All posts by Mike Dolbow

Making GeoHipster an independent business

When a door opens

Making GeoHipster an independent business

By Mike Dolbow, GeoHipster CEO

Mike Dolbow
Mike Dolbow

Someone somewhere, with a similar addiction to being busier than humanly possible, said that when a door opens, you should walk through it. In other words, when opportunity knocks, if you’re at all interested, you should pounce. I guess that’s what I was thinking about this time last year when Atanas Entchev reached out to the GeoHipster advisory board to see if anyone was interested in undertaking an effort to make GeoHipster a business independent from his previous ventures. I immediately said yes, and convened a hangout with several other board members to go over the options.

Fortunately for me, two other board members, Jonah Adkins and Amy Smith, also expressed interest in taking on new duties, and Atanas agreed to stay on once he knew he wouldn’t have to run the entire operation himself. It took a while for us to figure out the optimal formal business structure: a sole proprietorship LLC registered in Minnesota, which allows me to take over most operational and financial duties while the others focus on communications, editorial duties, and creative efforts. And yes, I fully realize and enjoy the irony that drips from the phrase, “CEO of GeoHipster, LLC”…and the fact that our fiscal year will start on Groundhog Day.

On the outside, however, very little will change about GeoHipster as a website and a collaborative effort. Our mission remains the same, we still rely on volunteer authors to help us generate content, and our editorial policy is unchanged. By undertaking this transition behind the scenes, we hope the result is a more sustainable GeoHipster, so we can continue interviewing interesting geohipsters from around the world, and our readers can learn from their experiences.

A few of my family members and colleagues have asked me why I decided to do this. Perhaps I was inspired by my good friend and fellow dad Justin Bell, who holds down a day job, plays in two bands, owns a side business, and teaches classes at night. I figure if he can make time for all those things plus family time, I can make time for something that I enjoy. And ever since that first interview I conducted with David Bitner, I’ve very much enjoyed my involvement with GeoHipster. It’s a major change of pace from my day job, a place where I can promote my tutorial on REST endpoints, and probably the only way I’ll ever be able to use a basin wrench as a metaphor.

Or maybe it’s all just a ploy to score another GeoHipster t-shirt. Might as well look stylish when walking through that door that just opened.

The Special Tool

Mike Dolbow
Mike Dolbow
Mike Dolbow is a GIS Supervisor for the State of Minnesota and the operations manager of the Minnesota Geospatial Commons. He has served on the GeoHipster Advisory Board since 2014.

This past summer, I put a new set of stairs on the end of my deck. In the grand scheme of home improvement, it was a small job, but I’d never done anything like it before, so there was a lot of cursing, achy muscles, and extraneous trips to the hardware store. But that’s how I roll: chuck the manual and learn by doing. I’ve found that understanding your own learning style is a surprisingly underrated secret to success.

In a way, I learned that secret from my dad, who also made sure I had the skills to figure out how to get a job done with the tools available. He told cautionary tales about how my uncle would often dismiss a potential project because he thought “you need a special tool”, or it simply couldn’t be done. The way my dad saw it, that was a poor excuse for not doing the job. Sure, having a “special tool” would make it easier, maybe even faster. But if you had the will, you could find a way to get it done.

My uncle passed away years ago, but my dad and I still honor his memory with a running joke about “the special tool”. You see, now that he can afford some of those tools, he takes a sick pleasure in buying them for me. That way I don’t have any excuses when it comes to my own home improvement projects.

For example, the first Christmas I was a homeowner, he gave me a basin wrench. I looked at it and was like, “Dad, what the heck is this thing?” He replied, “Mike, that’s the special tool!” He proceeded to explain how important it would be in the upcoming faucet replacement jobs I had planned. And once I looked at the old, rusty supply-line nuts under the sinks of my 1915 St. Paul home, I knew he was right: the basin wrench would save me tons of time.

The original special tool: a basin wrench
The original special tool: a basin wrench

But if I hadn’t had it, I would have found a way.

Years later, he gave me his old carpenter’s square shown below. Could I have drawn that angle on the 2×4 without it? Sure. Did it save me time because I had it? Absolutely. And I’m sure there are also a bunch of hyper-specific tools that might have saved me time in adding those stairs. But if I had waited around to acquire every single special tool that would possibly aid in the process, I’d probably still be working on it now.

So, what does this mean in my day job at the intersection of IT and geospatial?

Well, if it’s not obvious by this point, I’m going to be wary of anyone who says they absolutely need software X,Y, or Z in order to get a job done. Listen, I’m going to tell you my requirements for a finished product. I’ll try to get you the tools you need to get there, but ultimately I don’t care how you get there, you have to figure it out.

With developers, I cringe if I hear them say stuff like, “I need a fully loaded Eclipse IDE with a local JBoss server and plugins for Git, Maven, Spring, and Hibernate pre-configured.” Well, for one, I barely know what some of those things are, but for the small web apps we build, I’m thinking you’re only going to need about half of them. Heck, if you really know what you’re doing, you ought to be able to write a decent app with Notepad++. But I simply can’t guarantee that you’re going to have the exact suite of tools you had at your last job, and you’re going to have to adjust.

On the geospatial side, I get concerned if someone says they need the full Esri stack to get anything done. “No, I don’t just need ArcGIS Desktop, I need the Advanced level. I also need an ArcGIS Server install with enterprise ArcSDE at 10.2 and an AGOL subscription.” Well, that adds up to some pretty hefty maintenance fees very quickly. If I just need a map of our office on our website, most of those tools are overkill.

Ultimately, I guess I can’t blame people for wanting to work with the best tools available: whether you’re talking Esri, Microsoft, Oracle, Mapbox, or Google, there’s some amazing stuff to work with out there in the IT and spatial worlds. Having access to so many amazing tools is a tremendous modern luxury. And if you’ve had a tool before, I know it can be hard to go without it. But sometimes, your favorite “special tool” won’t be available, and I might not be in a position to change that, even if the reason is simply “bureaucracy”. So let’s make sure we know enough about the problem to fix it with whatever we have at hand. After all, we’ll never run out of problems to solve.

Besides, the best tool you’ll ever have available is the one you’ve been using since you were born: your brain. So let’s put it to work, get the job done, and learn something along the way.

Maybe next time my dad will give you the basin wrench.

Peter Batty: “I really dislike the whole attitude that GIS is this specialized sacred thing”

Peter Batty
Peter Batty
Peter Batty is a co-founder and CTO of the geospatial division at Ubisense. He has worked in the geospatial industry for 29 years, and has served as CTO for two leading companies in the industry (and two of the world's top 200 software companies) -- Intergraph and Smallworld (now part of GE Energy). He served on the board of OSGeo from 2011 to 2013, and chaired the FOSS4G 2011 conference in Denver. He serves on the advisory board of Aero Glass.

Q: How did you get into GIS and/or mapping?

A: Totally by accident. I studied maths (as we say in England) at Oxford, then stayed on to do a Masters in “Computation”. I took a job at IBM, which was the dominant computer company in the world back then, in 1986. It was a bit like going to work for Microsoft in the 1990s or Google today, but distinctly less “hipster” and with more blue suits. On my first day they told me that they were introducing this new product from the US into the UK, and gave me the manuals and told me to learn about it. It was a product called GFIS, for Geo-Facilities Information System, a GIS focused on utilities and telecommunications applications. By the end of the first week I was the UK expert as I was the only one who had read the manuals, and I’ve been in that field ever since. GFIS ran on IBM mainframes and used specialized high-end graphics terminals which cost around £25,000 ($40,000). We’ve come a long way since then!

I found it a really interesting mix of challenges from a software design and development perspective — lots of interesting database problems, a very graphical focus obviously, which I find appealing, the challenge of designing systems that can be easily configured and customized, and more.

One thing I might mention from IBM days is that I was one of the main advocates in the industry back then for the notion that you should store all aspects of your geospatial data in a single database management system. This was the approach that IBM took, but it was uncommon in the industry at the time. The other main company pushing that approach was a Canadian outfit called GeoVision, led by Doug Seaborn. Esri’s product at the time was Arc/Info, the predecessor to ArcGIS, and it was so called as “Arc” handled the graphical / geographic aspects of the data, while “Info” stored the alphanumeric data. Pretty much all systems back then handled the graphical and alphanumeric aspects of the data separately. I wrote a paper called Exploiting Relational Database Technology in GIS, in 1990. In 1995 by chance I went to the launch of what is now Oracle Spatial, but was originally called Oracle MM (multi-media), at a conference in Vancouver. I chatted with the development manager and he said that they had a copy of my paper posted on the noticeboard in their office, and it had been a big influence on them. Which I thought was cool (though I’m firmly a PostGIS person these days)!

Q: So what did you do after IBM?

A: From IBM I went to work at Smallworld, who were a fairly early stage company at the time — I think I was employee number 30 or so, and  after a year with them in the UK I was the first person to move to the US when we started the company there, and I’ve been in Denver ever since then (that was 1993). I imagine many GeoHipster readers may not have heard about Smallworld, but we revolutionized the GIS industry in the 1990s with a lot of ground-breaking ideas, and became the market leader in GIS for utilities and telecoms — you can read more in a blog post I wrote on the occasion of Smallworld’s 20th birthday.

GE bought Smallworld in 2000 and as with many acquisitions, it was a big culture change, especially for for those of us on the management team. Four of us left to form a company called Ten Sails, which evolved into what is Ubisense today (more of that shortly). In 2005 I took a detour to spend a couple of years as CTO at Intergraph, who were the second largest GIS company at the time, with revenues of around $700m. I had a good experience there working with lots of great people, but in 2007 I decided I wanted to get back to being more hands on with technology and left to start my own venture called Spatial Networking, where I did a variety of interesting consulting projects and also built an app involving social networking and future location called whereyougonnabe. I haven’t looked at this in ages, but I just found that our original web site is still out there, and there are a couple more videos here. I still think it was a cool idea, and don’t think anyone has really implemented what we came up with. Dopplr was the closest thing, but they didn’t have a lot of the geospatial features that we did, and they were acquired by Nokia and subsequently disappeared. I occasionally think about revisiting this idea! But anyway, we didn’t get the traction we hoped for with it, and in 2010 I decided to rejoin Ubisense.

Q: So you went back to Ubisense as CTO of the Geospatial Division. What are some of the more interesting projects you’ve been working on lately?

A: Well one half of Ubisense does RTLS (Real Time Location System) applications, using our precision indoor location tracking technology to power various applications, mainly focused on the manufacturing space. It’s a very cool technology — and I’ve come to learn that indoor location tracking is a surprisingly hard problem to solve!

The other half of the company is the geospatial division, which is where I work. I led a skunkworks project in 2010 to build a product called myWorld, which has really taken off over the past few years. It’s a web and mobile geospatial platform focused on large utilities and telecom companies, the same space I worked in with previous companies. It’s built on open source components — PostGIS, GeoServer and Leaflet being the main ones. Our mantra is “Simple, Smart, Fast” — it’s targeted at the 95% of people in these large companies who aren’t GIS people but can get a lot of value from a really simple Google Maps style interface onto their enterprise data. We’ve had a great response from customers. In fact one of them, one of the largest cable companies in the US, does a satisfaction survey of their end users every time they roll out a new IT system, and myWorld got the highest rating of any application in the 20 years they’ve been doing this, so that was very gratifying! We’ve been doing a lot of work with offline systems for use in the field, syncing data from PostGIS to SpatiaLite — since you still can’t guarantee having a wireless data connection 100% of the time, our customers really need the ability to work without a network connection. We have the core offline capabilities rolled out in some large implementations, and now we’re working on some interesting ideas for hybrid online-offline systems that can really simplify deployment and administration compared to traditional offline systems. We’ve also been building a number of specific applications to address particular business processes, like damage assessment, inspection and maintenance, and outage analysis.

One thing that differentiates us from the traditional GIS vendors is our focus on simplicity — it’s deceptively hard to make useful enterprise applications that really are simple and intuitive for end users. And another is that we are GIS-agnostic — at one of our large utility customers, we integrate with back end systems from GE Smallworld, Intergraph and Esri, and provide a common front end to all of them. The big players tend to work well with their own systems but less well with their competitors.

So it’s been fun. I feel we’re well on our way to disrupting the enterprise geospatial market in large utilities and communications companies, which hasn’t really happened since we did that with Smallworld twenty years ago.

Q: You presented your Geospatial Revolution talk to Minnesota’s GIS/LIS Consortium Conference in 2009. This was an influential talk for me and many of my colleagues here. It was the first time I had heard of the concept of “neogeographers” – did you coin that term?

A: No, it’s not my term, it was quite a widely used term in the industry at the time. At the time I would have said that Andrew Turner coined it — he literally wrote the book on neogeography, which was published by O’Reilly in 2006. However, I asked him if he came up with the term, during this interesting panel discussion at the GITA conference in 2010, and he said no, it originated in 1912 as a term to contrast with paleogeography. He credits Di-Ann Eisnor, then with Platial but more recently with Waze, as coining the recent usage of the term, though Wikipedia attributes Randall Szott with being the first to use it in the contemporary sense.

Anyway, it definitely wasn’t my term, and to be honest it’s not a term I really like, it was just the most widely used label at the time to describe the newer generation of systems that were disrupting the geospatial industry.

Q: What compelled you at the time to compare “paleo” or “neo” geographers?

A: Before I answer that, let me just digress a bit more on the terminology. One of the reasons I don’t like the term neogeography is that I don’t regard myself, nor most of the people doing interesting geospatial applications these days, as any kind of geographer. I’ve never studied geography at all, I’m a software developer and it happens that most of the applications I’ve worked on involve some aspect of location data or maps, but they involve a lot of other things too. Paul Ramsey uses the term “spatial IT”, which I like much better, though it still overemphasizes the spatial part in a way.

An analogy I like to use is that we don’t use the term “numerical information system” just because an application contains numeric data. We don’t have conferences on NIS. It doesn’t make you a mathematician because you develop an application that uses numbers.

Increasingly now, geospatial data is just another datatype, a map is just another aspect of a user interface. This opens up both the development and usage of geospatial applications to a massively broader audience, which is the real significance of the “neogeography” change or whatever you want to call it, the label doesn’t matter. Traditional GIS is a tiny portion of the geospatial ecosystem these days, I really dislike the whole attitude that GIS is this specialized sacred thing, and that you need to be a trained “GIS Professional” to do anything with geospatial data. Nonsense!

Q: Did the word “hipster” ever enter into your mind when considering either camp of geographer? As a Brit living in America, do you have a different take on hipsters?

A: Um, no! Was hipster a thing in 2009? And like I said, it wasn’t my term, I was just using terms that were prevalent at the time.

I have no claim or aspiration to be a hipster. And I’m not nearly as old as Steven Feldman so don’t qualify as a geohippy I don’t think.

Am I a GeoHipster? I had to consult your poll to decide on that, and according to that the joint leading characteristic of a GeoHipster is that they never refer to themselves as one, so it seems as though the only possible answer to give is no, whether I am one or not. But on your other top characteristics I score pretty highly: geoJSON is often the answer, I fired up ogr2ogr just yesterday to convert a shapefile into a 21st century format (geoJSON, naturally), and I have written my own code to roll map tiles (from Smallworld). I don’t think PostGIS is too mainstream though, I think PostGIS is fantastic. We’ve built myWorld on it and it has worked exceptionally well in some very large and challenging enterprise applications.  I’d like to think we’ve been doing our bit to make PostGIS more mainstream — we have managed to get it installed in a number of large utilities and telecom companies where Oracle is the dominant database platform. With most of the customers that I work with, PostGIS would be regarded as very GeoHipster, I think. So maybe I at least score half a point there.

Another one of your poll answers was: “You call him Jack and still hate his company”. Well yes, obviously! I say that rather tongue in cheek, I’m not really a hating person, and I have plenty of friends at Esri. But I have spent my whole career competing against Jack, Esri has always been the “dark side” for me and the companies I’ve worked at. I have been in the geospatial industry for 29 years and have never used ArcGIS , does that qualify me for any sort of special GeoHipster award? Though having said that, we do use the Esri Leaflet plugin in myWorld now to enable integration with ArcGIS Server and ArcGIS Online, and quite a few Esri customers are using myWorld. Good interoperability with Esri is a strong focus for us at the moment.

So anyway, you be the judge on the GeoHipster front. I think maybe I’ve talked myself into getting a GeoHipster T-shirt.

Q: You’ve long been big on usability testing, even pointing out with self-deprecating humor how user testing showed a fatal flaw in one of your initial user interfaces. Do you have any more stories about how usability testing has improved your projects?

A: Yes, I am a huge fan of simple usability testing, as outlined in the book “Don’t make me think” — this is a short read and I highly recommend it to anyone involved in software design or development. I did a 5-minute Ignite talk on the same topic which you can see here. Usability has been absolutely fundamental to the work we’ve been doing with myWorld for the past five years, to make complex geospatial enterprise data accessible to the average person with little or no training. We believe that the growth in enterprise geospatial applications is all about serving the 95% of people in our customer organizations who don’t know what a GIS is and shouldn’t need to know.

Q: Influenced by some of your usability notes, I once held on to the belief that it was important to signal to users that something in a web map was “clickable” by changing the mouse cursor to a pointer. But now, with touch screens eliminating the cursor, this seems much less important. Has this shift been revealed in your usability testing? And if so, is there a new “touch screen friendly” way to tell the user that something is “clickable”?

A: Your first example is an interesting one actually. In myWorld we are typically dealing with very dense utility maps with many items on the screen. We can easily have several thousand selectable features on the screen at a time. These are typically pre-rendered into raster tiles for high drawing performance, which works very well. But of course that doesn’t give you sufficient information to change the mouse cursor when you are over something that is selectable. We could create UTFgrids to do this, but that’s a lot of extra work with our data volumes, and the density of clickable data on the screen is so great that arguably it doesn’t add much value and could impact performance — you would be trying to rapidly change the cursor all the time as it moved over the map. So in our web application we elected to use a fixed “pointing finger” icon instead of a “panning hand” icon over our map, to give users a clue that they can click anywhere on the map. Depending on where they click, they could get no features or multiple features. But we’ve found that works just fine with a wide range of users who are not technical and have had minimal or no training on the system. They also find panning intuitive even though we the icon we use is different.

Of course on a tablet or phone there is no cursor icon, and users still find it very intuitive and realize that they can drag to pan, click to select or pinch to zoom. So in this particular example I think it’s the case that you don’t really need the feedback of a changing cursor for those operations to be obvious and intuitive.

In the more general case, as web applications or native apps based on them are used more and more on touch devices, I think it’s important to design your application so that it doesn’t need mouseover behavior, which in general is very doable. There are quite a few specific suggestions if you google around, for example this discussion on Stack Exchange.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with the GeoHipster readers?

A: I guess one other topic of the moment that we haven’t touched on is vector tiles. There’s lots of interesting work going on in this area at the moment. I do find it ironic though that when I started doing GIS in the 1980s, most systems were based on tiled vector files — systems were designed that way to get over performance constraints. A huge focus in the industry was getting away from tiles to “continuous” vector based systems — having to split line and polygon features into multiple pieces to fit into different tiles caused all sorts of problems, especially for data editing and analysis. All these problems are exactly the same with vector tiles. So people have laughed at me for saying this, but I strongly believe that vector tiles are not “the future of web mapping” which is the message that I hear from a number of people at the moment. Yes they are interesting and you can do some cool things with them, but they have significant drawbacks too. I believe they’ll be a short term transitory phase, and the real winner of the next iteration will be whoever figures out how to handle a continuous non-tiled vector model in the browser, efficiently loading and unloading features as needed.

I also think that in all the excitement over vector tiles, a lot of people underestimate the strengths of good old raster tiles. For the sort of applications that we do, with dense vector maps and very complex display styles, pre-rendered raster tiles have huge advantages in terms of performance, scalability and portability — the ability to work well on low-end devices, and look the same in all environments, etc. I think there’s a good chance that raster tiles will outlive vector tiles.

Q: Any final words?

A: If you’re not using open source as part of your geospatial applications, you should really take a look at what’s out there. After spending 20 odd years working in the closed source geospatial world, I’ve been really impressed over the last eight years or so both with the innovation going on in the open source world, and with how well the products we’ve been using in our solutions have held up in very large enterprise projects.

Oh, and one more last thing: Mapwheel. I think all geohipsters should have a mapwheel!

Bill Morris: “There’s a lot of value in questioning the establishment”

Bill Morris
Bill Morris

Bill Morris is a passable developer, a derivative cartographer, and a GIS refugee. Having cleared a decade as a geospatial professional and founder of Geosprocket LLC, Bill is now mapping renewable energy markets as the Lead Visualization Engineer at Faraday Inc., where he has yet to pay for a software license but is getting nervous that the streak can’t possibly hold forever. Bill is a lifelong Vermonter, with furtive dashes into the outside world.

Bill was interviewed for GeoHipster by Mike Dolbow.

Q: How did you get into mapping/GIS?

A: I was a music major at Middlebury College about 15 years ago when a friend convinced me to take a geography class. Fortunately that was about the time I realized that I was a pretty bad musician, so it made a lot of sense to shift into a field that seemed to offer both a series of structural worldviews and a technical skillset. I keep running into awesome Middlebury geography grads in the wider world; I know I’m lucky to have stumbled into that department and be launched into the world with the uncontrollable desire to map stuff.

Q: Earlier this year you put your own business, GeoSprocket LLC, on hold, to join Faraday. After about six months, what is different today from when you made that transition?

A: I’m a lot less stressed.

In all seriousness, as a freelancer I grew accustomed to reaching critical stopping points – letting documentation searches drag on way too long – before putting out a question on StackOverflow or begging help from someone via Twitter. But the Faraday team seems like a hive mind most days. Pretty much any block in my technical knowledge can be covered really quickly by one of my colleagues, and I know I can offer the same to them. The efficiency that comes from a complementary team can’t be understated, and I know this because I’ve been the squeaky wheel a few times elsewhere.

I’m also a bit more pragmatic about the umbrella of GIS technology. Learning how to optimize PostGIS with a hundred million data points – in tens of thousands of configurations – has given me new perspective on limits. I’ve started to understand the database admins who reflexively scoff at spatial; whenever there’s a choke point in our data processing, it’s usually a buffer or a point-in-polygon operation. Removing the abstraction of the desktop GIS platform speeds things up a lot, but geospatial analysis is still the slow donkey bringing up the rear of the wagon train.

Q: What are some of the more interesting projects you’ve been working on lately?

A: Faraday is letting me go a little crazy with visualizations. Some things are sticking (MOAR HEXAGONS) and others aren’t (not all datasets look good as a pulsar), but it’s an amazing iterative environment for trying out ideas. We’re aiming for a distinctive, map-centric design in our platform, and over the past few months Mapbox Studio has been invaluable for tying the cartography to the app design. Our clients are also looking to us to make sense of some pretty abstract statistical concepts, so I’ve been getting into the weeds of practical information design, then emerging and hammering something together with D3. Combined with our goal of increasing renewable energy’s market share, this fulfills most of my “dream job” prerequisites.

My side projects have slowed down this year, but I’m hoping to get back to a greater level of involvement with the Humanitarian Openstreetmap Team. Crisis and development work are really motivating for me as hard-edged examples of the power of maps.

Q: You once said: “I didn’t know the first thing about code when I got into this world, but it was amazing how easy it was to adapt a little bit” with help from free resources like CodeAcademy. I have found the same thing, but also found others in the “traditional GIS space” reluctant to take the plunge into things like Javascript and HTML. What advice would you give geographers who aren’t sure if coding is for them?

A: I take it for granted that this question is settled. That obviously everyone should learn how to code, what’s the big deal? But it doesn’t take much self-awareness to realize that it was my good fortune to have both the need and the resources to learn programmatic approaches to mapping. There are plenty of GIS analysts who can keep on working without javascript or python, and I think many more who simply don’t have the time or the support. I’d like to help those in the latter group and not alienate those in the former, but my patience is waning for the anti-developer reactionary set.

To the geographers who only know the GIS desktop and feel its limits: ask for help. It’s more readily available than you think. Hell, ask me for help.

Q: Your Twitter handle is “vtcraghead”. I get the VT part, but I had to Google “Craghead”. Is that a reference to the village in England, or something else?

A: I wanted to have a unique email after college, and I was climbing like a madman at that point so I registered “vtcraghead@hotmail.com” and joined the brave new digital world. The handle stuck with me, but by the time I registered it with Twitter it was more of a joke about how I used to tie in a lot.

Although it’s curious to see that Craghead is in Durham, which reminds me of my favorite song about surveyors and the broader impact of mapping lines in the dirt . . .

Q: We define hipsters as people who think outside the box and often shun the mainstream (see visitor poll with 1106 responses). Would you consider yourself a hipster? (Who else would aspire to play in a “low profile funk band”?) How do you feel about the term hipster?

A: As with most of the previous interviewees, I subscribe to the middle ground. I admire the geohipsters (none would self-identify, I’m sure) who helped me break out of incumbent technologies, and those who are innovating geospatial tools in ways we could only dream about a decade ago. But I’m not a fan of the brash contrarian hipster archetype, either in real life or as a straw man.

As far as my own identity? I ride my bike constantly, but it has ten gears. Skinny jeans on me would be a war crime. This is Vermont, and inside these borders PBR is outlawed. However, I think there’s a lot of value in questioning the establishment.

Q: Geohipster (and geohipsterism as a concept) is sometimes criticized for being exclusive and/or attempting to foster divisions within the industry. Or sometimes for being different for the sake of being different. You once rolled your own basemap tileset (using Mapbox’s guidelines). Did you do that to be different?

A: Oh jeez – that sounds like metahipsterism.

I did that as an experiment in self-reliance. I feel so poisoned by my experience with a single-vendor-technology career track that I’m always watching the exits. I love Mapbox, but I wanted to know if I could make an attractive web map without paying them anything, which is the occasional promise of open source tools.

Geohipsters fostering divisions? I see this as the current manifestation of an endless social dynamic: A new group enters a space, with new ideas. The old group finds it easier to feel threatened and defensive than to adapt. The new group can always do a better job of assisting the adaptation. </overlysimplisticparable>

Q: Like me, it’s pretty clear you’re an active dad. Loving your kids comes second nature, but let’s face it, they also require a lot of attention. What’s more tempting to compare to your kids: your projects or your customers?

A: Projects for sure. Mostly adorable and exhausting in equal measure. Thankfully, my customers neither throw legos at me nor tell me they love me.

Q: I’ve always had a theory that New England states are like siblings from the same family: they have rivalries and unique characteristics, but when challenged will band together and “defend their identity” to other states. As a fellow geographer from New England, what’s your take on that?

A: New Hampshire is definitely Vermont’s evil twin, but we’ll take it over Texas. Don’t even get me started about Sox-Yankees.

I can be a bit of a Vermont nationalist, but I’d say our industry (probably not uniquely) has flattened the cultural obstacles to collaboration. The folks I interact with on Twitter are everywhere, and it’s almost a non-issue for my career that I don’t live in D.C. or the Bay Area. That’s why I’m a technophile, in a nutshell.

Q: Admittedly, it was over 25 years ago, but Vermont is the only place I’ve observed this phenomenon. Have you seen this, and can you possibly offer an explanation?

A: Witch windows were a cheap alternative to dormers for venting and light on the upper floors of old farmhouses. I worked on a house years ago that had one, but I admit this is the first I realize they’re just a Vermont thing 🙂

Q: Any final words for GeoHipster readers?

A: I don’t personally want to be defined by my struggles against Esri. That comes up a lot in projects that I’m passionate about, but for better or worse they are the “incumbent” in this space, and they are the portal through which many of us enter the world of mapping. I’m probably just mellowing with age, but I’d rather emphasize the positivity of flexible skillsets and robust community in mapping than rant about vendor lock-in. We’ll probably all get more done with that perspective.

David Bitner on the open source advantage: “It’s not just the money — it’s the scalability”

David Bitner
David Bitner

David Bitner is the owner of dbSpatial LLC, an independent consulting firm providing services that focus on the use of geospatial open source software. A 14-year veteran of the GIS industry, David has served on the board of the Sahana Software Foundation, is an OSGeo Officer, and was Conference Chair for FOSS4GNA 2013.

David was interviewed for GeoHipster by Mike Dolbow.

Q: How did you get into mapping/GIS?

A: I started working with GIS during my undergraduate work in geology, when I took a class in GIS and remote sensing. For my Master’s degree, I decided to roll straight into studying GIS and remote sensing in forestry at the University of Minnesota. I had a very unique opportunity to work with the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, studying the benefits of geospatial data sharing with Will Craig. My graduate work was spent interviewing professionals in the Twin Cities learning about how they used geographic data. That work set a great foundation for my career in this region.

After that, I worked for the National Weather Service for almost four years, then the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) for nine years.

Q: Last year you left a full time job at the MAC to focus on your consulting work with dbSpatial. Was there something specific that prompted that change? What is different now that you’re your own boss?

A: Well, during nine years at a small agency like the MAC, one of the nice things was having a lot of flexibility and encouragement to go and learn new things and technology. The flip side of that was, being the only GIS person at the agency meant nine years of doing the same thing over and over. So, I had been moonlighting for several years, and then finally had some good opportunities that enabled me to take the leap and go out on my own. It’s been the best move I’ve made in my career — I’ve been able to stay in touch with my colleagues at the MAC while still branching out into different work.

Working for yourself, you never really get a full vacation because you always have to be on call if something you’ve made goes down. But you can also work from anywhere. Next week I’ll be working from the shore of Lake Superior – as long as I have my laptop and an internet connection, I can work anywhere. While I might not get a full vacation, I can stretch out a lot more.

Q: Is there anything you didn’t expect with the transition?

A: I’ve been lucky in that most of my work has been in a small number of long term projects. It’s nice to have the variety; I’m kind of an ADD personality, so having a mix of projects is a great fit. Working with larger teams on some of the projects has taken some getting used to compared to my prior situation. It takes a lot more discipline when you know the code you’re writing is going to be seen by more than just you. Instead of just hammering through something to get it to work, you need to have a lot more discipline because it has to work and others need to understand it.

Q: What are some of the more interesting projects you’ve been working on lately?

A: There are two big projects that have taken most of my time and both are really interesting. The first is working on NOAA’s emergency response management application (ERMA), which is a portal that NOAA uses to provide a Common Operating Picture (COP) as well as some analytical capabilities for emergency response. For example, it’s being actively used for the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Another project is working with FireStats, a consulting outfit that helps with Fire Departments, providing analyses for accreditation and services like siting stations. They also provide a tool that allows individual fire chiefs to explore their own data. As a subcontractor, I’m building out their analytical engine, which provides a lot of powerful information for Fire Departments, such as their response time, incident locations relative to resources, and other analytics. It’s been nice to get in-depth with those two groups.

Q: Running a small business is hard. Does specializing in open source software implementations make it harder or easier?

A: I would say that specializing in open source makes it possible. The things that I do and the products that I’m able to provide are only possible because I build on top of open source solutions. First, being able to deliver a full package that someone can implement without any strings attached makes the price point very competitive and marketable. When you’re a very small outfit (dbSpatial is just two folks, David and Dan Little), it’s hard to demand a premium price. But when we can provide a turnkey product that can be implemented without additional software licensing, it’s a tremendous advantage.

Also, the reason I got into open source software was not because of the cost. All of the work I did in government was on the fringe of what was possible with the proprietary desktop solutions provided by Esri and ERDAS. I always needed to tweak and go beyond the standard solutions, because those solutions didn’t’ fit the projects I had.

My work at the MAC, for example, was with four-dimensional data such as flight tracks with an X,Y,Z, and time for every point. Nothing handled that out of the box at the time. So my only recourse was to extend things myself and work with other open source providers such as Paul Ramsey’s Refractions Research. I was able to contract with Refractions to extend PostGIS to meet my needs, and then use the results within a few weeks. Compared to relying on proprietary software solutions, the turnaround was much faster, and the result was a tool that met the exact specifications of what I needed.

Also, I was able to more quickly stand up highly responsive services with open source software. When an airport noise lawsuit was settled with the MAC, that proved advantageous. We had a web map where people could see where they were in relation to the contours. This was the first time an airport was going to provide noise mitigation to this degree, so it hit the national news. And given the surge in traffic, that server came crawling to its knees. Luckily, I had moved everything to use MapServer a few weeks before, so within a few hours, we were able to repurpose a few other servers to distribute the load (without worrying about license limitations). If I had had a node-locked license, we would have been dead in the water; the acquisition process to get more licenses would have been too onerous to respond to the demand, and then we’d be stuck paying for higher licenses even after we had overcome the initial wave of higher traffic. It’s not just the money – it’s the scalability.

I got started in open source because it was the only way to actually solve the problems I needed to solve. Then, I was also able to show my employers how much money we were saving. As a result, I got more buy-in and was able to participate more actively in the community.

Q: Your Twitter handle is “bitnerd”. Did you consciously arrange your last name and first initial to include “nerd” in the name?

A: That is the first e-mail name I was given when I went to college. So, I was given that handle by the IT people at Carleton College, and it stuck and became a nickname, especially among anyone working with computers.

Q: We define hipsters as people who think outside the box and often shun the mainstream (see visitor poll with 1106 responses). Would you consider yourself a hipster? How do you feel about the term hipster?

A: Can someone who has a GISP be considered a GeoHipster? I don’t think I would consider myself a hipster because I tend to try to work within the mainstream, although I do try to push the boundaries. I try to do things as efficiently as possible, which often means using different tools than the ones used in the mainstream.

Plus I could never be a hipster because I like good beer too much.

Q: Geohipster (and geohipsterism as a concept) is sometimes criticized for being exclusive and/or attempting to foster divisions within the industry. Or sometimes for being different for the sake of being different. You have advocated for open source software for years. Did you do it to be different?

A: I did it to get the job done. I think that there are too many walls and too much dismissiveness by folks in both the “neo geo” and “traditional geo” worlds. I think too many folks in the traditional geography world are leery of change and just want to do things the way they always have. I think too many folks in the “neo geo” camp are dismissive of the technical expertise and experience that a lot of the traditional geographers have. I try to sit in the middle, and definitely come from the more traditional background, but I understand that the tools move fast, and if you can stay current with the new tools and apply the traditional knowledge, you can grow along with the industry, while still maintaining the quality control and standards you have the formal training in.

In many presentations I’ve given on open source and proprietary solutions, I describe a tendency – not an inherent property, but a tendency among the two types of software. With proprietary software, it often tends to be a giant swiss army knife that will do anything you want it to. But if you need it to do one thing, like drive a screw, you’re better off with a screwdriver. Open source software tends to follow the UNIX philosophy of being more specific and focused on specific needs. It does make it harder to approach in that you need to know what specific tool to use during specific situations, but once you have that knowledge, the tools are typically much more efficient and faster at that task.

Q: You volunteer to support the City of Lakes Loppet Ski Festival, and you’re an active bike rider. Do you think it’s a coincidence that a lot of Minnesota geographers are skiers, bikers, and “outdoorsy”?

A: I don’t think it’s something that is inherent to Minnesota geographers, I think it’s common among geographers in general – from both the traditional and “neo geo” camps. If your job is expressing geography and knowing where you are, I think you’re likely to be someone who likes to be out, traveling, skiing, biking, running. When you look at the MN GIS/LIS Consortium conference, you see people getting up in the morning to do fun runs before sessions, and I don’t find that surprising. I think you see a lot of people who are interested in geography are also people who like being outdoors and engaged in the areas they study on maps or in data, and I definitely identify with that.