Tag Archives: Will Cadell

Will Cadell: “Cities are people, and people are maps”

Will Cadell
Will Cadell
Will Cadell is the founder and CEO of Sparkgeo.com, a Prince George-based business which builds geospatial technology for some of the biggest companies on Earth. Since starting Sparkgeo, he has been helping startups, large enterprises, and non-profits across North America make the most of location and geospatial technology.

Leading a team of highly specialized, deeply skilled geospatial web engineers, Will has built products, won patents, and generally broken the rules. Holding a degree in Electronic and Electrical Engineering and a Masters in Environmental Remote Sensing, Will has worked in academia, government, and in the private sector on two different continents, making things better with technology. He is on the board of Innovation Central Society, a non-profit society committed to growing and supporting technology entrepreneurs in North Central BC.

I’m not really old enough to reflect on cartography and its “nature”, however I want to comment on a trend I see in the modern state of our art and suggest a pattern back to an old truism.

At Sparkgeo we have a unique position in the market. Let me clarify that position, we create web mapping products. Meaning cartographic or simply geographic products which are built for people to consume primarily via web browsers. Additionally, we are vendor agnostic and continue to push the idea of geographic excellence & client pragmatism rather than particular brands. We work with organizations as diverse as financial institutions, startups, big tech, satellite companies and non-profits. In essence we build a lot of geographic technology, for a lot of very different organizations. We have also created paper maps, but in the last half decade I haven’t created a paper product. Not because we haven’t pursued projects of this nature, but because no one has asked us to. To be clear, we have created signage, for trail networks and such, but our activity with personal mapping products has moved to the web almost completely.

Telling. But not entirely surprising given that maps are largely tools and tools evolve with available technology.

Our position in the market, therefore is as a company creating cartographic products using the medium which is most pertinent to the users of that product. In the vast majority, those users are on a computer or most likely a mobile device.

Maps are of course defined by their relationship between things and people. An art form which links people to events and things on our (or indeed any other) planet. People and places, my friends. This will be obvious to most of my readers here, but what may be less obvious is the linkage therefore that our industry must have to cities. More-so, that cities and indeed urbanization have and will continue to craft the art of cartography for our still young millennium.

I say this whilst flying from one highly urbanized place to another, but also whilst calling relative rurality home. I am a great fan of open space, but even I can see that large groups of people are sculpting the future of our industry. It could be argued that cartography was originally driven by the ideas of discovery & conquest. Conquest or our more modern equivalence, “defense” is still very much an industrial presence. Subsequently, it could be argued that ‘GIS’ was driven by the resource sector, indeed much effort is still being undertaken in this space. I would have, until the last half decade, still argued that geospatial was in the majority the domain of those in the defense trade and the resource sector. Not so now. We have become an urban animal and with that urbanization it is clear that the inhabitants and administrators of our cities will drive geospatial. Cities and their evolution into smart cities will determine how we understand digital geography.

Let’s take a look at some of the industrial ecology which has enabled this trend. My hope is to engender some argument and discussion. Feel free to dissent and challenge, we are all better for it. I want to talk briefly about 5 key features of our environment which have individually, but more-so together, altered the tide of our industry.

1. people

It is clear that the general trend has and is continuing to be for people to move toward cities (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urbanization_by_country). Now, though I dispute that this is necessary (https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/location-life-livelihood-will-cadell), I cannot ignore the evidence that clearly describes the mass migration of people of most nationalities towards the more urbanized areas of their worlds. Our pastoral days have been coming to an end for some time. We will of course always need food, but the vast majority of Earth’s population will be in or around cities. The likelihood of employment, economy, and *success* are central to this trend it seems.

Where there are people there is entrepreneurism, administration and now, devices. Entrepreneurism and devices mean data; administration and devices mean data.

2. devices

Our world is becoming urbanized and our urbanized world is connected. Our devices, our sensors, are helping to augment our realities with extra information. The weather of the place we are about to arrive at, the result of a presidential debate, the nearest vendor of my favorite coffee and opinions disputing the quality of my favorite coffee. Ah, the Internet. My reality is now much wider than it would have been without my device. Some might argue shallower too, but that is a different discussion. The central point here is that my device detects things about my personal universe and stores those data points in a variety of places. I now travel with three devices: a laptop, tablet and phone. This would have been ludicrous to me a decade ago, but much of what I do now would have been ludicrous a decade ago. We truly live in the future. Much of that future has been enabled by devices and our subsequently connected egos.

Devices capture data. Really, all a device is is a node attached to a variety of greater networks. Whether those networks are temperature gradients, a telephonic grid, home wifi, elevation or a rapid transit line, the device is simply trying to record its place in our multidimensional network and relay that in some meaningful way back to you and likely a software vendor. Devices capture and receive data on those networks. That data could be your voice or a location, and that data could be going A N Y W H E R E.

But, the fact that the data is multidimensional and likely has a location component is critical for the geospatially inclined amongst us. The crowd-sourced effect, coupled with the urbanization effect equal enormous amounts of location data. That is the basic social contract of consumer geospatial.

3. connectivity

Of course, the abilities of our devices are magnified by connectivity, wifi, or whatever. Although Sparkgeo is still creating online – offline solutions for data capture, these are becoming more an exception than the rule. Connectivity is a modern utility, it is a competitive advantage that urban centers have over rurality. With increased connectivity we have great access to data transfer, connectivity is thus enabling geographic data capture. Its presence encourages the use of devices which captures data which is often geographic. Urban areas have greater access to connectivity due to the better economies of scale for the cellular and cable companies (who are quickly becoming digital media distribution companies). It is simple really; more people in less area equals more money for less infrastructural investment. For the purposes of this article in reality we just need to concede that those multitude of devices talked about above are more connected for less money in cities than anywhere else.

4. compute

Compute is the ability to turn the data we collect into ‘more’, whatever that might mean; perhaps some data science, or ‘analysis’ like we used to call it, perhaps some machine learning. In essence compute is joining data to a process to achieve something greater. Amazon Web Services, and subsequently Microsoft’s Azure and Google’s Cloud platforms have provided us with amazing access to relatively inexpensive infrastructure which supports the ability to undertake meaningful compute on the web. Not enough can be said about the opportunity that increased compute on the web provides, but consider that GIS has typically be data limited and RAM limited. With access to robust cloud networks, those two limitations have been entirely removed.

5. data

People and devices mean data. Without doubt, lots of people and lots of devices mean lots of data, but there is also likely a multiplier effect here too as we become accustomed to creating data via communication and consumption of digital services. As an example, more ride-sharing happens in urbanized locations, so more data is created in that regard. Connectivity to various networks enabled those rides. Compute will be applied to those recorded data points to determine everything from the cost of the journey to the impact on a municipal transit network and congestion. At every step in that chain of events more data was created, obviously adding more data volume, but also greater opportunity for understanding, of what is yet to be seen. Beyond consumer applications however, city administration and their data also play deeply into this equation.

With these supportive trends we have seen two ends of our industry grow enormously. It is a wonderful, organic symbiosis really.

On one hand we have the idea of consumer geospatial (Google Maps, Mapbox), which has put robust mapping platforms in the hands of everyone with an appropriate device. Consumer geospatial has enabled activities like location based social networks (Nextdoor), location based advertising (Pokemon Go), ride sharing (Uber, Lyft), wearables (Fitbit, Apple watch), quantified self (Strava, Life360), connected vehicles (Tesla, Uber), digital realty (Zillow), and many others.

On another hand we have seen the rise in the availability of data, and in particular open data. Open data is the publishing of data sets describing features of potentially public interest such as financial reports, road networks, public health records, zip-code areas, census statistics, detected earthquakes, etc.

The great promises of open data are increased transparency and an enabling effect. The enabling of entrepreneurism based on the availability of data to which value can subsequently be added. Typically, bigger cities have more open data available. This is not always true, and the developing world is still approaching this problem, but in general terms a bigger population pays more tax which supports a bigger municipal infrastructure which therefore has the ability to do ‘more’. In recent discussions I am still asked if those promises are being kept, is the investment worth it? The idea of transparency is ‘above my pay grade’, but I can genuinely attest to the entrepreneurial benefit of open data. Though, that benefit might not be realized in the geographic community where the data is published. As a community of data consumers however, we do benefit through better navigational aids, more robust consumer geospatial platforms and ‘better technology’. As a company we at Sparkgeo have recently built a practice around the identification, assessment, cleansing and generalization of open data, because demand for this work never ceases. It’s clear that our open data revolution is in a somewhat chaotic (*ref) phase, but is very much here to stay.

Our geospatial technology industry has taken note too. Greater emphasis from Esri on opening municipal datasets through their http://opendata.arcgis.com/ program is an interesting way for cities who might easily already be using Esri products to get more data “out”. Additionally, Mapbox Cities (https://www.mapbox.com/blog/mapbox-cities/) is a program which is also looking at how to magnify the urban data effect. Clearly there is industrial interest in supporting cities in the management of ever growing data resources. Consider that Uber, an overtly urban company is building its very own map fabric.

If we combine the ideas of consumer geospatial and those of open data, what do we reveal? Amongst other things we can see that more & better data result in many benefits for the consumer, typically in the form of services and products. But we can also see that too much focus on the consumer & crowd based data can be problematic. Indeed, the very nature of the ‘crowd’ is to be less precise and more general. The ‘mob’ is not very nuanced, yet. For crowd based nuance, we can look to advances in machine learning and AI. In the meantime, it’s great to ask the crowd if something exists, but it’s terrible to ask the crowd where that thing is, precisely.

> “is there a new subdivision?” – “yes!”

> “When, exactly should my automated vehicle start to initiate its turn to enter that new subdivision?” – “Now, no wait, now… stop, go back”

Generalization and subsequent trend determination is the domain of the crowd; precision through complex environments is something much more tangible, especially if you miss the turn. As we move towards our automated vehicle future, once that vehicle knows a new subdivision exists, then conceivably it can use on-board LiDAR to provide highly detailed data back to whomever it may concern. This is really where smart cities need to enter our purview. Smart Cities will help join the consumer web to the municipal web, and indeed numerous other webs too. Not to be too facetious, but my notion of consumer geospatial could also be a loose description of an Internet of Things (IoT) application. Smart cities are in essence an expansive IoT problem set.

It’s clear that cities with their growing populations have in-part driven our understanding of people and digital geography through greater data volume. But as we push harder into what a future smart city will look like, we will also start to see even greater multiplier effects.

Will Cadell: “People talk about ‘thinking outside the box’; I don’t think there is a box anymore”

Will Cadell
Will Cadell
Will Cadell is the founder and CEO of Sparkgeo.com, a Prince George-based business which builds geospatial technology for some of the biggest companies on Earth. Since starting Sparkgeo, he has been helping startups, large enterprises, and non-profits across North America make the most of location and geospatial technology.

Leading a team of highly specialized, deeply skilled geospatial web engineers, Will has built products, won patents, and generally broken the rules. Holding a degree in Electronic and Electrical Engineering and a Masters in Environmental Remote Sensing, Will has worked in academia, government, and in the private sector on two different continents, making things better with technology. He is on the board of Innovation Central Society, a non-profit society committed to growing and supporting technology entrepreneurs in North Central BC.

Q: Sparkgeo. What does your company do exactly? Do you have any competitors in the custom geospatial consulting field?

A: At Sparkgeo we put maps on the internet.

I try to keep this description as simple as possible. It goes back to the question of what a GIS person does, which is actually really hard to explain and terribly boring at dinner parties. Instead, I stick to maps and the internet, both of which are critical features of what Sparkgeo does. The other leg of our stool is people. Really, we work in places where maps meet people on the internet.

We find ourselves doing lots of interesting things. Things like building data pipelines, building geospatial compute engines, building UIs, undertaking broad data acquisition and analysis projects. We have found ourselves in the enviable position of only doing interesting things.

With that in mind we end up touching the “full stack”. A web mapping project is actually a full stack effort; you must consider every piece of the data flow to build a great map. The web map is the tip of the spear, but the data supporting that map is really the shaft, it’s the weight of the effort. Understanding the linkages between data and its delivery, and being somewhat flexible about how to sculpt those linkages is why Sparkgeo is useful.

I am sure we have competitors, but there is simply so much important geospatial work to do in the technology sector presently, I don’t feel pressured by it. Really the most competition is for talent. Indeed, that talent gap is to a large extent why we exist.

In the last year or so we have been spending our spare time on maptiks.com, which is like Google Analytics for a web map. Our thinking here is that although lots of organisations spend time on mapping technology, few seem to iterate back over their maps to make them incrementally better, and fewer still inform that process with actual data.

Q: What libraries and tools does your company use? Can you provide some examples of your favorite projects?

A: These are some of our favorite things:

  • Mapnik
  • Python
    • GDAL & OGR
    • GEOS
    • Shapely
    • Fiona
    • Django
    • CherryPy
    • Pillow (PIL)
  • Javascript
    • Mapping APIs:
      • LeafletJS (inc cartodb.js & mapbox.js)
      • Openlayers
      • Google Maps
      • ESRI JavaScript API
      • Cesium.js
    • Turf.js
    • AngularJS
    • ReactJS
  • Amazon Web Services
    • All the things

However, it’s not about the tools or the library; it should be about the question and how best to answer it. Sometimes the best answer is “don’t do this thing”, sometimes the answer is “buy a bigger boat”, and sometimes the answer is “we’ll help you build a thing”. We are in the enviable position of not having to sell licenses for anyone so we can actually be objective (and opinionated) about technology choices.

Q: Tell us about your work with Nextdoor. What technology stack did you use? What lessons did you learn?  

A: Of course I can’t tell you too much about how Nextdoor works. What I can say is that we have helped them achieve a number of their business goals through the development of a custom geospatial datastore accessed through a custom python API. In essence though, we just added some focused geospatial expertise to their already talented engineering team.

We have used this model a great deal in helping technology companies achieve their geospatial business goals. By attending stand ups and taking on the “geo” tickets we can add the capacity necessary to give a typical web engineering team the geo-confidence they need to keep their velocity up. Often these kind of engagements become much longer term relationships.

Although ultimately we are a “professional services” organisation, we have become a lot more about people and relationships than we are about projects and requirements. That way we get to work with some of the biggest tech companies, hottest startups, and most interesting non-profits on Earth.

Q: You are the CEO of your company. Describe the tasks you do in a typical week.  

A: I talk to a lot of people. I write a lot of emails. I pitch ridiculous ideas. I write reports. I do a bunch of administration. I solve problems. I remove barriers. I remind clients about our invoices. I go and buy snacks for the team. I manage payroll. I ponder our future. I talk to our accountant about tax management. I go buy more sticky notes for the office. I stress about project pipelines. In fact I stress about a lot of things 🙂

…and occasionally I get to write some code or make a map. It’s actually the best job I’ve ever had. I’m always having to learn new things and solve new problems. I tell everyone, including our team, if they stop learning they should leave. That’s true across the board, there are too many interesting things to do to waste time being bored.

Q: You recently wrote an article about remote working (http://buff.ly/1OEEWte). What does the breakdown of your company look like? How many are remote and how many work from the office? How do you bring together everyone? How do you promote company culture with remote workers? Explain how you manage/check in with employees that are working remote. What are the strengths/weaknesses in the current setup?

A: I first heard the term “remote first” in terms of the workplace mid last year and I realised it fits us well. We have an office in Prince George, BC (well North of the wall). But on any given day a member of the the team could be anywhere and it’s not a big problem. We typically have a check-in meeting, our version of a stand up — except people are on different projects — at 8:30am Pacific. It lasts for 15 minutes max, plus any necessary bonus rounds. People attend it from where they happen to be. It’s “early” for the Pacific timezone because we have some people on Eastern time. Even a remote company has to figure out timezones 🙂

Remote first means that we communicate first using tools like Hangouts and Slack, it means that people are kept in the loop by default, and things don’t get decided “without the remote guy”. If a team is meeting, then everyone on that team is invited, and that meeting will happen on a common set of tools used by people in or out of the office.

This remote culture is critical for us. The first employee I brought on (@gridcell) was remote, and now 40% of our company is remote. The really important bit, however, is how we interact with our clients. Being based up in the frozen wastes of the North and working for organisations in the tech sector means we must be really good at “being remote” because we are always remote to our clients. So independent of whether Sparkgeoers are in the office or not, we are still operating in a remote manner. This must be true for our clients too; they need to be ok with our periodic on-site presence, and our very present nature on IM or videoconferencing. It’s worth noting that with some clients being remote is not a great fit, and that’s fine. I am happy to say that we do have some great clients whom I have never actually met. Likewise, I also know that sometimes I have to hop on a plane and travel 2000 miles to shake a hand. Remote doesn’t mean not having a personal relationship and remote doesn’t mean distant.

Q: How does your company advertise? SEO? Content? Starting up Slack groups…?

A: Sometimes we do little ads in places across the interwebz (for instance on the GeoHipster website), seeing what sticks. Relevant content, however is the most valuable piece of advertising on the web. Good content has a long tail and brings people back and back.

More recently, our Maptiks growth guy (@julienjacques) suggested starting a Slack group. We did that, and now it’s grown to 900 users. The funny thing is it has turned into a real community, and as such we don’t really advertise on it because that would defeat the purpose that has evolved around it. If we (or others) were to advertise crassly on it, then it wouldn’t actually be a useful community 🙂

Q: You follow mapping trends and new technologies in depth. Are there any particular tech companies and/or startups that you follow? Any of them going to be the next big-bang disruptors?

A: I follow all the usual suspects (CartoDB, Mapbox, Esri, Stamen, Google, Boundless…) and do my best to catch up with contacts in each of them on my travels.

I am especially interested in the satellite space (hahaha) right now. The idea of Imagery As A Service seems to be booming. Planet Labs, Digital Globe, Astro Digital, UrtheCast, SkyBox, Spire all being players to some extent. Then there are companies like Orbital Insight who are taking remote sensing and magic-ing it into actionable broad data products. I think the days where someone would go to a website and purchase an image from a marginally navigable image library, then download an enormous file.zip via FTP are numbered… thankfully.

But there are the big players, too. Apple is very interesting right now; Google has always been in the geo sand box. But with the consumerization of geo I think more players will emerge here. Amazon has a location platform and drones…? UPS…?

Then there is the sharing economy: Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, Nextdoor. The quantified & wearable self: Fitbit, Under Armor (who bought MapMyFitness), Strava, RunKeeper. The nature of our industry and the ubiquity of smartphones & wearables is such that good, hard geospatial questions pop up everywhere. As a result of this phenomenon we’ve worked in the tech space, in hospitality, in finance, in conservation, with satellite companies, in hardware, in software, with government. The point isn’t to consider the tools or be confined to a vertical, the point is the pursuit of interesting questions and how we can use geography and technology to answer them. People talk about “thinking outside the box”, I don’t think there is a box anymore, I wonder if there ever was.

Q: Which industry do you see as needing more mapping technologies? Are there one or two fields that seem to be pretty behind the times?

A: Automotive will be the next industrial geospatial leapfrog.

Consider: A driverless car needs to know a great deal of information about its surroundings and virtually every piece of fixed knowledge (i.e., data not detected by vehicle in transit) will be geospatial in nature. Every major automotive vendor will need a data provider, and that data will be constantly updated. In this scenario the 80/20 rule will not suffice. If that vehicle cannot reach its destination because it doesn’t know the way, then the entire vehicle has failed. That failure might simply be a new subdivision not being present, but nevertheless the lack of a street or a misnamed building will result in the vehicle not being able to drive itself, thus failure. A driverless vehicle needs to have a complete and constantly updating map of navigable routes.

Automotive will drive (hahaha) efforts in open data, in data pipelines, in ETL, in base map production, in data storage, in connectivity, in routing. For the driverless future to happen geospatial needs to be a lot better.

Q: What is your current method for skiing on a mountain you do not know well? Do you use the paper maps that they provide, or a new app (Have you heard of fatmap.com?)

A: I ski a DPS Wailer 99. I love the backcountry, but with a young family I find myself on a ski hill more often these days. That said, my 7- & 9-year-olds are on double diamonds now, so we’ll be hitting some family backcountry soon. We are also lucky enough to have many kilometers of groomed & floodlit XC skiing within city limits (Prince George, BC) so that is a common after-work activity.

The interesting thing about backcountry skiing around central British Columbia is the lack of documentation; every trip is a little bit exploratory. That, combined with relatively poor and out-of-date maps (Canada is big and largely empty) leaves me doing a lot of navigation by feel. It can get pretty cold, too; devices and batteries tend to become less reliable below -20.

I do, of course, appreciate the irony in the mapping guy navigating largely by instinct.  

Q: It must be fascinating to compare the world you grew up in with the one that your daughters are growing up in. Do you mind sharing a little insight you have as a parent and geographer/technologists. Can they read maps? What routing technology do they use to get to a new place?

A: My girls love maps. They have been completely brainwashed by me; they know exactly how important good maps are. Their navigational abilities are somewhat untested, but they do have a good sense of direction; we test that on the trails a lot. Their use of technology is interesting; we keep screen time to a minimum, but the way they interact with touch interfaces is fearless. I think we will see great advances in industrial design as interface designers embrace touch and haptic technologies. We are also trying to expose our girls to what it means to write code; their lives will take them in many different directions, but having some exposure to the discipline of code is valuable.

Which do you prefer when it comes to maps?
Data or design - Both
Functionality or beauty - Again, both. But wait, “functionality” doesn’t mean lots of buttons -- it means fit for purpose. As a community we need to de-couple features from functionality.
Historical or futuristic - Neither; it’s the story that compels 
Markers or pins - These are the same thing 🙂
Clusters or heatmaps - Clusters (unless it’s a weather map) 
Markdown or Handlebars  - Markdown
And other things…?
Black and local coffee or pour-over with butter - Black Americano, no pollution, and lots of it
Fitbit or Strava - Fitbit & MapMyFitness (Fitbit have an interesting geo conundrum presently - Strides or GPS for distance https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/your-device-can-too-smart-will-cadell ). Strava has done an amazing job of socializing athletic pursuit; I started using MMF first though, and most of my data now gets piped into Fitbit.
Twitter or Facebook - Twitter
Commuter or road bike - Both & MTB too
Nordic, alpine, or telemark skiing - Mountain Touring, Skate Skiing, Classic Skiing. Tele is cool but you have to be really talented to ski anything big, and I’m not 🙂

Q: Any closing comments for the GeoHipster readers?

A: Thanks for the opportunity to tell you a little about Sparkgeo. Also, thanks to the geohipster community for keeping things sufficiently geo-weird.