Tag Archives: geo

Eight young professionals doing awesome things in geo

by Jonah Adkins [@jonahadkins]

Real talk: I love geo. After 15 years or so in this field, I’m constantly amazed at the work being accomplished by my colleagues. I’m especially inspired by the new class of talent that comes along every few years. Whether it be a thought-provoking tweet, a fresh take on cartography, or niche app that re-defines a previous concept, young professionals are continually improving our field.

In taking a break from our usual long-form interview format, i’d like to introduce you to eight young professionals who inspire me on a regular basis. Each of them brings a unique perspective to geo, and all of them are dedicated to making a difference by having a positive impact on our world. 

I recently asked each of them to tell me about what they love about geo right now, and invited them to share something “cool”.  Some you may already know, some you may not, so here’s a virtual handshake to help introduce them to you.
Eight young professionals doing awesome things in geo | Left to right: Top row: Kitty Hurley, Kelvin Abrokwa-Johnson, Allison Smith; Middle row: Courtney Claessens, Katie Kowalsky; Bottom row: Alex Kappel, Kara Mahoney, Jacqueline Kovarik
Eight young professionals doing awesome things in geo | Left to right: Top row: Kitty Hurley, Kelvin Abrokwa-Johnson, Allison Smith; Middle row: Courtney Claessens, Katie Kowalsky; Bottom row: Alex Kappel, Kara Mahoney, Jacqueline Kovarik


Kitty Hurley [@geospatialem]

GIS Developer at Minnesota Department of Health

A front-end GIS Developer at the State of Minnesota, Kitty is focused on UI/UX, cartographic design, mobile environments, and web accessibility.  She helps organize Maptime MSP, and is finishing her three-year term on the Minnesota GIS/LIS Consortium’s Board of Directors. In her free time, Kitty hits the ice to play hockey, hikes/snowshoes (depending on the season), loves a good book, and likes to travel the globe.

Cool shareable: Map for the annual Minnesota GIS/LIS Consortium’s conference showcasing hotels, key attractions, and establishments. The 2015 conference was the 25th annual conference held in the beautiful city of Duluth. http://geospatialem.github.io/conference-map/

Kitty says: “There’s so much to learn in the geography and geospatial industries, and so many extremely talented professionals to tap and work with! Broadly speaking, I am trying to be a better cartographer, and I’ve found that working offline has been the best method for me — doodling, coloring, baking, traveling, and even hiking…”


Kelvin Abrokwa-Johnson [@__klvn__]

Software Development Intern at Mapbox

Currently a junior at the College of William & Mary, where he studies Applied Mathematics and Computer Science. Kelvin is from Northern Virginia, and before that Accra, Ghana.

Cool shareable: I wrote my first real lines of code just over a year ago, and now I hack on all sorts of cool and complex projects! One of them is a scraper for data.openaddresses.io that makes it prettier and searcheable by source name and by country.


Kelvin says:  “The geospatial field is a great environment for budding software engineers. The open source community in geo is so vibrant and vocal. Everyone is always up to something cool and creative. This is especially true at Mapbox where brilliant minds are pushing the envelope on the state of the art in geospatial technology all the time.”


Allison K. Smith [@smith_ak1]

Cartographic Technician at Virginia Economic Development Partnership

Allison is a May 2015 graduate from James Madison University and a former intern at the National Parks Service. She spends her free time hiking and trying to figure out how to “adult” (401K? Health Insurance? Taxes???).

Cool shareable: For my Senior Capstone at James Madison University, I created this map that tells the story of a growing industry in the Commonwealth that dates back to the colonial age. It was built using a multitude of different tools: the map itself was built in QGIS and ArcMap, all of the charts were originally built using R, and the stylization and construction of the graphics all took place in Adobe Illustrator.

Virginia is for Wine Lovers: The Virginia Wine Industry

Allison says: “I  love putting interactive GIS in the hands of the user and making geographic data accessible and understandable for everyone to explore. I have started teaching myself the basics of web design in the hope of building some interactive maps and charts of my own someday.”


Courtney Claessens [@sidewalkballet]

Product Engineer on ArcGIS Open Data at Esri DC R&D Center

Courtney works at Esri where she’s a Product Engineer on ArcGIS Open Data. She works closely with product management, designers, and customers to help guide the product and make sure they’re building something awesome. Before Esri, she studied in Canada at McGill University, where she was introduced to open data through GIS classes and the professors there who are studying how new geospatial tech is altering government – citizen interactions. Courtney is also a co-organizer for Maptime DC, and a co-organizer for HackShopDC.

Cool shareable: These are hand-drawn slides for a hand-drawn Maptime we held at Maptime DC last year. I love getting back to other parts of geography and mapping I don’t come into contact with every day at work, like psychogeography. https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1-xaa8u8GXAdjOqpCSYBFrGLHkvmTBhTtsNTe2uOWFzM/htmlpresent

Courtney says: “I’m really excited about my awesome coworker Brendan’s map editor, Mundi, and all the potential that comes from it. You sign in with your GitHub account and can search through all the open datasets from ArcGIS, do your simple-but-flexible map styling, and get an output as a gist and an automagically created bl.ock. It also gives you the map styling CSS or JSON, so it’s sweet if you just want to play with styling and plug the bit of code into your own map.”


Katie Kowalsky [@katiekowalsky]

Cartographer at UW-Madison Cartography Lab

Katie is a cartographer, glasses-wearer, and amateur cheese enthusiast who currently lives in Madison, Wisconsin. She’s finishing her cartography/GIS degree at UW-Madison while working at the Cartography Lab and co-organizing Maptime Madison. She’s a social media nut who helps run several professional map twitters (such as @NACIS & @MaptimeHQ) and loves the cartographic Twitter community.

Cool shareable: This was my first intense D3 map, with a supported graphic and temporal component — so it was a bit daunting given our time constraint, but we made it work! The hardest part of this map was the research required. I didn’t realize how much legal jargon I’d have to learn about in order to assemble all of our data. If it had just been looking at each abortion restriction without a temporal component, that would have been a lot easier, but why would we want that?


Katie says: “I’ve become quite the tileset evangelist. I think there’s only going to be more growth in people choosing better tilesets or designing their own — which I think is great. I’ve also loved seeing cartographers use this as a sandbox for crazy map ideas and as an exploratory tool. We don’t nearly talk [enough] about the other components to web mapping besides the JavaScript — data and tiles are also important to think deeply and teach about!”


Alex Kappel [@alex_kappel]
GIS Analyst, the Data Team at @AidData

Alex discovered geo at Clark University while studying Environmental Science. After learning some Python in school, he got the opportunity to intern at Development Seed. Currently he works at AidData, using mainly FOSS geotools producing
geocoded data sets (which hopefully have a positive impact). Based out of the William & Mary office, Alex also gets to work with a lot of students, and is a co-organizer for Maptime Hampton Roads.

Cool shareable: Accessibility is one of the key attributes of ‘open’ data. With this in mind, AidData provides geocoded datasets that lower barriers of entry for end users who want to see who is funding what, and where they are siting their investments. Collectively, this suite of improvements is known as a “Level 1A” data product. All of AidData’s Level 1 geocoded datasets are now accompanied by a Level 1A data product.

http://aiddata.org/blog/making-geocoded-data-more-accessible-introducing-level-1a …

Alex says: “I’m most excited by the imagery tools that DevSeed is building. I had the privilege of working on the first release of landsat-util, and it’s been incredibly exciting to see all of the new tools that the team has put out since: Libra, OpenAerialMap, and new iterations of landsat-util.


Jacqueline Kovarik [@cartojacqueline]

GIS Developer at Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Jacqueline is an outdoor enthusiast who’s paired her love of nature and geography in her career as a GIS professional with the MN Department of Natural Resources. While she has recently moved into a GIS developer role, she gets her cartography and design fix by creating hand-made maps. When Jacqueline is not mapping, she is usually hiking, fly-fishing, or kayaking.

Cool Shareable: After creating a mobile data collection app for the MN DNR’s entomologists to track bee species and habitat characteristics in Minnesota, I was inspired to learn about native bees. This map was generated from an evolving dataset of specialist bees and native host plant ranges, courtesy of the University of Minnesota and the MN DNR. The intent of the map is to bring awareness to bee population decline and population diversity, as well as highlight the need for increased data and analysis to facilitate population preservation.


Jacqueline says: “I’m excited that cartography, design, and user experience are playing an increasingly important role in web map development. Sharpening my front end development skills to create efficient yet attractive interactive maps is something I’m working hard at right now. Being part of such a creative community of GIS experts is inspiring!”


Kara Mahoney [@ainulindale]

Developer at Azimuth1

Kara graduated from George Mason University in 2014, studied geography, though somewhere along the way she managed to earn most of the computer science and geology degrees as well (foraminiferal oxygen isotopes are super cool and academic specialization is hard). Currently she works for a small geospatial analytics startup based outside of Washington DC, and her tasks at the moment range from throwing Bash and Python at large unruly datasets, cartographic design, web development, search and rescue related behavioral modeling, ops, keeping their local PostgreSQL OSM database alive, and attempting to bend the Node GDAL bindings to her will for raster processing and modeling in Electron.

Cool shareable: Search & Rescue topographic maps for Washington and Virginia are a sample of trying to improve on USGS maps with OpenStreetMap and supplemental data. Methodology for the SAR map creation can be found at the following link:


Kara says:  “I’m having a lot of fun with designing for WebGL based map rendering, using TileStache for managing and hosting custom tilesets, and Pandas for data wrangling.”


Whom should we profile in our next “Young professionals doing awesome things in geo”? Send us an email.


Marc Pfister: “I enjoy that I can see my work get turned into large physical objects”

Marc Pfister
Marc Pfister
Reading his bio, one might get the impression that Marc Pfister is the prototypical geohipster. After studying mechanical engineering, he was a bicycle designer by day, and DJ by night. He then took his CAD skills and turned them into a 10-year GIS career. As a tinkerer who has to take everything apart, he began to focus on Open Source geospatial programming. Along the way he helped reverse-engineer Esri’s SBN spatial index, and started making statewide maps of gravel roads. Then in 2012 he bounced around the midwest and became an artisan cheesemaker with his wife, starting Longview Creamery.

Q: You are among a growing number of people I know who have left the GIS industry. Why did you leave, and why do you think others do?

A: My wife has worked as a cheesemaker on and off over the years, and we had always thought about starting our own cheese company. It’s a daunting task to go from zero to a fully operational facility. Some friends who were starting up a goat cheese operation in Nebraska needed some help and had a place we could stay in, so we decided it looked like a good opportunity to try something out. We would help them with their operation, and in exchange we could use their facility to start testing some potential cheeses. So we quit our jobs, threw some minimally viable furniture into a small trailer, and moved to Nebraska. While we were working on that, some equipment came up for sale in Colorado. It was in a really nice facility and it seemed like a shame to have to move it, so when we bought the equipment the owner leased us the building and let us take over the existing business.

While this was going on, I was still doing geo work on the side. I worked for Boundless on GeoNode and MapStory, which was a neat project to be involved in. But lately the business has grown so much that I’ve been sucked into it more and more, so there hasn’t been much geo-anything going on. Honestly, I like working with physical equipment, so at this point if I left cheesemaking I could see going into dairy engineering. But on the other hand, I like the geo field and would probably go back with the right opportunity and team.

I don’t know anyone who has left geo due to a beef with some aspect of the industry. It seems like most ‘geo’ people have come into it from some other career path, so they have options to leave geo to go back to environmental work, or programming, or whatever. It’s almost like geo is an adjective you can stick on any career. It’s like saying you work in the color red, and you could be growing strawberries or painting fire trucks.

Q: You are still very active on the geotwitters, though, so it’s not like you have shut the geodoor. Or have you?

A: I’m doing almost zero geo work other than the gravel road maps. People still email me questions about SBNs and Google Static Maps, so I help out where I can. I’m active on the geotwitters mostly because I’ve absorbed enough technical jargon to come up with good jokes. I love a good geojoke, especially if it involves some photoshopping.

Breaking NAD
Breaking NAD

Q: What is your fondest memory from your geo times? What is the worst?

A: The fondest? In 2008, when I lived in rural Northern California, there was a huge lightning storm, and several wildfires started within a few miles of my house. I was frustrated because I could see the flames from my porch but the online information was terrible. The MODIS heat detects were on one site with a horrible base map, and the fire perimeters were on another that had an outdated clunky interface. So in the best 2008 mashup spirit I bodged together some scripts to pull in that data and put it together on Google Maps. I also did a little cleanup, like converting the MODIS detection time stamps to local time. It ended up being a big hit. The Los Angeles Times posted it on their website and it slashdotted our server, which is both terrifying and gratifying at the same time. I also got a lot of ‘Thank You!’ emails, including some from USFS and Cal Fire staffers who preferred it to their in-house mapping.

The worst moment, I don’t know if I can think of anything geo-specific that would qualify as the worst. The most frustrating was getting into turf wars with the Board of Professional Land Surveyors. I worked for a scrappy little GIS, environmental, and planning consulting company, and we did everything in house. Orthoimagery, LiDAR, GPS, you name it — we DIYed it. We’d try to sell LiDAR data, and we’d get a nasty letter. We would have to explain that we’re just reselling elevation data that was collected by a company that of course had a licensed land surveyor involved. It got so silly at one point — we ran an ad in a planning magazine advertising that we did ‘Surveys’, as in public opinion surveys for proposed projects, and we got a C & D letter over it! So now you have the backstory behind the Breaking NAD image and a lot of my other jokes about a dystopian future where rogue GIS techs sling illicit elevation data on the black market.

Q: Unlike most GIS practitioners and opinionators (myself included) who are too close to the problem and often can’t see the forest from the trees, you have the unique position and distinct advantage of looking at the industry from a distance. What do you see?

A: Even while inside it, I’ve seen it from a lot of different perspectives. When I started doing GIS work we hadn’t moved to ArcView yet and were doing everything in AutoCAD and Adobe Illustrator. We eventually transitioned to ArcView, but around the same time I found #geo on IRC and the geowanking mailing list, which led to WhereCamp and getting a whole different outsider perspective from people who were programmers discovering that maps were fun to mess with.

So I see two things going on: people who are totally entrenched in the Esri stack and would really benefit from branching out — that’s contrasted with people who are trying too hard to be innovative and are missing the fact that a big part of GIS work is making a PDF site location map that’s going to go into a forgotten report. The eye candy is fun but it’s often the boring stuff that pays the bills.

Q: Is there fashion in technology? Does the desire to be different sometimes trump other more “rational considerations” — in tech as well as in couture?

A: Fashion can mean a lot of things. In terms of self-expression, and as a signifier of belonging to a certain group, definitely. Is the choice of Python, with a focus on readability and whitespace, any different from choosing minimalist Scandinavian furniture?

Software for us is generally a practical tool, so there seems to be a pragmatic limit where getting stuff done trumps outwards appearance. To an outsider, the proliferation of MacBooks in the geo developer world might seem like a fashion thing, but honestly it’s because OS X seems to do the best job of getting out of your way.

I also think there’s a parallel with the low barrier to entry and often easy mix ‘n match pluggability of software. A ‘look’ is really just the sum of parts of component pieces, as much as software is a sum of the underlying libraries. To get into programming you don’t have to start with writing a language and compiler, and to get into fashion you don’t have to start with spinning your own thread.

Q: What is the geo equivalent of normcore? If you see me wearing dad jeans, how would you know whether I am normcore or just lame?

A: If you’re wearing dad jeans when driving your kids around in a minivan, then you’re probably lame. Normcore has to be out of place in order to be referential. So I guess the geo equivalent would be trying to edit ways at an OSM mapathon using ArcView 3 just because you like the menu bars.

Q: You make steel bicycles by hand. You and your wife own and run a creamery. Tell us about your day-to-day activities.

A: They sound terribly hipster — steel bikes, artisan cheese. But it’s really not that cool. I’m a small business owner, so I wear a lot of hats which I’m simultaneously juggling. Usually at least one of those hats is on fire. The hipster sheen wears off quickly. We hear a lot from people who want to get into cheesemaking, and they always have idealized the cheesemaking process to soft-gloved curation of what are essentially precious living objects that have to be nurtured and massaged, like they’re kittens or something. And that you’re carrying on this ancient and noble tradition, yada yada. The reality is that it’s a lot of hot and sweaty manual labor and doing dishes over and over.

The making of a steel bike
The making of a steel bike

Q: Colorado is a geo hub, but is it also a hipster hub? Is the Colorado brand of hipsterism the same as the Brooklyn or Portland or Berlin or Shoreditch variety? How does it differ?

A: I live in a rural farming town that’s turning into a retirement/bedroom community, so I don’t have the best perspective. I spend some time in Fort Collins which is a college town so there’s some ‘hipster’ visibility. There is a sort of coherent ‘coloRADo’ style that’s a mix of snowboarding/skate style with a hippie/raver jam band 420 overtones, but with some tech gear conspicuous consumption. White guys with dreds and rallyed out Subaru turbos. What seems to distinguish them from their peers in places like Lake Tahoe, California, is that they have a high degree of stoke for their state. The Colorado flag is on everything. In California you might see the bear on some things, but stoke seems to be much more regional and often oppositional. You have the Norcal/Socal divide (one of my favorite geo topics), and smaller ones like Oakland/SF or LA/San Diego. I don’t see that in Colorado, even though it has diverse regions (except at the political level).

Q: “New and improved” vs. slow food/slow code. Is the race to develop newer and “better” things at an ever accelerating pace the mark of progress? Is it a good thing? A necessary evil? Or a temporary madness?

A: I find it especially frustrating that ‘upgrades’ these days break so many things. My phone was obsolete the day I bought it. I just upgraded my OS, which ‘upgraded’ Python which broke certain modules that cascaded down into other tools I use. Working with machinery I accept that entropy is going to break things — bearings wear out, metals corrode, on so on. But these upgrades really seem to be the opposite of entropy.

That’s one thing about making cheese that I really enjoy. It’s a process that’s thousands of years old and it’s not going to go obsolete in a month. I have some modern luxuries, like a digital pH meter, but for the most part I don’t expect it to change significantly in 20 years. It’s not a fast process — making cheddar takes 12 hours to go from milk to cheese, several more hours the next day to get it ready for aging, and then a two-month wait before the cheese is ready. But software? I’m deliberately avoiding learning about any specific JavaScript framework because by the time I need to know one I’m pretty sure it won’t be relevant anymore.

Some of my equipment is over 50 years old, and it will run for at least another 50. I like to think about what would be the equivalent of a web map with a 50 year lifespan, when languages and OSes are EOLing after 5 years. Could you get 50 years out of code in ANSI C?

Also on the subject of cheese versus code, I enjoy that I can see my work get turned into large physical objects. I go into our cheese cave and there’s cheese stacked from floor to ceiling, and that feels pretty good, you know? We made all that. And the best part is that it only gets better with age! It can’t disappear with one simple refactor. Of course, physical output means physical labor. There’s no shortage of articles these days about how soul-satisfying physical labor can be. But it’s hard and breaks down your body, and I’m glad I have the luxury that I could go back to a desk job. I hate to romanticize it when I know people who don’t have that choice and are slowly killing themselves.

The worst thing about working with physical products is when you screw up and you have to throw your hard work and money away. Bits are free! I always tell people who are nervous about learning programming that you can screw up as much as you need and there are almost never any consequences. Go crazy and break things.

Q: On closing, what would you say to geohipsters who may have toyed with the idea of trying another career? Go for it, or stick with geo?

A: Go for it. And if it doesn’t work out, geo will take you back.

What will be hot in geo in 2015 — predictions from the GeoHipster crowd

GeoHipster asked several GeoFolk to predict what will be HOT in geo in 2015 (see 2014 predictions from December 2013). Here are their answers:

Nicholas Duggan, Dragons8mycat

Thanks for the opportunity, let me first get into smug mode and say that I wasn’t too far off the mark with Boundless’ OpenGeo being prime place for 2014. Even if it was trumped by the presence of CartoDB this year, people were still talking about it. So, CityEngine never really exploded the way I was expecting, it was beaten by ArcGIS Pro and the fantastic QGIS2Threejs which is still a win in my book.

My thought is that 2015 is going to see QGIS become the cartographers’ software of choice, already with many great effects and styling choices. The next year is only going to see those tools expanding and getting more relevant for the cartographer & casual mapper alike.

With the latest Snapdragon chipsets in the current Samsung & HTC devices, locational accuracy can be better than 3 metres anywhere in the world through an off -the-shelf mobile device. I can see this being a springboard for many GIS companies to bring out better mobile mapping/ tracking solutions and also the return of “job manager” systems to quality-control the input & output of this sourced data.

With the UK testing autonomous cars next year, I can see huge advances in LiDAR & data collection appearing… and maybe the reappearance of the indoor mapping…

Tim Waters

  • 2015 will be the year of specialized personalized OSM maps EVERYWHERE
    • maps on e-paper watches
    • OSM maps going to Mars. There will be a hashtag #mapstomars
    • maps on hats
    • maps on those jackets you put on little dogs to keep them from shivering
    • maps on free tissues given out in Japanese urban areas
  • 2015 will see the first major public lawsuit against the OpenStreetMap Foundation (OSMF) for some frivolous reason, such as “my client used OSM maps on his CartoCrate Corp GPS Routing App on his iPhone and crashed into a Yak. OSM Maps are at fault.” This will cause a crisis in the Foundation, causing a mapping personality to raise a crowdfunding drive to raise legal funds, and in the process, the personality devolves the OSMF board and takes executive control. As a response to the legal mess and the insinuation pointed at them from some mapping extremists that they were involved, CartoCrate Corp will create a Public Domain fork of the OSM database and set about getting the US Govt using it. It’s quite successful.
  • Oh, BTW Mapbox ended up as the company that did the paying mappers idea, although not as large scale.

Bill Dollins, Senior Vice President, Zekiah Technologies, Inc.

I think 2015 will be the year that other industries will catch on to geo and realize they don’t need GIS to do it. It won’t happen overnight, but I think it may be the start of a trend.

It could take any number of forms. Maybe it’s a company or organization not previously associated with geo that releases a narrowly-targeted tool or library that solves an industry-specific set of geo problems. Maybe it’s a large company acquiring a plucky geospatial startup to add some location awareness to its products.

The point is that the variety of open tools available will make it easier for organizations that understand their markets well to plug in “just enough geo” to enhance their domain-specific needs.

In short, 2015 will start to expose the fact that “Enterprise GIS” is really only relevant to GIS enterprises.

Stephen Mather

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” –Alan Curtis Kay

A year ago I predicted the beginnings of artisanal satellite mapping and ended with the phrase: “OpenDroneMap anyone?” After writing the prediction, I felt there was only one way forward. I registered the domain, proposed the project, and a year later (with the help and enthusiasm of many), we have OpenDroneMap. By January 2015, we will have a fully open source toolchain which fills 90% of the niche that Pix4D, Agisoft, and other closed-source projects fill in turning drone photos into geographic data, and it will have advantages that the closed source solutions know not.

Drones will continue to grow and be relevant to GeoHipsters in 2015 — more so in fact. As a result, retrograde coordinate systems, such as ones with promises of equal area, sub-inch accuracy, as well as vertical and horizontal datums galore will rise in prominence again amongst the GeoHipster clans. Geo will continue to converge to engineering scales. Great mock battles will be enacted between GeoHipsters and Survey-Hipsters.

But the great problems to solve in 2015 become ones not of how to process the new data, but how to store, retrieve, and share the data. In short, we will need artisanal pixel platforms like OpenAerialMap, with the need for similar projects specific to elevation models and digital surface models. These will be the great platform problems of GeoHipsters in 2015.

Tom MacWright

Companies exiting the tinkering phase will go all-in on making the killer apps, and building people-infrastructure like education and support. The GDAL/PostGIS/Mapnik stack that’s common to pretty much everything will see some major competition that fits better with the threads, clouds, and GPUs of new tech. Vector maps will finally be broadly available and the client side will eat more of the server side stack.

Randal Hale

So my 2014 predictions were more wrong than right. Maybe all wrong.

OSM did get more national attention and has a lot of companies leaning on it now. I would still argue that the “program” as a whole is unprepared for the World Spotlight. The OSM Foundation rules by not ruling and it can still be a bit of a wild wild west shootout on the listserves… since I was just in one. For me HOT (Humanitarian OSM) is the most desirable component of OpenStreetMap. They are doing it right — and maybe that is what saves OpenStreetMap.

I still think more organizations are moving to hybrid setups. It’s the future. You can’t rely on one software ecosystem to provide all your needs and wants.

I thought Esri would take out MapBox… and I’m so glad they didn’t pull a GeoCommons.


The LAS format dust-up between Esri and rapidlasso finally gets some air time. I think this instance of Esri forking a LPGL format to only run on their software shows exactly how much they are embracing the open source world. They aren’t. If it happens once it will happen again.

Esri starts pushing the pay-for-play option for everyone. It may not be a bad thing at all. You pay for the portions of the ArcGIS ecosystem you want to use by buying “Esri Credits”. Hopefully that push finally kills off the out-of-date three-tiered approach to software sales. For some it will be good — for some it will be bad.

QGIS is my new love long-term affair for desktop software. I think in 2015 it takes off and becomes a tool everyone has on their desktop. Take a portion of your commercial maintenance (I’m guilty for not) and donate it to the program.

Esri makes a play for Spatial Networks. The guys behind Fulcrum are doing everything right. I have developed a severe bromance for that company. I hope I’m wrong on this one.

Finally — all the #geo people stop putting #geo in front of every term. Now I’m going out for a #geobeer to the #geopub and #georemember the one #geoprediction I didn’t #geomake.

Bill Morris

DRONES. Which of course sounds hackneyed and outdated, but UAV capabilities keep leaping forward. In 2014 the hardware matured and reached a broad audience; for 2015 UAV software and data management seems poised to shorten the channel from lens to actionable data. I see it already in disaster response, but I think agriculture is the likely sector to blow the doors off of UAV capabilities.

Paul Ramsey

When asked to look into the future, I generally start by looking into the past and reasoning by analogy. There have been some patterns of development in the last year that are worth at least commenting on.

JavaScript Uber Ales

It’s become pretty clear that MapBox intends to rewrite the whole of geospatial computing using JavaScript. Given the powerful JavaScript team in the company, it’s no big surprise. So starting from Leaflet, which is on the beaten path of JavaScript web mapping; then moving to Id, which is somewhat off the beaten path (and a tour de force of software development, Tom MacWright could retire right now and claim a full and complete career); with little detours through ideas like geojson.io; and more recently into places that look a lot like “GIS” via Turf and Geocoding via Carmen.

The architectural paradigm driving all this is very cloud- and horizontal-scaling-oriented: everything has to be chopped into tiny pieces, everything has to be embarrassingly parallel, everything is a URL, and everything Has-To-Be-In-JavaScript.

As it happens, I saw this movie the last time around, when the Java community arrived in the early 2000s and rewrote all of geospatial. The dominant architectural paradigm of the time was the three-tier, built on open standards, and the software all shows it. Everything was XML-configured, everyone followed the Gang of Four, everything was multi-threaded, and everything Had-To-Be-In-Java.

Applying the Java experience to the current JavaScript rewrite of All Software Everywhere:

  • The pre-Cambrian explosion of JavaScript software options currently underway will naturally be followed by a great die-off as a few dominant solutions take over the marketplace. Unlike the Java iteration, this time around there are almost no serious proprietary alternatives in the space, which is an interesting reflection on the state of software development.
  • By the time the dominant JavaScript solutions have achieved victory, they will be considered hopelessly passé and dependent on antiquated notions (these days everybody has to use Tomcat, but nobody looks at Tomcat’s XML configuration files and says “what an excellent idea”).
  • The architectural foundations of the new JavaScript solutions will also be considered out of fashion, though most of IT will still be humming along happily on those very foundations.
Imagery — Cheap, Cheaper, Cheapest

For a long time, discussion of imagery has been pretty boring stuff: Can you convert formats? Can you ortho-rectify? Can you color-balance and feather a mosaic? But this year at FOSS4G there was quite an interesting collection of talks all pointing towards a blossoming new world of cheap, cheap imagery.

At FOSS4G 2014 in Portland I saw talks by Frank Warmerdam on processing imagery for Planetlabs, and by Aaron Racicot and Stephen Mather on mapping with cheap drone hardware. With cheaper and cheaper sensors — ranging from the shoebox-sized “doves” from PlanetLabs to the sub-thousand-dollar quadcopters — we can and will pile up larger and larger collections of raw imagery. This pile of imagery will in turn drive innovation in image processing software to convert it all into a rationalized view of the world.

The new world of cheap, cheap imagery is enabled by two parallel innovations: really really cheap sensors that produce generally inferior imagery but incredible volumes of it; and really really clever software that can leverage multiple images of the same object to infer extra information, like 3D models, best pixels and so on.

It was only a handful of years ago that Microsoft’s Photosynth technique of building a 3D model out of an unorganized collection of photographs was a computing marvel. That capability is now available on smartphones. At one time the best computer vision software was only available as proprietary licensed SDKs: now it’s all open source.

With cheap sensors and algorithms capable of dealing with the imagery they generate, we’re not far away from a new world of earth observation — both from orbit and from only a few hundred feet above.

I expect that the tools for processing raw drone imagery will only get better, and that once (if?) the FAA sets reasonable rules for use of drones in the civilian sector, the USA will be awash in drones mapping every corner of the country — for the local county, electric company, and real estate board.

More Spatial, Fewer Maps

Over the last couple years I’ve been using the words “spatial IT” a lot, as a description for a trend in the geospatial world: our previously specialized tools are no longer specialized, they are just add-on features to general purpose IT tools.

So databases have a spatial column type. Document indexing systems (like ElasticSearch) have a spatial search capability. “Geocoding” functionality is now built into almost every application that might happen to have an address field.

So IT professionals are now capable of delivering “GIS” results, without “GIS” software. The classic “notification report” of all houses within 100 yards of a re-zoning application is now just a tabular query-and-mailmerge operation. No map, no GIS.

Data visualizations, having run through a brief map-mania after the advent of Google Maps, are now coming back full-circle to a realization that sometimes the best map is no map at all.

Non-spatial actions — like running a web search — are setting up subtle spatial queries in the background: your Google search returns results that are “relevant” to you not just categorically, but also geographically. Just a list of results, no map, but more spatial than before.

And spatial actions, like asking for directions, are returning way-finding results. A list of directions, rather than a schematic. The bar for a useful result from a routing application has moved “up” — away from a schematic cartographic result, to a natural language description of a step-wise route.

I guess it’s no real surprise that, as the wider world moves away from maps and towards embedded spatial everywhere, in our own field there is a growing nostalgia for classic cartography. Who is winning the maps competitions at the spatial gatherings these days? The whooshing pulsing arrows of the data visualizers, or the clear classic cartographers, telling story with the spare language of maps?

Hopefully this is just a moment, and maps will be back, but for now, spatial is the thing.

Ed Freyfogle

Two major trends:

  • More and more consumer services/apps will emerge that assume/require continual knowledge of the consumer’s location. This whole new range of services will require more and more consumers, but also developers, to contemplate location in ways they never have before. Privacy will be a bigger issue than ever. Most of the developers building these services will have no background in GIS or cartography or such things, nor any desire to learn. They will embrace whatever tools help them get the job done.
  • OpenStreetMap’s data volume will continue to grow rapidly, not least due to the introduction of more and more domain-specific editors like Rob Hawkes’ building height estimator or Tom MacWright’s CoffeeDex. More and more data, all around the world, will flow in, in some cases without the consumer even needing to be aware OSM is the underlying datastore. Meanwhile on the usage side, OSM’s “good enough” quality will continue to improve every day. The inevitable march forward will continue, helped on by more and more governments (local, national) embracing open data albeit in a very chaotic, piecemeal manner. More and more best practices and robust toolchains will emerge.

Gary Gale

More Geospatial Visualisations, Maybe Less Maps

One of the great things about having a wife who understands and accepts that you’re a map nerd is getting great Christmas gifts such as “London: The Information Capital” by James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti. The book is subtitled “100 maps and graphics that will change how you view the city”. Reading this book made me realise that there were as many maps as there were visualisations with spatial data, and I also realised that this book wasn’t an isolated instance. More and more geospatial information is being visualised, both online and elsewhere. This means lots of maps but not just maps. This is a trend that will continue into 2015 and beyond as people who aren’t used to maps still want to visualise mapping data.

More Tangible Maps

At home I’ve got gift wrap with maps on it, a notebook covered in maps and even a map on the case of my phone. Walking through our local bookstore at the weekend, I was struck by just how many maps there were in so many shapes, sizes and forms, and with not a single digital map to be seen. Take a brief search through Etsy and you can get a map on all you ever wanted and a lot more besides. Maybe the public has fallen back in love with tangible maps as digital maps become more and more part of our daily lives? Whatever the reason, maps are here to stay.

More Bad Maps

Both of the previous two predictions means we’re going to continue seeing a lot more maps. But that also widens the scope for a lot more bad maps. There’s even a Twitter hashtag for this. Take a search for #badmaps if you want your eyes to bleed and whatever cartographic skill you possess to shriek out in anguish. This is not going to get any better. Now, because anyone can make a map, this means anyone might make a map, regardless of whether they should or not. That’s not to say that cartography should remain the preserve of professional cartographers, but if you don’t have a modicum of appreciation of design, an eye for colours that complement each other, and at least a rudimentary understanding of geography, then making a map might be something you want to pause and think about.

Even More People Doing GIS, Without Knowing They’re Doing GIS

Coupled with the news of the forthcoming demise of Google Maps Engine and existing customers looking to take their web-based geographic visualisations onto another platform or toolset, more people will end up doing GIS, or at least the lower end of the GIS spectrum, blissfully unaware of the fact that what they’re doing is in any way connected with something called GIS. Expect ESRI to make ArcGIS online much less GIS-like and Mapbox’s Turf and CartoDB to pick up lots of Google Maps emigres. Meanwhile people who are used to Javascript and web maps will look at toolkits like Polymaps or Leaflet and end up accidentally doing GIS, and free GIS tools such as QGIS will also reap the benefits of GME power users.

OSM Will Explode

It’s a sweeping generalisation and probably a controversial one too, but OpenStreetMap seems to be divided into 4 tribes. Firstly there’s the utopian tribe, truly believing that OSM is the only way forward for mapping data, that it will dominate across all forms of mapping data, and that if only everyone else would embrace the ODbL and its share-alike clause everything would be so much easier. Then there’s the community tribe, who use and contribute to OSM because they like the community aspect first and the mapping aspect second. Thirdly there’s the map tribe who just want to get on with mapping the world. Finally there’s the pragmatic tribe who want to see OSM flourish in the current business world and realise that something probably has to change in order for that to happen.

Each tribe wants something different from OSM and although there’s overlaps and blurring the lines, the OSM community is a divided one. I have to ask if this is sustainable in its current form.

All of which means that 2015 might be the year OSM explodes. Sadly this doesn’t mean uptake and contributions will explode, but my fearful prediction is that OSM itself will explode and fragment, with the possibility of OSM forking looming on the horizon.

Ed Freyfogle: “Every startup is vulnerable, that’s what makes it exciting”

Ed Freyfogle
Ed Freyfogle

Ed Freyfogle is a German/American entrepreneur living in London. He is one of the founders of Lokku, makers of the OpenCage Geocoder.

Ed was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.

Q: You are the only geo person I know with an MBA from MIT. By contrast, I know people who wish they had an MBA from an Ivy League school so they could get out of geo. So what is your story? How did you get into geo?

A: It’s a bit of a long story, so bear with me.

I guess like most people “in the industry” I’ve always liked maps, as a kid was drawing maps, all that kind of stuff. Before MIT I had worked  as a software developer at Yahoo Germany during the first internet wave of the late nineties. It was a great case of being in the right place at the right time. I learned an immense amount. After five years there, with all its amazing ups and then the downs of the crash in 2001, it was time for something new. Also, while I really enjoyed programming I also wanted to learn the business side. So I got an MBA at MIT and thought a lot about what I wanted to do, and where I wanted to do it (I mainly grew up in the US). My conclusion was that I had really enjoyed Yahoo when it was small and had the startup feel; when I joined the Munich office was 15 people and I got to work on pretty much every system. I also concluded I had really enjoyed living in Europe. So in 2005 I moved to London in the hopes of finding a startup to join. Back then the scene was microscopic compared to today, I couldn’t find a startup where I liked the people, the idea, my role, etc. So in the end I started my own company, Lokku, along with another ex-Yahoo, and we’re still thriving today.

Those that know their geo history will recall that 2005 was the year Google Maps came out, shortly followed by Housing Maps, the first “mash-up” to put pins on a map. Heady times! Lokku’s first product, and still our biggest, was a real estate search engine called Nestoria. Initially we were just for London, today we’re in nine countries. A friend of mine from Yahoo, Mikel Maron (who later went on to start Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team), knew about maps, and was advising us, and that’s how I got into the London OpenStreetMap scene, going to a few of the pub meet-ups. I’m proud to say we sponsored the very first State of the Map conference back in 2006 (and have sponsored many more since). In 2006 there was a mapping party on the Isle of Wight, and afterwards we made tiles and started using them on Nestoria if someone searched for a home on the Isle of Wight. I’m pretty sure this was the first ever commercial use of OSM in a consumer service.

A few years later we launched Nestoria India and Nestoria Brazil. To do that we needed geodata for those countries. I have the sense most readers of this blog focus on the US or Canada, and I have no doubt there are impressive technical and licensing challenges around getting US geodata, but if you want to experience some grade-A bureaucracy I invite you, dear reader, to try to purchase Indian geodata. It was impossible, at least for a tiny start-up like ours. So basically we had to launch using only OpenStreetMap as our geodata source. I can not pretend OSM in India is perfect, it still lacks coverage. But then of course so does any other geo datasource given how rapidly things are changing in India. Anyway, OSM was good enough, and now Nestoria India is one of our fastest growing markets. This is classic “Innovator’s Dilemma” stuff, the new technology is “good enough” for experimentation, and then all of a sudden it’s good enough for day to day stuff, and then all of a sudden it’s the norm, and the existing models with their old cost structure can’t compete.

So we thought about that and thought about whether there is a way we could help make that happen, and the result was last year we launched our brand OpenCage Data. Our hypothesis was that companies want to use OSM, but right now it’s too chaotic for them – the documentation isn’t always great, the way to learn is to get on mailing lists, the toolset around OSM is evolving very rapidly — and that all of this puts off companies who are used to more stability. We talked with lots of people, anyone who might have any possible use case for geodata, but especially people outside of the existing market. Companies put off by the cost, or not even really aware of how using geodata would help them. We learned a lot: OSM is not on most people’s radar yet. The thing that came up again and again was geocoding. So this summer we launched the OpenCage geocoder. We try to differentiate on simplicity/ease of use, by aggregating many different open geodata sources, and by then annotating our results with things developers would find useful. It’s early days, but we’re learning a lot and getting good feedback.

Finally, over the years we’ve been approached by a lot of different people asking for advice, help. We never had a good framework to channel that so we usually said no. But over the last year we’ve started seed investing in some of these ideas. We provide a bit of money, but also advice, connections, etc. It has to be in a category we have expertise in and one of those is geo, so now we’re involved in a few different geo startups.

Q: You are involved with several startups, and you run the #geomob London event. How do you manage to juggle so many different things?

A: Well some of the things I’m a driver, others it’s just as an investor / advisor, but yeah, there is plenty to keep me busy — also I have two small children, so there’s not a lot of down time.

#geomob is a regular event we run. It’s a lot of fun. It is amazing how many cool things are happening in geo and location-based services in London (the city where OpenStreetMap was invented). We try to create a forum to show off that innovation. Every few months we have an evening event where five or six different speakers get 15 minutes each to talk about their project. And it’s not all startups — we usually have a good mix of startups, hobbyists, academics, and the occasional megacorp. Afterwards we all go to the pub and have a few beers. We see lots of wacky ideas and experiments. And some of those crazy ideas turn into great things. Some of the speakers are polished, some aren’t. It’s a healthy mix from all across the geo spectrum.

Our next event is November 4th, if you’re in London, join us.

Q: I am intrigued by the business side of a geo startup. I watched your APICon 2014 presentation where you talk about OpenCage Geocoder — your latest startup. Your MBA background comes through strongly in that presentation. You are also very open about your business strategy. Doesn’t that make the business vulnerable?

A: Every startup is vulnerable, that’s what makes it exciting. No risk, no fun.

Lots of people who work in big companies or organizations perhaps don’t appreciate that with a startup the main challenge is creating momentum from a standing start. You start with literally nothing. And then you have to make it happen. No one comes to you. You have to create the momentum.

In general it is clear there is massive societal benefit to open data. But it’s not yet clear if all of that benefit goes to the end consumer and is just a cost society needs to shoulder (i.e., through taxes so that government services release all their data), or if there is role for private companies. Our bet is that there is. Anyone who has feedback on what we’re up to we’d love to hear from.

BTW, I’m choosing to take your “You MBA background comes through strongly in that presentation” as a compliment.

Q: In the same talk you refer to “Berlin, Berlin” as an error of redundancy. But do you know that there is a Berlin in New Jersey, another in Maryland, and yet another in Connecticut? Maybe “Berlin, Berlin” does make sense after all? Or perhaps addressing cannot — or should not — be standardized globally?

A: For those who aren’t familiar with the problem here’s a brief description. I was in Berlin, Germany, I tweeted, and Twitter showed my location as “Berlin, Berlin” (i.e., Berlin the city, in Berlin the state). Of course there are multiple Berlins, but Twitter has the coordinates from my phone. There is no ambiguity. They know I am in Berlin, capital city of Germany, yet they choose to show the location in a way that makes no sense to a local.

Absolutely addressing can not be standardized globally. It’s too late, there are almost as many formats as there are countries. That’s part of the rich tapestry of the human experience. Software should be able to solve the problem and present the location in the way a local considers normal.  I blogged about this and how we’re solving it on the OpenCage geocoder. Our solution is open source and we’d love everyone’s help. Pull requests here please.

Q: On addressing: I like What3Words and what they do, but how realistic is it to expect the whole world (including non-English speaking regions) to embrace an entirely new spatial reference system? Do you think this will happen before or after the US adopts the metric system?

A: Many industries and contexts in the US have adopted the metric system, as you’ll know if you buy a 2-liter of Coke. But I take your point that it isn’t the norm in most consumers’ heads. But so what? That doesn’t stop the rest of the world from using it to get their tasks done.

And it’s the same with a solution like What3Words. It is not an immediately compelling solution in a place like London, which is well addressed and has highly accurate postcodes. But if you’ve ever been to a meeting in India you will concede that there are parts of the world where addressing can only be described as a disaster. There are no addresses. You are navigating by landmark and frankly it is hugely painful. Not just for me the tourist, but for the locals as well. Those parts of the world need a better solution, and it needs to be one that is simple enough for the average person. That solution is not long/lat. I think it might be What3Words.

As a product person, What3Words is great in its attempt to make something complicated simple. I recently watched this excellent talk by Vladimir Agafonkin, maker of the mapping library Leaflet, on simplicity, and how it is needed in geo. It’s too early to say if What3Words will succeed, but I love that they are innovating by being simple. As an investor What3Words falls squarely in that category of most people dismiss it as crazy, but it just might not be, and if it succeeds it will be on a massive scale.

But if some parts of the world want to keep doing things the hard way or say measuring temperature in Fahrenheit, that’s cool. It’s a big world and there’s usually more than one way to do it.

Q: SplashMaps is another one of your business ventures, and the most hipstery one, IMHO. How did you come up with the idea? How is the business doing? Are the maps selling?

A: We’re just investors in SplashMaps, full credit goes to David and the team. But I agree with you, it is hip. It’s an amazing product, a customisable fabric map, perfect for all sorts of outdoor uses where you’ll get wet, muddy, sweaty, etc. So yes, in 2014 I’ve invested in a company that makes physical maps, which I guess is a little contrarian. I wrote about all our reasons for investing on our blog.

Good news for all the hipsters out there who can’t wait to get their hands on one (did I mention Christmas is coming?); in the very near future SplashMaps will be available globally, to date they’ve only been in Great Britian. If you know a geohipster who needs a gift, you’re going to have a tough time beating a SplashMap.

For me, SplashMaps is exciting because it’s a great example of the kind of innovation that’s possible when the barriers around access to and cost of geodata go away. I’m also more intrigued lately by taking digital products and bringing them back to analog as a way to create value. You can go on a tough hike using your digital map. But people want tangible artifacts they can hang memories and stories on. Everyone in the geo industry can remember the pleasure of gathering around an atlas, looking at far away tropical islands, sliding your finger along a journey you took. This tangible experience is a basic human urge that digital doesn’t meet, and one that SplashMaps taps into.

Q: I understand you moved out of Shoreditch, which is London’s counterpart to Williamsburg in Brooklyn. What’s up with that?

A: Don’t worry, I now live in the Barbican in central London. Shoreditch’s not far, but it’s gone a bit too upmarket. Anyway, I think of myself not so much as a hipster as a digital brutalist, so the Barbican’s a better match for me, my wife, and our two kids. All that said, these days the cool kids are all in Moabit and Wedding, so I’m working on convincing my wife it’s her idea that we move to Berlin. Let’s see.

Q: We haven’t talked about humor on GeoHipster, which I realize is a serious lapse. Let’s fix that. You were a humor columnist for the MIT student newspaper. Do you have a joke I haven’t heard?

A: Wow, you’ve done your research. Yeah, I used to write an anonymous advice column for the school newspaper called “Ask Alfred” in which I pretended to be a greedy and lecherous version of Alfred P. Sloan, the business school’s namesake (CEO of GM, often credited with inventing the modern corporation). In hindsight it was an attempt to poke fun at the divergence between the high-minded ideals espoused by the school and the profit-driven reality (greed, if you will) of the industries most MBAs go into. On the other hand though, I do think in the open geo world, particularly here in Europe, there’s a tendency to err too far in the other direction — thinking everything should be free all the time, all code needs to open source, we all need to be motivated by altruism all the time. As anyone trying to pay rent in central London will tell you, goodwill alone will not get you far.

I’m not sure what the joke is here. These days my comedy is more situational and slapstick.

Q: Thank you so much for the interview. Any parting words for the GeoHipster readers?

A: In the geo industry (if I can say so as an outsider) we all get that something major has changed with the rise of the smartphone; all of a sudden we all carry around a supercomputer that knows exactly where we are at all times. But I don’t think anyone grasps how radically this will change everything. For everyone, but particularly for the geo industry. We are at the start of an amazing ride. Anyone who’s up for the trip I would love to meet with. So if you’re London come say hello, we’ll go grab a pint. If that makes me a geohipster, so be it.