Michael came to the Geo-field accidentally, burned brightly across the early GIS skies, relished being a small fish in a small pond, fought hard to keep the mystic arts secret from the unwashed masses, was an unapologetic ESRIalite, and then experienced a conversion to the “GIS is just a tool” doctrine, and now looks at any single-solution disciple with disdain...or at least a heavy dose of skepticism.
Michael’s only dedicated online presence is an embarrassingly sporadic blog...about climbing, and other pedestrian adventures.
A: Completely by mistake. Two years of pursuing Civil Engineering was abandoned, in a fit of frustration…while suffering through Differential Equations with Linear Algebra (DiffEQ for short), for the more “squishy” liberal arts degree in Geography. It appealed to my love of history, culture, and…of course, maps. I figured I would end up teaching. But, in my senior year at University of New Hampshire, I joined my housemates (all geography/geology students) in an on-campus work-study opportunity. We were all using workstation (I believe it was 5.0) ArcInfo to digitize South American deforestation. I blame two years of squinting at black and white LandSAT photos through a digitizing puck crosshair for my currently degraded eyesight.
Q: You and I worked together over 20 years ago. Do you miss GIS in the 1990s? ArcView, shapefiles, coverages…
A: 20 years ago? Those were good times. Yes…and no. I don’t necessarily miss the technology. I actually loathed ArcView when it first appeared on the scene. And…ArcCAD? PC ArcInfo? Ugh! What I do miss was the “newness” of the field at that time. We were kinda rockstars….at least in our own nerdy minds.
Q: Do you miss New Jersey?
A: Again…yes and no. I don’t miss the Garden State as much as I miss friends and family that still reside there. When I moved to Oregon in 2011, my new boss nicknamed me “Jersey.” After a while, I stopped fighting it, and just embraced the moniker.
Q: Your name is on the 1999 Digital Parcel Mapping Handbook published by URISA and the NJ State Mapping Advisory Committee. Are you still involved with digital parcel mapping? Has the methodology changed in the last 20 years?
A: That thing is still around?!?!? Maybe that’s a sign that parcel mapping HASN’T changed as much as I would have thought. I’m not involved in parcel mapping anymore. I did work for a while at Oregon Department of Revenue, in their Property Tax Mapping section. Similar work, but a lot more concerned with utilizing property survey source data to construct the tax parcels. I would hazard a guess that the basic premise is still the same, just a lot more snazzy tools available to the practitioner.
Q: Tell us about your current job. What do you do at work?
A: Five months ago I accepted a position with Oregon Department of Transportation. For the first time in over 20 years, I am doing something that is not directly connected to GIS. I am a “hybrid” Project Manager and System Analyst with Transportation Application Development (TAD). Our particular team supports the Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) business within ODOT. It was a huge leap for me to leave my GIS comfort zone, but I believe it was time for me to grow, expand, and be challenged.
Q: I know you use QGIS. Exclusively or not? What other tools do you use on a daily basis?
A: Now that I don’t have access to ArcGIS at work…yes, I’m striving to learn the ins-and-outs of QGIS. It’s purely for personal use. I have a pretty extensive collection of local hiking trail data that I’ve collected with GPS, and am undertaking to port that data from the personal geodatabase that it’s stored in to something more useable with QGIS.
Q: How does QGIS fit in within the mission of your organization?
A: Within ODOT? It doesn’t. ODOT’s GIS shop falls squarely in the Esri camp.
Q: Where do you stand in the data formats wars? Team Shapefile or Team Geopackage?
A: I always disliked shapefiles. They never felt “stable” or precise enough for my tastes. My desire for data integrity was more satisfied by the geodatabase…ESPECIALLY when it came to enforcing topology rules. As a QGIS novice, I felt like I was having to take a step back, and settle for shapefiles. So, when I “discovered” the geopackage option, I was an immediate convert. Time will tell if I actually chose the “BetaMax” (or not) of GIS data formats.
Q: You commute on an antique store bike. This is super hip. Geared or fixie? Tell us all about that.
A: I would dispute the antique label. My current bike (a 1996 Univega Rover 304) is neither “belonging to ancient times” nor is it “of high value because of its considerable age.” I picked it up for $35. Because of its LACK of monetary value, I am much less fearful of it getting stolen and I’m much less hesitant to experiment with performing repairs on it myself. It’s geared. I’ll tell you a secret, but you have to promise not to tell anyone. I don’t even KNOW what a fixie is. Single speed? That doesn’t make sense to me. Maybe I should look into it someday.
Q: Do you have any other hipster attributes we should know about?
A: Portland is where all the hipsters reside. I don’t have the time to compete with that scene. Salem has some occasional glimmers of hipster, but my theory is that Salemites maintain a perverse sense of pride in not buying into the pressure of competing with the Portland scene. Salem’s response to “Keep Portland Weird” is “Keep Salem Lame”. Not to get overly philosophical about it, but I think if you are TRYING to be a hipster…you’re doomed to failure. Reminds me of the late 80s when a lot of my brother’s friends thought “being punk” consisted solely of spiking their hair and wearing a lot of studded leather. Hipster or punk. It’s an individual state of mind, not a fashion statement. Here ends the lesson.
Q: What do you do for fun?
A: 2009 through 2012 was a particularly turbulent time in my life. Moving cross-country away from friends, family (especially my kids) was the hardest decision I ever had to make. The only thing that kept me sane and grounded was getting out into the wilderness to hike, backpack…and eventually climb. Check out my sporadic personal blog for an essay regarding “Why I Climb” (https://mikestracks.wordpress.com/2013/11/26/why-i-climb/) if you are so inclined (no pun intended). Coincidentally, the essay had its genesis in an innocent comment by this blog’s very own founder (thanks AE). My life has much less personal drama now, but the love of the outdoors remains. It is still a healing and rejuvenating activity for me. I’ve seen and done things that I previously thought weren’t possible for “normal people” like me. Besides this new-found adventurous side of me, I can totally “geek-out” with a group of friends playing tabletop board games or role-playing games. I have a lazy indulgent side also. On a warm, dry, summer Oregon day, nothing beats sitting on a winery’s veranda, overlooking the vineyards, sharing a bottle (or two) of local wine with someone special.
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our global readership?
A: “The place where you lose the trail is not necessarily the place where it ends.” –Tom Brown, Jr.
Jim is a geodeveloper advocate at Esri in NYC. Before that, he worked in Redlands running the developer network program, and previous to that, running Esri’s tech support operations. Catch him on twitter @JimBarry.
The statements and opinions below are Jim’s and not the opinions or official positions of his current or previous employers.
Jim was interviewed for GeoHipster by Bill Dollins and Atanas Entchev.
Q: How did you get into GIS?
A: I guess it started with an obsession with maps when I was a kid.
Going way back though, back seat of the car on family trips, I was completely absorbed by road atlases. My mom was the original mapgeek and navigator in the family; still is. So I got the maps thing from her — total map nerd. Not to mention my other assorted quirks, like staring at the ground from the window seat of a plane. It’s like a big map, yo!
Maps just kept coming back to me over and over as I grew up. Orienteering in scouts and beyond. As an infantry officer in the army, maps were key. Grab a lensatic compass, a 1:50,000 topo in a waterproof case, a grease pencil, and let’s go. I really took to land navigation, on foot or on vehicles, any weather, any terrain, swamps, woods, or desert, mostly at night. It’s more than just dead-reckoning to point B; it’s route selection, contingency planning, speed and manner of movement, under stress, wet, cold, hot, miserable, dealing with obstacles, leading soldiers keeping them motivated, pressed for time, pushing thru it, learning and adjusting along the way until you reach the objective. Maybe a little philosophical, but sort of a microcosm of life itself, no?
As for GIS itself, grad school, studying urban planning, we had PC ArcInfo and ArcView v1. I taught a couple semesters of freshman level Geography, and spent a year running the mapping lab, keeping the hardware working and software updated, helping students working on their projects, and learning the concepts of working with and analyzing spatial data.
During grad school, but on the side, my first year I took an overnight job doing mapping at an electric utility. I got a real sense of the importance of this kind of high-impact production mapping—a lot of editing, complete and accurate information, and a high level of quality control when electrical service for customers, and the safety of the maintenance crews were at stake.
Then in my second year of grad school I got hired by a small town outside of Hartford to research and build their 10-year master plan of development. I used PC ArcInfo, ArcCAD, and ArcView for that. They had only been using AutoCAD. I was able to do some spatial analysis using whatever data I could find, convert, digitize, or otherwise collect, to provide support for some recommendations for development, preservation, transportation, and other aspects of the town’s growth and progress.
I really liked working with the tools, so figured I’d try to work at Esri for a few years, learn as much as I can, then take back to municipal planning. Well, a few years turned into 24 and running.
Q: You have been at Esri for over two decades. How would you describe life at Esri to an outsider?
A: Always challenging. First couple of years I was a desktop GIS tech support analyst. To me, there’s no better place to learn how to be productive with this technology, than in tech support. Not only do you learn how things work best, but also the wide variety of ways things break, and how to quickly find the cause, work up a solution, alone or in groups, sometimes code up alternatives, workarounds, and communicate that to the user trying to get their work done, often under pressure themselves. Fun stuff. Even after moving up into running tech support ops, I’d grab calls myself from time to time to keep the problem-solving and tech skills sharp as I could. The tech moves and grows fast. It’s quick and easy to lose your grip on it, if you don’t keep chopping.
But overall, the ability to do important, impactful work, surrounded by and learning from some of the smartest people I’ve ever met. But more importantly, everyone here buys into the idealism that Jack projects. He’s a true believer in what technology, in general, and of course GIS in particular provides to improve our co-existence with our world, in a data-driven way.
I saw this quote once. I think it was meant to stoke one’s entrepreneurial spirit by saying “If you don’t work to realize your own ideas, you’ll end up working to realize someone else’s”. Being that I’m a fairly UNcreative person, that quote motivated me too, but probably in a direction 180° from its intent. Meaning, I consider my value more about building and delivering tangible, useful things from the ideas envisioned by creative people, freeing them up to continue being creative. That’s the main reason why I’ve always felt a good fit at Esri. Jack’s visionary thought leadership over the past several decades, and his commitment to build and constantly improve (and occasionally completely reinvent) has been an honor and a great experience to be part of.
Q: You have been working in developer evangelism for over a decade now. During that time, Esri’s platforms have changed and grown significantly. How has working with developers shaped your view of the evolution of Esri’s platforms and what role has the developer community played in that evolution?
A: Understanding the evolution of developers, and of developing software apps and systems, starts by understanding the evolution of users and their expectations.
Back in the 90s when I first started building custom mapping apps, this might sound really odd now, but usability wasn’t exactly our primary concern, generally. You designed and built the app, and then you deployed it with documentation and training. As your end-user climbed the learning curve, their productivity would increase. Back then, “powerfully useful” was more important than “intuitively usable”. But it was still mainly up to the user to commit effort learning how to use it.
Of course, nowadays, in most cases, that approach is absolutely insane. (Well, it was insane then too, but who knew?) Today, when you put an app in the hands of an end-user, it better be designed to be intuitive for them, and productively useful for them right away, for what they need it to do. Apps you build need to free your users up, so they can put almost all their mental effort into their work and put as little effort as possible into figuring out how the app works.
That expectation bounces right back to the developers who build and use APIs, and the designers of the apps being used. It’s no longer enough that the API be powerful, fine grained, and comprehensive (hi ArcObjects). Now, its granularity also needs to be variable, doc accessible, learning ramp shallow, samples numerous, best practices proven, and user community robust, interactive, and supportive enough so that we meet these high expectations. It takes a lot of work to make things easy. Also, the shelf life of things developers build is also shortening. Developers often need to deploy something good enough now, then iterate to continue improving it.
Q: You wrote about smart cities recently. Is “smart cities” the new buzzword de jour, or is it GIS trying to reinvent itself, or is it an entire new industry being born?
A: A new industry? No, it’s broader than that. It’s a way for cities to keep up with fully using technology to make itself run better. Of course, GIS is a key part of it—here’s how. A smart city is one that uses technology to continually sense its state and respond in efficient, optimized ways. Human intervention is removed whenever practical, to gain speed and scale. Combined with the hardware and software technology itself, it also includes a digitized articulation of the rules on which decisions can be made, and actions triggered. Then, on a separate thread, patterns can be sensed, stored, analyzed in order to continue improving efficiency in future iterations.
Given that a city is a spatial system, spatial analysis has got to be a key part of these rules, decisions, and actions. Along with many other technologies, GIS fuels the decisions behind visualizing where things are and optimizing how, why, when, and where things move and interact. A GIS platform also provides cross-agency collaboration tools and the ability to perform modeling and predictive data analytics.
The data management, data analysis, data visualization tools that are a part of GIS and geospatial technology have a role to play in a “smart city”, from strategy down to the nuts and bolts. I can’t imagine how they wouldn’t.
Ok, so to me, yeah, in a way, “smart cities” can be seen as a buzzword, but it’s an important one, a motivating one. Meaning, it’s a simple term that helps everyone quickly focus in on what cities are trying to do to evolve. It’s easier for all of us to grab the handles and pull the wagon in the same direction if we’re not stuck struggling to understand what the term means. 50 years from now, a city’s “smartness” in this context will be so common, the concept itself is going to melt into the background and we’ll probably forget that the term “smart city” used to be a “thing”. Like the idea of an electric city was 100+ years ago versus today. But for now, we need the term, because it’s going to take a lot of domains working together to make cities smarter.
Q: Esri recently pledged $30,000.00 to the GDAL barn raising. Esri has famously used GDAL libraries under the hood of ArcGIS for many years now, so the pledge makes sense. How would you characterize Esri’s relationship with open-source and the open source community, particularly in geospatial? What steps do you anticipate Esri taking to help that relationship evolve?
A: Ask 10 people what “open” means, you’ll get 12 different answers. So, for me, I keep it practical, and I try to stay focused on how the level of openness helps or hinders productive work in any particular context.
As for open source software, I’ve seen some choose it based simply on principle. Some choose it when it’s free, or when its initial barrier to use is lower than other options. I mean, I get it. Open source provides a perception (sometimes an illusion) of control, and a perception (sometimes an illusion) of low cost.
But, over the past several years at least, I’ve seen a growth of users and developers who are trying to get their work done best, or build things that are more useful, whose technology selection has more to do with its capabilities, than whether or not they can contribute to the code base. On the surface, the terms open and closed imply a binary, but when it comes to technology it’s obviously a lot more complex and nuanced than that.
In our increasingly connected world, for a technology to be useful, it needs to be openly interoperable with other tech. It also needs to support open standards with regards to format (hi Shapefile), workflow, protocols, and interface (both UI and API).
And then there’s open data. It benefits all of us to support open data, particularly in government, in order to promote freedom and transparency, optimize operations, encourage collaboration, but also to engage the people who live there. In NYC there is a vast ecosystem of non-profits, startups, students, motivated citizens, and more, ready to pitch in, and they do amazing work. It’s a force multiplier to ensure that accurate, complete, timely data is pushed into the open, into the hands of everyone, fueling great ideas. Doing so continues to improve the lives of New Yorkers every day.
Back to open source though…
Where a particular technology, any technology, open source or not, is better, more useful, more cost effective, it will be used. A few years ago, Chris Wanstrath was the keynote speaker at the Esri Developer Summit. He was a founder, and at the time CTO of GitHub. He noted that while GitHub has played a huge role in the support, usefulness, and growth of open source software, GitHub itself is not open source. He found that open source makes sense, when openly inclusive collaboration is the best approach to building something, and it doesn’t make sense when you want to build something that supports your core business model, and for as long as you want to maintain full creative control. When it comes down to it, the relationship between the two is more productive when it’s symbiotic rather than adversarial. The way I see it is this: our work contains a lot of constraints we have limited control over; it makes no sense to purposefully add more constraints by limiting our own options.
Q: You are from New Jersey — home of The Sopranos, Bridgegate, and Silent Bob. I hear you have a special connection to one of those. Tell us about it.
A: The shore area of New Jersey, yes, born and raised in that magical state where the government still believes pumping gas is a task best left to paid professionals.
So yeah, after a couple decades in Redlands, I recently moved back to my hometown of Leonardo, NJ. Most of my family still live in the area, and it’s great to be back. Silent Bob, right, well, Leonardo is the town the movie Clerks was filmed in. The Quick Stop is still there, the dive bar of convenience stores. Anyway, when I was 14, I had a newspaper route and that store was the halfway point. I would go in and grab a soda for the return trip. One day, the guy who worked in there said I could have the coke for free if I’d go in the back and load the dairy case with milk, eggs, cheese, and stuff, that had been delivered, which at the time could only be loaded from the back of the store. Otherwise he’d have to lock up, stock the case, then reopen (“I assure you we’re open”). I think I was only hauling in $15 a week at that point with the paper route, so I’m like, cool. For a while, this turned into an almost daily thing. I hadn’t seen the movie til many years later, but it was weird to see our little hole in the wall store be a central character of a big movie. “Bunch of savages in this town”, indeed.
Q: Finish this sentence: If I could only keep one of my sports jerseys, it would be…
A: I’ve got a bunch, but this Hartford Whalers jersey I have, well, I normally resist wearing third party gear to games, but this one seems to be an exception. Wore it to a Rangers game last winter and it’s obvious that hockey fans get it. Plus, it’s a pretty cool logo.
Q: Do you consider yourself a geohipster? Why / why not?
A: Not at all. While I respect and am inspired by the innovation that comes from the unconventional thinking of all you hipsters, for the most part, my strengths (and weaknesses) seem to stem from being a straight up conformist. But then in a way, without us conformists, being a hipster lacks the frame of reference from which to diverge — there’s no contrast. So to all you real geohipsters out there… you’re welcome.
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our readers?
A: If you have an idea — a solid idea that has a vision and a purpose, and you really believe in it — you’re ready to sink or swim in it — don’t wait, don’t check, don’t ask — just do it. Probably intuitively obvious to many; wasn’t obvious to me for a long time.
Meaning, what I’ve found that often doesn’t work, is trying to sell others on your idea when it’s still nothing more than an idea. All this does is open the door for it to be crushed under the weight of opinions. And at that point, your great idea becomes just another deleted slide deck. So. Don’t ask for permission. Believe in it? Then just build it. When you need others’ collaboration on bits of it, keep it focused, and limited to trusted resources.
Here’s the point though. Believing in it of course means you’re ready to own the consequences, whether it works, or whether it lawn darts into the ground. Best case scenario, it works, and at that point you’ve improved things a notch or two for your users, added value to your product, helped move the ball forward for your organization. Not to mention you learned a lot along the way. But most importantly, those who earlier might have crushed your idea — they vanish. No one argues with success. No one debates whether something will work or not, after it’s already working.
Maggie Cawley is the Founder of Boomerang Geospatial, a geospatial consulting company specializing in education and dabbling in other map-related endeavors. Current Boomerang efforts include developing curriculum around open source GIS and leading educational and wildlife trips in southern Africa. She volunteers with TeachOSM to integrate geography back into classrooms through open mapping, and supports OpenStreetMap US as a board member. She recently helped start Diadia Craft Collective with a Sān Bushmen community in Botswana and African Connection with musicians in Ghana to support sustainable economic development and cultural collaboration (and also, for fun!).
So Maggie Cawley – where are you in the world currently and what do you do?
Way to start with the tough ones 😉 At the moment I am splitting my time mostly between Denmark and the US. This week I am in Baltimore, in my first leased apartment in 5 years. I can count on one hand the weeks I’ve been here since I moved in, but it is a welcome change after sleeping in 40+ beds over the last year. My front porch is a sanctuary!
What do I do? I am a freelance open source mapping consultant through my company Boomerang Geospatial, which equates to a smattering of jobs. I love training new mappers as much as I love diving into a dataset and surfacing with a beautiful map. I volunteer on the steering committee for the TeachOSM project, and we provide educational support for OpenStreetMap and work to get OpenStreetMap and open mapping into classrooms around the world. One of my goals is to develop a knowledge management system for the project – a giant library of every OSM-related educational nugget ever created. I also volunteer as a board member for OpenStreetMap US, which includes weekly board meetings, State of the Map US planning meetings, and hiring committee meetings as we are looking to hire the organization’s first Executive Director.
When wearing my other hats, I facilitate and lead safaris and educational trips to southern Africa, recently became the representative for Diadia, a small jewelry making collective in the Kalahari, and in a few months I will be playing keyboard in Denmark with my band African Connection.
Are there more people wanting to know about OpenStreetMap?
I like to think there are millions of people just waiting to find out! In my experience, once people hear a little about OpenStreetMap they are curious to know more. In a classroom or training situation that is especially true. If a few complaints surface about other online map sources having incorrect or missing information, you definitely have a starting point.
I see that you taught an OSM workshop in St Lucia with Steven Johnson a few years ago. How difficult is OSM to teach to people unfamiliar with the idea of a crowd sourced map?
I have had the privilege of teaching workshops with Steven Johnson in a few wonderful places, including St Lucia, over the past few years; places that aren’t always adequately mapped, where errors are commonplace, and where people are excited to learn new technology. The initial conveyance of the concept of an editable world map is not always easy, and there is always the, “Isn’t everything already mapped? What about Google?” to get through – but once people sign up and start editing in their neighborhood, the comprehension begins. I find it important to take the process & understanding outside, and workshops incorporate a field mapping exercise whenever possible. Bringing new mappers outside to map using a GPS unit, Field Papers, Mapillary, OSMAnd, Maps.Me or other mobile mapping tools brings geography into a 1:1 scale, and creates a concrete relationship to what is on the ground and what is on The Map. After this portion of the workshop, mapping in the classroom is brought to a new level and the understanding deepens.
We’ve run into each other at FOSS4GNA Conferences through the years – in 2016 you did a presentation on some work you did in Africa. How did you get from Baltimore to staring at Elephants in Africa?
This is a long story, but I will try to provide the abridged version! Back in 2013, I quit a full time job as an environmental planner to start a business and travel. I was ready for a change. My idea was to travel as long as I could, looking for opportunities to map along the way. The first stop was Sodwana Bay, South Africa where I couchsurfed with a man who takes people on overland trips in southern Africa in his Land Rover through his company Winterdodger Expeditions. When I arrived, he was about to do 3 months through 23 national parks and at least 6 countries. He had an extra tent and room in the Landy, so I jumped in. Two months into that trip, we stopped in western Botswana, at a place in the Kalahari Desert called Dqae Qare – a game reserve run by the San Bushmen. I saw they did not have an accurate map of the reserve, and offered my services in exchange for a few cold Windhoek lagers and a few nights in a real bed. Over the next week, our team of three travelers navigated the entire farm (more than 150 km) and mapped every road, pan, campsite, water tap, view point and amenity we could find – and I realized just how special a place we had found. I was hooked. The map now lives on their reception wall.
Photo: January 2018, in front of the map in Dqae with GWU professors Joseph Dymond and Richard Hinton.
After that trip, I continued to travel on my own, but my mind continued to return to southern Africa. Fast forward to early 2015 when I received a message from a friend in South Africa who needed someone with mapping knowledge, equipment, and teaching experience to lead a group of students from a French University in a conservation project to support Lake Sibaya – South Africa’s largest freshwater lake. Fortunately, I was teaching in Mauritius at the time, and the trip to SA was not too far. After that month mapping wildlife and teaching in Sibaya, I partnered with his company Winterdodger to do more trips in the region. Save Sibaya is now an ongoing project, and visitors continually add to the wildlife census database.
Photo: Lake Sibaya, 2015 – a drone demo for the French students to collect imagery of the changing lake.
Most recently, I led my first study abroad group from George Washington University on a trip to Botswana through Boomerang. We returned to Dqae Qare, and even spent some time contributing to OpenStreetMap in the local San village where we were volunteering. As far as elephants, I don’t think I will ever tire of staring, and can’t wait to share that experience with the next car full of interested people! GeoHipster safari anyone?
Photos: The GWU students on a walking safari in the Okavango Delta, Botswana.
So you’re out mapping in a game preserve – how does that work? On foot? What were your tools?
Roads are mostly done by car (usually a Land Rover) with a handheld or car GPS. I have also hooked a Garmin watch to the dashboard and just let it do its thing. For smaller paths and points of interest, I use a solid pair of boots and a basic Garmin GPS unit. In some cases an aerial view is nice to have so I’ll use a drone. At a national park in Malawi we were trying to spot some klipspringer, so I flew a Phantom drone – it was the first version and I just hooked my watch to the base for a GPS backup for the path. In Botswana we had some students helping to do mammal tracking with a specific interest in cheetah. We went out with two Bushmen tracking guides and marked the different footprints and skat we could find, again with basic GPS. I know there are more fancy tools out there, but all of these projects have been done on a shoestring budget so we keep it simple.
What do you do with the data? Maps? Does it live on a computer somewhere?
Mostly map it. In Botswana, the cheetah data was given to the managing trust, or made into maps for them. The data that doesn’t immediately become a map lives on one of my portable hard drives just waiting for the chance to make its mapping debut.
Was there a fear of becoming lunch?
There is always that sense of ‘what the hell am I doing out here?’ But, it’s exciting. And beautiful. In Malawi, that national park was known for having some aggressive elephant herds that you do not want to face on foot. We had the opportunity to scramble around on one of the only rock outcrops looking for signs of these tiny antelope, with a view of an incredible, vast landscape below – those moments make it all worth it. And you can stare at the elephant from afar!
In Botswana we knew there were no lions or elephants, but the snakes and hyenas in the Kalahari are enough to keep me on my toes. Ostrich can also pack a punch as well, especially if you unknowingly wander towards one of their nests. Tread lightly!
Photo: The cheetah tracking group in Dqae Qare Game Reserve.
How hard is it leading a group of college students who haven’t been in that environment before?
It can be challenging at times, and very worrying at others. But seeing anyone lay eyes upon the wildlife for the first time makes it all worthwhile. Unless it’s a bull elephant 4 meters away and they all scream “AN ELEPHANT!” and gesticulate wildly, not noticing the elephants accelerated advance… then, all bets are off! Mostly though, students are respectful of the people and animals we meet, and just want to know more. On my last trip I also had the privilege of traveling with two wonderful GWU professors that were a great help. Many are also very afraid of becoming lunch!
I want to break new ground on this interview – Jewelry making collective in the Kalahari? We’ve never talked about jewelry on any GeoHipster interview.
Hard to believe there’s never been any geo-jewelry talk! I am honored to be the first. In January when I was in Botswana with the GW students, a local village artisan taught a workshop on how to make beads out of ostrich egg shells. I had seen the jewelry many times during visits to the area – at lodges, at the airport, etc – and came to find out that sales by a larger organization were not helping the local village artisans. After a week in the village, the director of the village trust asked me if I would help to sell the jewelry. The San are a very marginalized population, and there are very few opportunities for employment in the area. Making sure the artisans knew I had no previous experience in the field, I agreed – but only if they would organize into a collective so that I could just be the sales rep. In March, a friend delivered a package containing 20lbs of ostrich egg jewelry to Denmark, and in April the Diadia Craft Collective was formed. Right now it is seven women from different families within the village. It is a new endeavor for me, and it’s a bit more complicated than scrambling up that rock outcropping looking for klipspringer – but I’m so excited to give it a try. I have designed a website, and I will have my first market table this weekend in Baltimore. Hopefully by my next trip to Botswana I’ll be needing to pick up a second package of inventory. It would be wonderful to create a profitable livelihood in a village that would sustain the families and also the ancient bead making tradition.
Do you feel like a geohipster?
Ha. I tried that role once. The tire of my rented foldable bike got caught in a train track on my way to a FOSS4G PDX event a few years ago, and I showed up with torn pants and a bloody knee. Hipster move? I think not. 🙂 But if a geohipster lives “on the outskirts of mainstream GIS”? Yeah, I probably fit that description.
OK – before I do the last question – Band?
I blame this one on fate. And again, I’ll try to keep it short! Two years ago I was taking a group of students with Winterdodger through Botswana. Along the way I met a Danish musician with whom I shared some of my wildlife photographs. He immediately invited me to join his band on tour in Ghana a month later as their tour photographer. It took some juggling and a leap of faith, but one month later I was in Ghana, in a van with 8 Danish & Ghanaian musicians. Half way through the tour, things went south with the lead Ghanaian musician. Instead of breaking up, the remaining musicians came together to make some new music. I picked up a cowbell and joined in the fun. By the end of the trip, we recorded two songs, wrote a few more, and the band African Connection was formed. I love the cowbell, but I now play keyboard for the band (with an occasional cowbell interlude), and still handle most of the photography and press. Our first album, Queens & Kings, was recorded last year in Denmark and released in March. We will go on our first tour this October in Denmark and Germany, and hopefully return to Ghana with the music in early 2019. It is a challenge working from 3 continents, but it makes it that much more special when we can all get together. I feel really lucky to be a part of the project and have the opportunity to try something completely different. We are on Spotify if you’d like to check us out!
Photo: Music For All festival performance in Cape Coast, Ghana – January 2017.
The last question is yours. This is your chance to yell at the world and tell it something it needs to know.
You won’t know unless you go! When I quit my job to freelance and travel, I thought I knew where it would take me. I was way off. Frustrated at first, I then realized that I had leapt into a raging river, and the only way to stay afloat was to trust it, even if I kept hitting sharp rocks along the way. It was hard to ignore a society that wanted to bully me into the things I was ‘supposed’ to be doing – confidence can start to waiver when you have no work or are spewing your guts & belly crawling across a salt pan in the middle of the night – but what else can we do but keep going? I often have to remind myself to just show up. Some days it is difficult to get up in the morning, but if you are already in the river, sometimes all you really need to do is hold your head up and have a little faith. And I must add – I am grateful for the amazing and supportive people I’ve met in the FOSS4G and OpenStreetMap communities. We help keep each other afloat, and that is a beautiful thing. I hope we can maintain that spirit – welcome a new person into the geo community or talk to someone you don’t know at the next meet up – collaboration and support are key, especially now.
Bill Dollins is the Chief Information Officer at Spatial Networks, Inc., where he is responsible for leading information management and security strategy. He works remotely from his home office in Southern Maryland, leading a team that is focused on optimizing the acquisition, management, analysis, and delivery of geospatial data. Outside of work, he can usually be found spending time with his family, wearing out a pair of Brooks running shoes, or figuring out how to lift heavier things. He blogs less frequently than he used to and is planning to remedy that situation. He can be found on Twitter, LinkedIn, and GitHub. He is a fan of Washington, DC area sports teams, as well as the Alabama Crimson Tide, due to multi-generational family loyalties.
A: I didn’t know that and I feel slightly intimidated. I guess I need to make this good. I’m setting precedent, so should I go with dry sarcasm, self-deprecation, or over-the-top hyperbole? I think I’ll just wing it and see where it goes.
Q: A lot has changed since we last conversed on these pages. Tell us about your new gig.
A: I’ve been working at Spatial Networks, Inc. since February 2017. Many may know us as the company that makes Fulcrum, the leading mobile data collection application for iOS and Android. I joined at a fortunate time, at the outset of a significant period of growth for the company. As a result, we’ve done a lot of hiring and reorganized a couple of times to position the company for continued growth.
In my current role, I wear two hats as CIO and GIO. In the former role, I oversee the implementation and use of corporate systems and also address our corporate technical compliance with regulations such as the EU’s GDPR. In the latter role, I lead the management of our corporate geospatial data assets.
Those assets primarily take the form of data collected to support our Foresight data-as-a-service offering. With Foresight, we offer on-demand geospatial context on any topic in any geography for any duration. Combined with a global footprint, that can make for some unique data challenges and that’s where our data management team picks up. The data goes through QA/QC, normalization and restructuring to make it more consumer-friendly and ready for delivery. We’re using a mix of in-house, commercial, and open-source tools to build and automate processes to ensure consistency and shorten time-to-market. As a result, the last 18 months have seen SQL become my primary development language. I was always comfortable with it, but now it’s where I do most of my hands-on work.
That said, my role in the company is primarily strategy and leadership. That has given me the opportunity to work with an outstanding leadership team to steer the direction of the company and its product line. It’s also given me a chance to appreciate the roles played by design, product management, customer support, sales, and marketing in building successful products. I always understood that conceptually, but seeing people talented in those disciplines performing at a high level has really driven it home for me in a practical way.
I could go on, but I’ll sum it by saying I’m even happier in this role than I expected and I’m looking forward to the growth ahead. Oh….and we’re hiring!
Q: Any other important changes since 2014?
A: In addition to leaving the company in which I was a partner for 15 years, I also sold the house in which I grew up and built a new one. That happened shortly after the first interview, so it’s been quite a while now. It was a freeing experience that I could probably write about at length.
I also dipped a toe back into academia for the first time in a couple of decades by teaching an online course in the Salisbury University Geography program. It’s been a rewarding experience working with the students. It’s a masters-level course, so most are already into their professional careers, which brings a variety of perspectives.
Additionally, my alma mater, UMBC, knocked off 1-seed Virginia in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament (Go Retrievers!), Alabama won their 16th and 17th college football national championships (Roll Tide!), and the Washington Capitals won their first Stanley Cup (C-A-P-S, Caps, Caps, Caps!).
Q: In your 2014 interview you talked a lot about layers in GIS. What precipitated that, and has your outlook on layers changed since then?
A: I think I was working on some sort of network modelling behavior, which is something I’ve circled back to many times during my career. I re-read that response and I think I was inarticulately trying to say that I find traditional GIS inadequate for modeling our world. I still think that’s true, but maybe that’s also okay. Maybe traditional GIS isn’t meant to do that kind of modeling.
It’s been observed over the last few years that spatial technology is becoming more componentized and spatial analysis is getting embedded within other software tools. This is probably most obvious in things like R and Pandas, which present as more traditional statistical and data analysis tools, rather than primarily as a GIS. It is possible to do sophisticated spatial analysis in those environments, but they don’t drag along all of the overhead of an ArcGIS or a QGIS. I think that trend is accelerating.
There remains, and there probably always will be, a core constituency for traditional GIS. These are things like local government planning, natural resources management, parcel mapping, as well as a fairly exhaustive list of other use cases we can intuitively think of as the core audience for GIS as we’ve come to know it. These aren’t going away anytime soon and I don’t necessarily think they need the kind of modeling that I was discussing previously.
Q: You coined the term “shapefiled”, meaning geodata whose quality has been degraded by converting it (them?) to shapefile format. Yet the shapefile popularity continues to grow. How do you explain an (allegedly) inferior data format’s undisputed reign?
A: Whoa, good pull. I had totally forgotten about that.
Giving the shapefile grief is like shooting fish in a barrel, but there’s an old saying: “Don’t let ‘perfect’ be the enemy of ‘good enough.’” The shapefile is an ideal example of something that is good enough at what it does to meet the needs of a broad audience.
Context matters. The shapefile wasn’t even the best format in the Esri stable at the time of its inception. That was the ARC/INFO coverage and I don’t recall anyone being in love with the shapefile back then. It isn’t conceptually much different than one of its 90s contemporaries, the MapInfo TAB, which was (is?) also a collection of sidecars. So why did the shapefile take off?
In 1998, Esri was under a lot of pressure to publish the binary specification of the ARC/INFO coverage. It was also feeling some heat from the nascent Open GIS Consortium for openness in general, so they published the shapefile. Anecdotally, I had friends who worked for Esri at the time who said the shapefile, since it was non-topological, wasn’t considered a serious format, so it was published to take the heat off the demand for the coverage.
I’m pretty sure that was never an official stance and I could never verify it beyond the anecdotes, but the end result is that the industry finally had the published, royalty-free binary specification of a geospatial format that was already in wide use. It took off. Within a couple of years, all of Esri’s commercial competition supported read/write of the shapefile, but it went beyond that. You (Atanas) may remember that, in its pre-Microsoft days, Visio had a “maps” plug-in where you could make Visio-style cartoon maps. It also supported the shapefile…an office productivity app supported reading a real geospatial format prior to 2000. It was a time when geospatial data was still a mystery outside of GIS, so a useful, open format was pounced upon.
Which brings us to today. The shapefile was so widely adopted so quickly that it litters file systems everywhere. It won’t ever really go away. And, because it is good enough, it presents a challenge to any potential successor that the shapefile simply never had to meet: the compelling reason to change. Thus far, no one has really come up with that reason for people who use shapefiles.
So, while the GIS world continues to search for/debate the perfect format, the one that’s good enough keeps going.
Having said all of that, I will gleefully roast marshmallows over the shapefile’s funeral pyre.
Q: Where is GIS headed? Today “spatial analysis” and “data visualization” are considered parts of “GIS”. But is the term GIS even appropriate anymore? Is spatial still special? When I went to grad school, we called it “Computer Applications in Planning”. These days many universities offer graduate programs in GIS. Is GIS a profession? Or it is a splintering set of tools that many different professions increasingly incorporate into their arsenal?
A: I view technology, especially software, as a concrete manifestation of the knowledge base of its developers and of the discipline in which they operate. So, “GIS,” as a set of software tools is a manifestation of the geographic body of knowledge. In terms of the body of knowledge, I think spatial is still special. A good example of this is a recent Twitter discussion I saw in which Morten Nielsen described the issues involved with unprojecting spatial data (https://twitter.com/JimBarry/status/1014702749102034944). It’s a great encapsulation of what I mean.
Projections are a core concept in geography, and using them incorrectly can result in bad data, erroneous results, and faulty decisions. Morten correctly describes how this works. That’s the body of knowledge. It is manifested in great software tools that have everything you need to correctly address such issues, but many people today see coordinate transformation as plugging a “from” EPSG code and a “to” EPSG code into a dialog box or a function call. That’s a great way to get bad data.
“GIS” as a distinct technological entity is disappearing, as it should. Spatial and cartographic techniques are gradually getting modularized and incorporated into other environments. Most vertical domains already understand how to use location in their activities. They want “just enough” GIS to do what they already know they need to do. For example, is R a GIS? I don’t think of it as one, but it has spatial analysis and visualization capabilities.
But that’s the technology, which doesn’t represent 100% of the knowledge base. Back to the projection example above. Any organization can plug proj4 or something into a piece of software, but they probably still need someone like Morten, who understands the appropriate use of the tools.
So, I see GIS splitting apart and diffusing across application domains. But, as the technology becomes more commoditized, the need for spatial understanding will increase and the value of the larger geographic knowledge base will grow. For the foreseeable future, I see the value of the technology in something of an inverse relationship with the value of the knowledge base.
Q: What would you say to a high school graduate who wants to go into GIS?
A: Don’t. Become proficient at something else and learn how to apply geography and spatial analysis to it. That’s not as contrary to the previous answer as it may seem. If you understand geography at the conceptual and practical level, and aren’t afraid to get your hands dirty with code or technical integration, I think there’s probably still a lot of mileage in being the geographer in an organization that does something else for a living.
Q: The war on cubicle body is raging. Update us on its origins, and the current theatre of operations.
A: I covered the origins in some detail here, but the short version is that 24 years as a defense contracting cube dweller had left me in the worst physical shape of my life. I weighed more than I ever had, I was diagnosed with asthma, and I my cardiac health was not perfect — though not terrible. I have a family history of cardiac issues, so I sat up and paid attention.
I joined a gym and started working with a trainer. The “war on cubicle body” was something I dreamed up to keep myself motivated, as that’s been an issue for me with regard to fitness. I started tweeting and my social media circle, many of whom read GeoHipster, has been incredible in its support. I can’t thank everyone enough.
I chose running as my main line of attack. I find that I need to organize my efforts around a central activity, so I chose running because it’s got a low barrier to entry and it’s easy for me to put on shoes and get a few miles in at lunch time. All of my other strength and core training is centered around getting better at running.
I am currently training for the Army 10-miler in DC in October. It’ll be my longest run yet and I’m looking forward to it. It will be the last race I run in my 40s and is an early birthday gift to myself. I’m certainly not fast, I’m simply looking to enjoy the training process and finish the race.
Q: Levi’s or Carhartt?
A: Mostly Under Armour and Nike Dri-Fit these days. When I have to actually wear long pants, it’s Levi’s 550 relaxed fit, never skinny (see the aforementioned cubicle body).
Carhartt is for people who do real work for a living. I have soft programmer hands and donning Carhartt would be a disservice to those who really need to wear it.
Q: Starbucks, Dunkin, or gas station coffee? Why???
A: Truck stop coffee. I realize there’s debate on this, but coffee is primarily a caffeine delivery mechanism. The best coffee starches your shirt from the inside out and no place does that better than a place that caters to long haul truckers. My order of preference is Flying J, Love’s, and then TA.
Since truck stops are not ubiquitous, I’ve been known to darken the door of a Starbucks or two. Dunkin coffee is generally weak to the point of being worthless.
At home, I brew my own. <shameless plug>I have gotten hooked on the French roast by Maryland’s own Rise Up coffee roasters.</shameless plug>.
Ari Gesher, Matt Gordon and Julia Chmyz work at Kairos Aerospace, a Bay-Area-based company specializing in aerospace solutions for environmental surveying and digital mapping. Ari, Matt and Julia were interviewed in person during the 2018 Mapbox Locate Conference in San Francisco.
Describe Kairos Aerospace.
Ari: Kairos applies the notions of faster, cheaper, iterative cycles of technology to Aerospace. Specifically, with the mission of building sensors to spot very large leaks of Methane.
Julia: A less high-level description of Kairos — Kairos deploys aerial sensors, spectrometers, optical cameras, and thermal cameras to conduct large-scale surveys of assets from oil and gas companies, to survey those assets to discover things about them.
Matt: Kairos is a bunch of physicists and engineers who care about health and safety and climate change. We fly sensors and sell data about environmental pollutants (specifically methane) to oil and gas producers.
What led you each to Kairos?
Ari: I ended up at Kairos because the two original founders, Steve Deiker and Brian Jones, both worked at Lockheed for a long time, and they decided to start their own company. Steve’s wife worked with me at Palantir, and they knew that everything they were going to do was going to require a lot of heavy data processing, and that was not an area of expertise for them. They approached me for advice around what it would take to build a team with that kind of ability. That was late 2014. I was instantly interested, it sounded really, really cool… But, for reasons of childbirth, I was not about to switch jobs; I ended up being the original angel investor. Two years later I came on board as the director of software engineering.
Julia: Brian’s wife worked with the woman who was married to my grandfather. And so, my grandfather was actually another one of those original investors — This was 2015 — and he was saying to me, “Julia, there’s this great new company.” And I’m like, “Okay, Grandpa… I’m sure. That’s cool.”
Grandpa says, “They’re so great! They’re so great! You gotta send ‘em your resumé.” I was in school at the time (I’m a year out of college now), and I said, “Okay, fine grandpa, I’ll send ‘em my resumé.”
I hadn’t really looked into it, I just didn’t really want to work at this company my grandpa thought was so cool. But I sent my resumé, and I was really clear about this, I was like, “My grandpa’s really excited about this, but I’m not sure it’s such a good fit.” — expecting to give them an easy way out.
And instead, they wrote back and said, “We’re really interested! Your resumé looks great, we’d really love to have you on board.” So I came in and talked, and actually got to see for myself. And I was like, this looks really great. So I was an intern in the summer of 2016, when we were a third of size we are now. And then I came back full-time a year ago.
Matt: There’s a lot of funny history between Ari and I, which I won’t go into. I had just done my postdoc at Stanford in physics, and Ari recruited me to go work at Palantir. Then, about six years later, I quit and I was bumming around a bit, and making fire art.
Matt: Making fire art… yeah… and I thought I would go get a real job. Ari, at that point, was an angel investor, and he tried to recruit me into his current job.
Ari: That’s right, I tried to hire Matt for my current job.
Matt: And I turned him down to go start my own company, to develop online treatment for substance use disorders. Which, let’s say, the world was not ready for… [Polite chuckles] Mark my words: you’re going to see it.
And then about a year after doing that, Ari saw I was on the job market again, and asked me to come work at Kairos, on a team of four people – two full-times, an intern, and a couple of physicists who commited code to our code base (for better or for worse).
How many people are there now?
So it’s grown quite a bit?
Matt: Yeah. It’s moving.
Ari: Yeah there was sort of two different phases. The first two years, Brian and Steve quit their jobs and were literally in their garage in Los Altos, developing the hardware that is the heart of the methane sensor (which is the imaging spectrometer). And there’s pictures; like, one of them’s across the street, positioning a methane cell in the light path of a heliostat, the other one’s at the laptop with the original Mark-1 Spectrometer, making sure it worked.
Do they still have that?
Ari: They do — it sits on a shelf, and looks like a broken projector or something. [chuckles] So, the first two years was just validating that the hardware would work, and at the end of that, they had the design for what is today our production spectrometer, and the first production-designed unit (although we’re probably going to throw that one out pretty soon.)
The next two years have been developing both the operational side (How do we hook this thing up to a computer, and fly it, and collect data?), and also the software pipelines that sit behind it (How do we take that data off the instrument once it’s done? How do we upload it to the cloud, and develop the algorithms, from scratch, that turn that spectrographic data into the plume images that we have?).
Walk me through the process of: going out and sensing the area, to: you have a final product; and what that final product looks like.
Ari: The way that this works is that we’re given an area, a spot on the ground — the job we’re working on now is about 1,300 square miles?
Matt: We’re given a shapefile.
Ari: Right, we’re given a shapefile, and if we’re lucky, we’re also given a list of assets (another shapefile that tells us where all their wells and storage tanks and things are, so we can identify things once we find a plume over them). We then draw up flight plans to go fly over that area… like, if you look at it, you see the plane going back and forth like a lawn mower. And then, that data goes through the processing pipeline.
Example of a flight path
What comes out the other end are a stack of rasters that show us various measures of what the spectrometer has picked up. At a very rough level, what we’re actually sensing is a methane anomaly. Methane is everywhere in the atmosphere at some level; so it’s not “Is there methane here or is there no methane?”, but “Is there elevated methane?”
We use the large survey area, or chunks of it, to develop what we think the background levels of methane are in that area of the atmosphere. And then, we look for places in the data where there are elevated levels, and use that to interpolate a plume shape.
Example of a plume
One of the things we like to do at GeoHipster is geek out about the tools that people use; tell me about your day-to-day.
Ari: We’re mostly a Python shop. Very large amounts of effort dedicated to making GDAL install and compile correctly.
Matt: I do a lot of the GIS stuff at Kairos. There’s all the code for taking remote sensing data and GPS, and figuring out where that was placed on the ground. Then, taking all of that and creating GeoTIFFs out of that, with all the different metrics that we’re interested in.
Ari: And that’s all custom software, we don’t even use GDAL very much. We use GDAL to open the dataset that we write, but how we figure out what goes into each pixel is all ours.
Matt: Yeah, the ground placement of remote-sensed data is an art form… it’s interesting how much we’ve built from scratch. I think people with a lot of background in this probably know a lot of tricks and tools (and I’ve heard tell that there’s a book, but I’ve been unable to find it).
In terms of GIS nerdery: we used to do a lot of ad-hoc analysis in QGIS, and as we were increasing the number of reports we wanted to produce for customers, we wrote a QGIS plugin. It’s custom, and it’s not published anywhere because it’s specific to our workflow and our data, and it gives people summary information.
Anyone who has used QGIS will know that it’s like, incredibly powerful and can be incredibly frustrating. And if anyone from QGIS is reading this, I want them to know that I really appreciate the tool. We love it, and we would use something else if we thought it was better, and we don’t. There’s nothing else better.
Julia, you work on the tools that pilots use when they’re out collecting data. Can you tell us a bit about those?
Julia: There’s the feed that the flight operator sees in the plane, and the spectrometer frames that are being taken. There’s also all the IMU data that’s used for path stuff and all the later calculations… and this is our flight monitoring Mapbox Leaflet. The back end is built in Python, and the front end is in React.
Matt: Ari’s contribution was the X-Wing fighter.
Julia: The point of this is to make everything work as smoothly as possible — so the flight operators don’t have to spend their time staring at multiple log files, which is what they were doing before this.
Matt: So imagine a terminal, and just watching lines of term logs scroll past… in an airplane. In a very small plane.
Ari: Well, now that they use this, they say that they get kind of bored on the plane, because it gives them everything they need. In fact, we built this this tool not just to spit the information to the operator, but it also ingests all the raw data coming off the instrument; and we have a bunch of agents that watch that data for different conditions, and control the instruments.
It’s called R2CH4 as an homage to R2D2, who’s an astromech repair droid — and its primary job is not to save the universe, its primary job is just to make the X-Wing go.
I wouldn’t have caught that reference.
Well, CH4 is Methane sooooo… [makes the “ba-dum-tssssss” joke sound]
What do you do when you’re not at work – any hobbies? Matt, I heard about yours a little already: I know you’re a fire artist and you hang-glide?
Matt: I don’t hang-glide anymore, but yeah, I build weird Burner kinetic fire art. I’m making a fire Skee-Ball machine right now, where the balls are on fire. You get to wear big, fireproof kevlar gloves. I was going to bring it to Precompression, which is the pre-Burning Man party they do in SF, but the SF fire department nixed it.
Ari: I dabble in home automation. That’s kind of my tinkering hobby currently. I mean, I’ve had really good hobbies, but now my hobbies are basically my two children. But, you know… I used to be a DJ for a little while. I swear I used to have better hobbies — but I’ve really just been well-employed for like twelve years.
Julia: I spend most of my free time either outside, like hiking, or reading — real books with paper.
Ari: I thought that was illegal now?
Julia: It is here.
Just one last question for you.
Ari: 4-3-2-6! I’m glad you asked — it’s my favorite coordinate system.
Matt: 3-8-5-7 is way better, man.
Are you a geohipster? Why or why not?
Ari: Oh, absolutely. It’s interesting that all of us came to Kairos, not completely illiterate in the ways of GIS, but certainly not as well-steeped. And I was actually thinking about this on the way home: we have non-GIS operational data about what we do, but the core of what we do — everything is geo data. Like, there’s no non-geo data. And, what we’re trying to build is: taking a novel stream of data about the earth, and then running it through very, very modern software pipelines, to automate its processing, it’s production, all of that, in a way that requires understanding the bleeding edge of technology and blending that with GIS. And that’s what we spend all day doing.
Matt: I am geohipster because I make artisanal Geo data. And I’m opinionated about it. And I’m obnoxious. So, here a thing that I do, which is super geohipster: We produce a lot of stuff internally at the company, in WGS84 — which is not a projected coordinate system. It’s a geo-coordinate system — and I constantly complain about this. That we are producing GeoTIFFs in 4326, but we should be producing them in a projected coordinate system.
Julia: …And I want to tell you, we were doing all this way before it was cool.
Ari: One last thing — we use US-West 2 as our AWS data center, because it’s carbon-neutral (they run entirely on hydropower), so it fits in well with our overall mission.
Muthukumar Kumar lives approximately near bulges.become.bowls (Munich, Germany). An active blogger, he has been blogging with Geoawesomeness for the past 5 years and loves talking about everything geo with geo-geeks from across the world. You can reach him on Twitter @muthukumarceg
Q: Muthu, let’s dive right into the meat of the matter. How does someone end up in the position of deciding what is geoawesome? And indeed what does it mean for something to be geoawesome?
A: What does the term “geoawesome” mean? Hmm, that’s a great question. Definitions are a tricky thing. The way I see it, the term “Geoawesome” stands for all the cool and innovative things happening in the geo-industry today.
Take the idea behind What3Words for example. The addressing system that we use today doesn’t work well in many parts of the world including in my hometown, Chennai. With today’s technology, we could say, why not just use GPS coordinates or a complicated set of alphanumeric characters to solve this problem. There are many such (complicated) solutions created by Google and others. These solutions don’t work well in the real-world. Try giving out your GPS coordinates over the phone or even typing it without making a mistake. What What3Words did was to remove all these complicated aspects, divide the entire world into 3x3m grids and give each 3x3m box in the world a unique 3-word combination (in different languages). That’s it. It’s simple, elegant, and it works. Now, that’s what it means for something to be geoawesome.
To answer your first question – you get there by making lots of Skype calls with geogeeks around the world. Talking to all these wonderful people from across the world has been a highly rewarding and enriching professional experience. I would highly recommend it to anyone who is passionate about geo-technologies.
Q: One of the megatrends around geo in the last decade is that with the ubiquity of smartphones and social media more people than ever before are being exposed to geographic tools, location-based services, and geo content. You sit at the top of this trend. What’s your view?
A: Smartphones and apps have changed a lot of things in the geo industry. Without smartphones, we wouldn’t have so much geo-tagged data. It has fundamentally changed what one would even refer to as the geo industry. Just because it’s spatial, it’s not special (anymore). Before you get the pitchforks ready, sure, there is still spatial stuff that can’t be done by people without a geospatial background, but most of the times you don’t need any knowledge of map projections to work with location data, and I think that’s great. It has made GIS/Location intelligence ubiquitous.
Smartphones have also made the lives of the traditional geo industry better. Just a decade ago, if you were a data collector, you would have needed a bulky GPS/GNSS receiver and a laptop to collect geo-tagged data about your points of interest. Today all you need is a smartphone and an app.
It’s interesting that you mention social media. Just the other day we interviewed an amazing startup from Cincinnati – Spatial ai as part of a new series at Geoawesomeness called “The Next Geo” which was started to highlight innovative and enterprising startups working with location data. Spatial was co-founded by an ethnographer who had an epiphany and realized people share things on social media that he would probably never hear when he goes out to interview them for his research. Thanks to social media and location data, Spatial is now able to understand where people live and work and the mobility systems that connect them, among other things. Understanding how we interact and experience our cities is going to have a huge impact on designing mobility systems for the future. And of course, with all this data, Spatial can also answer more fun questions like “Take me to a restaurant in Chicago with an amazing view of the sunset”. All this is happening today, so it is exciting to see what is going to be possible in the next 5 years.
On a more fundamental level, one of the biggest challenges that we as a species face today is climate change and the challenges that come with having to satisfy the needs and desires of 7 billion people. Social media is going to play a major role, as more and more cities have to undertake urban planning projects to mitigate these risks. How do we use location data and social media to help cities make local decisions in a more democratic manner?
It took me a while to understand that sometimes the solutions that have the biggest impact on our communities don’t have to be on the scale of “Jarvis”. It can be as simple as an application that sends an SMS to farmers with the weather information for the day. Not long ago, Fraunhofer institute in Germany published an article announcing the launch of an app that uses your smartphone camera as a remote sensor. Now imagine how useful this is going to be for a small-time farmer who doesn’t have access to satellite imagery and analytics to understand what is affecting his/her crops.
I am personally excited to see how we use all the data we generate from our earth observation satellites, combined together with data from our smartphones and other sensors.
Regardless of whether you like to call it GIS, Location Intelligence, Spatial analysis or whatever today’s buzzword generator calls it, the fact is it’s a great time to be working with location data.
Q: What kind of feedback do you get from your readers?
A: We get our fair share of “bouquets and brickbats” and a ton of spam emails from all the kings in exile with a large inheritance. Jokes aside, the community has been very kind to us. It was feedback from a reader that led to the creation of “The Next Geo” series. It was with the help of a reader that we kicked off the Twitter Q&A idea #GeoChat. So it is fair to say that we have received a lot of great ideas from our readers.
We have had our share of (constructive) criticism as well. Be it the blog post “top masters programs in GIS” or “top geospatial companies”, we have gotten a ton of “why would you leave out this program or this company” emails. However, without these emails we wouldn’t have been able to improve our awareness of the community, so keep them coming!
There is one feedback that we are always trying to incorporate and improve: We would love for more people from diverse backgrounds and from different corners of the world to blog together with us and share their views. We have had 70 people blog for Geoawesomeness and I would love to get that to 100 by the end of this year. So if you are reading this and want to blog together with us, just drop me a line.
Q: What has been your favorite bit of geoawesome content the last few years?
A: There are a lot of really interesting blogs/websites out there that I try to follow on a regular basis – Wired’s Map Lab, CItyLabs, Google Maps Mania, Nat Geo, Digital Geography, Slashgeo (which sadly doesn’t exist anymore), GeoHipster, and of course Geoawesomeness 🙂 The best place to find out about the latest and greatest about the geo industry (imho) is Twitter.
Q: When not working on Geoawesomeness you work on satellite stuff, which is of course also fairly, well, geo awesome. Tell us a bit about that.
A: When you say “Satellite stuff”, you make it sound like I am the sidekick to Elon Musk at SpaceX (that would be amazing though). I graduated with a masters in space application engineering from TU Munich and am currently working as a GNSS software engineer at Trimble. Trimble is one of the pioneers when it comes to GPS/GNSS receivers for high accuracy applications, and I am working at their R&D center here in Munich for the better part of the last 3 years now. If I am right, Trimble is one of the few geospatial companies to be listed on the stock market in USA, so that’s something!
Q: You’re based in Munich. While I used to be a regular around the Glockenbachviertel and the beer tents at Oktoberfest (Himmel der Bayern oder Armbrustschützenzelt, natürlich), I concede it has been a while. What’s the Bavarian geohipster scene like these days?
A: The Munich “geohipster” scene is well and alive. A lot of companies working in the space industry call Munich their home. The geo startup scene is also considerably more active compared to a few years ago, thanks largely to a huge interest in the mobility as a service. It is not on a level like Berlin though – we don’t have a Geomob here in Munich. Maybe we should change that! Now, if I only knew someone who knows a thing or two about organizing a Geomob. Say Ed, do you by any chance have any experience with that?
Q: Heavy is the head that wears the crown. Do you ever have days where everything you see is just “geo normal” and nothing seems quite geoawesome? (Editor’s note: this never happens to us at GeoHipster, everything we do is effortlessly geohip.)
A: “Geo normal”? Hahaha this is the first time that I come across this term. I have been accused of perhaps overusing the word “awesome”, but I would gladly take that over ever using the word “geonormal”. Is there ever a day when things are normal? Let me answer that with a quote from Javier, the CEO of Carto: “There’s never been more location data available. There has never been a better time for geography.” There is never a dull day for geography!
Q: Any closing advice for anyone looking to build a geo media empire?
A: I am flattered that you would call Geoawesomeness a “geo media empire”. I am not sure if I am in a position to give out any advice; however, I will say this one thing: Connect with other geogeeks. It is amazing how much one learns just by talking to someone for 5 minutes. And to those of you who are wondering “Sure that sounds great, but how do I actually connect with others?” The answer is simple — write them an email or a tweet with whatever it is that you want to say (Twitter is amazing). I emailed Esri once asking if Jack Dangermond might be interested in blogging for us and sharing his views about the industry, and guess what? He did! Sometimes all it takes is an email or a tweet 🙂
Euan Cameron is responsible for Developer Technology at Esri and views a well-designed API as valuable as any work of art. Euan has worked in the geospatial software industry for over 30 years and continues have fun innovating with aps and technology. Euan and his wife Julie are outdoor enthusiasts and can often be found in the Sierra Nevada Mountains climbing, skiing, or hiking.
Q: You’ve had an interesting career and it seems like you’ve got a pretty sweet gig right now. Tell us how it all started.
A: I grew up in Perth, Scotland and from an early age I was always fascinated by maps; they are able to convey so much information in an amazingly efficient way. The Ordnance Survey 1:50,000 series were and still are beautiful, and I used to pore over these maps sheets for the highlands of Scotland imagining what it must be like to be in the middle of somewhere with no roads, no buildings, no people for miles around – a sea of contours. The love of maps and particularly the maps of the highlands of Scotland got me into hiking, skiing and then climbing. My favorite subjects at school were geography and mathematics and along with the love of the outdoors land surveying was an obvious career choice. I studied Survey and Mapping Sciences in London. Things don’t always turn out the way you plan them, and as it turned out, I was more interested in rock climbing than surveying. After climbing around Europe for a while the realization that money was in fact required for many things meant something had to change, and I ended up taking a job as a land surveyor.
I don’t like inefficiency, so I taught myself programming and C++ so that I could automate all the tedious calculations that surveyors perform. I was soon working more as a developer than a surveyor which led me down a road to GIS software development which is the perfect combination of my childhood curiosity to understand the landscape around us with the need to do it efficiently.
After finishing a degree that combined GIS and software engineering I started work with Laser Scan in Cambridge England. There I worked with some great people as we built cutting edge object-oriented spatial database technology and the GIS applications that consumed it. We (my wife Julie and I) moved to the US to join Esri 20 years ago. I joined in the early days of ArcGIS (called ARC/INFO 8 back then) and have been working on the project ever since.
Q: Were you in your current role when the ArcGIS Server REST API was released? If so, I’d like to know more about how that came to be. Was it a conscious choice to create such a developer-focused product?
A: My role at Esri has always been working on the developer technology, initially this was with ArcObjects technology, but it has evolved into my current role. The story of how our ArcGIS Server REST API came to be isn’t that different from other great things in software. A couple of developers having an idea. There wasn’t a master plan, just some hardworking developers with a vision and who, like many in the industry, thought there must be something better than SOAP-based services. Not everyone thought it was a great idea at the time, but it didn’t take long before it was obvious that it was the future.
Q: Although it was a bit ugly, ArcIMS was successful and widely adopted. In contrast, the first framework out of ArcGIS Server, the Web ADF, was pretty crummy out of the gate (in my opinion). But the REST API is/was awesome, and allowed all kinds of integrations that weren’t possible before its release. Did you know that you had “a hit” on your hands?
A: As I said before it didn’t take long before everyone understood what this meant for how we built the ArcGIS system and in turn how our developer community would be able to build on top of it.
Q: What are your thoughts on the debate over the REST API as an OGC standard? Was it worth going through that wringer?
A: Getting standards through the process is always challenging, we felt it was a good idea to offer it up as a standard. Standards are needed as we build out systems of increasing complexity and interdependency, personally I think if the REST API was a standard it would have made for a better world. The recent work by the OGC on their community standards is a good compromise for this sort of thing. It allows for industry leaders to develop innovative technologies but still do it in an open way where others can benefit.
Q: Do you think the REST API will ever be more popular than the shapefile? Both are foundational to a lot of open data efforts such as OpenAddresses, but the latter has its own Twitter account.
A: There is only one way to find that out and that would be to interview the REST API, I’m sure there would be a few choice quotes, and after all it isn’t fair to give shapefile all the limelight.
A: Wouldn’t life be much simpler if we only had to think about one technology! The truth is having all these APIs is a huge investment, but it is something our developers require as they build out their solutions. Developers get to choose the best technology for the problem they are solving knowing there is an API that they can use when they work with ArcGIS. As an example, take the ArcGIS Runtime technology for building native applications. We have 6 APIs, 3 of which support cross-platform development running on 6 platforms. The APIs are used to build apps ranging in use from mission-critical to consumer games. Developers choose technology sometimes because it is their preferred environment, sometimes because the system they are integrating with, and sometimes because it’s cool. At Esri we try not to pick favorites.
Q: What is the future of desktop GIS? Do you think ArcGIS Pro leverages APIs effectively?
A: I think it does. ArcMap as you know is built using the ArcObjects API. The story 20 years ago was a great one – you use the same APIs to build on top of ArcMap that we use to build it. Very powerful, but unfortunately also very restrictive as we evolved the architecture. Nothing could be dropped in case developers were relying on it, so we kept adding which kept the power but added complexity. The ArcGIS Pro API is different. The API is specifically designed for customizers and extenders. The internals of ArcGIS Pro are based on a new services-based architecture that decouples the UX from the underlying data tier, allowing for a responsive UX and powerful data processing. Time will tell.
Q: Like many of our other interviewees, you’re an “outdoor type”. When you’re hiking or skiing, do you bring your geo tools – or your geo mindset – along for the ride? Or do you need to take a break from work when you’re in the great outdoors?
A: It is great to get away from it all and there is no better place than the Sierra Nevada Mountains. In the mountains I like to keep the geo tools simple and only take the basics: a map and compass. In Scotland there were many days spent enveloped in cloud and without basic navigation skills you could get into real trouble, so it’s something I learned how to use early on.
Q: We’re not quite sure if you’d call yourself a geohipster. On the one hand, you work for Esri (points deducted). On the other, you’ve taught yourself to code merely to reduce inefficiency (points added). Knowing that we’re sending you a t-shirt or mug either way, want to give us a ruling?
A: Honestly, I don’t like labels, titles, etc. they only help give people preconceived notions of who you are and what to expect. Over the years it’s obvious to me that it is your actions that count, your readers can decide.
Q: Any final words of wisdom for our readers?
A: Be true to yourself, work hard and make a difference, because the world needs people like you who understand how to make the world a better place.
Anna works for Geoscience Australia as a Geodesist, but is currently doing a PhD at the University of Tasmania. Her research is focused on using Global Positioning System (GPS) data from Australian sites to derive a spatially-comprehensive vertical velocity field for the continent.
Anna was interviewed for GeoHipster by Alex Leith.
Q: You’re a Geodesist-hipster, right? So what is hip in the world of geodesy currently?
A: Geodesist-hipster doesn’t roll off the tongue as nicely as Geo-hipster, but we’ll stick with it for now.
There are so many exciting projects and new things popping up in geodesy, so these are just a few of them that I am excited for.
In Australia, it is predicted that by 2020 there will be in excess of 30 GNSS satellites visible at any one time. With the regular launch of new satellites, the major GNSS constellations are soon to reach maturity, creating a whole new world of multi-frequency, multi-constellation applications.
Other Earth observation missions are also being launched in the near future, one of which is the GRACE follow-on, which will enable the monitoring of changes in ice sheets and glaciers, the amount of water in large lakes and rivers and changes in sea level by observing changes in gravity.
In the realm of relativistic geodesy, there is some excitement around using optical lattice clocks for measuring elevation changes as well as the possibility to use the new clocks to redefine the SI unit of time and frequency (the second), effectively re-defining time… A bit closer to home we have the National Positioning Infrastructure capability and the Satellite Based Augmentation System trial, which is testing next-generation SBAS, a world first, in Australia.
Q: Australia has a new datum (GDA2020) that has just been released, and one day it might be dynamic. Do you think we can actually have one, considering the software challenges?
A: ‘Dynamic datums’ sound scary, but aren’t as daunting as they sound. The International Terrestrial Reference Frame (ITRF) could be considered as a datum that is continuously updated, where a new frame is realised every 4 years or so as new data becomes available and realignment is required. The new time-dependent Australian Terrestrial Reference Frame (ATRF), to be implemented in 2020, will be similar with periodic updates and realignment with the global frame. I wouldn’t say that it will be a major challenge for software, as the tools and resources needed are available and will be updated with each release. Noting that GDA2020 (current release) will still be available for users who do not need a time-dependent reference frame.
A: Nutation! It’s more of a short term wiggle of the Earth’s spin axis due to the effect of the moon’s orbit, and more interesting to look at over short time spans (months to years).
Q: You studied at the University of Tasmania (same as me!); who was your favourite lecturer?! (You don’t have to answer this…)
A: Picking favourites is always dangerous (considering that I work with some of my lecturers now).
Christopher Watson (while teaching us least squares via first principles), for his entertaining idiosyncrasy of starting nearly every written sentence (on the white board) with ‘So,…’. I think the maximum count during one lecture was ~35 ‘So,…’ sentences.
Volker Janssen gets an honourable mention for the infiltration of AC/DC flavoured questions in some of our assessments.
Q: And after graduation, you joined Geoscience Australia, the largest geo-organisation in Australia, as part of their grad program, how was it?
A: The graduate program was an exciting year allowing me to experience the diverse range of earth-science related research undertaken to provide advice to the Australian Government. It was a fast-track introduction to the whole agency where we were encouraged to ‘step outside our comfort zone’ and explore areas that were not within our speciality/focus of our uni degrees. My 3 projects during the 12-month grad program were focused on:
Assessing the vulnerability of buildings to earthquake damage in Papua New Guinea;
Understanding the operation of Geoscience Australia’s geodetic networks, including the construction and installation of CORS and conducting a levelling survey from the Majuro tide gauge to the GNSS site in the Marshall Islands;
Classifying islands in the south Pacific on their vulnerability to climate change, specifically for groundwater storage and availability.
Q: GA are sponsoring your PhD, what is your elevator pitch for your thesis?
A: My PhD research is focused on looking at the vertical motion of the Australian tectonic plate, using permanent GPS sites all over the continent to track surface deformation. Part of my research is looking at reducing the error sources in precise GPS analysis, such as accounting for the wiggle of the centre of the Earth which presents as noise in the reference frame (ITRF2014). Having more accurate and precise estimates of vertical land motion in Australia will also enable more reliable observations of sea level change at tide gauge sites around the Australian coastline. Observations of sea level from tide gauges are made relative to the land that the tide gauge is attached to. Without knowledge of the vertical motion of the land (most commonly from GPS), our observations of sea level change can be biased. Relative sea level measurements are important for understanding local effects such as flooding and inundation, but the combination of sea level estimates from satellite altimetry and tide gauges requires knowledge of vertical land motion.
Q: What’s a surprising fact about plate tectonics that we don’t know yet?
A: There are around twelve tectonic plates that make up the surface of the Earth, but one plate (the Pacific plate) accounts for about 90% of all earthquakes, aka the ring of fire! This video is a great visualisation of earthquakes over a 15 year period. Plate tectonics (from the Late Latin tectonicus, from the Greek: τεκτονικός “pertaining to building”) a.k.a Earth’s lego blocks?!
Q: You grew up in a small town, Wynyard, Tasmania, and then lived in our nation’s capital, Canberra. What’s different and what’s the same?
A: Although Canberra is our nation’s capital, it could still be considered as a rural city (not big and bustling like Sydney). My moving progression has been steady with a moderate change from rural Wynyard to Hobart and then a smaller change from Hobart to Canberra. I am not a big city person, so Canberra suits me well. It is hard to compare what it was like living in Wynyard to living in Canberra as they were such different stages of my life. When I was in Wynyard, I was living with my family and growing up (still doing that now too…). The move to, and then working in Canberra was the first step into the working world, and so the comparisons are hard to draw.
The biggest difference for me would be not being near the beach and seeing open water. Living on the NW coast of Tas meant that you were nearly always in sight of water (river, dam, ocean), or driving along the coast with the salty tang of the sea. In Canberra, Lake Burley Griffin doesn’t quite compare with its brown colouring and periodic blue-green algal blooms.
Canberra also has a much larger temperature differential than Wynyard with hot highs (> 35 degrees celcius) and freezing winter mornings (sub-zero). I do prefer the crisp, clear and sunny winter days of Canberra in comparison to the (mostly) dreary and grey Tassie winter!
Q: I found another interview with you that says you used to ride horses, do you still ride?
A: Moving to Hobart was the end of my competitive horse riding era, which mostly focused on Show Jumping and Eventing. During my undergrad I worked at a racing stable, which was a great way to keep riding and get my horsey fix without having a horse of my own. I still occasionally ride for pleasure, but no longer competitively. My horse, Flynn, is now retired and enjoying the good life in a paddock full of lush grass out the back of Sheffield.
Q: And what else do you do in your free time that isn’t GeoRelated?
A: I enjoy team sports, with football (soccer) taking up most of my Sundays during the season. We are just about to start our Summer Cup games as a pre-season warm-up before getting into the football season, running from March to September.
While in Tasmania I have a list of walks/experiences and adventures to undertake which I am slowly accomplishing on weekends that don’t involve football. (e.g. Tahune airwalk, Russell Falls, Cape Pillar, Cape Hauy, Maria Island, sampling all the wine and cheese…).
Tim Wallace is a Graphics Editor and geographer for The New York Times, where he makes visual stories with information gathered from from land, sky and space. He has a Ph.D. in Geography from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Q: How did you get into mapping?
A: I’ve always been into maps and geography. I grew up outside of Boston in a family that took one kind of vacation—road trips to go camping. We drove everywhere we could in the Northeast: Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, of course, but also New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and even Newfoundland (my favorite). For me, as an elementary school kid and middle schooler, it was pretty spectacular seeing all those beautiful landscapes in person, as well as discovering how they all were connected thanks to the maps we collected along the way.
While my first job (at the age of 8) was in journalism (I was a paperboy for the Boston Globe, of course!), the realization that I could have a career in journalism came much later, after a few years as an aspiring maritime archaeologist. I’d gotten both my undergraduate and masters degrees in archaeology, but after realizing the thrill of diving on a wreck was an opportunity I’d only experience rarely, I found myself drawn to the kinds of storytelling and visual explanation that are crucial to the preservation of cultural heritage. I was already doing a lot of cartography as an archaeologist, but without a great deal of formal training, I felt like I was winging it more than I wanted to be. So I decided to go for a PhD in geography.
Q: The title of your thesis is “Cartographic Journalism: Situating Modern News Mapping in a History of Map-User Interaction”. It was published in 2016, but you’ve been at the New York Times since 2012… so you completed a PhD while working at the NYT? That sounds impossible – how did you manage to pull it off?
A: Oh, boy. Short answer: writing retreats and sticking to a strict schedule. Long answer: It wasn’t easy, and I didn’t do it alone. Once I’d started at The Times, many people asked me why I would bother finishing. And as time passed, doubt crept in that I was even capable of it. In fact, I don’t think I would have finished if I hadn’t had the support of my wife, Kelly, and family, who understood on a deeply personal level what finishing might mean to me. I don’t talk about it much (because really there’s no point), but I struggled with dyslexia and short term memory issues as a kid—so much that one teacher told my folks that I would never be able to go to college. So, if I’m being honest, a good percentage of my drive to finish was thanks to family support—and also the desire to stick it to those long-since-gone teachers and prove to myself that I’m every bit as capable as the next geographic nerdlinger. Take that, Mrs. Baldwin! Hahaaa!
Q: You started off as an intern for the New York Times, but now you work as a graphics editor. What’s that like? Can you walk us through a typical day?
A: One of the greatest things about my job is that when I wake up in the morning, I often have no clue what I’ll be working on that day. Breaking news, fresh assignments or successful pitches often turn any expectations of how a day (or even a week) might go, upside down. Having said that, there are a handful of things that I often do (even if I don’t know when I’ll be doing them). I make maps, solo or along with a handful of other geographers in the department, and those same geographers and I assist other colleagues with mapmaking. I work with satellite imagery quite a lot, and increasingly, various types of drone imagery. Sometimes that drone imagery comes from flights that I or my colleagues have piloted. Occasionally I find myself working alone, but our department, and the newsroom as a whole, is extremely collaborative. So it’s pretty rare that the work I do isn’t done in support of a team effort.
Q: You work with a wide range of data types, from satellite imagery to spatially referenced data, and not so spatially referenced data. Can you tell us about the tools that you use?
A: Our department has a handful of internally-built tools (some of which have been opened to the public, like ai2html!), but everyone works with their own little hodgepodge of tools that suit their pace and type of work. For short deadlines (sometimes only minutes), we keep it simple (often only using illustrator and/or photoshop); for enterprise stuff we often have time to get a little experimental and try new tools and techniques. Geospatial tools I use include GDAL (my bash profile is a mess with functions for common tasks, like cleaning up gross shapefiles or pansharpening Landsat imagery), Mapshaper (made by my colleague, Matthew Bloch!), Arc/Q GIS (am I allowed to list them interchangeably like that?), GeographicImager, MAPublisher—but I’ll dabble in ENVI or Pix4D if I have time! Because of our often-frantic work pace, our spatial database management is borderline atrocious though. So, please don’t ask me about that. 🙁
Q: How often do you get to experiment, try out a new tool or a different approach to a problem?
A: Every story is at least little different from any other, so some level of experimentation is a part of the job. Dedicated whacky experimentation time usually only happens when we know a story is coming that we want to cover very differently. But I work with a group of creative people who are always pushing to do better work with new and surprising techniques, so some days feel almost like I’m in a little R&D graphics lab.
A: The Tubbs fire was unique for several reasons, but chief among them was the unusual rate at which it moved down a hill and into a populated area. We felt pretty strongly that this needed to be explained visually to give our readers the best sense of what happened. Projects like this are big team efforts. Derek Watkins was reporting from California for the first part of the production of the graphic. Others of us back in New York were helping delineate the fire’s perimeter using the latest data from the state, images from the European Space Agency, Landsat and DigitalGlobe. We were also using the DigitalGlobe imagery to determine which buildings were destroyed. If we weren’t sure about a building and Derek had access, he would go take a look and we would update our map with what he found. The locations of deaths were mapped with old-fashioned reporting. The timeline was put together using VIIRS, MODIS and GOES-16 data and we tried our best not to imply any more precision than we had. You may notice the lines aren’t sharp, for example. Their gradient is meant to visually display the fuzziness of the precision of our timeline based on our amalgam of sources.
Q: Is it normal for news publications to employ top notch geographers, or is that something unique to the New York Times?
A: What it means to be a Geographer in a newsroom and what we do has changed over time, but we’ve always been around. Maps have appeared in newsprint for centuries and many reporters do geography all the time! The type of work we’re doing now though feels special, like we’ve hit an inflection point where institutions are leaning on Geographers not just for maps or square mile calculations, but also for their perspective on news events as they happen across cultures and landscapes.
Q: Many people I’ve talked to who make maps professionally often make maps in their spare time for fun. Do you have any fun mapping projects in the works?
A: I’ve made a habit of puttingmyself to sleep at night with satellite imagery instead of a long read. I sometimes tinker with ideas too, but I’ve found that it’s pretty important to step back a little from my work during certain hours so that I don’t burn out!
Q: You also run a website called Bostonography with Andy Woodruff. For those who might not know, what is Bostonography? How did it come about?
A: Andy approached me about it at NACIS in St. Petersburg in 2010. He’d just moved to Boston and I’d just left. So, with his fresh eyes and my perspective as a recent Bostonian, it made good sense to team up. And it has been a lot of fun pretending to be the modern day Kevin Lynches of Boston. I just wish we had more time for it!
Side note: Amy’s favorite on the site is Whoops: Dunkin’s are Closer, which is a correction of an earlier Bostonography map showing distances to the nearest Dunkin’ Donuts across Boston. The farthest place in Boston from a Dunkin’ Donuts appears to be a cemetery, which you point out is ironic, because there’s another great Bostography map showing distance to cemeteries.
Q: What do you do for fun? Any hobbies? Your website has a lovely photo of your writing coach, who looks like a lot of fun…
A: I really don’t think I could enjoy spending time with Kelly, my son and my dog, Lucy, any more than I do. We cherish the weekends when we can stretch out our walks in the park, build worlds out of train tracks, hit up the zoo or go for a swim. I love taking photos and experimenting with photographytoo. I bake and cook a lot. Oh, and I might make a map here or there for fun (like this housewarming gift for my parents).
Q: Are you a geohipster? Why or why not?
A: Why, sure! I’m a geographer living in Brooklyn, I make my own pickles and babka, and I collect old maps. I should at least be geohipster-adjacent with these qualifications, right?
Q: Any words of wisdom you’d like to leave with the geohipster community?
A: Be friendly, share your knowledge and try to get the whole picture before you criticize. We all work differently and have a lot to learn from one another.
Ian Dees is making it easier for people to find and use all sorts of geodata. He is a member of the OpenStreetMap US board, founder of OpenAddresses and All The Places, and is always looking for new data to explore and share.
Ian was interviewed for GeoHipster by Mike Dolbow, about a month before the announcement that Mapzen is shutting down operations. We at GeoHipster wish everyone from the Mapzen team the best of luck in finding their next adventures. –Ed
Q: You’re part of a team at Mapzen. Tell us how you got started with them.
I joined Mapzen because I was excited to focus on maps and map data as part of my day job. I was also excited to work with the team at Mapzen, who have built some great services based on the data that I’ve enjoyed building for the last decade of my life. I ended up on the Tiles team working on the map data that makes up the Tilezen service but I also spent time working on other data systems like Terrain Tiles, All the Places, and OpenAddresses.
Q: What are some cool projects you’ve been working on lately?
I’ve been working with Seth Fitzsimmons on updating Mapzen’s Terrain Tiles dataset for the last few months and we finally got it out the door earlier this month. I enjoyed updating the Terrain Tiles using newer AWS products like Batch that allowed me to spin up tens of thousands of CPUs to regenerate every tile in the world using newer and higher resolution elevation data. It was quite a thrill playing around with that setup!
I’ve also been working on adding data to Mapzen Places through a web scraping project called All the Places. Mapzen Places is a dataset with hundreds of millions of “venues” or points of interest from around the world and a system to link them into a hierarchy of administrative boundaries. All the Places will scrape location data from websites and output GeoJSON that will then be matched with existing Mapzen Places entries to add details like phone number, opening hours, improved location, and more.
Q: You’re the founder of Open Addresses, correct? What’s the story behind how that effort began?
OpenAddresses began when I finished importing the buildings and addresses in Chicago. I was looking around for more data to import into OpenStreetMap while also dealing with the recently-formed Data Working Group’s import guidelines. I decided that taking the time to go through the import process for the hundreds of datasets I was finding wasn’t a good use of my time so I collected the sources into a spreadsheet so others could import them if they wanted.
At some point Nick Ingalls from Mapbox came along and helped me move this spreadsheet into GitHub along with a system to download and merge the data together. After lots of help by hundreds of contributors (like yourself – thanks!) we have over 500 million address points collected and the data is used by Mapzen and Mapbox’s geocoders to provide extremely accurate and up to date search results.
Q: I have to admit, Open Addresses is one of the Github repos I contribute the most to. I think of it kind of like a treasure hunt, finding county data sources for addresses, particularly in my home state. Did you ever think it would grow to over 100 contributors?
Absolutely not! It was a thrill to see the community grow so rapidly. I think the thing that really kicked it into gear was Mike Migurski’s addition of continuous integration builds that generated preview of changed sources in a pull request. It made it clear to the contributor what was getting added and what the data looked like. The instant gratification that those maps provided really made people excited to spend a bit more time looking for more data to add.
Q: I have to admit that is a really cool feature – almost like earning badges in an app or something. But also, I’ve done enough painstaking geocoding that if I’m helping someone, somewhere have an easier time at that, it seems a noble cause. Are there any other contributors expressing that kind of desire? Or, conversely, has there been any backlash from a source that didn’t know its data was being used?
I think there are two types of contributors: one like you who can see where this data ends up being used and is excited for where their contribution ends up downstream. The other is a “casual contributor” that somehow finds the repository and is able to quickly and easily add a data source. This doesn’t happen as much anymore because we cover so many places already, but they get quick confirmation that their contribution is helpful and we can more easily offer fixes if something is wrong.
We have received one or two requests to stop using a data source because we misinterpreted the licensing information, but the vast majority of requests we get are to point to a better source of data or to offer newer or more complete information directly to us. To help with both of these situations we’re working with Portland’s TriMet team to build a tool for data providers to submit data directly to us.
Q: You also were on the team behind CensusReporter. Census data – and interpreting it – has long been the bane of the digital geographer’s existence. I can’t believe it took the geo community that long to have something dedicated to making it easier to use. I refer people to the site all the time. What was the most challenging obstacle to overcome for that team?
It was a blast working with the small team of Ryan Pitts, Sara Schnadt, and Joe Germuska on Census Reporter. Joe had built similar systems before and wanted to make them better, so it was great to build on top of his vision and work with Sara and Ryan to build innovative interfaces on top of the data that I pulled together. The most challenging part of that project was building something that handled the depth of the data that Census Bureau provides while also making it approachable and searchable for reporters who didn’t have the time to completely understand how Census had organized the data. I think one of the most successful parts of Census Reporter is that it’s simple enough to use and update that it only takes a few hours every time Census releases new data twice a year to maintain. Otherwise it runs itself!
Q: You’re also on the Board for OpenStreetMap US. Other than, uh…spraying an occasional fire extinguisher on the mailing list, what are your duties there?
I’ve been the treasurer on the OpenStreetMap US board of directors for several years. That involves making sure bills get paid, taxes get filed, and coordinating sponsorships for State of the Map US. One of the trickiest parts of being active with OpenStreetMap US is figuring out how to spend our money in a responsible way that improves the community of mappers in the United States. We’re constantly looking for ways to do that and if anyone out there has suggestions, please let us know.
Q: Does any of this work compare to being on Obama Election 2012 campaign?
I built some of the strongest relationships I’ve ever had in the 8 months or so I was on the Obama 2012 campaign. Going through that experience made me re-organize my career priorities entirely: before 2012 I was concerned about how I would be able to move up the ladder into a challenging position while not transitioning into management. After 2012 I realized that an extremely important part of having a job is being emotionally happy and producing something that affected others in a positive way. Working with and learning from amazingly talented people also became very important to me, and I think both of these things had a huge effect on what I chose to do in my career afterwards.
Q: You recently moved back to Minnesota after several years away. What brought you back?
My wife and I grew up in the midwest, and went to college in the midwest, so when we spent 3 years in Virginia at her teaching job we felt out of our element. We definitely wanted to get back to the midwest as soon as possible and a job in Minneapolis opened up at the perfect time. She took it and we moved as soon as we could. It feels great to be back in our element now!
Q: You describe yourself as a “Map Nerd” on various social media outlets. Does that equate to being a geohipster?
When I think of a “nerd” I think of someone who enjoys obsessively figuring out a problem or topic. I call myself a map nerd because I enjoy all aspects of maps: everything from understanding where you are while wandering outside to finding the right command line incantation to reproject a shapefile. I’ve always spent way too much time on a computer and focusing on maps, map data, and the systems around it gives me somewhere to focus when I want to learn new things. I suppose focusing on these geo topics makes me a geohipster 🙂 .