Anonymaps is a shadowy provider of Twitter geo snark, lurking on the fringes of the under-the-counter geocoding industry. Since 2013, Anonymaps has tweeted 1,001 times, comprising 80% proprietary mapping fails, 19% three.word.barbs, and 1% obscure OpenStreetMap in-jokes. Anonymaps is somewhere between 20 and 60 years old and works in the illegal OSM import trade.
Q: It is said that positive thinking causes neuroses and makes people dependent. You are not in any danger, are you?
A: No-one quite knows how Anonymaps’ embittered, caustic personality developed. Some hint at unspeakable deeds in the early days of Cloudmade. Others say that a once-kind nature was (gdal)warped by discovering the One ST_NRings To (Python) Bind Them All. Still others tell tales of an idealistic developer blinded by exposure to the Manifold source code. Personally I think it’s PTSD from the OSM license change.
Q: Your Twitter bio says “crowdsourced sarcasm”. Do you have multiple personalities?
A: Yes. Totally. Anonymaps is essentially a loosely shared Twitter password. I’m not even sure who everyone is but I know people from at least four countries have posted.
At a conference some years ago, late one night in the bar, I got talking to a Well Known Geo Personality. He leaned over and confided: “Actually, don’t tell anyone, but I’m Anonymaps.” I sounded doubtful. “No, really, I am. Look.” And he posted a tweet. So that was me told.
Q: What is the purpose of your Twitter presence?
A: Historical accident. We were originally @FakeSteveC but the joke got old. Other than that, we’re mostly black ops funded by an unnamed geo corp with the aim of discrediting What3Words.
Q: Well, whatever your goals are, you’re more complicated and nuanced than some random troll. And you’re no sea lion either. If we call you the “Archie Bunker of GIS”, will you call us “Meathead”?
A: Delighted. Archie was a great geo thinker. He once said “East is East and West is West, but none of us is gonna meet Mark Twain”. I’m not sure what the EPSG code is for that particular projection but I swear I saw a shapefile in it once.
Q: You’re our second interview (after @shapefiIe) where, honestly, we have no idea who you actually are. But you sound like you might be on Shapefile’s side in the “best geo format” debate. Might you be kindred spirits?
A: Honestly, have you ever tried to use GeoJSON? #shp4lyfe
A: Full of admiration for Mapzen. How Randy manages to repeatedly hoodwink massivecompanies into spending millions on OpenStreetMap development is a source of wonder to me.
Mapzen was a curious experiment in developing superb software entirely devoid of any commercial imperative. All that code is now sitting there, ready to be exploited by avaricious sales guys who perhaps spend more time reading Clayton Christensen than T.S. Eliot.
I’m not at all surprised that Mapbox swooped on Valhalla – what surprises me is that no-one bought up the Tangram/Tilezen stack and team. If I were Amazon or Foursquare I would do that in a heartbeat. Right now Mapbox owns the mobile location market and no one much is challenging them.
A: Sometimes you get the hot takes by throwing a flamethrower through a window and seeing who comes running out shouting.
So how diverse are TomTom’s surveyors, or HERE’s? How diverse are their specs, their algos, their cartographic choices? My sense is not very, certainly less diverse than OSM. But they won’t tell us so no one bothers asking. OSM is open so you can ask the question, but the answer is sometimes used as a stick with which to beat OSM and its existing contributors. Better to use it as a carrot for improving OSM.
It’s self-evident that more, diverse contributors mean a bigger, fuller map. Preppy Silicon Valley kids training ML models to trace buildings, and bearded Europeans surveying biergartens do not a full-featured map make. OSM needs more mappers with young families, mappers who live in backwoods areas. It shouldn’t just be the best map of SF and Berlin.
Is that focusing on mapping or diversity? You tell me.
Q: Multiple choice question: The Humanitarian OpenStreetmap Team is: A. the best thing to happen to OSM or B. the worst thing to happen to OSM. Explain your answer.
A: A for comedy reasons. Where would Worst Of OSM be without HOT?
Certainly HOT has transformed expectations of OSM. Compare the map of Mozambique to that of, say, Michigan. You wouldn’t expect good maps in a land of cultural impoverishment, potholed roads, miles of slums and gang warfare, and sure enough, Detroit’s pretty bad in OSM. Maputo meanwhile is immaculately mapped. As you’d expect from the name.
The harder question is whether remote mapping is essentially imposing Western values on communities who, left to their own devices, might evolve their own, quite different map. Erica Hagen wrote thoughtfully a couple of years ago that “it’s actually pretty easy to bypass the poor, the offline, the unmapped… in spite of attempts to include local mappers, needs are often focused on the external (usually large multilateral) agency.” Gwilym Eades was ruder: “remarkably self-centred, expert-driven, and dominated by non-local actors.” That’s going too far but the next challenge for HOT is to enable the local mapping that marks out OSM at its best, rather than just serving as unpaid Mechanical Turks.
Q: Do you consider yourself a geohipster? Why/why not?
A: We try and cultivate a detached, post-ironic air of mystery while leading life on the technological cutting edge (PostGIS nightly builds and Mapnik trunk, which leaves about one hour a day of free CPU time). But actually we live for that sweet retweet juice. Maybe it would be truer to call us a geohuckster.
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our global readership?
Howard Butler attended Iowa State University and departed with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees after studying parts of Agronomy, Agricultural Technology, and Agricultural Engineering. He learned GIS software development during his thesis effort, where he needed to make ArcView 3.x do a complicated and completely unrealistic analysis. After failing to find a precision agriculture job because a GPS for a tractor cost $2,000 at the time, the Iowa State Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology took a chance on him to develop some GIS data collection and management software for the National Resources Inventory. Fifteen years later he’s helping to write open source software that's powering data management systems for autonomous vehicles.Howard lives in Iowa City, Iowa with his wife Rhonda, his two boys Tommy and Jack, two dumb cats, and a squirrel or raccoon or something that takes residence in his attic every winter despite efforts otherwise. He has a neglected blog at https://howardbutler.com/, and he tweets less and less at https://twitter.com/howardbutler.
Q: Howard – where are you located and what do you do?
A: My three-person company called Hobu, Inc. is located in Iowa City, Iowa, and we write, manage, and enhance open source point cloud software and help our clients use that software to solve their challenging problems. We initially focused on LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging — think radar with lasers) with a project called libLAS, evolved that into PDAL (GDAL for point clouds), and then continued with streaming technology in the form of Greyhound and Entwine.
I started contributing to open source with MapServer and GDAL back in 2002 when I discovered it was the only software capable of building the systems my job demanded at the time. I came to enjoy the camaraderie and common purpose those good projects exuded, and I learned over the years how to contribute in a way that matched my skills. Among other things, that evolved into writing a number of geospatial Python bits (you can thank/hate me for plenty of ogr.py and gdal.py) and helping to author a bit of the GeoJSON specification (you can thank/hate me for coordinate systems there).
In 2007, I struck out on my own and promptly learned that I didn’t know how to run a business. My banker still doesn’t really understand how or why we give away our software, but people get it when I say our product is consulting with a software toolkit we incidentally give away. Over the years we’ve built up a stable client base that values what we do and how we do it, and I think that the software we’ve written will outlast my company or my career because it represents solutions to problems people hate to solve again and again.
Q: So how did you end up working with LiDAR? I’ve had the chance to use PDAL and see some of your presentations at FOSS4G and FOSS4GNA.
A: The Iowa Department of Natural Resources led Iowa to be one of the first states to do a statewide LiDAR collection, and they had a grad student semester of funding they wanted to use to be able to use Python for ASPRS LAS data management, verification, and inspection. There was no open source requirement, but since it was what I was doing otherwise, it seemed natural to build a library that anyone could use. Mateusz Loskot and I started working on what became libLAS to achieve it, and once it was clear it was viable, I was able to attract more funding to enhance and improve it.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found libLAS and wanted to do a lot more with it — supporting a bunch more formats, getting it speaking to databases, and enhancing it to do a bunch more algorithmically. We learned stacking all those desires on a library based on the LAS format wasn’t a great fit. We started PDAL (Point Data Abstraction Library — pronounce it the same way you do GDAL 🙂) after some fits and starts and it has matured into a general-purpose library for building geospatial point cloud applications.
PDAL takes GDAL’s VRT pipeline approach and puts it into the context of geospatial point clouds, but with JSON instead of XML. It works on Windows, OSX, and Linux, and it has a command line application like GDAL to drive processing. Its workflow is optimized to template data operations and batch them up over a pile of data with whatever batching/queuing/cloud tools you have. That might be GNU parallel if you want to melt your laptop locally or something like AWS SQS in a cloud situation.
Q: I saw your presentation on Gerald Evenden at FOSS4G in Boston. Did he know that the PROJ library…or software…was going to go as far as it did? Actually – what does PROJ do?
A: PROJ or PROJ.4 is a cartographic reprojection library that was written by Gerry Evenden at USGS in the 1980s and 90s. It contains the math to reproject coordinates from UTM to Plate Carrée, for example. Gerry originally intended for PROJ to be a cartographic projection library (pure math only!), but in the 90s, Frank Warmerdam came along and started adding convenience for geodetic transformation (datum shifting). This caused some creative differences, but that geodetic convenience enabled PROJ to be bootstrapped or ported into almost every open source geospatial software package in some form or another.
While attempting to dig up some old documentation, I discovered Gerry died in 2016. This saddened me because I’ve felt that Gerry didn’t get his due for the impact that PROJ has on the entire geospatial software ecosystem. It is truly everywhere — open source, commercial, and government software all depend upon PROJ. I submitted my FOSS4G 2017 talk in an attempt to tell his story and shine the spotlight on him even though he probably would have detested it.
I’m a fan of 60s and 70s rock n roll, and now that those guys are starting to die off, people are rediscovering a lot of back catalog. Plenty of it is still crap, but songs that shined then often sparkle today. Those songs were written for the audience of that time, but a good one can transport you there even if you weren’t a part of it. Like a good song, open source software has the chance to be immortal. It is optimized for solving today’s problem in today’s context, but a few programs and libraries end up lasting multiple generations. Unlike a hit song, open source software isn’t a static fount of royalties. It is a liability that must be maintained or it will crumble back into the ground. People need to cover it, make it their own, and feed it attention as Paul Ramsey wonderfully described in his FOSS4G 2017 keynote.
For PROJ, two longtime contributors have been covering the song and keeping the music alive. Thomas Knudsen and Kristian Evers from the Danish Agency for Data Supply and Efficiency (kind of like Denmark USGS) refactored PROJ to be a full service geodetics library and they have modernized its API in the process. Kristian has led this PROJ 5.0.0 release process, and everyone’s software is now going to be able to get a lot smarter about geodetic transformations. While the old APIs are still available so as to not break existing software, their improvements will make PROJ last for another couple of generations.
Q: Thoughts on Mapzen shutting down?
A: Anxious and hopeful. As someone with an organization and employees, the thought of having to tell them they’re now on their own is a front-of-mind fear. Organizations fail for many reasons despite the effort of the people pouring their sweat into them. To work so hard and have it be called a failure doesn’t seem fair, but I’m thankful for Mapzen’s postmortems, which have given everyone the chance to learn.
I’m hopeful due to the fact that I think Mapzen’s employment model demonstrated a successful one for the employees. Many Mapzen’ers worked out in the open on public projects, and in the process made themselves and the teams they belonged to more valuable for it. Developing open source software in public, as opposed to never going out beyond your own wall, is something that makes you a better software developer. You have to listen to rightful criticism about your software, and you have to temper your emotional response to people rationally not liking the precious thing you just made (ok, not always). To solve hard problems in public leaves you exposed, but in exchange for that vulnerability, you generate a professional currency that follows you the rest of your career.
You write a great program, regardless of language, by redoing it over & over & over & over, until your fingers bleed and your soul is drained. But if you tell newbies that, they might decide to go off and do something sensible, like bomb defusing<wink>.
The only thing you can do is make your software suck slightly less every day you touch it. My formative experience in geospatial open source was watching folks like Frank Warmerdam, Steve Lime, Martin Davis, and Markus Neteler do exactly that. They controlled the complexity in front of them, resisted the urge to overdesign a solution, and they treated everyone with respect even when they didn’t deserve it. I’ve tried to follow their approach with my projects, although I’d consider myself a worse developer than each of them by most measurements.
Q: You were there at the beginning for OSGeo back in 2006(?) I think. How has it changed or remained the same? How did you get pulled into the organization?
A: OSGeo’s reason to exist in 2006 was different than it is in 2018. In 2006, it was supposed to be a group of geospatial software projects with a common thread about open source. In 2018, it is a group of people with a shared interest in open source geospatial software. The former was frustrating for different reasons than the latter, but it has been an organization that achieved substantial things despite the messy way in which it is able to go about it. Many of its challenges relate to the fact that it is a volunteer organization throughout, and personalities with drive and determination can have short-run impact, but long-run sustainment is very difficult. Recently, it has slowed its precession about the axis of outreach, education, and conferences, which are topics that fit the current makeup of the organization very well.
I’ve had many roles in the organization over the years, including helping to set up some of the first project infrastructure and acting as a board member. In 2006, software project infrastructure was a real cost, but in 2018, access to repositories, mailing lists, continuous integration, and bug reporting can all be had in exchange for some spam tolerance. Recently my contributions have been presenting at conferences and being a strong supporter of the mid-winter OSGeo Code Sprint that has oscillated back and forth between the EU and North America. Sprints are a primary opportunity for developer camaraderie and collaboration, and they provide the high-bandwidth communication forum for projects to grow and enhance each other.
Q: I’m not a developer by any stretch – but I like going to talks by developers on their software. You’ve built PDAL to manipulate LIDAR Data – what’s the weirdest use case you’ve seen for PDAL so far?
A: Nothing too weird, but it is an everyday occurrence for users to use the tools in ways we didn’t foresee or intend. Every permutation of data size, composition, and fault gets hit eventually. For every success story using PDAL in a way we never thought of, there’s a corresponding failure story due to assumptions that don’t line up. Many times a great bug report is simply a challenge of those assumptions.
Q: What’s the Best Thing about Iowa? What’s the Worst Thing? I drove through it once and didn’t stop but long enough to eat a sandwich.
A: The Public Land Survey System in Iowa means I’m never lost. You probably weren’t ever concerned on your drive either. Also, the proximity to so much animal agriculture means that meat-as-a-condiment to more meat isn’t just a specialty no-carb lifestyle choice here. You would think with 90+ percent of the land in the state used for agriculture there would be more vegetables around.
It’s not the worst, but opportunities for Big Culture stuff like museums, art, and music shows are somewhat limited here, especially once you get out of the larger towns. Lack of diversity is a challenge too, although you find it in places in Iowa you wouldn’t expect. These are the same challenges for all rural states with aging, out-migrating populations.
Q: Can you tell us something people might not know about you?
A: I grew up on a corn and soy farm in Southern Minnesota, and I was convinced that maps and computers were interesting after some quality time on the Dinty Moore Beef Stew assembly line. I have a pilot’s license I haven’t used in more than a decade, and my car was once struck by lightning while driving down the freeway at 70 mph (I shouldn’t have bought it back from the insurance company). A long time ago, I won an Esri Conference award using AVPython and ArcView 3.x, and I could still sling VTables and FTables around in Avenue if I was cornered.
Q: Almost 4 years ago we defined the geohipster to be a person who lives on the outskirts of mainstream GIS. Would you describe yourself as a geohipster?
A: I guess. GIS™ as a name is an outdated view of how the intersection of geography, computers, and databases is to be constructed. Each of its areas has been dumped over at least a couple times since GIS™ as a fashionable term came to describe our industry. Many still GIS™ on desktop software with a 2D map frame and 🔍 zoom and ✋pan icons like twenty years ago, but geo+computers+databases is now oriented toward phones, sensors, and deriving locality from incidental data with cloud computing and pervasive networking. To call what’s going on with all of that GIS™ seems rather trite.
Q: I leave the last question to you – anything you want to tell the readers of GeoHipster?
A: Please make sure to buy a GeoHipster calendar or a t-shirt or something. We’re all just learning here, and sites like this one make the job much easier and need our support.
I grew up in Inverness in the Scottish Highlands and then went on to study geography in Glasgow at the University of Strathclyde, more of the same, with a good bit of GIS at The Ohio State University (Columbus, OH) and the University of Liverpool, where I did my PhD in urban and regional planning. I then worked at the University of Manchester before moving to the University of Sheffield in 2008, where I have been for the past decade. I've always been interested in maps and places, so I suppose it's only natural that I ended up being a professor of urban studies and planning and doing a maps and stats type blog. I live in the Hillsborough area of Sheffield with my wife Bethan and my two boys, Finlay (11) and Isaac (4). I've realised that an important part of being a modern parent is providing instant, on-the-spot IT support and ensuring maximum wifi speeds at all times! This is often much harder than my day job.Blog: www.statsmapsnpix.com and @undertheraedar on Twitter.
Q: Alasdair, you are a professor at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning of the University of Sheffield in the UK. What is that you do there?
A: Yes, that’s right – I am indeed. For the next three years I have a research fellowship, which means I’m not officially teaching – though I always keep my hand in by doing guest lectures for people here and elsewhere.
Most of the time I’m doing research, travelling and a good bit of admin and management. The last two in particular are even less exciting than they sound. But I really can’t complain because the upside is that I generally get to follow my interests and do cool stuff.
For example, for the best part of this year one of the projects I’m running is looking at a spatial database of a million or so neighbourhood reports on things like graffitti, road defects and so on, and analysing it in relation to lots of other interesting datasets, like income, deprivation, health and so on. I’m also doing some work on trying to understand the impacts of Airbnb in Edinburgh, doing a project on housing market search behaviours and trying to understand travel to work patterns – and disconnections – in poor neighbourhoods across Great Britain.
I also try to write a lot, across many different platforms. I have a few academic journals articles on the go (moreUS Megaregions!), three book projects, plus writing for a variety of other outlets like The Conversation. And of course I like to blog and keep in touch with people on Twitter.
Q: Your Twitter bio mentions “stats, maps, cities, housing, transport”. Do you combine these themes into an overarching research topic or do you like to look at each of them separately?
A: Some of the stuff I do in my day-to-day job doesn’t make it in to the public domain – perhaps because it’s not ready yet, or because the data aren’t open, but lots of it does and what I think unites my work is a mission to create a bridge between data and knowledge. Data alone isn’t very useful so I try to help shed light on it in a way that helps bring it to life.
Because I’m interested in places, this means my work often focuses on cities, which are full of housing, which are all connected by transport. If I can take available data, do something to it, and then present it in a way which helps people understand things – or just take an interest in them – then I think that is worthwhile.
Q: How do GIS and maps fit into this mix?
A: GIS and maps are great tools. I also like the technical side of things, playing around with data and trying to make it do cool things, and I like communicating with the written word but sometimes you just can’t beat a good map. I think the best maps are simple ones and I’m learning all the time about how to make maps so I suppose my blog and Twitter feed are a reflection of this.
Q: I think you coined the term #geogiffery? Can you shed some light and also explain the concept around it to us?
A: I like making gifs, and sometimes it’s for a good reason – like when I’m looking at election results data – we’ve had a lot of these in the UK recently. Other times, I’m just experimenting, like in this blog post about the famous ‘coastline paradox’. Since it’s a gif and it’s also geo, I started to call them ‘geogifs’ – perhaps others already did but either way it became a bit of an obsession so I just called it ‘geogiffery’ and now Topi Tjukanov has taken it into new dimensions with his shipping geogifs and so much more! I do think geogifs have a role to play in dataviz and storytelling more widely. It’s a great format.
A geogif of US states’ population numbers by Alasdair
Q: I enjoy following your work, because you have interesting ideas and follow through on them in, I think, often particularly original ways. Where do you draw inspiration from?
A: I’m just interested in the world and how it works, or doesn’t work. But there is so much data out there today, and we are overwhelmed with information, so it’s hard to make sense of it all. I don’t think data and maps have all the answers of course, but they’re often a good starting point. So some of what I do is my attempt to understand the world better, and some of it is just me experimenting with ways to do this. For inspiration, it’s a mix of old stuff and newer stuff. For example, the graphics and dataviz teams at the New York Times, Washington Post and the Financial Times all produce great work and are a fantastic example of what can be done with new data and methods. But equally people like Waldo Tobler and Jean Gottmann are a good reminder that not much today is really new – it’s mostly just easier to produce.
One great source of older material that I like to look at is the National Library of Scotland map collection. It’s amazing stuff, and not just about Scotland, though a lot of it is. It shows you what is possible when you don’t think like a modern-day GIS or programming language and aren’t bound by its rules and parameters. One of my favourite collections here is the Bathymetrical Survey of the Fresh-Water Lochs of Scotland, 1897-1909, which in addition to being beautiful is also very informative. You can impress your friends, for example with the knowledge that Loch Ness has a mean depth of 132 metres, or 433 feet. Though only if you have the wrong kind of friends. And I can personally testify, from real world experience, that the water these maps depict is very cold indeed!
Truly great work takes a lot of time and experience, and a lot of what I put on my blog is more like cuttings from the workshop floor, as it were, but I think that kind of knowledge sharing is always useful because a) it’s a good way to share ideas, and b) you never know what other people might find interesting and useful. A good example is my recent attempt to map, in a simple way, population density across Europe using a 1km grid dataset. I just ran off a set of simple maps showing the most densely populated grids square in each country and it’s been my most popular blog post to date, with tens of thousands of views.
The most densely populated 1km grid square in Spain, and Europe, according to Alasdair’s analysis
Q: Amazing! It goes to show, while your Twitter handle is @undertheraedar, your work is hardly under the radar: You tweet regularly, publish on your blog Stats, Maps n Pix and occasionally you and your work appear in traditionalmedia as well. What motivates you to be so active?
A: About 10 years ago I decided to give my blog a silly name (Under the Raedar, hence my Twitter handle) and started it because I wanted a place to put my work that would either just sit in my hard drive or be hidden from the world in an academic journal. I also thought it would be good to share ideas and maps and stuff. I’ve continued blogging for the last decade and my Stats, Maps n Pix blog is the latest iteration of that. I try to publish things I think are interesting, and a lot of it relates to work I do in my day job but mostly it’s a kind of hobby I suppose.
The reason I end up doing media stuff is that people have seen my blog and Twitter and over the years because of this I’ve got to know some well connected media people. I’m often asked to write stuff, or occasionally appear in TV things, and I generally think to myself ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’.
Why do all this stuff? The answer is that I’m interested in people and places and knowing more about the world. Maps and stats are one way of doing this.
A: The Regional Studies Association is an international learned society, based in the UK, that I’ve been involved with for years. About 5 years ago I was involved in setting up a new Open Access academic journal – and this is how RSRS came into being. Myself and Prof Alex Singleton of the University of Liverpool were the founding editors and we took the project on because we believe in open publishing, open data, and open science.
We publish papers from academics at all career stages, provide mentoring for early career scholars, and publish papers quickly. To date, our papers have had over 200,000 downloads, which might not sound like a lot but for an academic journal that is no mean feat – though our authors and publisher (Taylor and Francis) can take the credit for this.
Q: In your Twitter bio you further mention “QGIS stuff”: Is QGIS your main tool for doing spatial analyses and producing visualizations? What other software do you use, more or less regularly?
A: Yes, I occasionally blog about QGIS stuff, true. I love QGIS, what it does, and what it stands for and I’ve been able to donate to the project as well, because I believe this is important with open source software projects – particularly ones that people really benefit from.
But in general I’m a pragmatist and use whatever I need to get the job done. If that means spatial stats in GeoDa I’ll use it, or it could be Excel, or perhaps I need to run a big geoprocessing job so I’ll turn to ArcGIS. Maybe I need to do some visual stuff so I’ll turn to GIMP. One tool I’ve used a LOT over the past decade and more is IrfanView – for batch image processing, renaming, resizing and lots more.
For a project I completed recently, I used QGIS, GIMP, Excel, and IrfanView. This is fairly typical. One really useful tool I used for editing massive text files is EmEditor because it can handle files up to 248GB and is super quick and I need this when working with datasets that have many millions of rows. Finally, I must confess that I still love the geoprocessing tools in the ET GeoWizards plugin for ArcGIS.
But most of my GIS stuff these days I do in QGIS and I’m really looking forward to getting to grips with QGIS 3.0 when it comes out.
Q: Ha! ET GeoWizards is a true classic, it has also saved me occasionally! I don’t think there are too many GIS specialists whose software stack encompasses both ET and QGIS. Speaking of (old and new) workhorses: Shapefile or Geopackage, do you have a preference or are you impartial in this arena, too?
A: My heart says Shapefile but my head says Geopackage. I think it’s okay to have a bit of both. I see no need for conflict between heads and hearts. Shapefile has better Twitter game though.
Q: Finally, can you tell us something people might not know about you?
A: I used to be a basketball player and played for the Scotland men’s team back in the early 2000s before I went to the US to do a Masters degree at Ohio State. Before that, I competed in the world 3v3 junior basketball championships in Frankfurt in about 1994 and was even in the dunk contest. I’m not sure if I can dunk a basketball anymore but I can still shoot almost 90% from the free throw line, based on ‘data’ collected during visit to my old home court in the Highlands last summer (i.e. taking 100 free throws). These days, I’ve discovered that indoor rowing suits me best and in the last year I’ve racked up about 1.4 million metres. I think I enjoy the monotony of it. Coincidentally, my only actual experience of rowing on the water is on the very same Scottish lochs I mentioned above.
Q: Wow! I like your empirical/statistical approach to re-discovering basketball. Too bad your impressive rowing activity doesn’t (yet?) yield GPS data that you could map. It was nice to learn more about you, Alasdair!
Nyall has been a core developer with the QGIS project since 2013. During this time he has contributed over 5,000 commits to the project, and today is one of the most active developers on the project. Nyall’s contributions to QGIS cover a wide range of areas – from improvements to the map rendering and symbology engines, enhancements to labeling and print layout functionality, right through to optimisations of the underlying spatial processing algorithms utilised by QGIS.
Nyall is the proprietor and lead developer at North Road Consulting, an Australian spatial development consultancy which predominantly utilises international co-funding and crowd-funding campaigns to finance development into open source GIS applications.You can follow Nyall’s work at https://github.com/nyalldawson and https://twitter.com/nyalldawson
Nyall was interviewed for GeoHipster by Kurt Menke.
Q: Nyall Dawson, where are you located and what do you do?
A: I’m a geospatial developer, analyst, and (I’d like to think) a cartographer, and the director of North Road. I’m heavily involved in the QGIS project and am one of its current core developers, however, in practice my time is generally split about 60/40 between making software and making actual maps (i.e. being a GIS “user”). I also teach crime mapping and spatial analysis at Charles Sturt University. Geographically, I’m based on the Sunshine Coast in Eastern Australia (and yes, the name does describe it perfectly!). It’s as close as Australia gets to perfection – people only leave here if work forces them to.
Q: You seem to be equally talented in programming and graphic design. What’s your background?
A: I’ve bounced between these two disciplines since high school, and it turns out that spatial analysis is a great mix of the two. While I originally studied mathematics at university, my first job after graduating was as a designer in the marketing department for an IT wholesaler. I was a horrible fit. This pushed me back towards the IT side of things, and I spent a number of years working on corporate networks. I stuck it out long enough to realise that while I enjoy working with software, I wanted to use it to actually make something (instead of just making it work for someone else).
At the time my wife Maryanne and I decided that we needed a change, so we sold up everything we had, quit our jobs and spent 12 months backpacking around Latin America and Europe. I started collecting maps of places we’d visited, obsessively geotagging every photo we took, and filling in gaps in OpenStreetMap so that I could accurately track where we’d been. It was while hanging out in a bar in Argentina called “The Map Room” that Maryanne suggested I should look into studying maps when we got back to Australia. It’s a perfect profession for me – map making strikes a great balance between that desire to create something useful and pretty, while still being driven by mathematical algorithms and code.
Q: Maryanne is wise! Connect the dots for us. After returning from that year long adventure how did you learn about GIS and cartography, and when did you discover open source GIS and QGIS specifically?
A: So, back in Australia, I enrolled in a masters in “Geomatics”, which was a bit of a mix between every spatial discipline. A couple of early pracs involving surveying sites using steel tapes(!) quickly lead to me dropping every subject that wasn’t pure GIS or cartography. Towards the end of my masters I started working for Victoria Police, as a spatial analyst in their intelligence division. I loved the work – it involved a great variety of tricky spatial and statistical problems with the occasional need to make a pretty map. This is how I got started with QGIS — the commercial GIS package they used just had no capacity for making pretty maps, no matter what tricks you tried. I got sick of creating maps that I was embarrassed to show off so went hunting for alternatives which we could use (in other words… free alternatives. They had no software budget at all). This hunt lead to QGIS, and it wasn’t long before I was totally converted.
I’ve always been a bit of an open-source zealot anyway, so QGIS was a natural fit for me. To me open source just makes sense. I hate the feeling of being at the mercy of some distant software vendor to fix bugs and improve my daily workflow, so I’d much rather just have the ability to dig in and fix things myself. It’s a great model all round – even end users with no coding knowledge can still directly influence an open source project through sponsored features or fixes, and in the end everyone benefits from this.
Q: When I first met you, you were working for the Victoria Police. Why did you decide to launch North Road?
A: Well, as I started using QGIS at Victoria Police more and more, I started hacking away in my spare time to add improvements and fix any little bugs I’d hit during my day job. Doing this for an open-source project was one of the best learning experiences I’ve had. There’s always motivation to improve your work and make sure it’s in top form before opening up a pull request and knowing that it’s going to be visible to everyone and reviewed in public! Plus, you can always watch the changes which are flowing in from other developers and learning from their experience too. Luckily I had some great mentors early on (including fellow Australian geohipster Nathan Woodrow!) who always made themselves available for my constant questions and to refine my rough ideas. Over time the contributions I made became more ambitious as my confidence (and skills) grew, and I started getting queries from users who’d benefited from these contributions. I remember receiving my first email from a user asking “I saw you made this change recently to QGIS, how much would it cost to extend it a bit further and make it cover my requirements too?” – I had no idea what people would usually charge for work on open source, or indeed whether it was even considered “bad form” to charge for working on an open source project (Hint for all open source contributors: it’s not! Your time is valuable and you have no obligation to work for anyone for free!).
Things grew from there until I hit a critical point (when we had our second child), where I had to either make a decision to make this a full-time thing and quit the police work, or scale back the after hours work. I opted for the self-employment option since it meant I could wear teeshirts instead of a suit, listen to any music I wanted to all day, and stay up all night wondering if I’d made a terrible decision and would be broke and homeless in a month. And so North Road was launched.
Q: Walk us through a typical day being a QGIS developer and committer?
A: Well, right now we’re leading up to the launch of the next major version, QGIS 3.0. It’s going to be huge – there’s tons of new features and optimisations, and we’ve totally ripped out and rebuilt some of the older code areas and replaced them with brand new backends (composer, server, and processing). It also brings the change to Python 3 and Qt 5. So currently most of my daily development time is focused on getting 3.0 into top shape and squashing regressions before the final release. It’s a little stressful! Fortunately, the QGIS project enjoys the backing of numerous generous sponsors, which allows the QGIS organisation to directly employ developers to work on the trickier bugs in the lead up to a release. This allows me (among others) to focus our time on these fixes, and as a direct result the final release will be much more stable. (Hint for QGIS users – if you’ve ever wanted to see stabler releases, this is one way you can directly influence the quality of the final release… those sponsorship dollars and donations have a direct effect on the stability of QGIS!).
Following the release I’ll switch back to focusing on feature development – which means my days are filled with fundraising, writing proposals, and, when I’m lucky, coding new features.
Q: What are your favorite new features of QGIS 3?
A: That’s a huge question! The thing to keep in mind here is that QGIS 3.0 has been actively developed in parallel to the stable QGIS 2 releases for the last 2 years. So while the changelogs for the lastcouple of releases were substantial on their own, those were just for releases with the normal 4 month release cycle. You can start to extrapolate here and get an idea how long the changelog for 3.0 will be! I don’t think there’s any part of the code or interface which hasn’t been refined and improved in some way.
But in short, the features which make it difficult for me to go back to QGIS 2.18 are:
The improved label tools which allow you to just pick up and modify any label in your project, without needing to alter your layers in any way.
The reworked processing analysis framework and all the new and improved algorithms available in 3.0
and surprisingly, all the refinements to Geopackage handling which make them easy and convenient to work with. It’s actually enough to convert me from team shapefile!
Q: What is a QGIS feature you’d love to have time to work on but haven’t gotten to yet? What’s your wishlist?
A: Great question! My wishlist is HUGE, and grows every time I make a map. There’s two items which I’d say are top of my personal cartographic hit list right now:
Adding “distribute spacing” tools to the print layout designer. 3.0 adds a bunch of new “distribute item” actions which allow items themselves to be evenly spaced within a layout, but I want to be able to distribute the gaps between items instead. It’s a common functionality in desktop publishing and illustration applications which hasn’t yet found its way to QGIS.
Adding more automatic label placement options and refining the logic we already have. It’s good, but there’s always more we could do and finding ways to improve the automated placement benefits everyone – even if all you use QGIS for is visualising a bunch of shapefiles.
Fortunately, the QGIS user community has adopted a great attitude toward crowd-funding of features, and there’s been many funding campaigns which have allowed tweaks like these to happen in the past. I’ve already got a few campaigns lined up and ready to go for similar improvements following the release of 3.0!
Q: You mentioned that your time is generally split about 60/40 between making software and making actual maps. What types of projects do you work on when you’re not developing?
A: It’s a mix – these days it’s a whole range of analytical maps showing various statistical outputs right through to “simple” maps of various reference layers for government reports. Fortunately at the moment I’ve got a number of clients for whom high-quality visualisations are essential, so I get to spend time polishing maps and making outputs which I’m proud of. Surprisingly, they’re also almost exclusively print and static maps too. (On a slightly different topic, I personally suspect we’re going to see a swing back toward valuing static, non-interactive maps and data visualisations sometime. Everybody’s just so busy that maps and visualisations which can effectively and instantly communicate their message to a reader, without any data exploration, are likely to see a resurgence for projects where interactivity isn’t a key requirement!).
Q: I know you are a tabletop gamer. What are your favorite games these days? What else do you do for fun?
A: I’m all for co-operative, story-based games at the moment. The Arkham Horror Living Card Game is getting a lot of play (and accordingly, inspired the “Exploring the Depths of Madness Through QGIS symbology” talk I gave at the recent QGIS Australia meetup). TIME Stories and the Pandemic Legacy series are recent favorites too!
Incidentally, I love seeing board games with great cartography. There’s been quite a few games which have inspired me to try different mapping techniques. One personal favorite is the map for the GMT “Liberty or Death” game… that’s a beautiful map, which perfectly balances cartographic attention to detail with usability as a game set piece. It’s gorgeous (and incidentally, inspired a few QGIS symbology tweaks!), and I love that I can learn better map making just from gaming.
Apart from gaming, something I’ve recently rediscovered is how relaxing it is to just put on headphones and listen to an album without doing ANYTHING else. No dual-screening, no checking emails, no fixing QGIS bugs — just tuning out and listening!
Q: Do you consider yourself a geohipster? Why or why not?
A: Well, for a long time I was a holdout flag-carrying member of team shapefile, yet I’ve recently been won over by GeoPackage. I’m not sure if that makes me a geohipster or the opposite! (Shapefiles are retro-cool now, aren’t they?)
I *did* just move out to the country and to a place with our own vegetables and chickens, a farmer’s market next door, and an old avocado farm I can raid if I jump the back fence. I guess that makes me either a hipster or a hippy.
Q: Any words of wisdom or final thoughts you’d like to share with the GeoHipster community?
A: If I’m speaking philosophically, I think it’s crucial these days to have something “unique” you can bring to the profession. I don’t believe it’s enough to just be a “GIS specialist who knows XXX desktop GIS platform”. You’ve got to have something extra which differentiates you and helps you stand out from all the other GIS professionals. For example, you want to be “the GIS specialist who is a statistical wiz” or “the GIS specialist who can code and automate all those boring processes” or “the GIS specialist who can craft effective story-telling maps and visualisations”.
But if I’m speaking as a QGIS developer I’d say: mark down February 23rd in your diary, download QGIS 3.0 and enjoy. It’s the magic unicorn fairy land of open source GIS™!