Bill Morris: “There’s a lot of value in questioning the establishment”

Bill Morris
Bill Morris

Bill Morris is a passable developer, a derivative cartographer, and a GIS refugee. Having cleared a decade as a geospatial professional and founder of Geosprocket LLC, Bill is now mapping renewable energy markets as the Lead Visualization Engineer at Faraday Inc., where he has yet to pay for a software license but is getting nervous that the streak can’t possibly hold forever. Bill is a lifelong Vermonter, with furtive dashes into the outside world.

Bill was interviewed for GeoHipster by Mike Dolbow.

Q: How did you get into mapping/GIS?

A: I was a music major at Middlebury College about 15 years ago when a friend convinced me to take a geography class. Fortunately that was about the time I realized that I was a pretty bad musician, so it made a lot of sense to shift into a field that seemed to offer both a series of structural worldviews and a technical skillset. I keep running into awesome Middlebury geography grads in the wider world; I know I’m lucky to have stumbled into that department and be launched into the world with the uncontrollable desire to map stuff.

Q: Earlier this year you put your own business, GeoSprocket LLC, on hold, to join Faraday. After about six months, what is different today from when you made that transition?

A: I’m a lot less stressed.

In all seriousness, as a freelancer I grew accustomed to reaching critical stopping points – letting documentation searches drag on way too long – before putting out a question on StackOverflow or begging help from someone via Twitter. But the Faraday team seems like a hive mind most days. Pretty much any block in my technical knowledge can be covered really quickly by one of my colleagues, and I know I can offer the same to them. The efficiency that comes from a complementary team can’t be understated, and I know this because I’ve been the squeaky wheel a few times elsewhere.

I’m also a bit more pragmatic about the umbrella of GIS technology. Learning how to optimize PostGIS with a hundred million data points – in tens of thousands of configurations – has given me new perspective on limits. I’ve started to understand the database admins who reflexively scoff at spatial; whenever there’s a choke point in our data processing, it’s usually a buffer or a point-in-polygon operation. Removing the abstraction of the desktop GIS platform speeds things up a lot, but geospatial analysis is still the slow donkey bringing up the rear of the wagon train.

Q: What are some of the more interesting projects you’ve been working on lately?

A: Faraday is letting me go a little crazy with visualizations. Some things are sticking (MOAR HEXAGONS) and others aren’t (not all datasets look good as a pulsar), but it’s an amazing iterative environment for trying out ideas. We’re aiming for a distinctive, map-centric design in our platform, and over the past few months Mapbox Studio has been invaluable for tying the cartography to the app design. Our clients are also looking to us to make sense of some pretty abstract statistical concepts, so I’ve been getting into the weeds of practical information design, then emerging and hammering something together with D3. Combined with our goal of increasing renewable energy’s market share, this fulfills most of my “dream job” prerequisites.

My side projects have slowed down this year, but I’m hoping to get back to a greater level of involvement with the Humanitarian Openstreetmap Team. Crisis and development work are really motivating for me as hard-edged examples of the power of maps.

Q: You once said: “I didn’t know the first thing about code when I got into this world, but it was amazing how easy it was to adapt a little bit” with help from free resources like CodeAcademy. I have found the same thing, but also found others in the “traditional GIS space” reluctant to take the plunge into things like Javascript and HTML. What advice would you give geographers who aren’t sure if coding is for them?

A: I take it for granted that this question is settled. That obviously everyone should learn how to code, what’s the big deal? But it doesn’t take much self-awareness to realize that it was my good fortune to have both the need and the resources to learn programmatic approaches to mapping. There are plenty of GIS analysts who can keep on working without javascript or python, and I think many more who simply don’t have the time or the support. I’d like to help those in the latter group and not alienate those in the former, but my patience is waning for the anti-developer reactionary set.

To the geographers who only know the GIS desktop and feel its limits: ask for help. It’s more readily available than you think. Hell, ask me for help.

Q: Your Twitter handle is “vtcraghead”. I get the VT part, but I had to Google “Craghead”. Is that a reference to the village in England, or something else?

A: I wanted to have a unique email after college, and I was climbing like a madman at that point so I registered “” and joined the brave new digital world. The handle stuck with me, but by the time I registered it with Twitter it was more of a joke about how I used to tie in a lot.

Although it’s curious to see that Craghead is in Durham, which reminds me of my favorite song about surveyors and the broader impact of mapping lines in the dirt . . .

Q: We define hipsters as people who think outside the box and often shun the mainstream (see visitor poll with 1106 responses). Would you consider yourself a hipster? (Who else would aspire to play in a “low profile funk band”?) How do you feel about the term hipster?

A: As with most of the previous interviewees, I subscribe to the middle ground. I admire the geohipsters (none would self-identify, I’m sure) who helped me break out of incumbent technologies, and those who are innovating geospatial tools in ways we could only dream about a decade ago. But I’m not a fan of the brash contrarian hipster archetype, either in real life or as a straw man.

As far as my own identity? I ride my bike constantly, but it has ten gears. Skinny jeans on me would be a war crime. This is Vermont, and inside these borders PBR is outlawed. However, I think there’s a lot of value in questioning the establishment.

Q: Geohipster (and geohipsterism as a concept) is sometimes criticized for being exclusive and/or attempting to foster divisions within the industry. Or sometimes for being different for the sake of being different. You once rolled your own basemap tileset (using Mapbox’s guidelines). Did you do that to be different?

A: Oh jeez – that sounds like metahipsterism.

I did that as an experiment in self-reliance. I feel so poisoned by my experience with a single-vendor-technology career track that I’m always watching the exits. I love Mapbox, but I wanted to know if I could make an attractive web map without paying them anything, which is the occasional promise of open source tools.

Geohipsters fostering divisions? I see this as the current manifestation of an endless social dynamic: A new group enters a space, with new ideas. The old group finds it easier to feel threatened and defensive than to adapt. The new group can always do a better job of assisting the adaptation. </overlysimplisticparable>

Q: Like me, it’s pretty clear you’re an active dad. Loving your kids comes second nature, but let’s face it, they also require a lot of attention. What’s more tempting to compare to your kids: your projects or your customers?

A: Projects for sure. Mostly adorable and exhausting in equal measure. Thankfully, my customers neither throw legos at me nor tell me they love me.

Q: I’ve always had a theory that New England states are like siblings from the same family: they have rivalries and unique characteristics, but when challenged will band together and “defend their identity” to other states. As a fellow geographer from New England, what’s your take on that?

A: New Hampshire is definitely Vermont’s evil twin, but we’ll take it over Texas. Don’t even get me started about Sox-Yankees.

I can be a bit of a Vermont nationalist, but I’d say our industry (probably not uniquely) has flattened the cultural obstacles to collaboration. The folks I interact with on Twitter are everywhere, and it’s almost a non-issue for my career that I don’t live in D.C. or the Bay Area. That’s why I’m a technophile, in a nutshell.

Q: Admittedly, it was over 25 years ago, but Vermont is the only place I’ve observed this phenomenon. Have you seen this, and can you possibly offer an explanation?

A: Witch windows were a cheap alternative to dormers for venting and light on the upper floors of old farmhouses. I worked on a house years ago that had one, but I admit this is the first I realize they’re just a Vermont thing 🙂

Q: Any final words for GeoHipster readers?

A: I don’t personally want to be defined by my struggles against Esri. That comes up a lot in projects that I’m passionate about, but for better or worse they are the “incumbent” in this space, and they are the portal through which many of us enter the world of mapping. I’m probably just mellowing with age, but I’d rather emphasize the positivity of flexible skillsets and robust community in mapping than rant about vendor lock-in. We’ll probably all get more done with that perspective.

David Bitner on the open source advantage: “It’s not just the money — it’s the scalability”

David Bitner
David Bitner

David Bitner is the owner of dbSpatial LLC, an independent consulting firm providing services that focus on the use of geospatial open source software. A 14-year veteran of the GIS industry, David has served on the board of the Sahana Software Foundation, is an OSGeo Officer, and was Conference Chair for FOSS4GNA 2013.

David was interviewed for GeoHipster by Mike Dolbow.

Q: How did you get into mapping/GIS?

A: I started working with GIS during my undergraduate work in geology, when I took a class in GIS and remote sensing. For my Master’s degree, I decided to roll straight into studying GIS and remote sensing in forestry at the University of Minnesota. I had a very unique opportunity to work with the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, studying the benefits of geospatial data sharing with Will Craig. My graduate work was spent interviewing professionals in the Twin Cities learning about how they used geographic data. That work set a great foundation for my career in this region.

After that, I worked for the National Weather Service for almost four years, then the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) for nine years.

Q: Last year you left a full time job at the MAC to focus on your consulting work with dbSpatial. Was there something specific that prompted that change? What is different now that you’re your own boss?

A: Well, during nine years at a small agency like the MAC, one of the nice things was having a lot of flexibility and encouragement to go and learn new things and technology. The flip side of that was, being the only GIS person at the agency meant nine years of doing the same thing over and over. So, I had been moonlighting for several years, and then finally had some good opportunities that enabled me to take the leap and go out on my own. It’s been the best move I’ve made in my career — I’ve been able to stay in touch with my colleagues at the MAC while still branching out into different work.

Working for yourself, you never really get a full vacation because you always have to be on call if something you’ve made goes down. But you can also work from anywhere. Next week I’ll be working from the shore of Lake Superior – as long as I have my laptop and an internet connection, I can work anywhere. While I might not get a full vacation, I can stretch out a lot more.

Q: Is there anything you didn’t expect with the transition?

A: I’ve been lucky in that most of my work has been in a small number of long term projects. It’s nice to have the variety; I’m kind of an ADD personality, so having a mix of projects is a great fit. Working with larger teams on some of the projects has taken some getting used to compared to my prior situation. It takes a lot more discipline when you know the code you’re writing is going to be seen by more than just you. Instead of just hammering through something to get it to work, you need to have a lot more discipline because it has to work and others need to understand it.

Q: What are some of the more interesting projects you’ve been working on lately?

A: There are two big projects that have taken most of my time and both are really interesting. The first is working on NOAA’s emergency response management application (ERMA), which is a portal that NOAA uses to provide a Common Operating Picture (COP) as well as some analytical capabilities for emergency response. For example, it’s being actively used for the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Another project is working with FireStats, a consulting outfit that helps with Fire Departments, providing analyses for accreditation and services like siting stations. They also provide a tool that allows individual fire chiefs to explore their own data. As a subcontractor, I’m building out their analytical engine, which provides a lot of powerful information for Fire Departments, such as their response time, incident locations relative to resources, and other analytics. It’s been nice to get in-depth with those two groups.

Q: Running a small business is hard. Does specializing in open source software implementations make it harder or easier?

A: I would say that specializing in open source makes it possible. The things that I do and the products that I’m able to provide are only possible because I build on top of open source solutions. First, being able to deliver a full package that someone can implement without any strings attached makes the price point very competitive and marketable. When you’re a very small outfit (dbSpatial is just two folks, David and Dan Little), it’s hard to demand a premium price. But when we can provide a turnkey product that can be implemented without additional software licensing, it’s a tremendous advantage.

Also, the reason I got into open source software was not because of the cost. All of the work I did in government was on the fringe of what was possible with the proprietary desktop solutions provided by Esri and ERDAS. I always needed to tweak and go beyond the standard solutions, because those solutions didn’t’ fit the projects I had.

My work at the MAC, for example, was with four-dimensional data such as flight tracks with an X,Y,Z, and time for every point. Nothing handled that out of the box at the time. So my only recourse was to extend things myself and work with other open source providers such as Paul Ramsey’s Refractions Research. I was able to contract with Refractions to extend PostGIS to meet my needs, and then use the results within a few weeks. Compared to relying on proprietary software solutions, the turnaround was much faster, and the result was a tool that met the exact specifications of what I needed.

Also, I was able to more quickly stand up highly responsive services with open source software. When an airport noise lawsuit was settled with the MAC, that proved advantageous. We had a web map where people could see where they were in relation to the contours. This was the first time an airport was going to provide noise mitigation to this degree, so it hit the national news. And given the surge in traffic, that server came crawling to its knees. Luckily, I had moved everything to use MapServer a few weeks before, so within a few hours, we were able to repurpose a few other servers to distribute the load (without worrying about license limitations). If I had had a node-locked license, we would have been dead in the water; the acquisition process to get more licenses would have been too onerous to respond to the demand, and then we’d be stuck paying for higher licenses even after we had overcome the initial wave of higher traffic. It’s not just the money – it’s the scalability.

I got started in open source because it was the only way to actually solve the problems I needed to solve. Then, I was also able to show my employers how much money we were saving. As a result, I got more buy-in and was able to participate more actively in the community.

Q: Your Twitter handle is “bitnerd”. Did you consciously arrange your last name and first initial to include “nerd” in the name?

A: That is the first e-mail name I was given when I went to college. So, I was given that handle by the IT people at Carleton College, and it stuck and became a nickname, especially among anyone working with computers.

Q: We define hipsters as people who think outside the box and often shun the mainstream (see visitor poll with 1106 responses). Would you consider yourself a hipster? How do you feel about the term hipster?

A: Can someone who has a GISP be considered a GeoHipster? I don’t think I would consider myself a hipster because I tend to try to work within the mainstream, although I do try to push the boundaries. I try to do things as efficiently as possible, which often means using different tools than the ones used in the mainstream.

Plus I could never be a hipster because I like good beer too much.

Q: Geohipster (and geohipsterism as a concept) is sometimes criticized for being exclusive and/or attempting to foster divisions within the industry. Or sometimes for being different for the sake of being different. You have advocated for open source software for years. Did you do it to be different?

A: I did it to get the job done. I think that there are too many walls and too much dismissiveness by folks in both the “neo geo” and “traditional geo” worlds. I think too many folks in the traditional geography world are leery of change and just want to do things the way they always have. I think too many folks in the “neo geo” camp are dismissive of the technical expertise and experience that a lot of the traditional geographers have. I try to sit in the middle, and definitely come from the more traditional background, but I understand that the tools move fast, and if you can stay current with the new tools and apply the traditional knowledge, you can grow along with the industry, while still maintaining the quality control and standards you have the formal training in.

In many presentations I’ve given on open source and proprietary solutions, I describe a tendency – not an inherent property, but a tendency among the two types of software. With proprietary software, it often tends to be a giant swiss army knife that will do anything you want it to. But if you need it to do one thing, like drive a screw, you’re better off with a screwdriver. Open source software tends to follow the UNIX philosophy of being more specific and focused on specific needs. It does make it harder to approach in that you need to know what specific tool to use during specific situations, but once you have that knowledge, the tools are typically much more efficient and faster at that task.

Q: You volunteer to support the City of Lakes Loppet Ski Festival, and you’re an active bike rider. Do you think it’s a coincidence that a lot of Minnesota geographers are skiers, bikers, and “outdoorsy”?

A: I don’t think it’s something that is inherent to Minnesota geographers, I think it’s common among geographers in general – from both the traditional and “neo geo” camps. If your job is expressing geography and knowing where you are, I think you’re likely to be someone who likes to be out, traveling, skiing, biking, running. When you look at the MN GIS/LIS Consortium conference, you see people getting up in the morning to do fun runs before sessions, and I don’t find that surprising. I think you see a lot of people who are interested in geography are also people who like being outdoors and engaged in the areas they study on maps or in data, and I definitely identify with that.