Jubal Harpster (@jharpster) is principal and co-founder of Spatial Development International based in Seattle. He has been a geo person in a variety of positions over the past 20 years, and his current focus is on data and applications primarily for international development and food security challenges in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
A common question is to ask folks how they got into GIS but you went to school for Geography, what drew you to that major in the first place?
It’s a long story actually, but when I entered college I started as a political science major. I was completely bored with the exception of one geopolitics class. I’ve always enjoyed maps, as I’m sure most of your readers do, but the final assignment for this class was to create a choropleth map by hand (remember, it’s 1990). After that, I was hooked.
I took a break after my sophomore year and spent six months traveling through Central America. During that trip, I spent a good deal of time at various mapping agencies trying to find decent back country maps for places like Nicaragua and El Salvador. When I finally did make it back to Seattle, I was pretty laser-focused on Geography as a discipline. The GIS thing just sort of happened along the way.
What has kept you in the geospatial field?
I continue to be amazed at the pace of innovation over the 20+ years that I’ve been doing this. Recently someone on our team was showing off their work with WebGL and vector tiles from PostGIS. I can remember very clearly developing MOIMS and ArcIMS sites back in the day, and the difference between that and where we are now is incredible.
When you take a step back and look at what’s happening in the field, it’s pretty remarkable. Open Street Map is incredible; commodity satellites and other high resolution imagery are changing the way we see the world. And with cloud-hosted infrastructure, we can do some really amazing things quite cheaply and in a way that’s never existed before.
You’re one of the founders of SpatialDev, what was it like starting a company up after working for other private companies and even a government position?
It was actually quite terrifying. I worked at a global civil engineering company, which was and still is a great company to work for, but one that is very risk-averse. We found ourselves with a great team in Seattle and largely responsible for finding work and delivering our own projects. There was a sense that the big company was slowing us down so when they sold the whole business unit, it created the perfect opportunity to jump ship.
Fortunately several members of our team from that engineering company form the core of SpatialDev. Now we have the freedom to create the company and culture we want, and pursue the work we like to do. It’s still terrifying from time to time, but we have the best team imaginable so I do occasionally get some sleep.
I noticed that your team has a lot of women on it, what’s your secret to recruiting #geoladies?
We actively recruit diversity into the team, which can be a challenge in this business. We are able to attract great team members by establishing a creative, flexible, and fun work environment, and providing lots of exciting opportunities and projects.
What are some of the cool projects that SpatialDev is working on right now?
We’re working on a number of different things. SpatialDev is continuing to expand our international footprint by doing projects in Bolivia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania. That’s incredibly exciting and challenging at the same time.
We’re also doing a lot of thinking around native mobile and responsive applications, and how people interact with dynamic maps on those form factors. To date, there aren’t many examples of where the dynamic map experience of desktop web applications transfers to awesome mobile experiences. Creating great user experiences on devices other than the desktop is high on our priority list right now.
We’ve put a lot of work into creating a simple node.js wrapper around PostGIS that anyone can install and be up and running with a web framework in a couple of minutes. We’re now using this on a number of applications that we host and maintain for clients. And from this starting point, we’re working on a purely open source stack that works completely offline or in semi-connected environments. This includes the database, offline map tiles, as well as the application.
You guys make some crazy sexy maps, what advice would you give people who want to make their visualizations clearer and more eye-catching?
First, I’d say hire a good designer. When we first started out, the developers on the team (myself among them) would implement our own designs. We developed some very sophisticated web applications, but many of them looked terrible and weren’t that easy to use. We now have a Creative Director at SpatialDev who focuses on UI/UX. She has an eye for detail and usability like no one else on the team. This has had a profound impact on our work.
Second, we work with our clients to implement common sense. We won’t make an application with 900 layers or try to show a million points on the map at once. We demonstrate that in many cases, less is more. That way, our clients don’t end up with applications that have 20 different slide-outs with tools, buttons, settings, preferences, and so on. We try as best we can to help our clients simply make logical and beautiful sites.
What are you working on outside of work time?
I’m involved with a number of activities related to work that I continue to pursue during my off hours. This past spring, I convened a group in Washington DC specifically for people that work with international boundary data sets (it’s more interesting than it sounds!). I’ll continue to be involved in organizing some geo-events in Seattle as well as in Africa this coming fall. And when I have time, I still contribute code to some of the SpatialDev GitHub repos.
But really, I have two kids, an awesome wife, and a garage full of bicycles. So when I’m not working or traveling for work, I’m spending time with the family mostly riding around the Northwest.
You’re an open source supporter, what recommendations would you have for someone thinking about dabbling in open source?
I would actually encourage people to get familiar with the entire ecosystem around geotechnology and not focus too much on a single set of technology. At SpatialDev, we’re not wedded to any particular set of technology; we implement the best tools that get the job done. But I’m amazed at how the open source universe has matured dramatically over the past few years, both in terms of the business models and the tools.
When people start at SpatialDev, we always push them to get familiar with PostGIS and QGIS since those are the environments where we do most of our work. PostGIS is behind just about all the stuff we currently work on, so we like everyone to be able to navigate that environment and write at least some SQL. We also encourage team members to get comfortable using GitHub to help find the pockets of innovation happening all over the place. Those would be the recommendations I’d suggest for people starting to work in open source.
You’re into cycling but you don’t have a handlebar mustache, you could be wearing skinny jeans but this interview isn’t happening in person so I can’t be sure, I couldn’t find any pictures of food or coffee on your twitter… I’m going to go out on a limb and guess you probably wouldn’t be described as a hipster. The term geohipster is a much friendlier and loving term, how do you feel about being a geohipster?
Although I drink a lot of locally brewed IPA, drown my mornings in blonde roast drip, own an impressive collection of nerdy t-shirts, and have a fixie that I ride on the local velodrome occasionally, I wouldn’t consider myself a geohipster (or geodinosaur). Fortunately, I get to travel to places where the whole geo-ecosystem is not quite as developed as it is in Seattle. So in these places at least I can pull off being the ultimate geohipster. But I draw the line at facial hair.
Do you have anything else to share with GeoHipster readers?