the mapping space has threads running through dozens of different industries, which makes it a fun place to be. Most other lines of work stay focused around particular verticals.

I think what Mapbox is doing is fantastic, both for the community of software developers that need maps, and for the map data space with their investment in OpenStreetMap. There aren’t many true “startups” that I know of focused only on maps, but there are a ton out there doing things with maps that they wouldn’t have done if founded in 2005. I love what a handful of independent consultants out there are doing at the grassroots level to bring the open source geo stack to the local level to diversify the tools they’re using. Randy Hale is on a roll with his blog series on QGIS. Flat Rock Geo and AppGeo are both doing great stuff with open source. And I have to mention Brandon and Brian Reavis’s Natural Atlas — such a great concept and has some gorgeous cartography.

Q: What is your current stack for going on a bike ride in a place you don’t know? From initial research to route tracking, what platforms do you use?

A: I usually start by checking out what’s on OSM, the bike trails there are pretty detailed. I’ll look for any places on OpenCycleMap (an OSM-based map customized for cycling features) that show streets with dedicated bike lanes if there are no clear parks or trails to ride in. At any given time I probably have 2 or 3 different GPS trackers running to log data, too.

Q: Which industry do you see as needing more mapping technologies? Are there one or two fields that seem to be pretty behind the times?

A: With Fulcrum we’re heavily involved in the utilities space — telecom, oil and gas transmission/distribution, and electric power. All of those sectors have an understanding of GIS, and some of them do amazingly complex things. At the ground level, though, work with maps and data is often woefully old school. The users doing that type of field work are people that get things done. They don’t want to fiddle with technology unless it’s guaranteed to save them time and effort. I like their focus on results rather than playing with new toys. Since utilities are the circulatory system of the nation’s infrastructure, it’s exciting to get to be at the early stage of a lot of tech adoption for such an important market. And it’s always fun to bring powerful mapping tools to people for their work.

Q: Which do you prefer when it comes to maps?

  • Data or design
    • Data, the good-looking variety
  • Functionality or beauty
    • Function. Beauty is still important, but we have enough tools out there that look great and don’t do anything useful.
  • Historical or futuristic
    • I’m a big sci-fi fan, but for maps I’d have to lean toward the classic historical stuff. I look at old maps all the time for inspiration.
  • Markers or pins
    • Markers for small data, pins for lots of data.
  • Clustering or heat maps
    • Neither! But heat maps if the data support it.
  • Markdown or Handlebars
    • Markdown

Q: And other things…?

  • Black and local coffee or pour over with butter
    • Only black coffee, all varieties as long as it’s not burned.
  • MapMyRun or Strava
    • Strava
  • Twitter or Facebook
    • Twitter, though I find myself looking at them both less and less over time…
  • Commuter or road bike
    • Road bike. I keep racking up miles on my cheap one, but one day I’ll invest in something fancy.

Q: Any closing comments for the GeoHipster readers?

A: Join your local mapping or OSM meetup group. If there isn’t one near you, start one up. I’ve brought in quite a few new folks interested in mapping in our area from the local makerspace and some geocaching enthusiasts. But the GeoHipster audience is probably already on board with this. 🙂