John Gravois is a developer at https://showrunner.io. Previously, as a Product Engineer at Esri he helped build ArcGIS Hub, maintained a handful of Leaflet plugins and coordinated with developers across the company to steer Open Source strategy. He has a tattoo of a California Raisin and when he's not in front of a computer you can often find him tangled up in poison oak somewhere near his mountain bike.
I was pretty much computer illiterate when I started college. GIS pricked my ear because it would force me to wrestle the dragon and allow me to procrastinate a few more years before picking an actual ‘specific’ career track. The more data I wrangled, the more maps I made and the more analysis I organized the more interested I became in writing code to automate the boring stuff and share my work with folks who had other jobs to do than cracking open ArcGIS Desktop.
I worked for an environmental consultant before i started in tech support. Being ‘the’ GIS guy was okay, but the pace of my learning skyrocketed when i started in Esri tech support in 2009. It was also just a lot more fun working with so many talented, non-territorial, strong communicators in my own discipline.
When I told them I wanted to spend more time programming, it was a trial by fire, but the lessons I had already learned about troubleshooting and isolating reproducible test cases are just as relevant when you’re writing code. Sometimes I handed my simple apps over to our developers to demonstrate bugs in our APIs, sometimes they went back to customers to show them where they made a mistake.
Q. Several years ago I attended an Esri Leaflet talk you gave. Toward the end you shared some thoughtful points from your experience as a maintainer of Esri-Leaflet about creating documentation, usable examples, most importantly the “You’re part of the team“ mentality. Can you share some of your experience and philosophy on cultivating new coders?
Of course! The gist of it is that there are way too many a&*#hole open source maintainers out there making other folks feel small on purpose.
I had the luxury of working on open source at my day job, so it was easier for me to make a conscious decision to set aside time to be welcoming to new contributors, to try and lead by example and to be gracious and patient.
I learned so many crucial lessons from this:
Its not hard!
It pays dividends. When someone asks a question or fixes a typo and is treated with basic courtesy its really encouraging to them! Often it leads to them increasing the scope and frequency of their participation. I know this because I’ve been on both sides of the fence.
Being patient and kind != agreeing to do someone else’s work for them or allowing random people on the internet to hijack your project and take it in a direction of their own.
This isn’t just an open source thing. Its relevant to all online (and IRL) communities. I’ve been pleased to see The Spatial Community bloom over the last few years. Esri employees have definitely chipped in, but often customer colleagues have even more insight to share.
To put it another way, I’ve always made it a point to share my knowledge with others to pay forward a favor to my own mentors and because I know that it’s what keeps the virtuous cycle turning. I don’t know where it is now, but I read an article once that listed this as a key ingredient to being fulfilled in your career. I can certainly attest that it has worked for me!
I found out the other day that I’ve contributed to almost 100 different Esri open source projects. Some of those were typo fixes, other times I was dogfooding to explain to the core team whether their work made any sense to someone making a quick flyby.
I learned a ton maintaining Esri Leaflet, but over the last couple years after that project matured I had a lot of fun getting my feet wet with TypeScript maintaining a new project called ArcGIS REST JS.
The core library is ~10x smaller than Leaflet and its sole purpose is to make it easy to talk to ArcGIS Online and Enterprise from Node.js and the browser.
We’ve had customers use it to create Chrome Extensions, browser apps, Lambda Functions and a bunch of other cool stuff, but I was particularly gratified to see contributions come in from lots of different dev teams within Esri who previously rolled implementation after implementation of their own.
The library is downloaded ~1000 times a week and is used to make literally millions of requests to ArcGIS Online each month from ArcGIS Hub, https://developers.arcgis.com, Storymaps and other Esri offerings.
Q. You love OpenStreetMap! Hey, I love OpenStreetMap!! Tell us a cool OpenStreetMap story.
The single most gratifying experience of my professional career was working on the technical implementation to grant the OSM community access to Esri’s World Imagery service.
Other folks at Esri did the hard work of getting legal sign off with half a dozen commercial imagery providers and a lot of customers in our Community Maps program.
All I had to do was write ~100 lines of JSON and a blog post.
The impact really hit home when Tyler Radford shared the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap statistics with me a year later. IIRC, they now recommend ArcGIS World Imagery in ~half of their projects!
Q. One of the first things I remember about you was your love of bikes and your work at the Redlands BikeBBQ. What’s the Redlands bike scene like?
There are a lot more weekend warriors here than commuters, but its a bike friendly town with wide streets and lots of accessible trails. Years ago we opened up a volunteer DIY repair shop to share tools and teach folks how to maintain their bicycles. As far as community outreach/activism goes, it’s a lot more fun and effective than standing on a corner holding a sign. Besides the Redlands Classic, the other high holiday in town for cyclists is Strada Rossa . Its a fun, friendly mixed surface fundraiser for charity that has concluded with an afterparty in my backyard more than once. This year the course went up and over Seven Oaks Dam and It’s been really fun to see gravel get more and more popular over the last couple years.
Q. You’re moving on from Esri after 10 years, what’s your greatest memory of your time there and tell us about what’s next.
We already shared one tweet earlier, but folks can find the whole love letter here:
I’m only two days in at Showrunner (link: https://showrunner.io) but I’m already having a ton of fun and learning a lot working with a few dear old friends. It’s bittersweet to take a break from geo though. I’m happy to be staying in Redlands. It means I can still keep up with folks online and pedal to grab lunch with my old coworkers.
Q. Finally, what does “geohipster” mean to you?
The point (I hope anyway) is to poke fun at folks for wanting to be different for the sake of being different and simultaneously to preach that “geo” is bigger than ArcGIS.
Learning how to make computers do what you (and your boss) want them to do is hard enough without someone else telling you that the tools you’re using aren’t cool. Whether you can step through the raw source or not, there are plenty of opportunities for learning, being inclusive, and mentoring others.
If there are two suggestions I can pass along in the age of social media outrage, they would be:
Denise is an Aussie who lives in England in the historic town of Winchester. She joined OGC in 2012 and spends her time managing the Communication and Outreach program globally for the consortium. The program handles the planning and execution of marketing, communication and education to raise awareness and increase implementation of open geospatial and location standards by technology providers and users worldwide. Part of Denise's role is to oversee OGC Alliance Partnerships including representation at the United Nations Global Geographic Information Management (UNGGIM) committee. She is a member of the Board of the Association for Geographic Information in the UK and the Global Advisory Board for the Location Based Marketing Association. Prior to her role with OGC, she worked for over 12 years with the Victorian Government (Australia) in areas of geospatial strategic policy, collaboration and innovation.
Denise was interviewed for GeoHipster by Alex Leithand Michael Terner.
Q: Tell us about how you came to work for OGC.
A: It’s a serendipitous story, like most of my career, to be honest. I had been back working for the Department of Sustainability and Environment in Victoria, Australia for just over a year after maternity leave from my second child. Apart from the huge challenge of the VicMap API project, one of the other activities I had been leading was to set up the first OGC Australia and New Zealand Forum. As anyone who tries to work from Australia with people in other parts of the world will know – this included a lot of late night calls. It was during one of these calls that I was chatting with the CEO of OGC and he asked me if I had seen that the position for Executive Director for Marketing and Communications was being advertised. I said yes, and simply asked how their search was going. The response I got was “actually I was wondering if you had considered applying?” I think it would be fair to say that my face somewhat resembled that of a guppy fish (jaw on the floor and no words coming out – was so grateful that I did not have video for that moment). In my daze I asked a few more questions, finished the call and wandered into the kitchen where I then asked my husband what he thought of the idea of moving to a different country for work? He said sure… so I applied and rest is history.
Q: You travel a lot. What’s the best and worst thing about this?
A: Most days I really think I have one of the best jobs you can have in our industry. I love meeting new people, seeing new places and in the 6 years of working in OGC I realised how much I love seeing and learning about the amazing things people use location data for and how that changes the world for the better in so many ways. I feel really privileged to be able to represent the OGC membership throughout the world and to be able to tell their stories and to share the benefits that open geospatial standards can achieve.
It may sound cliche but the worst thing about travel is the time it takes me away from my family at home. Though my kids would say that it is not all bad because mum brings back presents! My rule is that they only get presents if the travel has been to a country I have never been to before and I always look for something that has a cultural connection to where I have been. It does make for some funny stories though. My son when he first started school explained to his teacher that “mum was away on the space station.” He had been confused when I said I was going to the European Space Agency (Frascati, Italy).
Q: You’ve been living in the UK for six years, do you miss Australia?
A: Of course! I will be an Aussie till my last day, but I do love my new country and am pretty lucky to be able to enjoy both places. The coffee scene is slowly improving (Winchester Coffee Roasters has been a life saver – though I did laugh when I discovered the owner learnt how to make coffee in Sydney).
But things I miss most include:
Beaches where the sand stretches for miles
Flake & potato cakes from the fish and chip shop
Sydney rock oysters
Rust orange sunsets – the ones in the UK are more pink in color
The smell of lemon-scented gums after it rains
The sound of magpies carolling in the mornings.
Q: Where does spatialred come from? Is it the blue hair?!
A: Hmm, there are only 5 other people who were involved in the creation of that twitter handle and how it came about is now a bit of an urban legend 😉 All I can say is that it was during a conference in New Zealand. I did have red hair at the time, but no that is not what inspired it. However seems to have stuck over the years and to be fair I do wear red pretty often.
Q: While standards are undeniably important, they are also boring. Can you convince us that they are hip?
A: Oh I love this question! Because I honestly believe they are anything but boring. They are one of the most powerful tools for sharing information and knowledge that we have. They bring people together around common problems and give them a pathway to solving them. Standards cross boundaries and borders in ways that enable us the greatest global insights into our planet that we have ever been able to access. One of my current favorite examples of this is the Arctic SDI,where 8 nations are now sharing data across international borders using OGC’s open standards.
At the end of the day it will be the standards we all agree on and the data that will flow through them that will help the world’s leaders make better decisions.
Location standards in particular help us to share data for all kinds of purposes, like understanding climate change, managing city infrastructure, getting planes safely to their destination and so many other world-changing benefits.
In short standards are the infrastructure that enable us to enjoy access to the incredibly rich information resources the web now provides. You can have the best data in the world, but if you can’t share it with anyone then of what benefit is it? Open location standards are one of the most powerful tools for data sharing around and that is why I think they are hip!
Q: What’s your take on the organically emergent standards, like shapefile, or GeoJSON that did not come out of standards setting organizations? Are they better or worse than OGC standards?
A: The truth is that most of the OGC standards start life in some way outside of the formal standards creation process. New standards are driven by innovation. Yes, you did read that correctly – standards happen because of innovation, not after the innovation has happened as I think many believe sometimes. No set of standards that operate in the web exist without interaction with other standards. We need to all work together to ensure the ecosystem works and the data flows and is visualized where it needs to be. Innovation will always help to create new and better ways of doing things and that is why you get communities developing standards like GeoJSON – though remember this standard is now part of a formal standards body at IETF.
A standard that is created outside OGC is no better or worse than an OGC standard – the most important thing is that the standard meets the needs of the users. I think one of the best developments in OGC in the past 5 years has been the creation of the Community Standard process. This now allows standards that are developed outside of that formal process but are mature, stable and being regularly used to be proposed as an OGC standard and come into the organisation with minimal change.
Q: How, and why did KML (originally a de facto standard) become an OGC standard?
A: In some ways, KML was really our first community standard (though we didn’t have formal process for it in those days). It was before my time in OGC, but from what I understand there was a recognition in Google that the standard would enable more data to be made available in this format if it was an international open standard than to remain a proprietary format in Google. Perhaps a good question to pose to Ed Parsons ;-).
Q: Can you talk about the difference in the process involved in WFS 3.0 and the ‘old’ way of developing standards? Also, are the other WxS services being reviewed?
A: This is my new favorite topic and one that excitingly you will see a lot of progress on in the next twelve months. I have watched a lot of change in the way we make standards in OGC. Word docs have given way to GitHub, PDF has given way to HTML, the range of market domains in OGC have increased, and hackathons have been introduced to complement our technical meeting process. It is important to note that our web service standards are not going away any time soon, but with the innovation in use of APIs it is time we developed some new standards to help ensure we can keep sharing geospatial data. The way we have started to describe what is happening is the following analogy.
Picture a brick house with great sturdy foundations that has been improved and matured over a long time and is currently being very well lived in and serves much of the world’s geospatial data. This is our OGC web services house and inside is WMS, WFS, WPS, WCS, WMTS and OWS Common. But we now have new building materials and methods of creating a house so we need some new standards to help us continue to share our geospatial data in an innovating world. This new house will be called the OGC API. In this house you will find OGC API – Features (formerly known as WFS 3.0), OGC API – Common, OGC API – Maps, OGC API – Processes, OGC API – Tiles and so on. The idea is that both these two houses will continue to co-exist for a long while yet, they will draw from the same data lakes and we will be building bridges to help developers move from one house to the next. Hopefully without too much trouble.
There is a hackathon that will push the development and testing of new specs for a number of these new standards in June this year just prior to our Technical Meetings in Belgium. Keep an eye out for more details and how to get involved. These need industry-wide support, review and participation to make them a great new generation of OGC standards.
Q: Ok, big question: Is spatial special?
A: No and yes. Sorry, fence sitting answer I know. In the big wide world of data – it is just another data type. But it has some unique and important elements about it that mean if you handle spatial data incorrectly you will get really bad outcomes. So I think that there is still an important role for spatial professionals in helping ensure that we use spatial data the right way and ensure we support good evidence-based decisions.
Maybe the question isn’t whether spatial is special or not, but why there still seems to be so much of the world that does not harness the power of spatial data or understand what it can do. Perhaps it is more a question of whether we as a community of practice think we are too special and are yet to really reach outside of our community to the broader world of data users to ensure that the goodness that spatial data can bring is shared globally.
And for what it is worth, I like the words location and place over geospatial or spatial (maybe our language is part of the problem?).
Q: Among your work experience on LinkedIn you list ‘mother’, which is awesome! Can you talk about this a bit?
A: Oh man, do not get me talking about my kids or we will be here for pages more 😉…but you have touched on something that is increasingly becoming an important topic for me and that is diversity. Not just gender diversity, but diversity in all areas – age, culture, language, experience, skills. I am sure it would be unsurprising to many of the readers here when I say that I am commonly either the only or one of a few women in many work situations I find myself in (unless of course it is International Women’s Day). Whilst I will say it is improving, it does not seem to be fast enough.
This year I ran an International Women’s Day event in London titled Women in Geospatial. I invited 3 women who are midway through their working careers to talk about their experience in the geospatial industry and how they got there, but the speakers on the day that had the most impact for me were the 4 women on our early careers panel. Whilst saying that they loved working in the industry, they all still had stories of intimidating all-male interview panels, some but not enough female role models in senior leadership positions and comments on their university degrees not having enough of the practical skills that they need now for their current jobs.
Another pivotal event was during FOSS4G last year in Tanzania when Rebecca Firth (from the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team) and I ran a Diversity in Geo session and had close to 40 people turn up at 4pm on the second day of the conference. This helped to realise just how important it is to be a good role model and that when you are in a visible international role such as mine that we have an obligation and responsibility to help drive and be part of the necessary change.
So yes, I list “mother” as a job and I am very proud to do so, as the balance between work and family is paramount for me. To be honest I have learned so much by having this role in life and it enables me to bring many diverse perspectives to what I do, particularly now that my kids have reached an age where they are explaining the latest tech to me! #DiversityInGeo#WomenInGeospatial
Lastly a shout out to the lovely ladies that have started the WomenInGeospatial network recently, which I highly recommend getting in touch with if you are looking to network with other women in the industry.
Q: What’s #1 on your bucket list?
A: Hmm, I think (and I am sure my mum would laugh in agreement with this) I have always wanted to do something that would help change the world for the better. I definitely have been able to do a lot in my time both at DSE in Australia and now in OGC that has helped, but we have so much more that we can do and I am really excited to be part of the OGC journey and working with our new leadership. I definitely can’t say that I have totally completed this bucket list item yet, but I am on my way and guess we will need to wait another 25 years or so of my career before I will know if I really achieved it or not ;-).
Q: And finally, what about you makes you a geohipster?
A: I simply love what geospatial can do and I love evangelizing about it. It is such a good news story and really has the power to change the world for the better. Oh and I love the challenge of making open geo standards hip.
Britta Ricker, PhD (@bricker) is an Assistant Professor at Utrecht University in the Copernicus institute for Sustainable Development. Her research interests focus on accessible spatial technologies, particularly open data and the use of mobile devices. Dr. Ricker co-founded the Masters in Geospatial Technologies at the University Washington Tacoma. She has also provided GIS and cartographic services for the United States Federal Emergency Management Agency, MapQuest, and the Commission for Environmental Cooperation.
Dr. Ricker was interviewed for GeoHipster by Natasha Pirani.
Q: Hey Britta (Dr. Ricker?)! Tell me about your start and your education/career path in GIS, and as an academic. Did you always aspire to be a professor?
A: No, I did not always aspire to be a professor. Not at all. I wanted to have a career in International Development. I grew up in rural western Maryland and I played outside a lot. I liked to follow the water flow downhill, and I would daydream about what was over the next hill. My dad was a preacher and my mother was a high school librarian, they were always helping others and I wanted to do that too. My favorite aunt worked for the United Nations and had/has a glamourous international life in NYC. I always wanted to be her! I thought I would study international politics to get there.
I quickly found that the Geography Department at my university (Frostburg State University) at that time (2002-2005) was particularly strong and the professors were really inspiring. I did not want anything to do with GIS and programming, and I avoided it until one day, Dr. Fritz Kessler, a fantastic cartography professor sat me down, and asked me directly “What are your career goals?” I told him, and he explained to me how cartography and GIS can be used for international development. I changed my major the next day.
There have been so many conferences, events, social media, whatever, where people (men) ask, how can we get more women in the field? Take the Fritz Kessler approach. Don’t tell women or anyone how you think of GIS or how they should think of GIS; bring GIS into their value system, into their frame of reference, their interest. It is a fun challenge.
Q: Have you experienced particular triumphs or challenges as a woman in GIS, academia, and hipsterhood?
Q: You relocated last year to the Netherlands! How has the transition been? Do you ride your bike everywhere?
A: I do love it here. I am still getting used to it. The Dutch labor law and academic expectations don’t always match, which is fun to learn and navigate. Work/life balance is so important, and in the Netherlands it is the law. I was an exchange student to the Netherlands in high school which is a big reason I am here now. I do really miss the mountains in the Pacific Northwest, the region I had lived for the past 8 years. I like riding my bike everywhere, although I am still learning the “rules of the road” and the nuanced social etiquette of urban biking in the Netherlands. I joke and say my bike is my car. It is John Deere tractor green with a big basket on the front to carry my groceries and makes me smile everytime I see it. I am proud hearing my daughter learn Dutch so quickly, she regularly corrects my pronunciation. I am struggling with Dutch, especially since everyone speaks English so well. Mappy Dutch Fun Fact, a bell tower in Amersfoort is 0,0 for the Dutch datum. There is an awesome multimedia, projection map exhibit about the exact place. Forget Amsterdam, visit Amersfoort!
Q: Our earlier conversations have meandered into topics related to critical and feminist cartography and data visualization. What do those concepts mean to you, and how do they intersect with your research interests and your current work?
A: Wow, okay, this is a big question. Critical and feminist cartography and data visualization are two different fields that so obviously overlap but are incredibly difficult to publish together in academic peer reviewed journal articles. Feminism is really a lightning rod term, particularly in Europe I am noticing. Those who react especially negatively to it, I ask them to define feminism and they often say something like women before men. That is not feminism, feminism is about equality, that is it.
Theories are hard to apply, and my experience is that theorists don’t like it when you try, so it is sometimes better to decouple the two in academic writing at least. Feminist cartography is deeply rooted in my epistemology, my way of knowing, and I like to think it informs all that I do professionally. The research I pay attention to and further is informed by my understandings of feminist cartography and GIS and how I hope it can be extended. I have been enjoying working with Meghan Kelly in this type of research and thinking. In terms of research, feminist cartography acknowledges that there are multiple ways of knowing, seeing, and understanding space. Traditional cartography is not the only way. (But I also don’t think we should villainize cartography!) My way of knowing is not the only form of feminist cartography, or feminist ways of knowing. This is what makes incorporating feminist practice into cartography so very difficult; well, one of the things.
I am interested in developing research questions, to measure and evaluate learning outcomes based on specific communication goals, testing different map interfaces. I aim to investigate the use of new forms of technology such as 360 cameras and new, exciting interfaces that are becoming more widely accessible, such as virtual reality and comparing them with traditional 2D maps. What are the strengths and weaknesses of different visualization methods, in terms of what is learned from them — are they simply fun, or are they useful to communicating something specific like the spatial distribution of a phenomenon necessary for resource allocation or other decision making? The research questions are endless, really. Results will change as the technology evolves and the social uptake thereof evolve. I don’t really know how to do this, I could use that wayfinding app that you ask for below…I regularly read and re-read the work of Agnieszka Leszczynski, Nadine Schuurman, Sarah Elwood, Renee Sieber, and each time I read their papers, I get different morsels of inspiration and understand them differently.
Q: You’ve said that you “aim to illuminate techniques to make visualization tools associated with GIS more accessible to diverse audiences.” Tell me more about these techniques and some overlooked or invisible challenges of GIS accessibility.
A: Two come to mind: First, the most obvious invisible challenge is missing data. Missing data is also not sexy because it can’t be mapped, easily. Feminist geography talks a lot about missing data; missing historical records don’t mean that women did not make significant contributions, it just means those contributions were not documented. That holds true today. We make a lot of assumptions, and map things based on social media platforms dominated by specific demographic groups. We have interpolation methods for physical geography — could similar interpolation methods be generated for social geography too?
Second, right now, arguably we all have access to the tools required to make maps in our back pockets. It is just not always obvious how to make them, or why we should make them. Maybe more people would be interested in using another accessible form of technology if it were more clear how they could be useful for communication purposes.
Q: You’ve also explored the potential of drones to be used in participatory action research and citizen science, which sounds super cool. What did you find?
A: Drones are a great example of how increasingly accessible technologies can be used for good, but in ways that are not immediately obvious. Let’s say you take an aerial image of your property every day for one year. Suddenly, the foundation of your house is being eroded away by a new stream that has formed on your property after a heavy rain. You could use a drone to fly during a non-flood event and a flood event to show the difference. If you did this at regular intervals, patterns may emerge. This could be used for legal purposes, or it could be used to learn about your property, or to communicate to a neighbor that they caused this problem because when you looked upstream, you might find land use changes on their property caused flooding in your yard…and that sparks privacy concerns.
I found that the use of drones raises a lot of red flags from a number of different directions. First, legal constraints. Drones are so new — the laws about flying change all the time, and vary between places. Doing research and writing and teaching take a lot of time and energy and to add to that, navigating the legal system was too much. Additionally, I was trying to show how drones could be used for participatory mapping. I got a lot of pushback saying that drones are evil surveillance war machines, and can’t be used for good. GPS was funded, developed and launched by the military, and now we use it to find the closest restaurant or hospital — is that evil?
I am inspired and encouraged by the success of Laura Grace Chipley’s work with the use of participatory use of drones with the Appalachian Mountaintop Patrol (http://lauragracechipley.com/amp). I hope to prove how drones can be used for counter-mapping and advocacy efforts rather than for hegemonic purposes they are known for.
I once had a great conversation with a communications professor about how a simple camera angle pivot on a drone can completely shift the mood of that image. When the camera angle of nadir is 90 degrees – straight down, the aerial photo looks militaristic and utilitarian, whereas with an aerial camera at an angle of 50-60 degrees, it more likely evoke an emotional response of wonderment, beauty and splendor. This technique is used in cinematography. An aerial video to convey the landscape of the environment in which a story takes place is called a phantom ride.
Q: Do you identify as a geohipster? A geosister? Why or why not — and should it even be a binary distinction?
A: You know, I had a traditional GIS analyst job out of undergrad which makes me identify with #GISTribe (also I have been using ArcGIS Pro a lot lately) and then taught myself tools that might be considered part of the geohipster toolbelt. I think the binary is not helpful. A tool or solution should be made to answer a specific question or to meet a communication goal — how it is made is important in terms of meeting the goal, not to adhere to a certain tribe’s constraints. Solutions are often based on what is in the toolbelt.
Q: What’s your favourite mom joke?
A: What does a baby computer call her father? Answer: Data
From the movie HER, such a great movie.
Q: Do you have a favourite map?
A: Wow, this is hard, I do love historic maps. I also really love the hand-painted watercolor maps by @turnofthecenturies (on instagram) wooden laser cut maps. I particularly like the 3D bathymetry maps (http://www.3dwoodmaps.com/). Of course, I love NYTimes maps.
Q: Is there, like, an open source GPS tracker and wayfinding app for lost students to position themselves in their research and find an ideal route through school? Or to find a job afterwards? Or do you have any words of wisdom to share with them (me)?
A: Relax and enjoy the process. I continually reflect on feeling this way during my masters degree, particularly when working with masters students I am mentoring. I was really uncomfortable with this feeling of uncertainty about how to navigate through a masters degree, and then the PhD thereafter. There is no one way to make a map, there is no one way to complete a research project. You just have to document the process and justify your decisions. No one can do it for you, you just have to trust your academic advisors, and if you don’t trust them, trust your gut and get a new advisor. During your masters degree, you learn the research process, which is always messy and though the end is not always in sight, you just have to keep moving forward. A masters degree is like a 10k race while a PhD is a marathon in mountainous terrain.
Q: Any other thoughts to share with the rest of the hipster- and sisterhood?
A: More of a note to self: Be careful to not villainize men. Do not mimic them either. Let’s just all try to be confident without being dicks. What do our maps communicate? Think about who the data is representing, and who is missing.
Harel Dan is a GIS and Remote Sensing analyst based in Israel, and the GIS Coordinator at HaMaarag - Israel's National Nature Assessment Program. Twitter / Website
Q: You’re the GIS Coordinator at HaMaarag, Israel’s National Nature Assessment Program. What is HaMaarag, and how does GIS factor into the program?
A: HaMaarag is a consortium of organizations that manage open landscapes, that was set up to provide evidence-based knowledge to managers and decision makers. We run several long-term projects that take place all over the country, in varying biomes and their ecotones, from evergreen Sclerophyllous woodlands to hyper-arid shrubs, monitoring several classes like Mammals, Birds, Reptiles, as well as vegetation. As such, the entire process of planning out, sampling and analysing the data is dependent on locations. Be it precise measurement of monitoring plot corner pegs with GPS, or creating spatially-balanced sampling methods. My job also entails collecting and processing spatial data from other organizations, with their peculiarities and errors.
Q: You do a mix of technical work, coordination with other agencies, and field work. That sounds like an interesting mix – could you describe a typical day in the life?
A: 6:00 AM, Phone rings, ornithologist on the line, asks me to explain to him how to load the background layer to the Fulcrum monitoring app. 8:30 AM, Log on computer, answer email from chief scientist of the nature and parks authority. 10:00 AM, Run the script that scrapes data from that website. 11:45 AM, Finish that map and send it to graphic design. 13:37 PM, Coffee. 14:03 PM, Back in office after wandering around the labs in the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, where our offices are. 15:00 PM, Finish a call with the Open Landscapes head at ministry of environmental protection. 16:00 PM, Send drone orthos segmentation results to the botanist for assessment. 17:30 PM, Put kids to sleep. 19:00 PM, Goof around on whatever personal project distracts me these days.
Q: Based on your Twitter account and website, it seems you also take on a good amount of personal projects. What do you look for in a personal project? Any favorites you’d be willing to share?
A: My personal projects are a mix of disciplines and topics that on the one hand interest me, and on the other can be used as an excuse or reason to delve into something new; a concept, a programming language, a tool, etc. Furthermore, as a Geographer, I think I can bridge the gap between the analytical aspect and the human story it tells. For instance, over the summer I’ve made and published a constantly-updated map of fire damage in the south. I saw that there was a lack of connection between news reports and the scale of the damage that was creating misconceptions and lack of understanding. So telling this story was a chance to try out new internet tools to help streamline the work and be easy to read and comprehend for the general public.
Q: What inspired you to publish your analysis of SAR data to identify military radars? Were you nervous at all about the sensitivity of the subject matter?
A: I was intrigued by a peculiar image artifact when I was trying to incorporate Sentinel-1 data in my landcover classification mapping, which happened to appear mostly over broad-leaves and coniferous forests. After tweaking a Google Earth Engine script I’ve noticed that these artifacts converged over a single constant source, so I’ve figured out what these were. After a year or so of hesitance, asking around what should be the preferred action, and actually getting in touch with the Army, I had a job interview for a company that does SAR analysis, so I knew this would be a perfect time to publish the story. So with a tongue-in-cheek image alluding to some issues publicising the location of the radars in my country (It was a PNG image I made in MS Paint that read [REDACTED], you won’t believe how many people over-analysed this), I posted my findings on social media.
I got the job btw, but declined to take it as the conditions weren’t manageable from my perspective.
Q: You’ve successfully had your work featured in multiple publications. What advice do you have for other geohipsters out there looking to get more exposure?
A: Hustle. Made something interesting? Think you’re onto something? Post it on social media. If your career is not dependent on the number of publications in peer-reviewed journals, there’s no reason not to share your work and ideas with the geo community, no matter how half-baked they are.
Q: What do you do in your spare time? Any hobbies?
A: I have a garden with some fruit trees that I tend to when it’s not too hot, but other than that, I’m wholly immersed in being a full time parent to two small kids. Whatever spare time I have, it’s used to wind down and relax with techie reading material, or go on twitter and see what others are up to and engage in the war on Shapefile and banter on that other GIS software.
Q: Are you a geohipster? Why or why not?
A: I tick about a dozen or so results in the GeoHipster poll tally, so I guess I’m on the geohipster spectrum, even though I never got into the laptop stickers and pin badges fad. Besides, the backside of my laptop screen has velcro strips which I use to firmly attach dongles, chargers and an external drive full of hoarded geodata to reduce desktop clutter, this way I have room to place old printed atlases, a working sextante, PostGIS cheatsheet… OY MY GOD I’ve just realised I’m a geohipster.
Q: Any final words of wisdom for our global readership?
A: Don’t use Twitter’s Bing-based translation tool, it’s horrendous.
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.
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.
A: My undergrad studies started out all over the place, and I had no idea what GIS even was until I was almost through with college. As a freshman I studied graphic design, following a lifelong interest in all things visual. But after the first year I got interested in photography, but shortly thereafter I switched majors again, this time to computer science. I briefly considered what graduate school in comp sci might be like before being a little “homesick” from more artistic work; design, ultimately, was where my heart was.
During my junior year I stumbled upon a thing called Geographic Information Science in the list of majors at Michigan State University. Analysis and design, with a side of engineering? I changed my major that semester and have been hooked ever since.
While I bounced around between those majors, the bits and pieces I picked up were like little drops of experience that coalesced into the perfect preparation for a career in cartography and visualization. I didn’t know it at the time, but I couldn’t have planned it better if I tried.
Q: What do you do for NASA? Please describe your typical day on the job.
A: I sort of wear two hats. To tell a new visual story every day, I have to quickly analyze data, create maps and charts, and help our editorial team craft articles to communicate Earth science, primarily from or related to NASA missions. I am always scrambling to get or find data and then visualize it the best I can in a very short amount of time.
Over the longer term and in-between the daily articles, I lead the development of our style guide that establishes the overall look and feel of Earth Observatory visuals. This involves defining typographic styles, color palettes, base maps, and workflows. The workflows could be anything from a set of scripts to tutorials that enable us to go from raw data to public-ready graphics in an intuitive and consistent way.
Our bread-and-butter publication is the Image of The Day, which we put out 7 days a week, 365 days a year. So my typical day usually involves creating one or more visualizations to ensure that keeps happening, while carving out time to refine our style, identify new data sources, learn new technologies, or develop tools to help our team quickly publish press-ready visuals.
Q: Your PhD thesis is titled “Cues and Affordances in Cartographic Interaction”. Could you tell us about your research, and what spurred you to focus on this particular topic? Does what you learned feed into your work at NASA?
A: This research was a lot of fun! I was primarily interested in how to communicate varying “layers” of interactivity within maps. Sometimes a map symbol might only reveal a tooltip, while other features allow analytical functions, queries, or other capabilities. Some symbology has no interactivity at all. That’s information that should be clear to the user, and the visual design of map symbols can help clue users in to whether or not (or how much) a symbol is interactive.
I started my PhD before the major UI shift toward flat design, which was a good time to have a front-row seat to the backlash that followed that trend becoming commonplace. Early popular skeuomorphic designs were a bit heavy-handed with aesthetic ornamentation. As a response, designers sort of swung (too far) in the opposite direction: many interfaces became so flat that buttons were not distinguished from other design elements. This sort of design philosophy gives people chicken hands: they are constantly pecking, trying to discover which elements on screen can be clicked.
I wanted to humanize that experience, enabling users to do more thinking and less pecking.
My research was predicated on the belief that there’s a sweet spot in the middle: many, many interfaces could benefit from subtle cues that make interactive UI components a bit more obvious.
This research helped me think more clearly about hierarchies and designing with a purpose. Every map or visualization is a layering of information, and even if there’s no interactivity in a graphic, there’s still a competition for your attention and focus. Careful design ensures the viewer is drawn to the important bits, without totally removing less important elements. I like maps that communicate a key point quickly, then draw you in, revealing more insight as you study them.
Even if your fingers aren’t pecking a screen in different spots, your eyes might be. Good design settles things down and enables readers to focus on—or be guided to—the important information.
Q: There’s a lot of kids out there who want to work for NASA someday (including my own), although most of them are probably dreaming about space shuttles. If NASA has data visualization and cartography jobs, how wide does the variety get?
A: The variety is out of this world! (That was lame, wasn’t it? But it’s true!) You’ll find people working as everything from biologists to seamstresses at NASA.
I work in the Earth Science Division, and while the exact job title of “cartographer” is not a thing as far as I know — I don’t even have it — there’s an enormous amount of geospatial analysis and mapping going on. A lot of colleagues of mine have backgrounds in other fields — oceanography, geology, etc. — but we all make maps with the same data (perhaps with different software; the geologists really love GMT). But if it happens on Earth, NASA probably has an instrument that measures it, and handfuls of people with diverse expertise analyzing it and mapping it.
Q: What kind of technology do you use on the job? Mostly open source, or mostly proprietary, or an even mix?
A: It’s a mix. I’m a bit of a generalist: I use what gets the job done. That said, it is with some privilege that I am able to make those sorts of decisions. If there’s software out there, paid or otherwise, I probably have access to it.
That said, my go-tos by and large tend to be open source. GDAL is the real MVP of my workflow, and I use QGIS daily.
My top 5 most-used tools include QGIS/GDAL, Photoshop, After Effects, Python (with matplotlib, pandas, and NumPy), and Bash.
Q: Which systems are the most common sources of satellite imagery for your work?
A: We like to show things in true color when we can; readers really enjoy seeing satellite imagery that is as easy to understand as a photograph. That places a lot of emphasis on MODIS, VIIRS, and Landsat imagery.
Q: How often is it that a new system or source of imagery becomes available?
A: All the time! While the instrument construction projects and big launches make the news a few times a year, there are thousands of scientists around the globe developing new data from all the satellites already in orbit. Algorithms are improved, data sources are combined, and new applications emerge almost around the clock.
Q: Your website has dozens of examples of beautiful and informative maps. I’m guessing it takes quite a bit of work to pull the data together into a publishable product. Can you give us an example of a workflow, going from raw satellite data to polished map?
A: Thanks! I appreciate that.
One thing I have to admit being most proud of is that these projects are done super quickly. We publish daily, so I often only have a few hours, maybe 12 hours for larger stories, to get all the data that goes into something, process it, analyze it and find the story, and then design a map (or other visuals). In the last three years, there’s only one project that I worked on for longer than a week, which was the 2012 and 2016 updates to NASA’s Black Marble maps of nighttime lights.
The biggest effort has gone into developing the styles and workflows that make it possible to publish these visualizations so quickly.
I recently tweeted an example of a map coming together. The final map ended up as part of a piece on the Channeled Scablands. The basic steps for producing the imagery for this story were to:
Generate a best-pixel mosaic of the area using five years of Landsat data in Google Earth Engine. While that was running:
Download SRTM data for the area and merge the tiles with gdal_merge.py
Hillshade the elevation data in QGIS (or GDAL)
Color-correct and reproject the finished Landsat mosaic
Blend the Landsat data with the hillshade
Finish the map up with boundaries, water bodies, and labels, export for the web
To get even more out of the data, I also used the Landsat mosaic and elevation data to render a true color view at an oblique angle. The whole story finishes with a recent, individual Landsat scene. (You can read about how to color-correct and pan-sharpen Landsat scenes in tutorials from me and Rob Simmon.)
That all came together in about four hours. There’s always so much more I wish I could do with imagery, but our tight deadlines force us to be quick and lean.
Q: You’re a moderator for the esteemed Reddit community Data Is Beautiful. Last time I logged in there were 12+ million subscribers. How long have you been moderating, and what exactly does moderating entail?
A: I’ve been moderating Data Is Beautiful since early 2014. Geeze, thinking back, it is hard to believe I am the second longest running mod in the subreddit. Back then we had about 50,000 subscribers and we were not a default shown to all visitors. We’d see maybe one popular post a week. It has grown quite a bit, and that has been awesome to witness over the years. We now have subscribers posting insanely well-done work that makes the front page of the entire site almost daily.
Each mod contributes to keeping things organized and spam-free, but most take on a labor of love depending on their interests. Early on I established the CSS design for the subreddit and our visual flair system to separate different types of posts. Other mods organize AMAs, run contests, or code up sweet bots that quantify the number of original content (OC) pieces a user has posted.
These days I am not super active as a mod; we’ve brought on a bunch of fantastic mods that really keep the sub running and growing.
Q: What do you do for fun? Any hipster traits we should know about?
A: I spend a lot of time playing with my kid (4). We’re really into Lego right now (see that, Ken? No ‘s’). My wife made the mistake of giving me Monster Hunter: World as a gift, and I haven’t been able to put it down.
I am looking forward to getting back into fishing this spring and summer. That’s a hobby I’ve neglected recently and I can’t wait to get back into it.
If a beard, a love of craft beer, and a fixed-gear bike are the criteria, I might be a hipster on paper. But in real life, I’m less like The Decemberists and more like Dexter (the awkward part, not all the other stuff…)
Q: Would you consider yourself a geohipster? Why / why not?
A:. Even though I use a lot of tools that might not be mainstream, I don’t see that as a goal or accomplishment that sets me apart. These are things that just help me do the job I need to do. So I wouldn’t say so, but maybe others might.
I’m also a bit wary (and weary) of an over-emphasis on the tools used by cartographers and the GIS community. How those tools are used, and the goals they achieve, is much more important. There’s a bit of a ‘library name drop culture’ on social media, where a long list of tech and libraries will be highlighted, and then it’s like “oh, and by the way this app ensured the four-pronged butterfly did not go extinct.”
That’s wrong, and we as a community should strive to fix that. There are social media accounts devoted to bashing this file format or that software. Why? That’s as useful as posting instagram photos of food you plan not to eat.
It was Michelangelo, not chisel brand X, who made David.
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our readers?
A: “[You] absolutely have to have dark in order to have light. Gotta have opposites, dark and light, light and dark, continually in painting. If you have light on light, you have nothing. If you have dark on dark, you basically have nothing. It’s like in life: you gotta have a little sadness once in a while so you know when the good times come.” –Bob Ross
The State Plane Coordinate System is comprised of 120+ geographic zones across the US. The system, developed in the 1930s by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, is a commonly used mapping standard for government agencies and those who work with them.
There’s a website that I’ve had bookmarked for as long as I can remember. It’s simply a list of State Plane zones and the US counties that fall within each. At the top of the page are state links that redirect further down on the site, but I rarely use those. I usually just cmd+f and search for the county I’m looking for. Even if I know the zone already, the site gives me a sense of security when I’m making a map that uses the US-based coordinate system – like the feeling one gets when going back to double check that the stove is off and the door is locked.
There are most certainly other ways to look up State Plane zones, but this one, hosted on a stranger’s personal website, is the one I like best. Maybe it’s the simplicity of the site, its Web 1.0 design, the fact that the person who made it picked tan for the background color. Maybe it’s the nostalgia of going back to something I’ve used time and time again, and always has what I want – like a well-loved t-shirt.
A while back, I went to the State Plane site only to find the site could no longer be reached. Russell Edward Taylor, III, experienced something similar, but instead of chalking it up as a mystery like I did, got in touch with the owner, Rick King, and asked about hosting the site on his own domain. Lucky for those of us who’ve relied on it as a useful reference, it continues to live on on Russell’s personal website. Russell also did some investigating and found nearly 400 links to the State Plane site from across the geospatial community, from universities to professionals to students. Inspired by his initiative, I decided to reach out to Russell, who put me in touch with Rick, to learn about the site’s story.
Q: Rick, thank you for creating the State Plane site. Could you tell us a bit about yourself, and why you created the site?
A: I am currently retired having worked in GIS and Land Surveying since the 1980s. I was a Professional Land Surveyor licensed in Utah with most of my “experience” being while working in Indianapolis, Indiana, and ending after a 4-year stint working as a GIS Analyst in Los Alamos, New Mexico, documenting some hazardous waste remediation on a material disposal area that was used at the time of the Manhattan Project. I also helped with the development of an Acequia GIS for the Taos Soil and Water Conservation District in Taos, New Mexico.
My initial work in GIS was to allocate mapping resources to provide the base layers for large regional geographic information systems being developed primarily by the various utility companies. In the pre-internet days this work was accomplished by telephone inquiry starting at a state geological office or somewhere to see if there was any existing mapping available. GIS has evolved since then, but, just wanted to throw that in to let people know that GIS was existing before the world wide web.
I created the site as a reference for myself to help me at work. In the course of my work I received hundreds of datasets most all of which came without metadata and without any identification of the coordinate system on which they were based. The website I created in basic HTML would give me starting points to make the coordinate system identification. At the time of its creation, there really wasn’t anything else online to fulfill the need. I wanted to reference both the NAD 27 and NAD 83 systems, and found those references listed in the state statutes when I could find them online. The UTM references and the MS Excel spreadsheet were added later.
The state plane coordinate system page was part of a multi-part GIS reference page titled “GIS Landbase Information and Data Links”, which provided weblinks to the same.
The awful tan color of the background was carefully chosen for providing less eye-strain.
I hosted the site for many years as my contribution to the internet.
Q: Russell found almost 400 links to the State Plane page on other websites. Did you realize the site was being used by so many others in the geospatial community?
A: I did. It was Comcast’s decision to withdraw hosting personal web pages which is why it went down.
Q: When did you create the site? Looking at it now, is there anything you would change?
A: I created the site in 1999, and most of its creation is covered in the metadata I created for the page. Actually, I was one of the first people to quit using the page, so changes would have to be made by someone else.
Q: What was your reaction when Russell reached out about hosting the site. Were you surprised at all?
A: I was hoping that someone would step up and host the page as there were some educational institutions using it as a reference. A big thanks to Russell for stepping forward.
Q: Now being retired from a long career in land surveying, what do you do with your spare time? Do you have any hobbies?
A: I spend a good deal of time day trading on the stock markets. The goal is to grow my retirement funds specifically so that I can afford to build a new house. Yep, that’s the goal!
Q: A geohipster is someone who works anywhere along the broad spectrum of geospatial data and applications. Usually they’re described as being on the outskirts of mainstream GIS, thinking outside of the box, and doing something interesting with maps. Would you call yourself a geohipster? Why or why not.
A: No, I just never got involved with the analytics of GIS to get that excited about it. But…
Q: Rick, thank you for your contributions to the geospatial community, and for helping bring well-documented GIS resources online throughout your career. Any words of wisdom you’d like to leave with our global readership?
A: The world has become so dynamic. Everything is changing. People and politics, the environment, business and trade, and world economies. GIS is the only science that is capable of accumulating all the data, visualizing the data, comprehending the data, and finally using the data to forecast future models that will benefit us all. Population management, food management, resource management will be extremely vital in the near future. There will be plenty of opportunities to resolve what most of us believe are foreseeable problems, especially having clean water and adequate food for everyone.
Russell Edward Taylor, III
Q: From your resume, I see that you’re a Senior GeoSpatial Analyst at CoreLogic. Could you tell us a bit about what you do there?
A: I’m part of a group that works on a suite of data products used by clients for location intelligence. It’s based on a standardized, nationwide parcel dataset derived from point and polygon data acquired in every data format, attribute layout, and projection under the sun. Taken together, our little team likely has more experience than anyone with the quirks of the many different ways parcel mapping is done. I’m on the more technical end these days, maintaining internal tools in Python, preparing custom data deliveries for clients, managing our metadata and documentation, plus a variety of internal process-improvement initiatives that have immersed me in the database world more than I ever imagined possible when I got into GIS in the late 90s.
Q: When did you realize the State Plane site was no longer live, and what inspired you to reach out to Rick?
A: It was in July 2015; a colleague brought it to my attention when they went looking for the state plane zone of a county they were working with. After I hurriedly cached a copy from the Internet Archive for use by my team and myself, it occured to me that there were probably others out there wrestling with similar data that would miss it too. I have a personal website, and since the State Plane site is just one simple page, I realized that it would be very easy for me to keep it available to the world. Over the years, I’ve benefited greatly from the community-mindedness of others, so it seemed like a good way to do my part.
Personally, I favor open software, data, and public licenses that make works more widely available for use, but I’m also aware that not everyone does. Rather than take the risk of running afoul of an unknown benefactor by re-hosting the site without permission, I decided to do it by the book. I thought it was especially important to do it that way for two reasons: first, it would be a full, verbatim copy, and not anything that might fall under fair use if I ever had to defend it; second, if I republished it without a notice at the original URL, those who had been using it might have a harder time finding their way to its new home. So, after gathering a bit of courage, I shot off a short message that happily found a friendly response.
Q: Have you received any notes from others who’ve found the state plane site on ret3.net?
A: I have, at a rate of a few each year. Most are simple thank yous from visitors glad to find it still alive somewhere. Most emails come from businesses domains, almost as many from .edu accounts. I’ve had a couple interesting ones that led to a little research about parts of the page I’d never used for myself, most memorably as to just what an ADSZONE is.
Q: Enlighten us?
A: Oddly, I received not one but two questions about this within a few months of each other in late 2016. As near as I can tell, ADSZONE stands for Automated Digitizing System Zone, named for the tool the Bureau of Land Management used to convert NAD 27 maps to NAD 83, along with other subsequent projects, and the regions used for that project. Now knowing more about Rick’s experience, the inclusion of this bit of information makes more sense! If you’re curious (or very, very bored, although there is some fine early 90s clipart to be seen therein) the manual is online here: https://archive.org/details/automateddigitiz00unit. I don’t believe this numbering system is used very widely anymore, although in the surveying business (the field of both of my interlocutors on this topic), encountering disused references is pretty common.
Q: When you’re not being a geospatial analyst, what do you like to do in your spare time? From your website I glean that beyond maps, you also like comics and bikes.
A: I got my start reading comics with my dad’s Silver Age DC collection, but fell out with constant reboots of the modern era, so these days I’m far more likely to pick up self-contained stories, or at least serials that aren’t under pressure to run forever. Of course, I’ve always had a weakness for maps in comics: the World of Kamandi, Krypton, Marvel’s New York City, Prison Island and other small-town memoir settings, even the dotted-line paths in Family Circus.
I’ve been a daily bike commuter for 8 years (and 110 pounds), following a 25-year hiatus from pedaling. I ride a modest 5 miles round trip on my commuter bike, plus weekend trailriding on my mountain bike and recently longer road bike events. Interestingly, all my bikes are folding models. Although it’s not closely related to my professional niche in geography, planning, land use, and transit issues have always fascinated me, more so since bike infrastructure became a rather personal concern!
I also enjoy Austin’s energetic music and craft brewing scenes, with friends in the former (go see Danger*Cakes, Bird Casino, and Oh Antonio & His Imaginary Friends!) and my neighborhood being taken over by the latter, which happens to combine well with cycling.
Q: Are you a geohipster? Why or why not?
A: That’s hard to say; most of my work is not what would come to mind for that label — it’s pretty traditional and desktop-oriented, working with shapefiles in proprietary software, focused on fundamentals of data integrity for the end user. GeoNormcore, perhaps. The GeoJSON, FOSS4G, webmapped world is something I encounter mostly at conferences and in occasional at-home dabblings. That said, I am planning a Dymaxion tattoo, so perhaps I have a bit of geohipster in me after all.
Q: Any final words of wisdom you’d like to leave with us?
A: Although I always have to remind myself of it when the opportunity arises, folks are far more willing to help and collaborate than you’d think. Muster your gumption, screw up your courage, steel your nerves and ask nicely. I know it works on me.
Anonymaps is a shadowy provider of Twitter geo snark, lurking on the fringes of the under-the-counter geocoding industry. Since 2013, Anonymaps has tweeted 1,001 times, comprising 80% proprietary mapping fails, 19% three.word.barbs, and 1% obscure OpenStreetMap in-jokes. Anonymaps is somewhere between 20 and 60 years old and works in the illegal OSM import trade.
Q: It is said that positive thinking causes neuroses and makes people dependent. You are not in any danger, are you?
A: No-one quite knows how Anonymaps’ embittered, caustic personality developed. Some hint at unspeakable deeds in the early days of Cloudmade. Others say that a once-kind nature was (gdal)warped by discovering the One ST_NRings To (Python) Bind Them All. Still others tell tales of an idealistic developer blinded by exposure to the Manifold source code. Personally I think it’s PTSD from the OSM license change.
Q: Your Twitter bio says “crowdsourced sarcasm”. Do you have multiple personalities?
A: Yes. Totally. Anonymaps is essentially a loosely shared Twitter password. I’m not even sure who everyone is but I know people from at least four countries have posted.
At a conference some years ago, late one night in the bar, I got talking to a Well Known Geo Personality. He leaned over and confided: “Actually, don’t tell anyone, but I’m Anonymaps.” I sounded doubtful. “No, really, I am. Look.” And he posted a tweet. So that was me told.
Q: What is the purpose of your Twitter presence?
A: Historical accident. We were originally @FakeSteveC but the joke got old. Other than that, we’re mostly black ops funded by an unnamed geo corp with the aim of discrediting What3Words.
Q: Well, whatever your goals are, you’re more complicated and nuanced than some random troll. And you’re no sea lion either. If we call you the “Archie Bunker of GIS”, will you call us “Meathead”?
A: Delighted. Archie was a great geo thinker. He once said “East is East and West is West, but none of us is gonna meet Mark Twain”. I’m not sure what the EPSG code is for that particular projection but I swear I saw a shapefile in it once.
Q: You’re our second interview (after @shapefiIe) where, honestly, we have no idea who you actually are. But you sound like you might be on Shapefile’s side in the “best geo format” debate. Might you be kindred spirits?
A: Honestly, have you ever tried to use GeoJSON? #shp4lyfe
A: Full of admiration for Mapzen. How Randy manages to repeatedly hoodwink massivecompanies into spending millions on OpenStreetMap development is a source of wonder to me.
Mapzen was a curious experiment in developing superb software entirely devoid of any commercial imperative. All that code is now sitting there, ready to be exploited by avaricious sales guys who perhaps spend more time reading Clayton Christensen than T.S. Eliot.
I’m not at all surprised that Mapbox swooped on Valhalla – what surprises me is that no-one bought up the Tangram/Tilezen stack and team. If I were Amazon or Foursquare I would do that in a heartbeat. Right now Mapbox owns the mobile location market and no one much is challenging them.
A: Sometimes you get the hot takes by throwing a flamethrower through a window and seeing who comes running out shouting.
So how diverse are TomTom’s surveyors, or HERE’s? How diverse are their specs, their algos, their cartographic choices? My sense is not very, certainly less diverse than OSM. But they won’t tell us so no one bothers asking. OSM is open so you can ask the question, but the answer is sometimes used as a stick with which to beat OSM and its existing contributors. Better to use it as a carrot for improving OSM.
It’s self-evident that more, diverse contributors mean a bigger, fuller map. Preppy Silicon Valley kids training ML models to trace buildings, and bearded Europeans surveying biergartens do not a full-featured map make. OSM needs more mappers with young families, mappers who live in backwoods areas. It shouldn’t just be the best map of SF and Berlin.
Is that focusing on mapping or diversity? You tell me.
Q: Multiple choice question: The Humanitarian OpenStreetmap Team is: A. the best thing to happen to OSM or B. the worst thing to happen to OSM. Explain your answer.
A: A for comedy reasons. Where would Worst Of OSM be without HOT?
Certainly HOT has transformed expectations of OSM. Compare the map of Mozambique to that of, say, Michigan. You wouldn’t expect good maps in a land of cultural impoverishment, potholed roads, miles of slums and gang warfare, and sure enough, Detroit’s pretty bad in OSM. Maputo meanwhile is immaculately mapped. As you’d expect from the name.
The harder question is whether remote mapping is essentially imposing Western values on communities who, left to their own devices, might evolve their own, quite different map. Erica Hagen wrote thoughtfully a couple of years ago that “it’s actually pretty easy to bypass the poor, the offline, the unmapped… in spite of attempts to include local mappers, needs are often focused on the external (usually large multilateral) agency.” Gwilym Eades was ruder: “remarkably self-centred, expert-driven, and dominated by non-local actors.” That’s going too far but the next challenge for HOT is to enable the local mapping that marks out OSM at its best, rather than just serving as unpaid Mechanical Turks.
Q: Do you consider yourself a geohipster? Why/why not?
A: We try and cultivate a detached, post-ironic air of mystery while leading life on the technological cutting edge (PostGIS nightly builds and Mapnik trunk, which leaves about one hour a day of free CPU time). But actually we live for that sweet retweet juice. Maybe it would be truer to call us a geohuckster.
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our global readership?
Howard Butler attended Iowa State University and departed with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees after studying parts of Agronomy, Agricultural Technology, and Agricultural Engineering. He learned GIS software development during his thesis effort, where he needed to make ArcView 3.x do a complicated and completely unrealistic analysis. After failing to find a precision agriculture job because a GPS for a tractor cost $2,000 at the time, the Iowa State Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology took a chance on him to develop some GIS data collection and management software for the National Resources Inventory. Fifteen years later he’s helping to write open source software that's powering data management systems for autonomous vehicles.Howard lives in Iowa City, Iowa with his wife Rhonda, his two boys Tommy and Jack, two dumb cats, and a squirrel or raccoon or something that takes residence in his attic every winter despite efforts otherwise. He has a neglected blog at https://howardbutler.com/, and he tweets less and less at https://twitter.com/howardbutler.
Q: Howard – where are you located and what do you do?
A: My three-person company called Hobu, Inc. is located in Iowa City, Iowa, and we write, manage, and enhance open source point cloud software and help our clients use that software to solve their challenging problems. We initially focused on LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging — think radar with lasers) with a project called libLAS, evolved that into PDAL (GDAL for point clouds), and then continued with streaming technology in the form of Greyhound and Entwine.
I started contributing to open source with MapServer and GDAL back in 2002 when I discovered it was the only software capable of building the systems my job demanded at the time. I came to enjoy the camaraderie and common purpose those good projects exuded, and I learned over the years how to contribute in a way that matched my skills. Among other things, that evolved into writing a number of geospatial Python bits (you can thank/hate me for plenty of ogr.py and gdal.py) and helping to author a bit of the GeoJSON specification (you can thank/hate me for coordinate systems there).
In 2007, I struck out on my own and promptly learned that I didn’t know how to run a business. My banker still doesn’t really understand how or why we give away our software, but people get it when I say our product is consulting with a software toolkit we incidentally give away. Over the years we’ve built up a stable client base that values what we do and how we do it, and I think that the software we’ve written will outlast my company or my career because it represents solutions to problems people hate to solve again and again.
Q: So how did you end up working with LiDAR? I’ve had the chance to use PDAL and see some of your presentations at FOSS4G and FOSS4GNA.
A: The Iowa Department of Natural Resources led Iowa to be one of the first states to do a statewide LiDAR collection, and they had a grad student semester of funding they wanted to use to be able to use Python for ASPRS LAS data management, verification, and inspection. There was no open source requirement, but since it was what I was doing otherwise, it seemed natural to build a library that anyone could use. Mateusz Loskot and I started working on what became libLAS to achieve it, and once it was clear it was viable, I was able to attract more funding to enhance and improve it.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found libLAS and wanted to do a lot more with it — supporting a bunch more formats, getting it speaking to databases, and enhancing it to do a bunch more algorithmically. We learned stacking all those desires on a library based on the LAS format wasn’t a great fit. We started PDAL (Point Data Abstraction Library — pronounce it the same way you do GDAL 🙂) after some fits and starts and it has matured into a general-purpose library for building geospatial point cloud applications.
PDAL takes GDAL’s VRT pipeline approach and puts it into the context of geospatial point clouds, but with JSON instead of XML. It works on Windows, OSX, and Linux, and it has a command line application like GDAL to drive processing. Its workflow is optimized to template data operations and batch them up over a pile of data with whatever batching/queuing/cloud tools you have. That might be GNU parallel if you want to melt your laptop locally or something like AWS SQS in a cloud situation.
Q: I saw your presentation on Gerald Evenden at FOSS4G in Boston. Did he know that the PROJ library…or software…was going to go as far as it did? Actually – what does PROJ do?
A: PROJ or PROJ.4 is a cartographic reprojection library that was written by Gerry Evenden at USGS in the 1980s and 90s. It contains the math to reproject coordinates from UTM to Plate Carrée, for example. Gerry originally intended for PROJ to be a cartographic projection library (pure math only!), but in the 90s, Frank Warmerdam came along and started adding convenience for geodetic transformation (datum shifting). This caused some creative differences, but that geodetic convenience enabled PROJ to be bootstrapped or ported into almost every open source geospatial software package in some form or another.
While attempting to dig up some old documentation, I discovered Gerry died in 2016. This saddened me because I’ve felt that Gerry didn’t get his due for the impact that PROJ has on the entire geospatial software ecosystem. It is truly everywhere — open source, commercial, and government software all depend upon PROJ. I submitted my FOSS4G 2017 talk in an attempt to tell his story and shine the spotlight on him even though he probably would have detested it.
I’m a fan of 60s and 70s rock n roll, and now that those guys are starting to die off, people are rediscovering a lot of back catalog. Plenty of it is still crap, but songs that shined then often sparkle today. Those songs were written for the audience of that time, but a good one can transport you there even if you weren’t a part of it. Like a good song, open source software has the chance to be immortal. It is optimized for solving today’s problem in today’s context, but a few programs and libraries end up lasting multiple generations. Unlike a hit song, open source software isn’t a static fount of royalties. It is a liability that must be maintained or it will crumble back into the ground. People need to cover it, make it their own, and feed it attention as Paul Ramsey wonderfully described in his FOSS4G 2017 keynote.
For PROJ, two longtime contributors have been covering the song and keeping the music alive. Thomas Knudsen and Kristian Evers from the Danish Agency for Data Supply and Efficiency (kind of like Denmark USGS) refactored PROJ to be a full service geodetics library and they have modernized its API in the process. Kristian has led this PROJ 5.0.0 release process, and everyone’s software is now going to be able to get a lot smarter about geodetic transformations. While the old APIs are still available so as to not break existing software, their improvements will make PROJ last for another couple of generations.
Q: Thoughts on Mapzen shutting down?
A: Anxious and hopeful. As someone with an organization and employees, the thought of having to tell them they’re now on their own is a front-of-mind fear. Organizations fail for many reasons despite the effort of the people pouring their sweat into them. To work so hard and have it be called a failure doesn’t seem fair, but I’m thankful for Mapzen’s postmortems, which have given everyone the chance to learn.
I’m hopeful due to the fact that I think Mapzen’s employment model demonstrated a successful one for the employees. Many Mapzen’ers worked out in the open on public projects, and in the process made themselves and the teams they belonged to more valuable for it. Developing open source software in public, as opposed to never going out beyond your own wall, is something that makes you a better software developer. You have to listen to rightful criticism about your software, and you have to temper your emotional response to people rationally not liking the precious thing you just made (ok, not always). To solve hard problems in public leaves you exposed, but in exchange for that vulnerability, you generate a professional currency that follows you the rest of your career.
You write a great program, regardless of language, by redoing it over & over & over & over, until your fingers bleed and your soul is drained. But if you tell newbies that, they might decide to go off and do something sensible, like bomb defusing<wink>.
The only thing you can do is make your software suck slightly less every day you touch it. My formative experience in geospatial open source was watching folks like Frank Warmerdam, Steve Lime, Martin Davis, and Markus Neteler do exactly that. They controlled the complexity in front of them, resisted the urge to overdesign a solution, and they treated everyone with respect even when they didn’t deserve it. I’ve tried to follow their approach with my projects, although I’d consider myself a worse developer than each of them by most measurements.
Q: You were there at the beginning for OSGeo back in 2006(?) I think. How has it changed or remained the same? How did you get pulled into the organization?
A: OSGeo’s reason to exist in 2006 was different than it is in 2018. In 2006, it was supposed to be a group of geospatial software projects with a common thread about open source. In 2018, it is a group of people with a shared interest in open source geospatial software. The former was frustrating for different reasons than the latter, but it has been an organization that achieved substantial things despite the messy way in which it is able to go about it. Many of its challenges relate to the fact that it is a volunteer organization throughout, and personalities with drive and determination can have short-run impact, but long-run sustainment is very difficult. Recently, it has slowed its precession about the axis of outreach, education, and conferences, which are topics that fit the current makeup of the organization very well.
I’ve had many roles in the organization over the years, including helping to set up some of the first project infrastructure and acting as a board member. In 2006, software project infrastructure was a real cost, but in 2018, access to repositories, mailing lists, continuous integration, and bug reporting can all be had in exchange for some spam tolerance. Recently my contributions have been presenting at conferences and being a strong supporter of the mid-winter OSGeo Code Sprint that has oscillated back and forth between the EU and North America. Sprints are a primary opportunity for developer camaraderie and collaboration, and they provide the high-bandwidth communication forum for projects to grow and enhance each other.
Q: I’m not a developer by any stretch – but I like going to talks by developers on their software. You’ve built PDAL to manipulate LIDAR Data – what’s the weirdest use case you’ve seen for PDAL so far?
A: Nothing too weird, but it is an everyday occurrence for users to use the tools in ways we didn’t foresee or intend. Every permutation of data size, composition, and fault gets hit eventually. For every success story using PDAL in a way we never thought of, there’s a corresponding failure story due to assumptions that don’t line up. Many times a great bug report is simply a challenge of those assumptions.
Q: What’s the Best Thing about Iowa? What’s the Worst Thing? I drove through it once and didn’t stop but long enough to eat a sandwich.
A: The Public Land Survey System in Iowa means I’m never lost. You probably weren’t ever concerned on your drive either. Also, the proximity to so much animal agriculture means that meat-as-a-condiment to more meat isn’t just a specialty no-carb lifestyle choice here. You would think with 90+ percent of the land in the state used for agriculture there would be more vegetables around.
It’s not the worst, but opportunities for Big Culture stuff like museums, art, and music shows are somewhat limited here, especially once you get out of the larger towns. Lack of diversity is a challenge too, although you find it in places in Iowa you wouldn’t expect. These are the same challenges for all rural states with aging, out-migrating populations.
Q: Can you tell us something people might not know about you?
A: I grew up on a corn and soy farm in Southern Minnesota, and I was convinced that maps and computers were interesting after some quality time on the Dinty Moore Beef Stew assembly line. I have a pilot’s license I haven’t used in more than a decade, and my car was once struck by lightning while driving down the freeway at 70 mph (I shouldn’t have bought it back from the insurance company). A long time ago, I won an Esri Conference award using AVPython and ArcView 3.x, and I could still sling VTables and FTables around in Avenue if I was cornered.
Q: Almost 4 years ago we defined the geohipster to be a person who lives on the outskirts of mainstream GIS. Would you describe yourself as a geohipster?
A: I guess. GIS™ as a name is an outdated view of how the intersection of geography, computers, and databases is to be constructed. Each of its areas has been dumped over at least a couple times since GIS™ as a fashionable term came to describe our industry. Many still GIS™ on desktop software with a 2D map frame and 🔍 zoom and ✋pan icons like twenty years ago, but geo+computers+databases is now oriented toward phones, sensors, and deriving locality from incidental data with cloud computing and pervasive networking. To call what’s going on with all of that GIS™ seems rather trite.
Q: I leave the last question to you – anything you want to tell the readers of GeoHipster?
A: Please make sure to buy a GeoHipster calendar or a t-shirt or something. We’re all just learning here, and sites like this one make the job much easier and need our support.