Tag Archives: startup

Steven Feldman: “Geohippies want to make a difference through disruption, geo-evangelism, and a bit of altruism”

Steven Feldman
Steven Feldman

Steven Feldman (@StevenFeldman) is founder of geo consultancy KnowWhere, chairman of geo.me, chairman of Exprodat Consulting, a strategic advisor to Astun Technology, a Special Lecturer at the School of Geography at the University of Nottingham, and chair of the Local Organizing Committee for FOSS4G 2013. He is part of the Taarifa team and helped start the OSM-GB project. Previously he was head of professional services at whereonearth.com and UK Managing Director of MapInfo.

Steven was interviewed for GeoHipster by Ed Freyfogle while the two were at #WhereBerlin.

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.

Q: You blogged once about someone from the corporate world asking why you “waste” your time with small companies. Geo is dominated by giants like Esri, Google, TeleAtlas, Navteq, or national mapping agencies like the Ordnance Survey. Do start-ups have a chance to be globally relevant, or are they consigned to the niches? In your post you conclude small, nimble, OSS companies will eat the lunch of the incumbents. Still feel that way?

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.

Ed Freyfogle: “Every startup is vulnerable, that’s what makes it exciting”

Ed Freyfogle
Ed Freyfogle

Ed Freyfogle is a German/American entrepreneur living in London. He is one of the founders of Lokku, makers of the OpenCage Geocoder.

Ed was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.

Q: You are the only geo person I know with an MBA from MIT. By contrast, I know people who wish they had an MBA from an Ivy League school so they could get out of geo. So what is your story? How did you get into geo?

A: It’s a bit of a long story, so bear with me.

I guess like most people “in the industry” I’ve always liked maps, as a kid was drawing maps, all that kind of stuff. Before MIT I had worked  as a software developer at Yahoo Germany during the first internet wave of the late nineties. It was a great case of being in the right place at the right time. I learned an immense amount. After five years there, with all its amazing ups and then the downs of the crash in 2001, it was time for something new. Also, while I really enjoyed programming I also wanted to learn the business side. So I got an MBA at MIT and thought a lot about what I wanted to do, and where I wanted to do it (I mainly grew up in the US). My conclusion was that I had really enjoyed Yahoo when it was small and had the startup feel; when I joined the Munich office was 15 people and I got to work on pretty much every system. I also concluded I had really enjoyed living in Europe. So in 2005 I moved to London in the hopes of finding a startup to join. Back then the scene was microscopic compared to today, I couldn’t find a startup where I liked the people, the idea, my role, etc. So in the end I started my own company, Lokku, along with another ex-Yahoo, and we’re still thriving today.

Those that know their geo history will recall that 2005 was the year Google Maps came out, shortly followed by Housing Maps, the first “mash-up” to put pins on a map. Heady times! Lokku’s first product, and still our biggest, was a real estate search engine called Nestoria. Initially we were just for London, today we’re in nine countries. A friend of mine from Yahoo, Mikel Maron (who later went on to start Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team), knew about maps, and was advising us, and that’s how I got into the London OpenStreetMap scene, going to a few of the pub meet-ups. I’m proud to say we sponsored the very first State of the Map conference back in 2006 (and have sponsored many more since). In 2006 there was a mapping party on the Isle of Wight, and afterwards we made tiles and started using them on Nestoria if someone searched for a home on the Isle of Wight. I’m pretty sure this was the first ever commercial use of OSM in a consumer service.

A few years later we launched Nestoria India and Nestoria Brazil. To do that we needed geodata for those countries. I have the sense most readers of this blog focus on the US or Canada, and I have no doubt there are impressive technical and licensing challenges around getting US geodata, but if you want to experience some grade-A bureaucracy I invite you, dear reader, to try to purchase Indian geodata. It was impossible, at least for a tiny start-up like ours. So basically we had to launch using only OpenStreetMap as our geodata source. I can not pretend OSM in India is perfect, it still lacks coverage. But then of course so does any other geo datasource given how rapidly things are changing in India. Anyway, OSM was good enough, and now Nestoria India is one of our fastest growing markets. This is classic “Innovator’s Dilemma” stuff, the new technology is “good enough” for experimentation, and then all of a sudden it’s good enough for day to day stuff, and then all of a sudden it’s the norm, and the existing models with their old cost structure can’t compete.

So we thought about that and thought about whether there is a way we could help make that happen, and the result was last year we launched our brand OpenCage Data. Our hypothesis was that companies want to use OSM, but right now it’s too chaotic for them – the documentation isn’t always great, the way to learn is to get on mailing lists, the toolset around OSM is evolving very rapidly — and that all of this puts off companies who are used to more stability. We talked with lots of people, anyone who might have any possible use case for geodata, but especially people outside of the existing market. Companies put off by the cost, or not even really aware of how using geodata would help them. We learned a lot: OSM is not on most people’s radar yet. The thing that came up again and again was geocoding. So this summer we launched the OpenCage geocoder. We try to differentiate on simplicity/ease of use, by aggregating many different open geodata sources, and by then annotating our results with things developers would find useful. It’s early days, but we’re learning a lot and getting good feedback.

Finally, over the years we’ve been approached by a lot of different people asking for advice, help. We never had a good framework to channel that so we usually said no. But over the last year we’ve started seed investing in some of these ideas. We provide a bit of money, but also advice, connections, etc. It has to be in a category we have expertise in and one of those is geo, so now we’re involved in a few different geo startups.

Q: You are involved with several startups, and you run the #geomob London event. How do you manage to juggle so many different things?

A: Well some of the things I’m a driver, others it’s just as an investor / advisor, but yeah, there is plenty to keep me busy — also I have two small children, so there’s not a lot of down time.

#geomob is a regular event we run. It’s a lot of fun. It is amazing how many cool things are happening in geo and location-based services in London (the city where OpenStreetMap was invented). We try to create a forum to show off that innovation. Every few months we have an evening event where five or six different speakers get 15 minutes each to talk about their project. And it’s not all startups — we usually have a good mix of startups, hobbyists, academics, and the occasional megacorp. Afterwards we all go to the pub and have a few beers. We see lots of wacky ideas and experiments. And some of those crazy ideas turn into great things. Some of the speakers are polished, some aren’t. It’s a healthy mix from all across the geo spectrum.

Our next event is November 4th, if you’re in London, join us.

Q: I am intrigued by the business side of a geo startup. I watched your APICon 2014 presentation where you talk about OpenCage Geocoder — your latest startup. Your MBA background comes through strongly in that presentation. You are also very open about your business strategy. Doesn’t that make the business vulnerable?

A: Every startup is vulnerable, that’s what makes it exciting. No risk, no fun.

Lots of people who work in big companies or organizations perhaps don’t appreciate that with a startup the main challenge is creating momentum from a standing start. You start with literally nothing. And then you have to make it happen. No one comes to you. You have to create the momentum.

In general it is clear there is massive societal benefit to open data. But it’s not yet clear if all of that benefit goes to the end consumer and is just a cost society needs to shoulder (i.e., through taxes so that government services release all their data), or if there is role for private companies. Our bet is that there is. Anyone who has feedback on what we’re up to we’d love to hear from.

BTW, I’m choosing to take your “You MBA background comes through strongly in that presentation” as a compliment.

Q: In the same talk you refer to “Berlin, Berlin” as an error of redundancy. But do you know that there is a Berlin in New Jersey, another in Maryland, and yet another in Connecticut? Maybe “Berlin, Berlin” does make sense after all? Or perhaps addressing cannot — or should not — be standardized globally?

A: For those who aren’t familiar with the problem here’s a brief description. I was in Berlin, Germany, I tweeted, and Twitter showed my location as “Berlin, Berlin” (i.e., Berlin the city, in Berlin the state). Of course there are multiple Berlins, but Twitter has the coordinates from my phone. There is no ambiguity. They know I am in Berlin, capital city of Germany, yet they choose to show the location in a way that makes no sense to a local.

Absolutely addressing can not be standardized globally. It’s too late, there are almost as many formats as there are countries. That’s part of the rich tapestry of the human experience. Software should be able to solve the problem and present the location in the way a local considers normal.  I blogged about this and how we’re solving it on the OpenCage geocoder. Our solution is open source and we’d love everyone’s help. Pull requests here please.

Q: On addressing: I like What3Words and what they do, but how realistic is it to expect the whole world (including non-English speaking regions) to embrace an entirely new spatial reference system? Do you think this will happen before or after the US adopts the metric system?

A: Many industries and contexts in the US have adopted the metric system, as you’ll know if you buy a 2-liter of Coke. But I take your point that it isn’t the norm in most consumers’ heads. But so what? That doesn’t stop the rest of the world from using it to get their tasks done.

And it’s the same with a solution like What3Words. It is not an immediately compelling solution in a place like London, which is well addressed and has highly accurate postcodes. But if you’ve ever been to a meeting in India you will concede that there are parts of the world where addressing can only be described as a disaster. There are no addresses. You are navigating by landmark and frankly it is hugely painful. Not just for me the tourist, but for the locals as well. Those parts of the world need a better solution, and it needs to be one that is simple enough for the average person. That solution is not long/lat. I think it might be What3Words.

As a product person, What3Words is great in its attempt to make something complicated simple. I recently watched this excellent talk by Vladimir Agafonkin, maker of the mapping library Leaflet, on simplicity, and how it is needed in geo. It’s too early to say if What3Words will succeed, but I love that they are innovating by being simple. As an investor What3Words falls squarely in that category of most people dismiss it as crazy, but it just might not be, and if it succeeds it will be on a massive scale.

But if some parts of the world want to keep doing things the hard way or say measuring temperature in Fahrenheit, that’s cool. It’s a big world and there’s usually more than one way to do it.

Q: SplashMaps is another one of your business ventures, and the most hipstery one, IMHO. How did you come up with the idea? How is the business doing? Are the maps selling?

A: We’re just investors in SplashMaps, full credit goes to David and the team. But I agree with you, it is hip. It’s an amazing product, a customisable fabric map, perfect for all sorts of outdoor uses where you’ll get wet, muddy, sweaty, etc. So yes, in 2014 I’ve invested in a company that makes physical maps, which I guess is a little contrarian. I wrote about all our reasons for investing on our blog.

Good news for all the hipsters out there who can’t wait to get their hands on one (did I mention Christmas is coming?); in the very near future SplashMaps will be available globally, to date they’ve only been in Great Britian. If you know a geohipster who needs a gift, you’re going to have a tough time beating a SplashMap.

For me, SplashMaps is exciting because it’s a great example of the kind of innovation that’s possible when the barriers around access to and cost of geodata go away. I’m also more intrigued lately by taking digital products and bringing them back to analog as a way to create value. You can go on a tough hike using your digital map. But people want tangible artifacts they can hang memories and stories on. Everyone in the geo industry can remember the pleasure of gathering around an atlas, looking at far away tropical islands, sliding your finger along a journey you took. This tangible experience is a basic human urge that digital doesn’t meet, and one that SplashMaps taps into.

Q: I understand you moved out of Shoreditch, which is London’s counterpart to Williamsburg in Brooklyn. What’s up with that?

A: Don’t worry, I now live in the Barbican in central London. Shoreditch’s not far, but it’s gone a bit too upmarket. Anyway, I think of myself not so much as a hipster as a digital brutalist, so the Barbican’s a better match for me, my wife, and our two kids. All that said, these days the cool kids are all in Moabit and Wedding, so I’m working on convincing my wife it’s her idea that we move to Berlin. Let’s see.

Q: We haven’t talked about humor on GeoHipster, which I realize is a serious lapse. Let’s fix that. You were a humor columnist for the MIT student newspaper. Do you have a joke I haven’t heard?

A: Wow, you’ve done your research. Yeah, I used to write an anonymous advice column for the school newspaper called “Ask Alfred” in which I pretended to be a greedy and lecherous version of Alfred P. Sloan, the business school’s namesake (CEO of GM, often credited with inventing the modern corporation). In hindsight it was an attempt to poke fun at the divergence between the high-minded ideals espoused by the school and the profit-driven reality (greed, if you will) of the industries most MBAs go into. On the other hand though, I do think in the open geo world, particularly here in Europe, there’s a tendency to err too far in the other direction — thinking everything should be free all the time, all code needs to open source, we all need to be motivated by altruism all the time. As anyone trying to pay rent in central London will tell you, goodwill alone will not get you far.

I’m not sure what the joke is here. These days my comedy is more situational and slapstick.

Q: Thank you so much for the interview. Any parting words for the GeoHipster readers?

A: In the geo industry (if I can say so as an outsider) we all get that something major has changed with the rise of the smartphone; all of a sudden we all carry around a supercomputer that knows exactly where we are at all times. But I don’t think anyone grasps how radically this will change everything. For everyone, but particularly for the geo industry. We are at the start of an amazing ride. Anyone who’s up for the trip I would love to meet with. So if you’re London come say hello, we’ll go grab a pint. If that makes me a geohipster, so be it.