All posts by Paul Ramsey

Paul Ramsey: “The jungle is very very large, and there’s always a bigger gorilla”

Paul Ramsey
Paul Ramsey
Paul Ramsey is a Solutions Engineer at CartoDB. He has been working with geospatial software for over 15 years: consulting to government and industry, building a geospatial software company, and programming on open source. He co-founded the PostGIS spatial database project in 2001, and is currently an active developer and member of the project steering committee. In 2008, Paul received the Sol Katz Award for achievement in open source geospatial software. Paul speaks and teaches regularly at conferences around the world.

I’m writing this article for GeoHipster almost simultaneously with the Esri User Conference (UC) plenary session, which feels appropriate. If being a “hipster” means being in some way unconventional, then I’m missing out on the peak event of the “conventional” GIS community, and what could be more “GeoHipster” than that?

It’s been a long time since I attended the UC, probably 10 years or so, and the dominant feeling I remember coming away from the last event was one of absolute dejection and depression.

I was at the time, as I am now, a proponent of doing things “differently”, of exploring other options than the dominant enterprise mainstream, and it’s very hard to sit in a room full of over 10 thousand people applauding the dominant enterprise mainstream and still think your ideas have much merit. And as much as I enjoy GeoHipsterism and all its proponents, one of the dangers of our little echo-chamber is that we forgot just how fundamentally irrelevant our ideas are to the actual practice of professional GIS in the world.

The source of my dejection while sitting in the UC plenary had a lot to do with the futility of my position: here were 10K folks who would never care a whit about what I was working in. Here also was a company with so many resources that they could afford to waste the efforts of huge development teams on products and ideas that would never pan out.

That particular plenary, back in 2005, included lots of 3D technology that has never seen the light of day since, and felt like a festival of technological spaghetti throwing. There was not a wall left unfestooned with spaghetti. And it wasn’t random either. They were comprehensively going down every possible track of future technology, even though 75% of them were going to end up dead-ends, just to avoid missing out on the one track that turned out to be relevant for the future.

And this brought yet more dejection. Even, if by some amazing chance, I did hit on an idea or technology that was important enough to gain a market presence or interest, Esri would turn their vast development resources upon the problem and render it an also-ran in short order.

Why even bother?

It took me about a month to recover.

Since what I was working on then and what I’m working on now is open source, my ability to keep on working and growing it are never at issue. Open source can’t be driven out of business. What is at issue is relevance: whether the work is helpful and worthwhile and useful to people to make the world a better place. Even with 99% of the professional geospatial world locked up and working in the Esri ecosystem, the remaining 1% (pick whatever numbers you like) is still a lot of folks, and a lot of those folks can do things with open source that they could never do with Esri.

So I saw the NGOs and First Nations and academics and innovative governments still doing cool things with open source, and I got happy again and kept soldiering on.

Fast forward ten years.

Heading into this years UC, there was a brief twitter-storm around Esri’s use of vector tiles, which is worth following through several of the conversation chains if you have the time.

In an earlier era, it would not have been hyperbole to state that having Esri use your code/steal your idea guaranteed its relevance in ways that having them ignore it never would. Andrew Turner once told me that one of the big plusses of being acquired by (big, bad) Esri was that his ideas had a much better impact than they did when he was working in his (teeny, tiny) start-up.

But this is a new era, and the people Esri will be serving with their adoption of Tom’s vector tile technology are almost completely separate from the people Tom’s company (Mapbox) will be serving with that technology. There truly is a win-win here. There’s also lots of relevance to be had beyond the now tiny world of “professional” GIS.

And this is where the “GeoHipster” thing gets a little weird. If being a “hipster” means standing outside the mainstream, what becomes of your status when the former mainstream itself becomes marginalized? When I read the list of interviewees and their interviews, it’s clear that mostly we “geohipsters” share a history within the old mainstream and that we have to varying degrees decided to look beyond that mainstream.

But with the growth of the industry “geohipsters” are becoming a minority within a minority. The new kids can’t identify, because they’ve never had to break out of the old paradigm. Tom MacWright, whom I quoted above, and who has already built so much amazing open source geospatial software in his career, has no experience with Esri tools. Outside the solutions engineers, none of my colleagues at CartoDB have any Esri experience either.

To call Esri the dominant company in our field these days is to radically misread what our field actually is, and who is leading it. What technology has changed our field in the last ten years?

  • Slippy maps and JavaScript web technology (Google)
  • Globe visualization and ubiquitous access to imagery (Google/Keyhole)
  • Mass access to mobile location (Apple/Samsung)
  • Mobile maps and vector mapping (Google/Apple)
  • Oblique imagery and model extractions (Microsoft)

Esri isn’t calling the tune, and neither is open source — we’re all just fast followers now.

So I can take some comfort that — some 10 years after I sat in the Esri UC plenary and wondered why I bother to get up in the morning — some poor Esri exec is going to have to sit in the Google I/O plenary and have the same experience. The jungle is very very large, and there’s always a bigger gorilla.