Tag Archives: TasNetworks

Alex Leith: “A picture tells a thousand words, a map tells a million”

Alex Leith
Alex Leith
Alex is currently employed as a Spatial Information Analyst at TasNetworks and is a director at the Surveying and Spatial Sciences Institute. Alex graduated with a degree in Surveying and Spatial Sciences with honours in 2011, and has since worked in technical spatial roles. Alex has presented at international, national and local conferences and organises regional spatial events including State of GIS and GeoRabble. Alex lives in Hobart, Tasmania.

Q: You work for TasNetworks. What does the company do?

A: TasNetworks is a transmission and distribution business, which is to say that it’s a power company that manages the really big poles and wires as well as the smaller ones. Electrical engineering is all new to me, and one of the important things about our GIS is the electrical connectivity model, which is like topology, but includes all the switches, fuses, links and other accoutrements of managing an electricity network. TasNetworks is an organisation of around a thousand employees including five hundred field staff.

Q: What software/technology stack do you all use?

A: It’s a big organisation, and there’s a lot of technology. Keeping it just to GIS, we use G/Technology as the master GIS database for editing the electricity network’s spatial data and connectivity and to manage the network model. This database gets de-normalised into a big Oracle ‘Spatial Data Warehouse’ (SDW), and a number of other systems get their data staged into this database too. It’s a really big database, and contains lots of data (and a bit of information!). From the SDW, we move to a number of desktop GIS users, who use GeoMedia Professional. And there’s a couple of installations of GeoMedia WebMap, which has over three hundred unique weekly users internally. GeoMedia definitely feels like a legacy product (both desktop and WebMap) and I’m a technology guy, and love playing with the tools, so I’ve started to use some other things that are new to the business, such as GeoServer and Leaflet for single-purpose web-mapping, and QGIS for desktop data exploration. We’ve got FME, which is really important, but it’s only used for ETL, which is like using an AI to make paper clips! I’m pretty big on open-source, but I can be really efficient with FME, and it’s definitely my favourite piece of technology.

Q: You worked for the Glenorchy City Council for some time. What was the city doing that was innovative? What was it behind on?

A: Glenorchy, as I left, was embarking on a ‘cloud’ migration, shifting a range of IT services to an ‘as a service’ model. This is all well and good, but you still need good people in-house. And there’s a compromise there between letting someone else take responsibility for systems, and internal folks architecting and overseeing and owning what they’re doing. I don’t know how they’re going to go with it, but notching some of the IT capability up is important. It’s often just seen as an expense, IT, rather than an enabler and an efficiency provider. Without an IT solution, you end up with paper work orders and double or triple handling of information. At worst, you enter data into multiple different systems and inevitably have data quality issues. Council was pretty good at core business systems and IT services, and was at the right scale, in that there was good virtualised infrastructure, and not too much bureaucracy locking it down. I had the benefit of having an excellent, technical leader, who trusted me to mess with the crazy stuff I got running. I just hope that I documented enough for those that follow me. (Do you hate me, Steve?!)

Q: What are some lessons you have learned along the way when developing systems for TasNetworks and Glenorchy City Council?

A: I’m only very new to TasNetworks, but at Glenorchy City Council I was privileged in that I was trusted to take some risks. So I designed and implemented an open data and public mapping portal. This went from non-existent to a couple of thousand hits a month over two years, which is great. It was all done using open-source and Amazon Web Services, so, aside from my time, it cost very little to get started. Something I took away from that, though, is that technology and information products are fine, but there is a whole swath of training and education that is required to get people (field staff, in this case) to change their way of working. Getting a system up technically is just step one (or two, after planning) and I had hoped that it would diffuse through the workforce naturally. Looking back, there was n opportunity to increase awareness and usage of the mobile mapping components of the portal with regular training and workshops.

Q: What skill is on your list to master next?

A: There’s always more technology stuff to keep an eye out for, but often it’s pointless until there is a working implementation. Some things I think are going to be important are vector tiles and machine learning. To some extent, the Internet of things and self-driving cars are worth being aware of, but the spatial technology they use, by the time they use it, is infrastructure – you can take it for granted. In terms of what I’d like to master, I think it’s the soft skills. The people stuff. Negotiation and persuasion, for example, probably needs some thought. I tend to think it’s obvious that we should be heading in a certain direction (and it is!), but ensuring that the intuitive thinking that comes from working with the tech gets translated into a convincing argument – and subsequent engagement – is next in line for mastery from me.

Q: How do you think growing up in the southern hemisphere has impacted the way you view maps?

A: Well, the mercator projection has fostered European imperialist attitudes for centuries. I think it’s time people stopped with their ‘top and bottom’ attitudes, let alone the sheer arrogance of the GeoHipster sticker, which leaves 90% of the Australian population off its tartan atrocity! An advantage of living in the southern hemisphere is that we can lay claim to practically everything with ‘it’s the biggest <something> in the southern hemisphere’ and it’s probably true.

Q: What are some of your favorite maps? Why?

A: I’ve been exploring interactive mapping for a while, and really like using Leaflet to build things. But there’s a lot of stuff I really like that uses other tech.

This wind map from Cameron Beccario is fantastic. It’s fast to load, simple to understand, and is really pretty. So much complex stuff hidden behind that interesting map. It uses D3.

Cartograms are really nice, and exploit TopoJSON, which is really cool (data compression using topology is nice, as is topological simplification). This example also uses D3.

I’m also intrigued with the stuff that Michael Bostock does, such as this very hip map using hexagons, but in a pretty unique way. He wrote D3. (I tried to learn D3, but didn’t get far… What’s with the learning curve, eh, Mike?!).

Final map, this housing unaffordability map out of the Guardian is pretty fantastic… I actually don’t know what tech they used, but it’s great to see media companies getting so deep into data visualisation.

Q: What is the biggest hurdle you see in the geospatial field?  

A: Biggest hurdle? Probably communicating the idea that so much business information can be unlocked by putting it on a map. A picture tells a thousand words, and maybe a map tells a million. In local government, the GIS is the hub between the property system, the asset management system and all the external agency data, like transportation, environmental, and geomorphological data. Without a GIS, your decision making gets slowed down considerably, or processes become ad-hoc and inconsistent, or important considerations are missed. And in a bigger place, like TasNetworks, there are huge opportunities in areas such as routing work crews, grouping work orders geographically, and then forward works planning with other utilities and agencies… It’s one thing to know that we could be doing these things and that they’ll save money, and another to convince a business of that and therefore spending money on the GIS. Like investments in information technology generally, geospatial technology is an efficiency driver, but it’s often underappreciated, underinvested or taken for granted.

Q: What is your opinion on imagery drones? Do you envision using one in the next few years?

A: A lecturer of mine at UTAS has been working with UAVs for some time using structure from motion algorithms to generate imagery and point clouds, so I understand how they work. And Chris Anderson’s company sounds like it’s going to be big (if it’s not already). I wonder if drones are a case of legislation being unable to keep up with technology, though.There are uses of drones now, such as real estate photography, which are becoming common, but the businesses are probably not licensed appropriately. In Australia, you need to get CASA certification, which just about requires a pilot’s license, in order to do anything except for recreational flights. That’s a lot of formal shenanigans when you can buy a robot helicopter for $500 and start making money! TasNetworks does have a couple of use-cases for UAVs, though there are so many assets, you need something that can cover a lot of ground. Ergon energy, in Queensland, has been doing some fancy stuff with remote sensing and its massive lengths of transmission lines. This could definitely be replaced with a large drone (and I think theirs is basically that). Generally, I reckon utilisation of drones will become commonplace over the next few years, but I think I’ll be a consumer of a service rather than an operator. I much prefer software over hardware!

Q: What is the Tasmanian mapping community like?  

A: The Tasmanian mapping community is great! There’s the government side, with TASSIC, who do big things in terms of advocacy. The professional arm, the SSSI, run reasonably large events such as the State of GIS every year. And there’s the informal, with GeoRabble, which is inclusive and fun.

Q: What are some startups (geo or non-geo) that you follow?

A: I’m interested to watch MapBox and CartoDB push ahead into the spatial-IT sphere. Fulcrum is a nice software and service too. And I’m interested to see what I can do with Zapier. Web development without a server-side component seems so much easier!

Q: Choices (Which do you prefer?)

  • Data or design
    • Data, gotta have data
  • Functionality or beauty
    • Functionality, the beauty comes from the simplicity of that functionality
  • Historical or futuristic
    • Futuristic. I, for one…
  • Markers or pins
    • Markers (can I choose circular markers?)
  • Clustering or heat maps
    • Clustering, hexbins ftw
  • Markdown or Handlebars
    • Markdown… I’m still just getting used to Bootstrap!
  • GeoServer or MapServer
    • GeoServer, for sure. But we’ve got to do better than bloody SLD…

Q: And other things…?

  • Black and local coffee or pour over with butter
    • Black coffee for me.
  • MapMyRun or Strava
    • Wha?
  • Twitter or Facebook
  • Commuter or road bike
    • Who?

Q: … and one more, what do you do in your free time that makes you a geohipster?

A: Well I did make a hex-map before they were cool (with some inspiration). Did I tell you I knit maps yet? I knit maps, then scan them at 10 µm before faxing them to myself (that’s actually pretty difficult to do these days, have you seen an A0 fax machine around recently?) and print that out with archival quality ink on papyrus, because that way it looks ironically rustic and will last the ages.

But more seriously, I have a young family, which is challenging and a lot of fun. I spend time and energy with the SSSI pretending I’m a professional. And I like GeoRabble events, networking with craft beer and smart folks to solve the world’s problems!