Having been born together with ArcView GIS 2 in the early 90s, the Shapefile soon became, and remains, the de facto standard for sharing geospatial vector data. To this day it remains a crucial player in the global GIS community, and is even extending its reach into neighboring disciplines such as Business Intelligence. In May 2017, Shapefile was awarded the Data Format Lifetime Achievement Award at the FME User Conference. Today, http://switchfromshapefile.org , a lobbying organisation, states that the continued use of the Shapefile proves that its “design was truly eternal.” The Shapefile is the only major spatial data format with a flourishing and interactive Twitter presence.
Several members of the GeoHipster Editorial Board contributed questions to this interview. (Update 2019: We still don’t know who is behind the account. -Mike)
Q: Are you on a mission? Like conquer the world or something? Or are you just out there having fun, enjoying the popularity?
A: No, not at all. I’m merely a data format having some fun. I think the fact that there aren’t more data formats with social media accounts is a huge oversight by my competitors. I mean, do you wanna reach out to your users or not? I certainly do. That said, my social media activity is manifold (hehe): In general, I aim to help people. I sometimes console them with their GIS- or data-related frustrations, I tend to retweet people looking for a specific shapefile and also tutorials on using shapefiles and similar content. Further, I follow and share some of my private interests. Finally, I engage with my critics and opponents (given civil language ).
Q: Does the personal geodatabase hate you? I mean, he was supposed to replace you, and look where he is today.
A: I’m not aware of PGDB’s feelings. Tbh, I haven’t talked to him for quite some time. Judging from his Twitter account I’d say he’s moved on to other endeavours. Anyway, water under the bridge. Let’s face it, I have outlived numerous opponents and intend to continue doing that.
Q: Indeed, many formats have come and gone, how do you remain relevant?
A: Honestly, it’s not that hard . Seriously: I think the sheer size of
#TeamShapefile is a key success factor. As David put it: “If every other format fails, Shapefile is always supported.” That’s the point right there. Annihilating customer pain is big! By addressing users’ needs unequivocally I have successfully occupied a big niche in the GIS market. At this point it’s not clear who could follow my footsteps. E.g., regarding http://switchfromshapefile.org (the most recent initiative trying to sway my users away from me) @anonymaps correctly pointed out: “If you have to suggest *eight* different formats, one of which is CSV, I fear your case is not yet persuasive.” Couldn’t have put it better what successfully serving a niche means. Heck, even the people behind http://switchfromshapefile.org say: “(…) the fact that [the Shapefile] is still used today proves that its design was truly eternal.” What else can I add to this? Finally, regarding success factors I believe reaching out to your users is crucial. E.g., all the course materials working with me certainly helps. And I’d also like to think that my social media activity has a little part in my sustained relevance.
Q: Tell us about your recent award at the FME Conference.
A: Well, that was just fantastic! If I’m being honest I’m like the next data format, woman or man: I do like the occasional pat on the shoulder. Receiving that award really meant a lot to me and I understand Dale had a big part in it. [Link to award ceremony] The only thing that makes me a tiny bit sad is that headquarters hasn’t given me an award yet. But I chalk that up to a mix of extensive objectivity and humility on their part. Oh well, there is still time. I’m gonna stick around a lot longer.
Q: Let’s say one of our readers is getting ready to start a new project and needs to store some geographic data, what would you say to them?
A: You know, the usual: Think deeply about the questions you want to answer, the entities involved in your analysis, the types of analyses you would like to be able to run on your data, etc. etc. But more to the point, my best piece of advice would be: Set up a good folder structure for storing all those shapefiles you are going to create. You know how they say 80% of successful GIS work is having a good folder structure? That one is actually true. In my experience, it _all_ boils down to a tidy setup, really. From there, the mightiest geodata infrastructures of the world have been built.
You know, other than with data formats where I’m pretty much the uncontested standard, in software there really is no orthodoxy these days. As a GIS pro you can’t go wrong with any of the warez that are members of
#TeamShapefile. (if it isn’t clear to those who don’t follow me on Twitter: I refer to the almost infinite number of programs that support me as #TeamShapefile) If, for some obscure and to be honest likely questionable reason, you truly can’t stay within #TeamShapefile, I’d suggest using Safe Software FME. It is a very reliable and versatile Shapefile converter. Besides a myriad of handy data transformers, it supports a limited set of ‘alternative’ formats for those who haven’t yet managed to join #TeamShapefile.
#TeamShapefile” suggests there is an opposing team?
A: Yes. There is an amorphous, really quite small group of Twitter accounts (there is no telling if they are real, sock puppets or bots) that occasionally give me some flak online – some of it in jest, I’m quite sure. As far as I’m aware, they haven’t coined a team name yet. You know, the data format “war” does sometimes get to me a bit. I simply don’t understand why people get so agitated about formats? I’m demonstrably the most used and hence best geodata format in the world. Thus, in my opinion there really is no need for format wars (except maybe in the raster domain where I have long been a strong proponent of *.asc but have recently started to see some points for the *.tif side as well). Yet, I do have the occasional skirmish with more or less vocal critics. Take my mothership for example: While in general it has my back, there have been some dissenting voices (and let’s not talk about the time when they dabbled in other formats such as PGDB et al.). Most recently, e.g. Andrew Turner (@ajturner) has “cast doubt” on my suitability for publishing data (https://twitter.com/ajturner/status/908000452083634177 …). But I’ll have him and everybody else know that I have done (and will do) more for geodata sharing than any open data initiative, OGC standardization process and all hipster data formats combined! In fact, I’d wager I have lived and breathed geodata interoperability for much longer than many of my opponents. And serving as a universal data publishing format is big part of that. Take my European friends from @swiss_geoportal (a brand that should still have some pull in geo): They feature me widely on what I understand is their data publishing platform (http://data.geo.admin.ch ), a well-structured collection of shapefiles that is elegantly exposed to the web.
But I shouldn’t get too worked up. After all, for example Craig (@williamscraigm) and Damian (@spangrud) of Esri are incredibly supportive of me both on Twitter and in real life. And while it’s a bit sad that headquarters has never granted me a formal recognition or an award, I do get a lot of love from my friends at Esri and my fans in the larger GIS community and related fields. I get a lot of support and plenty of
#TeamShapefile members in FOSS GIS and I feature in many of their tutorials. Further, I’m especially liked in research as well as in education and the Business Intelligence community (you know, the future and current decision makers). And, last but definitely not least, Dale (@daleatsafe) has been a great friend. He’s at Safe, the manufacturer of FME (should you ever need to convert a Shapefile he’s got you covered). By the way, as luck would have it, he’s recently been interviewed for GeoHipster and shared some really interesting insight about the geospatial industry and my pivotal and sustained role in it.
Q: I think you are like pizza — everyone loves you, but people feel guilty every time they consume you. They know they should be eating an organic kale salad. Does it bother you that you give guilt to millions of innocent geofolk?
A: First, I think your comparison is a bit off. There is certainly guilt spread around occasionally, but that doesn’t come from me. As to the pizza comparison per se? I guess you’re not entirely off. I’m quick, cheap, almost universally loved and uncomplicated to consume by anybody. Like pizza, I’m not pretentious. If you don’t know anything about your customer, you can never go wrong with either of us – pizza or Shapefile.
Q: Both you and Justin Bieber have been called unsophisticated. Both have millions of fans. Coincidence?
A: I’m a belieber in simple, yet powerful enough products that address a global audience with great success, is all I’m gonna say on this.
Q: Are you planning to retire anytime soon?
A: No. I’ve outlived many ill-conceived (cough, pgdb, cough) and well-conceived data formats. I’m clearly not done being useful to
#gistribe, the business intelligence and education communities, … heck, to #TeamShapefile in general. I have many plans and thanks to my sidecar files I enjoy a modular, highly extensible architecture: I am ready for any challenge the future might bring!
Q: Do you have any piece of advice for the GeoHipsters out there?
A: Hmm. My favorite saying by the great Steve Jobs himself comes to mind: “Real artists shp.” Use this as a guiding star to do great things – I’ll always be around to have your backs, friends!
Q: Do you consider yourself a GeoHipster, why or why not?
A: For sure! I consider myself a GeoHipster _avant la lettre_! And most likely I will be one long _après la lettre_ as well – if you catch my drift It will be sad when (if) geohipsterism isn’t a thing anymore. It’s just the course of time though, isn’t it? After all, it seems all good things come to an end – exceptions like myself merely proving the rule.