After a number of years working with internationally-recognised organisations (Navteq, 1Spatial, OGC, and Ordnance Survey (OS)), Steven is now working for what3words, based in London; they’re helping to simply and precisely communicate location using only words. He also consults for OS, the World Bank, and is a Visiting Professor at the Institute for Future Cities at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland. He is a fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), and of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS).
Q: You’ve had a long and diverse geo career that’s taken you around the world. Briefly take us through your experiences. What makes you a geohipster?
A: Less of the long please! I’m still ONLY in my 40s. I started thinking about geo in my first job in container shipping, so I’m probably more of a geoshipster than geohipster :d)
I wanted to track container shipping in the early 90s, something akin to DHL Smart Sentry today, but the tech just wasn’t there. Then I moved to the marine survey and offshore services arena and was thrown in at the deep end (no pun intended) having to learn the basics of dredging, rig positioning, cable lay surveys, and seismic surveying. Spent considerable time in Aberdeen, Great Yarmouth and IJmuiden in the Netherlands. With the word GPS in my CV, a headhunter contacted me for a job with Navteq (now Nokia HERE) and I was the first market development manager for what was called the Wireless and Internet division. I had a blast dealing with Mapquest, Ericsson, Nokia, Telcontar, Vodafone, and all the other LBS players in the early days, and used to attend GSM in Cannes before it became MWC in Barcelona. I also lost a small fortune when I left Navteq (prior to the Nokia acquisition) and gave up my stock options — a lesson that cost me but also taught me well.
I joined Laser-Scan in 2001 (and helped rename it to 1Spatial) as Product Manager for some spatial tools that operated in databases, essentially server-side topology management in Oracle9i. I stayed there 9 years and was part of the Management Buyout team in 2003, which again taught me a lot but also challenged me considerably. In 2004 my son, Thomas, was born and unfortunately later that year my wife, Nina, was diagnosed with cancer. She’s much better now but I owe a great deal to my colleagues at 1Spatial for their support. In 2010 several people, whom I would call mentors, highlighted a vacancy for an Exec Director position at the OGC – Geoff Zeiss, Maurits van der Vlugt, and Peter Woodsford. So I dropped a note to Mark Reichardt and after a Skype interview with half a dozen people in the US I took on the marketing and communications role. I focussed the comms round ‘location’ reusing an existing strapline (c/o Sam Bacharach): Making location count. I also changed the website (for better or worse) to reflect domains and communities of interest. The biggest topic for me in international geospatial standards is business value and after 4.5 years as the initiator and chair (with some interims) I’ve just stood down from the business value committee. Publishing a paper on standards and INSPIRE, as well as a joint paper on international geospatial standards with INEGI, Mexico for UN-GGIM are some of the small achievements in this area.
Latterly I was invited by Vanessa Lawrence CB (former DG and Chief Exec of OS) to join Ordnance Survey to head up their international activities. I REALLY didn’t want to leave Norway where I had been living near a mountain with a fjord at my back door, but the opportunity was too good to miss and I really admired all the directors and hoped I could learn from them. So for just over two years I ran Ordnance Survey International, building a very competent team of industry experts. The opportunity for OSI to highlight the major investments, lessons learned, and their capabilities around national mapping are massive and a large number of countries can learn from them. Due to health issues I took 3 months off international travel for the first time in 20 years and during that time a number of opportunities arose, which meant I would have to step down from my position as Managing Director. That’s when I joined what3words as a director. I’ve not seen anything this new in geo since Google Earth, at least from the perspective that it can truly have a global impact if adoption happens.
So lots and lots of geo, but I prefer to focus on the policy, strategy and business elements. There’s enough tech experts now today like Scott Morehouse, James Fee, Paul Ramsey, Chris Holmes, Carsten Roensdorf, Joanne Cook, Seb Lessware, Rob Atkinson, Sophia Parafina, Bill Dollins, Anne Kemp, Brian Timoney, Katherine Prebble, Simon Greener, Albert Godfrind, Jo Walsh, Gretchen Peterson, etc.
Q: The geo industry uses software to describe the world. And yet many participants in the industry focus very much on tasks in a single market. National mapping agencies are typically exactly that: national. It’s rare to meet industry insiders considering the global picture. What are the megatrends you see happening globally?
A: Back in 2006 I supported something called ePSIplus, which is now quite fashionable and important around open data and public sector information reuse. I’d like to think that in 8 years’ time what3words will be as important. Addressing is a topic that is being tackled by the UN in Africa, CRCSI in Australia, it’s a topic for debate around OpenStreetMap etc. To me this is more of a policy debate than a technological one. The same for sensors or drones or UAVs and other obvious trends around open data, open source and open standards. I see considerable support and investment coming through collective or community activities, such as CitiSense for the World Bank or UN-GGIM.
As I travelled the world with the OGC and OS, I often saw different flavours of the same problem: how to access, share and benefit from geospatial information resources (also how to fund them nationally). I also see many individuals and organisations jumping on the IoT, smart/future/connected cities, big data etc. bandwagon, and actually not enough attention being paid to data quality and access/sharing issues; all the technology in the world is not particularly helpful if the fundamentals are not there. Fitness for purpose is therefore one of my favourite terms.
Q: You were executive director of the Open Geospatial Consortium, a global body with many governmental organisations around the world developing open geospatial standards. But one of the biggest innovations in geo in the last decade has been the rise of crowdsourcing, most notably OpenStreetMap, which has no real defined standards, no one specifically “in charge”, and, by design, only a very rudimentary structure. Many attribute OSM’s success precisely to its simplicity. So which is it? Is the future top-down standards or bottom-up innovation?
A: The OGC, OSGeo, OSM and all the other open initiatives function based on communities and volunteer support, but communities need leaders. Not dictators or people with a personal, vested interest, but those with vision and tough skin. I watched Steve Coast from afar and thought he did a fabulous job, but he obviously decided to move on. It may need some more similar energy and enthusiasm to reinvigorate the community. The smart money is probably on Kate Chapman and the teams working on Humanitarian OpenStreetMap and Missing Maps. I’ve been fortunate that some of the leading open mapping and crowdsourcing people in the UK are friends, Muki Haklay, Peter Ter Haar and the #geohippy Steven Feldman, better to ask their views, they’re better qualified on this topic.
But to answer your question explicitly, I think it’s a balance of government policy driving procurement language for existing, proven geospatial standards and therefore vendor software compliance with those standards. Then bottom-up technological advances that move faster than government policy and where the crowd determines the usefulness and value of the solution.
Q: You recently left one of the oldest, most traditional geo brands in the world, the UK’s Ordnance Survey, to join the geo start-up what3words. Explain your reasons, beyond the obvious hipster points of being able to say you work at a start-up.
A: As mentioned earlier, I still support Ordnance Survey (in my spare time) through my consulting firm, advising them on geospatial standards and smart cities. When I met Chris Sheldrick, the cofounder and CEO of what3words, I completely understood his passion for simply and precisely communicating location, and I was impressed that he came from running a music events company! Chris won’t mind me saying, but he wasn’t really aware of organisations such as Esri or Pitney Bowes, and he certainly hadn’t had much exposure to geocoding prior to setting up what3words. Kevin Pomfret introduced Denise Mckenzie to Chris, and Denise then introduced me. I’m sort of the geo industry veteran in the team, and so I have seen and done some of the things we want to try, and so hopefully I add value. After 20 years working in the location sector, I also have a fairly decent international network that we are connecting with daily.
It’s not really about making it trendy for me (any more). My mother was nominated as Scottish person of the year 2006 and she was awarded an MBE for her services to the community, so I’ve got major aspirations to try and do something similar to what my parents achieved in Scotland. Since geo is where it’s at, I’m hoping I can make a difference through what3words.
Q: One complaint leveled against What3Words is that it is not open. Is it possible to be hip and closed?
A: Twitter. Facebook. iTunes. At least one of these apps is used by us, our friends, or family daily. I think this shows that it is possible. However, for a number of people it is not necessarily a simple case of open or closed — what concerns them is how they will be charged in the future and to that end we come up with a model that doesn’t charge citizens or end users in the event of humanitarian assistance or international development activities.
Q: You’re a guest lecturer at Southampton University. What’s the advice you’d give to the geohipsters out there at the start of their geo careers. Should they be trying to land a job at a “big name”? Should they be joining (or founding) a geo-focused start-up?
A: Interestingly enough I was a guest lecturer at the Business School, not the Geography Department, presenting to MSc students on global entrepreneurship, strategy and innovation. I’ve obviously done both and I think it does pay to gain experience in different-sized organisations, different industry footprints, and different visions and missions. If you can put up with trying to navigate through large organisations and cope with the bureaucracy and communication challenges, you certainly learn a lot and have more resources available. But nothing beats doing it firsthand where you understand innately cash flow and customer service — the basis for any business.
Q: Any closing thoughts for all the geohipsters out there?
A: There are some fabulous people in the geospatial community, and that’s what makes doing our jobs fun. My global network is not all geohipsters, and that’s good because we need different kinds of people to challenge us to keep us awake and relevant. Also many of my network have become friends over the years and that means places to stay! A large number of people have done the groundwork for future geohipsters, and so it’s a great time to build on all that work and take it to the next level.
Finally, a shameless plug. Think about the 135 countries out there that have poor or no addressing and how what3words could help support economic growth, international development, financial inclusion and other areas.
Disclosure: Ed Freyfogle is a co-founder of Lokku Ltd, which is a seed investor in What3Words.