Lakshmanan (@iamlaksh1) is a domain consultant, GIS enthusiast, developer, and a blogger.
Q: Thank you for agreeing to talk with GeoHipster. Let’s start by discussing your background. Please tell us about the region of India from which you come. Would you also discuss your educational background and your overall experience in the GIS field?
A: First of all thank you very much for giving me this opportunity. I am really excited and happy to connect with GeoHipster. I come from the Southern part of India — State of Tamil Nadu. I did my graduation in Civil Engineering and Masters in Transportation Engineering. I have more than 10 years of experience in spatial software development and domain consulting in Energy industry. Most of my experience is with Esri products, Microsoft technologies, and some bit of open source. I’m still a learner and GIS enthusiast.
I’ve started my career as a researcher in one of the premier technical institute in India (IIT Madras). I have developed a desktop GIS application which tracks vehicle information feed from GPS. We have conducted different experiments, published papers in international journals and conferences. Thereafter I was working in IT industry on various roles (as a developer, technology lead and consultant) in geospatial technology.
Q: Would you mind telling us about your current work?
A: Currently, I work for one of the top IT firms based out of India, and my client is a large Energy major. I play the role of Geospatial Analyst/Domain consultant, and take care of their ArcGIS Portal and custom JS applications along with data management. These days in addition to Geomatics, I do work with lot of other E&P (Exploration and Production) products and tools. Everyday I do different tasks — writing Python code, database activities, upgrading ArcGIS infrastructure, creating reports or preparing road map etc.
Q: What first drew you to software development and GIS? What challenges do you find most exciting today?
A: I learnt BASIC and FoxPro during school days. I am always interested to work in computers and programs. Hence I decided to make a career in the IT industry. As part of the curriculum (in Civil Engineering), I needed to do thesis, when most of my friends decided to design a building or water tank or do some field experiment, I chose GIS. I started working in GIS (in year 2001). I started with ArcView 3.1 (Avenue scripting). Working with shapefiles and preparing thematic maps and charts was so fun. It was a wonderful project and got a good grade too. I decided to stay in GIS.
I have been working in GIS for close to 13 years, challenges are many, solving complex spatial problems; projections; integration between systems, enterprise data management, automations, etc.
Q: When I first started blogging in 2006, your blog was one of the first I found. You may not know this, but the format of your blog was an influence on mine in that you blogged about concrete, useful solutions to technical issues. I realized I wanted to strike the same tone. You have since moved on from blogging and I am curious how valuable a resource you find blogs and social media to be today? How, if at all, do you use them in your daily work?
A: Thanks for your appreciation. I’m not moved from the blog because I was lazy to be honest.
I have plan to convert my blog to my own website near soon. This is in my To-do list in 2016.
One fine day, I decided to start the blog on my own. Initially I don’t know what to write and how. I decided to share my day to day technical challenges and solutions. I read a lot those days (even now); in addition to Esri forums, I started posting solutions to technical problems and tutorials on my blog. A lot of people liked this and many students, professionals connected with me through the blog. Blogging has opened new doors to me. I have connected with many professionals and fellow developers across the globe.
I receive at least one email per day on career guidance or technical problems. Several people appreciated me via emails, phone calls, and in person. I treasure appreciation from Jim Barry of Esri on my blog, and your appreciations and feedback.
I still believe individual blogs and technical forums were main source for learning new things or finding tips to solve any technical issue. GeoDev meetups, online events and organization level meetings were other sources for learning and development.
I like Twitter these days, where we can get an all updates/news in a quick glance.
Q: How has the GIS industry changed since you began your career? Which changes have had the most impact on you? What advice would you give to a young person entering the GIS industry today?
Q: As someone who has implemented geospatial systems for a long time, what recent developments in the geospatial industry have you most excited? How do you hope to integrate them into your current work?
A: Few weeks before, I was in meeting — where one of Esri product manager participated, we were discussing about Hadoop and tools for big data processing. In energy industry, there is so much heavy weight data that needs to be processed quickly for taking a decision in a timely manner. This is one of interesting areas which I would like to work on.
Q: What do you like to do in your free time?
A: During weekends, I will play cricket with my friends. My kid occupies most of my time these days. I read a lot via Facebook and Twitter feeds. I’m preparing for some technical certifications too.
Q: Complete this sentence: If I were Jack Dangermond for a day, I would…
A: Be more open (now they have started) to users unlike standard support process. I’ll make sure to simplify the licensing terms (especially credits) and costs.
Q: What does the term “geohipster” mean to you? Based on that response, what is the most geohipster thing you’ve done?
A: Geohipster means something new or different. Individuality I would say. Crafting their own future. In one of client presentation — I coined a term “#We Map your success”, it was well received and appreciated. My mind automatically converts any object into point/line/polygon. When my wife texts me “Where are you?”, I usually respond with coordinates 🙂
Real talk: I love geo. After 15 years or so in this field, I’m constantly amazed at the work being accomplished by my colleagues. I’m especially inspired by the new class of talent that comes along every few years. Whether it be a thought-provoking tweet, a fresh take on cartography, or niche app that re-defines a previous concept, young professionals are continually improving our field.
In taking a break from our usual long-form interview format, i’d like to introduce you to eight young professionals who inspire me on a regular basis. Each of them brings a unique perspective to geo, and all of them are dedicated to making a difference by having a positive impact on our world.
I recently asked each of them to tell me about what they love about geo right now, and invited them to share something “cool”. Some you may already know, some you may not, so here’s a virtual handshake to help introduce them to you.
A front-end GIS Developer at the State of Minnesota, Kitty is focused on UI/UX, cartographic design, mobile environments, and web accessibility. She helps organize Maptime MSP, and is finishing her three-year term on the Minnesota GIS/LIS Consortium’s Board of Directors. In her free time, Kitty hits the ice to play hockey, hikes/snowshoes (depending on the season), loves a good book, and likes to travel the globe.
Cool shareable: Map for the annual Minnesota GIS/LIS Consortium’s conference showcasing hotels, key attractions, and establishments. The 2015 conference was the 25th annual conference held in the beautiful city of Duluth. http://geospatialem.github.io/conference-map/
Kitty says: “There’s so much to learn in the geography and geospatial industries, and so many extremely talented professionals to tap and work with! Broadly speaking, I am trying to be a better cartographer, and I’ve found that working offline has been the best method for me — doodling, coloring, baking, traveling, and even hiking…”
Currently a junior at the College of William & Mary, where he studies Applied Mathematics and Computer Science. Kelvin is from Northern Virginia, and before that Accra, Ghana.
Cool shareable: I wrote my first real lines of code just over a year ago, and now I hack on all sorts of cool and complex projects! One of them is a scraper for data.openaddresses.io that makes it prettier and searcheable by source name and by country.
Kelvin says: “The geospatial field is a great environment for budding software engineers. The open source community in geo is so vibrant and vocal. Everyone is always up to something cool and creative. This is especially true at Mapbox where brilliant minds are pushing the envelope on the state of the art in geospatial technology all the time.”
Cartographic Technician at Virginia Economic Development Partnership
Allison is a May 2015 graduate from James Madison University and a former intern at the National Parks Service. She spends her free time hiking and trying to figure out how to “adult” (401K? Health Insurance? Taxes???).
Cool shareable: For my Senior Capstone at James Madison University, I created this map that tells the story of a growing industry in the Commonwealth that dates back to the colonial age. It was built using a multitude of different tools: the map itself was built in QGIS and ArcMap, all of the charts were originally built using R, and the stylization and construction of the graphics all took place in Adobe Illustrator.
Allison says: “I love putting interactive GIS in the hands of the user and making geographic data accessible and understandable for everyone to explore. I have started teaching myself the basics of web design in the hope of building some interactive maps and charts of my own someday.”
Product Engineer on ArcGIS Open Data at Esri DC R&D Center
Courtney works at Esri where she’s a Product Engineer on ArcGIS Open Data. She works closely with product management, designers, and customers to help guide the product and make sure they’re building something awesome. Before Esri, she studied in Canada at McGill University, where she was introduced to open data through GIS classes and the professors there who are studying how new geospatial tech is altering government – citizen interactions. Courtney is also a co-organizer for Maptime DC, and a co-organizer for HackShopDC.
Courtney says: “I’m really excited about my awesome coworker Brendan’s map editor, Mundi, and all the potential that comes from it. You sign in with your GitHub account and can search through all the open datasets from ArcGIS, do your simple-but-flexible map styling, and get an output as a gist and an automagically created bl.ock. It also gives you the map styling CSS or JSON, so it’s sweet if you just want to play with styling and plug the bit of code into your own map.”
Katie is a cartographer, glasses-wearer, and amateur cheese enthusiast who currently lives in Madison, Wisconsin. She’s finishing her cartography/GIS degree at UW-Madison while working at the Cartography Lab and co-organizing Maptime Madison. She’s a social media nut who helps run several professional map twitters (such as @NACIS & @MaptimeHQ) and loves the cartographic Twitter community.
Cool shareable: This was my first intense D3 map, with a supported graphic and temporal component — so it was a bit daunting given our time constraint, but we made it work! The hardest part of this map was the research required. I didn’t realize how much legal jargon I’d have to learn about in order to assemble all of our data. If it had just been looking at each abortion restriction without a temporal component, that would have been a lot easier, but why would we want that?
Alex Kappel [@alex_kappel] GIS Analyst, the Data Team at @AidData
Alex discovered geo at Clark University while studying Environmental Science. After learning some Python in school, he got the opportunity to intern at Development Seed. Currently he works at AidData, using mainly FOSS geotools producing geocoded data sets (which hopefully have a positive impact). Based out of the William & Mary office, Alex also gets to work with a lot of students, and is a co-organizer for Maptime Hampton Roads.
Cool shareable: Accessibility is one of the key attributes of ‘open’ data. With this in mind, AidData provides geocoded datasetsthat lower barriers of entry for end users who want to see who is funding what, and where they are siting their investments. Collectively, this suite of improvements is known as a “Level 1A” data product. All of AidData’s Level 1 geocoded datasets are now accompanied by a Level 1A data product.
GIS Developer at Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Jacqueline is an outdoor enthusiast who’s paired her love of nature and geography in her career as a GIS professional with the MN Department of Natural Resources. While she has recently moved into a GIS developer role, she gets her cartography and design fix by creating hand-made maps. When Jacqueline is not mapping, she is usually hiking, fly-fishing, or kayaking.
Cool Shareable: After creating a mobile data collection app for the MN DNR’s entomologists to track bee species and habitat characteristics in Minnesota, I was inspired to learn about native bees. This map was generated from an evolving dataset of specialist bees and native host plant ranges, courtesy of the University of Minnesota and the MN DNR. The intent of the map is to bring awareness to bee population decline and population diversity, as well as highlight the need for increased data and analysis to facilitate population preservation.
Jacqueline says: “I’m excited that cartography, design, and user experience are playing an increasingly important role in web map development. Sharpening my front end development skills to create efficient yet attractive interactive maps is something I’m working hard at right now. Being part of such a creative community of GIS experts is inspiring!”
Kara graduated from George Mason University in 2014, studied geography, though somewhere along the way she managed to earn most of the computer science and geology degrees as well (foraminiferal oxygen isotopes are super cool and academic specialization is hard). Currently she works for a small geospatial analytics startup based outside of Washington DC, and her tasks at the moment range from throwing Bash and Python at large unruly datasets, cartographic design, web development, search and rescue related behavioral modeling, ops, keeping their local PostgreSQL OSM database alive, and attempting to bend the Node GDAL bindings to her will for raster processing and modeling in Electron.
Cool shareable: Search & Rescue topographic maps for Washington and Virginia are a sample of trying to improve on USGS maps with OpenStreetMap and supplemental data. Methodology for the SAR map creation can be found at the following link:
Alex is currently employed as a Spatial Information Analyst at TasNetworks and is a director at the Surveying and Spatial Sciences Institute. Alex graduated with a degree in Surveying and Spatial Sciences with honours in 2011, and has since worked in technical spatial roles. Alex has presented at international, national and local conferences and organises regional spatial events including State of GIS and GeoRabble. Alex lives in Hobart, Tasmania.
Q: You work for TasNetworks. What does the company do?
A: TasNetworks is a transmission and distribution business, which is to say that it’s a power company that manages the really big poles and wires as well as the smaller ones. Electrical engineering is all new to me, and one of the important things about our GIS is the electrical connectivity model, which is like topology, but includes all the switches, fuses, links and other accoutrements of managing an electricity network. TasNetworks is an organisation of around a thousand employees including five hundred field staff.
Q: What software/technology stack do you all use?
A: It’s a big organisation, and there’s a lot of technology. Keeping it just to GIS, we use G/Technology as the master GIS database for editing the electricity network’s spatial data and connectivity and to manage the network model. This database gets de-normalised into a big Oracle ‘Spatial Data Warehouse’ (SDW), and a number of other systems get their data staged into this database too. It’s a really big database, and contains lots of data (and a bit of information!). From the SDW, we move to a number of desktop GIS users, who use GeoMedia Professional. And there’s a couple of installations of GeoMedia WebMap, which has over three hundred unique weekly users internally. GeoMedia definitely feels like a legacy product (both desktop and WebMap) and I’m a technology guy, and love playing with the tools, so I’ve started to use some other things that are new to the business, such as GeoServer and Leaflet for single-purpose web-mapping, and QGIS for desktop data exploration. We’ve got FME, which is really important, but it’s only used for ETL, which is like using an AI to make paper clips! I’m pretty big on open-source, but I can be really efficient with FME, and it’s definitely my favourite piece of technology.
Q: You worked for the Glenorchy City Council for some time. What was the city doing that was innovative? What was it behind on?
A: Glenorchy, as I left, was embarking on a ‘cloud’ migration, shifting a range of IT services to an ‘as a service’ model. This is all well and good, but you still need good people in-house. And there’s a compromise there between letting someone else take responsibility for systems, and internal folks architecting and overseeing and owning what they’re doing. I don’t know how they’re going to go with it, but notching some of the IT capability up is important. It’s often just seen as an expense, IT, rather than an enabler and an efficiency provider. Without an IT solution, you end up with paper work orders and double or triple handling of information. At worst, you enter data into multiple different systems and inevitably have data quality issues. Council was pretty good at core business systems and IT services, and was at the right scale, in that there was good virtualised infrastructure, and not too much bureaucracy locking it down. I had the benefit of having an excellent, technical leader, who trusted me to mess with the crazystuff I got running. I just hope that I documented enough for those that follow me. (Do you hate me, Steve?!)
Q: What are some lessons you have learned along the way when developing systems for TasNetworks and Glenorchy City Council?
A: I’m only very new to TasNetworks, but at Glenorchy City Council I was privileged in that I was trusted to take some risks. So I designed and implemented an open data and public mapping portal. This went from non-existent to a couple of thousand hits a month over two years, which is great. It was all done using open-source and Amazon Web Services, so, aside from my time, it cost very little to get started. Something I took away from that, though, is that technology and information products are fine, but there is a whole swath of training and education that is required to get people (field staff, in this case) to change their way of working. Getting a system up technically is just step one (or two, after planning) and I had hoped that it would diffuse through the workforce naturally. Looking back, there was n opportunity to increase awareness and usage of the mobile mapping components of the portal with regular training and workshops.
Q: What skill is on your list to master next?
A: There’s always more technology stuff to keep an eye out for, but often it’s pointless until there is a working implementation. Some things I think are going to be important are vector tiles and machine learning. To some extent, the Internet of things and self-driving cars are worth being aware of, but the spatial technology they use, by the time they use it, is infrastructure – you can take it for granted. In terms of what I’d like to master, I think it’s the soft skills. The people stuff. Negotiation and persuasion, for example, probably needs some thought. I tend to think it’s obvious that we should be heading in a certain direction (and it is!), but ensuring that the intuitive thinking that comes from working with the tech gets translated into a convincing argument – and subsequent engagement – is next in line for mastery from me.
Q: How do you think growing up in the southern hemisphere has impacted the way you view maps?
A: Well, the mercator projection has fostered European imperialist attitudes for centuries. I think it’s time people stopped with their ‘top and bottom’ attitudes, let alone the sheer arrogance of the GeoHipster sticker, which leaves 90% of the Australian population off its tartan atrocity! An advantage of living in the southern hemisphere is that we can lay claim to practically everything with ‘it’s the biggest <something> in the southern hemisphere’ and it’s probably true.
Q: What are some of your favorite maps? Why?
A: I’ve been exploring interactive mapping for a while, and really like using Leaflet to build things. But there’s a lot of stuff I really like that uses other tech.
This wind map from Cameron Beccario is fantastic. It’s fast to load, simple to understand, and is really pretty. So much complex stuff hidden behind that interesting map. It uses D3.
Cartograms are really nice, and exploit TopoJSON, which is really cool (data compression using topology is nice, as is topological simplification). This example also uses D3.
I’m also intrigued with the stuff that Michael Bostock does, such as this very hip map using hexagons, but in a pretty unique way. He wrote D3. (I tried to learn D3, but didn’t get far… What’s with the learning curve, eh, Mike?!).
Final map, this housing unaffordability map out of the Guardian is pretty fantastic… I actually don’t know what tech they used, but it’s great to see media companies getting so deep into data visualisation.
Q: What is the biggest hurdle you see in the geospatial field?
A: Biggest hurdle? Probably communicating the idea that so much business information can be unlocked by putting it on a map. A picture tells a thousand words, and maybe a map tells a million. In local government, the GIS is the hub between the property system, the asset management system and all the external agency data, like transportation, environmental, and geomorphological data. Without a GIS, your decision making gets slowed down considerably, or processes become ad-hoc and inconsistent, or important considerations are missed. And in a bigger place, like TasNetworks, there are huge opportunities in areas such as routing work crews, grouping work orders geographically, and then forward works planning with other utilities and agencies… It’s one thing to know that we could be doing these things and that they’ll save money, and another to convince a business of that and therefore spending money on the GIS. Like investments in information technology generally, geospatial technology is an efficiency driver, but it’s often underappreciated, underinvested or taken for granted.
Q: What is your opinion on imagery drones? Do you envision using one in the next few years?
A: A lecturer of mine at UTAS has been working with UAVs for some time using structure from motion algorithms to generate imagery and point clouds, so I understand how they work. And Chris Anderson’s company sounds like it’s going to be big (if it’s not already). I wonder if drones are a case of legislation being unable to keep up with technology, though.There are uses of drones now, such as real estate photography, which are becoming common, but the businesses are probably not licensed appropriately. In Australia, you need to get CASA certification, which just about requires a pilot’s license, in order to do anything except for recreational flights. That’s a lot of formal shenanigans when you can buy a robot helicopter for $500 and start making money! TasNetworks does have a couple of use-cases for UAVs, though there are so many assets, you need something that can cover a lot of ground. Ergon energy, in Queensland, has been doing some fancy stuff with remote sensing and its massive lengths of transmission lines. This could definitely be replaced with a large drone (and I think theirs is basically that). Generally, I reckon utilisation of drones will become commonplace over the next few years, but I think I’ll be a consumer of a service rather than an operator. I much prefer software over hardware!
Q: What is the Tasmanian mapping community like?
A: The Tasmanian mapping community is great! There’s the government side, with TASSIC, who do big things in terms of advocacy. The professional arm, the SSSI, run reasonably large events such as the State of GIS every year. And there’s the informal, with GeoRabble, which is inclusive and fun.
Q: What are some startups (geo or non-geo) that you follow?
A: I’m interested to watch MapBox and CartoDB push ahead into the spatial-IT sphere. Fulcrum is a nice software and service too. And I’m interested to see what I can do with Zapier. Web development without a server-side component seems so much easier!
Q: Choices (Which do you prefer?)
Data or design
Data, gotta have data
Functionality or beauty
Functionality, the beauty comes from the simplicity of that functionality
Historical or futuristic
Futuristic. I, for one…
Markers or pins
Markers (can I choose circular markers?)
Clustering or heat maps
Clustering, hexbins ftw
Markdown or Handlebars
Markdown… I’m still just getting used to Bootstrap!
GeoServer or MapServer
GeoServer, for sure. But we’ve got to do better than bloody SLD…
Q: … and one more, what do you do in your free time that makes you a geohipster?
A: Well I did make a hex-map before they were cool (with some inspiration). Did I tell you I knit maps yet? I knit maps, then scan them at 10 µm before faxing them to myself (that’s actually pretty difficult to do these days, have you seen an A0 fax machine around recently?) and print that out with archival quality ink on papyrus, because that way it looks ironically rustic and will last the ages.
But more seriously, I have a young family, which is challenging and a lot of fun. I spend time and energy with the SSSI pretending I’m a professional. And I like GeoRabble events, networking with craft beer and smart folks to solve the world’s problems!
Matthew Baker has been in the geospatial industry for 10 years, having studied in Windsor, Ontario and Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia Canada before working at an Urban Planning firm in Ontario, then on to Esri in Redlands, CA. Matt is now the Sr. GIS Analyst at Denver Public Schools, a position which supports the District's planning and analysis of students, schools and boundaries, as well as delivery of spatial data to the enterprise student information system.
Q: You work for Denver Public Schools. What are you all working on? Why do you use maps?
A: As I write this the 2015-16 school year is starting up. We’re tracking enrollments and looking at how neighborhoods in Denver are changing. Soon we’ll have our annual enrollment count that get submitted to the State, and there will be a flurry of analysis that will go along with it that will support the decisions the District will make going into the years ahead.
We use maps to communicate the state of the District to everyone from the Superintendent and the Board of Education through to the Principals of schools throughout the District and parents of students in the schools. We publish maps online for the community to use, we create mailing lists and canvassing maps for our community outreach team, as well as maps used at community meetings around the City to drive discussion on boundary changes; our maps go into the yearly Strategic Regional Analysis, and we’re constantly creating one-off maps for quick-turnaround analysis that comes from senior administration.
Q: What are some lessons you have learned along the way when developing systems for DPS?
A: Working in a relational database system you learn a LOT about real data very quickly, such as what primary keys are for, how spatial indices are built, how joins really work, and most importantly you don’t have to cram all possible information about your spatial data into one table.
When I started at DPS, my first task was to re-build the ArcSDE. I quickly realized, however, that our student enterprise is based in SQL Server, and there is a lot of data that will never live in a geodatabase. Additionally our analysts were already using heavy-duty SQL for their analysis, which almost always had a spatial component, and since the spatial data lived with one person — the ‘GIS’ person — there was always a wall.
So using PostGIS as a guide, I developed a native SQL server spatial environment bringing in our data from ArcSDE, and connected and delivered spatial data to the enterprise. I taught our analysts how SQL spatial functions work, and we finally had spatial analysis tools we could all use.
Q: What is your technology stack?
A: We’ve been using ArcSDE for spatial data editing and ArcMap for cartography, MS SQL Server for spatial analysis and reporting, and FME to bridge the gap between the two formats. The spatial database really works for us, but there are huge glaring holes.
So we spent the majority of this past summer building an open source version of this stack: we dissected our current workflows, outlined strategies for implementing FOSS4G, and identified areas we’d have roadblocks. We then set up a PostgreSQL database server, enabled PostGIS, loaded our core spatial data and some other enterprise tables, and we’ve been hitting it hard with no sign of looking back, using QGIS for cartography and data editing, SQL to analyze and build spatial datasets, and we’re getting into pgRouting to better analyze student distance calculations. The benefits of PostgreSQL as a central database are a big deal for us, and integrating other tools like PGModeler, LibreOffice, and CartoDB, and of course open source operating systems like Ubuntu and Mint are all icing on the cake.
Q: What you envision for the future of curriculum for geography students?
A: I really have no idea what digital geography is being taught at the K-12 level, if any, and I frankly don’t believe Kindergarten students should be “doing GIS”– contrary to a lot of marketing emails I get.
However, at the post-secondary level, everyone in Denver is ready for a new way of learning about spatial data. There is the FOSS4G Lab at UC Denver that I’ve been participating in, and I really see their work as an important step forward into building new tools into digital spatial learning and beyond. And we’ve got a great monthly meetup to learn from each other.
Q: You worked at Esri for a bit? What were you doing there and what did you get out of it?
A: I lived in Mojave in a Winnebago, got slobberin’ drunk at the Palomino, and got 6 years in San Ber’Dino… I’m talking about The Red Lands! Well I spent those years learning as much as I could about as much as I could, focussing at work on urban planning applications of GIS, and at home on cooking and vegetable gardening. And since I was doing so much cycling there, I met a group of local bike commuters. We created the Redlands Bike BBQ (with @geogangster), got a covered secure bike parking facility built at Esri, and I’m told we were instrumental in the implementation of the new bike lane system in Redlands. My best friend was a 65-year old ex-surfer, ex-forest service fire-fighter, ex-high school teacher who gave me tours of the area no import to Redlands ever receives, and no matter what dusty corner of the Inland Empire we’d visit, we’d always run into one of his former students…
Q: What did you study at university? How did you find yourself in the geospatial world?
A: At University I went back and forth between geography and communication studies, eventually getting my degree in Communications and a Minor in Geography. I then took a year at the Center of Geographic Sciences in Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia (aka COGS). Since geography was always my favourite subject growing up, and since I have media in my blood (both parents are retired from the CBC), I had a eureka moment when I created my first PDF map! Communications and Geography! Now what to do with it…
Q: You are married to a fellow cartographer. First of all, how did you two meet? How does it feel to be a geo-power couple? How often do you “talk shop”?
A: Mamata and I met in Redlands at a bike rack and both seemed to have a shared philosophy of temporary life in SoCal — she is from Northern California, so we never understood watering lawns at 3pm in July when it was 110F and hasn’t rained in 4 months. Hand-in-hand we both kept one foot out the door, and when the time came, we got ourselves to Denver. I’d say we’re a geo-power couple, but really after a few words about work when we get home, it’s time for dinner and the usual tasks of a married couple. I’m super proud of what she’s done and where she is and looking forward to what comes next for both of us both on and off the field…
Q: What is the biggest challenge you see in the geospatial field?
A: Breaking free from a traditional set of tools is a relief and a challenge. There is so much information out there on Twitter, blogs, etc., and it’s tough to navigate all off it let alone decide what tools you should use to fit your organization, and then you’ve got to think about how those tools will be supported. Then there is the challenge of breaking the old “GIS” way of thinking, that one application can solve all your problems… as we say around the office, we’ve got to think outside the Arc…
Q: How would you describe the Denver mapping community?
A: From what I can tell, Denver has been an ‘oil and gas’ mapping community for a long time. But with all the new companies and people coming into town, all looking to get spatial going in their organizations, there is a growing community of GeoHipsters, and it’s definitely the next place I see things really popping up for the industry.
Q: What skill is on your list to master next?
A: Open source ETL tools still evade me, and we have a need for a rigorous geocoder, but I haven’t cracked that open yet.
Q: Which do you prefer when it comes to maps?
Data or design
Data — however, the medium is the message…
Functionality or beauty
Functional tools should just BE beautiful
Historical or futuristic
Markers or pins
Clustering or heat maps
Markdown or Handlebars
GeoServer or MapServer
Q: … and one more, what do you do in your free time — that makes you a geohipster? Collect antiques? Ride Denver buses? Drink beer? Cycle around town?
A: I used to be a bike commuter, but finally got so fed up with other cyclists blasting through stop signs and red lights, texting while riding, all of it with no helmet, no gears, no brakes (organ donors), I finally said enough and got on the bus. Now I read a lot and chat with people and do a lot more walking, and now as a pedestrian I find great amusement in blocking the route of cyclists running red lights and exchanging middle-fingers.
I go to one brewery and they do English-style cask-conditioned ales, I brew half-decaf store-bought coffee in an auto-drip (or percolator) and sometimes re-heat it on the stove the next day if no one drinks it. I don’t eat meat (it’s just not healthy, people), but I’m not a vegan (I do love honey and my leather boots).
Q: Any closing comments for the GeoHipster readers?
A: Reading all these tweets and blog posts it’s like we’re at war — from both sides of the open source paradigm. One side seems to want to destroy the other without knowing what they really do and why, while the other side will tell you they support these new tools and companies then turn around and try to buy them up or confuse the education with marketing materials. Swearing and being snarky in your tweets or calling yourself open source because you have a GitHub account is divisive, deceptive, and distracting. I am the user, and frankly I don’t want to support either of you. Like Nathan said, get a hobby!
Coleman McCormick is the VP of Products at Spatial Networks where he leads the product team for Fulcrum, a mobile mapping platform for field collection. He has a degree in geography, but has worked mostly in product development and server management (for geo applications) since. Coleman organizes the local Tampa Bay OpenStreetMap community, gives talks regularly on mapping and GIS, and has a passion for promoting geographic knowledge in education.
Q: You just became a father. Congratulations! Are there any parenting apps or technologies that you have discovered that help you out?
A: Not too many for me actually. My wife’s been using a few along the way. For a tech-friendly household, we’ve been keeping it pretty simple.
Q: It must be fascinating to compare the world you grew up in with the one that your daughter is going to grow up in. Do you think web maps will impact her life in the next ten years?
A: Yeah, it’s pretty unbelievable. I’m still shocked when I think about young people having access to things like Wikipedia for literally any piece of information they want to find out, and web maps to look at any place on Earth without needing an atlas. I have no idea how far we’ll be in 10 years, but I’m sure she’ll have her own device and use location-based stuff automatically without even realizing it. As someone who grew up flipping through atlases for fun, I’ve always wondered what that experience is like for a kid now when instead you can pop open Google Earth and zoom in anywhere, on-demand.
Q: Are you going to teach her how to read a paper map?
A: For sure, I’ll make sure she still knows how to read a map. I have a ridiculous trove of paper maps I’ve collected over the years, so there are plenty to reference for teaching! She’s already got map books she can’t even read yet.
Q: You are the VP of Spatial Networks. Describe the tasks you do in a typical week.
A: My typical week can be pretty hectic. As the head of our products group, any given week consists of lots of meetings with potential and existing customers, working with our dev team on product design, building marketing content, reviewing contracts and agreements, creating budgets, working on partnerships — I’m hardly ever working on the same thing two days straight. Notice that list doesn’t include “GIS” or “making maps”. I still squeeze in some cartography projects and work on OpenStreetMap on the side where I can.
Q: Your corporate bio says that you like to watch English football and have an unhealthy obsession with geography. Do you think those two are related? Maybe watching American football triggers disinterest in geography?
A: I got obsessed with soccer a while back and watch all of the European club leagues pretty consistently. The sport is incredibly international now. Sometimes looking up a player from a place like Ivory Coast will lead me into a maps rabbit hole of finding all the small towns the various players come from.
Q: What does your company do exactly? You build this app called Fulcrum… Why should I care about it? Aren’t there free form builders out that I can use?
A: Yes, you should care! Our company does a range of different things including data production (creating huge base map datasets), spatial analysis, and building software tools. The software side is my domain, and Fulcrum is my major focus. Back in the early to mid 2000s we were constantly struggling to slap together different technologies for our own mapping projects where we needed data collection capability. Over the years we invested some internal resources on building our own solution. Most of what was out there we’d already tried, including the free options, but everything ended up being a hack job and not an integrated system. In 2011 our unnamed internal data collection tool was mature enough that we decided to take it to market for anyone else with similar needs in the field. Fulcrum is 4 years in now and has a strong, diverse set of customers from over 100 countries.
Q: What libraries and tools does your company use? What have they created?
A: We will use anything that gets the job done. We’re mostly a Ruby on Rails dev team, but lately we’re using tons of different things. The community of open source software tools is incredible. Postgres is our go to for data storage, Leaflet for web maps, the Mapbox API and base maps for the Fulcrum web app. We’re also doing a lot with mobile on both iOS and Android. The Google Maps APIs for iOS and Android give us maps on mobile. We’re still using the MBTiles format for supporting user-generated map packages, waiting to see where we might take that functionality in the coming year. We’ve created a handful of open source tools for working with Fulcrum, and some generalist libraries for working with different spatial data tools and formats.
Q: The company is based in Florida and you have a number of workers elsewhere in the USA. How do you bring together everyone? How do you promote company culture with remote workers?
A: A couple times a year we do all-hands sprint weeks at HQ in St. Petersburg. We’ve got a great office space here, it’s always fun to bring the whole team in for a week to work together in person. As for the communication among the team we use Slack, GitHub, Google Hangouts — whatever we need to share info and data effectively, without having too many tools.
Q: You follow mapping trends and new technologies in depth. Are there any particular tech companies and/or startups that you follow? Any of them going to be the next big bang disruptors?
A: Our community is interesting — the mapping space has threads running through dozens of different industries, which makes it a fun place to be. Most other lines of work stay focused around particular verticals.
I think what Mapbox is doing is fantastic, both for the community of software developers that need maps, and for the map data space with their investment in OpenStreetMap. There aren’t many true “startups” that I know of focused only on maps, but there are a ton out there doing things with maps that they wouldn’t have done if founded in 2005. I love what a handful of independent consultants out there are doing at the grassroots level to bring the open source geo stack to the local level to diversify the tools they’re using. Randy Hale is on a roll with his blog series on QGIS. Flat Rock Geo and AppGeo are both doing great stuff with open source. And I have to mention Brandon and Brian Reavis’s Natural Atlas — such a great concept and has some gorgeous cartography.
Q: What is your current stack for going on a bike ride in a place you don’t know? From initial research to route tracking, what platforms do you use?
A: I usually start by checking out what’s on OSM, the bike trails there are pretty detailed. I’ll look for any places on OpenCycleMap (an OSM-based map customized for cycling features) that show streets with dedicated bike lanes if there are no clear parks or trails to ride in. At any given time I probably have 2 or 3 different GPS trackers running to log data, too.
Q: Which industry do you see as needing more mapping technologies? Are there one or two fields that seem to be pretty behind the times?
A: With Fulcrum we’re heavily involved in the utilities space — telecom, oil and gas transmission/distribution, and electric power. All of those sectors have an understanding of GIS, and some of them do amazingly complex things. At the ground level, though, work with maps and data is often woefully old school. The users doing that type of field work are people that get things done. They don’t want to fiddle with technology unless it’s guaranteed to save them time and effort. I like their focus on results rather than playing with new toys. Since utilities are the circulatory system of the nation’s infrastructure, it’s exciting to get to be at the early stage of a lot of tech adoption for such an important market. And it’s always fun to bring powerful mapping tools to people for their work.
Q: Which do you prefer when it comes to maps?
Data or design
Data, the good-looking variety
Functionality or beauty
Function. Beauty is still important, but we have enough tools out there that look great and don’t do anything useful.
Historical or futuristic
I’m a big sci-fi fan, but for maps I’d have to lean toward the classic historical stuff. I look at old maps all the time for inspiration.
Markers or pins
Markers for small data, pins for lots of data.
Clustering or heat maps
Neither! But heat maps if the data support it.
Markdown or Handlebars
Q: And other things…?
Black and local coffee or pour over with butter
Only black coffee, all varieties as long as it’s not burned.
MapMyRun or Strava
Twitter or Facebook
Twitter, though I find myself looking at them both less and less over time…
Commuter or road bike
Road bike. I keep racking up miles on my cheap one, but one day I’ll invest in something fancy.
Q: Any closing comments for the GeoHipster readers?
A: Join your local mapping or OSM meetup group. If there isn’t one near you, start one up. I’ve brought in quite a few new folks interested in mapping in our area from the local makerspace and some geocaching enthusiasts. But the GeoHipster audience is probably already on board with this. 🙂
Peter Batty is a co-founder and CTO of the geospatial division at Ubisense. He has worked in the geospatial industry for 29 years, and has served as CTO for two leading companies in the industry (and two of the world's top 200 software companies) -- Intergraph and Smallworld (now part of GE Energy). He served on the board of OSGeo from 2011 to 2013, and chaired the FOSS4G 2011 conference in Denver. He serves on the advisory board of Aero Glass.
Q: How did you get into GIS and/or mapping?
A: Totally by accident. I studied maths (as we say in England) at Oxford, then stayed on to do a Masters in “Computation”. I took a job at IBM, which was the dominant computer company in the world back then, in 1986. It was a bit like going to work for Microsoft in the 1990s or Google today, but distinctly less “hipster” and with more blue suits. On my first day they told me that they were introducing this new product from the US into the UK, and gave me the manuals and told me to learn about it. It was a product called GFIS, for Geo-Facilities Information System, a GIS focused on utilities and telecommunications applications. By the end of the first week I was the UK expert as I was the only one who had read the manuals, and I’ve been in that field ever since. GFIS ran on IBM mainframes and used specialized high-end graphics terminals which cost around £25,000 ($40,000). We’ve come a long way since then!
I found it a really interesting mix of challenges from a software design and development perspective — lots of interesting database problems, a very graphical focus obviously, which I find appealing, the challenge of designing systems that can be easily configured and customized, and more.
One thing I might mention from IBM days is that I was one of the main advocates in the industry back then for the notion that you should store all aspects of your geospatial data in a single database management system. This was the approach that IBM took, but it was uncommon in the industry at the time. The other main company pushing that approach was a Canadian outfit called GeoVision, led by Doug Seaborn. Esri’s product at the time was Arc/Info, the predecessor to ArcGIS, and it was so called as “Arc” handled the graphical / geographic aspects of the data, while “Info” stored the alphanumeric data. Pretty much all systems back then handled the graphical and alphanumeric aspects of the data separately. I wrote a paper called Exploiting Relational Database Technology in GIS, in 1990. In 1995 by chance I went to the launch of what is now Oracle Spatial, but was originally called Oracle MM (multi-media), at a conference in Vancouver. I chatted with the development manager and he said that they had a copy of my paper posted on the noticeboard in their office, and it had been a big influence on them. Which I thought was cool (though I’m firmly a PostGIS person these days)!
Q: So what did you do after IBM?
A: From IBM I went to work at Smallworld, who were a fairly early stage company at the time — I think I was employee number 30 or so, and after a year with them in the UK I was the first person to move to the US when we started the company there, and I’ve been in Denver ever since then (that was 1993). I imagine many GeoHipster readers may not have heard about Smallworld, but we revolutionized the GIS industry in the 1990s with a lot of ground-breaking ideas, and became the market leader in GIS for utilities and telecoms — you can read more in a blog post I wrote on the occasion of Smallworld’s 20th birthday.
GE bought Smallworld in 2000 and as with many acquisitions, it was a big culture change, especially for for those of us on the management team. Four of us left to form a company called Ten Sails, which evolved into what is Ubisense today (more of that shortly). In 2005 I took a detour to spend a couple of years as CTO at Intergraph, who were the second largest GIS company at the time, with revenues of around $700m. I had a good experience there working with lots of great people, but in 2007 I decided I wanted to get back to being more hands on with technology and left to start my own venture called Spatial Networking, where I did a variety of interesting consulting projects and also built an app involving social networking and future location called whereyougonnabe. I haven’t looked at this in ages, but I just found that our original web site is still out there, and there are a couple more videos here. I still think it was a cool idea, and don’t think anyone has really implemented what we came up with. Dopplr was the closest thing, but they didn’t have a lot of the geospatial features that we did, and they were acquired by Nokia and subsequently disappeared. I occasionally think about revisiting this idea! But anyway, we didn’t get the traction we hoped for with it, and in 2010 I decided to rejoin Ubisense.
Q: So you went back to Ubisense as CTO of the Geospatial Division. What are some of the more interesting projects you’ve been working on lately?
A: Well one half of Ubisense does RTLS (Real Time Location System) applications, using our precision indoor location tracking technology to power various applications, mainly focused on the manufacturing space. It’s a very cool technology — and I’ve come to learn that indoor location tracking is a surprisingly hard problem to solve!
The other half of the company is the geospatial division, which is where I work. I led a skunkworks project in 2010 to build a product called myWorld, which has really taken off over the past few years. It’s a web and mobile geospatial platform focused on large utilities and telecom companies, the same space I worked in with previous companies. It’s built on open source components — PostGIS, GeoServer and Leaflet being the main ones. Our mantra is “Simple, Smart, Fast” — it’s targeted at the 95% of people in these large companies who aren’t GIS people but can get a lot of value from a really simple Google Maps style interface onto their enterprise data. We’ve had a great response from customers. In fact one of them, one of the largest cable companies in the US, does a satisfaction survey of their end users every time they roll out a new IT system, and myWorld got the highest rating of any application in the 20 years they’ve been doing this, so that was very gratifying! We’ve been doing a lot of work with offline systems for use in the field, syncing data from PostGIS to SpatiaLite — since you still can’t guarantee having a wireless data connection 100% of the time, our customers really need the ability to work without a network connection. We have the core offline capabilities rolled out in some large implementations, and now we’re working on some interesting ideas for hybrid online-offline systems that can really simplify deployment and administration compared to traditional offline systems. We’ve also been building a number of specific applications to address particular business processes, like damage assessment, inspection and maintenance, and outage analysis.
One thing that differentiates us from the traditional GIS vendors is our focus on simplicity — it’s deceptively hard to make useful enterprise applications that really are simple and intuitive for end users. And another is that we are GIS-agnostic — at one of our large utility customers, we integrate with back end systems from GE Smallworld, Intergraph and Esri, and provide a common front end to all of them. The big players tend to work well with their own systems but less well with their competitors.
So it’s been fun. I feel we’re well on our way to disrupting the enterprise geospatial market in large utilities and communications companies, which hasn’t really happened since we did that with Smallworld twenty years ago.
Q: You presented your Geospatial Revolution talk to Minnesota’s GIS/LIS Consortium Conference in 2009. This was an influential talk for me and many of my colleagues here. It was the first time I had heard of the concept of “neogeographers” – did you coin that term?
A: No, it’s not my term, it was quite a widely used term in the industry at the time. At the time I would have said that Andrew Turner coined it — he literally wrote the book on neogeography, which was published by O’Reilly in 2006. However, I asked him if he came up with the term, during this interesting panel discussion at the GITA conference in 2010, and he said no, it originated in 1912 as a term to contrast with paleogeography. He credits Di-Ann Eisnor, then with Platial but more recently with Waze, as coining the recent usage of the term, though Wikipedia attributes Randall Szott with being the first to use it in the contemporary sense.
Anyway, it definitely wasn’t my term, and to be honest it’s not a term I really like, it was just the most widely used label at the time to describe the newer generation of systems that were disrupting the geospatial industry.
Q: What compelled you at the time to compare “paleo” or “neo” geographers?
A: Before I answer that, let me just digress a bit more on the terminology. One of the reasons I don’t like the term neogeography is that I don’t regard myself, nor most of the people doing interesting geospatial applications these days, as any kind of geographer. I’ve never studied geography at all, I’m a software developer and it happens that most of the applications I’ve worked on involve some aspect of location data or maps, but they involve a lot of other things too. Paul Ramsey uses the term “spatial IT”, which I like much better, though it still overemphasizes the spatial part in a way.
An analogy I like to use is that we don’t use the term “numerical information system” just because an application contains numeric data. We don’t have conferences on NIS. It doesn’t make you a mathematician because you develop an application that uses numbers.
Increasingly now, geospatial data is just another datatype, a map is just another aspect of a user interface. This opens up both the development and usage of geospatial applications to a massively broader audience, which is the real significance of the “neogeography” change or whatever you want to call it, the label doesn’t matter. Traditional GIS is a tiny portion of the geospatial ecosystem these days, I really dislike the whole attitude that GIS is this specialized sacred thing, and that you need to be a trained “GIS Professional” to do anything with geospatial data. Nonsense!
Q: Did the word “hipster” ever enter into your mind when considering either camp of geographer? As a Brit living in America, do you have a different take on hipsters?
A: Um, no! Was hipster a thing in 2009? And like I said, it wasn’t my term, I was just using terms that were prevalent at the time.
I have no claim or aspiration to be a hipster. And I’m not nearly as old as Steven Feldman so don’t qualify as a geohippy I don’t think.
Am I a GeoHipster? I had to consult your poll to decide on that, and according to that the joint leading characteristic of a GeoHipster is that they never refer to themselves as one, so it seems as though the only possible answer to give is no, whether I am one or not. But on your other top characteristics I score pretty highly: geoJSON is often the answer, I fired up ogr2ogr just yesterday to convert a shapefile into a 21st century format (geoJSON, naturally), and I have written my own code to roll map tiles (from Smallworld). I don’t think PostGIS is too mainstream though, I think PostGIS is fantastic. We’ve built myWorld on it and it has worked exceptionally well in some very large and challenging enterprise applications. I’d like to think we’ve been doing our bit to make PostGIS more mainstream — we have managed to get it installed in a number of large utilities and telecom companies where Oracle is the dominant database platform. With most of the customers that I work with, PostGIS would be regarded as very GeoHipster, I think. So maybe I at least score half a point there.
Another one of your poll answers was: “You call him Jack and still hate his company”. Well yes, obviously! I say that rather tongue in cheek, I’m not really a hating person, and I have plenty of friends at Esri. But I have spent my whole career competing against Jack, Esri has always been the “dark side” for me and the companies I’ve worked at. I have been in the geospatial industry for 29 years and have never used ArcGIS , does that qualify me for any sort of special GeoHipster award? Though having said that, we do use the Esri Leaflet plugin in myWorld now to enable integration with ArcGIS Server and ArcGIS Online, and quite a few Esri customers are using myWorld. Good interoperability with Esri is a strong focus for us at the moment.
So anyway, you be the judge on the GeoHipster front. I think maybe I’ve talked myself into getting a GeoHipster T-shirt.
Q: You’ve long been big on usability testing, even pointing out with self-deprecating humor how user testing showed a fatal flaw in one of your initial user interfaces. Do you have any more stories about how usability testing has improved your projects?
A: Yes, I am a huge fan of simple usability testing, as outlined in the book “Don’t make me think” — this is a short read and I highly recommend it to anyone involved in software design or development. I did a 5-minute Ignite talk on the same topic which you can see here. Usability has been absolutely fundamental to the work we’ve been doing with myWorld for the past five years, to make complex geospatial enterprise data accessible to the average person with little or no training. We believe that the growth in enterprise geospatial applications is all about serving the 95% of people in our customer organizations who don’t know what a GIS is and shouldn’t need to know.
Q: Influenced by some of your usability notes, I once held on to the belief that it was important to signal to users that something in a web map was “clickable” by changing the mouse cursor to a pointer. But now, with touch screens eliminating the cursor, this seems much less important. Has this shift been revealed in your usability testing? And if so, is there a new “touch screen friendly” way to tell the user that something is “clickable”?
A: Your first example is an interesting one actually. In myWorld we are typically dealing with very dense utility maps with many items on the screen. We can easily have several thousand selectable features on the screen at a time. These are typically pre-rendered into raster tiles for high drawing performance, which works very well. But of course that doesn’t give you sufficient information to change the mouse cursor when you are over something that is selectable. We could create UTFgrids to do this, but that’s a lot of extra work with our data volumes, and the density of clickable data on the screen is so great that arguably it doesn’t add much value and could impact performance — you would be trying to rapidly change the cursor all the time as it moved over the map. So in our web application we elected to use a fixed “pointing finger” icon instead of a “panning hand” icon over our map, to give users a clue that they can click anywhere on the map. Depending on where they click, they could get no features or multiple features. But we’ve found that works just fine with a wide range of users who are not technical and have had minimal or no training on the system. They also find panning intuitive even though we the icon we use is different.
Of course on a tablet or phone there is no cursor icon, and users still find it very intuitive and realize that they can drag to pan, click to select or pinch to zoom. So in this particular example I think it’s the case that you don’t really need the feedback of a changing cursor for those operations to be obvious and intuitive.
In the more general case, as web applications or native apps based on them are used more and more on touch devices, I think it’s important to design your application so that it doesn’t need mouseover behavior, which in general is very doable. There are quite a few specific suggestions if you google around, for example this discussion on Stack Exchange.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with the GeoHipster readers?
A: I guess one other topic of the moment that we haven’t touched on is vector tiles. There’s lots of interesting work going on in this area at the moment. I do find it ironic though that when I started doing GIS in the 1980s, most systems were based on tiled vector files — systems were designed that way to get over performance constraints. A huge focus in the industry was getting away from tiles to “continuous” vector based systems — having to split line and polygon features into multiple pieces to fit into different tiles caused all sorts of problems, especially for data editing and analysis. All these problems are exactly the same with vector tiles. So people have laughed at me for saying this, but I strongly believe that vector tiles are not “the future of web mapping” which is the message that I hear from a number of people at the moment. Yes they are interesting and you can do some cool things with them, but they have significant drawbacks too. I believe they’ll be a short term transitory phase, and the real winner of the next iteration will be whoever figures out how to handle a continuous non-tiled vector model in the browser, efficiently loading and unloading features as needed.
I also think that in all the excitement over vector tiles, a lot of people underestimate the strengths of good old raster tiles. For the sort of applications that we do, with dense vector maps and very complex display styles, pre-rendered raster tiles have huge advantages in terms of performance, scalability and portability — the ability to work well on low-end devices, and look the same in all environments, etc. I think there’s a good chance that raster tiles will outlive vector tiles.
Q: Any final words?
A: If you’re not using open source as part of your geospatial applications, you should really take a look at what’s out there. After spending 20 odd years working in the closed source geospatial world, I’ve been really impressed over the last eight years or so both with the innovation going on in the open source world, and with how well the products we’ve been using in our solutions have held up in very large enterprise projects.
Oh, and one more last thing: Mapwheel. I think all geohipsters should have a mapwheel!
Paul Ramsey is a Solutions Engineer at CartoDB. He has been working with geospatial software for over 15 years: consulting to government and industry, building a geospatial software company, and programming on open source. He co-founded the PostGIS spatial database project in 2001, and is currently an active developer and member of the project steering committee. In 2008, Paul received the Sol Katz Award for achievement in open source geospatial software. Paul speaks and teaches regularly at conferences around the world.
I’m writing this article for GeoHipster almost simultaneously with the Esri User Conference (UC) plenary session, which feels appropriate. If being a “hipster” means being in some way unconventional, then I’m missing out on the peak event of the “conventional” GIS community, and what could be more “GeoHipster” than that?
It’s been a long time since I attended the UC, probably 10 years or so, and the dominant feeling I remember coming away from the last event was one of absolute dejection and depression.
I was at the time, as I am now, a proponent of doing things “differently”, of exploring other options than the dominant enterprise mainstream, and it’s very hard to sit in a room full of over 10 thousand people applauding the dominant enterprise mainstream and still think your ideas have much merit. And as much as I enjoy GeoHipsterism and all its proponents, one of the dangers of our little echo-chamber is that we forgot just how fundamentally irrelevant our ideas are to the actual practice of professional GIS in the world.
The source of my dejection while sitting in the UC plenary had a lot to do with the futility of my position: here were 10K folks who would never care a whit about what I was working in. Here also was a company with so many resources that they could afford to waste the efforts of huge development teams on products and ideas that would never pan out.
That particular plenary, back in 2005, included lots of 3D technology that has never seen the light of day since, and felt like a festival of technological spaghetti throwing. There was not a wall left unfestooned with spaghetti. And it wasn’t random either. They were comprehensively going down every possible track of future technology, even though 75% of them were going to end up dead-ends, just to avoid missing out on the one track that turned out to be relevant for the future.
And this brought yet more dejection. Even, if by some amazing chance, I did hit on an idea or technology that was important enough to gain a market presence or interest, Esri would turn their vast development resources upon the problem and render it an also-ran in short order.
Why even bother?
It took me about a month to recover.
Since what I was working on then and what I’m working on now is open source, my ability to keep on working and growing it are never at issue. Open source can’t be driven out of business. What is at issue is relevance: whether the work is helpful and worthwhile and useful to people to make the world a better place. Even with 99% of the professional geospatial world locked up and working in the Esri ecosystem, the remaining 1% (pick whatever numbers you like) is still a lot of folks, and a lot of those folks can do things with open source that they could never do with Esri.
So I saw the NGOs and First Nations and academics and innovative governments still doing cool things with open source, and I got happy again and kept soldiering on.
Fast forward ten years.
Heading into this years UC, there was a brief twitter-storm around Esri’s use of vector tiles, which is worth following through several of the conversation chains if you have the time.
very exciting to be working on the open source project @esri is quietly rebranding as their product
In an earlier era, it would not have been hyperbole to state that having Esri use your code/steal your idea guaranteed its relevance in ways that having them ignore it never would. Andrew Turner once told me that one of the big plusses of being acquired by (big, bad) Esri was that his ideas had a much better impact than they did when he was working in his (teeny, tiny) start-up.
But this is a new era, and the people Esri will be serving with their adoption of Tom’s vector tile technology are almost completely separate from the people Tom’s company (Mapbox) will be serving with that technology. There truly is a win-win here. There’s also lots of relevance to be had beyond the now tiny world of “professional” GIS.
And this is where the “GeoHipster” thing gets a little weird. If being a “hipster” means standing outside the mainstream, what becomes of your status when the former mainstream itself becomes marginalized? When I read the list of interviewees and their interviews, it’s clear that mostly we “geohipsters” share a history within the old mainstream and that we have to varying degrees decided to look beyond that mainstream.
But with the growth of the industry “geohipsters” are becoming a minority within a minority. The new kids can’t identify, because they’ve never had to break out of the old paradigm. Tom MacWright, whom I quoted above, and who has already built so much amazing open source geospatial software in his career, has no experience with Esri tools. Outside the solutions engineers, none of my colleagues at CartoDB have any Esri experience either.
To call Esri the dominant company in our field these days is to radically misread what our field actually is, and who is leading it. What technology has changed our field in the last ten years?
Globe visualization and ubiquitous access to imagery (Google/Keyhole)
Mass access to mobile location (Apple/Samsung)
Mobile maps and vector mapping (Google/Apple)
Oblique imagery and model extractions (Microsoft)
Esri isn’t calling the tune, and neither is open source — we’re all just fast followers now.
So I can take some comfort that — some 10 years after I sat in the Esri UC plenary and wondered why I bother to get up in the morning — some poor Esri exec is going to have to sit in the Google I/O plenary and have the same experience. The jungle is very very large, and there’s always a bigger gorilla.
Maziyar Boustani received his bachelor’s degree in Iran, then moved to US to receive his master's degree in GIS. After finishing his school in 2012, he started working at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena since. He is working as a GIS developer and Software Engineer, focusing on earth science projects and big data.
Q: So Mazi, we met at FOSS4GNA 2015 in San Francisco (technically Burlingame). Where do you work?
A: Yes, it was nice meeting you at FOSS4GNA at your QGIS talk. I am currently working at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
Q: What do you do at JPL?
A: I am working as GIS developer and software engineer at JPL for 3 years, working on a variety of earth science projects, finding solutions for big data problems, as well as being involved in some interesting open-source projects.
Q: So what sort of Big Data Problems are you working on (if you can tell us)? Big data and GIS together? That seems to get a lot of discussion these days.
A: At JPL our team deals with a variety of data received from satellites, as well as model data generated by scientists.
Also within the last two years our team is working on two projects from DARPA called Memex and XData to find some solutions for big data problems. Provided data can be public tweets, financial, employment, and more. Some challenging questions have been asked, such as visualizing data geographically, as well as finding the connections between different data.
For example, in terms of geospatial data, I had a challenge of visualizing big point data on a map. I found the solution by using D3 JS library with generating vector point tiles using Python SciPy k-means clustering by running in Apache Spark. You can find the repository on my GitHub page at (https://github.com/MBoustani/Khooshe).
Q: I see you graduated with a bachelor’s degree in civil surveying and Geomatics from Iran. How is the GIS field in Iran, and how were your classes? That’s an area in the world we haven’t seen on GeoHipster as of yet — educate us!
A: The GIS field in Iran is booming and growing very fast. At the time I was studying (2004) there was no university major called GIS — it was part of Civil Surveying major, but in terms of classes, we had a very updated curriculum and were using mainly ArcGIS Desktop for GIS analysis and processing.
Q: At FOSS4GNA 2015 I did a QGIS workshop and you came to it — afterwards you demoed this small program (I say that jokingly) that you have been working on called GISCube. What is it and why did you make it?
A: So when I started getting into the field of GIS (back in 2005) ArcGIS was the only software for doing GIS processing and making maps. I was mainly using ArcGIS for many years (until 2012) before I started working at JPL. Our team at JPL was one of the early groups using and distributing open source code and software. Because of that I started researching for open source alternatives to ArcGIS and found out about QGIS and GDAL/OGR.
We have some scientists who are working with geospatial data but they are not familiar with GIS software like QGIS and not comfortable writing Python code using GDAL/OGR. So I came up with the idea about making GIS processing and visualization easier by developing a web-based GIS application that can be run internally on the JPL server for all employees.
Q: And that’s what GISCube does, correct? It allows you to visualize GIS data using a web browser? It also allows you to do simple GIS analysis things like buffers?
A: Yes, to start you first upload your geospatial files (such as shapefile, GeoTIFF, GeoJSON, and more), after which you can visualize them on a map, get metadata, and extract it to other metadata file formats. And most importantly, a series of geoprocessing tools lets users implement processing in the browser.
A: Making your project open source not only helps to have broader user base, but also helps to have a community of developers around the project to help you expand the project at no cost.
Q: In the middle of our interview you went back to Iran to visit friends and family. You get to see all the news reports on Iran like I do, but you just went back for a visit. Were you born there?
A: Actually I was born in Boston, MA, but grew up in Iran for 23 years, came to US for education and work. I am not following the news, but definitely I know it creates a very wrong image of Iran for non-Persian people. It was very impressive to see the number of US tourists visiting Iran increasing day by day. It’s a place worth visiting for sure.
Q: Would you consider yourself a geohipster?
A: Can you define geohipster for me?
Q: That’s a good question. So we took a poll, and the ultimate answer we came up at the time was that geohipsters more or less shun the mainstream GIS world, have a sense of humor, and like to do things differently. So do you feel like one now? Because it appears you’re doing all sorts of things differently, and doing it quite well.
A: Yes, I am considering myself a geohipster, it sounds cool. However, I have noticed most of the questions in the poll were about visualization, so I would like to see more GIS people thinking about GIS as processing and generating data instead of just visualization. I believe GISCube is unique because you can’t find many projects that focus on geoprocessing on the web.
Unfortunately when you talk about GIS, most people are talking about Mapbox, Leaflet, OpenLayers, map projections, and more. I would like to see more geohipsters focusing on developing libraries and applications to make the GIS processing much easier and faster than what we have now.
Q: I always leave the last question for you to say whatever you would like. Mazi – what would you like to tell the world?
A: Be creative, come up with crazy ideas, and yes, you can make it happen, just work hard 🙂
Jenny Allen is a Product Manager in the Search Team at HERE. She's worked in and out of the geo-industry for many years and lives happily in Berlin, Germany. You can follow her on twitter @sjen.
Q: You started your career in geo in the field, working for the Geological Survey of Ireland. That is hip. Tell us a bit about it.
A: It was indeed both geo and hip. I was just out of university and had rather romantic notions of working somewhere that mapped the earth. And that’s what happened.
My time was spent digitising maps from the field, analysing data from drilling records, and a spot of field mapping. I say “analysing data”; what I was doing with the drilling data was perfecting the art of manual geocoding to the National Grid. I learnt all about the techniques for mapping based on aerial photography, interpolation of point data, and the hard graft of digitising with a click pointer.
One of the greatest pleasures of working at the GSI for a map-nerd (should I say “geo-hipster”?) like me was that we had access to the original bedrock mapping done in the mid 1800s done by geologist-artist George Victor du Noyer. These are beautiful watercolours painted on-top of 19th century 6-inch maps, and have exquisite details of the landscape represented on them. I got map-goose-bumps every time I held one.
Q: Any truth to the rumour that you felt compelled to leave Ireland due to the lack of postal codes? Will you be heading back now that they’re being introduced? What’s your opinion?
A: Well of course that’s the reason I left, I couldn’t find anything. Not true actually, I was pretty nifty with National Grid co-ordinates by the time I left! (See above comments about geocoding.)
Just to clarify for those who don’t know Ireland’s postal system too well: for a long time we’ve got by fine without post codes as the Postman very often knew who was living in each house in his area. We knew our Postman by first name (Chris), and would have chats on the doorstep. I lived in a house with a number, street name, town, and county in the address. We got our post. Some of my friends in rural areas have only their name, townland, and county. They could have the exact same address as their Auntie who lives about two miles away. They got the right post.
But perhaps this is the rose-tinted view of the world I used to live in. I am of the opinion that postcodes are good for people and society. They unitise our geography to a level that brings real human benefits like accurately delivered post, routing for navigation, and geographic analysis.
I am looking forward to seeing what comes out of the Eircode work (Ireland’s soon to be launched new postal code system). It is a shame that the new codes won’t be totally intuitive. I like the hierarchical nature of postcodes like those in the UK and find it fascinating how a postcode can become part of the lexicon of geography. One of my pet projects is to tune in to the ways that non-map-nerds talk about location, such as this question overhead in London: “Who’s in the SW3 area this afternoon. Want to meet up?”.
Q: Today you live in Berlin, widely hailed as the hippest city in Europe, if not the world. Obviously it also has a thriving geo scene with HERE, skobbler, komoot, a new wave of location-based service start-ups seemingly every week, and regular events like wherecamp.de. What’s your take on the Berlin scene? What are you and the kids talking about while out sipping your Schwarzbier in Kreuzberg?
A: Is Berlin the hippest city in the world? Hell yeah! Berlin’s push-pin on the world technology map is strong and steady. It’s a great place for people with ideas for technology, music, art, everything else, and all that combined. The city is bathed in creativity and openness. You can hang out in the betahaus and get advice on your start-up; hack with the Berlin Geekettes, or join one of the numerous Meet-ups on coding.
That’s the hip part, what about the geo? Without a doubt HERE occupies a vital part in Berlin’s geo and technology scene. This isn’t a shameless plug, it’s just as it is. I know this as I have been working at HERE for over four years and I know the people and teams who develop our great products. It’s a global company and the Berlin site (around 1,000 people) includes developers, cartographers, developers, data collectors, developers, product managers, developers, designers and more developers. Did I say developers? What’s key about what we do in Berlin is that we are building the APIs, SDKs and technologies behind many of our key business services in Automotive, for example, such as routing and traffic. This is on top of the beautiful maps that everyone can use on here.com, and the HERE maps app on Android and iOS.
The bit I said earlier about “creativity and openness” in Berlin is important, because the connection between different technology groups in the city is strong. Plenty of HERE’s development community take part in the numerous hackathons, meet-ups and conferences available in the city.
Schwarzbier? Mine’s an IPA please.
Q: Relatedly, almost from the beginning the German speaking world embraced OpenStreetMap in a way not really seen elsewhere. Why is that? Is it strange working for a proprietary mapping provider in Germany?
A: I’m not sure I can provide a definitive view on why Germany has embraced OSM so much. But let me offer my point of view on Berlin at least: I think it’s down to the “creative and open” culture of the technology community. Take the open-source movement in technology; this is part of the fabric here. It means you’re being generous and that you’re part of something meaningful.
Q: Before moving to Berlin you worked for the UK’s Ordnance Survey. As someone looking from the outside, any thoughts on the transitions going on there?
A: Ordnance Survey has a very special place in my geo-heart, and I’m very proud to have had a small part in such an illustrious organisation. Since I’ve left they’ve moved office, undergone a huge refactoring of data collection, revolutionised access to data for developers with their APIs, and have now started a GeoVation Lab in London.
It looks like things are going well and I’m quite pleased to see that they’ve done very well without me!
Q: Speaking of transitions, now you’re at HERE, which it seems Nokia wants to sell. Can you share the opinion of someone on the inside?
A: If we were sipping a Schwarzbier in a Biergarten in Berlin I would tell you all about it. But as we’re not, I shan’t.
Q: As someone who is hip, but also has a considerable geo career under her belt working for a mix of different players, what are your thoughts on the state of the industry? What’s your advice to the kids?
A: Am I hip? I prefer to call myself a map-nerd. But I take the compliment.
Yes, the industry has changed, and it’s changed for the better. The big disrupter has become the standard, and the new disrupters just keep on pushing. We need quick and efficient ways to acquire data (such as vehicle image capture and community sourcing), advanced indexing technologies (think machine learning for better search), and compelling location based applications for users and businesses alike.
Something that’s important for the geographers of the world like me: you should step out and step back in. It helps to work in a different industry, experience a different domain, work with people with different skills, and to understand what it’s like to not be a geography map crazed geo-hipster. I left mapping for a few years and learnt so much about software development, user interaction, and customer satisfaction from people who are passionate about things other than mapping.
Q: Any final thoughts for all the geohipsters out there?
A: I belong to the cadre of people who love, eat, sleep, drink and breathe maps — lucky me. But I came to work here because I wanted to get back to mapping, so it wasn’t really luck — it was my ambition that got me here.
If it’s what you love, just go do it. If there isn’t a company out there doing what you want to do, go get the data and do it yourself.
Thinking back to the topic of the state of the geo-industry, I’d say that there is one key element to becoming a map champion: build applications and services that delight the geo-nervous or geo-reluctant. Make it useful, beautiful, fast and simple — then everyone will be a geo-hipster.
Reading his bio, one might get the impression that Marc Pfister is the prototypical geohipster. After studying mechanical engineering, he was a bicycle designer by day, and DJ by night. He then took his CAD skills and turned them into a 10-year GIS career. As a tinkerer who has to take everything apart, he began to focus on Open Source geospatial programming. Along the way he helped reverse-engineer Esri’s SBN spatial index, and started making statewide maps of gravel roads. Then in 2012 he bounced around the midwest and became an artisan cheesemaker with his wife, starting Longview Creamery.
Q: You are among a growing number of people I know who have left the GIS industry. Why did you leave, and why do you think others do?
A: My wife has worked as a cheesemaker on and off over the years, and we had always thought about starting our own cheese company. It’s a daunting task to go from zero to a fully operational facility. Some friends who were starting up a goat cheese operation in Nebraska needed some help and had a place we could stay in, so we decided it looked like a good opportunity to try something out. We would help them with their operation, and in exchange we could use their facility to start testing some potential cheeses. So we quit our jobs, threw some minimally viable furniture into a small trailer, and moved to Nebraska. While we were working on that, some equipment came up for sale in Colorado. It was in a really nice facility and it seemed like a shame to have to move it, so when we bought the equipment the owner leased us the building and let us take over the existing business.
While this was going on, I was still doing geo work on the side. I worked for Boundless on GeoNode and MapStory, which was a neat project to be involved in. But lately the business has grown so much that I’ve been sucked into it more and more, so there hasn’t been much geo-anything going on. Honestly, I like working with physical equipment, so at this point if I left cheesemaking I could see going into dairy engineering. But on the other hand, I like the geo field and would probably go back with the right opportunity and team.
I don’t know anyone who has left geo due to a beef with some aspect of the industry. It seems like most ‘geo’ people have come into it from some other career path, so they have options to leave geo to go back to environmental work, or programming, or whatever. It’s almost like geo is an adjective you can stick on any career. It’s like saying you work in the color red, and you could be growing strawberries or painting fire trucks.
Q: You are still very active on the geotwitters, though, so it’s not like you have shut the geodoor. Or have you?
A: I’m doing almost zero geo work other than the gravel road maps. People still email me questions about SBNs and Google Static Maps, so I help out where I can. I’m active on the geotwitters mostly because I’ve absorbed enough technical jargon to come up with good jokes. I love a good geojoke, especially if it involves some photoshopping.
Q: What is your fondest memory from your geo times? What is the worst?
A: The fondest? In 2008, when I lived in rural Northern California, there was a huge lightning storm, and several wildfires started within a few miles of my house. I was frustrated because I could see the flames from my porch but the online information was terrible. The MODIS heat detects were on one site with a horrible base map, and the fire perimeters were on another that had an outdated clunky interface. So in the best 2008 mashup spirit I bodged together some scripts to pull in that data and put it together on Google Maps. I also did a little cleanup, like converting the MODIS detection time stamps to local time. It ended up being a big hit. The Los Angeles Times posted it on their website and it slashdotted our server, which is both terrifying and gratifying at the same time. I also got a lot of ‘Thank You!’ emails, including some from USFS and Cal Fire staffers who preferred it to their in-house mapping.
The worst moment, I don’t know if I can think of anything geo-specific that would qualify as the worst. The most frustrating was getting into turf wars with the Board of Professional Land Surveyors. I worked for a scrappy little GIS, environmental, and planning consulting company, and we did everything in house. Orthoimagery, LiDAR, GPS, you name it — we DIYed it. We’d try to sell LiDAR data, and we’d get a nasty letter. We would have to explain that we’re just reselling elevation data that was collected by a company that of course had a licensed land surveyor involved. It got so silly at one point — we ran an ad in a planning magazine advertising that we did ‘Surveys’, as in public opinion surveys for proposed projects, and we got a C & D letter over it! So now you have the backstory behind the Breaking NAD image and a lot of my otherjokes about a dystopian future where rogue GIS techs sling illicit elevation data on the black market.
Q: Unlike most GIS practitioners and opinionators (myself included) who are too close to the problem and often can’t see the forest from the trees, you have the unique position and distinct advantage of looking at the industry from a distance. What do you see?
A: Even while inside it, I’ve seen it from a lot of different perspectives. When I started doing GIS work we hadn’t moved to ArcView yet and were doing everything in AutoCAD and Adobe Illustrator. We eventually transitioned to ArcView, but around the same time I found #geo on IRC and the geowanking mailing list, which led to WhereCamp and getting a whole different outsider perspective from people who were programmers discovering that maps were fun to mess with.
So I see two things going on: people who are totally entrenched in the Esri stack and would really benefit from branching out — that’s contrasted with people who are trying too hard to be innovative and are missing the fact that a big part of GIS work is making a PDF site location map that’s going to go into a forgotten report. The eye candy is fun but it’s often the boring stuff that pays the bills.
Q: Is there fashion in technology? Does the desire to be different sometimes trump other more “rational considerations” — in tech as well as in couture?
A: Fashion can mean a lot of things. In terms of self-expression, and as a signifier of belonging to a certain group, definitely. Is the choice of Python, with a focus on readability and whitespace, any different from choosing minimalist Scandinavian furniture?
Software for us is generally a practical tool, so there seems to be a pragmatic limit where getting stuff done trumps outwards appearance. To an outsider, the proliferation of MacBooks in the geo developer world might seem like a fashion thing, but honestly it’s because OS X seems to do the best job of getting out of your way.
I also think there’s a parallel with the low barrier to entry and often easy mix ‘n match pluggability of software. A ‘look’ is really just the sum of parts of component pieces, as much as software is a sum of the underlying libraries. To get into programming you don’t have to start with writing a language and compiler, and to get into fashion you don’t have to start with spinning your own thread.
Q: What is the geo equivalent of normcore? If you see me wearing dad jeans, how would you know whether I am normcore or just lame?
A: If you’re wearing dad jeans when driving your kids around in a minivan, then you’re probably lame. Normcore has to be out of place in order to be referential. So I guess the geo equivalent would be trying to edit ways at an OSM mapathon using ArcView 3 just because you like the menu bars.
Q: You make steel bicycles by hand. You and your wife own and run a creamery. Tell us about your day-to-day activities.
A: They sound terribly hipster — steel bikes, artisan cheese. But it’s really not that cool. I’m a small business owner, so I wear a lot of hats which I’m simultaneously juggling. Usually at least one of those hats is on fire. The hipster sheen wears off quickly. We hear a lot from people who want to get into cheesemaking, and they always have idealized the cheesemaking process to soft-gloved curation of what are essentially precious living objects that have to be nurtured and massaged, like they’re kittens or something. And that you’re carrying on this ancient and noble tradition, yada yada. The reality is that it’s a lot of hot and sweaty manual labor and doing dishes over and over.
Q: Colorado is a geo hub, but is it also a hipster hub? Is the Colorado brand of hipsterism the same as the Brooklyn or Portland or Berlin or Shoreditch variety? How does it differ?
A: I live in a rural farming town that’s turning into a retirement/bedroom community, so I don’t have the best perspective. I spend some time in Fort Collins which is a college town so there’s some ‘hipster’ visibility. There is a sort of coherent ‘coloRADo’ style that’s a mix of snowboarding/skate style with a hippie/raver jam band 420 overtones, but with some tech gear conspicuous consumption. White guys with dreds and rallyed out Subaru turbos. What seems to distinguish them from their peers in places like Lake Tahoe, California, is that they have a high degree of stoke for their state. The Colorado flag is on everything. In California you might see the bear on some things, but stoke seems to be much more regional and often oppositional. You have the Norcal/Socal divide (one of my favorite geo topics), and smaller ones like Oakland/SF or LA/San Diego. I don’t see that in Colorado, even though it has diverse regions (except at the political level).
Q: “New and improved” vs. slow food/slow code. Is the race to develop newer and “better” things at an ever accelerating pace the mark of progress? Is it a good thing? A necessary evil? Or a temporary madness?
A: I find it especially frustrating that ‘upgrades’ these days break so many things. My phone was obsolete the day I bought it. I just upgraded my OS, which ‘upgraded’ Python which broke certain modules that cascaded down into other tools I use. Working with machinery I accept that entropy is going to break things — bearings wear out, metals corrode, on so on. But these upgrades really seem to be the opposite of entropy.
Some of my equipment is over 50 years old, and it will run for at least another 50. I like to think about what would be the equivalent of a web map with a 50 year lifespan, when languages and OSes are EOLing after 5 years. Could you get 50 years out of code in ANSI C?
Also on the subject of cheese versus code, I enjoy that I can see my work get turned into large physical objects. I go into our cheese cave and there’s cheese stacked from floor to ceiling, and that feels pretty good, you know? We made all that. And the best part is that it only gets better with age! It can’t disappear with one simple refactor. Of course, physical output means physical labor. There’s no shortage of articles these days about how soul-satisfying physical labor can be. But it’s hard and breaks down your body, and I’m glad I have the luxury that I could go back to a desk job. I hate to romanticize it when I know people who don’t have that choice and are slowly killing themselves.
The worst thing about working with physical products is when you screw up and you have to throw your hard work and money away. Bits are free! I always tell people who are nervous about learning programming that you can screw up as much as you need and there are almost never any consequences. Go crazy and break things.
Q: On closing, what would you say to geohipsters who may have toyed with the idea of trying another career? Go for it, or stick with geo?
A: Go for it. And if it doesn’t work out, geo will take you back.