Category Archives: Interviews

Kristen Grady: “If you’re on the ground, look up, and if you’re in the sky, look down”

Kristen Grady
Kristen Grady
Kristen Grady is a GIS Specialist at NYC Emergency Management and has over ten years of experience working in GIS. Prior to working at NYCEM she spent about six years working in academia trying really hard - but eventually failing - to avoid working a 9-5 office job. (Although saving the city from the apocalypse turned out to be a pretty cool job, so it’s OK). She’s loved airplanes even longer than geography and hopes to combine her two passions into an actual paying job someday. But for now, she makes maps and writes python code by day and stares at her airplane emergency card collection by night, which currently stands at an impressive 139. (And yes, they all very clearly read “PLEASE DO NOT REMOVE FROM AIRCRAFT.” She says she’s sorry!) Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Q: How did you get into GIS?

A: I think it happened about six or seven miles up, somewhere near where the troposphere meets the stratosphere. I was flying from New York to California in June 2006 — my first time flying jetBlue — and I had never seen a live flight-tracker map before. I was enthralled! It was a perfectly clear day all the way across the country, and my 8 megapixel camera was pointed out the window for the entire six-hour flight. I’d take a picture of something neat on the ground and then immediately snap a photo of the map. When I got back to New York a few days later I sat with these photos and Google Earth, which I had just downloaded for the very first time, and spent hours trying to figure out what was in my photos…

A few months later, my Weather and Climate instructor was giving a lecture on remote sensing. He was going through slides of satellite images and having us guess what they were of. I knew them all! At the time I was a philosophy major, but I immediately went and switched my major to geography. The next semester, while taking the required geo-technologies course for the geography major I finally got to play with desktop GIS software and made some (pretty terrible) maps. But I knew that this was what I wanted to do. Someone in the geography department back then had made a comment that geography was a perfect discipline for “someone with ADD” because the variety of projects and aspects of GIS that you could focus on were truly infinite. That sealed the deal for me.

Geography and mapmaking were always passions of mine. I had my face buried in atlases and had been making pretty intricate maps since I was a kid, like this one that I made at age eleven. But I took a *very* circuitous route through college, losing myself about a hundred times, before finally taking that life-changing jetBlue flight that reminded that, at my core, I was born to be a geographer. So after seven long years in undergrad, I finally got that geography degree, and found GIS, and I’m so glad I did!  

Q: You have a Master of Science degree in Geographic Information Science. What is the one most important (or most valuable) thing you got out of your course of study?

A: I graduated with a B.A. in 2008, probably the worst year in recent history to start looking for a “real” job. So I ended up mashing together some part-time GIS research jobs and continued taking graduate-level GIS and cartography courses for fun. This eventually led me into a PhD program, which I was in for two and a half years before deciding to call it quits with a Masters. (A story for another time!)

So unlike in an undergrad program, where you’re essentially just learning how to use tools (at least in my experience), in a graduate program you are also being taught how to think critically about those tools, as well as how to think critically about the disciplines of GIS and geography themselves. You have to think about the consequences of your analyses, the ethics of your maps, the ethics of your tools. You have to think about things like the effects of aggregation, the cultural implications of using a certain color on a map…

Then there’s learning about different geographic “paradigms” and critical geographies, such as feminist geography or Marxist geography…  I had no idea while I was in undergrad that there was such a rich philosophy of geography. I feel lucky to have been exposed to that. Having that experience at the graduate level has definitely made me a better, more critical map-maker.  

Q: You work for NYC Emergency Management. Is your job stressful? Last week Amazon S3 went down because of a typo. If *you* make a typo lives are at stake. Do you ever think about that? Does it stress you?

A: Oh totally. I put a lot of pressure on myself because I am a perfectionist. But the paradox of working in emergency management, where your maps and your data really ought to be showing the most correct information, is that when sh*t hits the fan, there is rarely any time to go over everything in painstaking detail. It is not my nature to work this way *at all* so it’s been an interesting challenge for me.

There is always a struggle between balancing the quality of your work and being efficient. This is why I try to automate things using Python and by using map templates that I created a while back. This way we can spend more time on making sure the map and data are accurate and less time on things like creating a layout from scratch, or worse, creating an Esri scale bar from scratch (it’s the worst!). I have actually written a Python script that automates that process for us. Hooray!

Q: I interned for Manhattan Borough President’s Office in 1992. We used MapInfo then. Have things changed in NYC? What technology do you use these days?

A: The GIS Division at NYCEM is definitely an Esri shop but lately we’ve started exploring some other geo-tech as well, like Carto, Fulcrum, and Tableau. Our app dev folks are currently transitioning from the now obsolete ArcGIS API for Silverlight to Esri’s Web AppBuilder. And one of them tells me that he has started using some open source JavaScript technologies like REACT and NODE to rebuild our ailing Data Catalog application, which was originally created in Microsoft Access and contains about a zillion VB scripts. We’re also slowly starting to explore ArcGIS Pro, which we think may hold some promise. Perhaps it will lead to fewer frustrations (and expletives) than our good friend ArcMap.

As for the rest of the city, I think it varies. My sense is that it is largely Esri-based. But I am familiar with a few agencies that are moving toward open source technologies, like DoITT, who I believe is using QGIS for their desktop mapping. A colleague of mine at DOHMH uses R, D3, Leaflet, and PostGIS for her mapping projects, and DCP’s new Capital Planning Division has just used all open source technology to create their Facilities Explorer, which I love and was just released to the public.

Q: Tell us about a cool project you work on right now.

A: As I’ve said, things happen really fast in emergency management. A typical work day for me is pretty calm and laid back… until of course, something happens. One of the big ideas last year in the Public Safety Data Development Center (the group I work in within NYCEM GIS) was to create a dataset that answers the question, “What is there?” Meaning, if there is a sudden event, such as a building collapse or an explosion, we immediately want to know all of the facilities that exist in the affected location. Is there a hospital there? A nursing home? A restaurant? A school? We used to do this by adding a bunch of datasets one by one — that we had to think of off the top of our head — to an ArcMap document. But that is both inefficient and prone to oversight (like forgetting a dataset, for example).

Answering this question sounds easy enough (“Why not just use Google?!”) but what is so challenging is bringing all of these disparate datasets, most from different sources and with very different schemas, together into one dataset. The City of New York cannot simply rely on Google’s databases alone for its spatial awareness. We cannot verify the accuracy of their data.

Many of us worked on this project, but my job was to write an ETL in Python that would extract as many datasets as we could (currently 23, but eventually 50 or more) from our database, transform them — perform selections, map the fields, etc. — and then load them into one singular dataset. We still have a long way to go, but at least now, we can pull in this one dataset, which we call “Facilities Master,” select all the points that fall inside a building or within a given radius, and know an awful lot about the facilities in an area, with just a few mouse clicks. And this way you don’t have to think too much, which is always my goal. Plan and prepare when times are calm (think!), and then respond quickly when things get hectic (do!).  

Q: You are a Pythonista. What advice will you give to someone who is just getting started with Python in GIS?

A: Wow. What a great word, Pythonista. Can I use that on my resume?!

Ed: Yes.

Learning to code can follow a totally different path for everyone and really depends on your learning style. Some people can start copy/pasting other people’s code right away and fairly quickly manage to build something new that actually works. This approach didn’t work for me. I wasn’t easily able to break through the wall that stood between me wanting to learn to code and unshackling code from abstraction, and so I was a little paralyzed at first. But now I know that in order to learn code, you have to just start writing it and stop pussyfooting. You have to have faith that all those neural connections that you’re creating in your brain will eventually result in some pretty spectacular “eureka!” moments.

As for the more practical aspect of learning to code, you need simply to start out by learning the basics (variables, lists, conditional statements, loops, etc.), and then start playing. If you aren’t able to take a class, there are a million online code-learning sites, most of which are free. Once you know some really basic stuff and have learned what a module is, play around with the Python turtle module, which was originally created to help kids learn to code. It’s a great way to make really cool things happen pretty quickly, and it’s included in the Python Standard Library.

If you want to write scripts and create tools for ArcGIS, you’ll need to learn ArcPy, the Python site package that lets you interact with ArcGIS. Esri has pretty good documentation on how to use arcpy, and GIS Stack Exchange is also a great arcpy resource.

Here are a few rules I think the budding Python coder should follow:

  1. Know that coding requires incredible self initiative and self learning. Learn how to ask the right questions and become a master Googler. GIS Stack Exchange is indispensable, but users and moderators will publicly shame you if you haven’t done your homework before posting a question. I love that.
  2. Errors are learning tools, you’ll never stop getting them, and they will only get more complicated over time. Accept them. When you’re comfortable, learn about debugging and error handling.
  3. Pleeeeease comment your code. You will forget what you have written if you haven’t looked at your script in two weeks. More importantly, if someone else has to read it, explanations in a human language are key. Don’t be lazy. Don’t write sloppy code. Include script headers.

Q: Enough about work. What do you do for fun? Being a Brooklynite, whatever it is surely must be hipster, no?

A: Brooklyn is a pretty special place to live. It is also very hipster. One of my favorite things to do, and fortunately for my budget and my liver I don’t do this too often, is try to find really good craft cocktails. There are some amazing ones to be found in this borough, but obviously also in Manhattan. I have not yet ventured to the other three boroughs in search of craft cocktails, but I should! One of my favs in Manhattan is Amor Y Amargo. They are the standard to which I hold all other craft cocktail bars. A place I love to go to in Brooklyn is Blueprint. They also have incredible bar snacks. Yum!  

When I’m not consuming spirits, I am doing much healthier things like snowboarding, taking pictures, hanging with any number of my enormously huge family, including my two little nephews whom I adore, seeking out some top-of-the-line self-serve froyo with my other half, or geeking out hard on airplanes…

Q: You also like airplanes. How did you develop that passion (for it is a passion, right)? Tell us more about it.

A: I could spend hours answering this question! There are so many amazing spatial things going on with airplanes. But to be honest with you, I’m not really sure why I became enamored with them as a kid. I’d give anything to go back to early 1991 and ask that 8-year old girl, who just found out that she was going to be flying Continental Airlines from Newark, New Jersey to Orlando, Florida, why she instantly became so obsessed with them (and with the airline itself).

I think there are a few things going on. For one, I just think the airplane is a beautiful machine. But it’s also a symbol of escape, adventure, and change, and I have always liked all of those things. Also, the airplane affords anyone lucky enough to sit in a window seat an incredible and rare view of the surface of the Earth, which is a pretty spectacular experience for anyone who loves geography, although I didn’t have that particular experience until I was a bit older. My initial obsession mainly involved planespotting, which is at its most basic simply identifying aircraft types and airline liveries.

As I’ve gotten older and as technology has allowed for easy access to all kinds of flight-related goodies, the passion has evolved into an actual hobby. An #avgeek session for me might include using multiple flight-tracking apps (Flightaware, PlaneFinder, Flightradar24) and live ATC feeds to track a single flight or multiple flights that satisfy certain criteria. Sometimes I like to freak people out by “planestalking” them. (I actually coined the term Planestalker in the Urban Dictionary, and as of the time of this writing, it has 4 likes! ha!) Recently, I was planestalking my cousin’s flight from EWR to DEN, and it made a go-around in DEN. They were only feet off the ground before they aborted their landing due to wind and flew around to land on another runway. Nowadays you can go to Flightaware and just download a KML file of your flight. I sent him a picture of his go-around, and he thought it was hysterical (but also pretty cool!).   

Some of my favorite airplane “games” or challenges are trying to catch and then follow my pilot talking to ATC from one feed to the next (e.g. from Ground to Tower or from Departure to ARTCC), or predicting where an airplane overhead is coming from or going to and which runway it either took off from or is about to land on (which I am a total expert at predicting, btw!). I had a lot of fun making an animated map of some “Flights over Queens!” a few years ago, but unfortunately it got a little (irreparably) messed up when Carto switched from Editor to Builder.

Even more recently, I’ve developed an affection for aviation-related maps, like VFR sectional charts, arrival and departure procedures, and IFR Enroute High Altitude charts. I mean, talk about not being able to make a mistake! And having to think critically about the implications of your cartographic choices! Who makes these wonderful maps?! I am convinced that they are made by sweet little garden gnomes, working tirelessly in the night, running their maps from tree to tree… There is just so much magic, and a bit of mystery, in flying… it’s fun to uncover it all.

Q: Do you consider yourself a geohipster? Why / why not?

A: You know, at first I didn’t think I was at all, but then I realized that maybe I was a little bit when I was completely unable to answer the first question in the interview — which is a pretty simple and straightforward question: “How did you get into GIS?” — without launching myself into a paralyzing debate on my feelings on the word “GIS.”  Did I want to be associated with such a contentious word, what seems now to be a target for people who don’t want to be boxed in and who instead feel that they are part of something bigger than GIS, something geospatial? Just the fact that I was freaking out about the connotation of a word, in a very academic way… that must be somewhat geohipster, no? (Fortunately for the geohipster readership, I decided to scrap the eight-page essay that accompanied that manic thought spiral and instead tell you all a nice little story about flying… hee)

Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our global readership?

A: I wish I could take credit for this perfectly succinct and beautiful advice that I’m about to give, but I can’t, as it was offered as a suggestion to me by my partner when I read this question to him out loud…

“If you’re on the ground, look up, and if you’re in the sky, look down.”

It’s exactly what would have taken me multiple paragraphs to articulate, but he did it in just one sentence. He knows me so well. I think I’ll just leave it at that.

Jim Hughes: “Having the US federal government involved in FOSS4G is great!”

Jim Hughes
Jim Hughes
Jim Hughes is a mathematician at Commonwealth Computer Research, Inc. in Charlottesville, Virginia. He is a core committer for GeoMesa which leverages Accumulo and other distributed database systems to provide distributed computation and query engines. He is a LocationTech committer for GeoMesa, JTS, and SFCurve, and serves as a mentor for other LocationTech projects. He serves on the LocationTech Project Management Committee and Steering Committee. Through work with LocationTech and OSGeo projects like GeoTools and GeoServer, he works to build end-to-end solutions for big spatio-temporal problems. He holds a PhD in algebraic topology from the University of Virginia.

Q: Your background is that of a mathematician. How did you find geospatial, or did it find you?

A: Geospatial definitely found me! I started at CCRi in the summer of 2012. That fall, I was working on the code base that eventually became GeoMesa, our Hadoop-based open-source geospatial database. I liked the project enough that I requested to work on it more, and after a few other rotations, I made it back to the project and have been working on it ever since. During my time with GeoMesa, I’ve had a chance to participate in the OSGeo and LocationTech open source communities at code sprints, and also to attend conferences like FOSS4G NA. The conferences and code sprints have been a great way to learn the eco-system while meeting a bunch of great people!

Q: One of your projects is GeoMESA, one of geospatial’s first real applications to deal with Big Data. How did it evolve? Was it a grouping of client requests, or something created in house?

A: CCRi focuses on solving interesting data science and machine learning problems. A customer asked us to transition one of our spatio-temporal analytics from a single server infrastructure to the cloud. We had been using PostGIS for our geospatial data management and processing, and we asked if that (or an analogue) was available in the cloud. When the customer said that the only database was Accumulo, and that it didn’t do geospatial, we wrote the code to make it do just that. After a few months, we realized that this software was a compelling product on its own. From there, GeoMesa has evolved in response to direct use cases.

Q: Most of us in the geo community have ideas about what we want to bring to market. From your experience on GeoMESA, do you have any lessons learned or warnings for those of us who want to do this?

A: Have great documentation and demos! Standing up a distributed database is tough, and adding software to that can be challenging. We’ve used a simple ‘quickstart’ project to show how to use the GeoTools DataStore API to write and read with GeoMesa. The documentation also explains how to set up GeoServer. When sample code and docs aren’t enough, be ready to respond to questions from users. We field questions on mailing lists, Gitter, and Stack Overflow. From those questions, you can get a sense of what folks are using your product for. Recently, I had some great questions about one of GeoMesa’s less well-known features. Those questions can drive simplification of deployments and improvements to documentation. If users can see what they are getting, see it work for them, and get help along the way, they are going to be happy.

Q: Over the past few years there has been an increased presence of the federal government at FOSS4G. What is your take on the adoption of open source spatial technologies both widely across the federal government and with your clients?

A: Having the US federal government involved is great! At that level of government, they have ‘big data’ and a vision to fund and drive innovative work for storing and processing the data. NGA and other agencies are definitely ‘getting it’ by funding and fostering open source technologies. When our work can be shared publicly, many organizations benefit; everyone can get the same code up, running, and working together to achieve more than what we were able to previously.

Q: As you sit on the board of LocationTech, who recently announced LocationCon, is this the first move of LocationTech to finally leave the shadows and become a driving force in the FOSS4G community?

A: I’d say that LocationTech has been moving forward the geospatial software community for a few years now. Some of that has admittedly been ‘behind the scenes’…As the logistic organizer for FOSS4G NA 2015 and 2016, they increased inclusivity for women at the conferences through both a code of conduct and a scholarship program.

Also, behind the scenes, LocationTech reviews its projects’ dependencies. Through that process, LocationTech projects like uDig, GeoMesa, and GeoGig have had lots of GeoTools code reviewed and, in a number places, those project teams have worked with the GeoTools team to clarify licensing and clean up code.

In 2016 and 2017 GeoMesa, GeoTrellis, and GeoGig all completed incubation. These projects represent complex libraries and products which address several areas of innovation in geospatial software. On the basic library level, Spatial4J was the first project to incubate, and JTS is close to graduating. Those two projects are libraries that are widely used: Spatial4J came out of Lucene’s spatial indexing needs, and JTS has been foundational to a number of Java projects. LocationTech is home to basic libraries (like JTS, Spatial4J, and SFCurve) and complex products such as GeoMesa, GeoTrellis, and GeoGig.

Q: CCRi is known for their “Friday afternoon parking lot BBQ.” What is your favorite style of barbeque?  

A: Finally, an easy question! I am a big fan of pulled pork and pork ribs. For sauce, I favor spicy and sweet options over vinegar and mustard-based ones.

Q: How do you define a “geohipster” and do you consider yourself one?

A: I suppose a ‘geohipster’ is a geo-/gis- professional or enthusiast who is up on the new trendy, cool technologies (perhaps bearded and wearing plaid?) in the geo-domain. I’ve been working on big-geo and streaming geo data for the few years, so if that’s en vogue, then sure, I can be a ‘geohipster’. From my interest in many of the low-level libraries and the math/geometry behind the field, the moniker ‘geonerd’ might be better.

Randal Hale: “80% of hipsters have a spatial component”

Randal Hale
Randal Hale
Randal Hale runs North River Geographic Systems. He enjoys long walks on the beach, talking about your feelings, and spatial databases. You may find him at your local conference, possibly in a canoe, or on a bike -- but not all at once. 

Q: How and why did you get into GIS?

A: So way back in 1989 (it’s not that long ago, right?) young Randy started college. I ended up through some twists and turns as a Geology Major. About a year or so before graduation, it hit me that in order to use this degree for anything I was going to have to go to grad school and A) Work for an an oil company or B) Teach. Ugh.

My department received a phone call about that time from the Tennessee Valley Authority mapping department. Hence started my career in the Federal Gov’t — I went in and interviewed for the wrong job and was hired for a summer job that didn’t start until October. TVA has a long history in Mapping. They are probably the 2nd or 3rd oldest mapping organization in the nation. At the time they also had a store that sold aerial photography (9×9 prints) and topographic maps. The map folding and selling turned into a my first foray into GIS.

TVA had just started using this new software called ARC/INFO and they had a huge job that required a lot of digitizing of data from 7.5-minute quadrangle maps. So I would digitize streams and roads and then get the GIS IT guy to print out a map at a known scale. I would then take the map and measure all the roads and streams using a planimeter (that’s what they told me to do). One day the IT guy came back and asked what I was doing and when he finished yelling he sat down and taught me how to extract that information from the data I was producing. I received a day or so of instruction. He gave me a stack of manuals. I read those at lunch. I was hooked. That led to AML development, shell scripting, and the eventual loss of most of my hair (at least that’s what I blame it on). I was there for about 16 years and learned a lot on life, mapping work flows, and data standards.

Q: You have been running your own GIS consulting business for 10 years. If you could do it over again, would you take the same path? What would you do differently?

A: Oh — things I would have done differently. I think I might stay on the same path. With a few exceptions:

  • I would tell anyone that is starting a business — actually learn about running a business. I can do complicated things with maps — I didn’t understand taxes. If you assume my work week is 40 hours I’ll spend about 8 hours bookeeping, 8 hours advertising, and 40 hours working (that’s the joke). I still question if I’m “doing it right”. Friends would go “Oh running a business is easy”. HAH.
  • Say No to people. It took me forever to learn to tell clients no. It’s easy to lose money on a job. It’s really easy if you work for yourself. There were jobs I took on I should have walked away from — but it’s hard to say no. In 2016 I think I walked away from 3 jobs where I didn’t think I was the best fit. Best thing I’ve done.
  • Learn to take a break from work. I will sit and worry about business. I like worrying — I’m good at it. This year I actually learned to step away and find hobbies that don’t involve GIS.

Q: Tell us about some of the cool projects you are working on and the technology you use.

A: Cool Projects. Heh. I’m not sure how cool they are.

So my first project as a consultant was with a small forestry firm within driving distance of Chattanooga. It started out simple enough. Soon 4 shapefiles turned into 8. 8 turned into 100. It was painful. I couldn’t manage the data easily. We needed to upgrade to ArcEditor or ArcInfo. They couldn’t afford the price tag. So I migrated them to QGIS and PostGIS. We are running an enterprise database that churns out a lot of data on cheap computers. It’s not glorious or cool — but it’s functional and pain-free. I guess that makes it awesome. We’re on the verge of having a thing called a “web map”.

One job involves a water utility. I’m still working on that one. That project is migrating data out of an Esri file-based geodatabase into PostGIS. We are installing QGIS alongside ArcGIS. There’s a few things they need ArcGIS for — but all data maintenance will be QGIS/PostGIS. They also are using Fulcrum to help with data maintenance/collection. I actually had to open ArcGIS for this one and muck through domains and subtypes in the file-based geodatabase. Which really this is more about making the client comfortable with the transition. There’s no question on it working or not working — it’s all comfort level.

A volunteer job I’m working on — Caribbean SEA (http://www.caribbean-sea.org/). They are a 501(c)(3) that operates in Chattanooga. They work locally and in the Caribbean educating people on the benefits of clean water. So after helping do things like help run their website and make sure email works — we’re diving into GIS. They will have one of their projects in PostGIS/QGIS. They are also about to embark on a mobile app for people to report water quality problems. Every water quality report has a point. Every point goes on a map. It’s going to be a game changer for them and the people they help.  

Q: These days you are all about PostGIS and QGIS. How and why did you take that route? Do you use Esri software?

A: I think I’ve been an Esri software user for nearly 23 years. I started with ARC/INFO 6 and stayed current up until 10.2. One of my clients has 10.5 I think (we’ve not opened it so I’m not sure entirely). In 2009 I even went so far as to be an Esri Business Partner and Certified Trainer for a short span.

In early 2013 I worked on a job that took me to the Caribbean. I worked alongside AppGeo (www.appgeo.com) and Spatial Focus (www.spatialfocus.com/) on assigning addresses in the US Virgin Islands. When you’re standing on St. Thomas you can’t say “Take me to 123 Main Street”. Addresses are by parcel number. Many streets weren’t named. Your address might be “Az42” and that’s it. It’s hard to order a pizza and almost impossible to get an ambulance to your location. Addressing is complicated. It’s also a bit fun to figure out. We built an address repository from scratch. The addressing repository was to reside in PostGIS.

I was incredibly worried because I knew nothing on PostGIS except it didn’t “work” with ArcGIS. I had QGIS installed (1.7.x) and started learning how it all functions together. QGIS and PostGIS are flexible enough to run on anything. I went and bought a cheap laptop for $350 (4GB of RAM and a 300GB hard drive). I loaded Linux on it. I loaded PostGIS, QGIS, and a few other pieces of software. I took a copy of the address repository and off we went.

Over the course of 4 months I learned a lot. I had one co-worker there who was great at improvising — Zac. We would hit a problem and he would sit down and write a solution. I had one co-worker Carol who was excellent at designing processes. So by the end of the project we had built a process that combined commercial and open source software to churn out address information from the MAR (master address repository) for the good people of the US Virgin Islands. Up until that one point I always assumed you couldn’t mix commercial and open source software. We had strung together Fulcrum, ArcGIS, Google Docs, QGIS, Python, and PostGIS into possibly not the most elegant solution — but it worked and it worked well.Total software purchase for the job was about $300 US. All on a $350 laptop. Run your current commercial software on a laptop with those specs.

When consulting you run into a lot of clients that go “Look — we don’t have any money — but we’ve budgeted $30,000 to buy software to run our GIS”. When I came back from the Caribbean I started asking “Why is software the centerpiece of your GIS and not your data?”. It completely changed the way I look at geo. With my toolset of QGIS and PostGIS (and Fulcrum) I can do about anything that needs done. GIS is fun again. I don’t spend 4 hours listing out software a client has to buy — I spend 4 hours discussing data and what problems they need solved.

Q: Do you miss ARC/INFO on Solaris? Do you miss coverages? (I do, for which I get ridiculed occasionally.) Why / why not?

A: I do miss it. I used to do a lot of remote sensing. All of our landcover went into coverages — I mean everything at the time went into coverages — roads, streams, landcover, etc. It had polygons. The polygons were also standalone arcs. You had labels — those were also the centroids for the Polygons. You could attribute nodes if I remember correctly. The move away from coverages was painful. I swore for a long time file-based geodatabases were just less functional coverages.

My first dive into GIS was on Solaris. I enjoy Unix. So these days thanks to the flexibility of the tools — Linux is my operating system of choice. I have one laptop that is running Windows 10 and one Virtual Machine running Windows 7. About once a month I stop and go “Oh god — why am I running Linux” and then I remember I haven’t rebooted my workstation in 3 weeks and haven’t bought virus software in 5 years.

The other thing I miss about ARC/INFO Workstation: You actually had to know what you were doing to use it. That sounds mean. It’s true though. ARC/INFO was a time investment. You had to know the commands. You had to know what happened when you used those commands. For a while I taught a model builder class I had written for ArcGIS. Most taking the class didn’t know model builder existed or what half the ArcToolbox tools did. I feel like now it’s just push buttons until you don’t get an error. Make PDFs. Woot. Sigh.

It’s hard to explain — coverages are ancient history. Sometimes you need to see where you came from to appreciate where you are.

Now that I re-read this — I’ll go back to yelling at clouds and tie an onion to my belt.

Q: How long did it take you to become comfortable with PostGIS? How long will it take for an old phart? (Asking for a friend.)

A: A year before it started to make sense. I’m not a database person — most desktop GIS people (there are a lot of them out there) never think in terms of databases. Spatial SQL didn’t make sense for a while. I was used to a desktop GIS way of thinking. If you wanted a buffer you had to create a file. If you wanted to do some analysis — there was a lot of pre-processing that you might have to do before hand. Most people look at a desktop GIS and go “shapefiles!”. I’ve run into QGIS users and ArcGIS users who produce shapefiles all day every day. When you’re able to comprehend that PostGIS/PostgreSQL and QGIS give you an enterprise-level database — for free — it will change your life.

Eh — about 5 years ago — maybe 6 I was at a conference. I was exploring Free and Open Source at that point. I had a salesman with a commercial company start a conversation over support. He argued — FOSS4G has no support. I argued back “well you’ve got the internet.” Actually — I was a bit wrong — you’ve got email lists, commercial firms, conferences (unofficial plug — FOSS4G in Boston for 2017), books, etc. So I leverage all of those. You’ve got so much support — it may not be typical as in you have a 1-800 number to scream at someone — but I’ve not been compelled to yell ever in the last 4 years at developers in the FOSS4G world.

The really awesome part — it makes GIS fun again.

So Join a listserve. Buy a book. Participate in the discussion. I’ve emailed developers with suggestions and in a few cases I’ve felt like I’ve affected the software. I like filing bug reports.

Q: I enjoy reading your blog. I learn from the technical articles, but I enjoy the personal pieces even more. I like your folksy storytelling style. Will we see more of this?

A: Everyone (including yourself upon occasion) has told me to write something and write more. Heh — I enjoy it. The work blog provides that outlet. So I use it to vent — I talk about technical and I talk about life.

I tend to get lost in work. Figuratively as I will sit here for hours wondering over some technical problem and literally I think at times I “lose me”. I will catch myself at times during the week going “Oh man I can’t go do that I need to work”. It’s hard to get up and walk off. Sometimes if I’m stuck I start typing. I’ll talk about finding a nifty tool in QGIS and Grass or accidentally eating squirrel. Writing helps me find my way out of work. It’s also a great mental health check. I’ve started a lot of blogs and halfway through I realize something was eating at me and I’ve vented enough to make it go away. Many of you are probably saying “Thank you” for me not finishing an article and hitting the trash button.

Not getting as lost has been easier as of late because I’ve taken a sabbatical from boards and other things. I’m going to do my best in 2017 to write 52 articles. I’m already a bit behind. Some may be “cheats” and just reposts of emails — BUT — 52 things. They will probably lean in to the technical but there will be more family and friends that get brought into the mix. I look around and my family has never been “this old” before. Aging parents, aging pets, and changing thoughts make for an interesting life.      

Q: You own a canoe and a bicycle. As far as I can tell, you spend more time in the canoe than on the bike. Why is that?

A: Well… Hah. Growing up my first taste of freedom was a bicycle. I would ride for a while after school. I would ride a bike to work. Bike riding has always been a thing I do — but the canoe…

So when I was around 14 or so my friend Danny called and said “Hey — I’ve saved up some cash and I’m gonna go buy a canoe”. We drove up to Ocoee TN and he bought a 17-foot Kennebec Old Town Canoe. We immediately drove to Parksville Lake and threw it in the water. 15 minutes later we had flipped it. I was hooked. We did a lot of trips to places I’d never have gotten to see had I not been in a canoe.

It’s relaxing. It’s fun. It’s a low maintenance hobby. I can throw my canoe in any body of water and just explore. No gasoline needed. No new tires required. Give me about 15 minutes and you’ll never know I was there. Being in a canoe opens up a whole new transportation network you never think about — lakes and streams and rivers. I have threatened to take up fishing again. My one problem with that — it adds a level of cursing back into my relaxing sport. It’s like ruining a perfectly good walk in a field with a golf club.

When I graduated college my gift to me was a canoe — a 15-foot, 8-inch Old Town Discovery. I’ve had it for 23 years now.

    This year I’ve got two plans:

  • Do an overnight trip because I haven’t done one of those in forever.
  • The second is to take my laptop and do something with QGIS while floating down a river.

Q: Not until I got involved with GeoHipster did I realize that in some parts of the US “hipster” is a dirty word. Is that the case in your home state of Tennessee? If yes, why do you think that is?

A: Nah — not a dirty word here. Of course it doesn’t stop me from poking at people and calling them hipsters and implying it’s bad.

Hipsters seem to push outside of the norm. Depending on what you are doing here in The South that can be a bonus or a detriment. I have one client that no doubt calls me a “hipster”. If I head down to the local organic market, I’m going “ugh hipsters”. Hipster might have an implication of being “not that useful” since you’re working outside the norm. So ultimately I don’t know why it’s bad — except people love giving labels to everyone. Plus people love getting offended over anything and everything.

Q: So, are you a geohipster?

A: Am I? I suppose in some circles yes and others no. Let’s figure it out. I don’t program in JavaScript (-1). I do sometimes touch GeoJSON (+1). I’ve never made a vector tile (-1). I hate GitHub 80% of the time (-1). I did build a Docker image the other day though (+1). I don’t run my website in GitHub (-1). I do have a cat — a lot of geohipsters have cats (+1). I didn’t renew my GISP so that should give me some street cred (+1). I own a business so that removes some street cred (-1). I don’t have skinny jeans (+2). I’m not a huge fan of coffee (-1). Wait – I HAVE A BEARD (+1) … but it’s not long or weird like some hipster beards (-1). Most bands I like everyone has heard of (-1). I like tacos (+11) which means nothing except I like tacos.

I’m going to go with probably. I may be 80% geohipster. That’s how the saying goes, right — 80% of hipsters have a spatial component?

Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our global readership?

A: Words of Wisdom. I can finally read my manifesto to the world.

People of the world — turn off your snapbook, your facegram, your tweetchat, and go outside. Find your nearest neighbor. Talk to them. I enjoy social media — but we’re missing a lot by not talking to people. Find someone you wouldn’t normally talk to and engage them in conversation.

GIS people of the world — if you’ve only ever used one type of Geographic Information System — try a different one. You may be going “OK you want me to use QGIS!”. Try them all — gvSIG, OpenJUMP, ArcGIS, etc. Of course — if you’ve ever been worried about trying QGIS and other open source alternatives to you commercial software — give them a shot, it will change your life. QGIS is coming up on a major release soon — help them out. It’s a great community of people.

Finally — go find a cause and volunteer. Want to help animals? People? Take a few hours a week and make it happen. It doesn’t take much to make a difference.

Don Meltz: “I was a geodesigner before it became a thing”

Don Meltz
Don Meltz
I’m an AICP-certified planner working as a consultant to small towns and rural communities in upstate New York. I provide planning and GIS services for municipalities, not-for-profit organizations, and other planning consultants that require extra capacity or specialized geospatial analysis they cannot perform in house. I started my business, Don Meltz Planning and GIS, in 2002 (www.donmeltz.com) and work out of my home office in Stockport, Columbia County, NY.

I’ve recently started working as an Adjunct Professor at Marist College teaching a fall semester Intro to GIS course and a spring semester Advanced GIS course.

I’m the Chairperson of my town’s Planning Board, a member of the American Planning Association NY Upstate Chapter, the New York Planning Federation, and the New York State GIS Association. For the NYS GIS Association I participate in the UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) Professional Affiliation Group and the Communications Committee.

Personal Twitter - @DonMeltz

Business Twitter - @Don_Meltz

Q: You have a Master’s in Regional Planning. How and why did you go into GIS?

A: It was a long and winding road, but I’ll try to concentrate on the main points.

I’ve always been a map person. I was the designated navigator on every trip we went on as a kid. I’d pore over the road map in the back seat, calling out turn-by-turn directions. I have a vivid memory as a pre-teen, the moment I realized those little grey numbers along the roads on the map represented miles. That’s when I became the back-seat GPS, reading the map, looking at the speedometer, and calculating how long it would be before reaching the next turn, or our destination.

The rest of the flow chart looks something like this:

  1. An interest in sciences in high school leads to a Bachelor’s degree in Biology.
  2. As an undergrad, taking a computer language class and a philosophy logic class in the same semester was an eye-opening experience.
  3. Reagan gets elected during my junior year in college, which leads to downsizing and defunding many science-related agencies.
  4. A biologist with a new degree and zero experience enters the family construction business.
  5. A land use controversy with a neighbor, plus the frustrating limitations of working in a family business, added to the realization my body would not last in the construction field forever, leads to a life changing decision — grad school.
  6. A Planning degree from U Albany with a personal interest in all things computer-related leads to working with GIS.

It took me a while to discover how planning lets me accommodate both my interest in protecting the environment, and my desire to build things. I like to tinker with things, figure out how they work, and how they fit into the rest of the world. Planning is the career that lets me satisfy nearly every curiosity I have about the world. And GIS is the tool that helps me do that.

Q: Your company, Don Meltz Planning and GIS, offers planning and GIS services. Which do you do more of — planning or GIS? Why do you think the breakdown is what it is?

A: I am a planner, and I’m a geospatial analyst. In my mind these job titles are one and the same. I truly make no distinction between my planning work and my GIS work. GIS is a tool I use as a planner to help me advise my clients on how to make knowledgeable land use decisions. There are times when I’m called in purely as a GIS consultant to help some town or village set up their own system. But the majority of my work is as an analyst, using GIS to identify and prioritize natural resources, or to model the impacts of a proposed land use.

I was a geodesigner before it became a thing.

Q: What are some cool GIS projects that you are currently working on? What GIS technology does your consulting company use?

A: Truth be told, most of my work is pretty mundane. I work on a lot of comprehensive plans and zoning laws for small towns, and agriculture protection plans for counties. I use primarily Esri ArcGIS with a smattering of QGIS. However, whenever I work for a town that wants to set up their own GIS, I always steer them in the open source direction — QGIS. I also keep an eye on what Boundless is doing. I’m really excited about how they’re integrating QGIS, GeoServer, and their new OpenLayers-based WebApp builder. I’ve been using all these tools for a few years now. And every iteration of the Boundless stack gets better and better.

My proximity to the Catskills, and their being the source for NY City drinking water has led to a few interesting projects. I worked on a very complex erosion model for a town in the NYC drinking water watershed using some of NOAA’s geospatial tools, including N-SPECT, which they’ve now turned into an open source tool.

There is a project coming up that involves a national non-profit and Marist College. I can’t go into too much detail, as the paperwork hasn’t been finalized. But, it includes analysis of a significant portion of the Hudson River ecosystem using historic data going back to the 1980s, and students acquiring new data based on what we discover through that analysis.

Another area I’m moving into is Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS). I recently purchased a Phantom 4 Pro, and I’m now studying for my FAA Part 107 Remote Pilot’s Certificate so I can do some commercial work. I’d like to provide services for other planners and landscape architects doing site design work and 3D modelling. The technology surrounding these little aerial robots is amazing. They’re going to totally transform how we collect spatial data and how we incorporate it into GIS. This, and self-driving cars, will leave the world unrecognizable 50 years from now.

Q: You teach GIS at Marist College. What technology do you use in the GIS classroom? Why?

A: I came into the environmental science program at Marist on short notice. All of the previous professors had used and taught Esri products exclusively. I’m quickly moving them into a mixed environment. I added the FulcrumApp to a few assignments my first semester. Next semester I’m adding QGIS and some online mapping platforms. If I can convince the IT folks to let me set up a GeoServer instance, I’d like to be able to use that, too.

One thing I try to drill into my students’ heads is, if they want to become proficient at GIS, and stay ahead of the constant changes in the technology, they should use GIS every day. One of the problems I see with teaching pure Esri is, unless the student gets a job immediately after graduation, they won’t have access to the software. It’s usually too expensive for them to keep using on their own after they graduate. Another problem is it doesn’t work on a Mac, which probably applies to over 60% of the students in my class. If the software isn’t convenient to use, they aren’t going to use it every day. QGIS and open source tools in general overcome both of these hurdles.

Q: Suppose a student of yours tells you they are considering starting a GIS consulting business and asks for your advice. What would you tell them? Is there money in GIS consulting?

A: There is. But it’s not like the late 1990s, when if you knew what the letters GIS meant, you’d be hired on the spot. I teach my students to take a broader view of what GIS is. GIS is diffusing, spreading out into every industry you can think of. There will probably be opportunities for pure GIS consultants for quite a while. But most of the growth I see is in all the related fields. Environmental planners with GIS skills will always be in higher demand than those without. The same goes for engineers, surveyors, software programmers, system administrators, and even website designers. Anyone with some knowledge of how GIS fits into any of these fields will have an advantage.

Q: Open source is cool. “Open” is also the buzzword du jour. But can one make a decent living in open? A career? Or does it come down to a choice between coolness and moneymaking, romantic vs. practical?

A: When I started my business, one of the first questions a client would ask is “Do you have ArcView?” And nine times out of ten, answering yes was enough to get the job. But it’s probably been close to ten years since I’ve been asked what kind of software I use. The only thing my clients want to see is results. They don’t care if I made a map using ArcGIS or QGIS or a 20-year-old beta version of MapInfo (which I do have sitting on my bookshelf BTW, just in case). I still use ArcGIS mainly because that’s what I cut my teeth on. I’m familiar with it and I feel more productive using it. It also comes in handy when a client wants to share an MXD or a map package with me. I use QGIS when I run into something ArcGIS can’t handle, or when I want to try something new. Having open source tools at my disposal allows me to try new things on my own, at my own pace, without relying on a review by a third party to decide how a particular piece of software might fit into my workflow. Open source is a very practical solution for me.

Q: “The dogs bark, but the caravan goes on” — so goes an ancient proverb. Does this apply to the current GIS ecosystem? Are there too many mapping platforms?

A: I like to keep up on what’s going on in the GIS world. I follow a bunch of GeoNerds on Twitter and I read the blogs. But there comes a point where keeping up with the latest shiny gadget takes up more time than it’s worth. I have to make a living. And that means billable hours. I’d never say there are too many mapping platforms. But there are too many for me to check out on my own. This is where my Twitter feed comes in handy. I scan it continuously during the day. If something new pops up, I’ll check it out if I have time. But I concentrate on those tools that are mentioned the most. I’ve settled on ArcGIS Desktop, QGIS, GeoServer, FulcrumApp, and the Boundless stack as the tools I focus most of my attention on.

Q: What do you think about Arcade, the new programming language from Esri? Is launching a new proprietary programming language that only works within the Esri ecosystem arrogant, oblivious, or brilliant?

A: It’s an interesting development. From the few articles I’ve read, it appears to be an attempt to bridge the gap between Esri’s desktop software, which relies on Python for scripting, and ArcGIS Online, which relies on JavaScript for customizing. But so far, I believe it’s limited to customizing how layers are rendered in a map without making changes to the underlying data. That’s not enough for me to put much effort into learning more about it right now. If it morphs into something more wide-ranging, like what Avenue used to be, I’d be more interested. I spent a lot of time in my early GIS days searching through the Esri Avenue script sharing site. I learned a lot there, about what GIS can do, and how it works. There was a sense of community there. I miss those days.

Q: You collect antique and classic cars and trucks. How did you get into this? Do you also work on and maintain the engines? Do you mess with the carburettor, valves, timing belt?

A: My father has always been a car guy. His family raced stock cars in the 40s and 50s. He started collecting in the early 70s, bringing me to every car show and swap meet he went to. He currently has eight classic vehicles on the road, including a Concours-restored 1959 Impala, a 1927 Gardner that was once part of the Harrah collection, and a fully restored 1932 Ford Roadster.

I’ve helped my father restore a dozen or more vehicles. I’ve done everything from sandblasting Model T frames to applying finish to the wood-spoked wheels of a 1920s Federal truck. The biggest restoration job I worked on was a 1931 chain drive AC Mack Dump Truck that we brought back from the grave, so to speak.

I’ve completely disassembled and rebuilt a 289 engine and C4 transmission from a 1968 Mustang Fastback I owned during my college days. Right now I have a lightly modified 1960 Ford F100 pickup that’s on the road, and a 100% original 1966 Ford Bronco that needs a lot of work.

I like to build things and figure out how they work.

Q: You camp, hike, run. I admire your vast portfolio of extracurriculars. Where do you find the time for everything you do?

A: All things in moderation. And don’t try to multitask. This is also where running my own one-person business comes in handy. I have complete flexibility with my schedule. As long as I meet my clients’ deadlines, I’m good. It doesn’t matter when I do the work, as long as it gets done. It also means I spend way too many days working until 2 or 3 AM.

My extracurriculars also seem to happen in spurts. There was a time when I was bagging Catskill Mountain peaks every weekend. I spent a few years spending a lot of time (and money) on photography. I still enjoy these activities, but I don’t participate in them as much as I once did. It’s the same with my classic car and truck hobby. It all but stopped when I got married and had children. But now that the kids are grown, and my father needs more help moving things around, I’ve started getting back into it.

Q: Do you consider yourself a (geo)hipster? Why / why not?

A: I believe one of the defining features of geo-hipsterism is eschewing labels. The moment a geo-hipster becomes self-aware, or proclaims to be one, they cease being a geo-hipster.

No, I am not a geo-hipster.

Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our global readership?

A: Wow. This is the most difficult question of them all. I mulled over a few answers in my head, but they all seemed a little too pompous to me. Do I really have any special insight into how the world works? Some tidbit of knowledge that I could impart on others that they don’t already know?

No. I don’t.

But I do try to live by a few simple rules which I’ve actually never written down until now. So I’ll leave you with them. I’m not saying everyone should follow them. But they work for me.

  • Think logically.
  • Learn continuously.
  • Analyze everything.
  • Work diligently.
  • Practice humility.
  • Act accordingly.
  • Enjoy life.
  • Have faith.

 

Andrew Dearing: “It is such an amazing time to be in the geospatial profession”

Andy Dearing
Andy Dearing
Andy Dearing is the CEO of Boundless and previously held the role of the Vice President of Professional Services. A commercial pilot and self-taught geographer, Andy has been working with GIS for nearly 15 years. He can often be found working from one of Boundless' many locales, or at a number of industry events and philanthropic endeavors throughout the year. Andy resides in Missouri with his wife and four kids, where he enjoys hiking, fishing, and woodworking - when he is not out camping with his son’s Boy Scout troop.

Q: For those in our audience who do not know, please describe Boundless.

A: Boundless provides a commercially-supported open geographic information system (GIS) ecosystem, which includes a unique combination of technology, products, and experts. We provide expertise and support around many world-class open source geospatial projects – PostGIS, GeoServer, OpenLayers, QGIS, GeoNode, and more.

More than 90 fantastic team members call Boundless home. Although we are a pretty virtual company, we have offices in St. Louis, New York, Washington DC, New Orleans, and Victoria, BC. We work with many organizations worldwide who understand the value of GIS, the power of open source, and the world-class support Boundless is known for.

Q: Did you find your career in spatial or did the spatial career find you?

A: You can definitely say spatial found me! My college degree was in Aviation Science and Aviation Management, where I was a certified flight instructor and commercial pilot. However, this was not too long after 9/11, when the aviation industry had hit rock-bottom. So with few pilot jobs available, I by chance went to a job fair where a mapping startup was looking for pilots to make aeronautical charts in GIS. From then on, I have been in GIS… it’s been a fun ride!

Q: Each city’s geo community has its own flavor; how would you describe the spatial community in St. Louis?

A: I would consider St. Louis a very strong center for GIS. There are a couple anchor tenants in St. Louis who drive the vocation – namely the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), Monsanto – as well as many more local organizations who have adopted and are using GIS extensively in their business operations.

There are several organizations around the area that are evangelizing GIS. The Maptime STL chapter has been a strong group, promoting open data and GIS technologies for collaborative learning, exploration, and map creation. The St. Louis GIS User Group is also a fairly active group in the area.

There are several educational institutions in and around St. Louis that have fantastic geography and GIS programs. Southern Illinois University Edwardsville has a phenomenal Geography department with focused programs in GIS, cartography, sustainability, and more. Washington University and Saint Louis University also have growing geography programs and GIS labs as well.

Q: What have you found to be the largest hurdles to organizations adopting an open source solution? What strategies have you developed to alleviate these concerns?

A: Many organizations still have not heard about open source, nor are they aware of what open source geospatial tools are out there. So many times, we have to help organizations understand how open source works, how the community around open source governs the code (contributors, steering committees, etc.), how new features are contributed to the product, and for Boundless, how the projects can be supported. Once organizations understand what open source is, they quickly realize all the benefits of adopting open source for their operations.

The second challenge we see organizations (including many of our customers) experience is understanding where to start. Open source geospatial projects are extremely powerful, robust technologies. But for customers transitioning off proprietary technologies or new to GIS, it can sometimes be overwhelming to figure out where to start. Boundless helps make open source geospatial technologies easier to adopt and integrate through training courses, certification programs, and professional services… all backed by our helpdesk and online support.

The biggest hurdle we see is that many business do not want to completely scrap all the work they put in with proprietary solutions. Having been in the GIS community since the early 2000s, we know that, historically, there have only been two options – proprietary or open source – and not much in between. Boundless makes it easy to have a hybrid solution that utilizes both open source and proprietary tools. The product is affordable and user-friendly, yet very powerful and professional, enabling organizations to have the best of both worlds.

Q: I volunteer at CSU, and the students I interact with simply haven’t heard of open source solutions. Is Boundless currently doing outreach to students or planning on doing so in the future?

A: Yes! Boundless has developed an Academic Engagement initiative, where we support colleges and universities with software, documentation, and training to jump-start their programs – for free! Also, with the recent launch of Boundless Connect, we offer a full suite of software, videos, training, tutorials, documentation, and more to make the most out of your open source experience – this is all free for students and educators as well.

From an outreach perspective, Boundless staff supported many GIS Day and Geography Awareness Week events – a detailed recap can be found in this blog post.

For me, one of the most inspiring events was being able to sponsor 51 teachers to participate in the Geography 2050 Symposium on November 17-18. These high school AP Human Geography teachers and American Geographical Society AP Teacher Fellows participated in a Mapathon to learn about OSM and open data, as well as listened to powerful presentations on sustainability from industry leaders. These educators are transforming the next generation of geographers, and we could not be more honored to support them.

Q: With the “stew” of GIS, data science and big data all fusing together, there have been a number of open source projects, like GeoMesa, popping up. How is Boundless adapting?

A: This is a great example of how quickly open source projects have been established to handle and support emerging IT trends. We are seeing many great projects, like GeoMesa, become the technology of choice to handle specific big-data analysis and visualization. This is not easy, but smart engineers (like the folks at CCRi) have been able to assemble code that massively scales to crunch through all the information you throw at it. We see numerous open source projects popping up that are solving some of these complex problems: GeoWave for big data analytics, GeoTrellis for imagery and rasters, and many more.

The cool part about all these projects is their interoperability with GIS projects like GeoServer. There is a great case study from CCRi on how GeoMesa integrates with GeoServer here. And likewise, we package the GeoMesa plugin for GeoServer with Boundless Suite, so our users can seamlessly set up and start seeing value from their big/large data sources.

So what is Boundless’ position? We do GIS, and we do it pretty well. If there are other open source projects out there that feature complex data science, imagery processing, or data analytics, we want to build connections to those projects. Let the GIS technologies do GIS, and likewise, let the big data / analytics technologies do big data / analytics. The beauty of open source is we can make these things work together, without trying to crack proprietary code, and give the users the most powerful technology platform to solve their business needs.

Q: Is there anything exciting coming out of the Boundless Skunkworks you can share?

A: C’mon, there’s always something exciting coming out of Boundless! We have been working hard on several cool projects recently and I am super excited to give you a sneak peek.

First, we are set to unveil a massively scalable version of GeoServer for large-scale enterprises in early 2017. This will blow any existing server-tier GIS platform out of the water. Code-named GeoServer EC, we are able to instantly scale up/out hundreds, if not thousands, of GeoServer microservices to process however much geospatial data you throw at it. So as the amount of location-based information exponentially increases over the next five years, GeoServer EC can scale up/out to meet those demands:

Second, we are going to be launching our Connect API, which will sit behind Boundless Connect, to stream content and services directly to your Desktop and Web applications. And to let you in on a little unannounced secret – we have established data partnerships with two premier geospatial content firms just recently… so you will soon be able to directly access beautiful base maps, driving directions, imagery, and more, directly inside the Boundless suite of products with your existing Boundless subscription. And we will be continually adding more data services throughout 2017:

Q: According to your LinkedIn profile, one of your hobbies is woodworking. Do you have any piece you’re particularly proud of?

A: Ha! Let’s just say I am a very amateur woodworker and am humbled by all the amazing work out there from those who are true artists. Me, I tend to hack at it when I get a few free moments – which seem to be fewer and farther between these days!

For me, woodworking is an opportunity to actually produce something (outside of emails) with my hands. Even if the output is not perfect, it is something you can call your own. Whether you are molding clay or carving wood or knitting or crocheting, it is so rewarding to be able to spend time making something you are proud of with your own two hands.

Personally, there are two (different) pieces that I am proud of. My favorite piece of furniture that I made was a hutch that took me, well, it took me forever to make. But I learned so much along the way.

The second was more of a “construction” project, creating built-ins in the laundry room to attempt to tackle all of my four kids’ coats, shoes, book bags, and whatever other junk they can manage to fill them with. This was one of the more fun projects, and it made my wife rather happy. 🙂

Q: Lastly, do you consider yourself a geohipster?

A: Ah, this question… I figured I would get away without you asking it. I consider myself in the “GeoHipster Fan Club.” I have a GeoHipster shirt, attend geo meetups, and get excited when I see dots on a map. Now I just need a GeoHipster sticker…

But in all seriousness, there are so many awesome geohipsters out there who continue to push the science of geography, GIS, remote sensing, and spatial analysis further and deeper. It is such an amazing time to be in the geospatial profession, and I could not be happier to be a part of a company and a community who continue to push it forward in new and more open ways.

Andrea Sward: “Don’t let ‘playing it safe’ stop you from doing something you really want to do”

Andrea Sward
Andrea Sward
I am a geospatial analyst with nearly three years of professional GIS experience. Originally from Canada, the search for adventure brought me to Wellington, New Zealand a little over a year ago. Things have worked out well, as I managed to quickly find meaningful GIS employment that aligns with my passion for nature, conservation, and the environment. I have been very fortunate to be able to explore many of New Zealand’s beautiful places in my spare time. My partner and I are currently planning to move to Melbourne, Australia in the new year, but we hope to come back and travel to some of the areas we missed!

More about my professional background can be found on my LinkedIn account.

Q: You are geohipster on Instagram. This is awesome. What prompted you to pick that handle?

A: It can be quite difficult to pick an instagram handle! The name geohipster emerged because while I consider myself a geography geek (geogeek), I’d like to think I also have a few cool/quirky hobbies and interests that make me less of the stereotypical “geek” and more of a “hipster”. GIS does seem to work its way into my hobbies though. For example, I’ve started getting into brewing beer and making metal jewelry and inspiration is often drawn from geography, nature, and GIS.

Q: How did you get into GIS?

A: I was a geography major at the University of Toronto and discovered GIS towards the end of my degree. Starting off in GIS can be quite intense, there is a lot to know! My first introductory course was challenging but opened my eyes to a whole new discipline. After graduating, I took a postgraduate program in GIS at Algonquin College in Ottawa. This was a great program and allowed me to really immerse myself into all things geospatial. It provided a good foundation to start into my career. A lot of the time I am learning things on the job. GIS is a changing and growing industry, there is always more to know!

Q: You are a Canadian who lives in New Zealand, about to move to Melbourne, Australia. What inspired you to move down under?

A: I’ve had the idea in the back of my mind to travel to New Zealand and Australia for several years but struggled to find the right timing. After finishing school, paying off my student loans, and gaining some work experience, I had a bit of a crossroads moment of deciding whether to settle where I am, or try something new. So I wrapped up my last contract at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. I packed a bag, sold my furniture, and bought a one way ticket to New Zealand. I thought, worst case scenario, I don’t find any work and just have a really nice holiday. After a week of being in Wellington, I had a contract to work at the Department of Conservation. I have now been working there almost 15 months.

It was just one of those moments that anyone could have. I decided I wanted to do something, and I gave it a go.

Soon after moving to New Zealand, I met my partner. He has a job opportunity in Melbourne starting in the new year and we’ve decided to make the move. I will miss Wellington and my colleagues and friends, but I must admit, the same sense of adventure that brought me to New Zealand is starting to bubble up again as I get ready for the next move. I have been told wonderful things about Melbourne and the GIS community there. I’m really looking forward to getting involved and meeting new geogeeks and geohipsters!

Q: Was it easy to find a GIS job in New Zealand? What is the GIS scene like there?

A: There is a really strong community of geospatial professionals in Wellington and around New Zealand. For me, it was easy to find a job but perhaps I got a bit lucky being at the right place at the right time. I’ve enjoyed being part of two networks in Wellington — the Emerging Geospatial Professionals group, and the Women in Spatial group. These groups meet up every so often for a guest presentation along with drinks, nibbles, and general chatting. This is a great way to meet people outside of your organization and there is often discussions around current job vacancies. People are often very passionate about their work and I find that inspiring.

I’ve found the geospatial industry in New Zealand to be quite progressive. There is a lot more openness to collaboration between organizations and a strong desire to get things done. An example of a strong collaboration can be seen in New Zealand’s earthquake preparations. We are sitting on a lot of active faultlines that cause a lot of earthquakes. Often these are just little wobbles, but there have been a few major shakes recently. There was a lot learned from the devastating Christchurch earthquake in 2011, and again more recently in Kaikoura in November. There is a need for a strong geospatial plan for national emergencies such as these. Up-to-date national datasets must be readily available offline, as well as a GIS action plan for possible future earthquakes.

Q: Tell us about your current job — what you do, what technologies you use, what cool projects you work on.

A: I am a geospatial analyst at the Department of Conservation (DOC). The department has a GIS team of around 30 people spread across the country that provide geospatial support to the rest of the organization and its partners. There is a variety of work we do, which can keep things interesting! A lot of my work is generally for published projects, such as information panels, brochures, wall maps, and public reports such as the Conservation Management Strategies. I have a love for cartography and take great pride putting together a polished map.

New Zealand has a big problem with invasive species like possums, stoats, and rats preying on the native bird population. There are also a lot of species of weeds sprawling over the landscape. Much of DOC’s work is focused on pest eradication and we provide geospatial support for this. With the recent announcement by the government to have New Zealand predator-free by 2050, we have a new spring in our steps to keep track of eradication activities around the country.

In terms of technology and software, we primarily use Esri software for our work, Skype for team chatting (it’s very helpful to have team support at your fingertips), and Garmin GPS units out in the field.

Q: What’s a hip thing to do in New Zealand? Cycling? Skiing? Deconstructed coffee?

A: There is so much to do and see in New Zealand! Skiing and cycling are certainly popular, as well as going on a tramp (hike). I’m personally a big fan of some of the geothermal areas in New Zealand, that means soaking in hot springs! There are also quite a few white water rafting spots around the country that can be a lot of fun.

Wearing shorts in any weather is also the hip thing to do, as well as walking around barefoot! People here are just doing their own thing, and I really respect that. I think the culture in New Zealand is pretty relaxed and has also helped me to relax a little too. And I must say, the coffee here is out of this world, I’m not sure I can go back to drinking the North American stuff…

Q: Are you insulted by maps that omit New Zealand? Why / why not?

A: Ha ha, oh dear, poor New Zealand! I wouldn’t say it’s insulting but I would perhaps question the quality of the map. Sometimes New Zealand appears twice on a map, so maybe it all evens out.

Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our global readership?

A: I can only compare my experience in New Zealand to the one I had in Canada, but I must say how impressed I am with the geospatial industry here. I think there is a lot of good stuff going on and other organizations in other countries could perhaps look to New Zealand as a model.

In terms of any personal “wisdom”, I would just encourage people to branch out a little and not be afraid to try new things! Don’t let ‘playing it safe’ stop you from taking a risk and doing something you really want to do.

Regina Obe: “People spend too much time learning a programming language and forget what a programming language is for”

Regina Obe
Regina Obe
Regina Obe (@reginaobe) is a co-principal of Paragon Corporation, a database consulting company based in Boston. She has over 15 years of professional experience in various programming languages and database systems, with special focus on spatial databases. She is a member of the PostGIS steering committee and the PostGIS core development team. Regina holds a BS degree in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where she wanted to build terminator robots but decided that wasn’t the best thing to do for Humanity. She co-authored PostGIS in Action and PostgreSQL: Up and Running.

Q: Regina Obe – so where are you in the world and what do you do?

A: I’m located in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. I’m a database application web developer, Consultant, PostGIS  project and steering committee team member, and technical author on PostGIS and PostgreSQL related books.

Q: So in my prep work I found you have a degree from MIT in Mechanical engineering with a focus in Bioelectrics and Control systems? What’s that about? How did you end up in working in databases?

A: Hah you just had to ask a hard one. It’s a bit long.

Bioelectronics and control was an amalgamation of all my interests and influences at that point.

My favorite shows growing up were the 6 million dollar man and bionic woman. Like many geeks I loved tinkering with electronic and mechanical gadgets and got into programming at the wee age of 9. I was also very attached to graph paper and would plot out on graph what cells my for loops would hit.

My mother was a forensic pathologist; basically she tore dead people apart to discover how they died and what could have been done to save them. I spent a lot of time reading her books and dreaming about human augmentation and control.

When I came to MIT I had ambitions of getting a BS in Electric Engineering or Mech E., moving on to a PhD, getting my MD, and focussing on orthopaedic limb surgery. MIT’s Mechanical Engineering department had a course track that allowed you to fashion your own major. You had to take X amount of Mech E. and could take any other courses you wanted as long as you could convince your advisor it followed some sort of roadmap you set out for yourself. So that said — what else would I fashion if given the opportunity. At the time MIT did not have a biomedical engineering major.

So my course work included classes in bio-electrical engineering like electrical foundation of the heart where I built and programmed electrical models of hearts and killed and revived rabbits. Basic EE courses with breadboards, class in Scheme programming, electro physiology of the brain etc. On the Mech E. side, I took standard stuff like Fluid Mechanics, Dynamics, Systems Control and for my thesis, programming a simulation package that allowed you to simulate systems with some pre-configured blocks. Most of which I can’t remember.

I looked around at other people who were following my dream and realized I’m way too lazy and not smart enough for that kind of life. When I got out of college, there were few engineering jobs requiring my particular skill set. I got a job as a consultant focussing on business rules management and control. Business rules were managed as data that could become actionable. There I got introduced to the big wild world of databases, then SQL, cool languages like Smalltalk, and trying to translate what people say ambiguously into what they actually mean non-ambiguously.

I found that I really enjoyed programming and thinking about programs as the rules to transition data and reason about data. It’s all about data in the end.

Q: So you dive into databases and SQL and this thing called PostGIS comes along. You’re on the Project Steering committee and Development team for PostGIS. What is PostGIS and how much work is it being a developer and a member of the project steering committee?

A: Yes I’m on the PostGIS steering committee and development team.

PostGIS is a PostgreSQL extender for managing objects in space. It provides a large body of functions and new database types for storing and querying the spatial properties of objects like buildings, property, cities. You can ask questions like what’s the area, what’s the perimeter, how far is this thing from these other things, what things are nearest to this thing, and also allows you to morph things into other things. With the raster support you can ask what’s the concentration of this chemical over here or average concentration over an arbitrary area.

Some people think of PostGIS as a tool for managing geographic systems, but it’s Post GIS. Space has no boundaries except the imagined. Geographic systems are just the common use case.

Remember my fondness for graph paper? It all comes full circle; space in the database. I like to think of PostGIS as a tool for managing things on a huge piece of graph paper and now it can manage things on a 3D piece of graph paper and a spheroidal graph paper too 🙂 . PostGIS is always learning new tricks.

Being a PostGIS developer and member of PSC is a fair amount of work, some programming, but mostly keeping bots happy, lots of testing, and banging people over the head when you feel it’s time to release. I think it’s as much work as you want to put into it though and I happen to enjoy working with PostGIS so spend a fair amount of time on it.

Q: I love PostGIS. I spend a lot of time in QGIS/PostGIS these days and people are constantly asking – ‘HEY WHEN DO WE GET SOMETHING LIKE ROUTING WHERE I CAN DO TIME/DISTANCE MEASUREMENTS?”. You’ve been working on a piece of software called pgRouting which does?

A: This is a leading question to talk about our new book coming out by LocatePress – http://locatepress.com/pgrouting.

Been working on is an over statement. My husband and I have been working writing the book pgRouting: a Practical Guide, publisher Locate Press. We hope to finish it this year. That’s probably biggest contribution we’d done for pgRouting aside from Windows stack builder packaging for pgRouting.

Most of the work for pgRouting is done by other contributors with GeoRepublic and iMapTools folks leading the direction.

My friend Vicky Vergara in particular has been doing a good chunk of work for recent versions of pgRouting 2.1-2.3 (including upgrading pgRoutingLayer for QGIS to support newest features and improving performance of osm2pgrouting) some neat things coming there. She’s been super busy with it. I greatly admire her dedication.

You’ll have to read our book to find out more.  Pre-released copies are available for purchase now and currently half off until it reaches feature completeness. We are about 70% there.

Q: With everything you are doing for work, what do you do for fun?  

A: Work is not fun, don’t tell me that? My goal in life is to achieve a state where I am always having fun and work is fun. I still have some unfun work I’d like to kill. Aside from work I sleep a lot. Like to go to restaurants. Never been big on hobbies unfortunately. Going to places causes me a bit of stress, so not much into travel I’m afraid.

Q: You’ve got a few books out and about. How hard is it to write a book for a technical audience? How hard is it to keep it up to date?

A: It’s much harder than you think and even harder to keep things up. Part of the issue with writing for technical audiences is you never know the right balance. I try to unlearn what I have learned so I can experience learning it again to write about it in a way that a new person coming to the topic can appreciate. I fail badly and always end up cramming too much. I’m an impatient learner.

I always thought 2nd and 3rd editions of books would be easier, but they have been so far just as hard if not harder than the first edition. We are also working on 3rd edition of PostgreSQL: Up and Running. Piece of cake right, what could have changed in 2 years. A fair amount from PostgreSQL 9.3 to 9.5. PostGIS in Action, 2nd edition was pretty much a rewrite. Might have been easier if we started from scratch on that one. So much changed between PostGIS 1.x and 2.x. That said I think we’ll try in future to maybe not write sequels and maybe tackle the subject at a different angle.

Leo wants to write SQL for Kids 🙂 .  He thinks it’s a shame children aren’t exposed to databases and set thinking in general at an early age.

Q: Leo wanting to do a SQL for kids brings up a good question. If you had a person come up and go “What should I learn?” what would you tell them? In the geo world we get beat over the head with Python. You are neck deep in databases. Programming language? Database? What makes the well rounded individual in your opinion?

A: You should first not learn anything. You should figure out what you want to program and then just do it and do it 3 times in 3 different languages and see which ones feel more natural to your objective. Think about how the language forced you to think about the problems in 3 different ways.

You might find you want to use all 3 languages at once in the same program, then use PostgreSQL (PL/Python, SQL, PL/JavaScript J ). That’s okay.

Forget about all the languages people are telling you you should know. I think people spend too much time learning to be good at using a programming language and forget what a programming language is for. It’s hard to survive with just one language these days (think HTML, JavaScript, SQL, Python, R – all different languages). A language is a way of expressing ideas succinctly in terms that an idiot-savantic computer can digest. First try to be stupid so you can talk to stupid machines and then appreciate those machines for their single-minded gifts.

The most amazing developers I’ve known have not thought of themselves as programmers.

They are very focused on a problem or tool they wanted to create, and I was always amazed how crappy their code was and yet could achieve amazing feats of productivity in their overall user-facing design. They had a vision of what they wanted for the finished product and never lost sight of that vision.

Q: Your PostgreSQL Up and Running book is published by O’Reilly. O’Reilly books always have some artwork on the front. Did you get to pick the animal on the front? For your PostGIS book you have a person on the front. Who is that?

A: We had a little say in the O’Reilly cover, but no say on the Manning cover. I have no idea who that woman is on PostGIS in Action. She’s a woman from Croatia. She looks very much like my sister is what I thought when I first saw it.

For O’Reilly they ran out of elephants because they just gave one to Hadoop. Can you believe it? Giving an elephant to Hadoop over PostgreSQL? So then they offered us an antelope. Leo was insulted, he wasn’t going to have some animal that people hunt on the cover of his book, besides antelopes look dumb and frail. I apologize to all the antelope lovers right now. Yes antelopes are cute cuddly and I’m sure loving. Just not the image we care to be remembered for. We wanted something more like an elephant and that is smart. So they offered us up an elephant shrew (aka sengi), which is a close relative of the elephant –  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Afrotheria . It’s a very fast small creature, that looks like it’s made of bits and pieces of a lot of creatures. They blaze trails and are very monogamous. What could be more perfect to exemplify the traits of a database like PostgreSQL that can do everything and is faithful in its execution, aside from having to explain “What is that rodent looking creature on your cover?”.

Q: Way back when GeoHipster started we more or less decided thanks to a poll that a geohipster does things differently, shuns the mainstream, and marches to their own beat. Are you a geohipster?

A: Yes. I definitely shun the mainstream.  When mainstream starts acting like me it’s a signal I need to become more creative.

Q: I always leave the last question for you. Anything you want to tell the readers of GeoHipster that I didn’t cover or just anything in particular?

A: When will PostGIS 2.3 be out? I hope before PostgreSQL 9.6 comes out (slated for September). I’m hoping PostgreSQL 9.6 will be a little late to buy us more time.

Also – Where is the Free and Open Source Software for Geospatial International conference (FOSS4G) going to be held in 2017? In Boston August 14th – 18th. Mark your calendars and bookmark the site.

Hugh Saalmans: “No amount of machine learning could solve a 999999 error!”

Hugh Saalmans
Hugh Saalmans
Hugh Saalmans (@minus34) is a geogeek and IT professional that heads the Location Engineering team at IAG, Australia & New Zealand’s largest general insurer. He’s also one of the founders of GeoRabble -- an inclusive, zero-sales-pitch pub meetup for geogeeks to share their stories. His passion is hackfests & open data, and he’s big fan of open source and open standards.

Q: How did you end up in geospatial?

A: A love of maths and geography is the short answer. The long answer is I did a surveying degree that covered everything spatial from engineering to geodesy.

My first experience with GIS was ArcGIS on Solaris (circa 1990) in a Uni lab with a severely underpowered server. Out of the 12 workstations, only 10 of us could log in at any one time, and then just 6 of us could actually get ArcGIS to run. Just as well, considering most of the students who could get it to work, including myself, ballsed up our first lab assignment by turning some property boundaries into chopped liver.

Besides GIS, my least favourite subjects at Uni were GPS and geodesy. So naturally I chose a career in geospatial information.

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

A: Being a general insurer, we cover about $2 trillion worth of homes, motor vehicles, farms, and businesses against bad things happening.

Geospatial is a big part of what we do. Knowing where those $2tn of assets are allows us to do fundamental things like providing individualised address level pricing — something common in Australia, but not so common in the US due to insurance pricing regulations. Knowing where assets are also allows us to help customers when something bad does happen. That goes to the core of what we do in insurance. That’s when we need to fulfill the promise we made to our customers when they took out a policy.

Q: What on Earth is Location Engineering?

A: We’re part of a movement that’s happening across a lot of domains that use geo-information: changing from traditional data-heavy, point & click delivery to scripting, automation, cloud, & APIs. We’re a team of geospatial analysts becoming a team of DevOps engineers that deliver geo-information services. So we needed a name to reflect that.

From a skills point of view — we’re moving from desktop analysis & publishing with a bit of SQL & Python to a lot of Bash, SQL, Python & Javascript with Git, JIRA, Bamboo, Docker and a few other tools & platforms that aren’t that well known in geo circles. We’re migrating from Windows to Linux, desktop to cloud, and licensed to open source. It’s both exciting and daunting to be doing it for an $11bn company!

Q: You’ve been working in the GIS industry for twenty years, how has that been?

A: It’s been great to be a part of 20+ years of geospatial evolutions and revolutions, witnessing geospatial going from specialist workstations to being a part of everyday life, accessible on any device. It’s also been exciting watching open source go from niche to mainstream, government data go from locked down to open, and watching proprietary standards being replaced with open ones.

It’s also been frustrating at times being part of an industry that has a broad definition, no defined start or end (“GIS is everywhere!”), and limited external recognition. In Australia we further muddy the waters by having university degrees and industry bodies that fuse land surveying and spatial sciences into a curious marriage of similar but sometimes opposing needs. Between the limited recognition of surveying as a profession and of geospatial being a separate stream within the IT industry, it’s no real surprise that our work remains a niche that needs to be constantly explained, even though what we do is fundamental to society. In the last 5 years we’ve tried to improve that through GeoRabble, creating a casual forum for anyone to share their story about location, regardless of their background or experience. We’ve made some good progress: almost 60 pub meetups in 8 cities across 3 countries (AU, NZ & SA), with 350 presentations and 4,500 attendees.

Q: How do you work in one industry for twenty years and keep innovating? Any tips on avoiding cynicism and keeping up with the trends?

A: It’s a cliche, but innovation is a mindset. Keep asking yourself and those around you two questions: Why? and Why Not? Asking why? will help you improve things by questioning the status quo or understanding a problem better, and getting focussed on how to fix or improve it. Saying why not? either gives you a reality check or lets you go exploring, researching and finding better ways of doing things to create new solutions.

Similarly, I try to beat cynicism by being curious, accepting that learning has no destination, and knowing there is information out there somewhere that can help fix the problem. Go back 15-20 years — it was easy to be cynical. If your chosen tool didn’t work the way you wanted it to, you either had to park the problem or come up with a preposterous workaround. Nowadays, you’ve got no real excuse if you put in the time to explore. There’s open source, GitHub and StackExchange to help you plough through the problem. Here’s one of our case studies as an example: desktop brand X takes 45 mins to tag several million points with a boundary id. Unsatisfied, we make the effort to learn Python, PostGIS and parallel processing through blogs, posts and online documentation. Now you’re cooking with gas in 45 seconds, not 45 minutes.

Another way to beat cynicism is to accept that things will change, and they will change faster than you want them to. They will leave you with yesterday’s architecture or process and you will be left with a choice to take the easy road and build up design debt into your systems (which will cost you at some point), or you take the hard road and learn as you go to future-proof the things you’re responsible for.

Q: What are some disruptive technologies that are on your watch list?

A: Autonomous vehicles are the big disruptor in insurance. KPMG estimate the motor insurance market will shrink by 60% in the next 25 years due to a reduction in crashes. How do we offset this loss of profitable income? By getting better at analysing our customers and their other assets, especially homes. Enter geospatial to start answering complicated questions like “how much damage will the neighbour’s house do to our insured’s house during a storm?”

The Internet of Things is also going to shake things up in insurance. Your doorbell can now photograph would-be burglars or detect hail. Your home weather sensor can alert you to damaging winds. Now imagine hundreds of thousands of these sensors in each city — imagine tracking burglars from house to house, or watching a storm hit a city, one neighbourhood at a time. Real-time, location-based sensor nets are going to change the way we protect our homes and how insurers respond in a time in crisis. Not to mention 100,000+ weather sensors could radically improve our ability to predict weather-related disasters. It’s not surprising IBM bought The Weather Channel’s online and B2B services arm last year, as they have one of the best crowdsourced weather services.

UAVs are also going to shake things up. We first used them last Christmas after a severe bushfire (wildfire) hit the Victorian coast. Due to asbestos contamination, the burnt out area was sealed off. Using UAVs to capture the damage was the only way at the time to give customers who had lost everything some certainty about their future. Jumping to the near future again — Intel brought their 100-drone lightshow to Sydney in early June. Whilst marvelling at a new artform, watching the drones glide and dance in beautiful formations, it dawned on me what autonomous UAVs will be capable of in the next few years — swarms of them capturing entire damaged neighbourhoods just a few hours after a weather event or bushfire has passed.

Q: What is the dirtiest dataset you’ve had to ingest, and what about the cleanest?

A: The thing about working for a large corporation with a 150-year history is your organisation knows how to put the L into legacy systems. We have systems that write 20-30 records for single customer transactions in a non-sequential manner; so you almost need a PhD to determine the current record. There are other systems that write proprietary BLOBs into our databases (seriously, in 2016!). Fortunately, we have a simplification program to clear up a lot of these types of issues.

As far as open data goes — that’d be the historical disaster data we used at GovHack in 2014.  Who knew one small CSV file could cause so much pain. Date fields with a combination of standard and American dates, inconsistent and incoherent disaster classifications, lat/longs with variable precisions.

I don’t know if there is such a thing as a clean dataset. All data requires some wrangling to make it productive, and all large datasets have quirks. G-NAF (Australia’s Geocoded National Address File) is pretty good on the quirk front, but at 31 tables and 39 foreign keys, it’s not exactly ready to roll in its raw form.

Q: You were very quick to release some tools to help people to work with the G-NAF dataset when it was released. What are some other datasets that you’d like to see made open?

A: It can’t be understated how good it was to see G-NAF being made open data. We’re one of the lucky few countries with an open, authoritative, geocoded national address file, thanks to 3 years of continual effort from the federal and state governments.

That said, we have the most piecemeal approach to natural peril data in Australia. Getting a national view of, say, flood risk isn’t possible due to the way the data is created and collected at the local and state government level. I’m obviously biased being in the insurance industry about wanting access to peril data, but having no holistic view of risk, nor having any data to share doesn’t help the federal government serve the community. It’s a far cry from the availability of FEMA’s data in the US.

Q: Uber drivers have robot cars, McDonald’s workers have robot cooks, what are geohipsters going to be replaced with?  

A: Who says we’re going to be replaced? No amount of machine learning could solve a 999999 error!

But if we are going to be replaced — on the data capture front it’ll probably be due to autonomous UAVs and machine learning. Consider aerial camera systems that can capture data at better than 5 cm resolution, but mounted on a winged, autonomous UAV that could fly 10,000s of sq km a day. Bung the data into an omnipotent machine learning feature extractor (like the ones Google et al have kind of got working), and entire 3D models of cities could be built regularly with only a few humans involved.

There’ll still be humans required to produce PDFs… oh sorry, you said what are geohipsters going to be replaced with. There’ll still be humans required to produce Leaflet+D3 web maps for a while before they work out how to automate it. Speaking of automation — one of the benefits of becoming a team of developers is the career future-proofing. If you’re worried about losing your job to automation, become the one writing the automation code!

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

A: Mapbox and CartoDB are two of the most interesting geospatial companies to follow right now. Like Google before them, they’ve built a market right under the noses of the incumbent GIS vendors by focussing on the user and developer experience, not by trying to wedge as many tools or layers as they can into a single map.

In the geocoding and addressing space it’s hard to go past What3Words for ingenuity and for the traction they’ve got in changing how people around the World communicate their location.

In the insurance space, there’s a monumental amount of hot air surrounding Insuretech, but a few startups are starting to get their business models off the ground. Peer to peer and micro insurance are probably the most interesting spaces to watch. Companies like Friendsurance and Trov are starting to make headway here.

Q: And finally, what do you do in your free time that makes you a geohipster?

A: The other day I took my son to football (soccer) training. I sat on the sideline tinkering with a Leaflet+Python+PostGIS spatio-temporal predictive analytical map that a colleague and I put together the weekend prior for an emergency services hackathon. Apart from being a bad parent for not watching my son, I felt I’d achieved geohipster certification with that effort.

How a geohipster watches football (soccer) practice
How a geohipster watches football (soccer) practice

In all seriousness, being a geohipster is about adapting geospatial technology & trying something new to create something useful, something useless, something different. It’s what I love doing in my spare time. It’s my few hours a night to be as creative as I can be.

Terry Griffin: “Agricultural big data has evolved out of precision ag technology”

Terry Griffin, PhD
Terry Griffin, PhD
Dr. Terry Griffin (@SpacePlowboy) is the cropping systems economist specializing in big data and precision agriculture at Kansas State University. He earned his bachelor’s degree in agronomy and master’s degree in agricultural economics from the University of Arkansas, where he began using commercial GIS products in the late 1990s. While serving as a precision agriculture specialist for University of Illinois Extension, Terry expanded his GIS skills by adding open source software. He earned his Ph.D. in Agricultural Economics with emphasis in spatial econometrics from Purdue University. His doctoral research developed methods to analyze site-specific crop yield data from landscape-scale experiments using spatial statistical techniques, ultimately resulting in two patents regarding the automation of community data analysis, i.e. agricultural big data analytics. He has received the 2014 Pierre C. Robert International Precision Agriculture Young Scientist Award, the 2012 Conservation Systems Precision Ag Researcher of the Year, and the 2010 Precision Ag Awards of Excellence for Researchers/Educators. Terry is a member of the Site-Specific Agriculture Committees for the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers. Currently Dr. Griffin serves as an advisor on the board of the Kansas Agricultural Research and Technology Association (KARTA). Terry and Dana have three wonderful children.

Q: Your background is in Agronomy and Agricultural Economics. When along this path did you discover spatial/GIS technologies, and how did you apply them for the first time?

A: During graduate school my thesis topic was in precision agriculture, or what could be described as information technology applied to production of crops. GPS was an enabling technology along with GIS and site-specific sensors. I was first exposed to GIS in the late 1990s when I mapped data from GPS-equipped yield monitors. I dived into GIS in the early 2000s as a tool to help manage and analyze the geo-spatial data generated from agricultural equipment and farm fields.

Q: Precision Agriculture is a huge market for all sorts of devices. How do you see spatial playing a role in the overall Precision Agriculture sandbox?

A: Precision Ag is a broad term, and many aspects of spatial technology have become common use on many farms. Some technology automates the steering of farm equipment in the field, and similar technology automatically shuts off sections of planter and sprayers to prevent overlap when the equipment has already performed its task. Other forms of precision ag seem to do the opposite — rather than automate a task they gather data that are not immediately usable until processed into decision-making information. These information-intensive technologies that are inseparable from GIS and spatial analysis have the greatest potential for increased utilization.

Q: What do you see as hurdles for spatial/data analytics firms who want to enter the Precision Agriculture space, and what advice would you give them?

A: One of the greatest hurdles, at least in the short run, is data privacy issues as it relates to ‘big data’ or aggregating farm-level data across regions. A tertiary obstacle is lack of wireless connectivity such as broadband internet via cellular technology in rural areas; without this technology agricultural big data is at a disadvantage.

Q: While there have been attempts at an open data standard for agriculture (agxml, and most recently SPADE), none have seemed to catch on.  Do you think this lack of a standard holds Precision Agriculture back, or does it really even need an open standard?

A: Data must have some sort of standardization, or at least a translation system such that each player in the industry can maintain their own system. Considerable work has been conducted in this area, and progress is being made; we can think of the MODUS project as the leading example. Standards have always been important even when precision ag technology was isolated to an individual farm; but now with the big data movement, the need for standardization has been put toward the front burner. Big data analytics relies on the network effect, specifically what economists refer to as network externalities; the value of participating in the system is a function of the number of participants. Therefore, the systems must be welcoming to all potential participants, but must also minimize the barriers to increase participation rates.

Q: What is your preferred spatial software, or programming language?

A: All my spatial econometric analysis and modeling is in R, and R is also where a considerable amount of GIS work is conducted. However, I use and recommend to many agricultural clients QGIS due to being more affordable when they are uncertain if they are ready to make a financial investment. For teaching I use Esri ArcGIS and GeoDa in addition to R.

Q: If money wasn’t an issue, what would be your dream Spatial/Big Data project?

A: Oddly enough I think I already am doing those things. I am fortunate to be working on several aspects of different projects that I hope will make a positive difference for agriculturalists. Many of the tools that I am building or have built are very data-hungry, requiring much more data than has been available. I am anxious for these tools to become useful when the ag data industry matures.

Q: You tend to speak at a number of Precision Agriculture conferences, you have spoken at a regional GIS group, have you ever considered speaking at one of the national conferences?

A: I’m always open to speaking at national or international conferences.

Q: Lastly, explain to our audience of geohipsters what is so hip about Precision Ag, Big Data and Spatial.

A: Agricultural big data has evolved out of precision ag technology, and in its fully functional form is likely to be one of the largest global networks of data collection, processing, archiving, and automated recommendation systems the world has ever known.

Mark Iliffe: “Maps show us where to direct our resources and improve the lives of people”

Mark Iliffe
Mark Iliffe
Mark Iliffe (@markiliffe) is a geographer/map geek working on mapping projects around the world. He leads Ramani Huria for the World Bank, is Neodemographic Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham after completing his PhD at the Horizon Institute, and a mentor for Geeks Without Bounds.

Q: Suitably for a geohipster, your OpenStreetMap profile says “I own a motorbike and have a liking to randomly spend weekends finding out ‘what is over there’”. What have you found?

A: I think I wrote that around a decade ago while getting into OSM, while on a foreign exchange trip in Nancy, France! I found out a lot of things, from that time trying to take a 125cc Yamaha (a hideously small and underpowered motorcycle — think Chimpanzee riding a tricycle) around Europe was slow and cold to new friendships. Also, a career path in maps and a love of all things geospatial, via counting flamingos in Kenya…

Q: Everyone has to start somewhere, and for you I believe that was mapping toilets (or places toilets should be). Indeed I think we first met when you presented your sanitation hack project Taarifa at #geomob by squatting on the table to demonstrate proper squat toilet technique. Tell us about Taarifa.

A: Taarifa is/was a platform for improving public service delivery in emerging countries. It came out of the London Water Hackathon in 2011, basically as an idea that we could do more with the data that is being generated by the many humanitarian mapping projects that had been enabled by OSM at the time, such as Map Kibera, Ramani Tandale and Haiti Earthquake mapping. As a community open-source project, it showed the potential of how feedback loops between citizens and service providers could be used to fix water points or toilets. We used Ushahidi as a base, adding workflow for reports; we tried to push these back to their community, but the core developers had other objectives — fair enough. We as the Taarifa community though we had something special regardless, but it was a hack, it wasn’t planned to be deployed anywhere.

In January 2012 I was in a meeting with a colleague at the World Bank who’d head that Taarifa had been suggested to fill a need on monitoring the construction of schools in Uganda. He arranged a meeting with the project manager for me, went along, and a week later I was coding on the plane to Uganda to pilot Taarifa across 4 districts around the country. Ultimately, it ended up being scaled to all 111 districts at the request of the Ugandan Ministry of Local Government.

From this the Taarifa community started to grow, expanding the small core of developers. In 2013 we won the Sanitation Hackathon Challenge, then received $100K World Bank innovation award to set up Taarifa in the Iringa Region of Tanzania. Taarifa and collaborators on that project, SNV, Geeks Without Bounds and ITC Twente then went on to win a DFID Human Development Innovation Fund award of £400,000. Since then it’s gone in a different direction, away from a technical community focus to one that concentrates on building the local social fabric that is wholly embedded and ran locally in Tanzania.

I feel that this was Taarifa’s most important contribution — not one of technology, but one which convenes development agencies and coders to innovate a little. Now, the main developers of the code haven’t worked on the main codebase for over a year, but Taarifa’s ideas of creating feedback loops in emerging countries still move on, in its grants, but also have been absorbed into other projects too.

Q: Actually I think I’m wrong, even before Taarifa you were an intern at Cloudmade, the first company to try to make money using OpenStreetMap. Founded by Steve Coast (and others), the VC-funded business hired many of the “famous” names of early OSM, before eventually fizzling out and moving into a different field. What was it like? Any especially interesting memories? What sort of impression did that experience leave on you? Also, what’s your take on modern VC-funded OpenStreetMap companies like Mapbox?

A: Cloudmade was fantastic, learned a lot from each of the OSMers that worked there — from Steve Coast, Andy Allen, Nick Black, Matt Amos, and Shaun McDonald. At Cloudmad, I wrote a routing engine for OSM — now common tools like PgRouting weren’t really around — I tried to build pgRouting from source, wasted three days, so started from scratch. In hindsight, I should have persevered with pgRouting, got involved in developing the existing tool instead of starting from scratch.

As it was my first tech company to work at, they were based in Central London and I was broke. I had to stay with my uncle in Slough about 30 miles away. I used to work quite late and slept in the office floor a few times. Once Nick was in early and caught me stuffing my sleeping bag back into the bottom drawer of my desk. The advice was to probably go home a bit more — advice that I’ve used selectively since, but I don’t sleep on my office floor anymore!

The VC situation is always going to be complex. I wasn’t too surprised when Cloudmade eventually pivoted, and their ideas and creations such as the “Map Style Editor” and Leaflet.js live on regardless of the company. At SoTM in Girona I made the comment that OSM was going through puberty. On reflection, I think it was a crude but accurate way to describe our project at that time. We didn’t know what OSM would or could become. OSM didn’t know how to deal with companies like Cloudmade, and neither did the companies know how to deal with OSM; to a certain extent I think we’re still learning, but getting better. Though at the time, like teenagers having to deal with new hormones, emotions ran riot. This all without realising that in the same way OSM has changed the world, OSM also is changed by it — and this is a good thing. Gary Gale has also mused extensively on this.

Now with the generation of companies after — CartoDB, Mapbox etc. — I think that they are much more perceptive to supporting and evolving the OSM ecosystem. Mapbox Humanitarian is one of them, but also their support for developing the ID Editor. In turn, the OSM community is growing as well, especially in the humanitarian space, with Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) supporting numerous projects around the world and acting as a useful interface to OSM for global institutions.

Q: Did you ever think back then that OSM would get as big and as global as it has?

A: TL;DR: Yes.

Recently, I had a discussion with a friend in a very British National Mapping Agency about the nature of exploration. Explorers of old would crisscross the world charting new things, sometimes for their own pleasure, but mostly for economic gain. These people then formed the mapping agencies that data from OSM ‘competes’ with today.

By working with the numerous army of volunteers, OSM embodies the same exploratory spirit — whether mapping their communities, or supporting disaster relief efforts. But instead of the privileged few, it’s the many. Now OSM is making tools and gaining access to data that make it easier than ever before to contribute, whether map data or any other contribution to the community.

Q: Despite those humble beginnings I believe you are now Doctor Mark Iliffe, having very recently defended your PhD thesis in Geography at the University of Nottingham. Congrats! Nevertheless though, doesn’t fancy book lernin’ like that reduce your geohipster credibility? In the just-fucking-do-it neogeo age is a formal background in geography still relevant? Is it something you’d recommend to kids starting their geo careers?

A: Thanks! Doing a PhD was by far the worst thing I’ve ever done, and will ever probably do — to myself, friends, and family. But it wasn’t through book learning, I did it in the field. Most of the thesis itself was written at 36,000ft via Qatar/British Airways and not the library (nb. This was/is a stupid idea, do it in the library).

Hopefully the geohipster cred should still be strong, but I wouldn’t recommend a PhD to kids starting their careers. Bed in for a few years, work out what you want to do, get comfortable, and then see if a PhD is for you. When I started my PhD, I’d done a small amount of work with Map Kibera and other places, and knew I wanted to work in the humanitarian mapping space but full time jobs didn’t exist. Doing a PhD gave the space (and a bit of money) to do that. Now these jobs, organisations, and career paths exist. Five years ago they didn’t.

Q: Though you live in the UK, for the last few years you’ve been working a lot in Tanzania, most recently with the World Bank. A lot of the work has been about helping build the local community to map unmapped (but nevertheless heavily populated) areas like Tandale. Indeed this work was also the basis for your PhD thesis. Give us the details on what you’ve been working on, who you’ve been working with, and most of all what makes it hip?

A: Ramani Huria takes up a lot of my time… It’s a community mapping project, with the Government of Tanzania, universities, and civil society organisations, supported by the World Bank and Red Cross. Ramani Huria has mapped over 25 communities in Dar es Salaam, covering around 1.3 million people. Dar es Salaam suffers from quite severe flooding, partly due as Dar es Salaam is the fastest growing city in Africa with a population of over 5.5 million.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lz75aHQpmf8

Ramani Huria is powered by a cadre of volunteers, pulling together 160+ university students, 100s community members to collect data on roads, water points, hospitals, and schools, among other attributes. One of the key maps are of the extent of flooding, this is being done by residents of flood prone communities sketching on maps. Now that these maps exist, flood mitigation strategies can be put in place by community leaders — this could either be through building new drains, or ensuring existing infrastructure is maintained. That’s the hip part of Ramani Huria, the local community is leading the mapping, with ourselves as the international community in support.

Ramani Huria -- a community mapping project
Ramani Huria — a community mapping project

Q: Over the last years there has been a big push by HOT and Missing Maps to get volunteers remote mapping in less developed areas like Tanzania. Some OSMers view this as a bad thing, as they perceive that it can inhibit the growth of a local community. As someone who’s been “in the field”, what’s your take? Is remote mapping helpful or harmful?

A: The only accurate map of the world is the world itself. With the objective of mapping the world, let’s work on doing that as fast as possible. Then we can focus on using that map to improve our world. Remote mapping is critical for that — but how can we be smarter at doing it?

To make a map of flood extents, so much time and effort goes into its creation. But a lot of it is basic, for example digitising roads and buildings. This is time-consuming — it doesn’t matter who does it, but it has to be done. But the knowledge of flooding is only held by those communities, nowhere else. The faster you can do this, the faster these challenges can be mitigated. Remote mapping gives a valuable head-start.

In Ramani Huria, we run “Maptime” events for the emerging local OSM community at the Buni Innovation Hub — these events grow the local community. Personally, I think we should move towards optimising our mapping as much as possible — whether that’s through remote mapping or image recognition — but that may be a step too far for the time being. I’d love to see interfaces to digitise Mapillary street view data, it’s something we’ve collected a lot of over the past year. Can we start to digitise drains from Mapillary imagery in the same way Missing Maps uses satellite imagery?

Q: You’ve recently been in Dunkirk in the refugee camps with Mapfugees, what was it like?

A: Mapfugees is a project to help map the La Linière refugee camp around Dunkirk, France. Jorieke Vyncke and I met up in Dunkirk to discuss with the refugee’s council — made up of the refugees themselves — and the camp administrators to see how maps could help. The refugees themselves wished to have maps of the local area for safe passage in/out of the camp. The camp itself is surrounded by a motorway and a railway, making passage in and out quite dangerous. Other ‘Mapfugees’ volunteers worked with mapping the surrounding areas with the refugees, leading local amenities and safe routes were identified.

At the same time, the camp itself was mapped, providing an understanding of camp amenities, so services to the camp can be improved. This is very similar to my experience of community mapping elsewhere — the map is a good way of discussing what needs to be done and can empower people to make changes.

Q: As you no doubt know, here at GeoHipster we’re not scared to ask the real questions. So let’s get into it. On Twitter you’re not infrequently part of a raging debate — which is better: #geobeers or #geosambuca? How will we ever settle this?

A: #Geobeer now has my vote. I’m way too old for #geobuccas as the hangovers are getting worse!

Q: So what’s next Mark? I mean both for you personally now that you’ve crossed the PhD off the list and also for OSM in places like Africa and in organizations like the World Bank.

A: For me, in a few months I’m going to take a long holiday and work out what’s next. I’m open to suggestions on a postcard!

Looking back, OSM is just past a decade old and is still changing the world for the better. In OSM, projects like Ramani Huria, but also mapping projects in Indonesia and others are at the forefront of this, but more can be done. I believe that organisations like the UN and World Bank need to move away from projects to supporting a global geospatial ecosystem. This isn’t a technical problem, but a societal and policy based concern.

This doesn’t sound sexy and isn’t. But at the moment, there are over a billion people that live in extreme poverty. Maps show us where to direct our resources and improve the lives of people, the human and financial resources required to map our world will be immense, moving well past the hundreds of thousands of dollars and spent on mapping cities like Dar es Salaam and Jakarta. To build this, we need to work at a high policy level to really embed geo and maps at the core of the Global Development Agenda with the Sustainable Development Goals. Projects like UN GGIM are moving in that direction, but will need support from geohipsters to make it happen.

Maps and geo are crucial to resolve the problems our world faces, to solve this problem we should use our natural geohipster instincts… JFDI.

Q: Any closing thoughts for all the geohipsters out there?

A: Get out there — you never know where you’ll go.