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@Shapefile to GeoHipster: “80% of successful GIS work is having a good folder structure”

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, , 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?

A: No, not at all. I’m merely a data format having some fun. I think the fact that there aren’t more data formats with social media accounts is a huge oversight by my competitors. I mean, do you wanna reach out to your users or not? I certainly do. That said, my social media activity is manifold (hehe): In general, I aim to help people. I sometimes console them with their GIS- or data-related frustrations, I tend to retweet people looking for a specific shapefile and also tutorials on using shapefiles and similar content. Further, I follow and share some of my private interests. Finally, I engage with my critics and opponents (given civil language 😉).

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.

Q: “#TeamShapefile” suggests there is an opposing team?

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 , the business intelligence and education communities, … heck, to 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.

GeoHipsters at FOSS4G in Boston

From left to right: François Goulet, Guido Stein, Mike Dolbow, David Bitner, Michael Terner, and Randal Hale. Photo credit: Keith Jenkins.

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
  • Paul Ramsey delivered the first keynote
  • Sara Safavi won the “Most Innovative Developer” award
  • 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!

David Bitner, Kitty Hurley, and Mike Dolbow brought Minnesota GeoHipsters to Boston. Photo Credit Keith Jenkins. “Postgres is my databae” t-shirt available here.

 

Eric Gundersen & Alex Barth: “Working in the open lets us meet really cool people”

Eric Gundersen (top) and Alex Barth
Eric Gundersen (top) and Alex Barth
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?

A: We invest in tools to make it easier to map. We helped build the iDEditor, we love sponsoring mapping parties, collaborate with cities to do large data imports, and most recently have been designing micro-tasking interfaces like to-fix.

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.

Q: Do you aim to rewrite GIS in JavaScript?

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: “I’m never gonna be as cool as Eric Gundersen”

Ann Johnson
Ann Johnson
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.