Belle Tissott to GeoHipster: Data Science and Teenage Bird Angst

Belle Tissott
Belle Tissott

Belle Tissott is an Assistant Director of Product Development at Digital Earth Australia, where she works to develop new methods to process and analyse satellite imagery in order to map and better understand Australia’s land and water. She is a programmer and mathematician, with a strong drive to do what she can to make a positive impact in the world.

Belle was interviewed for GeoHipster by Alex Leith.

Q: You came to spatial from IT, does that mean you have geo-imposter syndrome as well as programmer-imposter syndrome?

A: Yes, yes and a little bit more yes!

One of the things which has been both amazing and confronting working at Geoscience Australia is just how many insanely smart people there are here. And whilst it’s incredible to work with and learn from such talented peers, it is almost impossible not to doubt whether you’re good enough to be a part of this, and (for me) to wonder just when everyone will realise you’re a fraud.

I recently started opening up with peers about my self-doubt, and to my surprise, it didn’t make them think I’m incompetent. They were understanding, supportive and tended to share their own doubts and fears in return. Realising that imposter syndrome is a pretty universal thing certainly hasn’t removed the feelings entirely, but I find it has made them easier to ignore.

Q: I’ve heard you describe yourself as a hippy. Can you elaborate?

A: My parents moved to a hippy commune near Nimbin in New South Wales in the 70s, and built a beautiful house in the forest. We had limited power, no mains water and an outside toilet. I grew up there as a ‘free range’ kid, playing in the mud, swimming in the creek and adventuring in the forest. It was fantastic, but very different to your average suburban upbringing. I distinctly remember being shocked when I was to start high school and we were expected to wear shoes EVERY day!

Interestingly whilst I feel like a hippy here, I feel pretty conservative when I go home to Nimbin. I think identifying as a hippy comes from what I see as important and noticing how it’s different from the norm. I feel like ‘normal’ society trains people to put a very high value on wealth and reputation, whereas these things are extremely unimportant to me. I just want to be happy, have a positive impact on the world and those around me.

Q: As a hippy, how did you get into IT?

A: Very much by accident.

I dropped out of school after year 10 and went to TAFE (Australian vocational training) and did a Diploma in Apparel Manufacturing. Throughout my studies I struggled with the way the fashion industry treated young girls, and realised by the end of it that I couldn’t comfortably be part of this toxic world. I was lost. My boyfriend at the time was applying to do Bachelor of Information Technology at university the following year, and, very much as a joke, I applied too. It sounded interesting enough, I liked computer games and problem solving, but an IT-based profession wasn’t something that had ever crossed my mind, plus I didn’t finish school! To my utter shock I got in and loved the programming side of it. I could lose myself in learning languages and creating something from nothing.

Q: As an “IT gurl”, how did you get into Geoscience Australia (GA)?

A: I had a friend working as a contractor at GA and she was aware of them looking for more developer staff and thought I would be a perfect fit. I didn’t think I had the skills they were after (that good old self-doubt messing with ability to push forward), however she encouraged me to apply anyway. I was offered an initial contract of just 6 weeks working on their metadata catalogue. With only 6 weeks guaranteed and being the primary income earner for my family, I couldn’t leave my existing job, or relocate my family to Canberra, so this made for a very challenging period. I moved to Canberra alone, worked for GA during the day and did my other work over evenings & weekends, and went home to see my partner and kids every 2 weeks for just a couple of days.

All went well and I was offered a 6 month contract continuation, I left my other job and we packed up our life and made the move from sunny, warm, beachy Byron Bay, to freezing cold Canberra. Later in the year a lead dev position became available and I scored that to become a permanent part of the GA family!

Q: As a GA staff member, how did you get to work in Earth observation?

A: Ah, I think this goes back to when I was out of work for a while when my kids were young. I decided I should go back to university so I would be more employable after the time off. I chose a BSc majoring in mathematics and statistics (because I thought studying maths would be fun!). It was, and it wasn’t… I loved the maths, but got a full-time job part way through, so ended up working & studying with two young kids, which is not great for your sanity!

Anyways, how does this relate to EO? So, working at GA I was doing web development, which is what I’d always done. However, some fabulous managers saw that my maths/stats background could be good for scientific development work, so I got the opportunity to learn Python and work within the Digital Earth Australia team creating products from satellite imagery. I realised pretty quickly that this was where I was meant to be. I didn’t even know it was what I was looking for in a job, but I love everything about it now!

Q: You moved to Canberra, the center of bureaucracy, from Byron Bay, the center of… non-bureaucracy. Tell us about the two cities.

A: The two places are so vastly different, but both amazing in their own way. Byron Bay is full of natural beauty. It has the most amazing beaches in the world as well as lush rain forests and crystal clear creeks. Working in Byron I would pop to the beach for a dip during my lunch break over summer — it’s hard to imagine why anyone would leave such an idyllic place, particularly for Canberra. Before spending time in Canberra my view of it was dull, grey, and full of boring public servants. We moved for work. It has FAR surpassed my expectations (though maybe not hard given what I thought of it!).

Belle with household animals

Primarily it’s the people I’ve met who have made me feel so happy to live here. My love of science at times made me feel a little out of place in Byron Bay, where conspiracy theories and alternative remedies are so popular. Now, I’m surrounded by kind, passionate, science-loving, fun people. But I miss the beach and lush forests. I miss moisture in general, I struggle with how dry Canberra is, and the sun in summer is like napalm, so I’m failing at growing veggies. But there are going to be ups and downs of all places, I like to stay focused on the ups of where I currently am — amazing, fabulous people!

Q: What you do is data science, so what does data science mean to you?

A: Data science to me is two-fold. It’s the fun in the challenge of finding new and wonderful ways to process, analyse and interpret insane amounts of data to extrapolate meaning and understanding. But it also is a way I feel I can connect my love of tech and programming, with my passion to do something positive for the world.

Q: I hear you like cosplay, what is your ultimate cosplay character?

A: The character I’ve done most is Harley Quinn. I like the happy/crazy combo, and the black/red is always fun to play with. More recently I however, if I were to have time, I would love to make some Twi’lek costumes as I think making the lekku (long fleshy head tail things) would be a fun challenge.

Q: Tell us about your parrot and teenage angst

A: Ooh our parrot was amazing. During a family weekend walk up Black Mountain we came across an injured fledgling crimson rosella. Despite being warned that it would give a solid bite (it was so tiny I thought it’d be ok), I swooped in to save the day. One bleeding finger later we were heading home with a new little baby. After a check from a vet we were told that it had a poorly healed broken wing and that it would likely never be able to fly so “I can put it down, or you now have a pet bird” — the kids were there, so we now had a pet bird (Pippin).

Surprisingly, the cat was fantastic about it and would lay there while Pip groomed him. At first all was fabulous, and he (I think) gradually learned to fly a little, from head-to-head. As he grew into a teen however he became a jerk and we were suddenly living in a house tormented by an erratically aggressive, but beautiful, sky rat. Pip’s flying got stronger and stronger. Amazingly, at the same time we began to get visits from a rosella family who would sit on our deck and chat to him through the window. One day we opened the door to take washing out and he swooped out to join the family. They all flew off together. It was beautiful to see. We would occasionally see them all at the local park, all very close to each other and him being watched over by the adults in the group.

Q: I found this fantastic picture of you and your kids in Nepal, how was that journey with young kids?

Nepalese mountains

A: It was absolutely amazing for a number of reasons, with the story behind why and how we organised this trip being just as big a part as the incredible adventures we had.

This was a bit of a mental health trip for me. I was unexpectedly made redundant and really struggled to deal with the emotions around it all. I felt rejected and like a failure. I didn’t know how to find the confidence to step back out and look for more work. I just wanted to run away and take some time to process my feelings without the stressors of normal life. The support from my family was what got me through.

Me: “I think I need to walk into the mountains in Nepal”
Matt (my partner): books tickets for the end of the week.

I have a soft spot for Nepal, the people are so friendly and the mountains are breathtaking. This was my second trip there, the first one being 12 years earlier with a 7 month old baby in a backpack. The kids weren’t that young this time (9 & 12), so very capable of walking decent distances. We spent 6 weeks wandering in the mountains and exploring new places together, it was an incredible bonding experience for us as a family and I would definitely recommend it. Also, I came back grounded, calm, at peace with what happened, and confident to get out there and work again.

Interviewer’s note: Belle has booked another trip to Nepal for December 2019 and I take full credit for re-inspiring her!

Q: And lastly, what about you makes you a geohipster?

A: I don’t know if I am. I don’t drink beer and I’m REALLY bad at growing a beard. The only time I wear a flannel is when I’m staying with my parents and wear my Dad’s. I am however a decent coffee snob. Firstly, instant coffee is NOT real coffee. Coffee which has been reheated time and time again is NOT real coffee. Plunger coffee is rough, but in desperation I could consume. But really, espresso latte with properly heated (not burnt) milk is my go to.  Or, if I’m channeling my inner hippy, a soy dandy latte (I know, not coffee – but fabulous nonetheless).

Denise McKenzie: “I love the challenge of making open geo standards hip”

Denise McKenzie
Denise McKenzie

Denise is an Aussie who lives in England in the historic town of Winchester. She joined OGC in 2012 and spends her time managing the Communication and Outreach program globally for the consortium. The program handles the planning and execution of marketing, communication and education to raise awareness and increase implementation of open geospatial and location standards by technology providers and users worldwide. Part of Denise’s role is to oversee OGC Alliance Partnerships including representation at the United Nations Global Geographic Information Management (UNGGIM) committee. She is a member of the Board of the Association for Geographic Information in the UK and the Global Advisory Board for the Location Based Marketing Association. Prior to her role with OGC, she worked for over 12 years with the Victorian Government (Australia) in areas of geospatial strategic policy, collaboration and innovation.

Denise was interviewed for GeoHipster by Alex Leith and Michael Terner.

Q: Tell us about how you came to work for OGC.

A: It’s a serendipitous story, like most of my career, to be honest. I had been back working for the Department of Sustainability and Environment in Victoria, Australia for just over a year after maternity leave from my second child. Apart from the huge challenge of the VicMap API project, one of the other activities I had been leading was to set up the first OGC Australia and New Zealand Forum. As anyone who tries to work from Australia with people in other parts of the world will know – this included a lot of late night calls. It was during one of these calls that I was chatting with the CEO of OGC and he asked me if I had seen that the position for Executive Director for Marketing and Communications was being advertised. I said yes, and simply asked how their search was going. The response I got was “actually I was wondering if you had considered applying?” I think it would be fair to say that my face somewhat resembled that of a guppy fish (jaw on the floor and no words coming out – was so grateful that I did not have video for that moment). In my daze I asked a few more questions, finished the call and wandered into the kitchen where I then asked my husband what he thought of the idea of moving to a different country for work? He said sure… so I applied and rest is history.

Q: You travel a lot. What’s the best and worst thing about this?

A: Most days I really think I have one of the best jobs you can have in our industry. I love meeting new people, seeing new places and in the 6 years of working in OGC I realised how much I love seeing and learning about the amazing things people use location data for and how that changes the world for the better in so many ways. I feel really privileged to be able to represent the OGC membership throughout the world and to be able to tell their stories and to share the benefits that open geospatial standards can achieve.

It may sound cliche but the worst thing about travel is the time it takes me away from my family at home. Though my kids would say that it is not all bad because mum brings back presents! My rule is that they only get presents if the travel has been to a country I have never been to before and I always look for something that has a cultural connection to where I have been. It does make for some funny stories though. My son when he first started school explained to his teacher that “mum was away on the space station.” He had been confused when I said I was going to the European Space Agency (Frascati, Italy).

Q: You’ve been living in the UK for six years, do you miss Australia?

A: Of course! I will be an Aussie till my last day, but I do love my new country and am pretty lucky to be able to enjoy both places. The coffee scene is slowly improving (Winchester Coffee Roasters has been a life saver – though I did laugh when I discovered the owner learnt how to make coffee in Sydney).

But things I miss most include:

  • Beaches where the sand stretches for miles
  • Flake & potato cakes from the fish and chip shop
  • Sydney rock oysters
  • Rust orange sunsets – the ones in the UK are more pink in color
  • The smell of lemon-scented gums after it rains
  • The sound of magpies carolling in the mornings.

Q: Where does spatialred come from? Is it the blue hair?!

A: Hmm, there are only 5 other people who were involved in the creation of that twitter handle and how it came about is now a bit of an urban legend 😉 All I can say is that it was during a conference in New Zealand. I did have red hair at the time, but no that is not what inspired it. However seems to have stuck over the years and to be fair I do wear red pretty often.

Q: While standards are undeniably important, they are also boring. Can you convince us that they are hip?

A: Oh I love this question! Because I honestly believe they are anything but boring. They are one of the most powerful tools for sharing information and knowledge that we have. They bring people together around common problems and give them a pathway to solving them. Standards cross boundaries and borders in ways that enable us the greatest global insights into our planet that we have ever been able to access. One of my current favorite examples of this is the Arctic SDI, where 8 nations are now sharing data across international borders using OGC’s open standards.

At the end of the day it will be the standards we all agree on and the data that will flow through them that will help the world’s leaders make better decisions.

Location standards in particular help us to share data for all kinds of purposes, like understanding climate change, managing city infrastructure, getting planes safely to their destination and so many other world-changing benefits.

In short standards are the infrastructure that enable us to enjoy access to the incredibly rich information resources the web now provides. You can have the best data in the world, but if you can’t share it with anyone then of what benefit is it? Open location standards are one of the most powerful tools for data sharing around and that is why I think they are hip!

Q: What’s your take on the organically emergent standards, like shapefile, or GeoJSON that did not come out of standards setting organizations? Are they better or worse than OGC standards?

A: The truth is that most of the OGC standards start life in some way outside of the formal standards creation process. New standards are driven by innovation. Yes, you did read that correctly – standards happen because of innovation, not after the innovation has happened as I think many believe sometimes. No set of standards that operate in the web exist without interaction with other standards. We need to all work together to ensure the ecosystem works and the data flows and is visualized where it needs to be. Innovation will always help to create new and better ways of doing things and that is why you get communities developing standards like GeoJSON – though remember this standard is now part of a formal standards body at IETF.

A standard that is created outside OGC is no better or worse than an OGC standard – the most important thing is that the standard meets the needs of the users. I think one of the best developments in OGC in the past 5 years has been the creation of the Community Standard process. This now allows standards that are developed outside of that formal process but are mature, stable and being regularly used to be proposed as an OGC standard and come into the organisation with minimal change.

Q: How, and why did KML (originally a de facto standard) become an OGC standard?

A: In some ways, KML was really our first community standard (though we didn’t have formal process for it in those days). It was before my time in OGC, but from what I understand there was a recognition in Google that the standard would enable more data to be made available in this format if it was an international open standard than to remain a proprietary format in Google. Perhaps a good question to pose to Ed Parsons  ;-).

Q: Can you talk about the difference in the process involved in WFS 3.0 and the ‘old’ way of developing standards? Also, are the other WxS services being reviewed?

A: This is my new favorite topic and one that excitingly you will see a lot of progress on in the next twelve months. I have watched a lot of change in the way we make standards in OGC. Word docs have given way to GitHub, PDF has given way to HTML, the range of market domains in OGC have increased, and hackathons have been introduced to complement our technical meeting process. It is important to note that our web service standards are not going away any time soon, but with the innovation in use of APIs it is time we developed some new standards to help ensure we can keep sharing geospatial data. The way we have started to describe what is happening is the following analogy.

Picture a brick house with great sturdy foundations that has been improved and matured over a long time and is currently being very well lived in and serves much of the world’s geospatial data. This is our OGC web services house and inside is WMS, WFS, WPS, WCS, WMTS and OWS Common. But we now have new building materials and methods of creating a house so we need some new standards to help us continue to share our geospatial data in an innovating world. This new house will be called the OGC API. In this house you will find OGC API – Features (formerly known as WFS 3.0), OGC API – Common, OGC API – Maps, OGC API – Processes, OGC API – Tiles and so on. The idea is that both these two houses will continue to co-exist for a long while yet, they will draw from the same data lakes and we will be building bridges to help developers move from one house to the next. Hopefully without too much trouble.

There is a hackathon that will push the development and testing of new specs for a number of these new standards in June this year just prior to our Technical Meetings in Belgium. Keep an eye out for more details and how to get involved. These need industry-wide support, review and participation to make them a great new generation of OGC standards.

Q: Ok, big question: Is spatial special?

A: No and yes. Sorry, fence sitting answer I know. In the big wide world of data – it is just another data type. But it has some unique and important elements about it that mean if you handle spatial data incorrectly you will get really bad outcomes. So I think that there is still an important role for spatial professionals in helping ensure that we use spatial data the right way and ensure we support good evidence-based decisions.

Maybe the question isn’t whether spatial is special or not, but why there still seems to be so much of the world that does not harness the power of spatial data or understand what it can do. Perhaps it is more a question of whether we as a community of practice think we are too special and are yet to really reach outside of our community to the broader world of data users to ensure that the goodness that spatial data can bring is shared globally.

And for what it is worth, I like the words location and place over geospatial or spatial (maybe our language is part of the problem?).

Q: Among your work experience on LinkedIn you list ‘mother’, which is awesome! Can you talk about this a bit?

A: Oh man, do not get me talking about my kids or we will be here for pages more 😉…but you have touched on something that is increasingly becoming an important topic for me and that is diversity. Not just gender diversity, but diversity in all areas – age, culture, language, experience, skills. I am sure it would be unsurprising to many of the readers here when I say that I am commonly either the only or one of a few women in many work situations I find myself in (unless of course it is International Women’s Day). Whilst I will say it is improving, it does not seem to be fast enough.

This year I ran an International Women’s Day event in London titled Women in Geospatial. I invited 3 women who are midway through their working careers to talk about their experience in the geospatial industry and how they got there, but the speakers on the day that had the most impact for me were the 4 women on our early careers panel. Whilst saying that they loved working in the industry, they all still had stories of intimidating all-male interview panels, some but not enough female role models in senior leadership positions and comments on their university degrees not having enough of the practical skills that they need now for their current jobs.

Another pivotal event was during FOSS4G last year in Tanzania when Rebecca Firth (from the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team) and I ran a Diversity in Geo session and had close to 40 people turn up at 4pm on the second day of the conference. This helped to realise just how important it is to be a good role model and that when you are in a visible international role such as mine that we have an obligation and responsibility to help drive and be part of the necessary change.

So yes, I list “mother” as a job and I am very proud to do so, as the balance between work and family is paramount for me. To be honest I have learned so much by having this role in life and it enables me to bring many diverse perspectives to what I do, particularly now that my kids have reached an age where they are explaining the latest tech to me! #DiversityInGeo #WomenInGeospatial

Lastly a shout out to the lovely ladies that have started the WomenInGeospatial network recently, which I highly recommend getting in touch with if you are looking to network with other women in the industry.

Q: What’s #1 on your bucket list?

A: Hmm, I think (and I am sure my mum would laugh in agreement with this) I have always wanted to do something that would help change the world for the better. I definitely have been able to do a lot in my time both at DSE in Australia and now in OGC that has helped, but we have so much more that we can do and I am really excited to be part of the OGC journey and working with our new leadership. I definitely can’t say that I have totally completed this bucket list item yet, but I am on my way and guess we will need to wait another 25 years or so of my career before I will know if I really achieved it or not ;-).

Q: And finally, what about you makes you a geohipster?

A: I simply love what geospatial can do and I love evangelizing about it. It is such a good news story and really has the power to change the world for the better. Oh and I love the challenge of making open geo standards hip.

Adam Steer, Doctor of Mischiefology: “We really exist in at least 5D”

Adam Steer
Adam Steer

True to the hipster theme, Adam is a consultant-at-large on open source spatial systems and problem solving. He’s a real doctor in the academic sense, and has a truly multidisciplinary outlook on geospatial and web technology, as seen through the lens of developing human capacity to evolve and create a better world as we work out our existence in the one we have.

With a CV covering field research on sea ice, infrastructure-scale data services, professional bicycle repair, and cat herding on wilderness walking trips, he’s a stander-upon-the-shoulders-of-giants, and definitely thinks way too hard about society, human evolution, infrastructure-scale technology, geospatial magicking, and penguins.
Adam was interviewed for GeoHipster by Alex Leith.

Q: First off the bat, you recently attended FOSS4G in Dar es Salaam. What did you think?

A: I’ve been sitting on a blog post about it for a month. It’s been super hard to wrap up because it’s Africa + FOSS4G rolled into one. This FOSS4G really impressed on me more than anything how open source geospatial software, open data, and the communities around it can make real, on-ground change in the world.

I’d never been to Africa before, and really was swept away by the experience. I made a point of travelling by foot as much as possible, trying to see the rhythm of the city, and how it works – what happens outside the western tourist cocoon (as much as that is possible). I drank a bunch of coconuts, and wished I could speak Swahili.

I saw a lot of excellent technical talks. Some I didn’t expect to see, some on my ‘must-see list’. There was also a huge amount of discussion on the human and community aspects of our geospatial world. I listened to many stories, and came home with a soul full of hope about the future. However, to realise that future I’ll quote Mark Iliffe: “It’ll take all our resources, and all our privilege”. That’s an undisguised call – especially to people like me who really have very few barriers to overcome – to listen, reflect, and act. See the barriers other people face, and use our privilege to help tear them down.

What sticks in my mind most from this iteration of FOSS4G was a real focus on overcoming challenges. Getting over 100 people to a conference via travel grants. Wow! Running a 1,000 person event in Africa. Wow! Walking the streets of Dar Es Salaam every day for a week. Wow!

Q: How was Zanzibar?

A: Personally, I’d intended Zanzibar to be a full switch off. Maybe at most walking to a beach every day or something. Instead, I offered space in an AirBnB I’d booked to some of the OpenDroneMap team, and ended up in a whirlwind.

Still, it was inspirational. Having just finished a big conference, I did have some time to absorb and reflect on the conference in the context of Africa. One thing which struck me was the extreme inequality of life there. Literally next door to each other were 5 star tourist resorts and locals in basic homes cooking over fire.

Another was how well society appears to function in chaos. Australia seems really rigid and afraid by comparison.

I also appreciated the ‘on ground’ experience of the OpenDroneMap team, in particular Stephen Mather (a Zanzibar regular). It inspired an idea about how the geospatial community can be similar. We’re all trying to make progress, but like Zanzibar, there can be myriad and strange labyrinths to navigate. A friendly guide can go a long way.

Q: You live and work in our nation’s capital Canberra, what’s that like?

A: It’s awful, don’t come here. It’s seriously unaffordable.

…actually it’s one of two cities in Australia I’d live in, the other being Hobart. Canberra’s most famous attribute is that it’s two hours from everything – the sea, the snow… and actually about 45 minutes from splitter cracks and heinous slabs on chunky granite if that’s your thing. It’s sometimes my thing.

Its secret attribute is that in most suburbs, you can be in relatively uncurated bushland in about ten minutes on foot. As a full time cycle commuter, I also like that I can pick a bunch of routes through forests and parks, instead of battling cars.

Unfortunately, like many places, Canberra is losing its urban wilderness in favour of cookie cutter housing estates.

Q: Your job involves doing a lot of work with PDAL. Do you like it?

A: Yes – PDAL is a fantastic toolkit. I really only explore a tiny part of it at the moment; there’s as much I don’t know what to do with it as I do know. It’s a real case of standing on the shoulders of giants.

It has its limitations. One of the best things is that Howard Butler and team are very much cognisant of those up front – and provide as many means as possible for others to add new tools in ways which suit them. It’s an honest toolkit, one that doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is. One of things that it is, however, is being really useful!.

Q: What’s something interesting we don’t know about LiDAR?

A: All LiDAR instruments quite literally capture a point cloud – a little fuzz around whatever surface is being measured. I did a lot of work tracking down noise in LiDAR measurements, ending with hanging a LiDAR scanner in a lab and scanning a concrete floor for a few hours.

Did we get a flat scan? No. We could fit a flat regression line to the data with high confidence, but the points themselves sat inside a neat biconcave envelope described by a function of range, scan angle and angular encoder uncertainty.

The shape of this envelope is different for different instrument styles – line scanners, circular/ellipse pattern scanners, solid-state beams – but the fuzz is common to all LiDAR instruments and measurements.

Q: Does working with point clouds make you look down on the 2.5-D nature of regular GIS?

A: Not at all. In fact I barely understand a lot of ‘regular GIS’ things. My geo-training started with a lot of concern about minutiae – getting data right for an incredibly specific task (sea ice research); so in ‘standard GIS’ domains I’m still almost completely lost. I get there, with a lot of help from friends.

And so much can still be done with good old 2D/2.5D analysis!

I still like to push toward a 4, or 5D world – we can capture reality in 3D; capture time plus space, then time plus space plus insight – what we glean from analysing the world in space and time. We humans do this all the time, in fact, you’re doing it right now reading this – we really exist in at least 5D…

Q: Shapefile or GeoPackage?

A: GeoPackage! Although to be honest, I’d be hard pressed to have a proper discussion about why. Although – I can store a neat little SQLite database in there with points, or data boundaries… plus metadata… and it’s nicely self contained.

Q: You did an undergraduate in Neurobiology, Honours in Antarctic studies, and a PhD in Surveying. Why?!

A: The glib answer is why not? The true story is this (grab a beverage and a seat..):

I actually applied to art school as a fresh out of high school kiddo – and didn’t get in. I hated school and did the bare minimum to pass. So my creative work really wasn’t up to scratch.

Finding jobs was hard in the early 1990s, but I did OK at science and based on that, found employment as an assistant in a neurophysiology research lab. Mixing chemicals, making electrodes, anaesthetising sheep, slicing up brains and mounting slides. A couple years in, I figured it was university time – and naturally started a brand new degree program on cognitive science. This morphed into psychology/neurophysiology because I failed uni level maths (little did I know… I ended up doing two more years of solid stats…  same same).

A final year elective in Medical Anthropology made me question everything. So I quit, went to work as a teaching aide in a technical college, then picked up a job as a web developer based on a side job I’d had making websites back in the late 1990s.

Fast forward a few years – career change time again. I applied for an honours year (4th undergrad year/masters year) multidisciplinary program in Antarctic science, got in, moved to Hobart, and went through an intense ‘in the deep end’ education in Antarctic physical and ecological systems, logistics and international law. Plus a research thesis on estimating ice floe sizes from airborne imagery.

I went straight to work (a few days after I dumped in the thesis) guiding people on Tasmania’s Overland track for a couple of summers, and being a semi-homeless outdoorsy drifter. In 2007 I was offered a job as a tech officer to support a sea ice research voyage – and abandoned my plans to move to New Zealand and become a mountain guide. I went south three years running – operating an aerial photography program and field validation measurements, progressing to LiDAR flight operations and running a bunch of GPS units until, in 2009, a PhD project was devised. I was awarded a scholarship and I went for it!

The project was all about measuring sea ice elevation using airborne LIDAR, then estimating ice thickness based on some empirical modelling from that. I also needed to know the uncertainty of every single point in the point cloud – so a lot of maths (that thing I suck at) ensued. And geodesy. And three years discovering that most of the data we had so far are terrible and designing an experiment to fix that. Finally, in 2012, the plan came to life and we got what we needed to finish the job. In summary, we surveyed moving objects. I deployed the first ever robotic total survey on East Antarctic sea ice, using it to set up a coordinate system that drifted with the ice. And then, used the data to link airborne, on-ice and under-ice observations and create a PhD thesis. I got to ski around sea ice with a surveying prism; and also drilled a lot of holes in the ice.

Oddly enough, my best topic at high school was geography – so the circle completes eventually…

Q: Along with others, you’re organising the inaugural FOSS4G SotM Oceania, tell me more…

A: Oh man. This is absolutely terrifying! And the momentum is huge! So late in 2017 there was a bit of noise in a Slack channel about organising a conference. And fast forward to now it seems to have just happened organically, and hugely.

As the sponsorship coordinator my life has been really easy — the sponsors come to us! It’s been great to work with the committee, we disagree quite a lot and I have some really crazy ideas – some of which made it (yay!) – and others which really needed some moderation/re-appraisal. Whatever happens, we always manage to get something done – we all seem really good at compromise where it’s appropriate – and importantly in directions which aim to make a positive change. Which is always the grease that gets stuff moving, right?

I’ve learned an awful lot from everyone in the process.

We haven’t met all our goals – we wanted a perfect gender balance, we wanted to have much greater representation from indigenous communities, we wanted … the universe on a plate.

What we *have* done is tapped into a rich vein – and exceeded our expectations about community interest. We have a fantastic program, and can do our best to make some audacious moves in shaping how this community can evolve as we steam ahead.

I’m really looking forward to turning up – and all the buzz that happens to get the final wrinkles ironed out. I really hope we can keep this momentum going, and engage even more of the open geospatial community in our region next year!

Q: Ok, what’s the deal with Business Penguins?

A: It’s a call back to my psychology days – we discussed a lot how our environment shapes how we are able to perceive the world. One trip to Antarctica I was watching penguins cross fast ice for a while, and had a lightbulb moment that made me giggle – the parallel between conformist work environments and penguins is obvious. The hilarious part was how penguins solved these seemingly simple problems – and this dawning realisation that humans can fall into those same patterns.

At the end of the day I hope it’s a way to encourage reflection on the rules we make up for ourselves, and have some fun.

Q: Favourite craft beer?

A: Right now, when I order a bespoke beer, I’ll grab a Bent Spoke crankshaft IPA. Or a Velvet Cream Stout from the Wig n Pen. Canberra has a couple of awesome microbreweries, all within cycling distance of course!

Q: What’s #1 on your bucket list?

A: That’s a tough one. To pick on one thing – getting to South America, the last continent I’ve never visited. With my skis and climbing gear. And banging out perfect telemark turns down huge mountains.

I’ve only been in airports in Asia, come to think of it.. So there’s #2.

Q: And finally, what about you makes you a geohipster?

A: To tick off some boxes? I telemark ski in the backcountry, ride bikes, climb rocks, have a beard, and have a collection of obscure paper maps…

January Makamba, the introductory speaker at FOSS4G 2018 summed it up well: we are a socially conscious community. We want to help create and maintain amazing tools that are well crafted, functional, accessible, and contribute to a world we want to keep living in. The core hipster ethos of care about what we do, and how it impacts our world, definitely resonates with me strongly. Add some geo, and there we are…

Darren Mottolini: “Not just creating pretty maps that still require interpretation”

Darren Mottolini is a Business Development and Research Manager — WA (Western Australia) at CRCSI (Cooperative Research Council for Spatial Information)

Darren has worked in the spatial information sector for over 16 years – working within the private sector,  government, and now academia, identifying and enabling businesses to use data and information to meet specific needs, and consulting on the best use of spatial data and tools in the on-line service delivery space.

He comes recently from Western Australia’s Landgate (Land Agency) as the manager of the Shared Location Information Platform (SLIP) Program – the State’s core infrastructure for location information. Within the spatial community, Darren has chaired committees for the Surveying and Spatial Sciences Institute and the Intergovernmental Committee for Surveying and Mapping. He has open data and start-up community experience, he is a past recipient of the of the Young Spatial Professional of the Year Award (WA), and currently heads up Research Management focussing on collaborative research opportunities.

Darren was interviewed for GeoHipster by Alex Leith.

Q: How did you end up in geospatial?

A: Quite by accident. I graduated in the IT systems field picking up programming and network design jobs. I took a job at a company called ER Mapper as one of their technical analyst, which was my first foray into geo. From there I quickly transferred from behind the computer to in front of it branching out into solutions design and picking up up my geo skills from workshops, single units and conferences. Haven’t looked back since.

Q: You are ‘Sir Darren of Rabble’ on Twitter, is there a story there?

A: No story really. In Australia under a certain Prime Minister, he re-introduced Dames and Knights, and so a bunch of us changed our handles to Sir and Dame so and so. Rabble comes from my involvement in Perth coordinating GeoRabble events. Since then the moniker has grown on me so it has stuck.

Q: How’s the GeoCommunity in Perth?

A: Perth is a strange place. One, we are very isolated, with the closest main city four hours’ flight away. Two, everyone knows everyone so getting together is easy and organising events (such as a Georabble) picks up on everyone’s network. WA/Perth is still quite mining-focused, yet if you look across the state there are significant challenges. Biodiversity in the State’s agriculture and mining areas poses challenges, not only to understand the ecosystems but also to manage it. Also, due to the vast size of WA (which is 33% of Australia equalling about 4x the size of Texas, or covering more area than Western Europe) mapping and adding knowledge is a continual challenge for a population which is roughly around 2.5 million statewide.

Q: You used to work in the Western Australian state government, what was the technology stack like there and were there benefits in being forced to rebuild twice?! (After Google end-of-lifed Google Earth Engine…)

A: What I learnt from working in government (8 years) is that the stigma of government workers is nowhere to be seen. There is so much that happens behind the scenes that the public at large and private sector simply don’t see. Most of the stigma is due to spending public funds and the accountability that has to go with it yet if you understand the system, you can make it work. Managing a technology stack for the state’s Shared Location Information Platform (SLIP — the State Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI)) had its challenges, yet the reward of making a difference, from concept to execution, rather than simply selling software or consulting on short projects, is what really kept me in government. Depending on the government agency, there is a lot of legacy systems which are used to manage the fundamental data within the state. Due to this, simply pulling a new dataset together, its impact on live systems etc. requires testing and creative design in order to respond to the industry need. Yet, all in all, managing SLIP, rebuilding it under Google Maps Engine, the demise of GME proved tiring for me and lacked new learning hence why I jumped at the chance to join a user-focused research organisation which really aligns to my take of technology that the consumers and suppliers needs are first, the technology is second.

Q: You are currently working at CRCSI, can you explain what the CRCSI is and what you do there?

A: The CRC (Cooperative Research Centre) for Spatial Information is a collaborative research body delving into the challenges facing both Australia and New Zealand. The research that the CRCSI conducts is user-driven, that is, our partners lead and sponsor the projects and we coordinate the research for them. It was this fact that attracted me to the CRCSI, being that it is not research for the sake of research, that it had a need founded in our users that could not be solved through traditional and pre-existing means. My role is to coordinate and ensure that our partners benefit from the research (i.e., they can use it) as well as brokering new research projects.

Q: CRCSI’s government funding ends soon, how’s it looking for the future?

A: It is looking good. One of the strengths of the CRCSI is that our partners are engaged and that our research is delivering benefits. As our government (federal) funding only accounts for a portion of our operation budget, we have already generated new partnerships and projects that will ensure Australia and New Zealand have a peak Spatial Information research body that is also an advocate for increasing the wealth of the industry by exploring emerging sectors and their needs for spatial knowledge.

Q: What can you tell me about the 2026 Agenda project?

A: The 2026Agenda (https://2026agenda.com/) is a joint initiative between the CRCSI and the Spatial Industries Business Association (SIBA) to put in place measurable and accountable actions that will drive towards greater awareness of spatial methods, data, and tech with new and emerging industries. As an industry we always say that ~80% of all data is spatial, but what does this really mean? The roadmap being generated will seek to ensure that the spatial sector is recognised as a proactive underpinning element to the Australian digital economy.

Q: What about some of the other projects CRCSI is working on?

A: How long have you got? As I remain partner-focused, it allows me to delve into all the projects the CRCSI is working on. My background is in SDIs, so the research we are conducting here is to explore how spatial processes can be delivered through the semantic technology area (Web 3.0). By doing this, achieving true automation — that is easily repeatable, shareable workflows that are facilitated through machine to machine understanding — aims to generate new tech that recognises spatial as a commodity anyone can plug into. For me it means that is a real opportunity for spatial to play its role in leading analytics processes that derive knowledge to assist decision making — not just creating pretty maps that still require interpretation.

Another area that piques my interest is the adaptation of spatial in the health sector. Taking 3D stereophotogrammetry to mapping faces for example has the potential to assist practitioners in detecting facial anomalies which could be signs of genetic diseases. The same principles are being applied to burns management for the debriding process.

In the agriculture space, assisting land managers with spatial data and query tools that draw on a massive historical earth observation imagery archive means that for the first time people can manage change over time by understanding the impacts of change.

Finally, the positioning research: ubiquitous 2cm accuracy is near-real-time from multi GNSS — it sounds easy yet the maths behind this level of research and its potential benefits to all those who want high accuracy data that is placed in its correct location when overlapped has massive potential. We are starting to see the benefits of this positioning research with the move to GDA2020 (Australia’s new datum), real time precision agriculture through remote controlled farm tractors, and the move to dynamic datums in the future.

Q: On your LinkedIn profile you mention Edward de Bono. What’s he got to do with anything?!

A: HA! I’m a strategist, it’s what I enjoy. Facilitation, consultancy and strategy development requires a person to think in different mindsets and assist others to think differently so that you can develop a rounded strategy. Edward de Bono developed a suite of ‘thinking tools’ that are well utilised globally. The ‘six thinking hats’ are an example of one of this developed tools. (see: http://www.debonothinkingsystems.com/tools/6hats.htm ). I use these constantly to help me engage, facilitate thought leadership sessions, and develop strategies that work to the needs of the target user groups. Would never leave home without them. 🙂

Q: I assume that means you like lateral thinking, do you have a favourite riddle or, failing that, favourite dad joke?

A: Ask my kids, I am not a joke teller, not even dad jokes. Riddle me this though, when you get asked a question, how best do you question the questioner back? If you ask any of my staff (when I had staff), I always get them to learn through seeing if they can answer their own question. It is a lateral thinking exercise that I feel builds the best staff, increases their confidence and success, means you work yourself out of a job.

Q: What do you do in your free time that is not geo-related?

A: Isn’t everything geo-related? Camping, cycling, running are my favourite things to do. Of course, I track my cycling and running tracks, look for camping spots, and everything you can do around them. Having a geo focus to these activities usually sees me always looking towards a map.

Q: And finally, what do you do in your free time that makes you a geohipster?

A: Coffee! Maybe it’s my Italian heritage, yet it is the first machine I turn on in the morning, it is how I generally conduct my meetings, it is what gets me through the day. That, and a desire to care for the environment, a love of local music, and generally the wearing of Chuck Taylor shoes with no care to how my hair looks. 🙂


	

Hugh Saalmans: “No amount of machine learning could solve a 999999 error!”

Hugh Saalmans
Hugh Saalmans

Hugh Saalmans (@minus34) is a geogeek and IT professional that heads the Location Engineering team at IAG, Australia & New Zealand’s largest general insurer. He’s also one of the founders of GeoRabble — an inclusive, zero-sales-pitch pub meetup for geogeeks to share their stories. His passion is hackfests & open data, and he’s big fan of open source and open standards.

Hugh was interviewed for GeoHipster by Alex Leith.

Q: How did you end up in geospatial?

A: A love of maths and geography is the short answer. The long answer is I did a surveying degree that covered everything spatial from engineering to geodesy.

My first experience with GIS was ArcGIS on Solaris (circa 1990) in a Uni lab with a severely underpowered server. Out of the 12 workstations, only 10 of us could log in at any one time, and then just 6 of us could actually get ArcGIS to run. Just as well, considering most of the students who could get it to work, including myself, ballsed up our first lab assignment by turning some property boundaries into chopped liver.

Besides GIS, my least favourite subjects at Uni were GPS and geodesy. So naturally I chose a career in geospatial information.

Q: You work for IAG. What does the company do?

A: Being a general insurer, we cover about $2 trillion worth of homes, motor vehicles, farms, and businesses against bad things happening.

Geospatial is a big part of what we do. Knowing where those $2tn of assets are allows us to do fundamental things like providing individualised address level pricing — something common in Australia, but not so common in the US due to insurance pricing regulations. Knowing where assets are also allows us to help customers when something bad does happen. That goes to the core of what we do in insurance. That’s when we need to fulfill the promise we made to our customers when they took out a policy.

Q: What on Earth is Location Engineering?

A: We’re part of a movement that’s happening across a lot of domains that use geo-information: changing from traditional data-heavy, point & click delivery to scripting, automation, cloud, & APIs. We’re a team of geospatial analysts becoming a team of DevOps engineers that deliver geo-information services. So we needed a name to reflect that.

From a skills point of view — we’re moving from desktop analysis & publishing with a bit of SQL & Python to a lot of Bash, SQL, Python & Javascript with Git, JIRA, Bamboo, Docker and a few other tools & platforms that aren’t that well known in geo circles. We’re migrating from Windows to Linux, desktop to cloud, and licensed to open source. It’s both exciting and daunting to be doing it for an $11bn company!

Q: You’ve been working in the GIS industry for twenty years, how has that been?

A: It’s been great to be a part of 20+ years of geospatial evolutions and revolutions, witnessing geospatial going from specialist workstations to being a part of everyday life, accessible on any device. It’s also been exciting watching open source go from niche to mainstream, government data go from locked down to open, and watching proprietary standards being replaced with open ones.

It’s also been frustrating at times being part of an industry that has a broad definition, no defined start or end (“GIS is everywhere!”), and limited external recognition. In Australia we further muddy the waters by having university degrees and industry bodies that fuse land surveying and spatial sciences into a curious marriage of similar but sometimes opposing needs. Between the limited recognition of surveying as a profession and of geospatial being a separate stream within the IT industry, it’s no real surprise that our work remains a niche that needs to be constantly explained, even though what we do is fundamental to society. In the last 5 years we’ve tried to improve that through GeoRabble, creating a casual forum for anyone to share their story about location, regardless of their background or experience. We’ve made some good progress: almost 60 pub meetups in 8 cities across 3 countries (AU, NZ & SA), with 350 presentations and 4,500 attendees.

Q: How do you work in one industry for twenty years and keep innovating? Any tips on avoiding cynicism and keeping up with the trends?

A: It’s a cliche, but innovation is a mindset. Keep asking yourself and those around you two questions: Why? and Why Not? Asking why? will help you improve things by questioning the status quo or understanding a problem better, and getting focussed on how to fix or improve it. Saying why not? either gives you a reality check or lets you go exploring, researching and finding better ways of doing things to create new solutions.

Similarly, I try to beat cynicism by being curious, accepting that learning has no destination, and knowing there is information out there somewhere that can help fix the problem. Go back 15-20 years — it was easy to be cynical. If your chosen tool didn’t work the way you wanted it to, you either had to park the problem or come up with a preposterous workaround. Nowadays, you’ve got no real excuse if you put in the time to explore. There’s open source, GitHub and StackExchange to help you plough through the problem. Here’s one of our case studies as an example: desktop brand X takes 45 mins to tag several million points with a boundary id. Unsatisfied, we make the effort to learn Python, PostGIS and parallel processing through blogs, posts and online documentation. Now you’re cooking with gas in 45 seconds, not 45 minutes.

Another way to beat cynicism is to accept that things will change, and they will change faster than you want them to. They will leave you with yesterday’s architecture or process and you will be left with a choice to take the easy road and build up design debt into your systems (which will cost you at some point), or you take the hard road and learn as you go to future-proof the things you’re responsible for.

Q: What are some disruptive technologies that are on your watch list?

A: Autonomous vehicles are the big disruptor in insurance. KPMG estimate the motor insurance market will shrink by 60% in the next 25 years due to a reduction in crashes. How do we offset this loss of profitable income? By getting better at analysing our customers and their other assets, especially homes. Enter geospatial to start answering complicated questions like “how much damage will the neighbour’s house do to our insured’s house during a storm?”

The Internet of Things is also going to shake things up in insurance. Your doorbell can now photograph would-be burglars or detect hail. Your home weather sensor can alert you to damaging winds. Now imagine hundreds of thousands of these sensors in each city — imagine tracking burglars from house to house, or watching a storm hit a city, one neighbourhood at a time. Real-time, location-based sensor nets are going to change the way we protect our homes and how insurers respond in a time in crisis. Not to mention 100,000+ weather sensors could radically improve our ability to predict weather-related disasters. It’s not surprising IBM bought The Weather Channel’s online and B2B services arm last year, as they have one of the best crowdsourced weather services.

UAVs are also going to shake things up. We first used them last Christmas after a severe bushfire (wildfire) hit the Victorian coast. Due to asbestos contamination, the burnt out area was sealed off. Using UAVs to capture the damage was the only way at the time to give customers who had lost everything some certainty about their future. Jumping to the near future again — Intel brought their 100-drone lightshow to Sydney in early June. Whilst marvelling at a new artform, watching the drones glide and dance in beautiful formations, it dawned on me what autonomous UAVs will be capable of in the next few years — swarms of them capturing entire damaged neighbourhoods just a few hours after a weather event or bushfire has passed.

Q: What is the dirtiest dataset you’ve had to ingest, and what about the cleanest?

A: The thing about working for a large corporation with a 150-year history is your organisation knows how to put the L into legacy systems. We have systems that write 20-30 records for single customer transactions in a non-sequential manner; so you almost need a PhD to determine the current record. There are other systems that write proprietary BLOBs into our databases (seriously, in 2016!). Fortunately, we have a simplification program to clear up a lot of these types of issues.

As far as open data goes — that’d be the historical disaster data we used at GovHack in 2014.  Who knew one small CSV file could cause so much pain. Date fields with a combination of standard and American dates, inconsistent and incoherent disaster classifications, lat/longs with variable precisions.

I don’t know if there is such a thing as a clean dataset. All data requires some wrangling to make it productive, and all large datasets have quirks. G-NAF (Australia’s Geocoded National Address File) is pretty good on the quirk front, but at 31 tables and 39 foreign keys, it’s not exactly ready to roll in its raw form.

Q: You were very quick to release some tools to help people to work with the G-NAF dataset when it was released. What are some other datasets that you’d like to see made open?

A: It can’t be understated how good it was to see G-NAF being made open data. We’re one of the lucky few countries with an open, authoritative, geocoded national address file, thanks to 3 years of continual effort from the federal and state governments.

That said, we have the most piecemeal approach to natural peril data in Australia. Getting a national view of, say, flood risk isn’t possible due to the way the data is created and collected at the local and state government level. I’m obviously biased being in the insurance industry about wanting access to peril data, but having no holistic view of risk, nor having any data to share doesn’t help the federal government serve the community. It’s a far cry from the availability of FEMA’s data in the US.

Q: Uber drivers have robot cars, McDonald’s workers have robot cooks, what are geohipsters going to be replaced with?  

A: Who says we’re going to be replaced? No amount of machine learning could solve a 999999 error!

But if we are going to be replaced — on the data capture front it’ll probably be due to autonomous UAVs and machine learning. Consider aerial camera systems that can capture data at better than 5 cm resolution, but mounted on a winged, autonomous UAV that could fly 10,000s of sq km a day. Bung the data into an omnipotent machine learning feature extractor (like the ones Google et al have kind of got working), and entire 3D models of cities could be built regularly with only a few humans involved.

There’ll still be humans required to produce PDFs… oh sorry, you said what are geohipsters going to be replaced with. There’ll still be humans required to produce Leaflet+D3 web maps for a while before they work out how to automate it. Speaking of automation — one of the benefits of becoming a team of developers is the career future-proofing. If you’re worried about losing your job to automation, become the one writing the automation code!

Q: What are some startups (geo or non-geo) that you follow?

A: Mapbox and CartoDB are two of the most interesting geospatial companies to follow right now. Like Google before them, they’ve built a market right under the noses of the incumbent GIS vendors by focussing on the user and developer experience, not by trying to wedge as many tools or layers as they can into a single map.

In the geocoding and addressing space it’s hard to go past What3Words for ingenuity and for the traction they’ve got in changing how people around the World communicate their location.

In the insurance space, there’s a monumental amount of hot air surrounding Insuretech, but a few startups are starting to get their business models off the ground. Peer to peer and micro insurance are probably the most interesting spaces to watch. Companies like Friendsurance and Trov are starting to make headway here.

Q: And finally, what do you do in your free time that makes you a geohipster?

A: The other day I took my son to football (soccer) training. I sat on the sideline tinkering with a Leaflet+Python+PostGIS spatio-temporal predictive analytical map that a colleague and I put together the weekend prior for an emergency services hackathon. Apart from being a bad parent for not watching my son, I felt I’d achieved geohipster certification with that effort.

How a geohipster watches football (soccer) practice
How a geohipster watches football (soccer) practice

In all seriousness, being a geohipster is about adapting geospatial technology & trying something new to create something useful, something useless, something different. It’s what I love doing in my spare time. It’s my few hours a night to be as creative as I can be.

Alex Leith: “A picture tells a thousand words, a map tells a million”

Alex Leith
Alex Leith

Alex is currently employed as a Spatial Information Analyst at TasNetworks and is a director at the Surveying and Spatial Sciences Institute. Alex graduated with a degree in Surveying and Spatial Sciences with honours in 2011, and has since worked in technical spatial roles. Alex has presented at international, national and local conferences and organises regional spatial events including State of GIS and GeoRabble. Alex lives in Hobart, Tasmania.

Alex was interviewed for GeoHipster by Katrina Engelsted.

Q: You work for TasNetworks. What does the company do?

A: TasNetworks is a transmission and distribution business, which is to say that it’s a power company that manages the really big poles and wires as well as the smaller ones. Electrical engineering is all new to me, and one of the important things about our GIS is the electrical connectivity model, which is like topology, but includes all the switches, fuses, links and other accoutrements of managing an electricity network. TasNetworks is an organisation of around a thousand employees including five hundred field staff.

Q: What software/technology stack do you all use?

A: It’s a big organisation, and there’s a lot of technology. Keeping it just to GIS, we use G/Technology as the master GIS database for editing the electricity network’s spatial data and connectivity and to manage the network model. This database gets de-normalised into a big Oracle ‘Spatial Data Warehouse’ (SDW), and a number of other systems get their data staged into this database too. It’s a really big database, and contains lots of data (and a bit of information!). From the SDW, we move to a number of desktop GIS users, who use GeoMedia Professional. And there’s a couple of installations of GeoMedia WebMap, which has over three hundred unique weekly users internally. GeoMedia definitely feels like a legacy product (both desktop and WebMap) and I’m a technology guy, and love playing with the tools, so I’ve started to use some other things that are new to the business, such as GeoServer and Leaflet for single-purpose web-mapping, and QGIS for desktop data exploration. We’ve got FME, which is really important, but it’s only used for ETL, which is like using an AI to make paper clips! I’m pretty big on open-source, but I can be really efficient with FME, and it’s definitely my favourite piece of technology.

Q: You worked for the Glenorchy City Council for some time. What was the city doing that was innovative? What was it behind on?

A: Glenorchy, as I left, was embarking on a ‘cloud’ migration, shifting a range of IT services to an ‘as a service’ model. This is all well and good, but you still need good people in-house. And there’s a compromise there between letting someone else take responsibility for systems, and internal folks architecting and overseeing and owning what they’re doing. I don’t know how they’re going to go with it, but notching some of the IT capability up is important. It’s often just seen as an expense, IT, rather than an enabler and an efficiency provider. Without an IT solution, you end up with paper work orders and double or triple handling of information. At worst, you enter data into multiple different systems and inevitably have data quality issues. Council was pretty good at core business systems and IT services, and was at the right scale, in that there was good virtualised infrastructure, and not too much bureaucracy locking it down. I had the benefit of having an excellent, technical leader, who trusted me to mess with the crazy stuff I got running. I just hope that I documented enough for those that follow me. (Do you hate me, Steve?!)

Q: What are some lessons you have learned along the way when developing systems for TasNetworks and Glenorchy City Council?

A: I’m only very new to TasNetworks, but at Glenorchy City Council I was privileged in that I was trusted to take some risks. So I designed and implemented an open data and public mapping portal. This went from non-existent to a couple of thousand hits a month over two years, which is great. It was all done using open-source and Amazon Web Services, so, aside from my time, it cost very little to get started. Something I took away from that, though, is that technology and information products are fine, but there is a whole swath of training and education that is required to get people (field staff, in this case) to change their way of working. Getting a system up technically is just step one (or two, after planning) and I had hoped that it would diffuse through the workforce naturally. Looking back, there was n opportunity to increase awareness and usage of the mobile mapping components of the portal with regular training and workshops.

Q: What skill is on your list to master next?

A: There’s always more technology stuff to keep an eye out for, but often it’s pointless until there is a working implementation. Some things I think are going to be important are vector tiles and machine learning. To some extent, the Internet of things and self-driving cars are worth being aware of, but the spatial technology they use, by the time they use it, is infrastructure – you can take it for granted. In terms of what I’d like to master, I think it’s the soft skills. The people stuff. Negotiation and persuasion, for example, probably needs some thought. I tend to think it’s obvious that we should be heading in a certain direction (and it is!), but ensuring that the intuitive thinking that comes from working with the tech gets translated into a convincing argument – and subsequent engagement – is next in line for mastery from me.

Q: How do you think growing up in the southern hemisphere has impacted the way you view maps?

A: Well, the mercator projection has fostered European imperialist attitudes for centuries. I think it’s time people stopped with their ‘top and bottom’ attitudes, let alone the sheer arrogance of the GeoHipster sticker, which leaves 90% of the Australian population off its tartan atrocity! An advantage of living in the southern hemisphere is that we can lay claim to practically everything with ‘it’s the biggest <something> in the southern hemisphere’ and it’s probably true.

Q: What are some of your favorite maps? Why?

A: I’ve been exploring interactive mapping for a while, and really like using Leaflet to build things. But there’s a lot of stuff I really like that uses other tech.

This wind map from Cameron Beccario is fantastic. It’s fast to load, simple to understand, and is really pretty. So much complex stuff hidden behind that interesting map. It uses D3.

Cartograms are really nice, and exploit TopoJSON, which is really cool (data compression using topology is nice, as is topological simplification). This example also uses D3.

I’m also intrigued with the stuff that Michael Bostock does, such as this very hip map using hexagons, but in a pretty unique way. He wrote D3. (I tried to learn D3, but didn’t get far… What’s with the learning curve, eh, Mike?!).

Final map, this housing unaffordability map out of the Guardian is pretty fantastic… I actually don’t know what tech they used, but it’s great to see media companies getting so deep into data visualisation.

Q: What is the biggest hurdle you see in the geospatial field?  

A: Biggest hurdle? Probably communicating the idea that so much business information can be unlocked by putting it on a map. A picture tells a thousand words, and maybe a map tells a million. In local government, the GIS is the hub between the property system, the asset management system and all the external agency data, like transportation, environmental, and geomorphological data. Without a GIS, your decision making gets slowed down considerably, or processes become ad-hoc and inconsistent, or important considerations are missed. And in a bigger place, like TasNetworks, there are huge opportunities in areas such as routing work crews, grouping work orders geographically, and then forward works planning with other utilities and agencies… It’s one thing to know that we could be doing these things and that they’ll save money, and another to convince a business of that and therefore spending money on the GIS. Like investments in information technology generally, geospatial technology is an efficiency driver, but it’s often underappreciated, underinvested or taken for granted.

Q: What is your opinion on imagery drones? Do you envision using one in the next few years?

A: A lecturer of mine at UTAS has been working with UAVs for some time using structure from motion algorithms to generate imagery and point clouds, so I understand how they work. And Chris Anderson’s company sounds like it’s going to be big (if it’s not already). I wonder if drones are a case of legislation being unable to keep up with technology, though.There are uses of drones now, such as real estate photography, which are becoming common, but the businesses are probably not licensed appropriately. In Australia, you need to get CASA certification, which just about requires a pilot’s license, in order to do anything except for recreational flights. That’s a lot of formal shenanigans when you can buy a robot helicopter for $500 and start making money! TasNetworks does have a couple of use-cases for UAVs, though there are so many assets, you need something that can cover a lot of ground. Ergon energy, in Queensland, has been doing some fancy stuff with remote sensing and its massive lengths of transmission lines. This could definitely be replaced with a large drone (and I think theirs is basically that). Generally, I reckon utilisation of drones will become commonplace over the next few years, but I think I’ll be a consumer of a service rather than an operator. I much prefer software over hardware!

Q: What is the Tasmanian mapping community like?  

A: The Tasmanian mapping community is great! There’s the government side, with TASSIC, who do big things in terms of advocacy. The professional arm, the SSSI, run reasonably large events such as the State of GIS every year. And there’s the informal, with GeoRabble, which is inclusive and fun.

Q: What are some startups (geo or non-geo) that you follow?

A: I’m interested to watch MapBox and CartoDB push ahead into the spatial-IT sphere. Fulcrum is a nice software and service too. And I’m interested to see what I can do with Zapier. Web development without a server-side component seems so much easier!

Q: Choices (Which do you prefer?)

  • Data or design
    • Data, gotta have data
  • Functionality or beauty
    • Functionality, the beauty comes from the simplicity of that functionality
  • Historical or futuristic
    • Futuristic. I, for one…
  • Markers or pins
    • Markers (can I choose circular markers?)
  • Clustering or heat maps
    • Clustering, hexbins ftw
  • Markdown or Handlebars
    • Markdown… I’m still just getting used to Bootstrap!
  • GeoServer or MapServer
    • GeoServer, for sure. But we’ve got to do better than bloody SLD…

Q: And other things…?

  • Black and local coffee or pour over with butter
    • Black coffee for me.
  • MapMyRun or Strava
    • Wha?
  • Twitter or Facebook
  • Commuter or road bike
    • Who?

Q: … and one more, what do you do in your free time that makes you a geohipster?

A: Well I did make a hex-map before they were cool (with some inspiration). Did I tell you I knit maps yet? I knit maps, then scan them at 10 µm before faxing them to myself (that’s actually pretty difficult to do these days, have you seen an A0 fax machine around recently?) and print that out with archival quality ink on papyrus, because that way it looks ironically rustic and will last the ages.

But more seriously, I have a young family, which is challenging and a lot of fun. I spend time and energy with the SSSI pretending I’m a professional. And I like GeoRabble events, networking with craft beer and smart folks to solve the world’s problems!