Tag Archives: Denver Public Schools

Matthew Baker: “Breaking free from a traditional set of tools is a relief and a challenge”

Matthew Baker
Matthew Baker
Matthew Baker has been in the geospatial industry for 10 years, having studied in Windsor, Ontario and Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia Canada before working at an Urban Planning firm in Ontario, then on to Esri in Redlands, CA. Matt is now the Sr. GIS Analyst at Denver Public Schools, a position which supports the District's planning and analysis of students, schools and boundaries, as well as delivery of spatial data to the enterprise student information system.

Q: You work for Denver Public Schools. What are you all working on? Why do you use maps?

A: As I write this the 2015-16 school year is starting up. We’re tracking enrollments and looking at how neighborhoods in Denver are changing. Soon we’ll have our annual enrollment count that get submitted to the State, and there will be a flurry of analysis that will go along with it that will support the decisions the District will make going into the years ahead.

We use maps to communicate the state of the District to everyone from the Superintendent and the Board of Education through to the Principals of schools throughout the District and parents of students in the schools. We publish maps online for the community to use, we create mailing lists and canvassing maps for our community outreach team, as well as maps used at community meetings around the City to drive discussion on boundary changes; our maps go into the yearly Strategic Regional Analysis, and we’re constantly creating one-off maps for quick-turnaround analysis that comes from senior administration.

Q: What are some lessons you have learned along the way when developing systems for DPS?

A: Working in a relational database system you learn a LOT about real data very quickly, such as what primary keys are for, how spatial indices are built, how joins really work, and most importantly you don’t have to cram all possible information about your spatial data into one table.

When I started at DPS, my first task was to re-build the ArcSDE. I quickly realized, however, that our student enterprise is based in SQL Server, and there is a lot of data that will never live in a geodatabase. Additionally our analysts were already using heavy-duty SQL for their analysis, which almost always had a spatial component, and since the spatial data lived with one person — the ‘GIS’ person — there was always a wall.

So using PostGIS as a guide, I developed a native SQL server spatial environment bringing in our data from ArcSDE, and connected and delivered spatial data to the enterprise. I taught our analysts how SQL spatial functions work, and we finally had spatial analysis tools we could all use.

Q: What is your technology stack?

A: We’ve been using ArcSDE for spatial data editing and ArcMap for cartography, MS SQL Server for spatial analysis and reporting, and FME to bridge the gap between the two formats. The spatial database really works for us, but there are huge glaring holes.

So we spent the majority of this past summer building an open source version of this stack: we dissected our current workflows, outlined strategies for implementing FOSS4G, and identified areas we’d have roadblocks.  We then set up a PostgreSQL database server, enabled PostGIS, loaded our core spatial data and some other enterprise tables, and we’ve been hitting it hard with no sign of looking back, using QGIS for cartography and data editing, SQL to analyze and build spatial datasets, and we’re getting into pgRouting to better analyze student distance calculations. The benefits of PostgreSQL as a central database are a big deal for us, and integrating other tools like PGModeler, LibreOffice, and CartoDB, and of course open source operating systems like Ubuntu and Mint are all icing on the cake.

Q: What you envision for the future of curriculum for geography students?

A: I really have no idea what digital geography is being taught at the K-12 level, if any, and I frankly don’t believe Kindergarten students should be “doing GIS”– contrary to a lot of marketing emails I get.

However, at the post-secondary level, everyone in Denver is ready for a new way of learning about spatial data. There is the FOSS4G Lab at UC Denver that I’ve been participating in, and I really see their work as an important step forward into building new tools into digital spatial learning and beyond. And we’ve got a great monthly meetup to learn from each other.

Q: You worked at Esri for a bit? What were you doing there and what did you get out of it?

A: I lived in Mojave in a Winnebago, got slobberin’ drunk at the Palomino, and got 6 years in San Ber’Dino… I’m talking about The Red Lands!  Well I spent those years learning as much as I could about as much as I could, focussing at work on urban planning applications of GIS, and at home on cooking and vegetable gardening. And since I was doing so much cycling there, I met a group of local bike commuters. We created the Redlands Bike BBQ (with @geogangster), got a covered secure bike parking facility built at Esri, and I’m told we were instrumental in the implementation of the new bike lane system in Redlands. My best friend was a 65-year old ex-surfer, ex-forest service fire-fighter, ex-high school teacher who gave me tours of the area no import to Redlands ever receives, and no matter what dusty corner of the Inland Empire we’d visit, we’d always run into one of his former students…

Q: What did you study at university? How did you find yourself in the geospatial world?

A: At University I went back and forth between geography and communication studies, eventually getting my degree in Communications and a Minor in Geography. I then took a year at the Center of Geographic Sciences in Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia (aka COGS). Since geography was always my favourite subject growing up, and since I have media in my blood (both parents are retired from the CBC), I had a eureka moment when I created my first PDF map! Communications and Geography! Now what to do with it…

Q: You are married to a fellow cartographer. First of all, how did you two meet? How does it feel to be a geo-power couple? How often do you “talk shop”?

A: Mamata and I met in Redlands at a bike rack and both seemed to have a shared philosophy of temporary life in SoCal — she is from Northern California, so we never understood watering lawns at 3pm in July when it was 110F and hasn’t rained in 4 months. Hand-in-hand we both kept one foot out the door, and when the time came, we got ourselves to Denver. I’d say we’re a geo-power couple, but really after a few words about work when we get home, it’s time for dinner and the usual tasks of a married couple. I’m super proud of what she’s done and where she is and looking forward to what comes next for both of us both on and off the field…

Q: What is the biggest challenge you see in the geospatial field?  

A: Breaking free from a traditional set of tools is a relief and a challenge. There is so much information out there on Twitter, blogs, etc., and it’s tough to navigate all off it let alone decide what tools you should use to fit your organization, and then you’ve got to think about how those tools will be supported. Then there is the challenge of breaking the old “GIS” way of thinking, that one application can solve all your problems… as we say around the office, we’ve got to think outside the Arc…

Q: How would you describe the Denver mapping community?

A: From what I can tell, Denver has been an ‘oil and gas’ mapping community for a long time. But with all the new companies and people coming into town, all looking to get spatial going in their organizations, there is a growing community of GeoHipsters, and it’s definitely the next place I see things really popping up for the industry.

Q: What skill is on your list to master next?

A: Open source ETL tools still evade me, and we have a need for a rigorous geocoder, but I haven’t cracked that open yet.

Q: Which do you prefer when it comes to maps?

  • Data or design
    • Data — however, the medium is the message…
  • Functionality or beauty
    • Functional tools should just BE beautiful
  • Historical or futuristic
    • Historical
  • Markers or pins
    • Markers
  • Clustering or heat maps
    • Heat maps
  • Markdown or Handlebars
    • Huh?
  • GeoServer or MapServer
    • GeoServer

Q: … and one more, what do you do in your free time — that makes you a geohipster? Collect antiques? Ride Denver buses? Drink beer? Cycle around town?

A: I used to be a bike commuter, but finally got so fed up with other cyclists blasting through stop signs and red lights, texting while riding, all of it with no helmet, no gears, no brakes (organ donors), I finally said enough and got on the bus. Now I read a lot and chat with people and do a lot more walking, and now as a pedestrian I find great amusement in blocking the route of cyclists running red lights and exchanging middle-fingers.

I go to one brewery and they do English-style cask-conditioned ales, I brew half-decaf store-bought coffee in an auto-drip (or percolator) and sometimes re-heat it on the stove the next day if no one drinks it. I don’t eat meat (it’s just not healthy, people), but I’m not a vegan (I do love honey and my leather boots).

Q: Any closing comments for the GeoHipster readers?

A: Reading all these tweets and blog posts it’s like we’re at war — from both sides of the open source paradigm. One side seems to want to destroy the other without knowing what they really do and why, while the other side will tell you they support these new tools and companies then turn around and try to buy them up or confuse the education with marketing materials. Swearing and being snarky in your tweets or calling yourself open source because you have a GitHub account is divisive, deceptive, and distracting. I am the user, and frankly I don’t want to support either of you. Like Nathan said, get a hobby!