Paul Ramsey is a Solutions Engineer at CartoDB. He has been working with geospatial software for over 15 years: consulting to government and industry, building a geospatial software company, and programming on open source. He co-founded the PostGIS spatial database project in 2001, and is currently an active developer and member of the project steering committee. In 2008, Paul received the Sol Katz Award for achievement in open source geospatial software. Paul speaks and teaches regularly at conferences around the world.
I’m writing this article for GeoHipster almost simultaneously with the Esri User Conference (UC) plenary session, which feels appropriate. If being a “hipster” means being in some way unconventional, then I’m missing out on the peak event of the “conventional” GIS community, and what could be more “GeoHipster” than that?
It’s been a long time since I attended the UC, probably 10 years or so, and the dominant feeling I remember coming away from the last event was one of absolute dejection and depression.
I was at the time, as I am now, a proponent of doing things “differently”, of exploring other options than the dominant enterprise mainstream, and it’s very hard to sit in a room full of over 10 thousand people applauding the dominant enterprise mainstream and still think your ideas have much merit. And as much as I enjoy GeoHipsterism and all its proponents, one of the dangers of our little echo-chamber is that we forgot just how fundamentally irrelevant our ideas are to the actual practice of professional GIS in the world.
The source of my dejection while sitting in the UC plenary had a lot to do with the futility of my position: here were 10K folks who would never care a whit about what I was working in. Here also was a company with so many resources that they could afford to waste the efforts of huge development teams on products and ideas that would never pan out.
That particular plenary, back in 2005, included lots of 3D technology that has never seen the light of day since, and felt like a festival of technological spaghetti throwing. There was not a wall left unfestooned with spaghetti. And it wasn’t random either. They were comprehensively going down every possible track of future technology, even though 75% of them were going to end up dead-ends, just to avoid missing out on the one track that turned out to be relevant for the future.
And this brought yet more dejection. Even, if by some amazing chance, I did hit on an idea or technology that was important enough to gain a market presence or interest, Esri would turn their vast development resources upon the problem and render it an also-ran in short order.
Why even bother?
It took me about a month to recover.
Since what I was working on then and what I’m working on now is open source, my ability to keep on working and growing it are never at issue. Open source can’t be driven out of business. What is at issue is relevance: whether the work is helpful and worthwhile and useful to people to make the world a better place. Even with 99% of the professional geospatial world locked up and working in the Esri ecosystem, the remaining 1% (pick whatever numbers you like) is still a lot of folks, and a lot of those folks can do things with open source that they could never do with Esri.
So I saw the NGOs and First Nations and academics and innovative governments still doing cool things with open source, and I got happy again and kept soldiering on.
Fast forward ten years.
Heading into this years UC, there was a brief twitter-storm around Esri’s use of vector tiles, which is worth following through several of the conversation chains if you have the time.
very exciting to be working on the open source project @esri is quietly rebranding as their product
In an earlier era, it would not have been hyperbole to state that having Esri use your code/steal your idea guaranteed its relevance in ways that having them ignore it never would. Andrew Turner once told me that one of the big plusses of being acquired by (big, bad) Esri was that his ideas had a much better impact than they did when he was working in his (teeny, tiny) start-up.
But this is a new era, and the people Esri will be serving with their adoption of Tom’s vector tile technology are almost completely separate from the people Tom’s company (Mapbox) will be serving with that technology. There truly is a win-win here. There’s also lots of relevance to be had beyond the now tiny world of “professional” GIS.
And this is where the “GeoHipster” thing gets a little weird. If being a “hipster” means standing outside the mainstream, what becomes of your status when the former mainstream itself becomes marginalized? When I read the list of interviewees and their interviews, it’s clear that mostly we “geohipsters” share a history within the old mainstream and that we have to varying degrees decided to look beyond that mainstream.
But with the growth of the industry “geohipsters” are becoming a minority within a minority. The new kids can’t identify, because they’ve never had to break out of the old paradigm. Tom MacWright, whom I quoted above, and who has already built so much amazing open source geospatial software in his career, has no experience with Esri tools. Outside the solutions engineers, none of my colleagues at CartoDB have any Esri experience either.
To call Esri the dominant company in our field these days is to radically misread what our field actually is, and who is leading it. What technology has changed our field in the last ten years?
Globe visualization and ubiquitous access to imagery (Google/Keyhole)
Mass access to mobile location (Apple/Samsung)
Mobile maps and vector mapping (Google/Apple)
Oblique imagery and model extractions (Microsoft)
Esri isn’t calling the tune, and neither is open source — we’re all just fast followers now.
So I can take some comfort that — some 10 years after I sat in the Esri UC plenary and wondered why I bother to get up in the morning — some poor Esri exec is going to have to sit in the Google I/O plenary and have the same experience. The jungle is very very large, and there’s always a bigger gorilla.
Ann Johnson is a technology industry veteran with close to 30 years of progressively responsible experience in all sectors of the industry. With a long career spanning many companies including Data General, EMC and RSA Security, Ms. Johnson has always enjoyed applying technology to solve real customer business problems and driving value to organizations. Ms. Johnson is a subject matter expert in network architecture, mobile security, fraud reduction, transaction fraud reduction, and online banking security, as well as maintaining competence in storage and systems infrastructure. She enjoys the process of building highly successful, highly performing organizations. Outside of work, Ms. Johnson is a strong advocate for animal welfare organizations, and is an avid historian. She is a graduate of Weber State University completing a dual major in Political Science and Communication with a minor in History.
Q: Thank you for taking the time to interview for GeoHipster. While most of our US readers are surely familiar with Boundless, many in our international audience (~50% of our readership) are probably not. For their benefit, please explain what Boundless is about.
A: Boundless is the preeminent open source geospatial information systems company. We have a full stack of open source tools — GeoServer, QGIS, PostGIS database, and OpenLayers 3. We do a lot of value-added enhancements around that open core, driving down customers’ project costs, and we have services that we help deploy, and make your project successful.
Q: Boundless is one of the community leaders for support of open source options. Where do you see the open source market heading?
A: This is a great time to be in open source. With the INSPIRE Regulations in Europe, with the US federal government promoting open source, and with our commercial customers looking not only for lower-cost alternatives but also for more openness in their code, they are looking for more community contribution. I think that open source is only going to grow. We are seeing more and more open source companies in all kinds of adjacent technology areas. If you think about what Red Hat did with Linux, what’s been done with Hadoop, there’s a lot of different areas where open source is becoming very, very prominent, and I don’t see that slowing down at all. As a matter of fact, I think it’s going to become more open, because customers are just really tired of not having the visibility and the access and the ability to contribute positively to closed-source type projects.
Q: Judging from your bio, it appears you had little exposure to geospatial prior to joining Boundless. What attracted you to geospatial? What are some of the unique challenges you’ve encountered since joining? Is spatial special? How hard is to run something like Boundless? Is it “business is business” at the end of the day?
A: I am a technologist at heart. In the 30 years of my professional career I have been in technology the entire time. I started out in software, did a lot of work with network infrastructure, did work in storage and then in security. I think all of these segments are special. I they are all unique. There’s different business drivers, there’s different reasons people participate and purchase in each segment, there’s different problems that need to be solved. For me learning spatial was something I wanted to do. When the opportunity came to me, it was a conscious decision to go out and learn a different technology. It was exciting to me to learn the market, to learn the technology. I have a degree in political science and a minor in history, so I have a passion and a love for history — history as it deals with cartography, how society is evolved, all kinds of mapping lends itself to that. If you think about the things that Chris Tucker is doing with his MapStory project, those are the types of things that are really, really interesting to me, just from a pure historical context, so it was natural for me to move into the space. Yes, I think it’s special, but I think it’s special like every segment of technology is special. It has its uniqueness, and I have developed a lot of passion for it over the nine months I have been at Boundless.
Q: A significant topic of discussion around geospatial events over the past year has been the staggering amount of turnover at Boundless. How do you answer those who question the health of Boundless? What do you see as drivers of such turnover? With such a significant core of project contributors gone, what differentiates Boundless from other companies that provide professional support to PostGIS, GeoServer, QGIS, and the other projects that you bundle into the OpenGeo Suite?
A: I am glad to be able to respond to this question. Boundless is not a new company. Boundless started under the OpenPlans Charity many years ago with Chris Holmes leading the ship. Two years ago it spun out to be a venture-funded company. When people make decisions about where their employment is, they look at the company they are joining at the time. In the past two years Boundless has undergone an awful lot of evolution, an awful lot of change. People made decisions about their career, that it wasn’t necessarily the company they joined. They joined the company for their reasons. But one thing that no one is discussing about Boundless is the amount of talent we’ve recruited in. We have attracted and recruited a lot of talent, because of business, we are actually growing from both a people standpoint, also from a revenue standpoint, so Boundless is a really healthy organization. We have refocused to make sure we stay really true to that open source core. I am very data-driven, and I look at GitHub, and I make sure that we have the top two or three committers in every project that we are working on are employees at Boundless. I think it’s really important. We also have a gentlemen in the organization, Jody Garnett, who is chartered as our community liaison. So Jody is on the GeoServer steering committee, and I have made him the community liaison. His job is making sure we are meeting all of our requirements in our participation within the community. The other is developing talent, and making sure they become valid community contributors. I am bringing in young new talent, or talent from other parts of the industry, folks who really want to learn geo, and make them part of the community, and I think that just makes the community better. So, yes, there have been some high profile exits, some really talented people have gone on to other things. But we’ve also brought in some really high quality talent, and I think that’s the piece that gets overlooked.
Q: Feature-level versioning of geospatial data remains a largely unsolved problem. In the federal government, records retention rules make it a vital issue. With the shuttering of Versio, how is Boundless planning to address this need?
A: Version control is really important. If you look at the announcement that CCRi made yesterday with GeoMesa on top of Google Cloud, I think data is hugely important, and big data is becoming a big problem in spatial. Versio itself was a bit architecturally challenged — candidly, the product was. It wasn’t the right solution to the problem. But the problem does need to be solved. I’m a technologist at heart, I think the problem has to be solved in a much different way, with a big data backend, something that can actually do the analysis, something that has the power, and Versio, while there were a lot of really talented developers and talented architects on the project, I think it started off as a great idea, and has evolved into something that wasn’t quite the right solution. But absolutely the problem needs to be solved, and we are looking at ways, at things we can do with GeoNode, with Hadoop, I don’t have the answer today, but we know it’s a real problem that needs to be solved. Versio just wasn’t quite the right solution for it.
Q: What are your thoughts on dat?
A: My comment on open source as a whole is that the only successful open source companies have been really successful because they partnered. So we’ll look for a partner strategy there, and to the extent that you have an open standard API that can convert data formats, it’ll lend itself to that partnership. As an open source company we have to be very open, and dat will allow us to do that. As long as the API is robust enough, and really does allow cross-data formatting, I think it’s a very worthwhile project, and we will participate.
Q: OpenLayers is clearly Boundless’s preferred solution for web mapping, and it has been a solid open source solution for years. How does Boundless view the rapid adoption of Leaflet as a lighter-weight alternative? Is it a threat to your business model, or just another component of potential hybrid solutions?
A: They coexist. Mapbox solves a different problem than we solve — a “many” problem, whereas Boundless, like Esri, solves “deeper-but-not-as-many”. I don’t think it’s one versus the other. I think they solve different use cases, and people will use them differently. I also think we need to do a better job promoting OpenLayers. One thing I think Leaflet has is better marketing, candidly. It solves a different problem, but they’ve definitely done a better job promoting it, and we need to do a better job with the community promoting OpenLayers.
Q: You tweeted about upcoming exciting news — HERE partnership, etc. Can you share more details?
A: I’ll foreshadow a few announcements we’re going to be making over the next couple of months. The first thing is we have signed up a partnership with Nokia HERE. We can talk about it openly, we are working with Nokia on a press release. As a big organization that requires a lot of layers of approval, but you’ll see that. It was important to us that we had a data strategy that we can augment our customers’ data, or augment open data, so Nokia is our first step there. You’ll see more data partnerships coming. You’ll see an announcement coming soon about our AWS and our Azure offerings. We are really making a concerted effort to move toward a cloud delivery platform, because our customers are asking us to. We are doing a lot of work with LiDAR, you’ll see in short order a blog post around the work we are doing on open LiDAR standards, and why it’s important to keep those standards open. And the final thing is we are recommitting to QGIS. Even though I think the future is web and mobile, there’s still a lot of things you need to do on the desktop, and we are really recommitting and making sure we have a supportable QGIS platform, particularly for the US federal government. All those things are queued up to come up in the next four to six week, as well as our 4.6 release of the OpenGeo suite.
Q: You’re a geolady. Last year you became CEO of a major geocompany. What advice do you have for other women in the geocommunity?
A: I’ve been in technology forever, and women are seriously underrepresented everywhere. The best advice I can give to women is ignore the fact that you are a woman. I hate to say it, but you need to focus on what’s important. Focus on your skills, focus on what you bring to the table, and put aside anything that is what I call noise to the system. It’s tough. It’s tough to be in a room with 30 people, and you are the only one that looks like you look. But you just have to set that aside and realize what you are there for, what’s important. I also think it’s really important to become a subject matter expert. As you mentioned, I’m new to this. So I’ve done a lot of self-study, a lot of online tutorials, just to try to get myself up to speed. If you’re going to have credibility — whether you are a man or a woman — you need to have a basic knowledge of what the customers are using, and a basic knowledge of the technology, and I think some people overlook that, and it’s super important. And the other thing is don’t give up. Bias exists everywhere. It doesn’t matter if you are a woman, or a minority, or someone who is not a US citizen by birth, bias exists everywhere. You just have to ignore it and move past it and don’t ever give up.
Q: Do you consider yourself a geohipster? Why/why not?
A: I might be too old to consider myself a hipster, and I’m never gonna be as cool as Eric Gundersen, I can tell you that [laughs]. That said, I think this is a really nascent market, I think geo is just now emerging, there is so much we can do with it, and there is so much we can do to put it on the radar. I think it’s new, I think it’s fun, and I think we need to have some fun with it. There has to be fun with the industry, so yes, I do consider myself pretty hip with the industry, even if I am not as cool as Eric on any day of the week.
Q: Thank you for the interview. Do you have any parting words for our readers?
A: I’ll go back to something Paul Ramsey advocated and still advocates: Geo doesn’t need to be held by the GISP department in an organization. We need to make the tools easier to use so your average IT analyst or your average business analyst can use them, and that’s when we’ll become really relevant. We’ll need to make sure we mainstream geo while maintaining the specialness of it. We need to embrace the spatial IT concepts, and everything you see Boundless doing moving forward, with our application templates, some of our SDKs and APIs, is going to be toward doing that. And I encourage the industry to also work toward making the tools more usable. Because that’s the way we’ll become really relevant. Geo will become really relevant when the tools become much more useful for everyone to use within a business organization, and that’s the focus of Boundless, and I think that’s a really good focus for the industry, too.
Stephen Mather has been working in GIS, planning, and related fields since 1998, working for the last 7 years as the GIS Manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He has been interested in the application of computer vision to geospatial analyses since 2004, and has recently initiated the OpenDroneMap project — a project to bring together and extend a suite of open source computer vision software for use with UAS (drone) and street level images. He is also coauthor of the PostGIS Cookbook.
Q: How have you been enjoying the conference so far?
A: It’s been consistently good! There were sometimes two or three sessions that I wanted to be in at a time, so I had to figure out if I could clone myself.
Q: Clone yourself?
A: Yeah, well it would make it so much easier (well, probably the easier thing is to watch the video afterwards).
Q: Let me know if you figure out the cloning thing.
A: Oh, I’ll share it. It’ll be on Github.
Q: Awesome. Have you been to this conference before?
A: I went to variants on FOSS4G in DC, Denver, Portland, and Seoul.
Q: Wow, what was Seoul like?
A: That was FOSS4G Korea. It was awesome. The hospitality was amazing, the conference was really interesting. It’s a beautiful city, and it was lots of fun.
Q: Do you speak Korean?
A: Not adequately, no. (*laughs*). Not at all.
Q: You presented at this year’s conference. How did it go?
A: It was really fun. It was similar to a presentation I gave at North Carolina GIS a couple of weeks ago. The slides were already there, but it never ends up being the same presentation. OpenDroneMap is what I presented on, which started off as a GeoHipster joke at first, but then started to become a thing! People are excited about it, and are trying it out with their drones.
Amy and Steve at FOSS4GNA 2015
Q: Who started the joke?
A: Well, there was the GeoHipster artisanal vertices, and at the time I was thinking about computer vision and drones and where all that’s going, and the absence of an open source project that addresses that. When I made my prediction about 2014, I said it would be all about the artisanal pixel. We’d go from these global satellite images to these handcrafted satellite images effectively. Then I starting thinking, actually, that’s not a bad idea. The best way to predict the future is to stake a claim in it and make it happen.
Q: I definitely want to pick your brain about that later on in the interview. But before we get there, I wanted to ask you how you got started in the geospatial world.
A: I came from the biology side of things. As an undergrad I actually took a lot of music classes, and a lot of biology classes. At the time, a lot of biologists weren’t really thinking spatially. Everything was about static statistics, which assumes some normality that doesn’t really exist. There were people starting to pull on that thread, but it was the minority. My interest in GIS and the geospatial was applying it to understanding biology and ecology better, and then I never really got out of that rabbit hole.
Q: But you haven’t really left music either. You make custom guitars.
A: Very, very slowly. I’ve been making them for 12 or 13 years. I’m on guitar #2.
Q: That’s a really cool hobby.
A: It’s one of those things that seems like it should be harder than it really is. A lot of people think, “Oh, I couldn’t do that”, but actually it’s not that hard of a hobby, and for a woodworking hobby, it doesn’t require many tools. If you want to become a furniture maker, you need to invest a lot in tools just to start. The total cost for guitar-making is much smaller with a minimum viable set of tools, which is kind of cool. In that way, it’s kind of like open source. The barrier to entry for open source is just a laptop, which you may already have.
Q: Totally. Let’s go back to drones for a minute. For those who might not be familiar with it, what is OpenDroneMap?
A: OpenDroneMap is an open source project for taking unreferenced images and turning them into geographic data. Maybe you have a balloon, kite, or drone, and you’ve taken some overlapping photos of an area, and you want to turn that into an orthophoto as a TIFF or PNG or a point cloud. It’s basically an extension of the photogrammetric techniques. Back in the day, you’d fly with a nice camera that was well parameterized so that you could correct for all of the optical distortion. You’d have a plane that was flying a known route with inertial navigation and GPS to help you know exactly where the plane is at any given point in time, and then you construct three-dimensional data from that, with contours and orthophotos. If you extend that concept, and instead of having two overlaps with lots of knowledge about your position, you have three overlaps, then you can write an equation that back-calculates where all of your camera positions are. In the process of doing that, you generate a point cloud of all of the features that match, which is something that you can derive other products from. You could create a mesh from that point cloud, then paint those photos back onto the mesh. Now you’ve got the geospatial information you need, and it can be turned into an orthophoto. When I first proposed the project, I thought, well we could license something like this, or we could start an open source project. I had a hunch there was enough existing computer vision code out there to get it 50, 60, or even 70% of the way there, just with the existing code. Fortunately my hunch was right. This leverages years of computer vision stuff done by people all over the world.
Q: It sounds like it was worthwhile to see what other people were doing, and build off of it.
A: Yeah, the stuff that people had been doing was absolutely brilliant, and allowed me to move whole hog and jump into the parts I was interested in.
Q: When I was in college I took some courses in remote sensing and did work with Synthetic Aperture Radar. I’m a little familiar with working with imagery. I’m guessing that working with imagery from drones is pretty different from working with aerial and satellite imagery. What are some of the differences you noticed in working with drone imagery versus something from an airplane or satellite?
A: A plane or a satellite gives you a nice synoptic view. There’s a usefulness, not in the specificity, but in the synopsis. If you think of the world as you view it from the ground, you can observe and make sense of the world; it’s what we’re most familiar with. There’s a wide gap between what’s happening in the plane or the satellite and the first-person view. Drones, balloons and kites fill that gap. Drones fill it particularly well because they can fill large areas. That’s what brought me into working with them altogether.
Q: Speaking of working, you work for the government. Could you tell us more about that?
A: I work for Cleveland Metroparks. We manage about 23,000 acres, which includes forests, wetlands, open areas for people to picnic, a zoo, lakefront parks, and really a whole range of interesting cultural and natural resources. We provide access for passive uses such as picnicking and hiking, and active uses such as events that draw people into those spaces. It’s a really cool park system with a lot of energy and a great history, as well as an amazing staff and a good vision for where we are now and where we’re going.
Q: How long have you worked there?
A: Seven years.
Q: I did some LinkedIn stalking, and I saw that you are a manager there. I’m sure that GIS manager can mean lots of different things depending on whether you’re with the government, a private company, or what industry you’re in. What are the things you think are common descriptors of GIS managers?
A: I’m relatively hands on. I’ll hack a code, I’ll work on data when I get the opportunity, but I also make sure to give a lot of freedom to the people that work with me, because they’re brilliant, and I don’t have to worry much.
Q: You sound like a great manager!
A: I’ve got great employees! There’s coordination and advocating for resources, ensuring that my employees have what they need. There’s also the aspect of ensuring that folks within the organization, as well as outside of the organization, understand what we do, so that they can value and take advantage of it. In addition to giving the degrees of freedom that people need in order to grow, we make sure they have educational opportunities and that they have challenges. There’s a lot of autonomy, which again links back to the open source community, where there’s a lot of autonomy.
Q: You’ve written a book on PostGIS. Can you tell us about the book and how it came about?
A: A couple years ago a publishing company discovered my blog and asked if I’d write an outline on PostGIS. I wrote them the outline, and they said “This is great, when can you start?” And I said, “I can’t, my daughter’s due in a few months, and there’s no way I can write a book.” They said, “Well, you could get a co-author”, and I said, “I can’t even write half a book!” Their response was “Well, you could do 60/40!”, and I said “Alright, but you’ve got to find the co-author”. They found Paolo Corti, who’s an excellent writer and knows his PostGIS stuff, and also knows the middleware level of that, and how to get it out to the web. That adds a nice element. Paolo and I started on that and we realized between the two of us, we weren’t going to get it all done. We found Bborie at the Boston code sprint, and Tom works with me and wrote a chapter. [Interviewer note: Bborie, Tom, and Paolo co-authored the book with Stephen.]
Q: Thanks so much! It’s been a lot of fun talking with you. I have one last question for you. Do you consider yourself a geohipster?
A: I’m a geohipster, absolutely! I’m the guy who predicted artisanal pixels. I don’t ride a fixie, but I do ride an e-bike. When I’m in sound health, I bicycle from 2-3 days a week, so I think I qualify.
Q: I think so, too.
Postscript: Steve gave me a signed copy of his book!
Post Postscript: Steve and I geeked out for a while about Synthetic Aperture Radar. We’ll spare you the nitty gritty details, but tweet at us if you ever want to talk SAR. We’ll talk your ear off. :)
Chris Bupp is a Senior Geospatial Developer at GISi Indoors. He likes developing with new technologies and cooking with less new technologies. He made more maps working/volunteering in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina than he has since then. He’s created a Leap Motion interactive web map and when bored he tinkers with genetic algorithms.
Q: Hey Chris. Tell us about your experiences with geo and what you’re working on now.
A: To start, I first fell in love with programming back in high school. I could make something new from nothing; it was exciting! Many developers have a hard time sharing what excites them; it can be hard for your friends to high five you when you’re talking about database indices. When I first started working with geo-enabled technologies, I was able to immediately share my excitement with others; it was energizing.
I got my start in geo during college. One of my very first projects was a Windows application that allowed you to share photos and journal entries on a map with your friends and family; in hindsight if it was a website instead of a Windows application, it would have been worth something! (Ed.: Indeed! This is what Flickr founder Caterina Fake’s third startup Findery does, which she launched in 2012.)
My most recent project, GeoMetri, is a suite of applications that work to solve problems in the indoor space. We’ve developed a WiFi tracking solution that allows store owners and event throwers to answer questions like: Did this banner or sign cause more people to stop by? Does having more on-floor staff increase (or decrease) visitor dwell times? We’ve also developed mobile indoor navigation apps to help visitors explore and navigate around large buildings or campuses.
Q: Indoor mapping seems to be an increasingly crowded space. Tell us about what you’re currently doing, and what sets your work apart from other companies.
A: It is! I guess that means it’s a good idea. When we first started getting into the indoor space two years ago, we did our research (and continue to research) the constantly growing techniques and tools available. Our goal has always been to provide tools that offer the best solution to a customer’s needs, which means we don’t always use a home-grown tool. There are a ton of smart folks in the indoors industry, we’ve positioned ourselves with several partners to allow us to meet more than just a specific type of solution.
It’s also important to realize that the indoor space [market] is very large, and there is no clear leader in the industry. Every week a few companies may start, and several others have been acquired. You just need to remain agile and ready to implement a solution with several choices of backing technology.
Q: You’ve worked with lots of technologies. I think the first time we met, you were talking about how awesome FORTRAN was compared to Python, or something like that. As a developer, what blossoming technologies do you have your eye on?
A: Wow. You have a good memory. At the time I was working a lot in FORTRAN on a real impressive software suite that created probabilistic danger zones for shooting ranges using Monte Carlo modeling of the projectiles. FORTRAN is above and beyond faster and a better choice for math-heavy applications (if you’re willing to undertake the extra effort of actually writing in FORTRAN).
Right now a lot of exciting things are happening with iBeacons (and several other beacon flavors), drones, and open source. These areas are going to get a lot more chaotic before the dust settles, but that doesn’t mean you have to wait for all the standards to be defined before building new things!
Q: Does that say “tinkers with genetic algorithms” in your bio? WAT?
A: You know how it is when you get bored: some people try to solve prime numbers; some people like to solve problems with genetic algorithms. Genetic algorithms have promised to solve np complex problems (when a “good enough” answer is better than the best answer in 500 years).
For instance, with a friend, we spent a few hours attempting to solve a traveling salesman problem where you had several salespeople instead of just one.
Q: You and I have spent some free time working on some open source projects like ALF. What part of open source, as a developer, is most rewarding to you?
A: I enjoy the social aspect of open source. In business, developers are constantly told to hide what they make. Open source allows me to share my creations with more than just my co-workers.
Another important aspect is realizing that all of the projects I create commercially or privately rely on at least one other open source project. So sharing back with the community makes me feel good, and when someone actually uses my projects, I feel great! If you ever need something from me and see that I’m in a sour mood, fork one of my repos.
Q: Cartographer to developer — your favorite map(s)?
A: My favorite maps are less mappy, but still retain a map essence — where the data is more important than its exact location. Examples of this are Minard’s map and more recently the Prison Map. Both of these maps demonstrate a map-like quality, but the data is what is powerfully shown. We see US maps all the time that struggle to showcase their data (and its meaning) because states are different sizes.
Q: You’ll be diving in head-first at FOSS4G this week, and you’ll no doubt interact with future and current GeoHipster alumni. What’s the term geohipster mean to you? What part of FOSS4G are you most looking forward to, and who are you looking to interact with?
A: To me, the term geohipster refers to an individual willing to explore, build, and perfect things outside of the normal geo universe. Geohipsters are fixers. A lot of times they’re the ones willing to do the work to build a solution (and sure, maybe their duct tape has little mustaches printed on it).
Like most of my adventures, I look forward to learning. I’m very new to FOSS4G and I have a lot to learn. As a hobbyist, I’m looking forward to the latest developments in FOSS4G (and super excited about all the drone sessions). As a representative for my company, I’m looking forward to see what types of businesses attend FOSS4G, and I’m interested in their business models, as well as their business goals.
One subset of FOSS4G participants I’m looking forward to meeting is other maptime-ers. I’ve only been to the first of the Atlanta chapter meetings, so it’ll be weird flying across the country to meet up with them, but fun nonetheless!
I’m also looking forward to meeting and interacting with anyone willing to share their experiences with FOSS4G. So, if you’re at FOSS4G and see someone with brown curly hair and a deer-in-the-headlights look, it’s probably me and I’d love to talk!
Sara Safavi is a “software developer with a geohabit” in Austin, TX. She spent many years in the GIS trenches before eventually transitioning to full-time developer at Rackspace. She also moonlights as a geospatial consultant, specializing in clients looking for cost-effective, “real-world” solutions hybridizing open source technologies with existing platforms. Outside of work, Sara organizes two local community groups: Austin Open Source GIS & PyLadiesATX. She’s also frequently found teaching workshops — primarily Python and/or GIS-centric ones — and evangelizing all the open source geo-things.
Q: This quote from your “About” page almost perfectly describes most interviewed geohipsters:
“…interested in open data & open source software, and working near the intersection of programming & GIS is where I’m happiest…”
How did this passion for “open” evolve for you?
A: When I first got access to a computer, I was lucky enough to be told: “Do what you want on this machine, learn about it, play with it, and if you break it I’ll fix it.” That put me at ease and let me experiment. It also gave me a sense of control and ownership: computers for me were never some scary unknown that came with a vague sense of this-is-not-for-you. When I later got involved with open source communities, I found a similar combination of freedom and safety net that enabled independent learning. Those communities tended to be built around shared interests and goals, and everyone shared enthusiasm for the same things. Plus, I really loved that I actually got to talk to the people who were making things and get involved in finding solutions to shared problems. Eventually I started to help other people with some of the things I had learned — not in a really huge way, but it was still such an empowering experience that I really latched on to Linux and open source software.
A lot of my early experience with GIS was using proprietary software which had bugs and limitations which regular users couldn’t really do anything about, while outside of work I was using a lot of open source tools which were just so nice to use. I realized that the proprietary tools everyone took for granted were often more of a hindrance than a help. Although open source tools may be harder to discover, proprietary tools tend not to be geared to extension or giving power to the user, so the end result is frequently reduced productivity with greatly limited flexibility. Add in the matter of open source software having, by definition, vastly broader accessibility, and it was really no longer a question for me.
Essentially I like the combination of the empowering support that you can find in the “open” communities with the flexibility and just plain utility of open source software. We share solutions and data because we’re all in this together. Likewise, a lot of the outside-of-work things I do now involve building communities that try to allow others to find the same kind of support, and feel enabled to learn new things.
Q: I met you last year at the Esri UC where you organized a great Open Source Lunch & Learn. You also organize Austin Open Source GIS and PyLadies ATX. How important is networking to professionals in tech fields?
A: When I hear the word “networking”, I think of that check-out-my-cool-business-card, let’s-make-5-minutes-of-awkward-conversation-then-maybe-never-speak-again thing we do at big conferences and business events. It’s probably a necessary function. As an industry we all basically agree that this kind of face time is what we use to build our professional networks. And something, something, jobs, right?
But what I try to make happen with the things I’m involved in, and the groups I organize, is something different. What I’m really, really passionate about is this idea of bringing enthusiasts together, creating comfortable and safe spaces for learning, and opportunities to grow collectively. That kind of networking is what really makes me happy: connecting people who want to learn something, try something out, toss around ideas — do something new. And because my experience and interests are so closely tied to both programming and GIS, most of what I do regarding community building is within the mutual orbit of those two worlds.
In PyLadiesATX, and also Austin Open Source GIS, I want so strongly to promote the idea that “tech”, and specifically that which exists within the scary bubble of “writing code”, is fundamentally accessible to every single interested person. Culturally, we’ve constructed a lot of barriers to engagement on this: where we’re coming from as individuals may vary, but too many of us carry this idea that programming is perpetually for someone other than ourselves. Especially in the geospatial community, we’ve spent so long constructing our narrative around this idea that we do GIS, they write code. Our community still clings to the idea that Spatial Is Special, but the reality is that lines between “us” and “them” are not nearly as distinct as we’d like to think. So bringing these two worlds — the coders and the geospatialists — closer together is something I’m always talking about. At PyTexas last year I did a talk on “GIS for Python People”… and at next month’s FOSS4G-NA I’m going to be giving the counterpart to that, “Python for GIS People”. I just won’t shut up about it! 🙂
So this is what I enjoy most. But what I’m always wanting to ask people is, what makes you excited? What are you so enthusiastic about that you can’t help but tell everyone about whenever you can? I promise you there is someone else with at least a tangentially related passion around here. Find your tribe! Find that group of people that can say “Wow, cool!” about the same things that make you say “Wow, cool!”. That’s where growth happens — and that’s where it’s most fun to be, too.
Oh, and I’m so glad you enjoyed the Open Source Lunch & Learn last year. One of the things I loved about that event was the fact that there, in the middle of the Esri UC, for one hour we weren’t just trading business cards and looking for the next job opportunity or new shiny thing to buy. Instead we were a tribe of folks excited about the same ideas, showing off cool things we’d built, sharing the same spirit of open — and that was awesome. That’s the kind of “networking” I’m interested in, and what I want to create more of.
Q: You are currently a developer at Rackspace. You’ve been a GIS admin, analyst, and a consultant. What’s been your favorite project thus far?
A: I’m the kind of person who can’t tell you my favorite movie, favorite book, or favorite food on any given day… so I’m going to cop out here and tell you about the kind of project I like best. Sorry. 🙂
I love working on projects that, big or small, simply make things better for a particular audience or user. That’s really, really unspecific, I know! But if the project I’m working on doesn’t have an end goal of getting a user to grin and say “Whoa, thanks!”, then frankly that project’s probably boring. One of my earliest Python+GIS projects was just a lot of geoprocessing glue-code that took what was once a multi-hour manual process and turned it into a streamlined 10-15 minute automatic job. That was awesome, because there were a small but happy handful of folks (myself included!) on the receiving end. And more recently, whenever I’m building a web map or app, that moment when the people I’m working for first see their data and ideas go “live” is always great.
Then again, I also love seeing the horrible, messy, Goldberg-machine travesties that should never see the light of day, but nonetheless exist because of whatever nonsensical constraints they were given. These things that absolutely solve a pain point and defy logic by just working within the artificial constructs that forced their creation, but just are… comically bad, because for example you’re not actually allowed to install any additional software on the system that will run this tool. I’m talking about nasty things like PowerShell-Python-SharePoint monstrosities that we don’t talk about in polite company. Those are awesome too, for different reasons.
Q: Looking at your talks page, and having been present at some before, you cover a wide range of technologies. What tips would you give for keeping up with many different tools at once? Is there an emerging tool you are excited about?
A: It’s funny, all I think is how there are so many technologies that I don’t know or use regularly! I think the subset of tools that I work with regularly (both dev-tools and geo-tools) are constrained to a specific domain: web-stuff, primarily, and all things related to getting maps, tools, and applications to a distributed audience. But outside of that, there’s plenty that I would love to learn more about, if I just had the time.
On emerging tools — the geospatial universe is so huge and diverse, that I know there is a ton happening right now that I’m not specifically aware of. We have so many sub-sections that are just completely hidden from view if you’re not directly involved in their area of focus. Pick a niche, and there is probably some awesome tool being developed right now by an anonymous GIS-something person who probably doesn’t even consider themselves a “developer”, but nonetheless knows exactly what they need to fix their domain-specific problem, and are just working to get this done now. And it’s most likely great, a perfect solution to an ongoing saddle burr. Raise your hand if this is you! You’re probably not the only one with a hand up. Because at heart, that’s what we are: stubborn, persistent, get-this-done types, who happen to share an insatiable curiosity about knowing how things connect — and we’re all just doing the best we can to answer the question of “where”, with whatever resources are at hand.
With that long-winded disclaimer said, here’s what’s on my radar today:
CartoDB. They’re not really ‘emerging’, but since this past Fall they’ve really started taking off (i.e., I can now mention them in non-geonerd conversation and still get nods of recognition). What I love about them is how easy they make it for non-mappers to become mappers, and for non-developers to make a web map. I’m all about sparking interest and lighting fires where once there were none! Someone recently asked me for help making a web map (because I’m that developer-person, and web maps are hard, right?) and it was so cool getting to show them how easy it was to take a spatial layer they’d created and near-instantly make it publicly available as a web map.
Another not-totally-new technology, but since they’re still deep in beta I think they count as “emerging”: GeoGig. Git for geospatial data. For those of you not familiar, this is about building “version control” around your spatial data: tracking historical changes to files over time. This is something that traditionally has only been used by programmers on their code, but absolutely should be something GIS professionals use on our data too. I can’t wait for this to be the new normal in our industry.
And everyone’s saying it, but TurfJS is going to be a game-changer. My opinion’s especially influenced by my past life as a gov/mil GIS-something, and how much of that time I spent fighting the non-local nature of certain web GIS tools (and the “you can’t install that!” nature of everything else). An open source client library like TurfJS is going to be absolutely huge for a lot of people.
Q: Cartographer to developer — your favorite map(s)?
A: Oh no, another “I can’t pick a favorite” answer!
Here’s a by-no-means-complete list of some of my favorites:
Basically all of the work done by Andrew Hill in conjunction with CartoDB. He makes some gorgeous maps on that platform (like the directional river flow map) and pretty much all of them remind me why I don’t try to be a cartographer.
The “Nobody Lives Here” map by Nik that took the internet by storm last year. Yet another of those “this is why I’m not a cartographer” maps, the idea is deceptively simple and the result is just so cool.
NOAA’s GOES imagery. As a weather geek who spent years living on the Gulf Coast (hurricane country), I’ve spent way too many hours engrossed in the NHC’s satellite loops. For that matter, I have a soft spot for hand-drawn hurricane tracking maps, of which I’ve made my share.
Basically any map example used in the fantastic “How To Lie With Maps”. There’s a chapter that walks through cartographic tactics used by Cold-War-era Soviet mappers, and it’s just incredibly interesting to read.
Q: You live in the hipster capital of the U.S. — Austin, Texas — and you’re in Geo. I think that technically makes you more geohipster than all of us. What does the term mean to you?
A: Oh good, at least I get to be some kind of hipster! I’m pretty sure I’m not whatever kind of hipster we’re the capital of here (or wait, does it make me a hipster to say that? Now I’m confused…).
I’m not really sure what “geohipster” means, but I guess part of the movement is that it can be open to individual interpretation. One thing I’ve noticed is that the people who claim the label are all pretty interesting folks, who tend to be the outside-the-box thinkers. There’s a bit of a spirit of nonconformity in the community that seems closely tied to learning, using, or building new things. Not just focusing on the next big thing (though we have that, too) but really talking about what might make the world better (whether it’s a tool to make someone’s job easier, or crowdsourcing maps to improve emergency response). Being willing to go against the flow and try something different is something I see in common among the geohipster crowd.
So, if being “that chick with the weird hair that talks a little smack about Esri and wants everyone to learn to code” makes me a geohipster, then it’s a badge I’ll proudly wear. Thanks!
Antonio Locandro is a civil engineer-turned-GIS specialist, working for an Air Navigation Service Provider for Central America, where he deals with airways, aeronautical cartography, and procedure design among other things. His previous experience includes working for Honduras Census Bureau (INE), selling a book called “Learn English While Sleeping”, and a grocery store.
Q: As with so many other people, we met over Twitter. What do you do for a living, and how did you get into the geospatial field?
A: Funny thing is I hated Twitter. My wife @melidelocandro had one way before I did, and I thought it was a waste to time. Anyway, I currently work as GIS specialist in an Air Navigation Service Provider for Central America — similar to FAA — where I do GIS database for air navigation purposes with heavy emphasis in cartographic output, and occasionally do some procedure design (standardised landing and takeoff paths for aircraft). I got into geospatial because I needed to work to be able to finish my Civil Engineering degree. During lunch break on my selling books to learn English while sleeping job I saw an ad in the newspaper to work as digitiser for Honduras Census Bureau. (Yup, the book thing didn’t work, and probably was a scam.)
Así como ha pasado con tantas otras personas, nos conocimos por medio de tiwtter. ¿En que trabajas y como entraste en el campo geo espacial?
Lo mas curioso es que odiaba twitter, mi esposa @melidelocandro tuvo una cuenta mucho antes que yo y pensaba que era una perdida de tiempo. Actualmente trabajo como especialista GIS en un proveedor de Servicios de Navegación Aérea para Centroamérica, similar a la FAA donde hago bases de datos GIS para propósitos de navegación aérea con un énfasis fuerte en cartografiá y ocasionalmente realizo diseño de procedimientos (rutas de aterrizaje y despegue normalizadas). Entre en el campo geo espacial por que necesitaba trabajar para terminar mi carrera de Ingeniería Civil y vi un anuncio en el periódico para trabajar como digitalizador para el Instituto Nacional de Estadística de Honduras mientras almorzaba de mi trabajo para vender libros para aprender Ingles dormido (definitivamente lo del libro no funcionaba y probablemente era un timo)
Q: So you are providing GIS for airports in Central America? Or providing flight paths for airplanes between airports? Just wondering in case I ever decide to fly into Honduras.
A: The company for which I work manages Air Traffic Control over all Central America, a large chunk of the Pacific, and part of the Atlantic above 19,000 ft. — which normally means overflights, but also provides radar services and navigational aid equipments below that altitude. Under 19,000 ft. each of the Central American countries manage their own space. I should probably mention that my company is owned by the Central American countries and was established as a means to comply with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards and cooperate at a regional level, being the first using that scheme that later has been adopted in other regions like Africa and Europe. If you think about it, this is very cost-effective and increases overall efficiency when you manage airspace as a single block instead of individual pieces.
I focus more on the flight paths between airports, but occasionally get to do specific airport-related things like obstacle analysis and heights restrictions. Recently, together with the IT department, we are deploying several internal solutions which leverage the data we already have for applications like Search and Rescue (SAR) and Electronic Charting Solution for our air traffic controllers. Until recently the whole focus of the GIS database was just to have better cartography in terms of consistency, data validations, etc., but from the past 6 months we are moving into a more enterprise-wide solution, and the benefits of the data are starting to be seen by other members of the organization.
If you ever decide to fly to Honduras, landing at Toncontin International Airport in Tegucigalpa will probably be once-in-a-lifetime experience. Using GPS technology you will almost certainly fly a final approach with arcs included with very reduced obstacle clearances enabled by the satellite navigation, and finally touch ground on a small landing strip in comparison with other international airports. Definitely an adrenaline rush.
¿Estas proveyendo GIS para los aeropuertos de Centro América? O ¿proveyendo rutas de vuelo para los aviones entre aeropuertos? Tengo curiosidad en caso que decida volar a Honduras algún día
La compañía para la cual trabajo maneja el centro de control sobre Centro América y gran parte del Pacifico y Atlántico por encima de 19000 pies lo cual normalmente son sobre vuelos pero también proveed servicios radar y ayudas de radio navegación por debajo de esa altitud. Debajo de 19000 ft cada país de Centroamérica maneja su propio espacio. Probablemente debería mencionar que mi compañía es propiedad de los países centroamericanos y fue establecida como una forma de cumplir con los estándares de la Organización de Aviación Civil Internacional (OACI) y cooperar a un nivel regional siendo el primero en usar ese esquema que luego ha sido adoptado en otras regiones como África y Europa, si lo piensas es un manera muy efectiva de reducir costos y mejorar la eficiencia cuando se maneja el espacio aéreo como un solo bloque en lugar de piezas individuales.
Me enfoco mas en las rutas de vuelo entre aeropuertos pero ocasionalmente hago algún trabajo especifico de aeropuertos como evaluación de obstáculos o restricciones de altura, recientemente en conjunto con el departamento de IT estamos desarrollando varias soluciones internas que usan los datos que disponemos para aplicaciones como búsqueda y salvamento (SAR) y soluciones de cartografiá digital para nuestros controladores de transito aéreo. Hasta hace poco el énfasis de la base de datos GIS era para mejorar la cartografiá en términos de consistencia, validación de datos, etc pero en los últimos 6 meses nos hemos ido moviendo en una solución mas Empresarial y los beneficios de los datos están empezando a ser notados por otros miembros de la organización.
Si alguna vez decides volar a Honduras aterrizar en el aeropuerto Internacional de Toncontin en Tegucigalpa probablemente sera una experiencia única en la vida, usando tecnología GPS seguramente estarías volando la aproximación final en un arco incluyendo margenes de obstáculos reducidos permitidos por la navegación satelital y finalmente tocado el suelo en una pequeña franja de aterrizaje en comparación con otros aeropuertos internacionales. Definitivamente es un shot de adrenalina.
Q: How is the geospatial field in Central America? Is GIS as commonplace as it appears to be here in the United States?
A: I will try to answer from my perspective living and working in Honduras. No, its not remotely as common as in the US. GIS jobs are very few, and normally are in government agencies or International cooperation programs doing things like parcels for municipalities, transportation, census or urban development planning. Most GIS jobs are really just drafting positions where you will never ever do any kind of analysis — just digitize points, lines and polygons — and mainly to produce print or PDF maps for displays in reports. GIS topics are electives you can take at University until recently. Efforts are being made to teach more about it, but probably not any time soon. Heck, I didn’t take GIS electives when I studied since they didn’t exist. If you wanted to learn GIS, you would get a “non-official copy” of Arcview 3, install, and play with it. We tried open source back then, but honestly it wasn’t nearly as good as its now. On top of all that you have the issue with data. Data is easy to obtain in the USA, even in those horrible geo portals. If you ever need to do any GIS down here, you will probably need to start from scratch, and that makes things very expensive. You won’t see private GIS training courses announced often, and they usually don’t go beyond learning the basics. On the other hand, if you think about it, this means there are lots of opportunities — its just a matter of being able to disrupt the current state of things and grasp the niche. I would think this may be true across Central America, but may be wrong about it.
¿Como es el campo geo espacial en Centroamérica? ¿Son los GIS tan comunes como aparenta acá en Estados Unidos?
Tratare de dar respuesta desde mi perspectiva de vivir y trabajar en Honduras. No es ni remotamente tan común como en EUA, los trabajos en GIS son pocos y normalmente en agencias gubernamentales o programas de cooperación internacional haciendo cosas como ordenamiento territorial para municipalidades, transporte, censos o parcelas. La mayor parte de los trabajos GIS son realmente trabajos de digitalizador donde nunca realizaras ningún tipo de análisis solo digitalizar puntos, lineas y polígonos principalmente para producir mapas impresos o pdf para ser utilizados en reporte. Los tópicos en GIS se pueden tomar hasta hace poco en la Universidad, se están realizando esfuerzos para enseñar mas sobre el tema pero probablemente no sea en el futuro inmediato, yo ni siquiera tome electivas GIS cuando estudie en la universidad por que no existían. Si querías aprender GIS simplemente tomabas tu copia “no oficial” de Arcview 3 lo instalabas y jugabas con el. Probamos el código libre en aquel entonces pero honestamente no era ni remotamente tan bueno como es ahora. Encima de todo tiene el problema de los datos, los datos son fáciles de obtener en EUA incluso en esos geo portales horribles. Si alguna vez quieres hacer GIS por acá probablemente necesitarías empezar de cero y eso hace las cosas mucho mas caras. No miras muchos cursos GIS privados anunciados y usualmente no pasan de enseñar lo básico. Por otra parte si piensas acerca de ello hay un montón de oportunidades solo es cuestión de poder irrumpir el estado actual de las cosas y tomar el nicho. Creo que esto es verdad a lo largo de Centroamérica pero pueda que este equivocado sobre ello.
Q: You are on Twitter and the QGIS listserv quite a bit. Sometimes you’re using ArcGIS. Sometimes you’re using QGIS. One time, I believe you were editing PostGIS data with ArcGIS. I also see you talking to the developers of QGIS quite a bit. What piece of software works for you? All of it? Some of it?
A: I probably use ArcGIS (R) like 95% of the time for my current job, but I consider myself software-independent, and it’s just a matter of what I feel is the best tool to get the job done in the least amount of time. I sometimes bash Esri on Twitter when I am frustrated over something with their software, and probably that is the only place I can ever let steam blow. It’s not personal — I bash QGIS also from time to time. I got into heavily using QGIS probably around 2 or 3 years ago. I really wanted to get to understand more on GIS concepts, and I really don’t use pirated software. I don’t recall if back then Esri provided Home Edition, but that wouldn’t have made a difference since I had to purchase from local distributor making it more expensive. After fiddling with QGIS, I immediately started to compare it with the other software I used, and that’s how I got into the QGIS list — mainly reporting bugs and feature requests. Since I am no developer I couldn’t fix them myself. QGIS opened a new different arena of GIS knowledge thirst, since I started getting interested into things like Spatialite and PostGIS. That’s when I followed @richardburcher tutorial on installing PostGIS on Windows http://richardburcher.com/2012/09/24/windows-install-postgresql-postgis/. Twitter has been a tool I have used to get to know tools like Mapbox, CartoDB, Fulcrum, and others.
Once I started playing with QGIS+PostGIS at home, things started to permeate into work. I need from time to time to do certain analysis, and although we have the Advanced level [of ArcGIS] install, which lets you do some things, some others weren’t possible so I started doing them in QGIS. What I like about QGIS is really that they have very talented developers and users willing to go out of their way to answer questions. Nathan Woodrow (@madmanwoo) and Anita Graser (@underdarkgis) really take their time to be on social media answering the community along with others.
Estas en twitter y en la lista de QGIS frecuentemente. Algunas veces usas ArcGIS, otras usas QGIS. Creo que una vez estabas editando datos en PostGIS utilizando ArcGIS. También veo que hablas con los desarrolladores de QGIS con frecuencia. ¿Que pieza de Software trabaja para ti? ¿Todo?¿Una parte?
Probablemente use ArcGIS ® como el 95% del tiempo en mi empleo actual pero me considero independiente del software y es simplemente una preferencia de que siento que sea la mejor herramienta para hacer el trabajo en la menor cantidad de tiempo. Algunas veces me quejo de ESRI en twitter cuando estoy frustrado con algo de su software y probablemente sea allí el único lugar donde puedo dejar un poco frustraciones salir, no es personal también me quejo de QGIS de vez en cuando. Hace como 2 o 3 años empece a ser un usuario mas frecuente de QGIS, realmente queria entender mas de los conceptos GIS y personalmente no uso software pirata. No recuerdo si en ese entonces ESRI ofrecía su edición para uso en casa pero no hubiera hecho alguna diferencia ya que tenia que adquirirlo usando mi distribuidor local haciéndolo mas caro. Después de jugar con QGIS inmediatamente empece a compararlo con los otros software que utilizaba, así fue como me involucre en la lista de correos de QGIS mas que todo reportando errores y solicitando mejoras dado que no soy desarrollador y no los puedo corregir yo mismo. QGIS abrió otra arena de sed de conocimiento GIS ya que me interese en cosas como Spatialite y Postgis, allí seguí el tutorial de @richardburcher para instalar postgis en Windows http://richardburcher.com/2012/09/24/windows-install-postgresql-postgis/. Twitter ha sido una herramienta que he utilizado para conocer mas de herramientas como Mapbox, CartoDB, Fulcrum y otros.
Una vez que comencé a jugar con QGIS+postgis en la casa las cosas empezaron a introducirse en el trabajo. De vez en cuando necesito realizar ciertos análisis y aunque cuento con el nivel Avanzado de licencia que permite realizar algún tipo de análisis otros no eran posibles así que comencé a hacerlos en QGIS. Lo que me gusta de QGIS es que realmente tienen desarrolladores talentosos que estan dispuestos a dar la milla extra para contestar preguntas, Nathan Woodrow (@madmanwoo) y Anita Graser (@underdarkgis) realmente dan parte de su tiempo en las redes sociales para contestar a la comunidad junto con otros.
Q: On Instagram I saw you purchased a Walking Dead comic book for your wife. Has she forced you to discuss a zombie escape plan?
A: Oh man! My wife is such a fanatic of the Walking Dead TV series, I just had to buy the comic on that stand while in Mexico City. I think we both agree if a zombie apocalypse happens we will probably die very fast, since we are both urban people with probably no survival skills. If you are a fan of the series, you can probably see that those escaping never get very far — you just need to grab your weapon and get rid of them.
En instagram vi que compraste una historieta de Walking Dead para tu esposa. ¿Ha forzado una discusión de un plan de escape zombie?
Dios! Mi esposa es tan fanática de la serie de televisión The Walkind Dead que simplemente tenia que adquirir esa historieta mientras estuve en la Ciudad de México. Creo que ambos hemos concluido que en caso de un apocalipsis zombie probablemente moriríamos rápidamente dado que somos personas bien urbanas y sin habilidades de supervivencia. Si eres fan de la serie probablemente veas que aquellos que escapan no llegan muy lejos, simplemente debes agarrar tu arma y deshacerte de ellos.
Q: Antonio — excuse me, Mr. Locandro, who is also CEO of Traveling Honduras (do you have a website?) — where is the one place I need to go when I fly into Honduras? I need the almost perfect vacation. I am also very, very white. What do you recommend?
A: Actually I do have a website. It’s http://www.travelinghonduras.com/, but it’s just a very simple landing page. It’s my startup project, which has taken a little bit more than I wanted to take off, and really looking into this 2015 to be the year I can launch it. Honduras is a very nice country with many different things to see and do, so it can cater to all people’s tastes. We got mountains and rivers to do some ecotourism (La Ceiba, Pico Bonito), there’s also ancient civilizations remains which are considered world heritage (Copan Ruins), colonial towns from the times of the Spaniards (Gracias, Comayagua), tons of miles of sandy white beaches (Tela, Trujillo, Guanaja, Utila, Roatan), so you got all this things to do in one place. The official Honduras campaign is Honduras Everything is here http://honduras.travel/en. I think for you I would recommend Utila Island, which is more of a bohemian-style backpacker island, unlike more famous Roatan Island. And don’t worry about Spanish being an issue, since the islands used to be run by pirates in the 18th century most people there speak English. If you like visiting ruins, Copan Ruins it’s very nice with Gracias, Lempira close where you have thermal waters.
Antonio, perdóneme, Sr. Locandro que también es Presidente de Traveling Honduras (¿Tienes un sitio web?). ¿Cual es un lugar al que debo ir cuando vuele a Honduras? Necesito casi las vacaciones perfectas. También soy bastante blanco. ¿Que me recomiendas?
En realidad si tengo un sitio web es www.travelinghonduras.com pero actualmente es solamente un pagina de inicio. Es mi proyecto personal de emprendimiento que ha tomado mas tiempo del que pensé en despegar y realmente espero que este 2015 sea el año que pueda lanzarlo. Honduras es un país hermoso con muchas cosas para ver y hacer que responde a todos los gustos. Tenemos ríos y montañas para hacer eco turismo (La Ceiba, Pico Bonito), también hay ruinas antiguas consideradas patrimonio de la humanidad (Ruinas de Copan), pueblos coloniales del tiempo de los españoles (Gracias, Comayagua) y miles de kilómetros de playas de arena blanca (Tela, Trujillo, Guanaja, Utila , Roatán) así que tienes todas estas cosas para hacer en un solo lugar, la campaña oficial de Honduras es Honduras Todo Esta Aqui www.honduras.travel . Creo que para ti recomendaría la isla de Utila la cual es un poco mas bohemia estilo mochilero diferente a la mas famosa isla de Roatán, y no te preocupes acerca de hablar español como un problema ya que las islas fueron administradas por piratas en el siglo 18 así que la mayor parte habla Ingles. Si te gusta visitar ruinas las Ruinas de Copan es un lugar bonito con Gracias, Lempira cerca donde hay aguas termales.
Q: Finally, last question is yours to do with as you wish. What final words do you have for the readers of GeoHipster?
A: Choose the right tool for the job. That may just happen to be open source or not, and you can even mix them if that’s the best solution. Sometimes is difficult to get out of the comfort zone, but learning new things make you a better professional. Experience hands on with different ways to accomplish the same task and go past pushing buttons. GeoHipster in a sense is just that — going beyond the traditional way things are done in GIS.
Finalmente, La ultima pregunta es para que hagas con ella como quieras. ¿Que palabras finales tienes para los lectores de Geohipster?
Escoge la herramienta adecuada para el trabajo, esa puede ser de código libre o tal vez no e incluso pues mezclarlas si es la mejor solución. Algunas veces es difícil salir de tu zona de comodidad pero aprender cosas nuevas te hace un mejor profesional. Experimenta de primera mano con diferentes formas de completar la misma tarea y haz algo mas que solo empujar botones. Geohipster en cierto sentido es simplemente eso, ir mas allá de la forma tradicional en que las cosas se hacen en el ambiente GIS.
Brian Monheiser (Twitter, LinkedIn) is the Director of Defense and Intelligence Programs for Boundless Inc. Brian works with US Government agencies and contractors to provide freedom from the rigid architectures and unsustainable pricing models of proprietary geospatial software with packaging, expertise, maintenance, professional services, training, and more. Prior to Boundless, Brian honorably served in the United States Marine Corps as Geospatial Intelligence Analyst, and as a contractor responsible for advising and consulting the Department of Defense (DoD) and Intelligence Community (IC) on the use of geospatial technologies, supporting a number of large projects, programs, and applications using geospatial technology.
Q: You’ve been involved in GIS, specifically military GIS and GeoINT, since 1998. What do you think has been the biggest advancement of GIS during your tenure in the field, both within DoD, as well as the field as a whole?
A: I have to tell you, the technology advances from what I used to have to work with to what’s available today have been amazing to say the least. When I got started in the Marines as a veritable kid, they had me using command line desktop GIS. Think about that experience for the moment. I was asked to build and deliver standard and mission-specific hardcopy products using 32-bit clients and the command line. Now analysts are in a world where mission planning, situational awareness, visualization, analytics, and key intelligence questions are answered by mobile and web applications that are driven by tradecraft, algorithms, and workflows developed to interrogate a wide variety of spatial and temporal datasets for almost any purpose. I’m the old GIS analyst yelling at kids these days about how we had to walk uphill both ways to school. Now, kidding aside, it was possible to foresee the technology advances thanks to watching advancements in other areas — but what I’m most impressed with is the advancement, understanding, adoption, and growth in the GIS (at Boundless we like to call it Spatial IT) user community. There was a time not so long ago when GIS was a tradecraft for only those who had been formally trained. That’s no longer the case.
Q: You’ve been with Boundless now for over a year. Have you seen a perception change within your client base on the adoption of FOSS4G Technologies? As a follow up, are their any metrics on how hybrid systems function?
A: Oh, you mean beyond understanding hybrid systems can lower clients’ costs and avoid vendor lock-in while still accomplishing, if not exceeding, all the same objectives? Then yes, I’ve seen a very drastic and positive change. When I got started everybody — including myself — used a solution from a single proprietary vendor, which forced us all to take the formal training I previously mentioned. I at least was in an environment where someone paid for my training and said this was the work I needed to focus on. Now FOSS4G technologies have matured and can reduce the risks of a single-vendor solution, extending the value of existing investments in proprietary mapping software, while reducing costs and increasing potential for interoperability and innovation. Open source geospatial software complements and interoperates with existing proprietary geospatial tools, meaning you don’t lose sunk costs. I’d say there are few homogeneous FOSS4G implementations, because that’s exactly the point of them — you can transition to new implementations at an appropriate pace for your organization.
Q: What do you see as the largest hurdle for FOSS4G technologies and their wide-spread adoption?
A: This is a layup. It’s all awareness and education. The reality is the large vendor in this space — and we all know who I’m talking about — has done a great job of indoctrinating users in said vendor’s software, to the detriment of awareness of what other options are out there. More people need to not only be aware of the existence of FOSS4G, but also of its comparable if not superior functionality. Once upon a time I was as guilty of this as anybody — so I’d like to think I’ve had my mind expanded as I gained knowledge of FOSS4G. In addition, when I’m out there talking about FOSS4G to people who have heard of the software, I’m finding people are not truly understanding the total value and cost of ownership in using open source. We’re guilty of drinking a certain flavor of Kool-Aid for so long, we don’t realize fruit punch is crap, what you really want is blue raspberry.
Q: The Magical Money Fairy flies down and grants you 5 million dollars a year to pursue any geospatial project you want. What would you do?
A: I would map my permanent move to the Caribbean. Seriously. I’d go so far off the grid you’d need geospatial analysis to find me. But if you want me to not be completely self-serving and think for a moment about the good of the community, then I’d work to fix content (data) management. For all the advancements in geospatial technology, the way we manage our data, and the knowledge we can extract from our data is embarrassing. Versioning is poor, our ability to move it is inefficient, and if you look at the technologies other industries are using to manage data sets, then we’re behind the curve. It’s solvable and we’re focusing on it, but the Magical Money Fairy is certainly invited to come party with us.
Q: The standard #GeoHipster interview question: What does the phrase mean to you, and are you a #geohipster? Note: the more profanity used here, the better.
[Laughs] Well, I’d like to consider myself a #geohipster, as long as I don’t have to conform to some Brooklyn definition of a hipster. I mean, have you seen me? I’m built like a rugby player, cue-ball bald, bushy goatee, and the temperament of a Marine. Now if a #geohipster is someone who advocates for kick-ass FOSS4G technologies, who walks the walk in understanding the benefit of geospatial analysis, who believes we should all be working more openly and collaboratively, then count me in.
Q: You’re a long-time regular on the geo scene here in London, diving into OpenStreetMap many years ago and sponsoring #geomob the last few years. And yet you’re fairly far from the typical neogeo stereotype. Putting it gently, you’re a bit more experienced than the typical web2.0 code jockey. Indeed geo is actually your second career. What’s your geostory?
A: Let’s get the experience thing out of the way — I just had my Beatles Birthday, you can work that out. I am a commercial animal through and through — I’ve never written a line of code, my biggest technical achievement is tweaking the CSS on my blog.
I graduated from Cambridge with an Economics degree, an idea for a PhD but no funding, and no other idea what I wanted to do. I was offered a job in a mirror manufacturing business, I thought I would take it for a few months while I looked for something interesting to do, and I ended up staying in the building materials industry for over 20 years. I finished up running a division of Pilkington (the glass makers) and then got made redundant at 45. A short stressful and not very successful investment in environmental monitoring tech followed, including a lesson about flogging dead horses which I should share with any startups that I advise. Then I bumped into a friend who owned GDC, a data capture business, that was about to merge with one of those then-exciting internet startups which was about to become whereonearth.com. It sounded like fun and it was a million miles from glass and mirror manufacture so I joined up and headed up the professional services and GIS team at whereonearth. A few years later the whereonearth burn rate was exceeding investors’ patience and we had the opportunity to buy out the old GDC software business which no one thought was sexy enough in the dot com era. We knew that e-government was about to take off in the UK and with some trepidation took the opportunity with all but one of our 18 staff investing their money to buy the business. Less than 5 years later we sold GDC to MapInfo for quite a lot of money and made most of our staff/investors a good bit wealthier. I stayed on for a couple of years as Managing Director of MapInfo UK and headed up product and industry management across EMEA, two years was enough for them and me!
Since 2008 I have been having fun investing and working with startups, doing lots of open stuff because it’s disruptive, advising businesses in the geo industry, and doing a tiny bit at Nottingham University.
Q: When I told you I wanted to interview you for GeoHipster you replied that you’re more of a geohippy than hipster. What’s the difference?
A: I am not sure that I know what a ‘hipster’ is, I hope it is more like James Dean than Henry Winkler. I guess you mean someone who does ‘cool’ or innovative stuff with geo; I don’t think that’s me. I don’t really do anything with geo on the tech front, I am probably too late in my career to start another business even if I had a big idea, but I do know how to build and run a business and I am always up for an investment of time and money in someone else’s great idea. I think I am a reasonable marketeer and evangelist for things I am passionate about (and there are quite a few of those), which can be noisy but isn’t really hip.
I grew up in the sixties listening to Dylan and the Dead, demonstrating against apartheid and the Vietnam war, and believing that our generation could change the world. A first life in building materials grinds some of that idealism out of you, but the last 10 years in geo have rekindled that passion and belief that people can make a difference, particularly with a combination of Geo and Open. Add to that the fact that I banked the ‘fuck you’ money, and I now have the freedom to try and give something back and make a difference — so let me be your first Geohippy interview.
Q: A few years back you were one of the people behind the now defunct OSM-GB project. Tell us about the project and why it’s no longer operating. Was it just too soon? Is OSM the future?
A: That was at the Nottingham Geospatial Institute. We got the funding to use some heavyweight rules-based quality technology from 1Spatial (which is used by Ordnance Survey) to try and build an automated quality improvement process on OSM, and then to explore how OSM might be used by ‘professional users’, particularly in the public sector.
We discovered that we could generate some geometric improvements to the OSM data and we could identify some potential errors both in the geometry and the attribution, but we didn’t want to push our potential corrections back into the master dataset (a lot of what we identified were only potential errors rather than certainties), and we never worked out how to get engagement with the OSM mappers.
We served our ‘corrected’ version of OSM as a WMS and a tile service in OSMGB so that it would be simple for professional GIS users to consume. I was disappointed how little usage we actually got from the public sector despite a lot of initial interest at pretty high levels. The project was funded for about 16 months, we managed to keep it running for a bit longer, but eventually with no one interested in funding us we had to wrap it up.
I love OSM, I think it can be a game changer in some sectors where it is more than good enough. But let’s be honest, in the spaces where I usually work the data is too far from complete, consistent and accurate to be used as authoritative data in most public sector and mission-critical applications. I doubt that will ever change given the producer-centric focus of OSM (we map what we want because we can), but I would love to be proven wrong. OSM, even as it is now, has enormous potential to complement authoritative data from other sources, and we should be continuing to explore how we can make use of it in the public sector.
Q: Relatedly, any thoughts on the recent meltdown of OSMF? Can OSM succeed without a well organized OSMF?
A: Here’s some troll food for you. OSM and OSMF have never really worked out a comfortable relationship. OSMF seems to me to have little or no control or even influence over ‘the map’, its vision, licensing, organisation or strategy. OSMF is split into three camps at the moment:
Camp 1 wants to keep things ultra-light-touch and leave every decision to the activists amongst the mappers (and probably to not make many decisions, preferring to let everyone ‘do their thing’).
Camp 2 would like to create a more professional organisation that could raise funding and would provide direction to the project and be able to represent the project to governments and businesses that wanted to engage with OSM (I am definitely in this camp).
And the majority, even within OSMF, aren’t interested.
The wider OSM community is largely not interested in this stuff and just wants to get on with mapping what they want to map.
The recent meltdown as you describe it is a storm in a teacup with a relatively small number of people shouting at each other in public through the corrosive medium of email lists. You can’t have a conversation on an email list, most people in OSMF don’t even know or care what the argument is about. We talk about a community with over a million contributors, but less than 200 people voted for the new OSMF board; no one cares or understands. So now we have a board which is predominantly Camp 1 and likely to become more so over the coming year with motions for mandatory resignations, etc.
Not the way I would like to have seen things develop, but hey that’s what happens in a ‘community’, and you have to work from where we are. Maybe things will change in the coming years, I would like to see OSM/OSMF realising the vision of becoming the best and the most open map of the world that was used and supported by a colossal number of people and organisations for everyone’s benefit. I don’t think we can do that without fundamental change in the organisation of the project.
Q: Last year you helped organize FOSS4G in Nottingham. For years you’ve been a vocal advocate of open source in geo, and the need for companies to give back to the OS movement (a topic you’re presenting about here at wherecamp.de). As someone with long experience in the industry, tell us your perspective on the rise of open-source and where you see things moving in the future.
A: I am struggling to find the metaphor, “rise of open-source” just doesn’t describe what seems to be an unstoppable torrent or an overwhelmingly inevitable transformation of IT. I am going to confine myself to a short reply on Open Source Geo or we will be here till next year!
Much of what we do with geo today is pretty much ‘known stuff’ — we store data (in vector or raster formats) in a database, we edit it, we catalogue it, we query and render it to the web, mobile or desktop, and that’s most of what we do. That stuff is quite commoditised nowadays and it is inevitable that open source will get wide and growing adoption in those circumstances.
Add to that the fact that most surveys suggest that well over half of GI usage is in the public sector, who are experiencing massive financial pressures around the world and are looking to save costs by reducing their proprietary software inventory.
Oh, and if you want another thought, a lot of users and suppliers are looking to move their geo infrastructure to the cloud to provide a more flexible and scalable solution. Open Source provides a more ‘commercially scalable’ solution because you are not paying a software tax on the success of your application.
Q: You’re an advisor to / investor in several UK geo start-ups. What do you see for the future of the scene? What do you look for in a start-up?
A: That’s simple — people, people, and people. Of course you have to have a good concept and some idea of how that might make money in the future, I sort of take that for granted. I’ve looked at dozens of start-ups and invested in a few, for me it always comes down to people. If the people pitching the concept to me come over as smart, committed, and have integrity, then I get interested (it helps if I like them too). Otherwise just move on, there are plenty of fish in the sea.
I’m a bit cautious and boring as an investor — I want to see some early signs of revenue and a credible business plan. These seem to be quite scarce in the London start-up scene, particular amongst people who have had a great idea involving location.
A: Hah, I guess that article was bound to come back to haunt me. You can’t consider a dominant software player like Esri (or some of the smaller long term players), a national mapping agency, and a couple of big navigation data providers as if they were the same.
If the big software vendors can’t adapt their business models rapidly they will lose a lot of market share to companies basing their offers on open source, that is already happening in the UK public sector.
I don’t see the mapping equivalent of open source — OpenStreetMap — eating Ordnance Survey’s lunch for a whole host of reasons, e.g. detail, authority, coverage, and consistency. The navigation market is going to come under increasing pressure as OSM moves from ‘good enough’ to pretty darn good, they could find themselves squeezed into high value niches.
Q: Your next challenge is as a non-exec director of the Open Addresses project getting moving here in the UK. This feels like a topic that has been going around forever, I can remember submitting postcodes to the old FreeThePostcode site a decade ago. What’s different now?
A: The Address Wars have been going on for a heck of a long time and we in the open data community are still battling away to get government to recognise that a single comprehensive address dataset is a piece of national information infrastructure that needs to be freely available to everyone for whatever use they may have.
We seemed to have taken steps backwards when the Ordnance Survey mopped up a big chunk of addressing provision by acquiring Intelligent Addressing and the data contributed by all of the Local Authorities, then there was a further setback when the government left the Postal Address File with the privatised Royal Mail. Open Addresses is trying to resolve this long-standing problem by creating a GB address database from a variety of Open Data sources and contributions through crowdsourcing (both bulk contributions and individuals). We think we can get to a fairly usable dataset within a year and have got funding to cover the initial beta phase. Maybe this will be a game changer for addressing in GB?
Q: Any closing thoughts for all the geohipsters (and hippies) out there?
A: You can’t choose to be a geohipster, it seems to be a label that others apply to you if they think that what you have done is in some way cool; I don’t think that is me. I have done pretty regular mainstream things in geo that worked for local and central government, police forces, insurance and oil exploration, that’s probably not geohipster and I’m fine with that.
Geohippies want to make a difference through disruption, geo-evangelism and a bit of altruism (I coined the term so I get to have first try at defining it). Sounds like fun to me.
Carl Anderson (@candrsn) started hacking on a TRS-80 in the 70s, quickly upgraded to an Apple II+, and has used all sizes and types of computer systems in his career. He is a polyglot and seeks answers using technology instead of seeking specific technology to answer questions. He is dogmatically pragmatic. In the last 30+ years he has worked for and supported local county, state, and federal government, the private sector and universities, and volunteered for too many things. He is the President of URISA, has served in many roles in local and international GIS organizations, and really enjoys working with the people he meets.
I have always been interested in the spatial relationships between things, and that interest drew me to measuring and representing those relationships. Specifically, in the early ‘80s I came across a book on microcomputer computational graphics and I was hooked. (Myers, Roy E. (1982) – Microcomputer Graphics).
So that interest drove you to pick a college major? Or was this a learn-on-the-job (as many of us did) career?
The path I took was in no way linear. I had taken programming courses while in high school, started out as an art major in college and later switched to engineering sciences. All the while I kept picking up odd jobs that included measurement, design, spatial analysis and information management components.
I’m currently fascinated with hybrid setups — taking commercial and open source, and building a hybrid system. You did that at Fulton County (Georgia), where you were the GIS Manager?
I was at Fulton County for a long time. I filled many roles while there, from traffic analysis in Public Works, to GIS management in the Planning department and later IT department, to leading a Business Intelligence division of the IT department. That last division included GIS, Database Development, Web Development and Data Integration, and was quite a challenge.
With regard to hybrid setups, I am proud of what we achieved at Fulton County. I had learned that things can really hum along when each component does its own one thing well. Back in the early 90s it took a lot more heavy lifting to connect components. Today, using REST, GeoJSON, WFS, WMS, XAML, OBDC, and others it is really easy to hook things up. We used to run into issues with every piece of software we tried, and had to patch code in Perl, PHP, the Linux kernel, mars NWS (a Novell emulator), TN 5470 (to talk to the IBM mainframe), and too many others. I took a bit of grief over building systems that combined both open and proprietary components, but it was the only way forward as we knew that as long as we did not require a line item in the budget, we could do nearly anything we wanted.
That hybrid approach allowed us to be super responsive to our client base and keep up and leverage the changing technology and internal (county-government-wide) standards. We were able to build custom GIS apps for Planning, the Tax Assessor, the Tax Commissioner, 911 and EMA, the Police and Sheriff, Voter Registation, and more. Using a hybrid approach, the end users were not affected when we upgraded core GIS software, or even when we switched databases.
One particular technology journey was especially interesting. We had to change the data storage system several times, and we were never completely in control of the timing. We started out moving from ARCStorm to SDE 3.0, but had to backtrack due to a need to reload data from original sources. We then moved to Oracle for a few years but were using a license borrowed from a different department that wanted it back. I had been playing with Postgresql95, and we moved everything from Oracle during a stressful week of dump as SQL, refactor as a PostgreSQL95 variant, and load SQL. After migration we managed to keep systems in sync using a mixture of Perl and PHP. PostGIS did not yet exist, so we developed our own spatial storage and predicates. In late 2001 we got turned on to PostGIS. As the 2000s progressed, it got easier to move and model data, so we started to connect live to client data systems and integrate on the fly with data caching. When I left we were connecting systems using MSSQLServer, PostgreSQL, Oracle, Berkley DB, MS Access, SharePoint, and others. The whole journey required us to reject what we had been doing, refocus on what we really needed, and find a solution — any solution — that fit our true needs. Rejecting your own work as the path forward is an important but painful thing.
While you were chugging along at Fulton County, you ended up helping co-write something called FGDC-STD-016-2011? How painful/fun was that?
Otherwise known as the FGDC Address data standard, it was a lot of work and a lot of fun in a geeky kind of way. The most important thing I learned is that developing a standard takes a long time. The Address Standard took 5 years from kick-off to adoption. Reviewing addressing practices in the US revealed many odd things that you might not suspect exist. Part of that work was informed by a custom geocoding engine we wrote at Fulton County. It used a more natural linguistic pattern to locate candidate addresses instead of the more literal matching engines available to us in commercial GIS software. Currently I am helping on an international address framework standard (ISO 19160-1), likewise lots of fun in an internationally-geeky way.
So I’m going to slow-pitch one question, then stick you on another one. You are now President of URISA. Given the whole idea of GeoHipster (people who work/think outside the box) I’ve been questioning as of late how effective the big organizations are (URISA, ASPRS, GITA) at maintaining a connection with the industry when it seems to be changing at a rapid pace. First off — what is URISA? Secondly — how is URISA adapting to the needs of its members (assuming it is)?
URISA, officially the “Urban and Regional Information Systems Association”, got started in 1966 as an organization to help share ideas and results using a (then) new-fangled thing (computers) to solve problems in urban and regional planning and government.
Our tagline is “Fostering Excellence in GIS”, and we take that to heart; we exist to help GIS practitioners succeed. One of the big roles URISA continues to fill is to help make newer, useful techniques and technology feel safe for GIS practitioners to implement. As a community of GIS practitioners, URISA allows people to see what their peers are doing in GIS, what is working, what is not, how people can repeat successful ideas. It is also working to identify practices in setting up and managing GIS systems that are particularly useful, effective or efficient.
I was at a conference a few months back and someone said “Blah blah I know a guy who maps caves” and I responded “Blah blah blah I know a guy who maps caves”. We both knew the same guy. I know how busy we get and it’s been a while since I sat in a canoe. Are you still a member of the Athens Speleological Society? How did you end up mapping caves?
At the moment I am only an armchair caver, but I do feel then need to get underground again. I have always felt a stronger affinity to the Dogwood City Grotto, in Atlanta GA. than the Athens Speological Society near the University of Georgia.
When I was at Georgia Tech I ran into several great people who used the mapping and survey of caves as a way to investigate the spatial relationship of caves. People like Bill Putman, Ed Stausser, Steve Attaway, Marion Smith, Jim Smith — they all stirred up my curiosity and got me mapping caves. Cave surveying is quite different from modern above-ground survey techniques. The equipment has to be super rugged, be able to get completely wet, and fit into a small backpack. At Georgia Tech and later, some super-cool armchair caving projects were undertaken, like running 100s of paper topo maps through a scanner and digitally automating the plotting of 1000s of caves. Did you know that paper topo maps shrink over time, and that they do not shrink in a uniform way? Figuring out how to account for that was a problem.
You’re currently working with Spatial Focus and are working with the U.S. Census Bureau. What are you doing with Census?
I am supporting the LEHD program that produces statistics on jobs, workers, workplaces and the connections between them. I focus on making sure that we always get the geography right.
Finally — I haven’t asked you about skinny jeans, your favorite capa mocha half caf latte (I have no idea what I’m saying), or your bike or whether it’s a fixie or a flexie (I think I made that word up) or how your record collection is coming along. We define hipsters as people who think outside the box and often shun the mainstream (see visitor poll with 1106 responses). Would you consider yourself a geohipster?
I am pretty sure that I do not entirely fit in anywhere. A friend recently mentioned that if I am hip, it is entirely by accident and not planned. As some examples, in the ‘80s I frequented a PBR bar in Atlanta and I have had long hair and a beard most of the past 30 years, including a fabulous mullet in the ‘80s. Possibly cool now, but at the time — not so much.
With regard to the mainstream, as a polyglot I think that I am pretty good at making choices for software / language / tool for each task I encounter. I don’t think that I choose what I already know, but what will cause the best outcome.
Oops, almost forgot… Favorite Linux distribution?
I installed my first Linux distro in 1993, it fit onto two 1.44MB floppies, and was released by a Portuguese telco company. Ironically, I do not speak Portuguese. It had exactly what I needed. Later I have used Debian, Redhat, SUSE, and all sorts of other distros. Using a polyglot parallel, my favorite distro is the one that has the tool that I need that day. As an aside, I really loved the Enlightenment Window Manager in the late ’90s. For its time, it was really creative and challenged the boundaries of what window decorations and widgets could be.
Finally — any parting words of wisdom for the good-looking and smart readers of GeoHipster?
Try to live life one, or less, mistakes at a time. Try to make the successes big and the mistakes small. Try nearly everything once — if it is not good, don’t do it again. Lastly, living in the present is much more fun than living in the past.
Bill Morris is a passable developer, a derivative cartographer, and a GIS refugee. Having cleared a decade as a geospatial professional and founder of Geosprocket LLC, Bill is now mapping renewable energy markets as the Lead Visualization Engineer at Faraday Inc., where he has yet to pay for a software license but is getting nervous that the streak can’t possibly hold forever. Bill is a lifelong Vermonter, with furtive dashes into the outside world.
A: I was a music major at Middlebury College about 15 years ago when a friend convinced me to take a geography class. Fortunately that was about the time I realized that I was a pretty bad musician, so it made a lot of sense to shift into a field that seemed to offer both a series of structural worldviews and a technical skillset. I keep running into awesome Middlebury geography grads in the wider world; I know I’m lucky to have stumbled into that department and be launched into the world with the uncontrollable desire to map stuff.
Q: Earlier this year you put your own business, GeoSprocket LLC, on hold, to join Faraday. After about six months, what is different today from when you made that transition?
A: I’m a lot less stressed.
In all seriousness, as a freelancer I grew accustomed to reaching critical stopping points – letting documentation searches drag on way too long – before putting out a question on StackOverflow or begging help from someone via Twitter. But the Faraday team seems like a hive mind most days. Pretty much any block in my technical knowledge can be covered really quickly by one of my colleagues, and I know I can offer the same to them. The efficiency that comes from a complementary team can’t be understated, and I know this because I’ve been the squeaky wheel a few times elsewhere.
I’m also a bit more pragmatic about the umbrella of GIS technology. Learning how to optimize PostGIS with a hundred million data points – in tens of thousands of configurations – has given me new perspective on limits. I’ve started to understand the database admins who reflexively scoff at spatial; whenever there’s a choke point in our data processing, it’s usually a buffer or a point-in-polygon operation. Removing the abstraction of the desktop GIS platform speeds things up a lot, but geospatial analysis is still the slow donkey bringing up the rear of the wagon train.
Q: What are some of the more interesting projects you’ve been working on lately?
A: Faraday is letting me go a little crazy with visualizations. Some things are sticking (MOAR HEXAGONS) and others aren’t (not all datasets look good as a pulsar), but it’s an amazing iterative environment for trying out ideas. We’re aiming for a distinctive, map-centric design in our platform, and over the past few months Mapbox Studio has been invaluable for tying the cartography to the app design. Our clients are also looking to us to make sense of some pretty abstract statistical concepts, so I’ve been getting into the weeds of practical information design, then emerging and hammering something together with D3. Combined with our goal of increasing renewable energy’s market share, this fulfills most of my “dream job” prerequisites.
My side projects have slowed down this year, but I’m hoping to get back to a greater level of involvement with the Humanitarian Openstreetmap Team. Crisis and development work are really motivating for me as hard-edged examples of the power of maps.
Q: Your Twitter handle is “vtcraghead”. I get the VT part, but I had to Google “Craghead”. Is that a reference to the village in England, or something else?
A: I wanted to have a unique email after college, and I was climbing like a madman at that point so I registered “email@example.com” and joined the brave new digital world. The handle stuck with me, but by the time I registered it with Twitter it was more of a joke about how I used to tie in a lot.
Although it’s curious to see that Craghead is in Durham, which reminds me of my favorite song about surveyors and the broader impact of mapping lines in the dirt . . .
A: As with most of the previous interviewees, I subscribe to the middle ground. I admire the geohipsters (none would self-identify, I’m sure) who helped me break out of incumbent technologies, and those who are innovating geospatial tools in ways we could only dream about a decade ago. But I’m not a fan of the brash contrarian hipster archetype, either in real life or as a straw man.
As far as my own identity? I ride my bike constantly, but it has ten gears. Skinny jeans on me would be a war crime. This is Vermont, and inside these borders PBR is outlawed. However, I think there’s a lot of value in questioning the establishment.
Q: Geohipster (and geohipsterism as a concept) is sometimes criticized for being exclusive and/or attempting to foster divisions within the industry. Or sometimes for being different for the sake of being different. You once rolled your own basemap tileset (using Mapbox’s guidelines). Did you do that to be different?
A: Oh jeez – that sounds like metahipsterism.
I did that as an experiment in self-reliance. I feel so poisoned by my experience with a single-vendor-technology career track that I’m always watching the exits. I love Mapbox, but I wanted to know if I could make an attractive web map without paying them anything, which is the occasional promise of open source tools.
Geohipsters fostering divisions? I see this as the current manifestation of an endless social dynamic: A new group enters a space, with new ideas. The old group finds it easier to feel threatened and defensive than to adapt. The new group can always do a better job of assisting the adaptation. </overlysimplisticparable>
Q: Like me, it’s pretty clear you’re an active dad. Loving your kids comes second nature, but let’s face it, they also require a lot of attention. What’s more tempting to compare to your kids: your projects or your customers?
A: Projects for sure. Mostly adorable and exhausting in equal measure. Thankfully, my customers neither throw legos at me nor tell me they love me.
Q: I’ve always had a theory that New England states are like siblings from the same family: they have rivalries and unique characteristics, but when challenged will band together and “defend their identity” to other states. As a fellow geographer from New England, what’s your take on that?
A: New Hampshire is definitely Vermont’s evil twin, but we’ll take it over Texas. Don’t even get me started about Sox-Yankees.
I can be a bit of a Vermont nationalist, but I’d say our industry (probably not uniquely) has flattened the cultural obstacles to collaboration. The folks I interact with on Twitter are everywhere, and it’s almost a non-issue for my career that I don’t live in D.C. or the Bay Area. That’s why I’m a technophile, in a nutshell.
Q: Admittedly, it was over 25 years ago, but Vermont is the only place I’ve observed this phenomenon. Have you seen this, and can you possibly offer an explanation?
A: Witch windows were a cheap alternative to dormers for venting and light on the upper floors of old farmhouses. I worked on a house years ago that had one, but I admit this is the first I realize they’re just a Vermont thing 🙂
Q: Any final words for GeoHipster readers?
A: I don’t personally want to be defined by my struggles against Esri. That comes up a lot in projects that I’m passionate about, but for better or worse they are the “incumbent” in this space, and they are the portal through which many of us enter the world of mapping. I’m probably just mellowing with age, but I’d rather emphasize the positivity of flexible skillsets and robust community in mapping than rant about vendor lock-in. We’ll probably all get more done with that perspective.