A: I am the owner of a small geo consultancy Bird’s Eye View based out of Albuquerque, New Mexico. My biggest focus areas are conservation, public health and training, but my clientele have become more and more diverse in recent years. I am an avid open source proponent and have authored two books on QGIS: Mastering QGIS and Discover QGIS. In the small amount of spare time I seem to have, I like working out, getting out into big wild spaces/mountains, playing board games while spinning some vinyl, raising chickens, and good coffee. I also love having the time to be creative and put together a nice map.
Q: Tell us the story behind your map (what inspired you to make it, what did you learn while making it, or any other aspects of the map or its creation you would like people to know).
A: This map was produced for a coalition working to protect the San Gabriel Mountains called San Gabriel Mountains Forever. The target audience was U.S. Congresswoman Judy Chu’s staff and the general public. It shows a series of proposed protections: expansion of the existing San Gabriel National Monument, a new National Recreation Area, expansion of several existing wilderness areas along with 6 new wilderness proposals, and several new wild and scenic rivers. The goal was to create a map highlighting these proposals with a clean modern look.
Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.
A: This was created with the QGIS nightlies, which last fall was version 2.99. This gave me a chance to check out some of the new emerging features coming with version 3. The proposal data was digitized using QGIS. The Stamen Terrain basemap is being seen through a similarly colored State boundary layer employing some transparency and the multiply blending mode. Existing wilderness and proposals also employ the multiply blending mode. Wilderness areas were obtained from Wilderness.net and highways were sourced from CalTrans. Highways were styled as white lines so that they would fall to the background. They look better digitally than in print form…is a map ever done? Cities were shown simply as labels.
A: My undergrad studies started out all over the place, and I had no idea what GIS even was until I was almost through with college. As a freshman I studied graphic design, following a lifelong interest in all things visual. But after the first year I got interested in photography, but shortly thereafter I switched majors again, this time to computer science. I briefly considered what graduate school in comp sci might be like before being a little “homesick” from more artistic work; design, ultimately, was where my heart was.
During my junior year I stumbled upon a thing called Geographic Information Science in the list of majors at Michigan State University. Analysis and design, with a side of engineering? I changed my major that semester and have been hooked ever since.
While I bounced around between those majors, the bits and pieces I picked up were like little drops of experience that coalesced into the perfect preparation for a career in cartography and visualization. I didn’t know it at the time, but I couldn’t have planned it better if I tried.
Q: What do you do for NASA? Please describe your typical day on the job.
A: I sort of wear two hats. To tell a new visual story every day, I have to quickly analyze data, create maps and charts, and help our editorial team craft articles to communicate Earth science, primarily from or related to NASA missions. I am always scrambling to get or find data and then visualize it the best I can in a very short amount of time.
Over the longer term and in-between the daily articles, I lead the development of our style guide that establishes the overall look and feel of Earth Observatory visuals. This involves defining typographic styles, color palettes, base maps, and workflows. The workflows could be anything from a set of scripts to tutorials that enable us to go from raw data to public-ready graphics in an intuitive and consistent way.
Our bread-and-butter publication is the Image of The Day, which we put out 7 days a week, 365 days a year. So my typical day usually involves creating one or more visualizations to ensure that keeps happening, while carving out time to refine our style, identify new data sources, learn new technologies, or develop tools to help our team quickly publish press-ready visuals.
Q: Your PhD thesis is titled “Cues and Affordances in Cartographic Interaction”. Could you tell us about your research, and what spurred you to focus on this particular topic? Does what you learned feed into your work at NASA?
A: This research was a lot of fun! I was primarily interested in how to communicate varying “layers” of interactivity within maps. Sometimes a map symbol might only reveal a tooltip, while other features allow analytical functions, queries, or other capabilities. Some symbology has no interactivity at all. That’s information that should be clear to the user, and the visual design of map symbols can help clue users in to whether or not (or how much) a symbol is interactive.
I started my PhD before the major UI shift toward flat design, which was a good time to have a front-row seat to the backlash that followed that trend becoming commonplace. Early popular skeuomorphic designs were a bit heavy-handed with aesthetic ornamentation. As a response, designers sort of swung (too far) in the opposite direction: many interfaces became so flat that buttons were not distinguished from other design elements. This sort of design philosophy gives people chicken hands: they are constantly pecking, trying to discover which elements on screen can be clicked.
I wanted to humanize that experience, enabling users to do more thinking and less pecking.
My research was predicated on the belief that there’s a sweet spot in the middle: many, many interfaces could benefit from subtle cues that make interactive UI components a bit more obvious.
This research helped me think more clearly about hierarchies and designing with a purpose. Every map or visualization is a layering of information, and even if there’s no interactivity in a graphic, there’s still a competition for your attention and focus. Careful design ensures the viewer is drawn to the important bits, without totally removing less important elements. I like maps that communicate a key point quickly, then draw you in, revealing more insight as you study them.
Even if your fingers aren’t pecking a screen in different spots, your eyes might be. Good design settles things down and enables readers to focus on—or be guided to—the important information.
Q: There’s a lot of kids out there who want to work for NASA someday (including my own), although most of them are probably dreaming about space shuttles. If NASA has data visualization and cartography jobs, how wide does the variety get?
A: The variety is out of this world! (That was lame, wasn’t it? But it’s true!) You’ll find people working as everything from biologists to seamstresses at NASA.
I work in the Earth Science Division, and while the exact job title of “cartographer” is not a thing as far as I know — I don’t even have it — there’s an enormous amount of geospatial analysis and mapping going on. A lot of colleagues of mine have backgrounds in other fields — oceanography, geology, etc. — but we all make maps with the same data (perhaps with different software; the geologists really love GMT). But if it happens on Earth, NASA probably has an instrument that measures it, and handfuls of people with diverse expertise analyzing it and mapping it.
Q: What kind of technology do you use on the job? Mostly open source, or mostly proprietary, or an even mix?
A: It’s a mix. I’m a bit of a generalist: I use what gets the job done. That said, it is with some privilege that I am able to make those sorts of decisions. If there’s software out there, paid or otherwise, I probably have access to it.
That said, my go-tos by and large tend to be open source. GDAL is the real MVP of my workflow, and I use QGIS daily.
My top 5 most-used tools include QGIS/GDAL, Photoshop, After Effects, Python (with matplotlib, pandas, and NumPy), and Bash.
Q: Which systems are the most common sources of satellite imagery for your work?
A: We like to show things in true color when we can; readers really enjoy seeing satellite imagery that is as easy to understand as a photograph. That places a lot of emphasis on MODIS, VIIRS, and Landsat imagery.
Q: How often is it that a new system or source of imagery becomes available?
A: All the time! While the instrument construction projects and big launches make the news a few times a year, there are thousands of scientists around the globe developing new data from all the satellites already in orbit. Algorithms are improved, data sources are combined, and new applications emerge almost around the clock.
Q: Your website has dozens of examples of beautiful and informative maps. I’m guessing it takes quite a bit of work to pull the data together into a publishable product. Can you give us an example of a workflow, going from raw satellite data to polished map?
A: Thanks! I appreciate that.
One thing I have to admit being most proud of is that these projects are done super quickly. We publish daily, so I often only have a few hours, maybe 12 hours for larger stories, to get all the data that goes into something, process it, analyze it and find the story, and then design a map (or other visuals). In the last three years, there’s only one project that I worked on for longer than a week, which was the 2012 and 2016 updates to NASA’s Black Marble maps of nighttime lights.
The biggest effort has gone into developing the styles and workflows that make it possible to publish these visualizations so quickly.
I recently tweeted an example of a map coming together. The final map ended up as part of a piece on the Channeled Scablands. The basic steps for producing the imagery for this story were to:
Generate a best-pixel mosaic of the area using five years of Landsat data in Google Earth Engine. While that was running:
Download SRTM data for the area and merge the tiles with gdal_merge.py
Hillshade the elevation data in QGIS (or GDAL)
Color-correct and reproject the finished Landsat mosaic
Blend the Landsat data with the hillshade
Finish the map up with boundaries, water bodies, and labels, export for the web
To get even more out of the data, I also used the Landsat mosaic and elevation data to render a true color view at an oblique angle. The whole story finishes with a recent, individual Landsat scene. (You can read about how to color-correct and pan-sharpen Landsat scenes in tutorials from me and Rob Simmon.)
That all came together in about four hours. There’s always so much more I wish I could do with imagery, but our tight deadlines force us to be quick and lean.
Q: You’re a moderator for the esteemed Reddit community Data Is Beautiful. Last time I logged in there were 12+ million subscribers. How long have you been moderating, and what exactly does moderating entail?
A: I’ve been moderating Data Is Beautiful since early 2014. Geeze, thinking back, it is hard to believe I am the second longest running mod in the subreddit. Back then we had about 50,000 subscribers and we were not a default shown to all visitors. We’d see maybe one popular post a week. It has grown quite a bit, and that has been awesome to witness over the years. We now have subscribers posting insanely well-done work that makes the front page of the entire site almost daily.
Each mod contributes to keeping things organized and spam-free, but most take on a labor of love depending on their interests. Early on I established the CSS design for the subreddit and our visual flair system to separate different types of posts. Other mods organize AMAs, run contests, or code up sweet bots that quantify the number of original content (OC) pieces a user has posted.
These days I am not super active as a mod; we’ve brought on a bunch of fantastic mods that really keep the sub running and growing.
Q: What do you do for fun? Any hipster traits we should know about?
A: I spend a lot of time playing with my kid (4). We’re really into Lego right now (see that, Ken? No ‘s’). My wife made the mistake of giving me Monster Hunter: World as a gift, and I haven’t been able to put it down.
I am looking forward to getting back into fishing this spring and summer. That’s a hobby I’ve neglected recently and I can’t wait to get back into it.
If a beard, a love of craft beer, and a fixed-gear bike are the criteria, I might be a hipster on paper. But in real life, I’m less like The Decemberists and more like Dexter (the awkward part, not all the other stuff…)
Q: Would you consider yourself a geohipster? Why / why not?
A:. Even though I use a lot of tools that might not be mainstream, I don’t see that as a goal or accomplishment that sets me apart. These are things that just help me do the job I need to do. So I wouldn’t say so, but maybe others might.
I’m also a bit wary (and weary) of an over-emphasis on the tools used by cartographers and the GIS community. How those tools are used, and the goals they achieve, is much more important. There’s a bit of a ‘library name drop culture’ on social media, where a long list of tech and libraries will be highlighted, and then it’s like “oh, and by the way this app ensured the four-pronged butterfly did not go extinct.”
That’s wrong, and we as a community should strive to fix that. There are social media accounts devoted to bashing this file format or that software. Why? That’s as useful as posting instagram photos of food you plan not to eat.
It was Michelangelo, not chisel brand X, who made David.
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our readers?
A: “[You] absolutely have to have dark in order to have light. Gotta have opposites, dark and light, light and dark, continually in painting. If you have light on light, you have nothing. If you have dark on dark, you basically have nothing. It’s like in life: you gotta have a little sadness once in a while so you know when the good times come.” –Bob Ross
Anonymaps is a shadowy provider of Twitter geo snark, lurking on the fringes of the under-the-counter geocoding industry. Since 2013, Anonymaps has tweeted 1,001 times, comprising 80% proprietary mapping fails, 19% three.word.barbs, and 1% obscure OpenStreetMap in-jokes. Anonymaps is somewhere between 20 and 60 years old and works in the illegal OSM import trade.
Q: It is said that positive thinking causes neuroses and makes people dependent. You are not in any danger, are you?
A: No-one quite knows how Anonymaps’ embittered, caustic personality developed. Some hint at unspeakable deeds in the early days of Cloudmade. Others say that a once-kind nature was (gdal)warped by discovering the One ST_NRings To (Python) Bind Them All. Still others tell tales of an idealistic developer blinded by exposure to the Manifold source code. Personally I think it’s PTSD from the OSM license change.
Q: Your Twitter bio says “crowdsourced sarcasm”. Do you have multiple personalities?
A: Yes. Totally. Anonymaps is essentially a loosely shared Twitter password. I’m not even sure who everyone is but I know people from at least four countries have posted.
At a conference some years ago, late one night in the bar, I got talking to a Well Known Geo Personality. He leaned over and confided: “Actually, don’t tell anyone, but I’m Anonymaps.” I sounded doubtful. “No, really, I am. Look.” And he posted a tweet. So that was me told.
Q: What is the purpose of your Twitter presence?
A: Historical accident. We were originally @FakeSteveC but the joke got old. Other than that, we’re mostly black ops funded by an unnamed geo corp with the aim of discrediting What3Words.
Q: Well, whatever your goals are, you’re more complicated and nuanced than some random troll. And you’re no sea lion either. If we call you the “Archie Bunker of GIS”, will you call us “Meathead”?
A: Delighted. Archie was a great geo thinker. He once said “East is East and West is West, but none of us is gonna meet Mark Twain”. I’m not sure what the EPSG code is for that particular projection but I swear I saw a shapefile in it once.
Q: You’re our second interview (after @shapefiIe) where, honestly, we have no idea who you actually are. But you sound like you might be on Shapefile’s side in the “best geo format” debate. Might you be kindred spirits?
A: Honestly, have you ever tried to use GeoJSON? #shp4lyfe
A: Full of admiration for Mapzen. How Randy manages to repeatedly hoodwink massivecompanies into spending millions on OpenStreetMap development is a source of wonder to me.
Mapzen was a curious experiment in developing superb software entirely devoid of any commercial imperative. All that code is now sitting there, ready to be exploited by avaricious sales guys who perhaps spend more time reading Clayton Christensen than T.S. Eliot.
I’m not at all surprised that Mapbox swooped on Valhalla – what surprises me is that no-one bought up the Tangram/Tilezen stack and team. If I were Amazon or Foursquare I would do that in a heartbeat. Right now Mapbox owns the mobile location market and no one much is challenging them.
A: Sometimes you get the hot takes by throwing a flamethrower through a window and seeing who comes running out shouting.
So how diverse are TomTom’s surveyors, or HERE’s? How diverse are their specs, their algos, their cartographic choices? My sense is not very, certainly less diverse than OSM. But they won’t tell us so no one bothers asking. OSM is open so you can ask the question, but the answer is sometimes used as a stick with which to beat OSM and its existing contributors. Better to use it as a carrot for improving OSM.
It’s self-evident that more, diverse contributors mean a bigger, fuller map. Preppy Silicon Valley kids training ML models to trace buildings, and bearded Europeans surveying biergartens do not a full-featured map make. OSM needs more mappers with young families, mappers who live in backwoods areas. It shouldn’t just be the best map of SF and Berlin.
Is that focusing on mapping or diversity? You tell me.
Q: Multiple choice question: The Humanitarian OpenStreetmap Team is: A. the best thing to happen to OSM or B. the worst thing to happen to OSM. Explain your answer.
A: A for comedy reasons. Where would Worst Of OSM be without HOT?
Certainly HOT has transformed expectations of OSM. Compare the map of Mozambique to that of, say, Michigan. You wouldn’t expect good maps in a land of cultural impoverishment, potholed roads, miles of slums and gang warfare, and sure enough, Detroit’s pretty bad in OSM. Maputo meanwhile is immaculately mapped. As you’d expect from the name.
The harder question is whether remote mapping is essentially imposing Western values on communities who, left to their own devices, might evolve their own, quite different map. Erica Hagen wrote thoughtfully a couple of years ago that “it’s actually pretty easy to bypass the poor, the offline, the unmapped… in spite of attempts to include local mappers, needs are often focused on the external (usually large multilateral) agency.” Gwilym Eades was ruder: “remarkably self-centred, expert-driven, and dominated by non-local actors.” That’s going too far but the next challenge for HOT is to enable the local mapping that marks out OSM at its best, rather than just serving as unpaid Mechanical Turks.
Q: Do you consider yourself a geohipster? Why/why not?
A: We try and cultivate a detached, post-ironic air of mystery while leading life on the technological cutting edge (PostGIS nightly builds and Mapnik trunk, which leaves about one hour a day of free CPU time). But actually we live for that sweet retweet juice. Maybe it would be truer to call us a geohuckster.
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our global readership?
Having been born together with ArcView GIS 2 in the early 90s, the Shapefile soon became, and remains, the de facto standard for sharing geospatial vector data. To this day it remains a crucial player in the global GIS community, and is even extending its reach into neighboring disciplines such as Business Intelligence. In May 2017, Shapefile was awarded the Data Format Lifetime Achievement Award at the FME User Conference. Today, http://switchfromshapefile.org, a lobbying organisation, states that the continued use of the Shapefile proves that its “design was truly eternal.” The Shapefile is the only major spatial data format with a flourishing and interactive Twitter presence.
Q: Are you on a mission? Like conquer the world or something? Or are you just out there having fun, enjoying the popularity?
Q: Does the personal geodatabase hate you? I mean, he was supposed to replace you, and look where he is today.
A: I’m not aware of PGDB’s feelings. Tbh, I haven’t talked to him for quite some time. Judging from his Twitter account I’d say he’s moved on to other endeavours. Anyway, water under the bridge. Let’s face it, I have outlived numerous opponents and intend to continue doing that.
Q: Indeed, many formats have come and gone, how do you remain relevant?
A: Honestly, it’s not that hard . Seriously: I think the sheer size of #TeamShapefile is a key success factor. As David put it: “If every other format fails, Shapefile is always supported.” That’s the point right there. Annihilating customer pain is big! By addressing users’ needs unequivocally I have successfully occupied a big niche in the GIS market. At this point it’s not clear who could follow my footsteps. E.g., regarding http://switchfromshapefile.org (the most recent initiative trying to sway my users away from me) @anonymaps correctly pointed out: “If you have to suggest *eight* different formats, one of which is CSV, I fear your case is not yet persuasive.” Couldn’t have put it better what successfully serving a niche means. Heck, even the people behind http://switchfromshapefile.org say: “(…) the fact that [the Shapefile] is still used today proves that its design was truly eternal.” What else can I add to this? Finally, regarding success factors I believe reaching out to your users is crucial. E.g., all the course materials working with me certainly helps. And I’d also like to think that my social media activity has a little part in my sustained relevance.
Q: Tell us about your recent award at the FME Conference.
A: Well, that was just fantastic! If I’m being honest I’m like the next data format, woman or man: I do like the occasional pat on the shoulder. Receiving that award really meant a lot to me and I understand Dale had a big part in it. [Link to award ceremony] The only thing that makes me a tiny bit sad is that headquarters hasn’t given me an award yet. But I chalk that up to a mix of extensive objectivity and humility on their part. Oh well, there is still time. I’m gonna stick around a lot longer.
Q: Let’s say one of our readers is getting ready to start a new project and needs to store some geographic data, what would you say to them?
A: You know, the usual: Think deeply about the questions you want to answer, the entities involved in your analysis, the types of analyses you would like to be able to run on your data, etc. etc. But more to the point, my best piece of advice would be: Set up a good folder structure for storing all those shapefiles you are going to create. You know how they say 80% of successful GIS work is having a good folder structure? That one is actually true. In my experience, it _all_ boils down to a tidy setup, really. From there, the mightiest geodata infrastructures of the world have been built.
You know, other than with data formats where I’m pretty much the uncontested standard, in software there really is no orthodoxy these days. As a GIS pro you can’t go wrong with any of the warez that are members of #TeamShapefile. (if it isn’t clear to those who don’t follow me on Twitter: I refer to the almost infinite number of programs that support me as #TeamShapefile) If, for some obscure and to be honest likely questionable reason, you truly can’t stay within #TeamShapefile, I’d suggest using Safe Software FME. It is a very reliable and versatile Shapefile converter. Besides a myriad of handy data transformers, it supports a limited set of ‘alternative’ formats for those who haven’t yet managed to join #TeamShapefile.
A: Yes. There is an amorphous, really quite small group of Twitter accounts (there is no telling if they are real, sock puppets or bots) that occasionally give me some flak online – some of it in jest, I’m quite sure. As far as I’m aware, they haven’t coined a team name yet. You know, the data format “war” does sometimes get to me a bit. I simply don’t understand why people get so agitated about formats? I’m demonstrably the most used and hence best geodata format in the world. Thus, in my opinion there really is no need for format wars (except maybe in the raster domain where I have long been a strong proponent of *.asc but have recently started to see some points for the *.tif side as well). Yet, I do have the occasional skirmish with more or less vocal critics. Take my mothership for example: While in general it has my back, there have been some dissenting voices (and let’s not talk about the time when they dabbled in other formats such as PGDB et al.). Most recently, e.g. Andrew Turner (@ajturner) has “cast doubt” on my suitability for publishing data (https://twitter.com/ajturner/status/908000452083634177 …). But I’ll have him and everybody else know that I have done (and will do) more for geodata sharing than any open data initiative, OGC standardization process and all hipster data formats combined! In fact, I’d wager I have lived and breathed geodata interoperability for much longer than many of my opponents. And serving as a universal data publishing format is big part of that. Take my European friends from @swiss_geoportal (a brand that should still have some pull in geo): They feature me widely on what I understand is their data publishing platform (http://data.geo.admin.ch ), a well-structured collection of shapefiles that is elegantly exposed to the web.
But I shouldn’t get too worked up. After all, for example Craig (@williamscraigm) and Damian (@spangrud) of Esri are incredibly supportive of me both on Twitter and in real life. And while it’s a bit sad that headquarters has never granted me a formal recognition or an award, I do get a lot of love from my friends at Esri and my fans in the larger GIS community and related fields. I get a lot of support and plenty of #TeamShapefile members in FOSS GIS and I feature in many of their tutorials. Further, I’m especially liked in research as well as in education and the Business Intelligence community (you know, the future and current decision makers). And, last but definitely not least, Dale (@daleatsafe) has been a great friend. He’s at Safe, the manufacturer of FME (should you ever need to convert a Shapefile he’s got you covered). By the way, as luck would have it, he’s recently been interviewed for GeoHipster and shared some really interesting insight about the geospatial industry and my pivotal and sustained role in it.
Q: I think you are like pizza — everyone loves you, but people feel guilty every time they consume you. They know they should be eating an organic kale salad. Does it bother you that you give guilt to millions of innocent geofolk?
A: First, I think your comparison is a bit off. There is certainly guilt spread around occasionally, but that doesn’t come from me. As to the pizza comparison per se? I guess you’re not entirely off. I’m quick, cheap, almost universally loved and uncomplicated to consume by anybody. Like pizza, I’m not pretentious. If you don’t know anything about your customer, you can never go wrong with either of us – pizza or Shapefile.
Q: Both you and Justin Bieber have been called unsophisticated. Both have millions of fans. Coincidence?
A: I’m a belieber in simple, yet powerful enough products that address a global audience with great success, is all I’m gonna say on this.
Q: Are you planning to retire anytime soon?
A: No. I’ve outlived many ill-conceived (cough, pgdb, cough) and well-conceived data formats. I’m clearly not done being useful to #gistribe, the business intelligence and education communities, … heck, to #TeamShapefile in general. I have many plans and thanks to my sidecar files I enjoy a modular, highly extensible architecture: I am ready for any challenge the future might bring!
Q: Do you have any piece of advice for the GeoHipsters out there?
A: Hmm. My favorite saying by the great Steve Jobs himself comes to mind: “Real artists shp.” Use this as a guiding star to do great things – I’ll always be around to have your backs, friends!
Q: Do you consider yourself a GeoHipster, why or why not?
A: For sure! I consider myself a GeoHipster _avant la lettre_! And most likely I will be one long _après la lettre_ as well – if you catch my drift It will be sad when (if) geohipsterism isn’t a thing anymore. It’s just the course of time though, isn’t it? After all, it seems all good things come to an end – exceptions like myself merely proving the rule.
By all accounts, the FOSS4G 2017 International Conference in Boston a few weeks ago was a massive success. Over a thousand people attended the week-long event co-chaired by GeoHipster alums Michael Terner and Guido Stein. Advisory Board member Bill Dollins and the crew from Spatial Networks hosted the first ever “Fullcrum Live” event, and GeoHipster alums kept popping up in other places:
Brian Timoney co-hosted the popular JS.Geo event
Michele Tobias, Stephen Mather, Steven Feldman, Regina Obe, David Bitner, Todd Barr, and Randal Hale all taught workshops
Sara, Kurt Menke, and Katrina Engelsted were 3/4s of the panel discussion “What the Heck Does an Open Source Job Look Like, Anyway?”
Steven Feldman’s “Fake Maps”, Will Cadell’s “Why your map sucks…” and Bill Morris’s “Raster is a Disaster” presentations gained serious props on the Twitterverse.
With all this action going on, there’s no way we caught it all, whether we attended or followed along vicariously by hashtags. We’re sorry if we missed you…but we’re very proud that so many geohipsters were able to enjoy such a spectacular event. Get your GeoHipster swag here and catch us at the next one!
As CEO of Mapbox, Eric Gundersen coordinates product and business development. Eric has been with the team since the start, and splits his time working on projects in San Francisco and Washington, DC.
Eric got his start in the mapping and open data space at Development Seed, building open source tools for international development agencies. He holds a master's degree in international development from American University in Washington, DC, and has dual bachelor's degrees in economics and international relations.
Alex Barth is an open data expert with years of practice in developing and implementing open data strategies and solutions on behalf of multinational organizations like the United Nations and World Bank. At Mapbox, he leads our data team to raise the availability and quality of freely accessible open data.
Before joining Mapbox, Alex was a developer and strategist for Development Seed. Prior to that, Alex managed information technology for an international development organization in Central America, where he became involved in the Central American open source community. In his free time, Alex has designed interactive robots and virtual reality interfaces, organized a traveling exhibit depicting life in Nicaragua and its sweatshops, and taken photos of his life and travels in Washington, DC, Nicaragua, and Austria.
Q: Mapbox is currently one of the coolest geo companies to work for, attracting top talent at neck-breaking speed. How do you do it, and how do you maintain the coolness factor?
A: So much of our work is out in the open, us coding on GitHub or editing on OpenStreetMap — working like this in the open lets us meet really cool people. When we find people who do cool stuff we ask them: You’re doing great stuff, would you like to get paid to do that?
Q: OpenStreetMap (OSM) relies on volunteers to map the world. Mapbox is relying on OSM to make maps. How do you help make sure there are people to map? How do you help recruit people to the platform?
Q: With all that you’re doing — will you always be tied to OpenStreetMap as a basemap?
A: Our platform is totally data agnostic. We have customers using TomTom or HERE data to power their basemaps in addition to OpenStreetMap. For us it’s all about being a platform and providing the building blocks for developers to do whatever they want to locations. That said, you know our bet is all on open data in the long run.
A: Working on it.
Q: Verizon, Aol, MapQuest — what’s going on there?
A: Finally we can talk publicly 😉 — what’s so exciting for us is that MapQuest still accounts for an insane amount of map traffic, and it’s growing. Their team is going to use our building blocks to make their next generation mapping product on both mobile and web. And while I can’t comment on specifics, what I have seen looks really hot.
Q: An official Mapbox-MapQuest partnership announcement was made after our initial talk. Congratulations! Still no word on the Verizon mobile location data stream, and whether the ODbL OpenStreetMap license will be a barrier to using it. Can you comment on that?
A: Mapbox maps are 100% owned by Mapbox and licensed under our TOS. So everyone using Mapbox never has to worry about any data licenses from the dozens and dozens of sources we all pull together to make our map.
Q: What meat will Mapbox barbecue on the funeral pyre of HERE?
A: Obviously brats if the German auto consortium wins. But I’m starting to get excited to cook Peking Turducken — looking like the Chinese are making a for-real play, maybe with an American partner. If our bid wins, and we get a snapshot of the data, it’s going to be tallboy beer can chicken coast to coast.
Q: Mapbox is opening offices in South America and India. What are the business opportunities there for Mapbox to explore?
A: The data teams in Peru and India have been amazing! These are our dedicated teams for making OpenStreetMap better. From processing probe data we collect, to analyzing errors in OpenStreetMap, to tasking new satellite imagery — these teams run 24 hours a day 5 days a week feedback loop letting us be ultra-responsive and laying the groundwork to grow even more.
Q: Where do you see Mapbox in 2020?
A: NYSE: MPBX
Q: Do you consider yourselves geohipsters? Why / why not?
A: Ah, you saw the garage full of fixies?
Q: Thank you for the interview. Any parting words for the GeoHipster readers?
A: It’s the early days, and that is not meant to be prophetic.
Ann Johnson is a technology industry veteran with close to 30 years of progressively responsible experience in all sectors of the industry. With a long career spanning many companies including Data General, EMC and RSA Security, Ms. Johnson has always enjoyed applying technology to solve real customer business problems and driving value to organizations. Ms. Johnson is a subject matter expert in network architecture, mobile security, fraud reduction, transaction fraud reduction, and online banking security, as well as maintaining competence in storage and systems infrastructure. She enjoys the process of building highly successful, highly performing organizations. Outside of work, Ms. Johnson is a strong advocate for animal welfare organizations, and is an avid historian. She is a graduate of Weber State University completing a dual major in Political Science and Communication with a minor in History.
Q: Thank you for taking the time to interview for GeoHipster. While most of our US readers are surely familiar with Boundless, many in our international audience (~50% of our readership) are probably not. For their benefit, please explain what Boundless is about.
A: Boundless is the preeminent open source geospatial information systems company. We have a full stack of open source tools — GeoServer, QGIS, PostGIS database, and OpenLayers 3. We do a lot of value-added enhancements around that open core, driving down customers’ project costs, and we have services that we help deploy, and make your project successful.
Q: Boundless is one of the community leaders for support of open source options. Where do you see the open source market heading?
A: This is a great time to be in open source. With the INSPIRE Regulations in Europe, with the US federal government promoting open source, and with our commercial customers looking not only for lower-cost alternatives but also for more openness in their code, they are looking for more community contribution. I think that open source is only going to grow. We are seeing more and more open source companies in all kinds of adjacent technology areas. If you think about what Red Hat did with Linux, what’s been done with Hadoop, there’s a lot of different areas where open source is becoming very, very prominent, and I don’t see that slowing down at all. As a matter of fact, I think it’s going to become more open, because customers are just really tired of not having the visibility and the access and the ability to contribute positively to closed-source type projects.
Q: Judging from your bio, it appears you had little exposure to geospatial prior to joining Boundless. What attracted you to geospatial? What are some of the unique challenges you’ve encountered since joining? Is spatial special? How hard is to run something like Boundless? Is it “business is business” at the end of the day?
A: I am a technologist at heart. In the 30 years of my professional career I have been in technology the entire time. I started out in software, did a lot of work with network infrastructure, did work in storage and then in security. I think all of these segments are special. I they are all unique. There’s different business drivers, there’s different reasons people participate and purchase in each segment, there’s different problems that need to be solved. For me learning spatial was something I wanted to do. When the opportunity came to me, it was a conscious decision to go out and learn a different technology. It was exciting to me to learn the market, to learn the technology. I have a degree in political science and a minor in history, so I have a passion and a love for history — history as it deals with cartography, how society is evolved, all kinds of mapping lends itself to that. If you think about the things that Chris Tucker is doing with his MapStory project, those are the types of things that are really, really interesting to me, just from a pure historical context, so it was natural for me to move into the space. Yes, I think it’s special, but I think it’s special like every segment of technology is special. It has its uniqueness, and I have developed a lot of passion for it over the nine months I have been at Boundless.
Q: A significant topic of discussion around geospatial events over the past year has been the staggering amount of turnover at Boundless. How do you answer those who question the health of Boundless? What do you see as drivers of such turnover? With such a significant core of project contributors gone, what differentiates Boundless from other companies that provide professional support to PostGIS, GeoServer, QGIS, and the other projects that you bundle into the OpenGeo Suite?
A: I am glad to be able to respond to this question. Boundless is not a new company. Boundless started under the OpenPlans Charity many years ago with Chris Holmes leading the ship. Two years ago it spun out to be a venture-funded company. When people make decisions about where their employment is, they look at the company they are joining at the time. In the past two years Boundless has undergone an awful lot of evolution, an awful lot of change. People made decisions about their career, that it wasn’t necessarily the company they joined. They joined the company for their reasons. But one thing that no one is discussing about Boundless is the amount of talent we’ve recruited in. We have attracted and recruited a lot of talent, because of business, we are actually growing from both a people standpoint, also from a revenue standpoint, so Boundless is a really healthy organization. We have refocused to make sure we stay really true to that open source core. I am very data-driven, and I look at GitHub, and I make sure that we have the top two or three committers in every project that we are working on are employees at Boundless. I think it’s really important. We also have a gentlemen in the organization, Jody Garnett, who is chartered as our community liaison. So Jody is on the GeoServer steering committee, and I have made him the community liaison. His job is making sure we are meeting all of our requirements in our participation within the community. The other is developing talent, and making sure they become valid community contributors. I am bringing in young new talent, or talent from other parts of the industry, folks who really want to learn geo, and make them part of the community, and I think that just makes the community better. So, yes, there have been some high profile exits, some really talented people have gone on to other things. But we’ve also brought in some really high quality talent, and I think that’s the piece that gets overlooked.
Q: Feature-level versioning of geospatial data remains a largely unsolved problem. In the federal government, records retention rules make it a vital issue. With the shuttering of Versio, how is Boundless planning to address this need?
A: Version control is really important. If you look at the announcement that CCRi made yesterday with GeoMesa on top of Google Cloud, I think data is hugely important, and big data is becoming a big problem in spatial. Versio itself was a bit architecturally challenged — candidly, the product was. It wasn’t the right solution to the problem. But the problem does need to be solved. I’m a technologist at heart, I think the problem has to be solved in a much different way, with a big data backend, something that can actually do the analysis, something that has the power, and Versio, while there were a lot of really talented developers and talented architects on the project, I think it started off as a great idea, and has evolved into something that wasn’t quite the right solution. But absolutely the problem needs to be solved, and we are looking at ways, at things we can do with GeoNode, with Hadoop, I don’t have the answer today, but we know it’s a real problem that needs to be solved. Versio just wasn’t quite the right solution for it.
Q: What are your thoughts on dat?
A: My comment on open source as a whole is that the only successful open source companies have been really successful because they partnered. So we’ll look for a partner strategy there, and to the extent that you have an open standard API that can convert data formats, it’ll lend itself to that partnership. As an open source company we have to be very open, and dat will allow us to do that. As long as the API is robust enough, and really does allow cross-data formatting, I think it’s a very worthwhile project, and we will participate.
Q: OpenLayers is clearly Boundless’s preferred solution for web mapping, and it has been a solid open source solution for years. How does Boundless view the rapid adoption of Leaflet as a lighter-weight alternative? Is it a threat to your business model, or just another component of potential hybrid solutions?
A: They coexist. Mapbox solves a different problem than we solve — a “many” problem, whereas Boundless, like Esri, solves “deeper-but-not-as-many”. I don’t think it’s one versus the other. I think they solve different use cases, and people will use them differently. I also think we need to do a better job promoting OpenLayers. One thing I think Leaflet has is better marketing, candidly. It solves a different problem, but they’ve definitely done a better job promoting it, and we need to do a better job with the community promoting OpenLayers.
Q: You tweeted about upcoming exciting news — HERE partnership, etc. Can you share more details?
A: I’ll foreshadow a few announcements we’re going to be making over the next couple of months. The first thing is we have signed up a partnership with Nokia HERE. We can talk about it openly, we are working with Nokia on a press release. As a big organization that requires a lot of layers of approval, but you’ll see that. It was important to us that we had a data strategy that we can augment our customers’ data, or augment open data, so Nokia is our first step there. You’ll see more data partnerships coming. You’ll see an announcement coming soon about our AWS and our Azure offerings. We are really making a concerted effort to move toward a cloud delivery platform, because our customers are asking us to. We are doing a lot of work with LiDAR, you’ll see in short order a blog post around the work we are doing on open LiDAR standards, and why it’s important to keep those standards open. And the final thing is we are recommitting to QGIS. Even though I think the future is web and mobile, there’s still a lot of things you need to do on the desktop, and we are really recommitting and making sure we have a supportable QGIS platform, particularly for the US federal government. All those things are queued up to come up in the next four to six week, as well as our 4.6 release of the OpenGeo suite.
Q: You’re a geolady. Last year you became CEO of a major geocompany. What advice do you have for other women in the geocommunity?
A: I’ve been in technology forever, and women are seriously underrepresented everywhere. The best advice I can give to women is ignore the fact that you are a woman. I hate to say it, but you need to focus on what’s important. Focus on your skills, focus on what you bring to the table, and put aside anything that is what I call noise to the system. It’s tough. It’s tough to be in a room with 30 people, and you are the only one that looks like you look. But you just have to set that aside and realize what you are there for, what’s important. I also think it’s really important to become a subject matter expert. As you mentioned, I’m new to this. So I’ve done a lot of self-study, a lot of online tutorials, just to try to get myself up to speed. If you’re going to have credibility — whether you are a man or a woman — you need to have a basic knowledge of what the customers are using, and a basic knowledge of the technology, and I think some people overlook that, and it’s super important. And the other thing is don’t give up. Bias exists everywhere. It doesn’t matter if you are a woman, or a minority, or someone who is not a US citizen by birth, bias exists everywhere. You just have to ignore it and move past it and don’t ever give up.
Q: Do you consider yourself a geohipster? Why/why not?
A: I might be too old to consider myself a hipster, and I’m never gonna be as cool as Eric Gundersen, I can tell you that [laughs]. That said, I think this is a really nascent market, I think geo is just now emerging, there is so much we can do with it, and there is so much we can do to put it on the radar. I think it’s new, I think it’s fun, and I think we need to have some fun with it. There has to be fun with the industry, so yes, I do consider myself pretty hip with the industry, even if I am not as cool as Eric on any day of the week.
Q: Thank you for the interview. Do you have any parting words for our readers?
A: I’ll go back to something Paul Ramsey advocated and still advocates: Geo doesn’t need to be held by the GISP department in an organization. We need to make the tools easier to use so your average IT analyst or your average business analyst can use them, and that’s when we’ll become really relevant. We’ll need to make sure we mainstream geo while maintaining the specialness of it. We need to embrace the spatial IT concepts, and everything you see Boundless doing moving forward, with our application templates, some of our SDKs and APIs, is going to be toward doing that. And I encourage the industry to also work toward making the tools more usable. Because that’s the way we’ll become really relevant. Geo will become really relevant when the tools become much more useful for everyone to use within a business organization, and that’s the focus of Boundless, and I think that’s a really good focus for the industry, too.