A: I am an architect and urban planner by training, and GISer by circumstance since 1991. I founded ENTCHEV GIS in 2005 and GeoHipster in 2013. Currently (since 2015) I am the GIS specialist for Franklin Township, NJ. Read more about me in my GeoHipster interview.
Q: Tell us the story behind your map (what inspired you to make it, what did you learn while making it, or any other aspects of the map or its creation you would like people to know).
A: This map is one in a series offering visual representation of all reported animal-vehicle crashes in Franklin Township over the course of several years. The map series informs environmental policy decisions in the town, particularly with regard to hunting regulations. I felt that discrete representation of point events was not communicating well the story behind the data, being that many animal crashes locations were concentrated in tight clusters — hence my choice of heat mapping for the series. I learned that deer population moves over time, which is probably obvious, but I never thought about it before.
Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.
A: The map uses data from police reports. The project started in a MapInfo derivative, moved to QGIS, then ArcMap, then Paint.net. Data was originally created in MapInfo TAB, moved to SHP (hi, @shapefile! 🙂 ), then to GeoTIFF, to PNG, to PDN, to PNG, ultimately to PDF (of course!).
I’ve been making maps professionally for over 10 years now. But when I’m not doing that, I could be cooking, messing around in VR (how exactly do you ingest geojson into Unity, anyway?), or running about as fast as the world’s fastest 90 year old. Seriously, I looked it up; his name is Frederico Fischer. My sprinting pace is terrible, but it keeps my legs thicc at least.
Q: Tell us the story behind your map (what inspired you to make it, what did you learn while making it, or any other aspects of the map or its creation you would like people to know).
Oh hey, speaking of running – my boss had the idea for this map while he was training for his first marathon. He came into work on Monday and explained how cool it would be if we could produce a map that showed the bounding boxes of every map our business had ever made. I agreed that it would indeed be cool. Then I promptly forgot about it.
Working on something completely unrelated a couple of months later, which required me to programmatically extract the coordinates at the corners of some map documents, I was reminded of his idea. A bit of Python frankenscripting later – with StackExchange acting as Igor – and I was able to unleash this on our entire corporate directory of map files. Turns out, in ten years of using our current GIS, we’ve collectively authored over eighty thousand maps.
Zooming in to Melbourne (which accounted for 30,000+ maps on its own), I started to play around with layered transparencies to visualise the data. This eventually evolved into a nice glowy blue colour scheme, which reminded me of deep space images of clusters of stars and galaxies, connected by glowing filaments.
This map has no practical use. I’m fine with that. There’s still something really satisfying about it, how it just hints at the tens of thousands of hours of work that went in to making all of those maps, which are reduced down to their most basic representation. It looks nice too (I think). If you got a GeoHipster calendar, I hope you think so too, because you’re stuck with it for this month.
Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.
To scrape the data: A simple, custom Python script, run over a big and messy nested directory structure, full of .mxd files. It extracted the x/y min/max coordinates of every map document, and reconstituted them into a shapefile full of rectangles.
To visualise the data: A mixture of ArcGIS Pro (I love the feature-level transparency), InkScape, and Paint.net.
Jim is a geodeveloper advocate at Esri in NYC. Before that, he worked in Redlands running the developer network program, and previous to that, running Esri’s tech support operations. Catch him on twitter @JimBarry.
The statements and opinions below are Jim’s and not the opinions or official positions of his current or previous employers.
Jim was interviewed for GeoHipster by Bill Dollins and Atanas Entchev.
Q: How did you get into GIS?
A: I guess it started with an obsession with maps when I was a kid.
Going way back though, back seat of the car on family trips, I was completely absorbed by road atlases. My mom was the original mapgeek and navigator in the family; still is. So I got the maps thing from her — total map nerd. Not to mention my other assorted quirks, like staring at the ground from the window seat of a plane. It’s like a big map, yo!
Maps just kept coming back to me over and over as I grew up. Orienteering in scouts and beyond. As an infantry officer in the army, maps were key. Grab a lensatic compass, a 1:50,000 topo in a waterproof case, a grease pencil, and let’s go. I really took to land navigation, on foot or on vehicles, any weather, any terrain, swamps, woods, or desert, mostly at night. It’s more than just dead-reckoning to point B; it’s route selection, contingency planning, speed and manner of movement, under stress, wet, cold, hot, miserable, dealing with obstacles, leading soldiers keeping them motivated, pressed for time, pushing thru it, learning and adjusting along the way until you reach the objective. Maybe a little philosophical, but sort of a microcosm of life itself, no?
As for GIS itself, grad school, studying urban planning, we had PC ArcInfo and ArcView v1. I taught a couple semesters of freshman level Geography, and spent a year running the mapping lab, keeping the hardware working and software updated, helping students working on their projects, and learning the concepts of working with and analyzing spatial data.
During grad school, but on the side, my first year I took an overnight job doing mapping at an electric utility. I got a real sense of the importance of this kind of high-impact production mapping—a lot of editing, complete and accurate information, and a high level of quality control when electrical service for customers, and the safety of the maintenance crews were at stake.
Then in my second year of grad school I got hired by a small town outside of Hartford to research and build their 10-year master plan of development. I used PC ArcInfo, ArcCAD, and ArcView for that. They had only been using AutoCAD. I was able to do some spatial analysis using whatever data I could find, convert, digitize, or otherwise collect, to provide support for some recommendations for development, preservation, transportation, and other aspects of the town’s growth and progress.
I really liked working with the tools, so figured I’d try to work at Esri for a few years, learn as much as I can, then take back to municipal planning. Well, a few years turned into 24 and running.
Q: You have been at Esri for over two decades. How would you describe life at Esri to an outsider?
A: Always challenging. First couple of years I was a desktop GIS tech support analyst. To me, there’s no better place to learn how to be productive with this technology, than in tech support. Not only do you learn how things work best, but also the wide variety of ways things break, and how to quickly find the cause, work up a solution, alone or in groups, sometimes code up alternatives, workarounds, and communicate that to the user trying to get their work done, often under pressure themselves. Fun stuff. Even after moving up into running tech support ops, I’d grab calls myself from time to time to keep the problem-solving and tech skills sharp as I could. The tech moves and grows fast. It’s quick and easy to lose your grip on it, if you don’t keep chopping.
But overall, the ability to do important, impactful work, surrounded by and learning from some of the smartest people I’ve ever met. But more importantly, everyone here buys into the idealism that Jack projects. He’s a true believer in what technology, in general, and of course GIS in particular provides to improve our co-existence with our world, in a data-driven way.
I saw this quote once. I think it was meant to stoke one’s entrepreneurial spirit by saying “If you don’t work to realize your own ideas, you’ll end up working to realize someone else’s”. Being that I’m a fairly UNcreative person, that quote motivated me too, but probably in a direction 180° from its intent. Meaning, I consider my value more about building and delivering tangible, useful things from the ideas envisioned by creative people, freeing them up to continue being creative. That’s the main reason why I’ve always felt a good fit at Esri. Jack’s visionary thought leadership over the past several decades, and his commitment to build and constantly improve (and occasionally completely reinvent) has been an honor and a great experience to be part of.
Q: You have been working in developer evangelism for over a decade now. During that time, Esri’s platforms have changed and grown significantly. How has working with developers shaped your view of the evolution of Esri’s platforms and what role has the developer community played in that evolution?
A: Understanding the evolution of developers, and of developing software apps and systems, starts by understanding the evolution of users and their expectations.
Back in the 90s when I first started building custom mapping apps, this might sound really odd now, but usability wasn’t exactly our primary concern, generally. You designed and built the app, and then you deployed it with documentation and training. As your end-user climbed the learning curve, their productivity would increase. Back then, “powerfully useful” was more important than “intuitively usable”. But it was still mainly up to the user to commit effort learning how to use it.
Of course, nowadays, in most cases, that approach is absolutely insane. (Well, it was insane then too, but who knew?) Today, when you put an app in the hands of an end-user, it better be designed to be intuitive for them, and productively useful for them right away, for what they need it to do. Apps you build need to free your users up, so they can put almost all their mental effort into their work and put as little effort as possible into figuring out how the app works.
That expectation bounces right back to the developers who build and use APIs, and the designers of the apps being used. It’s no longer enough that the API be powerful, fine grained, and comprehensive (hi ArcObjects). Now, its granularity also needs to be variable, doc accessible, learning ramp shallow, samples numerous, best practices proven, and user community robust, interactive, and supportive enough so that we meet these high expectations. It takes a lot of work to make things easy. Also, the shelf life of things developers build is also shortening. Developers often need to deploy something good enough now, then iterate to continue improving it.
Q: You wrote about smart cities recently. Is “smart cities” the new buzzword de jour, or is it GIS trying to reinvent itself, or is it an entire new industry being born?
A: A new industry? No, it’s broader than that. It’s a way for cities to keep up with fully using technology to make itself run better. Of course, GIS is a key part of it—here’s how. A smart city is one that uses technology to continually sense its state and respond in efficient, optimized ways. Human intervention is removed whenever practical, to gain speed and scale. Combined with the hardware and software technology itself, it also includes a digitized articulation of the rules on which decisions can be made, and actions triggered. Then, on a separate thread, patterns can be sensed, stored, analyzed in order to continue improving efficiency in future iterations.
Given that a city is a spatial system, spatial analysis has got to be a key part of these rules, decisions, and actions. Along with many other technologies, GIS fuels the decisions behind visualizing where things are and optimizing how, why, when, and where things move and interact. A GIS platform also provides cross-agency collaboration tools and the ability to perform modeling and predictive data analytics.
The data management, data analysis, data visualization tools that are a part of GIS and geospatial technology have a role to play in a “smart city”, from strategy down to the nuts and bolts. I can’t imagine how they wouldn’t.
Ok, so to me, yeah, in a way, “smart cities” can be seen as a buzzword, but it’s an important one, a motivating one. Meaning, it’s a simple term that helps everyone quickly focus in on what cities are trying to do to evolve. It’s easier for all of us to grab the handles and pull the wagon in the same direction if we’re not stuck struggling to understand what the term means. 50 years from now, a city’s “smartness” in this context will be so common, the concept itself is going to melt into the background and we’ll probably forget that the term “smart city” used to be a “thing”. Like the idea of an electric city was 100+ years ago versus today. But for now, we need the term, because it’s going to take a lot of domains working together to make cities smarter.
Q: Esri recently pledged $30,000.00 to the GDAL barn raising. Esri has famously used GDAL libraries under the hood of ArcGIS for many years now, so the pledge makes sense. How would you characterize Esri’s relationship with open-source and the open source community, particularly in geospatial? What steps do you anticipate Esri taking to help that relationship evolve?
A: Ask 10 people what “open” means, you’ll get 12 different answers. So, for me, I keep it practical, and I try to stay focused on how the level of openness helps or hinders productive work in any particular context.
As for open source software, I’ve seen some choose it based simply on principle. Some choose it when it’s free, or when its initial barrier to use is lower than other options. I mean, I get it. Open source provides a perception (sometimes an illusion) of control, and a perception (sometimes an illusion) of low cost.
But, over the past several years at least, I’ve seen a growth of users and developers who are trying to get their work done best, or build things that are more useful, whose technology selection has more to do with its capabilities, than whether or not they can contribute to the code base. On the surface, the terms open and closed imply a binary, but when it comes to technology it’s obviously a lot more complex and nuanced than that.
In our increasingly connected world, for a technology to be useful, it needs to be openly interoperable with other tech. It also needs to support open standards with regards to format (hi Shapefile), workflow, protocols, and interface (both UI and API).
And then there’s open data. It benefits all of us to support open data, particularly in government, in order to promote freedom and transparency, optimize operations, encourage collaboration, but also to engage the people who live there. In NYC there is a vast ecosystem of non-profits, startups, students, motivated citizens, and more, ready to pitch in, and they do amazing work. It’s a force multiplier to ensure that accurate, complete, timely data is pushed into the open, into the hands of everyone, fueling great ideas. Doing so continues to improve the lives of New Yorkers every day.
Back to open source though…
Where a particular technology, any technology, open source or not, is better, more useful, more cost effective, it will be used. A few years ago, Chris Wanstrath was the keynote speaker at the Esri Developer Summit. He was a founder, and at the time CTO of GitHub. He noted that while GitHub has played a huge role in the support, usefulness, and growth of open source software, GitHub itself is not open source. He found that open source makes sense, when openly inclusive collaboration is the best approach to building something, and it doesn’t make sense when you want to build something that supports your core business model, and for as long as you want to maintain full creative control. When it comes down to it, the relationship between the two is more productive when it’s symbiotic rather than adversarial. The way I see it is this: our work contains a lot of constraints we have limited control over; it makes no sense to purposefully add more constraints by limiting our own options.
Q: You are from New Jersey — home of The Sopranos, Bridgegate, and Silent Bob. I hear you have a special connection to one of those. Tell us about it.
A: The shore area of New Jersey, yes, born and raised in that magical state where the government still believes pumping gas is a task best left to paid professionals.
So yeah, after a couple decades in Redlands, I recently moved back to my hometown of Leonardo, NJ. Most of my family still live in the area, and it’s great to be back. Silent Bob, right, well, Leonardo is the town the movie Clerks was filmed in. The Quick Stop is still there, the dive bar of convenience stores. Anyway, when I was 14, I had a newspaper route and that store was the halfway point. I would go in and grab a soda for the return trip. One day, the guy who worked in there said I could have the coke for free if I’d go in the back and load the dairy case with milk, eggs, cheese, and stuff, that had been delivered, which at the time could only be loaded from the back of the store. Otherwise he’d have to lock up, stock the case, then reopen (“I assure you we’re open”). I think I was only hauling in $15 a week at that point with the paper route, so I’m like, cool. For a while, this turned into an almost daily thing. I hadn’t seen the movie til many years later, but it was weird to see our little hole in the wall store be a central character of a big movie. “Bunch of savages in this town”, indeed.
Q: Finish this sentence: If I could only keep one of my sports jerseys, it would be…
A: I’ve got a bunch, but this Hartford Whalers jersey I have, well, I normally resist wearing third party gear to games, but this one seems to be an exception. Wore it to a Rangers game last winter and it’s obvious that hockey fans get it. Plus, it’s a pretty cool logo.
Q: Do you consider yourself a geohipster? Why / why not?
A: Not at all. While I respect and am inspired by the innovation that comes from the unconventional thinking of all you hipsters, for the most part, my strengths (and weaknesses) seem to stem from being a straight up conformist. But then in a way, without us conformists, being a hipster lacks the frame of reference from which to diverge — there’s no contrast. So to all you real geohipsters out there… you’re welcome.
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our readers?
A: If you have an idea — a solid idea that has a vision and a purpose, and you really believe in it — you’re ready to sink or swim in it — don’t wait, don’t check, don’t ask — just do it. Probably intuitively obvious to many; wasn’t obvious to me for a long time.
Meaning, what I’ve found that often doesn’t work, is trying to sell others on your idea when it’s still nothing more than an idea. All this does is open the door for it to be crushed under the weight of opinions. And at that point, your great idea becomes just another deleted slide deck. So. Don’t ask for permission. Believe in it? Then just build it. When you need others’ collaboration on bits of it, keep it focused, and limited to trusted resources.
Here’s the point though. Believing in it of course means you’re ready to own the consequences, whether it works, or whether it lawn darts into the ground. Best case scenario, it works, and at that point you’ve improved things a notch or two for your users, added value to your product, helped move the ball forward for your organization. Not to mention you learned a lot along the way. But most importantly, those who earlier might have crushed your idea — they vanish. No one argues with success. No one debates whether something will work or not, after it’s already working.
The founder of GeoHipster, Atanas Entchev, learned BASIC in 1984 on a made-in-Bulgaria Apple ][ clone, and has been working with computers ever since. These days he splits his time between slinging shapefiles and searching for the perfect saddle for his Cannondale. Find him on Twitter, Instagram, and on his personal blog Mostly Subjective.
Atanas was interviewed for GeoHipster by Board Member Bill Dollins and CEO Mike Dolbow.
Q: For any readers who don’t know, tell us about yourself and how you got into geospatial.
A: My road to geospatial was long and circuitous. I graduated with a Master’s in architecture in my native Sofia, Bulgaria. Upon graduation I was assigned a job as an urban planner. In 1991 I came to Rutgers University in New Jersey to complete a Master’s in urban planning, where I was indoctrinated into the Arc world on PC ARC/INFO on DOS. While still in grad school and looking for a “real” job as a planner, I took a GIS internship position at the NJDEP, digitizing parcels in ArcInfo on a SUN Sparc workstation. Temporarily. As it turned out, there is nothing more permanent than the temporary. I have been “doing GIS” ever since.
Q: Between early pieces in Directions, to your own blog(s), to your activity on various social media platforms, you have been a visible face and an early adopter of social platforms in the geospatial community for almost two decades. What effect have those platforms had on the landscape of geospatial technology? How have those platforms changed? What would the ideal social platform look like to you, today?
A: The biggest effect social media platforms have had on the landscape of geospatial technology is that blogs and social media have all but eliminated the need to go to conferences. This is probably an unpopular opinion, and easily challenged by the fact that geoconferences seem to be multiplying. But you don’t need to go to a conference anymore to find out what’s happening in the industry. The blogs and social media deliver high-quality, high-signal-to-noise-ratio content, right to your screen, better than any keynote. Heck, you can “attend” multiple conferences simultaneously and be billable at the same time.
Obviously, there are other things that happen at conferences — geobeers, geoteas, geohookups — so conferences aren’t going away. But the reasons for going to conferences have shifted. Get out of work, anyone? Travel to a new city/country? On your employer’s dime? Sign me up!
Three things drive people to social networks: FOMO, interestingness, and utility — probably in that order. Early Twitter was interesting. Less so these days, but I stay because of utility. Instagram is interesting, but has no utility. Facebook has neither.
How have platforms changed? They become less interesting as they grow and mature. The ideal social platform must stay interesting, and combine interestingness with utility.
Q: Wow, I can’t believe that this December will mark the five year anniversary of the geohipster.com launch with a tongue-in-cheek industry poll. Looking back on that moment and what has happened since, were there any surprises?
A: The biggest surprise was that it took off the way it did. I registered the domain name on a lark, I thought some kind of website would be good for a few chuckles at most. Five years later GeoHipster is running strong, bigger than I ever thought it would be.
Q: Walk us through a typical day for you – not just for your day job, but also for your “side hustles”.
A: My day job as the GIS specialist in Franklin Township, New Jersey, includes multiple various GIS-related duties, so it’s never boring. I maintain several PostgreSQL/PostGIS databases; I dabble in SQL and Python. I make maps to print (PDF FTW); I help township staff with various geo-related tasks; I create shapefiles; I export databases to shapefiles to share with other organizations; I add new township streets to Open Street Map.
I use a mixed bag of tools: ArcGIS Desktop, QGIS, ArcGIS Pro, ArcGIS Online, CARTO.
My latest side hustle is designing, promoting, and selling the “I♥️SHP” merchandise. My plan is to grow it to a point where I can quit my job and retire. My other side hustle is GIS consulting — mostly training, teaching GIS novices how to use shapefiles (no joke; shapefile haters leave a lot of money on the table), and some GIS and web development. And, of course, I help run GeoHipster as Editor-in-chief.
After work and on weekends I ride my bike, sometimes with my daughter. Or tackle a side hustle task. Or go to the beach with my wife. Or we go to concerts (Buddy Guy, Jonny Lang, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Gov’t Mule this summer).
Q: The “I♥️SHP” merchandise seems to be really taking off. Any plans to expand it for the “sidecar files”?
A: As soon as Taylor Swift agrees to wear a “PRJ” shirt for the promo campaign. I have my people talking to her people. Seriously, though, I consider “SHP” a pars pro toto moniker, thus including all sidecars. The shapefile agrees.
Q: If the shapefile disappears tomorrow as though it never existed, to which format would you switch?
A: To whichever format has critical mass. For the record, I don’t use shapefiles exclusively — I use PostGIS on PostgreSQL and file geodatabases in equal measure. But when I need to create a quick disposable layer for a quick map, shapefile it is. And when it comes to spatial data exchange, the shapefile is the undisputed king. In my job I share spatial data with a large number of users, mostly external. Every single one of them asks for shapefiles. So I give them shapefiles. I’m not gonna fight them. If they start asking for geopackage, I will give them geopackage. Nobody has asked as of yet.
I wrote about my position in the shapefile debate on my personal blog. To quote myself: “To call for the abolition of the shapefile is akin to calling for the abolition of the .xls(x) format on the grounds that millions of people erroneously use it in lieu of “legitimate” databases.”
There is currently a shapefile vendetta raging on the twitters. I think it’s silly. If and when it is no longer needed, the shapefile will fade away.
Q: GeoHipster readers, and many others, have followed the ordeal of your family and your son, Eni, closely. Would you provide an update?
A: For those who may not know, last December my son was deported to Bulgaria — a country he does not remember and whose language he does not speak, but where he is “from”. We are working on bringing Eni back home. We are pursuing all possible avenues. This will be a long and complicated process. Meanwhile he has settled in Sofia, has found a job that he likes, and is making friends. He is in good spirits. We communicate via social media and chat almost daily. My son is making the most of this bizarre and unfortunate situation, and has made me proud with his ability to handle adversity.
I want to thank the hundreds of people, most of whom I have never met, for their outpouring of support for my family’s plight, and for reaffirming my faith in humanity.
Q: Sounds like you’ve been riding your bike more and more lately. Do you and Bill have some kind of exercise competition going?
A: I post more bike pics lately — or, rather, I post less other stuff than I used to — which makes it look like cycling is all I do. But I have indeed been riding more and more lately. I rode my first metric century (100+ km) in May, and I aspire to ride my first full century (100+ miles) next year. I love cycling — it is a great sport, great exercise, and with the right equipment you can cycle year-round.
Above all else, cycling for me is meditation on wheels. It helps me clear out my head. When I am on the bike, I think about nothing. It feels great.
Bill and I do not have a competition, but maybe we should. What would be the metrics, though? Bill? (We’ll let Bill answer this question on Twitter. –Ed)
Q: What is your grammatical pet peeve that would most surprise GeoHipster readers?
A: What would probably be most surprising to those who know me is that while I used to be a grammar nazi, I am working on kicking the habit, and I have made significant strides in this effort. I remember when, in the early 1990s, I wrote a letter — on paper — to TIME magazine, to complain about a grammatical error. I composed a letter, printed it in the computer lab, put it in an envelope, put a stamp on it, walked it to a mailbox… TIME wrote back, by the way, acknowledged the error, and apologized. Today I look back on this episode and cringe with embarrassment. There are far more important things to spend one’s time and energy on than correcting other people’s grammar. (or style, e.g.: Oxford comma, double space after a period, etc. 😉 ). I try to remember what The Duchess said to Alice: “Take care of the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves.”
Q: You’re the “OG” – Original GeoHipster – so I don’t think we really need to ask you that question. Instead, do you have any favorite answers to that question from the last five years?
Brian Timoney: The hippest thing I’ve ever done was switch from pleated khakis to flat-front khakis.
Guido Stein: The only hipster attribute I wish I had that I lack is the hipster gene that makes them all slender and buff.
Alex Leith: I knit maps, then scan them at 10 µm before faxing them to myself.
Q: Tell us the story behind your map (what inspired you to make it, what did you learn while making it, or any other aspects of the map or its creation you would like people to know).
A: I originally saw the Roads to Rome project from moovel Lab and was really inspired by that. I wanted to recreate that with my own tools. I had already done a few similar maps before this, but this one was custom made for the GeoHipster calendar submissions! While making the map I learned a lot more about Python. Basically before venturing into this, my Python skills were almost non-existent, but this was a great way to learn as I had a clear goal in mind. Writing the simple script for the API calls was a small step for mankind, but a big step for me. I wanted to keep the style really simple and clean so I didn’t want to add anything else than the routes and graticules on the final map.
Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.
A: The data is from OpenStreetMap. Routing is done with the great GraphHopper open source routing engine. GPX routes were then stored into a single PostGIS table and visualized with QGIS. Graticules are from Natural Earth.
Maggie Cawley is the Founder of Boomerang Geospatial, a geospatial consulting company specializing in education and dabbling in other map-related endeavors. Current Boomerang efforts include developing curriculum around open source GIS and leading educational and wildlife trips in southern Africa. She volunteers with TeachOSM to integrate geography back into classrooms through open mapping, and supports OpenStreetMap US as a board member. She recently helped start Diadia Craft Collective with a Sān Bushmen community in Botswana and African Connection with musicians in Ghana to support sustainable economic development and cultural collaboration (and also, for fun!).
So Maggie Cawley – where are you in the world currently and what do you do?
Way to start with the tough ones 😉 At the moment I am splitting my time mostly between Denmark and the US. This week I am in Baltimore, in my first leased apartment in 5 years. I can count on one hand the weeks I’ve been here since I moved in, but it is a welcome change after sleeping in 40+ beds over the last year. My front porch is a sanctuary!
What do I do? I am a freelance open source mapping consultant through my company Boomerang Geospatial, which equates to a smattering of jobs. I love training new mappers as much as I love diving into a dataset and surfacing with a beautiful map. I volunteer on the steering committee for the TeachOSM project, and we provide educational support for OpenStreetMap and work to get OpenStreetMap and open mapping into classrooms around the world. One of my goals is to develop a knowledge management system for the project – a giant library of every OSM-related educational nugget ever created. I also volunteer as a board member for OpenStreetMap US, which includes weekly board meetings, State of the Map US planning meetings, and hiring committee meetings as we are looking to hire the organization’s first Executive Director.
When wearing my other hats, I facilitate and lead safaris and educational trips to southern Africa, recently became the representative for Diadia, a small jewelry making collective in the Kalahari, and in a few months I will be playing keyboard in Denmark with my band African Connection.
Are there more people wanting to know about OpenStreetMap?
I like to think there are millions of people just waiting to find out! In my experience, once people hear a little about OpenStreetMap they are curious to know more. In a classroom or training situation that is especially true. If a few complaints surface about other online map sources having incorrect or missing information, you definitely have a starting point.
I see that you taught an OSM workshop in St Lucia with Steven Johnson a few years ago. How difficult is OSM to teach to people unfamiliar with the idea of a crowd sourced map?
I have had the privilege of teaching workshops with Steven Johnson in a few wonderful places, including St Lucia, over the past few years; places that aren’t always adequately mapped, where errors are commonplace, and where people are excited to learn new technology. The initial conveyance of the concept of an editable world map is not always easy, and there is always the, “Isn’t everything already mapped? What about Google?” to get through – but once people sign up and start editing in their neighborhood, the comprehension begins. I find it important to take the process & understanding outside, and workshops incorporate a field mapping exercise whenever possible. Bringing new mappers outside to map using a GPS unit, Field Papers, Mapillary, OSMAnd, Maps.Me or other mobile mapping tools brings geography into a 1:1 scale, and creates a concrete relationship to what is on the ground and what is on The Map. After this portion of the workshop, mapping in the classroom is brought to a new level and the understanding deepens.
We’ve run into each other at FOSS4GNA Conferences through the years – in 2016 you did a presentation on some work you did in Africa. How did you get from Baltimore to staring at Elephants in Africa?
This is a long story, but I will try to provide the abridged version! Back in 2013, I quit a full time job as an environmental planner to start a business and travel. I was ready for a change. My idea was to travel as long as I could, looking for opportunities to map along the way. The first stop was Sodwana Bay, South Africa where I couchsurfed with a man who takes people on overland trips in southern Africa in his Land Rover through his company Winterdodger Expeditions. When I arrived, he was about to do 3 months through 23 national parks and at least 6 countries. He had an extra tent and room in the Landy, so I jumped in. Two months into that trip, we stopped in western Botswana, at a place in the Kalahari Desert called Dqae Qare – a game reserve run by the San Bushmen. I saw they did not have an accurate map of the reserve, and offered my services in exchange for a few cold Windhoek lagers and a few nights in a real bed. Over the next week, our team of three travelers navigated the entire farm (more than 150 km) and mapped every road, pan, campsite, water tap, view point and amenity we could find – and I realized just how special a place we had found. I was hooked. The map now lives on their reception wall.
Photo: January 2018, in front of the map in Dqae with GWU professors Joseph Dymond and Richard Hinton.
After that trip, I continued to travel on my own, but my mind continued to return to southern Africa. Fast forward to early 2015 when I received a message from a friend in South Africa who needed someone with mapping knowledge, equipment, and teaching experience to lead a group of students from a French University in a conservation project to support Lake Sibaya – South Africa’s largest freshwater lake. Fortunately, I was teaching in Mauritius at the time, and the trip to SA was not too far. After that month mapping wildlife and teaching in Sibaya, I partnered with his company Winterdodger to do more trips in the region. Save Sibaya is now an ongoing project, and visitors continually add to the wildlife census database.
Photo: Lake Sibaya, 2015 – a drone demo for the French students to collect imagery of the changing lake.
Most recently, I led my first study abroad group from George Washington University on a trip to Botswana through Boomerang. We returned to Dqae Qare, and even spent some time contributing to OpenStreetMap in the local San village where we were volunteering. As far as elephants, I don’t think I will ever tire of staring, and can’t wait to share that experience with the next car full of interested people! GeoHipster safari anyone?
Photos: The GWU students on a walking safari in the Okavango Delta, Botswana.
So you’re out mapping in a game preserve – how does that work? On foot? What were your tools?
Roads are mostly done by car (usually a Land Rover) with a handheld or car GPS. I have also hooked a Garmin watch to the dashboard and just let it do its thing. For smaller paths and points of interest, I use a solid pair of boots and a basic Garmin GPS unit. In some cases an aerial view is nice to have so I’ll use a drone. At a national park in Malawi we were trying to spot some klipspringer, so I flew a Phantom drone – it was the first version and I just hooked my watch to the base for a GPS backup for the path. In Botswana we had some students helping to do mammal tracking with a specific interest in cheetah. We went out with two Bushmen tracking guides and marked the different footprints and skat we could find, again with basic GPS. I know there are more fancy tools out there, but all of these projects have been done on a shoestring budget so we keep it simple.
What do you do with the data? Maps? Does it live on a computer somewhere?
Mostly map it. In Botswana, the cheetah data was given to the managing trust, or made into maps for them. The data that doesn’t immediately become a map lives on one of my portable hard drives just waiting for the chance to make its mapping debut.
Was there a fear of becoming lunch?
There is always that sense of ‘what the hell am I doing out here?’ But, it’s exciting. And beautiful. In Malawi, that national park was known for having some aggressive elephant herds that you do not want to face on foot. We had the opportunity to scramble around on one of the only rock outcrops looking for signs of these tiny antelope, with a view of an incredible, vast landscape below – those moments make it all worth it. And you can stare at the elephant from afar!
In Botswana we knew there were no lions or elephants, but the snakes and hyenas in the Kalahari are enough to keep me on my toes. Ostrich can also pack a punch as well, especially if you unknowingly wander towards one of their nests. Tread lightly!
Photo: The cheetah tracking group in Dqae Qare Game Reserve.
How hard is it leading a group of college students who haven’t been in that environment before?
It can be challenging at times, and very worrying at others. But seeing anyone lay eyes upon the wildlife for the first time makes it all worthwhile. Unless it’s a bull elephant 4 meters away and they all scream “AN ELEPHANT!” and gesticulate wildly, not noticing the elephants accelerated advance… then, all bets are off! Mostly though, students are respectful of the people and animals we meet, and just want to know more. On my last trip I also had the privilege of traveling with two wonderful GWU professors that were a great help. Many are also very afraid of becoming lunch!
I want to break new ground on this interview – Jewelry making collective in the Kalahari? We’ve never talked about jewelry on any GeoHipster interview.
Hard to believe there’s never been any geo-jewelry talk! I am honored to be the first. In January when I was in Botswana with the GW students, a local village artisan taught a workshop on how to make beads out of ostrich egg shells. I had seen the jewelry many times during visits to the area – at lodges, at the airport, etc – and came to find out that sales by a larger organization were not helping the local village artisans. After a week in the village, the director of the village trust asked me if I would help to sell the jewelry. The San are a very marginalized population, and there are very few opportunities for employment in the area. Making sure the artisans knew I had no previous experience in the field, I agreed – but only if they would organize into a collective so that I could just be the sales rep. In March, a friend delivered a package containing 20lbs of ostrich egg jewelry to Denmark, and in April the Diadia Craft Collective was formed. Right now it is seven women from different families within the village. It is a new endeavor for me, and it’s a bit more complicated than scrambling up that rock outcropping looking for klipspringer – but I’m so excited to give it a try. I have designed a website, and I will have my first market table this weekend in Baltimore. Hopefully by my next trip to Botswana I’ll be needing to pick up a second package of inventory. It would be wonderful to create a profitable livelihood in a village that would sustain the families and also the ancient bead making tradition.
Do you feel like a geohipster?
Ha. I tried that role once. The tire of my rented foldable bike got caught in a train track on my way to a FOSS4G PDX event a few years ago, and I showed up with torn pants and a bloody knee. Hipster move? I think not. 🙂 But if a geohipster lives “on the outskirts of mainstream GIS”? Yeah, I probably fit that description.
OK – before I do the last question – Band?
I blame this one on fate. And again, I’ll try to keep it short! Two years ago I was taking a group of students with Winterdodger through Botswana. Along the way I met a Danish musician with whom I shared some of my wildlife photographs. He immediately invited me to join his band on tour in Ghana a month later as their tour photographer. It took some juggling and a leap of faith, but one month later I was in Ghana, in a van with 8 Danish & Ghanaian musicians. Half way through the tour, things went south with the lead Ghanaian musician. Instead of breaking up, the remaining musicians came together to make some new music. I picked up a cowbell and joined in the fun. By the end of the trip, we recorded two songs, wrote a few more, and the band African Connection was formed. I love the cowbell, but I now play keyboard for the band (with an occasional cowbell interlude), and still handle most of the photography and press. Our first album, Queens & Kings, was recorded last year in Denmark and released in March. We will go on our first tour this October in Denmark and Germany, and hopefully return to Ghana with the music in early 2019. It is a challenge working from 3 continents, but it makes it that much more special when we can all get together. I feel really lucky to be a part of the project and have the opportunity to try something completely different. We are on Spotify if you’d like to check us out!
Photo: Music For All festival performance in Cape Coast, Ghana – January 2017.
The last question is yours. This is your chance to yell at the world and tell it something it needs to know.
You won’t know unless you go! When I quit my job to freelance and travel, I thought I knew where it would take me. I was way off. Frustrated at first, I then realized that I had leapt into a raging river, and the only way to stay afloat was to trust it, even if I kept hitting sharp rocks along the way. It was hard to ignore a society that wanted to bully me into the things I was ‘supposed’ to be doing – confidence can start to waiver when you have no work or are spewing your guts & belly crawling across a salt pan in the middle of the night – but what else can we do but keep going? I often have to remind myself to just show up. Some days it is difficult to get up in the morning, but if you are already in the river, sometimes all you really need to do is hold your head up and have a little faith. And I must add – I am grateful for the amazing and supportive people I’ve met in the FOSS4G and OpenStreetMap communities. We help keep each other afloat, and that is a beautiful thing. I hope we can maintain that spirit – welcome a new person into the geo community or talk to someone you don’t know at the next meet up – collaboration and support are key, especially now.
OpenStreetMap is the free, open-source map of the world created by volunteers all over the globe. The US chapter, guided by its Board of Directors, supports the OpenStreetMap project in the United States through education, fostering awareness, ensuring broad availability of data, continuous quality improvement, and an active community.
Since our Board is made of (elected) volunteer positions, our time to enact our larger goals is somewhat limited given that these efforts often require massive coordination, planning, and execution. To provide the needed support to the US mapping community, we are hiring our first ever Executive Director.
This is truly a unique time for the OpenStreetMap community, as the Executive Director will have a chance to make a difference at the local, national, and international level. I recently asked my fellow Board Members why they are excited for this new role.
Ian Dees – Having an executive director means we can expand our ability to build the OpenStreetMap community in the US. There’s so many great ideas we have but none of us have the time to coordinate them. The executive director will help us with these things and keep OpenStreetMap US moving forward.
Maggie Cawley – Prior to joining the board, I had only the slightest idea of how much it took to run a small nonprofit. Board members and generous community members can only do so much with their limited volunteer time. With an Executive Director at the helm, there will be dedicated support not only for the State of the Map US conference and basic admin tasks, but more importantly someone to lead a broader organization strategy, fundraising efforts, and be there to support the local communities and more projects. It will be a change, but hopefully one that positively impacts the broader OpenStreetMap community.
Bryan Housel – OpenStreetMap is in an amazing position right now. People depend on up-to-date maps more than ever, and OpenStreetMap data is being used in popular apps like Snapchat, Pokemon Go, Tinder, and by companies like Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, IBM, and Uber. I’m inspired by what we’ve been able to create with an engaged community of volunteers who care about making the map around them as accurate as possible. Bringing on an executive director can help channel this energy into new projects to measure and improve data quality, communicate our successes, and grow and strengthen our community of mappers.
So, what are you waiting for? Are you interested? Know someone who’d be a great fit? We encourage you to share this announcement within your networks to help us find the right candidate.
The Executive Director Position
The duties of this role cover a broad scope, encompassing organizational program and strategy, as well as fundraising, finance, and marketing. This position will require a high degree of flexibility and creativity, and a collaborative and inventive orientation.
The successful candidate will be mission-driven and passionate about the idea of creating and applying open, accurate geospatial data for the world. This is a role with ample room for growth and creativity, and the successful candidate will come from a diversity of backgrounds.
Here are some helpful links with more information about the position and the application form:
Bill Dollins is the Chief Information Officer at Spatial Networks, Inc., where he is responsible for leading information management and security strategy. He works remotely from his home office in Southern Maryland, leading a team that is focused on optimizing the acquisition, management, analysis, and delivery of geospatial data. Outside of work, he can usually be found spending time with his family, wearing out a pair of Brooks running shoes, or figuring out how to lift heavier things. He blogs less frequently than he used to and is planning to remedy that situation. He can be found on Twitter, LinkedIn, and GitHub. He is a fan of Washington, DC area sports teams, as well as the Alabama Crimson Tide, due to multi-generational family loyalties.
A: I didn’t know that and I feel slightly intimidated. I guess I need to make this good. I’m setting precedent, so should I go with dry sarcasm, self-deprecation, or over-the-top hyperbole? I think I’ll just wing it and see where it goes.
Q: A lot has changed since we last conversed on these pages. Tell us about your new gig.
A: I’ve been working at Spatial Networks, Inc. since February 2017. Many may know us as the company that makes Fulcrum, the leading mobile data collection application for iOS and Android. I joined at a fortunate time, at the outset of a significant period of growth for the company. As a result, we’ve done a lot of hiring and reorganized a couple of times to position the company for continued growth.
In my current role, I wear two hats as CIO and GIO. In the former role, I oversee the implementation and use of corporate systems and also address our corporate technical compliance with regulations such as the EU’s GDPR. In the latter role, I lead the management of our corporate geospatial data assets.
Those assets primarily take the form of data collected to support our Foresight data-as-a-service offering. With Foresight, we offer on-demand geospatial context on any topic in any geography for any duration. Combined with a global footprint, that can make for some unique data challenges and that’s where our data management team picks up. The data goes through QA/QC, normalization and restructuring to make it more consumer-friendly and ready for delivery. We’re using a mix of in-house, commercial, and open-source tools to build and automate processes to ensure consistency and shorten time-to-market. As a result, the last 18 months have seen SQL become my primary development language. I was always comfortable with it, but now it’s where I do most of my hands-on work.
That said, my role in the company is primarily strategy and leadership. That has given me the opportunity to work with an outstanding leadership team to steer the direction of the company and its product line. It’s also given me a chance to appreciate the roles played by design, product management, customer support, sales, and marketing in building successful products. I always understood that conceptually, but seeing people talented in those disciplines performing at a high level has really driven it home for me in a practical way.
I could go on, but I’ll sum it by saying I’m even happier in this role than I expected and I’m looking forward to the growth ahead. Oh….and we’re hiring!
Q: Any other important changes since 2014?
A: In addition to leaving the company in which I was a partner for 15 years, I also sold the house in which I grew up and built a new one. That happened shortly after the first interview, so it’s been quite a while now. It was a freeing experience that I could probably write about at length.
I also dipped a toe back into academia for the first time in a couple of decades by teaching an online course in the Salisbury University Geography program. It’s been a rewarding experience working with the students. It’s a masters-level course, so most are already into their professional careers, which brings a variety of perspectives.
Additionally, my alma mater, UMBC, knocked off 1-seed Virginia in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament (Go Retrievers!), Alabama won their 16th and 17th college football national championships (Roll Tide!), and the Washington Capitals won their first Stanley Cup (C-A-P-S, Caps, Caps, Caps!).
Q: In your 2014 interview you talked a lot about layers in GIS. What precipitated that, and has your outlook on layers changed since then?
A: I think I was working on some sort of network modelling behavior, which is something I’ve circled back to many times during my career. I re-read that response and I think I was inarticulately trying to say that I find traditional GIS inadequate for modeling our world. I still think that’s true, but maybe that’s also okay. Maybe traditional GIS isn’t meant to do that kind of modeling.
It’s been observed over the last few years that spatial technology is becoming more componentized and spatial analysis is getting embedded within other software tools. This is probably most obvious in things like R and Pandas, which present as more traditional statistical and data analysis tools, rather than primarily as a GIS. It is possible to do sophisticated spatial analysis in those environments, but they don’t drag along all of the overhead of an ArcGIS or a QGIS. I think that trend is accelerating.
There remains, and there probably always will be, a core constituency for traditional GIS. These are things like local government planning, natural resources management, parcel mapping, as well as a fairly exhaustive list of other use cases we can intuitively think of as the core audience for GIS as we’ve come to know it. These aren’t going away anytime soon and I don’t necessarily think they need the kind of modeling that I was discussing previously.
Q: You coined the term “shapefiled”, meaning geodata whose quality has been degraded by converting it (them?) to shapefile format. Yet the shapefile popularity continues to grow. How do you explain an (allegedly) inferior data format’s undisputed reign?
A: Whoa, good pull. I had totally forgotten about that.
Giving the shapefile grief is like shooting fish in a barrel, but there’s an old saying: “Don’t let ‘perfect’ be the enemy of ‘good enough.’” The shapefile is an ideal example of something that is good enough at what it does to meet the needs of a broad audience.
Context matters. The shapefile wasn’t even the best format in the Esri stable at the time of its inception. That was the ARC/INFO coverage and I don’t recall anyone being in love with the shapefile back then. It isn’t conceptually much different than one of its 90s contemporaries, the MapInfo TAB, which was (is?) also a collection of sidecars. So why did the shapefile take off?
In 1998, Esri was under a lot of pressure to publish the binary specification of the ARC/INFO coverage. It was also feeling some heat from the nascent Open GIS Consortium for openness in general, so they published the shapefile. Anecdotally, I had friends who worked for Esri at the time who said the shapefile, since it was non-topological, wasn’t considered a serious format, so it was published to take the heat off the demand for the coverage.
I’m pretty sure that was never an official stance and I could never verify it beyond the anecdotes, but the end result is that the industry finally had the published, royalty-free binary specification of a geospatial format that was already in wide use. It took off. Within a couple of years, all of Esri’s commercial competition supported read/write of the shapefile, but it went beyond that. You (Atanas) may remember that, in its pre-Microsoft days, Visio had a “maps” plug-in where you could make Visio-style cartoon maps. It also supported the shapefile…an office productivity app supported reading a real geospatial format prior to 2000. It was a time when geospatial data was still a mystery outside of GIS, so a useful, open format was pounced upon.
Which brings us to today. The shapefile was so widely adopted so quickly that it litters file systems everywhere. It won’t ever really go away. And, because it is good enough, it presents a challenge to any potential successor that the shapefile simply never had to meet: the compelling reason to change. Thus far, no one has really come up with that reason for people who use shapefiles.
So, while the GIS world continues to search for/debate the perfect format, the one that’s good enough keeps going.
Having said all of that, I will gleefully roast marshmallows over the shapefile’s funeral pyre.
Q: Where is GIS headed? Today “spatial analysis” and “data visualization” are considered parts of “GIS”. But is the term GIS even appropriate anymore? Is spatial still special? When I went to grad school, we called it “Computer Applications in Planning”. These days many universities offer graduate programs in GIS. Is GIS a profession? Or it is a splintering set of tools that many different professions increasingly incorporate into their arsenal?
A: I view technology, especially software, as a concrete manifestation of the knowledge base of its developers and of the discipline in which they operate. So, “GIS,” as a set of software tools is a manifestation of the geographic body of knowledge. In terms of the body of knowledge, I think spatial is still special. A good example of this is a recent Twitter discussion I saw in which Morten Nielsen described the issues involved with unprojecting spatial data (https://twitter.com/JimBarry/status/1014702749102034944). It’s a great encapsulation of what I mean.
Projections are a core concept in geography, and using them incorrectly can result in bad data, erroneous results, and faulty decisions. Morten correctly describes how this works. That’s the body of knowledge. It is manifested in great software tools that have everything you need to correctly address such issues, but many people today see coordinate transformation as plugging a “from” EPSG code and a “to” EPSG code into a dialog box or a function call. That’s a great way to get bad data.
“GIS” as a distinct technological entity is disappearing, as it should. Spatial and cartographic techniques are gradually getting modularized and incorporated into other environments. Most vertical domains already understand how to use location in their activities. They want “just enough” GIS to do what they already know they need to do. For example, is R a GIS? I don’t think of it as one, but it has spatial analysis and visualization capabilities.
But that’s the technology, which doesn’t represent 100% of the knowledge base. Back to the projection example above. Any organization can plug proj4 or something into a piece of software, but they probably still need someone like Morten, who understands the appropriate use of the tools.
So, I see GIS splitting apart and diffusing across application domains. But, as the technology becomes more commoditized, the need for spatial understanding will increase and the value of the larger geographic knowledge base will grow. For the foreseeable future, I see the value of the technology in something of an inverse relationship with the value of the knowledge base.
Q: What would you say to a high school graduate who wants to go into GIS?
A: Don’t. Become proficient at something else and learn how to apply geography and spatial analysis to it. That’s not as contrary to the previous answer as it may seem. If you understand geography at the conceptual and practical level, and aren’t afraid to get your hands dirty with code or technical integration, I think there’s probably still a lot of mileage in being the geographer in an organization that does something else for a living.
Q: The war on cubicle body is raging. Update us on its origins, and the current theatre of operations.
A: I covered the origins in some detail here, but the short version is that 24 years as a defense contracting cube dweller had left me in the worst physical shape of my life. I weighed more than I ever had, I was diagnosed with asthma, and I my cardiac health was not perfect — though not terrible. I have a family history of cardiac issues, so I sat up and paid attention.
I joined a gym and started working with a trainer. The “war on cubicle body” was something I dreamed up to keep myself motivated, as that’s been an issue for me with regard to fitness. I started tweeting and my social media circle, many of whom read GeoHipster, has been incredible in its support. I can’t thank everyone enough.
I chose running as my main line of attack. I find that I need to organize my efforts around a central activity, so I chose running because it’s got a low barrier to entry and it’s easy for me to put on shoes and get a few miles in at lunch time. All of my other strength and core training is centered around getting better at running.
I am currently training for the Army 10-miler in DC in October. It’ll be my longest run yet and I’m looking forward to it. It will be the last race I run in my 40s and is an early birthday gift to myself. I’m certainly not fast, I’m simply looking to enjoy the training process and finish the race.
Q: Levi’s or Carhartt?
A: Mostly Under Armour and Nike Dri-Fit these days. When I have to actually wear long pants, it’s Levi’s 550 relaxed fit, never skinny (see the aforementioned cubicle body).
Carhartt is for people who do real work for a living. I have soft programmer hands and donning Carhartt would be a disservice to those who really need to wear it.
Q: Starbucks, Dunkin, or gas station coffee? Why???
A: Truck stop coffee. I realize there’s debate on this, but coffee is primarily a caffeine delivery mechanism. The best coffee starches your shirt from the inside out and no place does that better than a place that caters to long haul truckers. My order of preference is Flying J, Love’s, and then TA.
Since truck stops are not ubiquitous, I’ve been known to darken the door of a Starbucks or two. Dunkin coffee is generally weak to the point of being worthless.
At home, I brew my own. <shameless plug>I have gotten hooked on the French roast by Maryland’s own Rise Up coffee roasters.</shameless plug>.
Tina is a remote sensing scientist with over 10 years of experience working at the crossroads of spatial analysis and machine learning. She is an active member of the FOSS4G community and an OSGeo charter member. At TellusLabs, a Boston startup, she is responsible for turning raw images into agricultural and environmental insights that help answer critical questions facing our society. In her previous position at the Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC), she linked field measurements with remotely sensed optical, LiDAR, and radar products to model ecosystem responses to changes in the environment. Tina earned an M.S. in Natural Resources from the University of New Hampshire and an Honors B.A. in Environmental Science from Saint Anselm College.
Q: Tina Cormier, where are you located and what do you do?
A: I live in Brunswick, Maine. As far as what I do, my answer is “way too many things”! But at work, I am a remote sensing scientist on the data science team at Telluslabs, a Boston startup. Like most startups, it’s a very fast-paced environment. We are a small (but growing) team, and I’m constantly amazed at how much we accomplish in a short period of time.
We use machine learning to combine decades of remote sensing images with in situ reference data. Every single day we incorporate new images and ground data into our system. Why? We want to leverage the information locked inside of this unprecedented historic record of the earth to answer critical questions that we care about — questions about the environment and questions that affect our economy. Right now, we are primarily focused on agriculture and building a living map of the world’s food supply, but our tech stack is structured to allow us to quickly branch into other important sectors as the team grows and as we hire the resources to do so.
My specific role involves converting raw satellite imagery into “insights”, or features that are meaningful for our modeling team. For example, millions of raw satellite reflectance values may not be very meaningful, but when we can turn them into a Crop Health Index, now we’re talking. Even more valuable insights begin to coalesce when we can compare today’s crop health index value to a long term average, or when we can turn on a rapid detection and alerting system for extreme anomalies in the growing regions that we monitor. Then we can start to answer questions about the status of the world’s food supply on any given day or season.
I also work on creating raster visualizations (typically developed in QGIS) for our web app, Kernel. Day to day, I spend a lot of time writing code, primarily in R — though I’m determined to get a better handle on Python and become fluent in PostgreSQL/PostGIS — right now, I’d say I’m conversational at best!
I’m something of a compulsive FOSS4G user and evangelist, which is why I recently became a charter member of OSGeo (that just means I get to vote on things — mostly new board and charter members). In the last couple of years, I’ve worked hard to bring R into the light for geospatial data science folks via social media and presenting at conferences. Last year, I presented three talks and a workshop at FOSS4G, which was tons of fun!
Q: How do you get to be a charter member of OSGeo?
A: To become a charter member of OSGeo, you must be nominated by an existing charter member (thanks, Alex Mandel!) and demonstrate a number of positive attributes with regard to the open source community. My nomination was based largely on my role as a geospatial R evangelist — a role I didn’t necessarily want, but the mix of a large gap in representation with oppressive guilt made me do it! In particular, my almost excessive participation at last year’s FOSS4G conference in Boston was largely responsible for my eventual nomination/election to the group.
Q: How did you get into the Geospatial Field? Was it an end goal of college?
A: So, no. Geospatial was not an end goal or even on my radar. I got my undergraduate degree in Environmental Science from Saint Anselm College. There, I worked on a project where we radio-tagged turtles and tracked them over the course of a year — turns out, they travel surprising distances through all sorts of habitats — I mean, they are turtles, so who knew? We used triangulation to figure out where we were each day and put our turtle sightings on a map — no GPS! I’m laughing to myself about this now. But really, I loved that project so much. That said, I had no idea that I was doing GIS or even what it was.
Fast forward through a few confused and frustrating years post-graduation where I did everything from coaching soccer and teaching high school (something I hope to go back to at some point later in my career) to working for a pharmaceutical company as a clinical data manager, checking to make sure drug trial protocols were followed. One day I woke up and said to myself, “Ok, I need to make a move here, I’m going to grad school.” And so it was. I knew I wanted to stay in the environmental field and sort of assumed I’d go the PhD/professor route.
The following fall, I started a Natural Resources/Remote Sensing Masters degree at the University of New Hampshire. I still had no idea what GIS or remote sensing was, but I got a teaching assistantship that paid my way and it all sounded quite interesting, so I decided to dive in. I had to get up to speed pretty quickly, though, as I was charged with teaching GIS and remote sensing classes that I had never taken before! My Master’s thesis was an exciting (to me) combination of remote sensing, GIS, and machine learning — I built a model that predicts vernal pool locations based on image and GIS-based predictors. My journey can pretty accurately be described as a fortunate series of chances, risks, and leaps of faith that somehow worked in my favor and landed me in a career that I enjoy. And the rest, as they say, is history!
Q: You mentioned R and you did a workshop at FOSS4G in Boston on R which was pretty well received (I tried to sneak in and couldn’t). What is R and why do you like — possibly love — R? I don’t know enough about it but I’m trying.
A: R is an open source software project and programming language. It is held in pretty high regard by academics and data scientists, and is becoming more mainstream among spatial analysts as well. For those who want to automate their work through coding, R is essentially a fully functional command line GIS. The most important reason that I use R (or any programming language) is because it offers repeatability, automation, and documentation of my work — YUP, I just did that…RAD!
I will admit that I didn’t always love it. I had a hard time learning it, and that process involved a lot of foul language. Fortunately, I had some great mentors to pull me through, including an amazing group of former colleagues from the Woods Hole Research Center.
What I like (love?) about R is that I can script my entire workflow — from data cleanup/wrangling (for which R is exceptional), to spatial and statistical analysis, to publication of beautiful figures to tell my story — all in one environment. And once I’ve coded my workstream, I have a complete record of what I did, including which files I used and how I processed them. Working with terabytes (maybe petabytes?) of data — many thousands of images and files — there is no option about programming; it is a necessity to automate my work. R does have some drawbacks though — the biggest of which is that it does everything in memory. Advances in technology have provided a lot of ways to work around the memory limitation though, including better hardware as well as easier ways to chunk up the data and distribute processing. As a spatial data scientist, R is the complete package, with possibly the exception of cartography. While I’ve seen folks do some neat things with maps in R, my go-to for a single, really nice map is still QGIS.
Q: So when you’re at college you meet this dashing young man whom you eventually married — correct?
A: Yes, sir! We met in graduate school. I had been there for about 6 months and kept hearing about this other student, Jesse, who was doing field work in New Zealand. One day around Christmas he showed up in the lab (to my delight). He ended up being my TA for one of the remote sensing classes. Hope there is a statute of limitations for that sort of impropriety, but we are married now, if that helps his case.
Q: Two married people in the GIS field — do you both sit around and talk about spatial things?
A: Sometimes, but over the years we have developed a code of conduct regarding work talk. Jesse and I have worked together for a long time, including 2.5 years at the Southern Nevada Water Authority in Las Vegas and 6 years at the Woods Hole Research Center. Early on, we agreed that we would only talk about work during our commute. At home, work is off-limits. And today, even though we don’t work together anymore, the same pretty much holds true. We’ll talk about each other’s days over dinner, and we may discuss a programming puzzle now and then, but for the most part, we keep work at work. It’s a nice separation that keeps us mostly sane.
Q: OK — You’re working at Tellus. You’ve worked at Woods Hole Research Center. What is the most exciting thing you’ve done up till now in the industry?
A: That’s a tough question, as I’ve had the good fortune of doing a lot of fun things during various jobs, including field work in all sorts of environments, from the tropics to the desert (not always fun, but always interesting). Some of my most wonderful work memories come from teaching technical workshops in various parts of the world. During my time at WHRC I taught workshops here in the US, but I also frequently traveled to South America — Colombia, Peru, Bolivia — thank you, undergraduate minor in Spanish! My farthest trip was to Nepal, which was just amazing. The workshops were designed to build capacity in remote sensing, programming, and forestry within indigenous groups, government agencies, and non-profit organizations in developing countries. I made some lifelong friends who were gracious enough to share their culture with me, teach me to salsa, and even introduce me to their families and friends. I’m forever grateful for the opportunity to share my experience while seeing some incredible places and meeting equally incredible people.
Q: Which is better: A horse or bicycle? Why?
A: I suppose there are pros and cons to each. To my knowledge, bicycles are not spooked by plastic bags, motorcycles, mailboxes, or any other brand of vicious predator you may happen upon in the course of a ride. A bicycle is not typically going to buck you off, though I feel like I may have been bucked off by a bike in the past. It won’t walk away when you try to get on, demand carrots and apples (and frisk your pockets looking for them if you don’t deliver), ask for a scratch in just the right spot (the belly on my guy), knicker when you arrive, look longingly after you when you leave, play with you, choose to be your partner, and it won’t love you back. A bicycle does not have a mind of its own, with memories of positive and negative experiences. It doesn’t have good days and bad days, and it cannot learn, grow, bond, and communicate with you. So, while horses can be dangerous for many of the above reasons, those are also the reasons why horses will always be better than bicycles, in my opinion.
Q: Anything you want to tell the world?
A: I guess having worked in tech/geospatial for “several” years now, I could offer some advice.
Don’t be afraid to try something new, and don’t be afraid to fail and break things. If you never fail, you aren’t pushing yourself hard enough!
Learn to code (see #1).
Impostor syndrome will get you nowhere. Focus on your strengths and what you bring to a situation, and don’t lament not knowing what everyone else seems to know. They don’t.
Help people. You didn’t get wherever you are on your own — pay it forward when you can.
Take time off. It never feels like a good time, but you need to do it, so just do it.
Adopt an animal (unrelated, but still important!).
I’m still working on all of these… except #6… I’ve probably done enough of #6 for the moment.
Ari Gesher, Matt Gordon and Julia Chmyz work at Kairos Aerospace, a Bay-Area-based company specializing in aerospace solutions for environmental surveying and digital mapping. Ari, Matt and Julia were interviewed in person during the 2018 Mapbox Locate Conference in San Francisco.
Describe Kairos Aerospace.
Ari: Kairos applies the notions of faster, cheaper, iterative cycles of technology to Aerospace. Specifically, with the mission of building sensors to spot very large leaks of Methane.
Julia: A less high-level description of Kairos — Kairos deploys aerial sensors, spectrometers, optical cameras, and thermal cameras to conduct large-scale surveys of assets from oil and gas companies, to survey those assets to discover things about them.
Matt: Kairos is a bunch of physicists and engineers who care about health and safety and climate change. We fly sensors and sell data about environmental pollutants (specifically methane) to oil and gas producers.
What led you each to Kairos?
Ari: I ended up at Kairos because the two original founders, Steve Deiker and Brian Jones, both worked at Lockheed for a long time, and they decided to start their own company. Steve’s wife worked with me at Palantir, and they knew that everything they were going to do was going to require a lot of heavy data processing, and that was not an area of expertise for them. They approached me for advice around what it would take to build a team with that kind of ability. That was late 2014. I was instantly interested, it sounded really, really cool… But, for reasons of childbirth, I was not about to switch jobs; I ended up being the original angel investor. Two years later I came on board as the director of software engineering.
Julia: Brian’s wife worked with the woman who was married to my grandfather. And so, my grandfather was actually another one of those original investors — This was 2015 — and he was saying to me, “Julia, there’s this great new company.” And I’m like, “Okay, Grandpa… I’m sure. That’s cool.”
Grandpa says, “They’re so great! They’re so great! You gotta send ‘em your resumé.” I was in school at the time (I’m a year out of college now), and I said, “Okay, fine grandpa, I’ll send ‘em my resumé.”
I hadn’t really looked into it, I just didn’t really want to work at this company my grandpa thought was so cool. But I sent my resumé, and I was really clear about this, I was like, “My grandpa’s really excited about this, but I’m not sure it’s such a good fit.” — expecting to give them an easy way out.
And instead, they wrote back and said, “We’re really interested! Your resumé looks great, we’d really love to have you on board.” So I came in and talked, and actually got to see for myself. And I was like, this looks really great. So I was an intern in the summer of 2016, when we were a third of size we are now. And then I came back full-time a year ago.
Matt: There’s a lot of funny history between Ari and I, which I won’t go into. I had just done my postdoc at Stanford in physics, and Ari recruited me to go work at Palantir. Then, about six years later, I quit and I was bumming around a bit, and making fire art.
Matt: Making fire art… yeah… and I thought I would go get a real job. Ari, at that point, was an angel investor, and he tried to recruit me into his current job.
Ari: That’s right, I tried to hire Matt for my current job.
Matt: And I turned him down to go start my own company, to develop online treatment for substance use disorders. Which, let’s say, the world was not ready for… [Polite chuckles] Mark my words: you’re going to see it.
And then about a year after doing that, Ari saw I was on the job market again, and asked me to come work at Kairos, on a team of four people – two full-times, an intern, and a couple of physicists who commited code to our code base (for better or for worse).
How many people are there now?
So it’s grown quite a bit?
Matt: Yeah. It’s moving.
Ari: Yeah there was sort of two different phases. The first two years, Brian and Steve quit their jobs and were literally in their garage in Los Altos, developing the hardware that is the heart of the methane sensor (which is the imaging spectrometer). And there’s pictures; like, one of them’s across the street, positioning a methane cell in the light path of a heliostat, the other one’s at the laptop with the original Mark-1 Spectrometer, making sure it worked.
Do they still have that?
Ari: They do — it sits on a shelf, and looks like a broken projector or something. [chuckles] So, the first two years was just validating that the hardware would work, and at the end of that, they had the design for what is today our production spectrometer, and the first production-designed unit (although we’re probably going to throw that one out pretty soon.)
The next two years have been developing both the operational side (How do we hook this thing up to a computer, and fly it, and collect data?), and also the software pipelines that sit behind it (How do we take that data off the instrument once it’s done? How do we upload it to the cloud, and develop the algorithms, from scratch, that turn that spectrographic data into the plume images that we have?).
Walk me through the process of: going out and sensing the area, to: you have a final product; and what that final product looks like.
Ari: The way that this works is that we’re given an area, a spot on the ground — the job we’re working on now is about 1,300 square miles?
Matt: We’re given a shapefile.
Ari: Right, we’re given a shapefile, and if we’re lucky, we’re also given a list of assets (another shapefile that tells us where all their wells and storage tanks and things are, so we can identify things once we find a plume over them). We then draw up flight plans to go fly over that area… like, if you look at it, you see the plane going back and forth like a lawn mower. And then, that data goes through the processing pipeline.
Example of a flight path
What comes out the other end are a stack of rasters that show us various measures of what the spectrometer has picked up. At a very rough level, what we’re actually sensing is a methane anomaly. Methane is everywhere in the atmosphere at some level; so it’s not “Is there methane here or is there no methane?”, but “Is there elevated methane?”
We use the large survey area, or chunks of it, to develop what we think the background levels of methane are in that area of the atmosphere. And then, we look for places in the data where there are elevated levels, and use that to interpolate a plume shape.
Example of a plume
One of the things we like to do at GeoHipster is geek out about the tools that people use; tell me about your day-to-day.
Ari: We’re mostly a Python shop. Very large amounts of effort dedicated to making GDAL install and compile correctly.
Matt: I do a lot of the GIS stuff at Kairos. There’s all the code for taking remote sensing data and GPS, and figuring out where that was placed on the ground. Then, taking all of that and creating GeoTIFFs out of that, with all the different metrics that we’re interested in.
Ari: And that’s all custom software, we don’t even use GDAL very much. We use GDAL to open the dataset that we write, but how we figure out what goes into each pixel is all ours.
Matt: Yeah, the ground placement of remote-sensed data is an art form… it’s interesting how much we’ve built from scratch. I think people with a lot of background in this probably know a lot of tricks and tools (and I’ve heard tell that there’s a book, but I’ve been unable to find it).
In terms of GIS nerdery: we used to do a lot of ad-hoc analysis in QGIS, and as we were increasing the number of reports we wanted to produce for customers, we wrote a QGIS plugin. It’s custom, and it’s not published anywhere because it’s specific to our workflow and our data, and it gives people summary information.
Anyone who has used QGIS will know that it’s like, incredibly powerful and can be incredibly frustrating. And if anyone from QGIS is reading this, I want them to know that I really appreciate the tool. We love it, and we would use something else if we thought it was better, and we don’t. There’s nothing else better.
Julia, you work on the tools that pilots use when they’re out collecting data. Can you tell us a bit about those?
Julia: There’s the feed that the flight operator sees in the plane, and the spectrometer frames that are being taken. There’s also all the IMU data that’s used for path stuff and all the later calculations… and this is our flight monitoring Mapbox Leaflet. The back end is built in Python, and the front end is in React.
Matt: Ari’s contribution was the X-Wing fighter.
Julia: The point of this is to make everything work as smoothly as possible — so the flight operators don’t have to spend their time staring at multiple log files, which is what they were doing before this.
Matt: So imagine a terminal, and just watching lines of term logs scroll past… in an airplane. In a very small plane.
Ari: Well, now that they use this, they say that they get kind of bored on the plane, because it gives them everything they need. In fact, we built this this tool not just to spit the information to the operator, but it also ingests all the raw data coming off the instrument; and we have a bunch of agents that watch that data for different conditions, and control the instruments.
It’s called R2CH4 as an homage to R2D2, who’s an astromech repair droid — and its primary job is not to save the universe, its primary job is just to make the X-Wing go.
I wouldn’t have caught that reference.
Well, CH4 is Methane sooooo… [makes the “ba-dum-tssssss” joke sound]
What do you do when you’re not at work – any hobbies? Matt, I heard about yours a little already: I know you’re a fire artist and you hang-glide?
Matt: I don’t hang-glide anymore, but yeah, I build weird Burner kinetic fire art. I’m making a fire Skee-Ball machine right now, where the balls are on fire. You get to wear big, fireproof kevlar gloves. I was going to bring it to Precompression, which is the pre-Burning Man party they do in SF, but the SF fire department nixed it.
Ari: I dabble in home automation. That’s kind of my tinkering hobby currently. I mean, I’ve had really good hobbies, but now my hobbies are basically my two children. But, you know… I used to be a DJ for a little while. I swear I used to have better hobbies — but I’ve really just been well-employed for like twelve years.
Julia: I spend most of my free time either outside, like hiking, or reading — real books with paper.
Ari: I thought that was illegal now?
Julia: It is here.
Just one last question for you.
Ari: 4-3-2-6! I’m glad you asked — it’s my favorite coordinate system.
Matt: 3-8-5-7 is way better, man.
Are you a geohipster? Why or why not?
Ari: Oh, absolutely. It’s interesting that all of us came to Kairos, not completely illiterate in the ways of GIS, but certainly not as well-steeped. And I was actually thinking about this on the way home: we have non-GIS operational data about what we do, but the core of what we do — everything is geo data. Like, there’s no non-geo data. And, what we’re trying to build is: taking a novel stream of data about the earth, and then running it through very, very modern software pipelines, to automate its processing, it’s production, all of that, in a way that requires understanding the bleeding edge of technology and blending that with GIS. And that’s what we spend all day doing.
Matt: I am geohipster because I make artisanal Geo data. And I’m opinionated about it. And I’m obnoxious. So, here a thing that I do, which is super geohipster: We produce a lot of stuff internally at the company, in WGS84 — which is not a projected coordinate system. It’s a geo-coordinate system — and I constantly complain about this. That we are producing GeoTIFFs in 4326, but we should be producing them in a projected coordinate system.
Julia: …And I want to tell you, we were doing all this way before it was cool.
Ari: One last thing — we use US-West 2 as our AWS data center, because it’s carbon-neutral (they run entirely on hydropower), so it fits in well with our overall mission.