A: My name is Zoey Armstrong and I’m a graduate student at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. I’m currently working on my Master’s of Geography and my thesis is examining the effectiveness of species distribution modeling using citizen science and herbarium data. Besides researching, I enjoy going out on hikes and improving my field botany skills, making maps, and playing board games.
Q: Tell us the story behind your map (what inspired you to make it, what did you learn while making it, or any other aspects of the map or its creation you would like people to know).
A: I was initially inspired to make the map because one of my professors who I TA for, and who also knew I’ve made similar type maps in the past, wanted me to create a demonstration on my map-making process as a teaching tool for the students. With that initial push, I started considering some ideas. Pretty early on I decided I wanted to use an antique map as the base map. I had seen similar things done with old USGS survey maps and I thought it was really cool being able to bring an old map to life with new data and technology. So after a bit of searching around online, I found a map of the Azores from 1899 by M. J. Thoulet and was immediately in love with it; I could tell the contour lines in the original map would look really good in 3D and I also liked that I could give the final product a more abstract feel.
One challenge I didn’t anticipate was getting a hold of a high-resolution copy of the map. I could only seem to find low and medium-resolution images until I found that it was hosted in Harvard’s records collection. I decided to send out an email to the records division to see if I could get a high-resolution download… and it worked! I thought it was pretty cool that I had to interact with Harvard for the project. One thing I learned through this project is that hand tracing bathymetry lines takes a lot of time. I have a new appreciation for everyone who helped digitize old geographic records.
Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.
A: To create everything, I first found the old map of the Azores, then downloaded a combined topography and bathymetry dataset from GEBCO. I used QGIS to clean up and export the raster as a PNG where I could add it to an Autodesk Sketchbook Pro project. Sketchbook is a free barebones version of photoshop and that’s where I chose a color scheme and hand traced the bathymetry files. From Sketchbook, I exported two images: one in color that represented the final look of everything, and one in black and white to be used as a displacement input in Blender. This displacement input transforms a flat plane into a surface with all the peaks and valleys seen in the final map. Then a light source is added to the scene, giving the final render its accurate highlights and shadows. Overall, I enjoyed making the map, but definitely got a little carried away with it for a bit.
Steven was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.
Q: How (why) did you get into GIS?
A: In the late 1980s/early 1990s when I worked at a nonprofit environmental and consumer advocacy group (the New York Public Interest Research Group; NYPIRG), my boss was starting to use GIS for our work to help residents who were living near toxic waste dumps. Eventually he left to launch his own company using GIS in the environmental consulting industry. But he sparked my interest in GIS, and by the early 1990s I was using MapInfo to support NYPIRG’s environmental research and organizing.
Soon after that I was fortunate to be accepted as a Revson Fellow at Columbia University (the program no longer exists, but it was intended for mid-career urban activists). I spent the year exploring technology for community organizing (not just GIS but also the burgeoning World Wide Web, email, relational databases, etc). I enrolled in Columbia’s urban planning graduate program and for the next two years learned much more about GIS, census data, spatial analysis, and urban planning generally. All told it was a terrific experience learning about New York City, how cities around the world had developed, and acquiring GIS and data visualization skills and knowledge in the planning discipline.
While I was at Columbia, a colleague and I at NYPIRG created the Community Mapping Assistance Project (CMAP). It was a nonprofit entrepreneurial venture – we provided GIS services for a modest fee to other nonprofit groups in New York and across the country. CMAP lasted about eight years and we made maps and analyzed spatial data for hundreds of groups, large and small, in all areas of nonprofit work: education, health care, transportation planning and advocacy, environmental groups, you name it. And we created several online mapping applications for “clients” (including NYPIRG), ranging from online maps that provided subway directions in New York City, identified elected officials based on a user’s street address, visualized green infrastructure, and more (several years before Google Maps, etc!).
Q: Tell us about your current job — overall duties, daily routine…
A: Since 2006 I’ve directed the CUNY Mapping Service at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. The Mapping Service is part of the Center for Urban Research, one of the academic/applied research centers at the graduate school.
My job involves lots of things. I work with my staff colleagues (Will Field, our senior application developer, and Valerie Bauer, a recent graduate of Lehman College’s graduate-level geography program) on our projects, collaborate with our Center for Urban Research director John Mollenkopf on research initiatives, and help other CUNY colleagues integrate GIS into their work.
I’m the point person who interacts with our partner organizations outside CUNY including nonprofit institutions such as the New York Academy of Medicine or the American Museum of Natural History, national civil rights groups such as The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, or government agencies such as the NYC Department of Homeless Services of the NYC Campaign Finance Board.
We’ve developed projects with each of these organizations, either online mapping applications, static/printed maps, or services such as geocoding. I also manage our funding for this work, whether it’s grant support from philanthropic foundations, contractual payments for our services, or both.
In addition to managing all this work, I still use GIS on almost a daily basis, usually ArcGIS but sometimes MapInfo or QGIS. I work with the Graduate Center’s IT staff and my colleague Will Field to manage our web server environment. I help maintain our data resources.
Q: Tell us about the tools you use in your job. Where do you stand on the open source vs proprietary debate?
A: We use whatever works 😊. We’re mainly an Esri shop as far as desktop GIS goes. I started using Arc products in the mid-1990s through nonprofit grant support from Esri. We’re fortunate that CUNY – the nation’s largest urban public university – has site licenses for pretty much all of Esri’s software products (CUNY comprises more than 20 individual colleges attended by more than 275,000 students, and GIS is used by students, professors, and researchers throughout the system.)
But we also continue to use MapInfo, mainly for geocoding and data management. We use QGIS and Postgres/PostGIS. Students working at our Center have used the spatial features of R to analyze data, and our colleagues at the Graduate Center make extensive use of R and QGIS as well as Esri’s software suite.
For our online mapping applications, we use a variety of platforms and technologies. Most of our applications are built around Leaflet, but some use OpenLayers. The Graduate Center server environment provides us with access to SQL Server, but we’re starting to use PostGIS for our online maps. Although we have a local instance of ArcGIS Server and we use ArcGIS Online to provide spatial data sets for our online maps, more and more we are using other options such as GeoJSON, SQL Server’s spatial features, and other online providers such as Mapbox and Carto.
Q: Do decision-makers pay attention to your work? I just learned (ht Joshua Stevens) that John Snow knew water was the source 5 whole years before he commissioned his cholera map from cartographer Charles Cheffins.The map was used to convince authorities and the public. Do today’s authorities listen? According to anecdotal evidence, policy makers in New Zealand take the advice of science researchers ~80% of the time, versus less than 20% in the US. What is your experience?
A: We tend to work on projects that decision-makers need, or that organizations want to leverage in order to make the case to decision-makers. In our work, decision-makers typically pay attention and respond to the maps we’ve produced (either for our partners, or in our own research).
For example, we provide maps for the NYC Department of Homeless Services that visualize the locations of shelters and facilities providing temporary residences, along with nearby services such as schools, other housing developments, parks, etc. In recent years these maps were used at the highest levels of policy debate to help restructure how New York City addresses the homeless crisis.
A major project we’ve been working on since 2016 has been the 2020 Census. We created an online map for census stakeholders across the country to prioritize census outreach and track the progress of census self-response (originally the self-response phase was going to be a month and a half, but due to COVID-19 it ended up being extended over 8 months). Our map was used by state agencies and local governments coordinating census planning (the State of Hawaii embedded the map at their census website), Census Bureau staff used the map, the House Oversight Committee and other congressional subcommittees referenced the map in news events and reports about the census, foundations supporting census stakeholders used our map to help guide their funding, and the many hundreds (thousands?) of groups across the country leading the effort to boost census self-response relied on our map, often on a daily basis. (The Census Bureau had several online map applications of its own for the 2020 Census, but ours combined all the data and features – and more – from the Bureau’s maps into one website, was easier to use, and was more flexible and responsive to community needs.)
Another local example is our collaboration with the New York Academy of Medicine. The Academy’s “Age Friendly NYC” program contacted us a few years ago for help in visualizing demographic patterns of the 65+ population across New York City, compared with services and other programs of interest to this population. We created the “IMAGE NYC” online map to support the Academy’s work in this area, and the map has been used extensively by philanthropic foundations, city agencies, and nonprofit groups.
Q: Authorities were “surprised” when Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, even though spatial analysis models had been predicting such an event for decades. Have things changed since 2005? To judge from a recent Sharpie map action, they have not. Why are we even doing what we do if the consumers of our output — the policy makers — ignore our product? I sometimes ask myself “What’s the point?” Don’t you?
A: Maps are incredibly efficient visuals (when done right). And the analysis of spatial patterns in data is fascinating and powerful. But an effective map or analytical model doesn’t really matter if the policy makers aren’t paying attention or don’t want to pay attention. I think that’s best left for a larger discussion about politics and the potential for sustained community organizing and advocacy to make a difference (whether maps are involved or not).
Q: I got into GIS from planning, where GIS was lauded as a technology which would evolve beyond mere mapping into a decision-support system, and ultimately become a decision-making system. Are we there yet? Will we ever get there?
A: GIS-made maps, spatial analysis models, and online interactive mapping applications are pretty ubiquitous these days. It seems to me these efforts to understand real-world spatial patterns and trends have become integral to so many industries and government infrastructure. Take COVID-19 as an example. Almost from the start of the pandemic, organizations such as Johns Hopkins Institute and The New York Times used maps to visualize the spread of the virus. When New York City started publishing local data on positivity rates and other metrics, journalists and the public demanded that the data be mapped and that the city share its data publicly using small-area spatial units (the city is using ZIP Codes, but there’s an ongoing debate – at least on Twitter! – about the pros and cons of ZIP Codes versus neighborhood areas, census tracts, etc.). When the vaccine(s) are available, I’m sure GIS will play a key role in determining how it (or they) will be distributed locally and globally (Esri is already touting this.)
A: One thing I learned at NYPIRG was the importance of the media, and how to present your work to journalists so they would want to use it for their stories.
You’re generous to say that I’m a media celebrity, but I’m much more interested in making sure our maps get covered rather than me. I work hard to make sure journalists are familiar with our work and how maps can help them report on stories. I’m not as interested in getting quoted myself (I had my share of that for the 20 or so years I worked at NYPIRG – I was quoted in news articles, TV reports, and radio all the time), but these days if our maps are cited or if they help shape the coverage, I’m thrilled.
Also, my work with GIS at the CUNY Graduate Center (just like at NYPIRG) is very much a collaborative effort. I might be the one getting quoted in an article, but we couldn’t do this work without the support and involvement of lots of people and organizations: so many folks at the Graduate Center itself and CUNY overall, our partners for whom we make the maps, our funders supporting our work, etc.
One point to note about media coverage is that it is sometimes hard to get reporters interested in the maps themselves, partly (I think) because maps, online or otherwise, are so pervasive. But we’ve had some notable exceptions. In 2016 when we launched an online map for the NYC Campaign Finance Board showing the spatial patterns of campaign contributions for NYC’s 2017 municipal elections, a New York Times reporter was interested. The great thing for me was that our map itself was the story. The map made it easy for New Yorkers to see where funding was coming for local elections, and that was important enough to merit coverage in the paper of record.
An earlier example was in 2000 when the Times covered our CMAP project. It was newsworthy enough for the Times to write about how nonprofits in New York at the time were benefiting from “detailed maps using sophisticated Geographic Information Systems software” to support their advocacy work. It was wonderful to see that in the paper.
If CNN wants to improve on their election maps – or any other maps – we’d be more than happy to help them out!
Q: What do you do for fun? Any hipstery hobbies we should know about?
A: My teenage kids would be the first to tell you I’m decidedly un-hipstery. But a fun thing I’ve been doing for the past few years is (re)learning guitar. I grew up in a musical family and I learned piano at a young age, and I tried my hand at being a teenage rock n roll guitar player. After high school I put all that aside, but then my son’s middle school offered a music class. He needed to pick an instrument and chose guitar, so I thought I’d start taking lessons with him. Now I’ve got the bug, and I’m learning as much as I can about fingerstyle guitar (focused on the blues in all its variations and music theory and technique more generally). It’s a blast. I really love it, and it provides a great sense of accomplishment and helps keep me sharp (fingerpicking is hard, but really rewarding!).
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our global readership?
A: Plan ahead, but try to live each day to the fullest, whatever gets thrown in your path.
Mike Dolbow is a GIS Coordinator at a small state agency and your classic Jack of All Trades (Master of None).
Mike was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.
Q: How did you get into GIS? Would you do it all over again given the chance?
A: Like a decent percentage of my peers, I fell into GIS fairly accidentally. While pursuing a forestry degree at the University of New Hampshire, I took an aerial photography class where the professor gave us each an aerial photo of campus for lab exercises. My mind was blown: here, for the very first time, I was presented with relatable geography. I could see my dorm, class buildings, sidewalks, and shortcuts. It wasn’t the abstract geography of grade school, it was my favorite road map on steroids. That same professor encouraged me to take his GIS course, and I loved that even more, becoming his first TA the following year.
After graduating, I tried to find work in forestry nearby, but couldn’t. I waited tables for 6 months, then got a half-time GIS job at a small regional planning commission, where I met my future wife. That job soon became full time and suddenly a 20+ year career had begun.
Armed with today’s wisdom and a time machine back to my senior year, I might make a few tweaks to my path, but I wouldn’t change the fundamentals. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have worked in three corners of the country, where I’ve benefited from the efforts of amazing teachers and mentors.
Q: Describe your typical day at work (pre-isolation).
A: I like to say that GIS is the perfect endeavor for me, because it lets me exercise both analytical and creative skills, and that keeps boredom forever at bay. That dichotomy exists in other parts of my life: I’m extroverted at work (and play), but introverted at home. I’m a creature of routine for daily activities, but enjoy having each work day be different than the last.
So I don’t really have a typical day at work, and that’s the way I like it. Pre-isolation wasn’t much different than teleworking; turn on the laptop, address email, then plan out my day against my to-do list and the rare meetings I have. I only get tasked on projects once in a while, so I devote most of my time to operational work: keeping data current, maintaining application and database code, and making maps that people need to perform their jobs. However, even though I’ve been in my current job since October, I have a feeling I’m still in a honeymoon period and things will ramp up and down as the year progresses.
Q: You have been a government worker for most of your career. How much room is really there for innovation in government? Is there more room for technological innovation or in process innovation? Asking for a friend.
A: I have definitely felt the pain I imagine “your friend” is having! I can really only speak from my experience, and the answer of course is “it depends”. I’ve been really lucky in that my average job has typically allowed me somewhere between 5 and 20% of my time for “innovation”. I put that in quotes because, lets face it, a typical government worker isn’t going to invent the next Facebook or SpaceX. But we might take some tried-and-true technology and make a process leaner or a service more inclusive.
During the early stages of my career, I spent that 5-20% of time doing outreach, collaboration, or community efforts, which established extremely valuable relationships. When you can build relationships within a culture of sharing data, expertise, and information, it doesn’t take long before you’re applying those shared resources to own your work. And at some point, you’ve got enough experience that “innovating” is just being the first one to make small tweaks that can make big differences.
But I have worked in really large bureaucracies where big budgets and red tape have crushed the appetite for innovation. And I’ve worked in really small organizations where all you can do is keep your head above water from all the operations and projects that need immediate attention. I’ve found the best results in places that are a happy middle, especially where they have flexible customers. Those are the folks that are willing to occasionally sacrifice 10 or 20 percent of “billable hours” in exchange for staying on top of current technologies, constantly improving processes, and retaining the employees who are thereby engaged.
So I truly believe there is room for innovation in government. If I have a motto, it’s that I love maps and I hate waste. Putting those two together has often made me a “change agent” who strives to make things better with the powers of geography and technology. I haven’t always succeeded, but I’ve always been satisfied with the pursuit.
Q: From your tweets I gather that you love QGIS and Postgres, while firmly planted in the Esri camp. How is that symbiosis working for you? Does it trigger a split personality?
A: I think it works just fine, and symbiosis is a decent way to describe it. I love QGIS’s Atlas composer, all the fine-grained options for labeling and cartography, and the fantastically configurable data tables. PostgreSQL taught me a lot about spatial database functions that I still use in my new job (with SQL Server). But I also love working with Esri’s REST API (I even wrote a tutorial around it!), frequently do rapid app prototyping with ArcGIS Online, and rely on their cloud infrastructure for several functions.
As I alluded to earlier, this isn’t the only thing about me that seems contradictory, at least on the surface. But I think it’s my natural resources background that helps me resolve this supposed conflict. I see natural systems as vastly more complex than anything man-made we encounter day-to-day, and so trying to describe them with blanket assumptions or black-and-white decision criteria is folly.
And that’s how I see my approach to my work: it’s not “Esri vs. FOSS”, it’s both, depending on the situation. It’s not just using the right tool for the job, it’s making sure you know the capabilities, pros, and cons of those tools so you can put the right one in play, at the right time, for the right reasons. Only by maintaining that fundamental knowledge can technologists bring true value to the organizations they support.
Q: You are the GeoHipster CEO. What can GeoHipster fans expect from the publication in the future? Any coming attractions?
A: I wish I had a good answer for this, especially since GeoHipster has opened up so many opportunities for me. Without it, I probably wouldn’t have had the chance to go on the Mapscaping podcast or cover the 2019 State of the Map US conference. And I know I wouldn’t have gotten to know all the cool people I’ve interviewed over the past five years without the work you started back in 2013.
Unfortunately, I’ve never been much of a crystal ball reader or “idea guy”; instead, I’ve been a good steward of someone else’s ideas. That’s pretty much what I’ve done with GeoHipster; taking your brilliant idea and keeping it functioning as a sustainable independent company. But I can tell you that I’m excited by a few things, like transitioning our merchandising to RedBubble and welcoming interviews generated by “newer” authors like Kurt Menke and Natasha Pirani. And I have a few potential “business-to-business” cooperative ventures that might open us to new audiences. But I want to make sure that we keep the elements of independence, contrarian thinking, and self-deprecating humor that have made us a hallmark of the geo-web for over six years. It’s been great fun, and I just want to keep spreading that fun far and wide.
Q: We are doing this interview amid the COVID-19 epidemic, mandated social distancing, and work from home. However, many in the geofield are no strangers to #WFH, having been working from home for years. Do you think that once this epidemic is over it will have proven that WFH is, well… workable?
A: I sure as hell hope so. I myself have never worked from home full time until now, and outside of the general anxiety that comes with living through a global pandemic, I love the change. The commute is easier, I get more sleep and exercise, and I can focus on my work a lot more. I do miss the occasional office chat, but I don’t miss getting into a car (or a bus) five days a week.
Maybe it’s the loner Gen X in me, but I’ve never struggled with the WFH concept. Unless we’re talking about the kind of place where everyone hates their job, I implicitly trust folks to get their work done. Anyone who’s not professional enough to handle working on their own at home isn’t going to be any “more productive” in an office. And what kind of supervisor has the time to constantly look over the shoulders of their employees and “make sure they’re working”? The kind I don’t want to work for, that’s what kind.
I know there’s a lot of prerequisites to making it workable. People need good internet speeds at home, and the organization has to be able to issue employees equipment like a laptop and typically VPN connectivity. But these obstacles are relatively easy to overcome; a lack of fundamental trust between employee and employer is NOT.
I’m lucky I have that trust currently, and I’m hoping I can stay home “permanently” after this pandemic is over. And I hope it becomes a new normal for a lot of the workforce, because the overall benefits to our culture, environment, and society will be worth it. I’ve seen a lot of folks warn leaders not to judge teleworking as a whole based on this experience, because folks aren’t going to be as productive as normal when they’re worried about the pandemic. So I hope managers and supervisors take that into consideration when we’re ready to move on.
Q: You play bass in a band — “j. bell & the Lazy Susan Band”. You make records and play live shows. I have listened to your music on Spotify and YouTube, and I quite like it. How did you get into music, and how did you make bass guitar your axe of choice?
A: Thanks for the compliments and the plug! This is another part of my life where I’m incredibly fortunate; must be because I’m half Irish.
I’ve always loved music, since I was a little kid singing along to everything from “The Gambler” to “Thriller”. My mom recognized that about me early on and pushed me to join the school band in the 5th grade. I took three years of saxophone lessons, which laid a decent foundation of music theory for me. I quit in junior high because I just wasn’t having fun with it.
My mom kept buying me cheap little keyboards that I would goof around on, but I still hadn’t discovered an instrument that I loved. That changed when I found a classical guitar in my basement that had been left behind by a family friend. I brought it to several buddies who knew how to play and asked each of them to show me some chords and explain the tuning. I wrote my first “song” within a week, and then I was hooked.
I continued to learn, write songs, and get better for several years, even starting a few crummy bands in college, but I never really excelled as a guitarist. My senior year I started a band called “The Roadies” with two other guitar players, and we all agreed that one of us should just play bass. We each tried it, and I had the best feel for it, so I stuck with it.
I consider that a stroke of luck, because I don’t think I was ever going to have the chops to be a lead guitarist for a band I liked. In contrast, to be a “good enough” rock bassist, you really don’t have to be flashy or virtuosic. You just have to play the root note of the chord in time with the drummer, and that’s never been too difficult for me. Of course, to be a really good rock bassist, you have to live and breathe “in the pocket”, and serve as the glue for your band. At that level, it’s a completely different instrument than a six string guitar. I’m not there yet, but I’ve steadily improved at the craft to the point where my bandmates are noticing. I’m really proud of that, because I’m easily the least talented guy in my current band! I feel super lucky to be part of a group that makes music I enjoy listening to, and that we get to share it with the world.
At least, when there’s not a pandemic going on! We picked a really bad day – April 4th – to release our latest record, so we’re struggling to recover our costs right now. If our readers wouldn’t mind taking a listen to our new record in iTunes or maybe even buying it directly from us, I would love it.
Q: You are a beer aficionado, which is a common trait among geofolk. Do you brew your own? What is your favorite local brew? How do you explain the fascination of geogeeks with microbrews?
A: I could talk way too long about beer! I’ve never brewed my own, but my roommate in college did, and that’s when I first started appreciating craft brews. My tastes have evolved over the years, but now I pretty much know that there’s only a handful of styles I don’t enjoy. Minnesota is blessed with a ton of amazing brewers, so it’s hard to name a favorite. My favorite style is an IPA, so let’s just pick Surly’s “Wet”, a fresh-hopped beer that only comes out in the fall and I find simply delicious.
I don’t know why geogeeks in general are fascinated with micro brews. I think some of it is coincident demographics: our industry is dominated by white dudes and what do white dudes like, if not craft beer? But that’s just playing the numbers. It’s more fun to guess: I think geographers have an appreciation for nuance, attention to detail, craftsmanship, locally-made products, small businesses, and products that are appealing in multiple ways. For me, that adds up to craft beer, indie music, and Korean street tacos. For someone else, that might be a handmade canoe paddle or an acrylic painted trail map. But our era has been blessed with an abundance of brewers putting their work out there, and for that I’m grateful.
Q: Last but not least, you are a family man. You wear many hats — government worker, GeoHipster CEO, musician, family man… How do you manage to keep all the balls up in the air? Do you even sleep?
A: Actually I’ve never slept very well, so I have to put a big priority on it to even function. I typically dedicate about 8 hours to it every day, but because that’s not solid sleep, it’s probably the equivalent of 6 or 7 for someone else. If I get less than 6 for more than a few nights in a row I become useless.
The rest of my life is just about setting priorities. Obviously, family comes first. Then, the day job that pays the bills and keeps that family fed. After that, it’s the side gigs like GeoHipster and the Lazy Susan Band. I feel like I’m not giving either of those as much effort as I’d like, but that’s just reality. I do try to focus on only one of those at a time: right now, I’m all about the band because we have the new album out. In the fall each year, I spend a lot of time making sure the GeoHipster calendar gets compiled and loaded up so that folks can order it for holiday gifts. In between, it’s whatever bubbles up in priority at that moment.
And of course, we have to reveal the real secret: my wife is the “Household CEO” and she takes care of a boatload of things that keep my home running and my kids happy. We might as well be Ward and June Cleaver with the way we’ve split up the duties…except I do the dishes every night. But that’s peanuts compared to the work she does daily, and I am a very lucky man to have her in my corner. We’re also lucky that our kids are older and generally entertain themselves enough that we can have some time for our own interests.
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our readers?
A: If someone does a favor for you in your career journey, don’t try to pay them back. It sounds corny, but all they want from you is to see you pay it forward. I myself am trying extra hard lately to pay it forward to those with less privilege than I have, and I sincerely hope that makes a difference. How cool would it be if, 20 years from now, people were asking why geogeeks were fascinated with ugali instead of microbrews?
Steve was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.
Q: How / why did you get into GIS? Or is it geo? Or spatial? What did you get into?
A: Ever since I was a little kid I LOVED maps – especially those cartograms in the atlas books, like Rand-McNally. Then in college I took an ink and vellum cartography class and loved it as well. In my junior year of college I did a research experience for undergraduates (REU) at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in the Oregon Cascades. I chose to look at windthrow across the landscape. They had a GIS system with Arc/Info on Sun machines with the shelf full of manuals. I said: “What is this magic, computers and maps together” – I was instantly hooked for life. I digitized in their forest cover map on a big ole’ digitizer stand with a puck digitizer. From then on during my Masters and PhD I made sure to include spatial elements so I could get my hands on spatial technology: GIS, remote sensing, GPS…
Q: Are you more or less geo these days? How do you feel about that?
A: Working at Yale, I was an internal consultant to faculty, building all sorts of technology integrations for them, some of which was spatial. When I was at Red Hat I was less geo. Both of these experiences were really exciting – especially being able to bring the spatial examples and ideas to the larger technology world. But it was also great to bring the larger technology world back to spatial. I have always been a person who likes to mix different worlds and mixing these areas has been really fun for me. So I am not full spatial now (never go full spatial) but in certain ways I have more exposure to deep spatial expertise.
Q: You recently took a role with Crunchy Data. What does Crunchy Data do, and what will you be doing there?
A: Crunchy Data is a PostgreSQL company based off a similar model to Red Hat. We hire core contributors to PostgreSQL, like Tom Lane, Paul Ramsey, and Martin Davis. All software development gets contributed back upstream or at least Open Sourced, like our container work. We make our money off of support, training, and being the experts when people need it. My role there is to help application developers (end users) appreciate all the greatness of PostgreSQL. I focus on creating content and spreading information to make developers happy and successful on PostgreSQL in general and the Crunchy Data work in particular (like our work in containers).
Q: You are known as a strong advocate for open source, and a strong environmentalist. Are these two related?
A: Actually I think it comes more from my science and financially poor grad student background. Science usually pushes for open sharing of results and data, FOSS provides the ability to actually see the algorithms. As a grad student I was always resentful of being at the mercy of software companies about whether or not they would make their software available with decent pricing. And then, finally being in an ecology program, and then working at Yale in the social sciences, there was also a lack of funding and lack of size to drive feature development in software companies. So using software like Apache, R, PostGIS (QGIS wasn’t really around then), allowed us to do reproducible work, fund small features we wanted, and deploy them or give to students to run anywhere they want. In summary I think the strong correlation in me comes from FOSS and Science.
Q: Can a person be idealistic and pragmatic at the same time? How about an organization? Explain.
A: For sure, because they can operate at different scales. Idealistic can be a way to set long-term goals and vision, but you can be pragmatic in your tactics to get to your goal. Even so for an organization. That said you do need a careful balance. If you translate pragmatic to huge profits or exponential growth then this becomes much harder.
Q: Can you explain to me Kubernetes in a way that I can use in a social setting and sound smart?
A: Containers allow you to both install software and the configuration so that you can just do “container run” which gets everything running. This is game changing for both normal server software like geoserver or apache HTTPD but also for custom-built applications. But once you get the container running you run into all sorts of issues of how you run this for real. Like how do you route traffic to the application, how do you scale it up and down, how do you keep it running if it crashes. Kubernetes handles all those issues for you. It allows you to do that by writing a JSON or YAML file that defines how everything is “installed” and configured (this is called declarative infrastructure). So now on a developers machine running minikube (a small developer install of Kubernetes) they can develop their containers and the architecture. They can then give that to ops who can take the same containers, tweak the declarations to match staging or production, and away they go.
Q: You are a frequent speaker at tech conferences. Where do you stand on happy hour vs teatime at conferences?
A: I prefer tea time. I think alcohol should be left for people going out personally at bars afterwards. Alcohol being served at events, while making some social interactions easier, can actually lead to some negative consequences as well, especially around sexual harassment. Also, if I have one drink it usually just makes me sleepy – so tea time and fresh berries please. Tea has just as much variety as beer (if not more) so we can get all hipster with it as well.
Q: You have publicly challenged our own Randal Haleand his trademark phrase “Holy crap”, claiming prior art. How would you like to see the issue resolved?
A: Simple as Randal declaring me supreme ruler of the universe – that should suffice.
Q: You have been very open about your bout with cancer. In a recent tweet thread you addressed the fake “You can do it!” positivity that is common in today’s social discourse in general, and almost expected when talking to cancer patients. Why is this so prevalent, and what does it say about our society?
A: My main point with the response is that you should start by asking the person what they want, not just assume that the popular narrative of how people deal with cancer is the way this particular person is dealing with it. For me, the whole “kick its ass” didn’t really resonate with me – I preferred more of a “I hope you have an interesting experience and finding peace with it all”. Who knows if I would have gone to a different place had my cancer been terminal. Anyway, I think humans have a tendency to take a mental model (which are helpful in general) and overuse it for every situation they get into.
Q: What do you look forward to?
A: Spending time with my partner, Angelina, hiking and chilling with my dogs, watching anime and hiking with my kids, playing video games, fly fishing, and finally some good birdwatching. Those are things I look forward to, the good things in life.
Q: Are you a geohipster? Why / why not?
A: Hell no, I generally do not like the whole hipster movement except as something to make fun of. I mean I appreciate people who are hipsters and can laugh about it. But really I am more about average geo person, helping them get shit done, and hoping they feel good about themselves when doing it.
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our readers?
A: You are good enough, you are smart enough, and gosh darn it people like you.
Glenn is a Geographer (B.Sc Geog 93’) and has worked in the GIS industry since 1990 when he first worked as an intern on CAD & GIS mapping for the natural gas pipeline in Victoria, BC. Since then he has been a GIS analyst for both public and private sectors and is known mostly as the founder of GISuser.com, a popular GIS industry news outlet. Most recently, Glenn was the marketing manager (contractor) for GEO Jobe, an Esri business partner, while just this month Glenn has now turned to focus full time on his Tech marketing venture, gletham Communications (www.gletham.com) to focus on evangelism and marketing for GIS companies and geotech startups. Oh… Glenn also has become known for conducting video interviews in his car through the GeoGeeksinCars video series (http://bit.ly/geogeeksincars1). He’s been on Twitter for 12 years as @gletham and spends his time in Victoria, BC, Canada and also in Fort Collins, Colorado (that’s a long story).
Q: Everyone knows Glenn Letham The GIS User. But there is much more to what you do than GISUser.com, correct? Tell us about your other endeavors.
A: GISuser has been a fantastic journey for me and it has been really fun and interesting to manage for the past 15 years. About 3 years ago I got an itch to do more and join up with a “real GIS company” again so that was when I hooked up with GEO Jobe and took up a role in marketing and content creation for them. Recently that came to an end and that has enabled me to now focus on growing my consulting business, gletham Communications (gletham.com) to provide technical marketing, strategy, and communication services specifically for the GIS/Geotech industry. Oh, and I’m also going to double-down and start re-focusing on GISuser and our GIS Career resource, geojobs.biz, along with my business associate Allen Cheves — he’s also the founder and publisher of American Surveyor Magazine and the very awesome LiDAR Magazine – if LiDAR is of interest you gotta check it out! I still maintain and manage the online mobile tech news sites that I founded back in 2004, LBSzone.com & SymbianOne.com. I really enjoy DevMeetups and similar geeky events and have a real itch to organize one again sometime, perhaps an Ignite or DevMeet that coincides with a conference (In the past I’ve helped plan a few of them, including a GeoDevMeetup in Fort Collins with about 200 people – they were awesome!)
Q: What is the secret to a successful social media presence? A narrow, specialized, highly technical content, or broad content including technical content but also cultural commentary and the occasional political jab?
A: Social media really is a different creature for everyone I think. By that I mean, there really is no right or wrong way to do it and “success” is pretty subjective. I’ve definitely been a long time, early adopter of most of the original, big platforms but I’ve also had periodic moments of burn-out which I see happening to many others as well. I guess I’ve been somewhat successful at building a community of followers, the biggest challenge likely has been combining personal and business content into the mix. That can be a real challenge and can also be risky, causing followers to bail out and resort to blocking. I’ve always been a bit of an open book, posting some personal commentary and lots of photos and video. This means that my network doesn’t just view me as a GeoGeek or marketing guy, many also view me as a dog lover, baseball fan, and guy who appears to travel quite a bit, strangely living in Victoria or Fort Collins, CO! For me, this has been useful in building credibility and enabling people to get to know me as if we’ve met IRL. I’m lucky in that I have a fantastic network in the GIS and mobile tech community. This means that I receive lots of great tips, tricks, advanced news announcements and sneak peeks into the future. I think this has really helped to provide me with plenty of great technical content to share over the years. My goal is simply to try and build a reputation as someone who is open, honest, trustworthy, funny, and caring. I’ll admit that I have periodic Twitter “rants” where I’ll slip up and drop a political topic, but you have to admit, it’s tough at times these days to have complete restraint but I’m trying to chill with that! I’m working on trying to be more careful about those topics though as it really doesn’t do any good and simply contributes to division and conflict. I find LinkedIn to be increasingly useful and interesting (although the engineers messing with the platform tend to drive me crazy!) but that’s also where I am 100% business and try to focus solely on technology and business. If I had to describe my “success” I’d have to say it’s come from connecting with awesome people to build a vibrant network, trying to engage and assist/answer questions when possible, and just being myself. If your readers would like to connect with me they can find me on facebook (https://www.facebook.com/glethamComm/) and LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/company/glethamcomm/)
Q: GeoGeeks in Cars. Other than the obvious Seinfeld influence, can you tell us what inspired you to start this?
A: I’ve always enjoyed doing the “selfie video” thing, I believe the first time I tried that was in 2010 when I took a summer drive in my Mustang convertible on a little trip to the Apple store in Boulder, CO (https://youtu.be/Ude0D3uiShs). Fast-forward a few years and I decided that I wanted a more fun, visual way to interview GeoGeeks. I’ve been a tech journalist since 1999 but honestly, doing interviews has never really been my favorite thing to do in that role so I felt that mixing things up with video would be a great idea (note, one of my favorite episodes to date was this one with the entire Esri startup program team https://youtu.be/aGAZGxTQXZw). Apparently, it worked quite well as I frequently have geeks come up to me at events and say “hey, you do those geek in cars videos!” I believe my first true GeoGeeksincars episode was in Victoria, BC with my friend Karl Swannie, CEO at Echosec. The drive was fun, although a bit bumpy but I really found that both of us were at ease and just having a friendly, light conversation. We actually did go for coffee and it clicked to me that this could be something fun that people would enjoy. Overall, I’ve found it to be a fun way to discuss a topic, particularly as I’m not really interested in creating a podcast. Initially, I started out filming these with a smartphone but I’ve since updated the technology and the quality and continued to get better I think. The next thing I’d like to add is a second or third camera angle so people can see the scenery. Most recently, I rolled a few at DevSummit in Palm Springs, including this solo drive where I chatted about my new adventure (https://youtu.be/RoCILVzqz2Y)
Q: You were just at the Esri Developer Summit. Tell us something you learned there that you don’t think you would have heard about otherwise.
A: I think, overall, I was most struck by how the products are [finally] coming into alignment and offering a similar experience for the user. I’m far from an ArcGIS Pro “guru”, however, curiosity always does get the best of me so I really do like to dabble, test, and try to break new technologies as they come out. I’m also fortunate in that I’ve had access to the software courtesy of Esri and some of the companies I’ve worked for — Esri also does make available software for non-commercial use to developers as well, so this is a great way to access the tools. But back to where I started, I was impressed with what’s coming from the Story Map technology, Web AppBuilder and Survey123. Esri has evolved these solutions using a new architecture and is providing the same, familiar experience which is also very simple to use and can also be very useful to those of us (like me) who don’t code. I really like what I’ve seen recently and I think the users will as well. As an example, I chatted with a Survey123 staffer at the show and he walked me through creating a form and publishing out as a mobile app and feature service. The scenario was a tree inspection app and it took us about 10 minutes in total to create — I was pretty impressed!
Q: More importantly, how did you do in the dodgeball tournament?
A: I’ll be honest, I sat front row and enjoyed a couple of IPAs while the event took place. It really is a blast to watch and is a great team-building activity. Last year I joined a team that was short a player and sadly we were knocked out immediately so my dodgeball career was very short-lived!
Q: When you met Kenneth Field, did he have any cheese on him?
A: No such luck there but that would have been totally awesome! We do know that he likes his cheese and the cheese board map and others that he’s created are truly awesome!! See his blog on creating the cheese board map — our meetup in Palm Springs was pretty cool though. Ken was doing a lightning talk in the DevMeet “Speed Geeking” event so I got Ken for 5 minutes all to myself. His quick talk was very impressive and entertaining — and I did indeed learn a ton about cartography, a real treat! Funny thing, he gave me a signed copy of the amazing “Cartography.” book and the following day he mentioned he was disappointed I didn’t connect with him to roll a geogeeksincars drive. That was my bad as I assumed he was so busy, then he told me he was really looking forward to doing one. Talk about a missed opportunity.
Q: Team Shapefile or Team Geopackage?
A: Haha, I know that many of your followers will groan a bit but yup, I’m a bit old-school still and likely best described as being on team Shapefile — oh, and I do have some of the highly sought after “I heart SHP” buttons!
Q: Team ArcGIS or Team QGIS?
A: Well, I have a couple of ArcGIS Online accounts and am still a big fan of Story Map technology and web app builder so its team ArcGIS.
Q: Team Vancouver or Team Fort Collins (and which has better beer)?
A: Bazinga!! Actually, technically it’s Victoria (the BC Capital on Vancouver Island) and that’s a tough call. FOCO is my home-away-from-home for now, however, it may become home in the near future. The sunshine in Fort Collins is totally awesome but overall, the weather and scenery is likely better in Victoria (particularly in summer) and I definitely am at home close to the ocean — I still get nosebleeds when I hit Colorado even after all these years! On the upside though, the people in Colorado are really amazing and the tech scene kicks butt too. As for the beer, Fort Collins has sooo many options and many breweries, plus you can use the patios all year round (except for when a blizzard blows in for a day). The quality and selection of brews in FOCO is better for sure, however, Victoria is up there and you’d be surprised to know that the cost of craft beer in Victoria is much less than in the US and best of all, the Canadian pint is a whopping “proper” 20 ounces — a huge win!
Q: Not too many people know that you were an early GeoHipster advisor. The Poll that launched the site in 2013 was your idea. Having said that, do you consider yourself a geohipster? Why or why not?
A: That’s funny and I had forgotten about that. I recall that and was impressed by how you ran with the idea — I think at that time I was simply too saddled with work and life, in general, to take on something else. Am I a hipster? Hmmm, I suppose I am (maybe Hipster-Lite). I do dabble with a number of open source solutions and am a huge proponent of open data. I’m a meetup, devmeet, hackathon junkie and attend whenever I can make it happen so these attributes might help group me in with the crowd. Oh, and I do ride my bike frequently (when the rainy season ends) and I sport a beard 3 months of the year! Interesting side-note, I was instrumental in organizing the first Ignite Spatial events and Esri DevMeetup which took place in Fort Collins, CO – pretty hip eh?
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our readers?
A: Hmmm, well, if you blend personal and professional personas on social media try to stay away from politics, guns, and map projection discussions… you’ll likely get into a war of words! Build a focused online network of connections because you never know when you’ll need them. While doing this, be sure to listen, contribute and help others — that will go a long way. Finally, if you share news/PR with journalists, please don’t do it with a PDF!! Shameless self-promo, and if you need some tips, advice, or assistance, feel free to hit me up @gletham
Michael Gurley came to the Geo-field accidentally, burned brightly across the early GIS skies, relished being a small fish in a small pond, fought hard to keep the mystic arts secret from the unwashed masses, was an unapologetic ESRIalite, and then experienced a conversion to the “GIS is just a tool” doctrine, and now looks at any single-solution disciple with disdain…or at least a heavy dose of skepticism.
Michael’s only dedicated online presence is an embarrassingly sporadic blog…about climbing, and other pedestrian adventures.
A: Completely by mistake. Two years of pursuing Civil Engineering was abandoned, in a fit of frustration…while suffering through Differential Equations with Linear Algebra (DiffEQ for short), for the more “squishy” liberal arts degree in Geography. It appealed to my love of history, culture, and…of course, maps. I figured I would end up teaching. But, in my senior year at University of New Hampshire, I joined my housemates (all geography/geology students) in an on-campus work-study opportunity. We were all using workstation (I believe it was 5.0) ArcInfo to digitize South American deforestation. I blame two years of squinting at black and white LandSAT photos through a digitizing puck crosshair for my currently degraded eyesight.
Q: You and I worked together over 20 years ago. Do you miss GIS in the 1990s? ArcView, shapefiles, coverages…
A: 20 years ago? Those were good times. Yes…and no. I don’t necessarily miss the technology. I actually loathed ArcView when it first appeared on the scene. And…ArcCAD? PC ArcInfo? Ugh! What I do miss was the “newness” of the field at that time. We were kinda rockstars….at least in our own nerdy minds.
Q: Do you miss New Jersey?
A: Again…yes and no. I don’t miss the Garden State as much as I miss friends and family that still reside there. When I moved to Oregon in 2011, my new boss nicknamed me “Jersey.” After a while, I stopped fighting it, and just embraced the moniker.
Q: Your name is on the 1999 Digital Parcel Mapping Handbook published by URISA and the NJ State Mapping Advisory Committee. Are you still involved with digital parcel mapping? Has the methodology changed in the last 20 years?
A: That thing is still around?!?!? Maybe that’s a sign that parcel mapping HASN’T changed as much as I would have thought. I’m not involved in parcel mapping anymore. I did work for a while at Oregon Department of Revenue, in their Property Tax Mapping section. Similar work, but a lot more concerned with utilizing property survey source data to construct the tax parcels. I would hazard a guess that the basic premise is still the same, just a lot more snazzy tools available to the practitioner.
Q: Tell us about your current job. What do you do at work?
A: Five months ago I accepted a position with Oregon Department of Transportation. For the first time in over 20 years, I am doing something that is not directly connected to GIS. I am a “hybrid” Project Manager and System Analyst with Transportation Application Development (TAD). Our particular team supports the Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) business within ODOT. It was a huge leap for me to leave my GIS comfort zone, but I believe it was time for me to grow, expand, and be challenged.
Q: I know you use QGIS. Exclusively or not? What other tools do you use on a daily basis?
A: Now that I don’t have access to ArcGIS at work…yes, I’m striving to learn the ins-and-outs of QGIS. It’s purely for personal use. I have a pretty extensive collection of local hiking trail data that I’ve collected with GPS, and am undertaking to port that data from the personal geodatabase that it’s stored in to something more useable with QGIS.
Q: How does QGIS fit in within the mission of your organization?
A: Within ODOT? It doesn’t. ODOT’s GIS shop falls squarely in the Esri camp.
Q: Where do you stand in the data formats wars? Team Shapefile or Team Geopackage?
A: I always disliked shapefiles. They never felt “stable” or precise enough for my tastes. My desire for data integrity was more satisfied by the geodatabase…ESPECIALLY when it came to enforcing topology rules. As a QGIS novice, I felt like I was having to take a step back, and settle for shapefiles. So, when I “discovered” the geopackage option, I was an immediate convert. Time will tell if I actually chose the “BetaMax” (or not) of GIS data formats.
Q: You commute on an antique store bike. This is super hip. Geared or fixie? Tell us all about that.
A: I would dispute the antique label. My current bike (a 1996 Univega Rover 304) is neither “belonging to ancient times” nor is it “of high value because of its considerable age.” I picked it up for $35. Because of its LACK of monetary value, I am much less fearful of it getting stolen and I’m much less hesitant to experiment with performing repairs on it myself. It’s geared. I’ll tell you a secret, but you have to promise not to tell anyone. I don’t even KNOW what a fixie is. Single speed? That doesn’t make sense to me. Maybe I should look into it someday.
Q: Do you have any other hipster attributes we should know about?
A: Portland is where all the hipsters reside. I don’t have the time to compete with that scene. Salem has some occasional glimmers of hipster, but my theory is that Salemites maintain a perverse sense of pride in not buying into the pressure of competing with the Portland scene. Salem’s response to “Keep Portland Weird” is “Keep Salem Lame”. Not to get overly philosophical about it, but I think if you are TRYING to be a hipster…you’re doomed to failure. Reminds me of the late 80s when a lot of my brother’s friends thought “being punk” consisted solely of spiking their hair and wearing a lot of studded leather. Hipster or punk. It’s an individual state of mind, not a fashion statement. Here ends the lesson.
Q: What do you do for fun?
A: 2009 through 2012 was a particularly turbulent time in my life. Moving cross-country away from friends, family (especially my kids) was the hardest decision I ever had to make. The only thing that kept me sane and grounded was getting out into the wilderness to hike, backpack…and eventually climb. Check out my sporadic personal blog for an essay regarding “Why I Climb” (https://mikestracks.wordpress.com/2013/11/26/why-i-climb/) if you are so inclined (no pun intended). Coincidentally, the essay had its genesis in an innocent comment by this blog’s very own founder (thanks AE). My life has much less personal drama now, but the love of the outdoors remains. It is still a healing and rejuvenating activity for me. I’ve seen and done things that I previously thought weren’t possible for “normal people” like me. Besides this new-found adventurous side of me, I can totally “geek-out” with a group of friends playing tabletop board games or role-playing games. I have a lazy indulgent side also. On a warm, dry, summer Oregon day, nothing beats sitting on a winery’s veranda, overlooking the vineyards, sharing a bottle (or two) of local wine with someone special.
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our global readership?
A: “The place where you lose the trail is not necessarily the place where it ends.” –Tom Brown, Jr.
Courtney is a product manager at the Canadian Digital Service. Before joining the public service, she worked at Esri building products to connect local governments and their communities using open data. She has a BA in Urban Systems and GIS from McGill University. She lives in Ottawa and is moderately active on Twitter. Courtney was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.
Q: How did you get into GIS?
A: Growing up I was enamoured with big cities (living in the suburbs where they’re just out of reach will do that) and was glued to the computer (see: suburbs). I took an elective geography class in high school because it had an urban geo unit, and that’s where I learned about GIS. We used ArcView 3. I remember creating shapefiles of the neighbouring plaza’s building footprints and mapping the GPS points of garbage. I loved the mix of art and science that GIS brought — the data collection, analysis, and communicating information in a clear and appealing way. It was a way I got to flex whatever creativity or eye for design I had while being rooted in science, which was typically more of my strong suit. I also got to be on the computer, so, bonus! My first GIS map is still kicking around in my dad’s basement somewhere. It’s not The Garbage Map, but it is definitely a garbage map.
I was amped to learn more in university and dive deeper into urban applications of GIS. I wanted to be a transportation planner but got wooed by the open government data movement that was taking off, and that set my course.
Q: You currently work for the Canadian Digital Service. What is the mission of the Service, and what do you personally do there?
A: The Canadian Digital Service uses digital skills and knowledge to make it easier for people to access and use government services. We partner with other federal departments and work to improve the services they provide Canadians, and while doing so we’re sharing with our colleagues a different way of working in government – a way that’s open, interdisciplinary, and puts the user first. We’re trying to make everyone’s day a little bit easier.
I’m a product manager, so I work on a delivery team of designers, researchers, and developers, and engage with partners across government to make sure the right thing gets built at the right time. It’s a lot of different hats.
A: Yeah! The team really is fantastic. I think it’s incredibly important that we stay humble in the kind of work we do, especially when we’re the new kids in town and we’re working with public servants that have been doing this hard work for years. We’re not sweeping into departments and shaking them up, but aiming to empower folks who have been moving to work in a more modern way all along. I feel incredibly supported as an individual working at CDS, but I don’t feel like it’s really about us in the end. I’d encourage anyone who wants to tackle some big issues for the greater good to apply–we’re looking for roles across the organisation and you don’t need to be Canadian.
Q: Prior to your current position you worked at Esri DC, where you focused on ArcGIS Open Data. Was that big / open geodata, or just data?
A: It was just data. ArcGIS Hub (née Open Data) supports both spatial and non-spatial data, though of course the majority of datasets people published were spatial — raster or vector. I think that’s mostly of a function of it being Esri but also that the majority of data out there has a spatial component.
Q: Is spatial still special?
A: I’m not sure spatial is inherently special, but local gov GIS teams are incredibly well equipped to spearhead a city’s open data strategy and open data services. They hold a ton of data, and we’ve seen more GIS folk use their data to tell stories and share information rather than simply sharing shapefiles — they’ve moved beyond reaching only the civic hacker or data journalist. Your average person on the street doesn’t care what a shapefile is. Lots of people just want to know if they’re buying a home in a safe area and to make sure their kid can walk to school without a high chance of getting run over. Having those kinds of geo-infomediaries that put insights beside data empowers more users to make decisions and insights of their own.
Over my four years at Esri we saw incredible information resources emerge from what started as simple open data sites. Some of Esri’s users went from being GIS analysts at their local government to being the city’s Chief Data Officer, others have developed partnerships with Waze, others are engaging with schools and showing students the value of open data. GIS shops can really open the door to greater public uses and applications of information beyond just sharing data.
Q: Tell us about life after Esri.
A: Life after Esri was tough at first. Leaving Esri was tough. It took a long time to feel comfortable and productive at my first long-term job out of university, which I imagine a lot of young women in tech can relate to. I had established relationships, a community of practice, and a reputation, and then I took a leap and moved to a new city to start a new job in a new field where I didn’t have any of that. So it was a bit of a lonely reset. The first few months were challenging and scary and uncomfortable, but I need to feel challenged and scared and uncomfortable in order to grow, and I don’t regret it. Plus my rent is cheaper.
I miss geography, GIS, and DC’s incredible geo community. Twitter provides me an endless stream of geo FOMO.
Q: What drove you to come work in the US? What drove you to return to Canada?
A: Both times were for jobs; I’m very lucky I could pick up and move like that. I attended the 2014 OpenStreetMap conference in DC and met people from Esri which led to the move south of the border. It was the best thing I could have done at the time and I didn’t think twice about it.
During my time in DC I was introduced to 18F and the United States Digital Service, and then gradually followed Canada’s growth into digital government — Code for Canada forming, the province of Ontario hiring a Chief Digital Officer and creating the Ontario Digital Service, and then the Canadian Digital Service being born. I wanted a closer look at how government works and it’s an exciting time to work in digital government in Canada. It’s also great to be back closer to my family and to have real winters again.
Q: PBR features regularly in your Instagram feed. Also bikes. Any other hipster attributes we should know about?
A: Ha! Damn, outed. In my defense, PBR is a fine dock beer and we recently got out of dock season here in Ontario. Back in DC my pal Max hosts an annual hipster triathlon: swim 20 laps of a public pool, run around a track for a while, then bike to a brewery wearing funny clothes. I loved it. Other than that, I don’t think about what it means to be a hipster or what hipster attributes are. Maybe that makes me one. Whatever.
Q: Canadians are nice and generous. What else are they?
A: I struggle a bit with defining Canadian identity because It’s filled with so many different types of people from different geographies. I think Canadians have a witty, satirical, sometimes dark sense of humour. We are incredibly diplomatic and while polite, our politeness is often just a way to mitigate our fear of confrontation, and sometimes that turns into passive aggression. We have great musicians that we’re fiercely defensive of. We get excited when anything Canadian appears in American pop culture and we take the jokes in stride. We have parental leave!
We also have our fair share of hate crimes and racist harassment, a version of Breitbart, a history of Indigenous genocide that still carries through to today, and a white nationalist running for mayor of the largest city in Canada. That’s harsh, but I feel Canada is frequently cast in this utopian light where the only news is a deer strolling in a Tim Hortons drive-thru. It’s a mix of good and bad. It’s like any place.
I often pass this book in the window of a local bookstore, and I think it sums it up:
Q: Are you a geohipster? Why / why not?
A: I’ll hang onto whatever variation of geographer identity I can get nowadays.
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our readers?
A: If you’re wavering about moving to a new place where you don’t know anyone, just go for it, especially if you’re young. As my new coworker Lyn says, what’s the better story when you’re eighty?
Also, here is my favourite song that features map projections:
*The irony of this video not working in Canada is not lost on me.
Jim is a geodeveloper advocate at Esri in NYC. Before that, he worked in Redlands running the developer network program, and previous to that, running Esri’s tech support operations. Catch him on twitter @JimBarry.
The statements and opinions below are Jim’s and not the opinions or official positions of his current or previous employers.
Jim was interviewed for GeoHipster by Bill Dollins and Atanas Entchev.
Q: How did you get into GIS?
A: I guess it started with an obsession with maps when I was a kid.
Going way back though, back seat of the car on family trips, I was completely absorbed by road atlases. My mom was the original mapgeek and navigator in the family; still is. So I got the maps thing from her — total map nerd. Not to mention my other assorted quirks, like staring at the ground from the window seat of a plane. It’s like a big map, yo!
Maps just kept coming back to me over and over as I grew up. Orienteering in scouts and beyond. As an infantry officer in the army, maps were key. Grab a lensatic compass, a 1:50,000 topo in a waterproof case, a grease pencil, and let’s go. I really took to land navigation, on foot or on vehicles, any weather, any terrain, swamps, woods, or desert, mostly at night. It’s more than just dead-reckoning to point B; it’s route selection, contingency planning, speed and manner of movement, under stress, wet, cold, hot, miserable, dealing with obstacles, leading soldiers keeping them motivated, pressed for time, pushing thru it, learning and adjusting along the way until you reach the objective. Maybe a little philosophical, but sort of a microcosm of life itself, no?
As for GIS itself, grad school, studying urban planning, we had PC ArcInfo and ArcView v1. I taught a couple semesters of freshman level Geography, and spent a year running the mapping lab, keeping the hardware working and software updated, helping students working on their projects, and learning the concepts of working with and analyzing spatial data.
During grad school, but on the side, my first year I took an overnight job doing mapping at an electric utility. I got a real sense of the importance of this kind of high-impact production mapping—a lot of editing, complete and accurate information, and a high level of quality control when electrical service for customers, and the safety of the maintenance crews were at stake.
Then in my second year of grad school I got hired by a small town outside of Hartford to research and build their 10-year master plan of development. I used PC ArcInfo, ArcCAD, and ArcView for that. They had only been using AutoCAD. I was able to do some spatial analysis using whatever data I could find, convert, digitize, or otherwise collect, to provide support for some recommendations for development, preservation, transportation, and other aspects of the town’s growth and progress.
I really liked working with the tools, so figured I’d try to work at Esri for a few years, learn as much as I can, then take back to municipal planning. Well, a few years turned into 24 and running.
Q: You have been at Esri for over two decades. How would you describe life at Esri to an outsider?
A: Always challenging. First couple of years I was a desktop GIS tech support analyst. To me, there’s no better place to learn how to be productive with this technology, than in tech support. Not only do you learn how things work best, but also the wide variety of ways things break, and how to quickly find the cause, work up a solution, alone or in groups, sometimes code up alternatives, workarounds, and communicate that to the user trying to get their work done, often under pressure themselves. Fun stuff. Even after moving up into running tech support ops, I’d grab calls myself from time to time to keep the problem-solving and tech skills sharp as I could. The tech moves and grows fast. It’s quick and easy to lose your grip on it, if you don’t keep chopping.
But overall, the ability to do important, impactful work, surrounded by and learning from some of the smartest people I’ve ever met. But more importantly, everyone here buys into the idealism that Jack projects. He’s a true believer in what technology, in general, and of course GIS in particular provides to improve our co-existence with our world, in a data-driven way.
I saw this quote once. I think it was meant to stoke one’s entrepreneurial spirit by saying “If you don’t work to realize your own ideas, you’ll end up working to realize someone else’s”. Being that I’m a fairly UNcreative person, that quote motivated me too, but probably in a direction 180° from its intent. Meaning, I consider my value more about building and delivering tangible, useful things from the ideas envisioned by creative people, freeing them up to continue being creative. That’s the main reason why I’ve always felt a good fit at Esri. Jack’s visionary thought leadership over the past several decades, and his commitment to build and constantly improve (and occasionally completely reinvent) has been an honor and a great experience to be part of.
Q: You have been working in developer evangelism for over a decade now. During that time, Esri’s platforms have changed and grown significantly. How has working with developers shaped your view of the evolution of Esri’s platforms and what role has the developer community played in that evolution?
A: Understanding the evolution of developers, and of developing software apps and systems, starts by understanding the evolution of users and their expectations.
Back in the 90s when I first started building custom mapping apps, this might sound really odd now, but usability wasn’t exactly our primary concern, generally. You designed and built the app, and then you deployed it with documentation and training. As your end-user climbed the learning curve, their productivity would increase. Back then, “powerfully useful” was more important than “intuitively usable”. But it was still mainly up to the user to commit effort learning how to use it.
Of course, nowadays, in most cases, that approach is absolutely insane. (Well, it was insane then too, but who knew?) Today, when you put an app in the hands of an end-user, it better be designed to be intuitive for them, and productively useful for them right away, for what they need it to do. Apps you build need to free your users up, so they can put almost all their mental effort into their work and put as little effort as possible into figuring out how the app works.
That expectation bounces right back to the developers who build and use APIs, and the designers of the apps being used. It’s no longer enough that the API be powerful, fine grained, and comprehensive (hi ArcObjects). Now, its granularity also needs to be variable, doc accessible, learning ramp shallow, samples numerous, best practices proven, and user community robust, interactive, and supportive enough so that we meet these high expectations. It takes a lot of work to make things easy. Also, the shelf life of things developers build is also shortening. Developers often need to deploy something good enough now, then iterate to continue improving it.
Q: You wrote about smart cities recently. Is “smart cities” the new buzzword de jour, or is it GIS trying to reinvent itself, or is it an entire new industry being born?
A: A new industry? No, it’s broader than that. It’s a way for cities to keep up with fully using technology to make itself run better. Of course, GIS is a key part of it—here’s how. A smart city is one that uses technology to continually sense its state and respond in efficient, optimized ways. Human intervention is removed whenever practical, to gain speed and scale. Combined with the hardware and software technology itself, it also includes a digitized articulation of the rules on which decisions can be made, and actions triggered. Then, on a separate thread, patterns can be sensed, stored, analyzed in order to continue improving efficiency in future iterations.
Given that a city is a spatial system, spatial analysis has got to be a key part of these rules, decisions, and actions. Along with many other technologies, GIS fuels the decisions behind visualizing where things are and optimizing how, why, when, and where things move and interact. A GIS platform also provides cross-agency collaboration tools and the ability to perform modeling and predictive data analytics.
The data management, data analysis, data visualization tools that are a part of GIS and geospatial technology have a role to play in a “smart city”, from strategy down to the nuts and bolts. I can’t imagine how they wouldn’t.
Ok, so to me, yeah, in a way, “smart cities” can be seen as a buzzword, but it’s an important one, a motivating one. Meaning, it’s a simple term that helps everyone quickly focus in on what cities are trying to do to evolve. It’s easier for all of us to grab the handles and pull the wagon in the same direction if we’re not stuck struggling to understand what the term means. 50 years from now, a city’s “smartness” in this context will be so common, the concept itself is going to melt into the background and we’ll probably forget that the term “smart city” used to be a “thing”. Like the idea of an electric city was 100+ years ago versus today. But for now, we need the term, because it’s going to take a lot of domains working together to make cities smarter.
Q: Esri recently pledged $30,000.00 to the GDAL barn raising. Esri has famously used GDAL libraries under the hood of ArcGIS for many years now, so the pledge makes sense. How would you characterize Esri’s relationship with open-source and the open source community, particularly in geospatial? What steps do you anticipate Esri taking to help that relationship evolve?
A: Ask 10 people what “open” means, you’ll get 12 different answers. So, for me, I keep it practical, and I try to stay focused on how the level of openness helps or hinders productive work in any particular context.
As for open source software, I’ve seen some choose it based simply on principle. Some choose it when it’s free, or when its initial barrier to use is lower than other options. I mean, I get it. Open source provides a perception (sometimes an illusion) of control, and a perception (sometimes an illusion) of low cost.
But, over the past several years at least, I’ve seen a growth of users and developers who are trying to get their work done best, or build things that are more useful, whose technology selection has more to do with its capabilities, than whether or not they can contribute to the code base. On the surface, the terms open and closed imply a binary, but when it comes to technology it’s obviously a lot more complex and nuanced than that.
In our increasingly connected world, for a technology to be useful, it needs to be openly interoperable with other tech. It also needs to support open standards with regards to format (hi Shapefile), workflow, protocols, and interface (both UI and API).
And then there’s open data. It benefits all of us to support open data, particularly in government, in order to promote freedom and transparency, optimize operations, encourage collaboration, but also to engage the people who live there. In NYC there is a vast ecosystem of non-profits, startups, students, motivated citizens, and more, ready to pitch in, and they do amazing work. It’s a force multiplier to ensure that accurate, complete, timely data is pushed into the open, into the hands of everyone, fueling great ideas. Doing so continues to improve the lives of New Yorkers every day.
Back to open source though…
Where a particular technology, any technology, open source or not, is better, more useful, more cost effective, it will be used. A few years ago, Chris Wanstrath was the keynote speaker at the Esri Developer Summit. He was a founder, and at the time CTO of GitHub. He noted that while GitHub has played a huge role in the support, usefulness, and growth of open source software, GitHub itself is not open source. He found that open source makes sense, when openly inclusive collaboration is the best approach to building something, and it doesn’t make sense when you want to build something that supports your core business model, and for as long as you want to maintain full creative control. When it comes down to it, the relationship between the two is more productive when it’s symbiotic rather than adversarial. The way I see it is this: our work contains a lot of constraints we have limited control over; it makes no sense to purposefully add more constraints by limiting our own options.
Q: You are from New Jersey — home of The Sopranos, Bridgegate, and Silent Bob. I hear you have a special connection to one of those. Tell us about it.
A: The shore area of New Jersey, yes, born and raised in that magical state where the government still believes pumping gas is a task best left to paid professionals.
So yeah, after a couple decades in Redlands, I recently moved back to my hometown of Leonardo, NJ. Most of my family still live in the area, and it’s great to be back. Silent Bob, right, well, Leonardo is the town the movie Clerks was filmed in. The Quick Stop is still there, the dive bar of convenience stores. Anyway, when I was 14, I had a newspaper route and that store was the halfway point. I would go in and grab a soda for the return trip. One day, the guy who worked in there said I could have the coke for free if I’d go in the back and load the dairy case with milk, eggs, cheese, and stuff, that had been delivered, which at the time could only be loaded from the back of the store. Otherwise he’d have to lock up, stock the case, then reopen (“I assure you we’re open”). I think I was only hauling in $15 a week at that point with the paper route, so I’m like, cool. For a while, this turned into an almost daily thing. I hadn’t seen the movie til many years later, but it was weird to see our little hole in the wall store be a central character of a big movie. “Bunch of savages in this town”, indeed.
Q: Finish this sentence: If I could only keep one of my sports jerseys, it would be…
A: I’ve got a bunch, but this Hartford Whalers jersey I have, well, I normally resist wearing third party gear to games, but this one seems to be an exception. Wore it to a Rangers game last winter and it’s obvious that hockey fans get it. Plus, it’s a pretty cool logo.
Q: Do you consider yourself a geohipster? Why / why not?
A: Not at all. While I respect and am inspired by the innovation that comes from the unconventional thinking of all you hipsters, for the most part, my strengths (and weaknesses) seem to stem from being a straight up conformist. But then in a way, without us conformists, being a hipster lacks the frame of reference from which to diverge — there’s no contrast. So to all you real geohipsters out there… you’re welcome.
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our readers?
A: If you have an idea — a solid idea that has a vision and a purpose, and you really believe in it — you’re ready to sink or swim in it — don’t wait, don’t check, don’t ask — just do it. Probably intuitively obvious to many; wasn’t obvious to me for a long time.
Meaning, what I’ve found that often doesn’t work, is trying to sell others on your idea when it’s still nothing more than an idea. All this does is open the door for it to be crushed under the weight of opinions. And at that point, your great idea becomes just another deleted slide deck. So. Don’t ask for permission. Believe in it? Then just build it. When you need others’ collaboration on bits of it, keep it focused, and limited to trusted resources.
Here’s the point though. Believing in it of course means you’re ready to own the consequences, whether it works, or whether it lawn darts into the ground. Best case scenario, it works, and at that point you’ve improved things a notch or two for your users, added value to your product, helped move the ball forward for your organization. Not to mention you learned a lot along the way. But most importantly, those who earlier might have crushed your idea — they vanish. No one argues with success. No one debates whether something will work or not, after it’s already working.
Bill Dollins is the Chief Information Officer at Spatial Networks, Inc., where he is responsible for leading information management and security strategy. He works remotely from his home office in Southern Maryland, leading a team that is focused on optimizing the acquisition, management, analysis, and delivery of geospatial data.
Bill was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.
Outside of work, he can usually be found spending time with his family, wearing out a pair of Brooks running shoes, or figuring out how to lift heavier things. He blogs less frequently than he used to and is planning to remedy that situation. He can be found on Twitter, LinkedIn, and GitHub. He is a fan of Washington, DC area sports teams, as well as the Alabama Crimson Tide, due to multi-generational family loyalties.
A: I didn’t know that and I feel slightly intimidated. I guess I need to make this good. I’m setting precedent, so should I go with dry sarcasm, self-deprecation, or over-the-top hyperbole? I think I’ll just wing it and see where it goes.
Q: A lot has changed since we last conversed on these pages. Tell us about your new gig.
A: I’ve been working at Spatial Networks, Inc. since February 2017. Many may know us as the company that makes Fulcrum, the leading mobile data collection application for iOS and Android. I joined at a fortunate time, at the outset of a significant period of growth for the company. As a result, we’ve done a lot of hiring and reorganized a couple of times to position the company for continued growth.
In my current role, I wear two hats as CIO and GIO. In the former role, I oversee the implementation and use of corporate systems and also address our corporate technical compliance with regulations such as the EU’s GDPR. In the latter role, I lead the management of our corporate geospatial data assets.
Those assets primarily take the form of data collected to support our Foresight data-as-a-service offering. With Foresight, we offer on-demand geospatial context on any topic in any geography for any duration. Combined with a global footprint, that can make for some unique data challenges and that’s where our data management team picks up. The data goes through QA/QC, normalization and restructuring to make it more consumer-friendly and ready for delivery. We’re using a mix of in-house, commercial, and open-source tools to build and automate processes to ensure consistency and shorten time-to-market. As a result, the last 18 months have seen SQL become my primary development language. I was always comfortable with it, but now it’s where I do most of my hands-on work.
That said, my role in the company is primarily strategy and leadership. That has given me the opportunity to work with an outstanding leadership team to steer the direction of the company and its product line. It’s also given me a chance to appreciate the roles played by design, product management, customer support, sales, and marketing in building successful products. I always understood that conceptually, but seeing people talented in those disciplines performing at a high level has really driven it home for me in a practical way.
I could go on, but I’ll sum it by saying I’m even happier in this role than I expected and I’m looking forward to the growth ahead. Oh….and we’re hiring!
Q: Any other important changes since 2014?
A: In addition to leaving the company in which I was a partner for 15 years, I also sold the house in which I grew up and built a new one. That happened shortly after the first interview, so it’s been quite a while now. It was a freeing experience that I could probably write about at length.
I also dipped a toe back into academia for the first time in a couple of decades by teaching an online course in the Salisbury University Geography program. It’s been a rewarding experience working with the students. It’s a masters-level course, so most are already into their professional careers, which brings a variety of perspectives.
Additionally, my alma mater, UMBC, knocked off 1-seed Virginia in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament (Go Retrievers!), Alabama won their 16th and 17th college football national championships (Roll Tide!), and the Washington Capitals won their first Stanley Cup (C-A-P-S, Caps, Caps, Caps!).
Q: In your 2014 interview you talked a lot about layers in GIS. What precipitated that, and has your outlook on layers changed since then?
A: I think I was working on some sort of network modelling behavior, which is something I’ve circled back to many times during my career. I re-read that response and I think I was inarticulately trying to say that I find traditional GIS inadequate for modeling our world. I still think that’s true, but maybe that’s also okay. Maybe traditional GIS isn’t meant to do that kind of modeling.
It’s been observed over the last few years that spatial technology is becoming more componentized and spatial analysis is getting embedded within other software tools. This is probably most obvious in things like R and Pandas, which present as more traditional statistical and data analysis tools, rather than primarily as a GIS. It is possible to do sophisticated spatial analysis in those environments, but they don’t drag along all of the overhead of an ArcGIS or a QGIS. I think that trend is accelerating.
There remains, and there probably always will be, a core constituency for traditional GIS. These are things like local government planning, natural resources management, parcel mapping, as well as a fairly exhaustive list of other use cases we can intuitively think of as the core audience for GIS as we’ve come to know it. These aren’t going away anytime soon and I don’t necessarily think they need the kind of modeling that I was discussing previously.
Q: You coined the term “shapefiled”, meaning geodata whose quality has been degraded by converting it (them?) to shapefile format. Yet the shapefile popularity continues to grow. How do you explain an (allegedly) inferior data format’s undisputed reign?
A: Whoa, good pull. I had totally forgotten about that.
Giving the shapefile grief is like shooting fish in a barrel, but there’s an old saying: “Don’t let ‘perfect’ be the enemy of ‘good enough.’” The shapefile is an ideal example of something that is good enough at what it does to meet the needs of a broad audience.
Context matters. The shapefile wasn’t even the best format in the Esri stable at the time of its inception. That was the ARC/INFO coverage and I don’t recall anyone being in love with the shapefile back then. It isn’t conceptually much different than one of its 90s contemporaries, the MapInfo TAB, which was (is?) also a collection of sidecars. So why did the shapefile take off?
In 1998, Esri was under a lot of pressure to publish the binary specification of the ARC/INFO coverage. It was also feeling some heat from the nascent Open GIS Consortium for openness in general, so they published the shapefile. Anecdotally, I had friends who worked for Esri at the time who said the shapefile, since it was non-topological, wasn’t considered a serious format, so it was published to take the heat off the demand for the coverage.
I’m pretty sure that was never an official stance and I could never verify it beyond the anecdotes, but the end result is that the industry finally had the published, royalty-free binary specification of a geospatial format that was already in wide use. It took off. Within a couple of years, all of Esri’s commercial competition supported read/write of the shapefile, but it went beyond that. You (Atanas) may remember that, in its pre-Microsoft days, Visio had a “maps” plug-in where you could make Visio-style cartoon maps. It also supported the shapefile…an office productivity app supported reading a real geospatial format prior to 2000. It was a time when geospatial data was still a mystery outside of GIS, so a useful, open format was pounced upon.
Which brings us to today. The shapefile was so widely adopted so quickly that it litters file systems everywhere. It won’t ever really go away. And, because it is good enough, it presents a challenge to any potential successor that the shapefile simply never had to meet: the compelling reason to change. Thus far, no one has really come up with that reason for people who use shapefiles.
So, while the GIS world continues to search for/debate the perfect format, the one that’s good enough keeps going.
Having said all of that, I will gleefully roast marshmallows over the shapefile’s funeral pyre.
Q: Where is GIS headed? Today “spatial analysis” and “data visualization” are considered parts of “GIS”. But is the term GIS even appropriate anymore? Is spatial still special? When I went to grad school, we called it “Computer Applications in Planning”. These days many universities offer graduate programs in GIS. Is GIS a profession? Or it is a splintering set of tools that many different professions increasingly incorporate into their arsenal?
A: I view technology, especially software, as a concrete manifestation of the knowledge base of its developers and of the discipline in which they operate. So, “GIS,” as a set of software tools is a manifestation of the geographic body of knowledge. In terms of the body of knowledge, I think spatial is still special. A good example of this is a recent Twitter discussion I saw in which Morten Nielsen described the issues involved with unprojecting spatial data (https://twitter.com/JimBarry/status/1014702749102034944). It’s a great encapsulation of what I mean.
Projections are a core concept in geography, and using them incorrectly can result in bad data, erroneous results, and faulty decisions. Morten correctly describes how this works. That’s the body of knowledge. It is manifested in great software tools that have everything you need to correctly address such issues, but many people today see coordinate transformation as plugging a “from” EPSG code and a “to” EPSG code into a dialog box or a function call. That’s a great way to get bad data.
“GIS” as a distinct technological entity is disappearing, as it should. Spatial and cartographic techniques are gradually getting modularized and incorporated into other environments. Most vertical domains already understand how to use location in their activities. They want “just enough” GIS to do what they already know they need to do. For example, is R a GIS? I don’t think of it as one, but it has spatial analysis and visualization capabilities.
But that’s the technology, which doesn’t represent 100% of the knowledge base. Back to the projection example above. Any organization can plug proj4 or something into a piece of software, but they probably still need someone like Morten, who understands the appropriate use of the tools.
So, I see GIS splitting apart and diffusing across application domains. But, as the technology becomes more commoditized, the need for spatial understanding will increase and the value of the larger geographic knowledge base will grow. For the foreseeable future, I see the value of the technology in something of an inverse relationship with the value of the knowledge base.
Q: What would you say to a high school graduate who wants to go into GIS?
A: Don’t. Become proficient at something else and learn how to apply geography and spatial analysis to it. That’s not as contrary to the previous answer as it may seem. If you understand geography at the conceptual and practical level, and aren’t afraid to get your hands dirty with code or technical integration, I think there’s probably still a lot of mileage in being the geographer in an organization that does something else for a living.
Q: The war on cubicle body is raging. Update us on its origins, and the current theatre of operations.
A: I covered the origins in some detail here, but the short version is that 24 years as a defense contracting cube dweller had left me in the worst physical shape of my life. I weighed more than I ever had, I was diagnosed with asthma, and I my cardiac health was not perfect — though not terrible. I have a family history of cardiac issues, so I sat up and paid attention.
I joined a gym and started working with a trainer. The “war on cubicle body” was something I dreamed up to keep myself motivated, as that’s been an issue for me with regard to fitness. I started tweeting and my social media circle, many of whom read GeoHipster, has been incredible in its support. I can’t thank everyone enough.
I chose running as my main line of attack. I find that I need to organize my efforts around a central activity, so I chose running because it’s got a low barrier to entry and it’s easy for me to put on shoes and get a few miles in at lunch time. All of my other strength and core training is centered around getting better at running.
I am currently training for the Army 10-miler in DC in October. It’ll be my longest run yet and I’m looking forward to it. It will be the last race I run in my 40s and is an early birthday gift to myself. I’m certainly not fast, I’m simply looking to enjoy the training process and finish the race.
Q: Levi’s or Carhartt?
A: Mostly Under Armour and Nike Dri-Fit these days. When I have to actually wear long pants, it’s Levi’s 550 relaxed fit, never skinny (see the aforementioned cubicle body).
Carhartt is for people who do real work for a living. I have soft programmer hands and donning Carhartt would be a disservice to those who really need to wear it.
Q: Starbucks, Dunkin, or gas station coffee? Why???
A: Truck stop coffee. I realize there’s debate on this, but coffee is primarily a caffeine delivery mechanism. The best coffee starches your shirt from the inside out and no place does that better than a place that caters to long haul truckers. My order of preference is Flying J, Love’s, and then TA.
Since truck stops are not ubiquitous, I’ve been known to darken the door of a Starbucks or two. Dunkin coffee is generally weak to the point of being worthless.
At home, I brew my own. <shameless plug>I have gotten hooked on the French roast by Maryland’s own Rise Up coffee roasters.</shameless plug>.
Tim is a British geospatial developer, based in the north of England. Active within the OpenStreetMap community where he is known as “chippy”, Tim also has an interest in historical geography. Graduating with a degree in Environmental Science and later with a GIS Masters, he has worked for a number of organisations, including GeoIQ (of Geocommons and Esri acquisition fame) and Topomancy LLC developing historical mapping services for the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress. Tim currently works for himself and is available for hire. You might be familiar with his work on Mapwarper.net https://mapwarper.net/ ,– the open source, free to use, collaborative georectification tool.
Q: You have somewhat of an enigmatic online persona. Care to lift the veil and tell us more about yourself?
You are not the first to say that I have an obscure online presence, but each time I’m a little bit surprised as it implies that others have a more public online life. Perhaps I’m European and we have different ideas and feelings about one’s private life? I’m also a bit older than most digital natives — perhaps that’s it? Also, given the current Facebook news event, one could understand why people might not want to share personal stuff online so much, but I wouldn’t say online privacy drives my activities. I also tend to dislike self promotion and blowing my own trumpet, so if you want advice on how to not share too much online, hire me as I’m a globally-recognised world-class thought leader in enigmatic social media practices!
Q: We met IRL in NYC at the 2015 SOTMUS conference, but we “met” on Twitter years prior, where you have been sharing witty commentary since early 2007. What brought you to Twitter in the first place, and what keeps you there?
A: I joined Twitter during one of the first WhereCamps in the Bay Area about a decade ago. A WhereCamp is a geo unconference. Free to attend and mostly self organised, WhereCamps were the fun after-party/conference usually straight after the O’Reilly Where 2.0 Conference. Anyhow, Twitter and geo at that time was quite similar. Early adopters, outlook and usage was quite similar. More optimism, smaller community, and more experimentation. The era of LBS was just around the corner! “Neogeography” was coined. There were no celebrities using Twitter, and it was never talked about by the chattering classes or your parents. Back then, people communicated mostly via desktop-based instant messenger clients, where you could set your away status to let your contacts know what you were up to if you were offline. Because of that “tweets” were called “statuses” for years. It’s quite different now of course and I mainly use it to read jokes, industry news, and alerts for various projects; it’s also good for direct messaging. I periodically delete all my tweets, except my likes and tweets that have certain words (e.g. “psychogeography” see below) in there. Thinking about this question and my own relationship with Twitter I’m forced to agree with Stephen Fry’s assertion that Twitter has become like a swimming pool that someone has done a poo in. My mute list contains most current political keywords that make up a little bit of the fecal matter. For several years I was accused of being both FakeSteveC (now Anonymaps) and FakeEdParsons, which I completely refute, but I was flattered of course, and I do enjoy Anonymaps greatly! In previous years, as further proof of my global thought leader status in social media frivolity, I achieved media coverage for starting the first truly global-wide meme on Twitter (https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/sometimes-i-just-want-to-_n_696318) and for creating a tool for making funny London Tube signs. An image created using an instance of that open source tool (not associated or managed by me) was shared virally via Twitter and made it into the UK Parliament with our Prime Minister herself commenting on it! (https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/media/2017/03/man-who-created-fake-tube-sign-explains-why-he-did-it)
The veil truly gets lifted!
Q: You are clearly passionate about OSM. Tell us more about your involvement with OSM — what and why.
A: OpenStreetMap started in the UK. And the reason why it started there was because we proto-geo-hipsters were starting to do cool stuff online with maps but we didn’t have any free data to play with. I was working for a city council at the time and I had nice data in the office but I couldn’t put it online for people to play with. The Americans had Tiger at least and a number of other datasets, but all the Brits had was blurry Landsat and hand-scanned out-of-copyright maps. So OSM was a solution to that itch. It was also a fun activity mapping from scratch, and got a fair bit of interest from the wider grassroots computing communities in Europe — Linux user groups in particular it seemed. Early on I hacked on a plugin for JOSM to read in WMS map images, and actually started Mapwarper as a way for people to easily get scanned out-of-copyright paper maps and balloon / kite imagery into a format for tracing over into OSM. I am also involved with Ben Dalton from the RCA on mapping the physical infrastructure of the internet within OSM: The New Cloud Atlas. http://newcloudatlas.org The things we map are data centres, cell towers, undersea cables etc. These days I’m also interested in OpenHistoricalMap http://www.openhistoricalmap.org which uses a separate OSM stack to make a map of literally everything that has ever existed in history and time! I think it’s a very modest mapping project.
I’m a supporter of the OSM Community, and worry when the community as a whole gets targeted for the behaviour of a small number of people. Those who seem to me to complain most about the community are also those who appear to work for companies that would benefit most from changes to OSM. Of course the problem of how to deal with a small number of troublesome people still remains and should be addressed. However, I’m quite the optimist and know that the wider OSM community is pretty healthy on the whole. It’s also worth saying that OSM, the organising entity, wouldn’t have been successful if it was bigger. It’s amazing, awesome, and crucial that the OSM Foundation remains small and focused, and that because of this leanness the ecosystem of tools, applications and services has been able to grow around it and flourish.
Q: You blog about Psychogeography. Tell us what that is, and what got you interested in the subject.
A: Psychogeography means many things. I’m very inclusive on what it means, many other people with definitions are more exclusive. So apologies for any long-winded explanation! So, what does it mean? There’s a number of definitions. It’s the cross-over of geography, psychology, and art. It can cover games, sound, locative art, walking art, architecture, urban planning, cartography, literature, blockchain, and even Virtual Reality. The famous geographer / cartographer Denis Wood can be said to do it, and New Yorkers might remember the Conflux Festival as having a number of psychogeographic-like events. I like this definition best: Psychogeography is exploring space where you can learn three things: You can learn about a particular place (local), you can learn how places and space works (geography), and you can learn about yourself (your own perceptions, interpretations). Psychogeography is often classically done through something called the Derive (French for drift) and that mainly comes from the boozy French group The Situationists, led by a fella called Debord. Debord came up with the idea of the Society of the Spectacle — which essentially is our consumerist culture of where it’s only the look that counts, where appearances matter more. A hipster is actually the perfect citizen within the Spectacle. They consume, but they consume because it looks authentic. They want the appearance of authenticity. A smaller number of hipsters create, and they create to appear authentic, handmade and artisan. Non-hipsters know it’s all fake, that’s why they mock hipsters. Ever notice how hipsters seem oblivious to this mockery? Because deep within themselves, hipsters know it too. But this feeling of fakeness is actually the crucial central thing! This fakeness drives the search for authenticity within hipsters, leading to the strengthening of the Spectacle. All this was predicted by Debord in the 50s. Hipsterism might be the perfect form of the human in the Spectacle, but we all have a greater or lesser participation in it, according to Debord. (I’m about 50% hipster.) Hipsters politically have been described as neo-liberal — they will support changes that appear progressive rather than those that might be more concretely beneficial or more socially minded. Hipsters will happily work in Silicon Valley venture capital-funded firms while thinking themselves as socialist. In the urban environment, hipsters get the blame for gentrification.
A geohipster would create tools to appear to be bespoke and artisan. Other geo hipsters will use them to support this. It’s not the technology that makes the hipster — it’s the way this is communicated, how it’s consumed. Twitter, blogs, and GitHub are the main way tech-hipsters communicate their images of what they are to one another. You also don’t seem to get shy hipsters online, do you?
Anyhow, the Drift, according to the Situationists, is an unstructured walk though varied environments. It’s a walk, or a way of using space that the space doesn’t prescribe. Think about travelling to the shops or to the pub. Now think about moving through that space at random, or by alternating a left or right turn. No one else would have used that space in that way before. By doing a drift you can uncover how the spectacle works. By doing things in non-prescriptive ways you see how they really work. It’s essentially a hacking activity.
Debord said that the Derive is the way to smash the Spectacle, or at least expose it, and capitalism. I don’t really believe that theory at all. But it would show you how things work, and I prefer the three types of learning theory as given above. It’s changed a bunch over the years anyhow, and I’m not sure what the current form is — we will find out what is happening now when it’s over. At FOSS4G conference a few years ago I did a talk about Psychogeography and its relevance to geographers, map makers, etc. — the key idea is that it’s a perception awareness activity — how can we make maps of a place if we don’t really know the place? I’m running the World Congress of Psychogeography this year in September, http://4wcop.org/. You should come too! Last year Irish national broadcaster RTE ran a radio show about the conference and psychogeography in general, so I’d suggest giving this a listen https://soundcloud.com/insideculture/s2-28 .
Q: I found this YouTube video where you explain dowsing as related to mapping. Is this the original map story technique? Tell us more about dowsing.
A: Dowsing, or divining, is a technique to find things. The classic dowsing is using rods to find water. Most of the water companies in the UK employ dowsers to find leaks, even against the ire of scientists and newspapers. The companies say “it works, why stop it?”.
We had both pendulums and copper dowsing rods during the event in the video. The event was during the festival of Terminalia, the roman god of Terminus, the god of boundaries and landmarks. If ever there was a deity for geographers, it would be Terminus. We found locations on the map by hanging pendulums over them, and slowly moving them around the map. If the pendulum starts moving differently, then we mark down that on the map.
There are three theories on how dowsing works: the ideomotor effect — your body moves the thing subconsciously based on some kind of stimulus or thought, so perhaps your body might pick up water or electric fields and you let your hands move the instrument on their own. In our example, the pendulums would move when your brain picks out a suitable place over the map subconsciously. The second way, and least believable, is that some external force moves the instrument, this occult interpretation in our example would be Terminus moving the pendulum instead of us. The third way is that we move the instrument manually! I mean, no one else can tell that you are not moving the pendulum consciously, after all. In our example one would look at the map, think “I want to go there”, and manually move the pendulum over that area.
In my event, participants identified areas, new boundary markers to go to and then we went to those locations. Then, those who chose that point would explain why they chose it. It was a fun event!
Gregory Marler, a prolific OSM mapper and a very funny chap made that video.
Q: I love your humor, but I’m guessing it’s not everybody’s cup of tea. How do you react when people don’t get your jokes? (Asking for a friend.)
A: I like this question. Does it say more about me — humour that is hard to get, what to do when someone doesn’t get a joke — or does it say more about your friend? Hah! I suppose the main thing is that I’m British. We like banter, absurdism, irony, self deprecation, mockery and lists of cliched stereotypes. I suppose I don’t aim to be funny, nor do I think I’m that funny as a person either.
How should one behave if someone doesn’t get a joke? Tell another one until they laugh?
Does it say more about your friend? Maybe!
Q: Any (geo)hipstery traits we should know about?
A: For my previous words about hipsters and geo hipsters, I do actually look up to geo hipsters, they are the cool kids on the block. And cool stuff is often good. Artisan coffee is actually pretty tasty after all. I want to be like them, and I crave their approval. New technology often starts on the edges and this is where the geo hipster performs their work. So we all benefit from geohipsters. Personally I like the tried and tested stuff. Some people like working with new technologies, it makes it interesting for them. I’m rather more interested in the end result, or doing a good job of it. If a new tool appears and it’s going to give a better result, then I will be more likely to use it. I can imagine that in some jobs where the end result might be not that exciting, one can put one’s enthusiasm in the technology. A privilege of working for yourself is that one can choose what to work on, that’s a freedom something the majority of technologists don’t have. So I understand that making and using new technology does not make you a geohipster.
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our readers?
A: The main interest for me and geospatial is democratizing access to these wonderful tools we play with. The open source software side complements this nicely. We get to work with great services and techniques, and wouldn’t it be great if everyone could get the same level of usage and productivity and joy as we do, without needing a Masters in GIS!