Tag Archives: interview

Eric Fischer: “There may yet be an objective measure of the goodness of places, but I haven’t found it yet“

Eric Fischer
Eric Fischer
Eric Fischer works on data visualization and analysis tools at Mapbox. He was previously an artist in residence at the Exploratorium and before that was on the Android team at Google. He is best known for "big data" projects using geotagged photos and tweets, but has also spent a lot of time in libraries over the years searching through old plans and reports trying to understand how the world got to be the way it is.

Q: You’re coming up on four years at Mapbox, is that right? What do you do there?

A: I still feel like I must be pretty new there, but it actually has been a long time, and the company has grown tremendously since I started. My most important work at Mapbox has been Tippecanoe, an open-source tool whose goal is to be able to ingest just about any kind of geographic data, from continents to parcels to individual GPS readings, numbering into the hundreds of millions of features, and to create appropriate vector tiles from them for visualization and analysis at any scale. (The name is a joke on “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” the 1840 US Presidential campaign song, because it makes tiles, so it’s a Tyler.)

Q: I read that you’re working on improving the accuracy of the OpenStreetMap base map. Can you describe that process? I’m guessing one would need to figure out how accurate it is in the first place?

A: I should probably update my bio, because that was originally a reference to a project from long ago: to figure out whether it would be possible to automatically apply all the changes that the US Census had made to their TIGER/Line base map of the United States since it was imported into OpenStreetMap in 2006, without overriding or creating conflicts with any of the millions of edits that had already been made directly to OpenStreetMap. Automated updates proved to be too ambitious, and the project was scaled back to identifying areas where TIGER and OpenStreetMap differed substantially so they could be reconciled manually.

But the work continues. These days, TIGER is valuable to OpenStreetMap mostly as a source of street names and political boundaries, while missing and misaligned streets are now identified mostly through anonymized GPS data. Tile-count is an open source tool that I wrote a few months ago for accumulating, normalizing, and visualizing the density of these GPS tracks so they can be used to find streets and trails that are missing from OpenStreetMap.

Q: In the professional mapping world, I’ve noticed there’s a nervousness around datasets that aren’t time-tested, clearly documented, and from an authoritative source such as the US Census. These official datasets are great resources of course, but there’s a growing amount of data at our fingertips that’s not always so clean or complete. You’ve been successful at getting others to see that there’s a lot to learn about cities and people with dynamic (and sometimes messy) data that comes from many different sources. Do you have any advice on warming people up to thinking creatively and constructively with unconventional datasets?

A: I think the key thing to be aware of is that all data has errors, just varying in type and degree. I don’t think you can spend very much time working with Census data from before 2010 without discovering that a lot of features on the TIGER base map were missing or don’t really exist or are tagged with the wrong name or mapped at the wrong location. TIGER is much better now, but a lot of cases still stand out where Census counts are assigned to the wrong block, either by mistake or for privacy reasons. The big difference isn’t that the Census is necessarily correct, but that it tries to be comprehensive and systematic. With other data sets whose compilers don’t or can’t make that effort, the accuracy might be better or it might be worse, but you have to figure out for yourself where the gaps and biases are and how much noise there is mixed in with the signal. If you learn something interesting from it, it’s worth putting in that extra effort.

Q: Speaking of unconventional data: you maintain a GitHub repository with traffic count data scraped from old planning documents. For those who may not be familiar, traffic counts are usually collected for specific studies or benchmarks, put into a model or summarized in a report… and then rarely revisited. But you’ve brought them back from the grave for many cities and put them in handy easy-to-use-and-access formats, such as these ones from San Francisco. Are you using them for a particular project? How do you anticipate/hope that others will use them?

A: The traffic count repository began as a way of working through my own anxieties about what unconventional datasets really represent. I could refer to clusters of geotagged photos as “interesting” and clusters of geotagged tweets as “popular” without being challenged, but the lack of rigor made it hard to draw any solid conclusions about these places.

And I wanted solid conclusions because I wasn’t making these maps in a vacuum for their own sake. I wanted to know what places were interesting and popular so that I could ask the follow-up questions: What do these places have in common? What are the necessary and sufficient characteristics of their surroundings? What existing regulations prevent, and what different regulations would encourage, making more places like them? What else would be sacrificed if we made these changes? Or is the concentration of all sparks of life into a handful of neighborhoods in a handful of metro areas the inevitable consequence of a 150-year-long cycle of adoption of transportation technology?

So it was a relief to discover Toronto’s traffic count data and that the tweet counts near intersections correlated reasonably well with the pedestrian counts. Instead of handwaving about “popularity” I could relate the tweet counts to a directly observable phenomenon.

And in fact the pedestrian counts seemed to be closer than tweet counts to what I was really looking for in the first place: an indicator of where people prefer to spend time and where they prefer to avoid. Tweets are reflective of this, but also capture lots of places where people are enduring long waits (airport terminals being the most blatant case) rather than choosing to be present. Not every pedestrian street crossing is by choice either, but even when people don’t control the origin and destination of their trips, they do generally have flexibility to choose the most pleasant route in between.

That was enough to get me fixated on the idea that high pedestrian volume was the key to everything and that I should find as many public sources of pedestrian counts as possible so I could understand what the numbers look like and where they come from. Ironically, a lot of these reports that I downloaded were collecting pedestrian counts so they could calculate Pedestrian Level of Service, which assumes that high crossing volumes are bad, because if volumes are very high, people are crowded. But the numbers are still valid even if the conclusions being drawn from them are the opposite.

What I got out of it was, first of all, basic numeracy about the typical magnitudes of pedestrian volumes in different contexts and over the course of each day. Second, I was able to make a model to predict pedestrian volumes from surrounding residential and employment density, convincing myself that proximity to retail and restaurants is almost solely responsible for the number, and that streetscape design and traffic engineering are secondary concerns. Third, I disproved my original premise, because the data showed me that there are places with very similar pedestrian volumes that I feel very differently about.

If “revealed preference” measured by people crossing the street doesn’t actually reveal my own preferences, what does? The ratio of pedestrians to vehicles is still a kind of revealed preference, of mode choice, but the best fit between that and my “stated preference” opinions, while better than pedestrian volume alone, requires an exponent of 1.5 on the vehicle count, which puts it back into the realm of modeling, not measuring. There may yet be an objective measure of the goodness of places, but I haven’t found it yet.

Why did I put the data on GitHub? Because of a general hope that if data is useful to me, it might also be useful to someone else. The National Bicycle and Pedestrian Documentation Project is supposedly collecting this same sort of data for general benefit, but as far as I can tell has not made any of it available. Portland State University has another pedestrian data collection project with no public data. Someday someone may come up with the perfect data portal and maybe even release some data into it, but in the meantime, pushing out CSVs gets the data that actually exists but has previously been scattered across hundreds of unrelated reports into a form that is accessible and usable.

Q: What tools do you use the most these days to work with spatial data (including any tools you’ve created — by the way, thanks for sharing your geotools on Github)?

A: My current processes are usually very Mapbox-centric: Turf.js or ad hoc scripts for data analysis, Tippecanoe for simplification and tiling, MBView for previewing, and Mapbox Studio for styling. Sometimes I still generate PostScript files instead of web maps. The tool from outside the Mapbox world that I use most frequently is ogr2ogr for reprojection and file format conversion. It is still a constant struggle to try to make myself use GeoJSON for everything instead of inventing new file formats all the time, and to use Node and standard packages instead of writing one-of-a-kind tools in Perl or C++.

Q: You’re prolific on Twitter. What do you like about it, and what do you wish was better?

A: I was an early enough adopter of Twitter to get a three-letter username, but it wasn’t until the start of 2011 that I started really using it. Now it is my main source of news and conversation about maps, data, housing policy, transportation planning, history, and the latest catastrophes of national politics, and a place to share discoveries and things to read. I’ve also used long reply-to-myself Twitter threads as a way of taking notes in public as I’ve read through the scientific literature on colorblindness and then a century of San Francisco Chronicle articles revealing the shifting power structures of city planning.

That said, the Twitter timeline interface has become increasingly unusable as they have pulled tweets out of sequence into “in case you missed it” sections and polluted the remainder of the feed with a barrage of tweets that other people marked as favorites. I recently gave up entirely on the timeline and started reading Twitter only through a list, the interface for which still keeps the old promise that it will show you exactly what you subscribed to, in order.

Q: If you could go back in time, what data would you collect, from when, and where?

A: I would love to have pedestrian (and animal) intersection crossing volume data from the days before cars took over. Was the median pedestrian trip length substantially longer then, or can the changes in pedestrian volumes since motorization all be attributed to changes in population and employment density?

Speaking of which, I wish comprehensive block-level or even tract-level population and employment data went back more than a few decades, and had been collected more frequently. So much of the story of 20th century suburbanization, urban and small-town decline, and reconsolidation can only be told through infrequent, coarse snapshots.

And I wish I had been carrying a GPS receiver around with me (or that it had even been possible to do so) for longer, so that I could understand my own historic travel patterns better. I faintly remember walking to school as a kid and wondering, if I don’t remember this walk, did it really happen? Now my perspective is, if there is no GPS track, did it really happen?

Q: Are you a geohipster? Why or why not?

A: I think the most hipster thing I’ve got going on is a conviction that I’m going to find a hidden gem in a pile of forgotten old songs, except that I’m doing my searching in promo copies of 70-year-old sheet music instead of in the used record stores.

Jim McAndrew: “There’s always going to be some next big thing, but the basics remain the same”

Jim McAndrew is a Geospatial Database Developer. Before adding ‘geospatial’ to his job title, he worked on large Oracle databases for pharmaceutical and manufacturing companies. For the last few years, he has been working with the US Geological Survey and the National Park Service to create tools that provide public access to government data.

He sometimes tweets @jimmyrocks.

Q: How did you get into GIS?

A: I have loved maps for as long as I can remember. I used to study the maps in the phonebook, and I knew where every local road went. In college, I decorated my apartment with maps I had purchased from the Department of Transportation.

After a few years working as a software developer in manufacturing, I saw something called a “Mapping Party” for this open source mapping project claiming to be a “Wikipedia of Maps”. I was in luck, they would be holding a party in New York City the next weekend. I bought a bus ticket to New York, paid the extra fee to bring my bike, and I was introduced to OpenStreetMap.

I was hooked, and I thought that maybe getting into mapping could actually be a viable career option. I started attending different conferences and meetups that sounded interesting, and tried to learn all I could about the industry. I started a graduate certificate program in GIS, and eventually got a GIS job.

Q: Where do you work and what do you do there?

A: I am a researcher at Colorado State University working for the National Park Service (NPS) as a Software Developer. I started working on a new system to collect data from all the NPS units using an OpenStreetMap-style approach. I work on tools that allow data from this, and other internal systems, to be displayed on web maps. Now I am the Lead Developer on some of the NPS tools, including the internal side of the NPS mobile app project.

Q: Tell us about a cool project you are working on

A: The NPS mobile application project is the coolest thing that I’m working on, because it’s easy for everyone to access and use. It also involves working with Park Rangers that are extremely knowledgeable about their parks and are excited about sharing that knowledge. The coolest part of it for me is the opportunity to visit the parks and to do a little bit of field work.

Q: What technology (GIS and otherwise) do you use?

A: I try to do all my work using vi and tmux within an Ubuntu Linux virtual machine. For GIS work, I prefer to do most of the processing in PostGIS with a lot of help from GDAL and OGR. I have been working on some fun projects with Python and GeoPandas recently. For work, I do most development in Node.js and browser-oriented JavaScript.

Q: Open source — Y/N? Why?

A: I prefer to use open source software whenever possible. The best part about open source software is that if you can’t figure something out from the documentation, you can always go look right at the source. If there is a bug in the source, you can find it yourself and suggest a patch. It is also easy to package software in a VM or a Docker image and share it with others as a working system without worrying about licensing.

Q: Is open source for everyone, or just for tinkerers?

A: Open source is for everyone! Open source tools tend to be a little less user-friendly and sometimes lacking in support. This has created a market for companies such as Red Hat and Boundless Spatial to provide support and integration for businesses. While the “Linux on the Desktop” dream may never really come true, the future will include more open source tools packaged in commercial software.

Q: Biking, hiking, any other hipster attributes?

A: I enjoy biking, hiking, and kayaking whenever I get the chance. I enjoy craft beer, I sometimes homebrew beer, and I enjoy working with yeast to make breads, pretzels, and pizzas. I was on a locally-roasted-coffee kick for a while (OQ Coffee in Highland Park is very good), but I have recently switched to drinking mostly tea and tisanes. I enjoy listening to a lot of obscure music. I also love emojis. 🎉

Q: Are you a geohipster? Why / why not?

A: No true hipster would self-identify as a hipster, at least according to the Wikipedia article on the subject. I do enjoy following the latest JavaScript and geospatial trends outside of the mainstream. Maybe not enough that I will go back and refactor code just to use the latest JavaScript functions, although I do really like await/async. I also enjoy hand-crafted maps that capture more than just raw data, but instead show how the cartographer views the world. I make sure to get a GeoHipster wall calendar every year.

Q: Words of wisdom for our global readership?

A: A few years ago I went skiing in Aspen, Colorado. If there’s still snow on the mountain, they open on Memorial Day, and charge a severely discounted price. I brought my skis that were a hand-me-down from the 1980s. People started commenting on how cool and “retro” my skis were. They were so out of date that they were cool again.

There’s always going to be some next big thing, but the basics remain the same. Don’t focus on doing what’s cool now, but instead focus on what you want to work on or learn, even if it’s something completely different than what you’re doing now; eventually, it’ll be cool again.

Amy Sorensen: “Keep pushing the arbitrary boundaries between geospatial and IT”

Grew up on a farm in Iowa. Started my GIS career as an intern for Emmet County, working on first iteration of E-911 for the sheriff's department. Moved to South Dakota from there and worked for the SDDOT for a while with the esteemed title of “Automated Mapping Specialist”. Really enjoyed the work but was looking for a faster pace and more of a challenge. Ended up taking a project-related position with a consulting firm working for DM&E railroad out of Sioux Falls. Had great fun learning all about rail, sidings and frogs. When that project ended, I decided to take a position with HDR and moved down to Omaha, Nebraska, where I am currently.

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/arsorensen/

 

Q: How did you get into GIS?

A: I had been doing in-home child care, I have an Associates degree in Early Childhood Education. I was bored and broke and wondering what I should do. Driving down the road I heard a radio ad for the local community college that talked about computers and mapping. I thought… “I love maps!” and went and signed up for the program after that.

Q: You work for HDR, an engineering company. Tell us what you do there.

A: What I do day by day really varies based on the projects I’m on. The funnest part of my job is the variability of what I am involved with on a week by week basis and meeting new people and learning about what they do. I work on hydrology projects where we are looking at flood zones, levees, or stream flows for one project, and then I am managing the GIS database for a large transportation project and dealing with right of way, utilities, and shifting contracts. I also like to code, so I will put together web maps or write some scripts to automate work flows. It’s really fun to listen and evaluate what is currently being done and then to apply some type of technology to help streamline and document the work as well. Recently I’ve gotten involved with the sustainability group here at HDR, and now there is great potential to mix my love for GIS with my desire to make the world a better place.

Q: Do engineers “get” GIS?

A: Yes! I would say there are varying levels of “get” involved. I find that if you are on a project, and learn as much as you can about the overall big picture, then it is easy to plug GIS into it in ways that make sense and help meet those project goals. If someone isn’t getting the point of using GIS then it could be that you aren’t getting what the big picture is for them.

Q: What technology — GIS and other — do you use at work? What do you / don’t you like about it?

A: Of course the big technology provider I work with is Esri, I work with the full suite of Esri products. I really love working with Python and use Notepad++ for the majority of that type of work. It’s simple and straightforward. When I’m working with JavaScript I have been using Atom, which has been a good editor. I’ve gotten to use Jupyter Notebook on projects as well now, and really have found the power in being able to quickly write code, see the results, then tweak. Being able to revisit later and use the notebooks to document what has been done is priceless. I’m digging into some new (to me) JavaScript frameworks, and am really interested in playing with Ember. I’ve heard good things, and Esri uses it a lot and is starting to push out add-ons using it.

Q: You were a volunteer in a GISCorps project for North Korea. Tell us about the project, why you did it, and what you got out of it.

A: This project was for the World Food Program (WFP) and the information Management and Mining Action Program (iMMAP). We digitized features like roads, cities, rivers, and rail from historical maps. The idea was to create this data to support their humanitarian efforts. I got involved since I had been listed as a GISCorps member for some time and was waiting for a volunteer opportunity to come up that I could do at home. This project was great and I was able to put a couple hours in on a weekly basis. I am always trying to save the world and it really gives me a great sense of satisfaction to be able to do something with the skillset I have to help the world be a better place.

Q: You do lots of volunteer work, not just GIS. Tell us about your other volunteer activities.

A:  I do like to do volunteer work, it’s my desire to make a difference that drives it. Though I would say I’m not doing a ton right now, there are a few things I’m involved in. I do manage a website for a local grassroots organization. For the last couple years I’ve been able to create some mapping for a local group that puts together garden tours in Omaha and hosted for them as well. Over the years I’ve done things like volunteer for Boys and Girls Homes, and also was a baby rocker at a NICU for some time. I think volunteering really does add a lot to your life and gets you out in the community, which is fun.

Q: What is the tech scene like in Omaha?

A:  I think the tech scene is good. We have some good coding school options in Omaha, which have fast turnaround to get people into the workforce. There are coding groups that happen for kids and teens like Girls Who Code, and we have a really innovative tech library that offers classes and opportunities to work with and learn all kinds of software and cool things like 3D printers and maker events. There are also some good groups I’ve found through Meetup — Women In Technology of the Heartland is one, and it has great social events and is a good support group for those working their way up or into technology fields. There are other groups I’ve not joined yet based on Python and JavaScript that I plan on checking out soon as well.

Q: What is the hipster scene like in Omaha?

A:  Isn’t that the same as the tech scene? 😉 Ok, maybe not but there is some crossover. The hipster scene is good. There are some known areas in town where you will find great local music, food, and events. One of my favorite is the Benson First Friday Femme Fest — it’s an amazing opportunity to see all kinds of females taking the lead role and sharing their music, poetry, and art to the masses.

Q: Knitting and Dr. Who — is that hipster or what?

A: Probably. I still need to knit my Dr. Who scarf, I think once that is completed then I can really grab the hipster trophy. My list of nerd interests is strong and I think if I could pull together a group of geohipsters to crash the UC dressed in Dr. Who cosplay, then my life would be complete.

Q: Do you consider yourself a geohipster? Why / why not?

A: Sure. You know, unless in considering myself one I negate the title. 🙂 I think a geohipster is anyone who is constantly striving to do new and cool things with geospatial data. With that definition, I’m 100%.

Q: On closing, any parting words of wisdom for our global readership?

A: Keep pushing the arbitrary boundaries between geospatial and IT. Data is data and we all can and should be playing and working together. Also — volunteer for something. You do need to get away from the computer once in a while, and it will change your life to do so. And finally, if you love Dr. Who we should talk. 🙂

Nate Smith: “Visit a new place in the world; reach out to the OSM communities there”

Nate Smith is technical project manager for the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team. He leads out the OpenAerialMap project and dives into all things technical across HOT’s operations. Originally from Nebraska, he is now based in Lisbon, Portugal, slowly learning Portuguese and attempting to learn to surf. 

Q: We met at State of the Map Asia in Manila! What was it that brought you to the conference?

A: I came to State of the Map Asia through my role in two projects with the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team: OpenAerialMap and a new project called Healthsites. I had the chance to give short presentations about the projects, plus I wanted to connect with the OpenStreetMap community in Asia about the projects to get feedback and input on the direction of the projects.

Q: Tell us about the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) and how you got involved.

A: I’ve been involved in HOT in one way or another since 2011. At the time I had just joined Development Seed in Washington DC. I began to get involved in any way I could with HOT, most of it started with trainings about Mapbox tools or collaborating on projects. Most of it initially revolved around helping identify data that could be helpful in an activation or joining in tracing. Over the years, I gradually got more involved in working groups which is the best place to get involved beyond contributing time to mapping. I’ve since joined HOT as a technical project manager to help build and manage projects around some of our core tools like OpenAerialMap or OSM Analytics.

Q: For those who may not be familiar with HOT, “activation” is kind of like bringing people together to participate in disaster mapping or a similarly geographically-focused humanitarian mapping effort, did I get that right?

A: Right, a HOT activation in the traditional sense is exactly that. It is an official declaration that the community is coming together to aggressively map an area for a disaster response. The Activation Working Group is one of several working groups where anyone can get involved, and they define the protocols, monitor situations, and are in contact with many OSM communities and humanitarian partners around the world.

Disaster mapping is a core part of the work HOT does. Not everything but still a big part. If you’re interested in helping think about activation protocols or want to help organize during an activation, come join and volunteer your time to support the work.

Q: What are some interesting projects you’re working on?

A: I’ve been actively working on two interesting projects: OpenAerialMap, and for lack of a better name at the moment, the Field Campaigner app. OpenAerialMap launched two years ago and we’ve been slowly rolling out new features and working with partners on integrating new data since. What’s interesting is the work we’re doing this summer — we’re rolling out user accounts, provider pages, and better data management tools. This is exciting as it lowers the barrier to start collecting imagery and contributing to the commons.

The second project is our new Field Campaigner app. It has a generic name at the moment but it’s part of a move for us to have better tools to manage data collection in the field. A majority of the work the global HOT community does is remote mapping. While this is super critical work and extremely helpful for people on the ground, there is a gap in how work is organized on the ground. This work looks to help improve the way data collection is organized and coordinated on the ground — we want to see field mapping in OpenStreetMap to be distributed and organized well. This work also crosses over some similar work that is happening across the board in this area — Mapbox is working on analyzing changesets for vandalism and a team from Development Seed and Digital Democracy through a World Bank project are working on an improved mobile OSM data collection app.

Q: How easy/hard is it to build these tools? Once they’re out in the world, what are some ways that people find and learn how to use them?

A: It’s not easy building tools to meet a lot of needs. A core thing for success many times is dogfooding your own work. We’re building tools that serve a wider audience but at the core we’re testing and helping spread the word about the tool because we use it.

But just because it’s not easy doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be trying. The more we experiment building tools to do better and faster mapping, whether it is remote or in the field, the more information we will have to improve and address the challenges many communities face.

Q: It looks like your job is fairly technical, but also involves outreach. Is there a particular aspect of your work that you enjoy the most?

A: I think the mix of technical and outreach is what I love most. Spending part of my day diving into some code while the other part talking or strategizing with organizations is what I’ve had the chance to do over the last six years through working with Development Seed and now HOT. I enjoy trying to be that translation person — connecting tools or ways of using data to solve real-world problems. I think one of the things I enjoy the most is the chance to help build products or use data with real world impact. Being able to support MSF staff responding to an Ebola outbreak at the same time working with world-class designers and developers is pretty great.

Q: Looking at your Twitter feed, you seem to travel a lot. What’s your favorite / least favorite thing about traveling? Favorite place you’ve been? Any pro travel tips?

A: I traveled a bit while living in DC but now that I’m living in Lisbon, Portugal I’ve had the chance to do some more personal travel throughout Europe which has been great. This past year I’ve had a chance to travel through Asia a bit more through HOT-related projects. My favorite part of traveling is the chance to meet people and experience new cultures or places. There are some incredible geo and OSM communities around the world and it’s been awesome to meet and work with many of them. Least favorite — awkwardly long layovers – you can’t get out.

I think my favorite spots have been Bangkok and Jakarta. I find that I enjoy big cities that have great food options. As for tips, I would say pack light and do laundry when you’re traveling, and always make time for good local food.

Q: Would you consider yourself a geohipster? If so, why, and if not, why not?

A: Heh, that is a great question. I think I’ve become less geohipster moving to Portugal. I drink light European beer, I don’t bike because there are too many hills, and drink too much Nespresso. Although I’m still a Mapbox-junky, work at a cowork in my neighborhood, and love open source, so maybe I still lean geohipster. 🙂

Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our global readership?

A: Get out and visit a new place in the world if you can. And while you’re at it, reach out to the OSM communities there and meet them in person. You’ll meet some incredible and passionate people.

Guido Stein: “Spatial is now a first-class citizen in most databases”

Guido Stein is a Geospatial Data Alchemist who has been working for Applied Geographics for the last 10 years. He is also the founder of AvidGeo, a Boston area meetup group that hosts events for the geospatially inclined, and he is the Co-Chair of FOSS4G Boston 2017. Having lived in Somerville, MA for over a decade, he has truly absorbed some hipster characteristics including growing a beard “ironically” and riding to work on a bike with his little dog Beau.

Q: You are the Conference Co-Chair for the 2017 FOSS4G conference in Boston. Isn’t that like a lot of work? Why do you do it?

A: It is a lot of work. I have been working and organizing community events in the Boston area for over a decade. I do this work because I want to attend these events and the only way these events happen is if someone is willing to do the work. I am not afraid to be that someone. I really enjoy being involved in community work. I like to learn about what cool things everyone else is up to. I also like sharing in the victories and commiserating around failures specific to our community. If these events didn’t exist, who would share a beer with me over the limitations of using shapefiles?

Q: Tell us about the conference. How did you get involved?

A: I think that it was my boss, Michael Terner, who first approached me about it. I have been a big fan of the Open Source Geospatial (OSGeo) community for a long time. Sadly, other than participating as a user, I did not have much interaction with the community. Michael had participated in a few FOSS4G conferences and was ready to get more involved. He approached me to put together a bid knowing that I would jump at the chance to build a stronger tie between OSGeo and Boston.

The reason I want to see FOSS4G in Boston is that I think that there are many groups locally that would benefit from exposure to the OSGeo community and from getting a chance to show off what they are up to. I have been trying to unite people in the Boston area around geospatial for over a decade, and there is such a great and exciting group here doing things in business, government, academia, as well as in the startup tech world.

Q: You and I first met in Boston in 2011 in the offices of Applied Geographics. You are still there, so you must like it. What do you do for AppGeo?

A: I recently celebrated my 10th anniversary at Applied Geographics. When I started I worked on parcel edits, parcel generation using scanned plans and COGO input, utility system development all working with many Esri tools. Since then, I have been really happy to explore many different tools from FME to QGIS to PostGIS for editing, collaborating on, and analyzing data.

My mantra these days is “Spatial, not special”. My work these days focuses on how to use spatial knowledge to solve data problems. I am very happy becoming a more powerful user of all the tools I use, but I feel super powerful when I figure out complex SQL queries to solve problems. I love working on the database solutions.

Q: How did you get into GIS? Why?

A: My father introduced me to GIS in high school. He was a city planner (since retired), and knew that I would really enjoy this use of technology. I have always liked playing and working with computers.

I attended Clark University. Initially I was interested in the psychology department, but found coursework in geography to be very fulfilling and soon started to work with the Clark Labs. I was very fortunate to work closely with the staff and Ron Eastman. They were very supportive of my thirst for knowledge.

Q: Tell us about some of the cool tech you use these days. Describe a cool project that you currently work on.

A: Giggles…

Cool tech, well… the thing I think is coolest right now is my $10 Raspberry Pi Zero W. It is so exciting to have such a cheap computer with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth built in. It is a powerful tool for building IoT projects and also gives me a chance to improve my Linux chops. I really want to buy a bunch of these and create some simple navigation tools around them.

The last year has had me working on projects using Python, FME, PostGIS, CARTO, SQL Server, Oracle, and many other tools. My co-worker Calvin Metcalf has been trying to get me to switch from Python to Node. I really like the work CARTO has done to make mapping and PostGIS available online, it’s really quite powerful.

Q: Do you like open source for pragmatic or ideological reasons? Explain.

A: Both. I like tools that work and I want tools that I can contribute to. I think libre software is the ideal, but I think there is a lot of useful and good grey area in the open source community that is far superior to proprietary solutions.

Q: You knit, which is amazing. I did try it, but didn’t have the patience. Tell us how you got into knitting, and whether you see parallels between knitting and coding.

A: I started knitting when my wife took it up many years ago now. I really love making something with my hands and I also enjoy spending time with people in knitting circles; it’s like the ticket to enter a reality TV show of some very interesting and creative folks. I highly recommend it to everyone.

There is a wonderful tie between raster-based geospatial and knitting; they are both based on basic data principles. Both have rows and columns. Someday I really want to knit some NIR imagery into a hat.

Q: You ride a bike, which — along with knitting and the beard — puts you in the running for the perfect hipster. Is there a hipster attribute that you wish you had but lack?

A: Wait, there are so many more hipster attributes:

  • I live in a hipster community
  • I prefer artisanal chocolate and farm-to-table dining
  • I run my own hipster website http://hipster.country

The only hipster attribute I wish I had that I lack is the hipster gene that makes them all slender and buff. I am now getting ready for a 9K in July and this non-skinny-jean-wearing butt is just not as easy to move around as I would like it to be.

Q: Are you a geohipster? Why / why not?

A: I am a poser. I am a pretender. I am an imposter.

I am not good at defining myself as any particular thing. I love to learn and I love to listen. This makes me less a specific type of person as much as it makes me a person who enjoys being in the presence of others who are specific about who they are.

I have been running a hipster web site for years trying to figure out what being a hipster means and as far as I can tell, no one really knows. Hipster is used as both a positive and negative, so I don’t know if I am or am not.

But let’s do the checklist once more:

  • Lives in hipster community, check
  • Rides his bike to work, check
  • Has a beard, check
  • Goes to farmers markets, check
  • Can tell you about local beer, chocolate, and cheese makers, check
  • Has skinny jeans, nope
  • Can describe a bespoke projection, nope

Q: On closing, any parting words of wisdom for our global readership?

A: Get out of your silo. Spatial, not special.

Spatial is now a first-class citizen in most databases, so we should use databases and other data tools and not be totally reliant on vendor to solve our spatial needs.

Also, check out my friend’s local chocolate CSA (http://www.somervillechocolate.com/) it is the most amazing chocolate made by the most wonderful guy around.

Dave Smith: “Many of the most satisfied, creative and talented folks I’ve met in geo were multidisciplinarians”

Dave Smith
Dave Smith
Dave Smith is with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Office of Environmental Information in Washington D.C.  Dave has a background of over 25 years of experience in working with geospatial technologies in applications ranging from emergency response and field data collection to modeling, analysis, and web mapping. Dave is also a licensed civil engineer and professional land surveyor, where he also worked on writing code and practical applications of using computers to automate data analysis and design. He is currently working with EPA's Chief Data Scientist Robin Thottungal on building out a big data analytics cluster to improve EPA's analytical capabilities.

Outside of the office, Dave has done a lot of volunteer work with various organizations, having been a top contributor to OpenStreetMap, aiding rescue and rebuilding efforts after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, as well as supporting organizations like Red Cross, U.S. State Department, and Team Rubicon in humanitarian and disaster relief mapping. Prior to that, Dave also volunteered his engineering and geospatial knowledge to support Engineers Without Borders on potable water and sanitation infrastructure for communities in Cameroon, Honduras, Rwanda and other communities in need.

You can find Dave on Twitter at @DruidSmith and on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/davidgsmith

Q: How did you get into GIS?

A: Maybe I was born to map. As a kid I grew up reading books such as Lord of the Rings and loved Tolkien’s hand-drawn maps. I started emulating his maps, creating my own maps of the locales in the fantasy and sci-fi books that I would read. You could say mapping was ingrained in me even as a pre-teen and then continued to weave its way through my life.

As a kid we lived in Germany for 10 years, and I was into scouting — I participated in both the German Pfadfinderschaft and a U.S. military-based Boy Scout troop in Germany where we would do orienteering, hiking, camping, and other activities with these wonderfully detailed, large-scale German topographic maps. These maps were essentially their version of our USGS topo quads, which had the funny-sounding name of “Messtischblatt”, as they were originally created with an alidade and plane table (“Messtisch” meaning “measuring table”) and compiled into a published map sheet (the “Blatt”).

Those scouting activities introduced me to more robust concepts like map scale and symbology, for example: differing symbols for hardwood versus pine forests, or contours and hachures to represent terrain. I started incorporating some of those concepts into the maps I would create for the fantasy realms I was reading about in my favorite books at the time. I first got into digital mapping while surveying in high school, with my first exposure to what we think of as GIS today being ARC/INFO in college.

Q: You are a licensed land surveyor and professional engineer. Do you feel that the career move to GIS was a step up from engineering and surveying? Why / why not?

A: Wow, picking between careers feels like asking a mom which is her favorite child. On the other hand, did I really ever leave one discipline for the other? In my case, the various disciplines I’ve been involved in seem to have merged and morphed, with various threads from academic and work pursuits becoming interwoven. I’ve tried steering myself toward the Venn diagram of intersecting circles of “things you enjoy” versus “things you are good at” and “things you can make a living at” to find the sweet spot where they intersect. Over time, I’ve found myself in that sweet spot.

When we moved back to the U.S. I was a teenager. One year in high school I managed to get a summer job with a land surveying firm. That job was great: getting to go out into the woods with the crew, recording a bunch of measurements, and bringing that data back into the office, reducing the notes and using the calcs to create maps. Plus, it was better money and less messy than washing dishes, landscaping, painting houses, or other summer jobs I had been doing. So, I was already a “professional mapper” when I was still in high school. It helped with school too, as I was taught about the techniques and how to do the math, which turned me into a trigonometry ninja. And, later on it helped with some of my college expenses too.

When I first started working in surveying, the company was a small mom-and-pop outfit founded in 1959. They were old school, hand-drafting maps and using transits and programmable HP calculators. Since I had taken drafting in high school they let me test my chops at drawing maps. I found myself already taking shape as a young geohipster, occasionally exercising my artistic side with artisanal hand-drawn north arrows and other creative design elements. A bit later we were in a building boom and needed to modernize to keep up. We hired additional field crews and got electronic total stations and data collectors for the field as well as computers, a plotter, and software for the office. That’s how I learned things like AutoCAD, coordinate geometry software, and digital elevation modeling. To support some of the subdivision and land development work, I also learned about stormwater runoff modeling, storm drainage, roadway design, and other civil engineering basics.

I really enjoyed working with the computers, and I taught myself how to do some automation for some of the repetitive tasks, such as LISP programming to support the CAD work, and writing code to help with many of the design calculations. At home I had a TRS-80 computer that I had saved up for and bought when I was 13. Later, in high school, I saved up and built my first homebrew PC-compatible computer from components, and was endlessly hacking around with it.

When it was time to go off to college, I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with myself. I started out in computer science, but became frustrated as the initial coursework seemed like a step backwards when I had already been writing code for several years. As someone interested in such a huge variety of things, whether archaeology, astronomy, or history, I changed majors several times. But I kept working summers and holidays at the surveying firm, and took surveying and civil engineering courses as those seemed a viable and responsible path for my otherwise unfocused youthful exuberance.

But one day I happily stumbled across my university’s Geography department and its GIS program, and I changed majors one final time. Here, the coursework gave me new inspirations, adding new concepts like remote sensing and satellite imagery, human geography, and interesting methodologies for analysis and spatial statistics. One of my favorite professors was Peter Gould, who taught complex statistical methods, analysis of variance, kriging, and other things; no textbook, his class was reinforced via real-world challenges and computer analyses. I recall getting something like a 43% on my first exam. Dejected, I wondered if I would make it through his class. Professor Gould walked over, patted me on the shoulder and said “great job, you got one of the top grades.” I ended up with my degree in Geography — with a specialization in Cartography, Remote Sensing, and GIS. As a student, I also got to work on some interesting projects, like working with the City of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on developing their GIS concept and framework.

The challenge of getting into GIS almost 30 years ago, however, was that GIS jobs were pretty scarce. I continued working in surveying and then various civil engineering firms, including working for some of the top engineering firms in the country. As things progressed, I gained enough experience to sit for the exams to become a Land Surveyor, and then for a Professional Engineer. In that engineering journey I ended up being appointed by Governor Rendell to the Pennsylvania Engineering Board overseeing licensure in the surveying, engineering, and geology fields. I chaired that Board for two years, and was heavily involved with NCEES and other organizations on examinations and other aspects of licensure.

In my engineering pursuits I found that civil engineering and GIS are interwoven. Engineering design depends on maps and data, and I was often called on to help out with urban and regional planning. In the early 1990s I was involved in one of the largest land use analyses east of the Mississippi. It required assembling huge amounts of data across paper maps, disparate files, and databases. This project required a lot of digitization, data optimization and management, data reprojection, and data transformation before we could even get to analysis and mapping. Nowadays the GIS kids just push a button; we old timers had to do it uphill, both ways, in 4 feet of snow – and remind me to tell you about the couple of weeks I spent surveying up on the Canadian border, waist deep in snow. At any rate, I ended up writing a bunch of homebrew GIS code to augment and extend the commercial tools we had. In the engineering world I also did a lot of work with hydrology and modeling, HEC-2 water surface profiles, transportation networks, even 3D modeling and rendering, and the worlds of engineering, GIS and code became more and more blurred over the years.

To this day I still rely on engineering principles, like solving complex technical challenges by deconstructing them into their constituent parts, trying to understand the interconnections and dependencies, and figuring out an architecture — whether hydrologic networks, transportation systems, or IT architectures, there are a lot of engineering principles and techniques for approaching them.

Q: How and why did you end up at the EPA?

A: I like to challenge myself and try new things. So, around 12 years ago, I took a big step and started a consulting at an engineering and GIS firm. Eventually, I teamed up with a guy who was also doing environmental and GIS consulting. As my partner was a disabled veteran, we structured as a Service-Connected Disabled Veteran Owned Small Business (SDVOSB), and we approached some larger government contractors about providing geospatial capabilities as a subcontractor. We quickly ended up working as a niche geospatial consultant with companies like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and CGI Federal on a variety of interesting projects for the military and other agencies. But because both of us were more interested in environmental protection, we put our main focus on EPA. We provided EPA with GIS support for Hurricane Katrina, and worked on many of EPA’s public-facing web mapping capabilities. While the company grew, I started to tire from the challenges of running a small business; the feast and famine cycles, writing endless proposals, and bouncing from customer to customer, when I really wanted to focus most on supporting a mission around using GIS to understand our environment and help protect it.

During the course of our EPA contracting, I learned that an EPA colleague was retiring. He had been managing EPA’s Facility Registry Service, which integrates and conflates geospatial data from many systems for millions of facilities and sites, and which serves as a geospatial underpinning for a lot of what EPA does. I knew the system well, and when the job announcement came out, I applied and got an offer.

Since then, I’ve been innovating with EPA. Here, I work with groups like the Homeland Infrastructure Foundation Level Data Workgroup (HIFLD) to provide new datasets to support emergency response. I cut costs through automation, improve match logic, and develop web services, including a reusable widget for reporting applications. The widget retrieves and prepopulates information, it validates, standardizes, and geocodes locations. It also allows users to fine-tune the location via a web map. It has since been deployed to a half dozen reporting systems, improved data quality at the source, and helped reduce burden significantly (140,000 hours of annual burden in one program).

Q: What do you do for the EPA? What kind of role does GIS play in supporting EPA in its mission?

A: At EPA we recently created a data analytics division, and hired a Chief Data Scientist. I now work for the Chief Data Scientist, Robin Thottungal, pursuing not only geospatial tech but also big data, machine learning, and other types of analytics. Currently I’m building cloud-based infrastructure to support distributed computing using Apache Spark and other technologies. We’re interested in offloading some of our geoprocessing and analysis to the cloud, along with better leveraging external data sources and emergent technologies for analysis. I’m also looking at how we can handle sensor data more robustly, and how to apply remote sensing for a variety of applications such as detection of Harmful Algal Blooms.

EPA’s mission is to protect human health and the environment. That covers broad territory, whether Emergency Support Function 10 and responding to oil or hazardous materials releases after a disaster, remediating a contaminated former industrial site, or assessing water quality. Environment is all about place, and so much of what we do has that spatial component. GIS is a core piece of support infrastructure at EPA, we have great GIS people across the agency. We’ve had a robust GIS workgroup for well over 20 years, and have had a Geospatial Information Officer for over 10 years. Our people are improving how we collect GIS data in the field, conducting advanced modeling and analysis, and expanding the use of mapping across the agency. We also train with the intent of democratizing technology across the agency, making it easier for non-technical users to map and visualize their data.

Q: What kind of technology do you use at work?

A: It’s quite a laundry list — for desktop mapping I’ve largely transitioned over to ArcGIS Pro, which is great if you already have nice clean data. I use SQL, R, Python, OGR/GDAL and others for data crunching and data prep tasks. A lot of our current infrastructure is Esri-based, with Oracle Spatial on the back end. However, I’ve found that database licensing constraints often lead to enterprise servers that are used for too many competing purposes, whether as a transactional system, data warehouse, or other functions stacked on top of each other. This means that it’s hard to optimize to do any of those jobs well, so I’ve been taking a step back, offloading, decoupling and leveraging more open source, like PostgreSQL and PostGIS, along with other open source technologies. I also do occasional lightweight work using Leaflet and various JavaScript frameworks. Recently we’ve added some point-and-click data viz tools like Qlik Sense for building dashboards, interactive charts, and graphs.

But we’re also looking at how to handle streaming data, big data, and distributed computing clusters — so I’ve started to experiment with an Apache Spark cluster on Mesos, along with Elasticsearch and other technologies that can bring us scale. As we look at deploying in the cloud, I’ve been delving into Docker as a means of containerizing, deploying, and managing our infrastructure in a replicable, maintainable, and cloud-agnostic way. We are working in a test environment in Amazon Web Services (AWS) with our eye on production, one of the big pieces being putting together the Authorization to Operate (ATO) documentation for the AWS environment. I also deployed JupyterHub in our test environment in AWS, which allows a user to create notebooks containing executable code (Python, R, Julia and others) along with annotation, embedded graphics, and other capabilities, with an eye toward supporting some of our scientific computing needs for more technical users in a self-service way. Esri recently rolled out their Python API that enables Jupyter-based approaches. Our little team is also digging into machine learning and analysis in the test Jupyter environment.

Q: Tell us about some of the cool projects you are working on.

A: Aside from building out some cool new infrastructure in the cloud, I get to tinker with a pretty wide variety of projects. For example, I recently built a tool to visualize streaming water sensor data, using Open Geospatial Consortium sensor standards. The tool allows users to slice and dice the data temporally; almost immediately we detected a recurrent anomaly in the data that the sensor operator hadn’t previously detected. Additionally, it provides dynamic, interactive ways to look at relationships between different sensor parameters, such as suspended solids, nitrates, and e. coli concentrations. I’d love to be able to set that up so that it can traverse upstream or downstream, pulling in other related sensor data from the stream network, since the devices are now all spatially indexed to the National Hydrology Dataset (NHD). I’ve also been building out tools that provide better insight on environmental impacts affecting tribes and American Indian country, using a combination of spatial queries and other approaches.

Q: You ride a bike and like craft brews — two mandatory geohipster attributes. Do you have any other?

A: For the male geohipsters, I possess an epic beard, however I’ll pass on the waxed handlebar mustache. And for the foodie geohipsters, I’ve brewed my own beers, I make things like pickled daikon, homemade mustard, gochujang chicken and Thai curry, and while I have been known to eat hipster foods like kale and quinoa, you won’t find me washing it down with a can of PBR. And I definitely have hipsterishly eclectic music tastes, ranging from funk to punk, blues to ska, a lot of artists not well known in the mainstream. I do actually own vinyl discs and a turntable, but I confess: most of what I listen to is digital.

But to get serious, I’ve noticed that the real geohipster attribute is to be innovators, makers, creators with broad interests and backgrounds. I came from a creative and resourceful “maker” family. When my parents settled in Pennsylvania, I was a nerdy city kid – born in Massachusetts, spent most of my childhood in Germany, then to El Paso, Texas. As I grew up, I became a country kid on a hundred-acre farm in the wooded Pocono mountains of Pennsylvania. There we raised goats, sheep, chickens, and other animals. We had a huge garden and did a lot of canning. We would hunt and fish, and were pretty self-sufficient. My mom and stepdad make a great team. She is a very talented sculptor and painter, and he is incredible at woodworking. She spins and weaves with their sheep’s wool, and he researches and rebuilds damaged antique spinning wheels using his lathe. My mom, with her undergrad in Chemistry and grad work in Germanic languages does things like reading Old Norse sagas in the original tongue to pick out tidbits on ancient Viking wool dyeing, spinning, and weaving.

So, I grew up in a very resourceful and creative “maker”-oriented environment: I did pen and ink drawing and sculpture; I learned to work on cars, solder electronics, and hang sheet rock; I learned how to build and make things. And that creativity and tenacity to figure out how to make things still influences how I approach many things, even if these days it involves a multidimensional dataset, or a homebrew sensor built with a Raspberry Pi.

Q: Do you consider yourself a geohipster? Why / why not?

A: We grizzled geohipster silverbacks might be tempted to say something hipsterish like “I was geo before geo went mainstream,” but one look at me and you’d probably think more geohippie than geohipster. I don’t possess any colorful skinny jeans (not that I’d fit into skinny jeans), I don’t wear Vans or ironic t-shirts under a blazer. My natural state is more likely to involve hiking boots and a tie-dye. But hipster jokes aside, it’s actually what’s on the inside that makes one a geohipster. It’s about out-of-the box thinking, being creative, passionate and innovative, and weaving together a lot of different knowledge and experience into your work.

Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our global readership?

A: For one thing, remember that Venn diagram of things you enjoy / things you are good at / things you can get paid for. I’ve found that many of the most satisfied, creative and talented folks I’ve met in geo were multidisciplinarians. Some came into geo from another field, some were folks who started in geo but who then did a deep dive into another field. I also think that shows that we need to mix it up, keep thinking outside of the box and looking across the sciences.

Don’t get too hung up on specific tools and technologies or stay in your comfort zone. Instead, get comfortable being uncomfortable, get outside of your comfort zone, and stay curious. Keep learning. Focus on outcomes, keep adding new techniques and approaches to your toolbox, and apply your knowledge to a wider variety of problems.

Don’t be afraid to learn to code — it can make your life easier through automation, overcoming limitations of boxed software, or wrangling data. You don’t need to be an expert coder, often just a smattering of skills and googling code snippets will get you there. Though I’ve hacked around with over a dozen languages, these days I mostly use SQL, Python, JavaScript, R, and some shell scripting to get things done.

And, get involved in your local geo and tech community. Here in the nation’s capital we are particularly blessed to have a number of great geo and techie Meetup groups like Geo DC, always bringing new presentations and insights and great networking over beer – but even if you don’t have a strong local geo and tech community, there’s a strong and vibrant online geo community on twitter and social media.

Darren Mottolini: “Not just creating pretty maps that still require interpretation”

Darren Mottolini is a Business Development and Research Manager -- WA (Western Australia) at CRCSI (Cooperative Research Council for Spatial Information)

Darren has worked in the spatial information sector for over 16 years – working within the private sector,  government, and now academia, identifying and enabling businesses to use data and information to meet specific needs, and consulting on the best use of spatial data and tools in the on-line service delivery space.

He comes recently from Western Australia’s Landgate (Land Agency) as the manager of the Shared Location Information Platform (SLIP) Program – the State's core infrastructure for location information. Within the spatial community, Darren has chaired committees for the Surveying and Spatial Sciences Institute and the Intergovernmental Committee for Surveying and Mapping. He has open data and start-up community experience, he is a past recipient of the of the Young Spatial Professional of the Year Award (WA), and currently heads up Research Management focussing on collaborative research opportunities.

Q: How did you end up in geospatial?

A: Quite by accident. I graduated in the IT systems field picking up programming and network design jobs. I took a job at a company called ER Mapper as one of their technical analyst, which was my first foray into geo. From there I quickly transferred from behind the computer to in front of it branching out into solutions design and picking up up my geo skills from workshops, single units and conferences. Haven’t looked back since.

Q: You are ‘Sir Darren of Rabble’ on Twitter, is there a story there?

A: No story really. In Australia under a certain Prime Minister, he re-introduced Dames and Knights, and so a bunch of us changed our handles to Sir and Dame so and so. Rabble comes from my involvement in Perth coordinating GeoRabble events. Since then the moniker has grown on me so it has stuck.

Q: How’s the GeoCommunity in Perth?

A: Perth is a strange place. One, we are very isolated, with the closest main city four hours’ flight away. Two, everyone knows everyone so getting together is easy and organising events (such as a Georabble) picks up on everyone’s network. WA/Perth is still quite mining-focused, yet if you look across the state there are significant challenges. Biodiversity in the State’s agriculture and mining areas poses challenges, not only to understand the ecosystems but also to manage it. Also, due to the vast size of WA (which is 33% of Australia equalling about 4x the size of Texas, or covering more area than Western Europe) mapping and adding knowledge is a continual challenge for a population which is roughly around 2.5 million statewide.

Q: You used to work in the Western Australian state government, what was the technology stack like there and were there benefits in being forced to rebuild twice?! (After Google end-of-lifed Google Earth Engine…)

A: What I learnt from working in government (8 years) is that the stigma of government workers is nowhere to be seen. There is so much that happens behind the scenes that the public at large and private sector simply don’t see. Most of the stigma is due to spending public funds and the accountability that has to go with it yet if you understand the system, you can make it work. Managing a technology stack for the state’s Shared Location Information Platform (SLIP — the State Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI)) had its challenges, yet the reward of making a difference, from concept to execution, rather than simply selling software or consulting on short projects, is what really kept me in government. Depending on the government agency, there is a lot of legacy systems which are used to manage the fundamental data within the state. Due to this, simply pulling a new dataset together, its impact on live systems etc. requires testing and creative design in order to respond to the industry need. Yet, all in all, managing SLIP, rebuilding it under Google Maps Engine, the demise of GME proved tiring for me and lacked new learning hence why I jumped at the chance to join a user-focused research organisation which really aligns to my take of technology that the consumers and suppliers needs are first, the technology is second.

Q: You are currently working at CRCSI, can you explain what the CRCSI is and what you do there?

A: The CRC (Cooperative Research Centre) for Spatial Information is a collaborative research body delving into the challenges facing both Australia and New Zealand. The research that the CRCSI conducts is user-driven, that is, our partners lead and sponsor the projects and we coordinate the research for them. It was this fact that attracted me to the CRCSI, being that it is not research for the sake of research, that it had a need founded in our users that could not be solved through traditional and pre-existing means. My role is to coordinate and ensure that our partners benefit from the research (i.e., they can use it) as well as brokering new research projects.

Q: CRCSI’s government funding ends soon, how’s it looking for the future?

A: It is looking good. One of the strengths of the CRCSI is that our partners are engaged and that our research is delivering benefits. As our government (federal) funding only accounts for a portion of our operation budget, we have already generated new partnerships and projects that will ensure Australia and New Zealand have a peak Spatial Information research body that is also an advocate for increasing the wealth of the industry by exploring emerging sectors and their needs for spatial knowledge.

Q: What can you tell me about the 2026 Agenda project?

A: The 2026Agenda (https://2026agenda.com/) is a joint initiative between the CRCSI and the Spatial Industries Business Association (SIBA) to put in place measurable and accountable actions that will drive towards greater awareness of spatial methods, data, and tech with new and emerging industries. As an industry we always say that ~80% of all data is spatial, but what does this really mean? The roadmap being generated will seek to ensure that the spatial sector is recognised as a proactive underpinning element to the Australian digital economy.

Q: What about some of the other projects CRCSI is working on?

A: How long have you got? As I remain partner-focused, it allows me to delve into all the projects the CRCSI is working on. My background is in SDIs, so the research we are conducting here is to explore how spatial processes can be delivered through the semantic technology area (Web 3.0). By doing this, achieving true automation — that is easily repeatable, shareable workflows that are facilitated through machine to machine understanding — aims to generate new tech that recognises spatial as a commodity anyone can plug into. For me it means that is a real opportunity for spatial to play its role in leading analytics processes that derive knowledge to assist decision making — not just creating pretty maps that still require interpretation.

Another area that piques my interest is the adaptation of spatial in the health sector. Taking 3D stereophotogrammetry to mapping faces for example has the potential to assist practitioners in detecting facial anomalies which could be signs of genetic diseases. The same principles are being applied to burns management for the debriding process.

In the agriculture space, assisting land managers with spatial data and query tools that draw on a massive historical earth observation imagery archive means that for the first time people can manage change over time by understanding the impacts of change.

Finally, the positioning research: ubiquitous 2cm accuracy is near-real-time from multi GNSS — it sounds easy yet the maths behind this level of research and its potential benefits to all those who want high accuracy data that is placed in its correct location when overlapped has massive potential. We are starting to see the benefits of this positioning research with the move to GDA2020 (Australia’s new datum), real time precision agriculture through remote controlled farm tractors, and the move to dynamic datums in the future.

Q: On your LinkedIn profile you mention Edward de Bono. What’s he got to do with anything?!

A: HA! I’m a strategist, it’s what I enjoy. Facilitation, consultancy and strategy development requires a person to think in different mindsets and assist others to think differently so that you can develop a rounded strategy. Edward de Bono developed a suite of ‘thinking tools’ that are well utilised globally. The ‘six thinking hats’ are an example of one of this developed tools. (see: http://www.debonothinkingsystems.com/tools/6hats.htm ). I use these constantly to help me engage, facilitate thought leadership sessions, and develop strategies that work to the needs of the target user groups. Would never leave home without them. 🙂

Q: I assume that means you like lateral thinking, do you have a favourite riddle or, failing that, favourite dad joke?

A: Ask my kids, I am not a joke teller, not even dad jokes. Riddle me this though, when you get asked a question, how best do you question the questioner back? If you ask any of my staff (when I had staff), I always get them to learn through seeing if they can answer their own question. It is a lateral thinking exercise that I feel builds the best staff, increases their confidence and success, means you work yourself out of a job.

Q: What do you do in your free time that is not geo-related?

A: Isn’t everything geo-related? Camping, cycling, running are my favourite things to do. Of course, I track my cycling and running tracks, look for camping spots, and everything you can do around them. Having a geo focus to these activities usually sees me always looking towards a map.

Q: And finally, what do you do in your free time that makes you a geohipster?

A: Coffee! Maybe it’s my Italian heritage, yet it is the first machine I turn on in the morning, it is how I generally conduct my meetings, it is what gets me through the day. That, and a desire to care for the environment, a love of local music, and generally the wearing of Chuck Taylor shoes with no care to how my hair looks. 🙂

Kristen Grady: “If you’re on the ground, look up, and if you’re in the sky, look down”

Kristen Grady
Kristen Grady
Kristen Grady is a GIS Specialist at NYC Emergency Management and has over ten years of experience working in GIS. Prior to working at NYCEM she spent about six years working in academia trying really hard - but eventually failing - to avoid working a 9-5 office job. (Although saving the city from the apocalypse turned out to be a pretty cool job, so it’s OK). She’s loved airplanes even longer than geography and hopes to combine her two passions into an actual paying job someday. But for now, she makes maps and writes python code by day and stares at her airplane emergency card collection by night, which currently stands at an impressive 139. (And yes, they all very clearly read “PLEASE DO NOT REMOVE FROM AIRCRAFT.” She says she’s sorry!) Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Q: How did you get into GIS?

A: I think it happened about six or seven miles up, somewhere near where the troposphere meets the stratosphere. I was flying from New York to California in June 2006 — my first time flying jetBlue — and I had never seen a live flight-tracker map before. I was enthralled! It was a perfectly clear day all the way across the country, and my 8 megapixel camera was pointed out the window for the entire six-hour flight. I’d take a picture of something neat on the ground and then immediately snap a photo of the map. When I got back to New York a few days later I sat with these photos and Google Earth, which I had just downloaded for the very first time, and spent hours trying to figure out what was in my photos…

A few months later, my Weather and Climate instructor was giving a lecture on remote sensing. He was going through slides of satellite images and having us guess what they were of. I knew them all! At the time I was a philosophy major, but I immediately went and switched my major to geography. The next semester, while taking the required geo-technologies course for the geography major I finally got to play with desktop GIS software and made some (pretty terrible) maps. But I knew that this was what I wanted to do. Someone in the geography department back then had made a comment that geography was a perfect discipline for “someone with ADD” because the variety of projects and aspects of GIS that you could focus on were truly infinite. That sealed the deal for me.

Geography and mapmaking were always passions of mine. I had my face buried in atlases and had been making pretty intricate maps since I was a kid, like this one that I made at age eleven. But I took a *very* circuitous route through college, losing myself about a hundred times, before finally taking that life-changing jetBlue flight that reminded that, at my core, I was born to be a geographer. So after seven long years in undergrad, I finally got that geography degree, and found GIS, and I’m so glad I did!  

Q: You have a Master of Science degree in Geographic Information Science. What is the one most important (or most valuable) thing you got out of your course of study?

A: I graduated with a B.A. in 2008, probably the worst year in recent history to start looking for a “real” job. So I ended up mashing together some part-time GIS research jobs and continued taking graduate-level GIS and cartography courses for fun. This eventually led me into a PhD program, which I was in for two and a half years before deciding to call it quits with a Masters. (A story for another time!)

So unlike in an undergrad program, where you’re essentially just learning how to use tools (at least in my experience), in a graduate program you are also being taught how to think critically about those tools, as well as how to think critically about the disciplines of GIS and geography themselves. You have to think about the consequences of your analyses, the ethics of your maps, the ethics of your tools. You have to think about things like the effects of aggregation, the cultural implications of using a certain color on a map…

Then there’s learning about different geographic “paradigms” and critical geographies, such as feminist geography or Marxist geography…  I had no idea while I was in undergrad that there was such a rich philosophy of geography. I feel lucky to have been exposed to that. Having that experience at the graduate level has definitely made me a better, more critical map-maker.  

Q: You work for NYC Emergency Management. Is your job stressful? Last week Amazon S3 went down because of a typo. If *you* make a typo lives are at stake. Do you ever think about that? Does it stress you?

A: Oh totally. I put a lot of pressure on myself because I am a perfectionist. But the paradox of working in emergency management, where your maps and your data really ought to be showing the most correct information, is that when sh*t hits the fan, there is rarely any time to go over everything in painstaking detail. It is not my nature to work this way *at all* so it’s been an interesting challenge for me.

There is always a struggle between balancing the quality of your work and being efficient. This is why I try to automate things using Python and by using map templates that I created a while back. This way we can spend more time on making sure the map and data are accurate and less time on things like creating a layout from scratch, or worse, creating an Esri scale bar from scratch (it’s the worst!). I have actually written a Python script that automates that process for us. Hooray!

Q: I interned for Manhattan Borough President’s Office in 1992. We used MapInfo then. Have things changed in NYC? What technology do you use these days?

A: The GIS Division at NYCEM is definitely an Esri shop but lately we’ve started exploring some other geo-tech as well, like Carto, Fulcrum, and Tableau. Our app dev folks are currently transitioning from the now obsolete ArcGIS API for Silverlight to Esri’s Web AppBuilder. And one of them tells me that he has started using some open source JavaScript technologies like REACT and NODE to rebuild our ailing Data Catalog application, which was originally created in Microsoft Access and contains about a zillion VB scripts. We’re also slowly starting to explore ArcGIS Pro, which we think may hold some promise. Perhaps it will lead to fewer frustrations (and expletives) than our good friend ArcMap.

As for the rest of the city, I think it varies. My sense is that it is largely Esri-based. But I am familiar with a few agencies that are moving toward open source technologies, like DoITT, who I believe is using QGIS for their desktop mapping. A colleague of mine at DOHMH uses R, D3, Leaflet, and PostGIS for her mapping projects, and DCP’s new Capital Planning Division has just used all open source technology to create their Facilities Explorer, which I love and was just released to the public.

Q: Tell us about a cool project you work on right now.

A: As I’ve said, things happen really fast in emergency management. A typical work day for me is pretty calm and laid back… until of course, something happens. One of the big ideas last year in the Public Safety Data Development Center (the group I work in within NYCEM GIS) was to create a dataset that answers the question, “What is there?” Meaning, if there is a sudden event, such as a building collapse or an explosion, we immediately want to know all of the facilities that exist in the affected location. Is there a hospital there? A nursing home? A restaurant? A school? We used to do this by adding a bunch of datasets one by one — that we had to think of off the top of our head — to an ArcMap document. But that is both inefficient and prone to oversight (like forgetting a dataset, for example).

Answering this question sounds easy enough (“Why not just use Google?!”) but what is so challenging is bringing all of these disparate datasets, most from different sources and with very different schemas, together into one dataset. The City of New York cannot simply rely on Google’s databases alone for its spatial awareness. We cannot verify the accuracy of their data.

Many of us worked on this project, but my job was to write an ETL in Python that would extract as many datasets as we could (currently 23, but eventually 50 or more) from our database, transform them — perform selections, map the fields, etc. — and then load them into one singular dataset. We still have a long way to go, but at least now, we can pull in this one dataset, which we call “Facilities Master,” select all the points that fall inside a building or within a given radius, and know an awful lot about the facilities in an area, with just a few mouse clicks. And this way you don’t have to think too much, which is always my goal. Plan and prepare when times are calm (think!), and then respond quickly when things get hectic (do!).  

Q: You are a Pythonista. What advice will you give to someone who is just getting started with Python in GIS?

A: Wow. What a great word, Pythonista. Can I use that on my resume?!

Ed: Yes.

Learning to code can follow a totally different path for everyone and really depends on your learning style. Some people can start copy/pasting other people’s code right away and fairly quickly manage to build something new that actually works. This approach didn’t work for me. I wasn’t easily able to break through the wall that stood between me wanting to learn to code and unshackling code from abstraction, and so I was a little paralyzed at first. But now I know that in order to learn code, you have to just start writing it and stop pussyfooting. You have to have faith that all those neural connections that you’re creating in your brain will eventually result in some pretty spectacular “eureka!” moments.

As for the more practical aspect of learning to code, you need simply to start out by learning the basics (variables, lists, conditional statements, loops, etc.), and then start playing. If you aren’t able to take a class, there are a million online code-learning sites, most of which are free. Once you know some really basic stuff and have learned what a module is, play around with the Python turtle module, which was originally created to help kids learn to code. It’s a great way to make really cool things happen pretty quickly, and it’s included in the Python Standard Library.

If you want to write scripts and create tools for ArcGIS, you’ll need to learn ArcPy, the Python site package that lets you interact with ArcGIS. Esri has pretty good documentation on how to use arcpy, and GIS Stack Exchange is also a great arcpy resource.

Here are a few rules I think the budding Python coder should follow:

  1. Know that coding requires incredible self initiative and self learning. Learn how to ask the right questions and become a master Googler. GIS Stack Exchange is indispensable, but users and moderators will publicly shame you if you haven’t done your homework before posting a question. I love that.
  2. Errors are learning tools, you’ll never stop getting them, and they will only get more complicated over time. Accept them. When you’re comfortable, learn about debugging and error handling.
  3. Pleeeeease comment your code. You will forget what you have written if you haven’t looked at your script in two weeks. More importantly, if someone else has to read it, explanations in a human language are key. Don’t be lazy. Don’t write sloppy code. Include script headers.

Q: Enough about work. What do you do for fun? Being a Brooklynite, whatever it is surely must be hipster, no?

A: Brooklyn is a pretty special place to live. It is also very hipster. One of my favorite things to do, and fortunately for my budget and my liver I don’t do this too often, is try to find really good craft cocktails. There are some amazing ones to be found in this borough, but obviously also in Manhattan. I have not yet ventured to the other three boroughs in search of craft cocktails, but I should! One of my favs in Manhattan is Amor Y Amargo. They are the standard to which I hold all other craft cocktail bars. A place I love to go to in Brooklyn is Blueprint. They also have incredible bar snacks. Yum!  

When I’m not consuming spirits, I am doing much healthier things like snowboarding, taking pictures, hanging with any number of my enormously huge family, including my two little nephews whom I adore, seeking out some top-of-the-line self-serve froyo with my other half, or geeking out hard on airplanes…

Q: You also like airplanes. How did you develop that passion (for it is a passion, right)? Tell us more about it.

A: I could spend hours answering this question! There are so many amazing spatial things going on with airplanes. But to be honest with you, I’m not really sure why I became enamored with them as a kid. I’d give anything to go back to early 1991 and ask that 8-year old girl, who just found out that she was going to be flying Continental Airlines from Newark, New Jersey to Orlando, Florida, why she instantly became so obsessed with them (and with the airline itself).

I think there are a few things going on. For one, I just think the airplane is a beautiful machine. But it’s also a symbol of escape, adventure, and change, and I have always liked all of those things. Also, the airplane affords anyone lucky enough to sit in a window seat an incredible and rare view of the surface of the Earth, which is a pretty spectacular experience for anyone who loves geography, although I didn’t have that particular experience until I was a bit older. My initial obsession mainly involved planespotting, which is at its most basic simply identifying aircraft types and airline liveries.

As I’ve gotten older and as technology has allowed for easy access to all kinds of flight-related goodies, the passion has evolved into an actual hobby. An #avgeek session for me might include using multiple flight-tracking apps (Flightaware, PlaneFinder, Flightradar24) and live ATC feeds to track a single flight or multiple flights that satisfy certain criteria. Sometimes I like to freak people out by “planestalking” them. (I actually coined the term Planestalker in the Urban Dictionary, and as of the time of this writing, it has 4 likes! ha!) Recently, I was planestalking my cousin’s flight from EWR to DEN, and it made a go-around in DEN. They were only feet off the ground before they aborted their landing due to wind and flew around to land on another runway. Nowadays you can go to Flightaware and just download a KML file of your flight. I sent him a picture of his go-around, and he thought it was hysterical (but also pretty cool!).   

Some of my favorite airplane “games” or challenges are trying to catch and then follow my pilot talking to ATC from one feed to the next (e.g. from Ground to Tower or from Departure to ARTCC), or predicting where an airplane overhead is coming from or going to and which runway it either took off from or is about to land on (which I am a total expert at predicting, btw!). I had a lot of fun making an animated map of some “Flights over Queens!” a few years ago, but unfortunately it got a little (irreparably) messed up when Carto switched from Editor to Builder.

Even more recently, I’ve developed an affection for aviation-related maps, like VFR sectional charts, arrival and departure procedures, and IFR Enroute High Altitude charts. I mean, talk about not being able to make a mistake! And having to think critically about the implications of your cartographic choices! Who makes these wonderful maps?! I am convinced that they are made by sweet little garden gnomes, working tirelessly in the night, running their maps from tree to tree… There is just so much magic, and a bit of mystery, in flying… it’s fun to uncover it all.

Q: Do you consider yourself a geohipster? Why / why not?

A: You know, at first I didn’t think I was at all, but then I realized that maybe I was a little bit when I was completely unable to answer the first question in the interview — which is a pretty simple and straightforward question: “How did you get into GIS?” — without launching myself into a paralyzing debate on my feelings on the word “GIS.”  Did I want to be associated with such a contentious word, what seems now to be a target for people who don’t want to be boxed in and who instead feel that they are part of something bigger than GIS, something geospatial? Just the fact that I was freaking out about the connotation of a word, in a very academic way… that must be somewhat geohipster, no? (Fortunately for the geohipster readership, I decided to scrap the eight-page essay that accompanied that manic thought spiral and instead tell you all a nice little story about flying… hee)

Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our global readership?

A: I wish I could take credit for this perfectly succinct and beautiful advice that I’m about to give, but I can’t, as it was offered as a suggestion to me by my partner when I read this question to him out loud…

“If you’re on the ground, look up, and if you’re in the sky, look down.”

It’s exactly what would have taken me multiple paragraphs to articulate, but he did it in just one sentence. He knows me so well. I think I’ll just leave it at that.

Stephanie May: “If you don’t know what your map is supposed to be telling us, neither do we”

Stephanie May
Stephanie May

By day, Stephanie specializes in spatial data file formats, transformations, analysis, and geospatial product management. At other times she opines for free on thematic map styles, urbanism, and best practices in geodata. Once upon a time her maps were featured in Atlantic Cities, Gizmodo, Huffington Post, the New Yorker, and the New York Times. She has taught Web Mapping and Cartography at San Francisco State University and the City College of San Francisco’s GIS Education Center. Favorite tools include R Studio, Quantum GIS, ArcGIS, Illustrator, Python and Javascript. @mizmay on Twitter, @mapnostic on Instagram.

Stephanie was interviewed for GeoHipster by Jonah Adkins (@jonahadkins).

Q: You’re currently on the GeoTeam at Apple. What’s it like working for one of the best-known tech companies in the world, and what are you doing there?

A: Working in tech is something I really wanted to do, but it isn’t for everyone. Instead of cleaning and exploring data in small batches, choosing my map type, and tweaking my visualizations until they are just right, I work on one big reference map in the cloud, with a lot of other people. While I love the size and scope of the projects I work on now, there are things I miss about having my own personal cartography and data analysis projects that I could use to hone and practice the craft.

Q: I read an excellent article  about your San Francisco Rental Map project. What prompted you to create this project and great resource?

A: Any great data visualization takes great data and a ton of time. That map was a breakthrough for me. Tilemill was pretty new; I’d been playing with it for a while, using it to make simple slippy maps of data for the San Francisco Bay Area. I had to hack it hard to get it to render the output of my little geospatial analysis, but it did a beautiful job. People said it was useful at the time, but I’m not really convinced. Using Empirical Bayesian Kriging to model one bedroom rental prices? I’m not sure what that even tells you. I still think it’s pretty though. Ultimately what that project was really about was finally feeling like I’d broken out of my government job analyzing data and making maps for internal consumption to something that could reach a larger audience.

Q: At State of the Map 2014, you co-presented on ‘Teaching Mapping To Geographers’, specifically the disconnect between OSM and geography students. In your opinion, is the divide between GIS professionals and OSM greater, and what do you think can happen to bridge that gap?

A: I mean, I love OSM; it is an audacious experiment that worked and continues to work, but on the whole GIS professionals don’t want to digitize features and tag them with categories as an extracurricular, and I’m not entirely sure the core OSMers want them to participate otherwise. I really admire what the Red Cross and HOT OSM have been able to do to use OSM as a vehicle for citizen mapping. Those are really the folks that hold the key to bridging the gap between OSM and GIS professionals. As for geographers, I think we are more interested in OSM phenomenologically and for the data. In addition to all the great projects people are doing as part of OSM or on behalf of OSM, people ask great questions on the OSM talk-us mailing list and have really great ontological discussions about map features, and I find following those discussions fascinating.

Q: In reference to teaching geography and cartography: You’d be wildly rich if you had a nickel for every time you’ve said…

A: WGS84 is a datum, not a projection. Choropleth not chloropleth. If you don’t know what your map is supposed to be telling us, neither do we. You should have spent more time on this. I hate heatmaps.

Q: Cartographer to cartographer: Your favorite map(s)?

A: There are so many talented cartographers out there, and for anyone reading this who doesn’t know, you Jonah Adkins are a prime example. The pop art map tiles you designed recently. Woohoo! Rosemary Wardley did a similarly awesome pop art thing that I really loved, a map tile for the map “quilt” at NACIS (errata: I tagged her wrong on Twitter). In general, among my most favorites, I love colors and I love information design done beautifully and unconventionally. I admire the work Eric Fischer and Miguel Rios have each done independently to make a beautiful image from a gazillion data points. I love “Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River” (Fisk, 1944), and the Willamette River Map by Daniel Coe. I’m doing a thing with pairs here! The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map has stood out in my mind for years as something beautiful and complex with so much data behind it.  But my favorite maps of all time are antiques from the 17th and 18th Century. The old cadastral maps from France, the earliest maps of the U.S. Census, and Minard’s Port and River Tonnage map — less famous and more beautiful than his map of Napoleon’s march. Those are my favorites, I think because they convey to me a certain obsessive something that you get to only by giving yourself all the time in the world and a little freedom to play. But also, every day I am pleased and humbled by scores of maps that embody the principles of good, practical cartography: keep it simple, less is more, make it a composition by harmonizing and arranging your elements, and remember you are telling the story.

Q: The standard #GeoHipster interview question: What does the phrase mean to you, and are you a #geohipster?

A: I think #geohipster resonates for a few reasons. First, it is startling when people think you are cool just because you make maps. Most of us, me included, were not always quite so objectively cool. Second, because the geoweb is pleasingly small once you break out of GIS professionalism or whatever other standard paradigms there are, which is a great ferment for ironic inside jokes. There are so many warm, genuine, supportive people who make maps and map-making tools, and will share the best parts of themselves and what they are learning from this crazy ride we’re on right now in a world that is just starting to think about the implications of relating through location. Am I a #geohipster? Without question, yes I am, whatever that means.

Steven Ramage: “Fitness for purpose is one of my favourite terms”

Steven Ramage
Steven Ramage

After a number of years working with internationally-recognised organisations (Navteq, 1Spatial, OGC, and Ordnance Survey (OS)), Steven is now working for what3words, based in London; they’re helping to simply and precisely communicate location using only words. He also consults for OS, the World Bank, and is a Visiting Professor at the Institute for Future Cities at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland. He is a fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), and of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS).

Steven was interviewed for GeoHipster by Ed Freyfogle.

Q: You’ve had a long and diverse geo career that’s taken you around the world. Briefly take us through your experiences. What makes you a geohipster?

A: Less of the long please! I’m still ONLY in my 40s. I started thinking about geo in my first job in container shipping, so I’m probably more of a geoshipster than geohipster :d)

I wanted to track container shipping in the early 90s, something akin to DHL Smart Sentry today, but the tech just wasn’t there. Then I moved to the marine survey and offshore services arena and was thrown in at the deep end (no pun intended) having to learn the basics of dredging, rig positioning, cable lay surveys, and seismic surveying. Spent considerable time in Aberdeen, Great Yarmouth and IJmuiden in the Netherlands. With the word GPS in my CV, a headhunter contacted me for a job with Navteq (now Nokia HERE) and I was the first market development manager for what was called the Wireless and Internet division. I had a blast dealing with Mapquest, Ericsson, Nokia, Telcontar, Vodafone, and all the other LBS players in the early days, and used to attend GSM in Cannes before it became MWC in Barcelona. I also lost a small fortune when I left Navteq (prior to the Nokia acquisition) and gave up my stock options — a lesson that cost me but also taught me well.

I joined Laser-Scan in 2001 (and helped rename it to 1Spatial) as Product Manager for some spatial tools that operated in databases, essentially server-side topology management in Oracle9i. I stayed there 9 years and was part of the Management Buyout team in 2003, which again taught me a lot but also challenged me considerably. In 2004 my son, Thomas, was born and unfortunately later that year my wife, Nina, was diagnosed with cancer. She’s much better now but I owe a great deal to my colleagues at 1Spatial for their support. In 2010 several people, whom I would call mentors, highlighted a vacancy for an Exec Director position at the OGC – Geoff Zeiss, Maurits van der Vlugt, and Peter Woodsford. So I dropped a note to Mark Reichardt and after a Skype interview with half a dozen people in the US I took on the marketing and communications role. I focussed the comms round ‘location’ reusing an existing strapline (c/o Sam Bacharach): Making location count. I also changed the website (for better or worse) to reflect domains and communities of interest. The biggest topic for me in international geospatial standards is business value and after 4.5 years as the initiator and chair (with some interims) I’ve just stood down from the business value committee. Publishing a paper on standards and INSPIRE, as well as a joint paper on international geospatial standards with INEGI, Mexico for UN-GGIM are some of the small achievements in this area.

Latterly I was invited by Vanessa Lawrence CB (former DG and Chief Exec of OS) to join Ordnance Survey to head up their international activities. I REALLY didn’t want to leave Norway where I had been living near a mountain with a fjord at my back door, but the opportunity was too good to miss and I really admired all the directors and hoped I could learn from them. So for just over two years I ran Ordnance Survey International, building a very competent team of industry experts. The opportunity for OSI to highlight the major investments, lessons learned, and their capabilities around national mapping are massive and a large number of countries can learn from them. Due to health issues I took 3 months off international travel for the first time in 20 years and during that time a number of opportunities arose, which meant I would have to step down from my position as Managing Director. That’s when I joined what3words as a director. I’ve not seen anything this new in geo since Google Earth, at least from the perspective that it can truly have a global impact if adoption happens.

So lots and lots of geo, but I prefer to focus on the policy, strategy and business elements. There’s enough tech experts now today like Scott Morehouse, James Fee, Paul Ramsey, Chris Holmes, Carsten Roensdorf, Joanne Cook, Seb Lessware, Rob Atkinson, Sophia Parafina, Bill Dollins, Anne Kemp, Brian Timoney, Katherine Prebble, Simon Greener, Albert Godfrind, Jo Walsh, Gretchen Peterson, etc.

Q: The geo industry uses software to describe the world. And yet many participants in the industry focus very much on tasks in a single market. National mapping agencies are typically exactly that: national. It’s rare to meet industry insiders considering the global picture. What are the megatrends you see happening globally?

A: Back in 2006 I supported something called ePSIplus, which is now quite fashionable and important around open data and public sector information reuse. I’d like to think that in 8 years’ time what3words will be as important. Addressing is a topic that is being tackled by the UN in Africa, CRCSI in Australia, it’s a topic for debate around OpenStreetMap etc. To me this is more of a policy debate than a technological one. The same for sensors or drones or UAVs and other obvious trends around open data, open source and open standards. I see considerable support and investment coming through collective or community activities, such as CitiSense for the World Bank or UN-GGIM.

As I travelled the world with the OGC and OS, I often saw different flavours of the same problem: how to access, share and benefit from geospatial information resources (also how to fund them nationally). I also see many individuals and organisations jumping on the IoT, smart/future/connected cities, big data etc. bandwagon, and actually not enough attention being paid to data quality and access/sharing issues; all the technology in the world is not particularly helpful if the fundamentals are not there. Fitness for purpose is therefore one of my favourite terms.

Q: You were executive director of the Open Geospatial Consortium, a global body with many governmental organisations around the world developing open geospatial standards. But one of the biggest innovations in geo in the last decade has been the rise of crowdsourcing, most notably OpenStreetMap, which has no real defined standards, no one specifically “in charge”, and, by design, only a very rudimentary structure. Many attribute OSM’s success precisely to its simplicity. So which is it? Is the future top-down standards or bottom-up innovation?

A: The OGC, OSGeo, OSM and all the other open initiatives function based on communities and volunteer support, but communities need leaders. Not dictators or people with a personal, vested interest, but those with vision and tough skin. I watched Steve Coast from afar and thought he did a fabulous job, but he obviously decided to move on. It may need some more similar energy and enthusiasm to reinvigorate the community. The smart money is probably on Kate Chapman and the teams working on Humanitarian OpenStreetMap and Missing Maps. I’ve been fortunate that some of the leading open mapping and crowdsourcing people in the UK are friends, Muki Haklay, Peter Ter Haar and the #geohippy Steven Feldman, better to ask their views, they’re better qualified on this topic.

But to answer your question explicitly, I think it’s a balance of government policy driving procurement language for existing, proven geospatial standards and therefore vendor software compliance with those standards. Then bottom-up technological advances that move faster than government policy and where the crowd determines the usefulness and value of the solution.

Q: You recently left one of the oldest, most traditional geo brands in the world, the UK’s Ordnance Survey, to join the geo start-up what3words. Explain your reasons, beyond the obvious hipster points of being able to say you work at a start-up.

A: As mentioned earlier, I still support Ordnance Survey (in my spare time) through my consulting firm, advising them on geospatial standards and smart cities. When I met Chris Sheldrick, the cofounder and CEO of what3words, I completely understood  his passion for simply and precisely communicating location, and I was impressed that he came from running a music events company! Chris won’t mind me saying, but he wasn’t really aware of organisations such as Esri or Pitney Bowes, and he certainly hadn’t had much exposure to geocoding prior to setting up what3words. Kevin Pomfret introduced Denise Mckenzie to Chris, and Denise then introduced me. I’m sort of the geo industry veteran in the team, and so I have seen and done some of the things we want to try, and so hopefully I add value. After 20 years working in the location sector, I also have a fairly decent international network that we are connecting with daily.

It’s not really about making it trendy for me (any more). My mother was nominated as Scottish person of the year 2006 and she was awarded an MBE for her services to the community, so I’ve got major aspirations to try and do something similar to what my parents achieved in Scotland. Since geo is where it’s at, I’m hoping I can make a difference through what3words.

Q: One complaint leveled against What3Words is that it is not open. Is it possible to be hip and closed?

A: Twitter. Facebook. iTunes. At least one of these apps is used by us, our friends, or family daily. I think this shows that it is possible. However, for a number of people it is not necessarily a simple case of open or closed — what concerns them is how they will be charged in the future and to that end we come up with a model that doesn’t charge citizens or end users in the event of humanitarian assistance or international development activities.

Q: You’re a guest lecturer at Southampton University. What’s the advice you’d give to the geohipsters out there at the start of their geo careers. Should they be trying to land a job at a “big name”? Should they be joining (or founding) a geo-focused start-up?

A: Interestingly enough I was a guest lecturer at the Business School, not the Geography Department, presenting to MSc students on global entrepreneurship, strategy and innovation. I’ve obviously done both and I think it does pay to gain experience in different-sized organisations, different industry footprints, and different visions and missions. If you can put up with trying to navigate through large organisations and cope with the bureaucracy and communication challenges, you certainly learn a lot and have more resources available. But nothing beats doing it firsthand where you understand innately cash flow and customer service — the basis for any business.

Q: Any closing thoughts for all the geohipsters out there?

A: There are some fabulous people in the geospatial community, and that’s what makes doing our jobs fun. My global network is not all geohipsters, and that’s good because we need different kinds of people to challenge us to keep us awake and relevant. Also many of my network have become friends over the years and that means places to stay!  A large number of people have done the groundwork for future geohipsters, and so it’s a great time to build on all that work and take it to the next level.

Finally, a shameless plug. Think about the 135 countries out there that have poor or no addressing and how what3words could help support economic growth, international development, financial inclusion and other areas.

Disclosure: Ed Freyfogle is a co-founder of Lokku Ltd, which is a seed investor in What3Words.