Javier de la Torre: “There are a ton of European geo-startups trying to conquer the world”

Javier de la Torre
Javier de la Torre

Javier de la Torre is the CEO of CartoDB, a global startup democratizing data analysis and visualization on maps. He is a former scientist with a research focus on biodiversity informatics and global environmental change, and is a recognized expert on open data, open source software, and data visualization.

Javier was interviewed for GeoHipster by Ed Freyfogle.

Q: I have the impression many users of CartoDB are people who wouldn’t otherwise have the technical ability or skills to bring a map to life. Who uses it? How?

A: That is correct. We believe that GIS and mapping in general should not be a niche domain, but that everybody should be able to take advantage from it. We have many different types of users, some of them using it more professionally for development, sales, marketing or BI, and others use it for data exploring and communicating stories with maps.

Q: So people are using CartoDB to tell stories with maps. What are the top three hippest examples?

A: Something I love about CartoDB is the community behind it, so probably most impressive is to see everyday maps of what is happening around the world. It is like you can watch the news just by looking at the maps being created on CartoDB.

But for my personal favourites, I love stories about biodiversity and conservation. Here goes my top three:

Q: But of course it’s not just about trying to make pretty maps, you also need to make money. As we like to say here at GeoHipster HQ, EU branch: “If it doesn’t make Euro, it doesn’t make sense.” On the CartoDB pricing page the most expensive package is named after Mercator, while the middle tier is named after Coronelli. Do you really think Mercator’s contribution to geo is twice as valuable as Coronelli’s?

A: Ha! Mercator gave us the projection we now see in all 2D maps, and Coronelli gave us 3D globes… I think Mercator clearly won 😀

Now, what you are looking at is our basic plans, but we have a set of Enterprise plans https://cartodb.com/enterprise. In those cases we provide extra enterprise services, more capacity, SLAs, performance, and many more things. This is where we make most of the money. We have a really long tail of clients, which I think is important — to provide service to a larger audience — but right now the money is in the enterprise.

Q: It’s a cliche, but we often hear “A downturn is the best time to start a company.” You started CartoDB in the middle of Spain’s worst economic crisis in living memory. What was that like?

A: Well, the good thing about starting in the middle of a crisis is that things only get better! So for us honestly it was not really something we thought about. We bootstrapped this client for a looong time growing carefully based on our resources. That made us really care about the use cases, the users, and the sustainability of our business models.

Q: We’re seeing more and more geo-product companies like CartoDB (or Mapbox with their B round announcement a few weeks back) taking the VC funding route. Why, and why now? More importantly, how does the story end? How will the VCs get their money (with a tidy profit, natch) back?

A: Well, there has never been a better moment to create geospatial technology. There are many changes going on at the same time that are calling for a disruption on the technology, business models, and market in general. Geo has been special for way too much time, but now is infiltrating everywhere. There are several open fields from a business perspective. Mapbox is going for the LBS market with OpenStreetMaps, Planet Labs is disrupting at the Satellite, and we are going after the Enterprise data. There is multi-billion-dollar business in all those areas, and there has never been a bigger demand than now. So it makes sense for the VC world to show their interest in the field.

For us the return is very clear — we aim to provide a great ecosystem where organizations find value and pay for it. In other cases it might be hard to figure out how they will monetize, but in our case big revenues will provide big returns to our investors.

Q: If you weren’t doing CartoDB, which geo start-up would you work for?

A: Actually my second love is in Precision Agriculture http://agricgear.com/ 🙂 There is something amazing about solving a real problem in the most simplistic way. And most people don’t know I am an agriculture engineer.

Q: You’re a Spanish company developing in the open, last year OpenStreetMap’s State of the Map was held in Argentina, and now the first SotM LatAM has been announced for Santiago, Chile in the autumn. It feels like OSM is really taking off in the Spanish-speaking world in the last two years or so. Is that perception correct, and if so why is it happening?

A: I would not say it is just about the Spanish-speaking world. OSM is catching on everywhere, and it was a matter of time that the Spanish-speaking world would get into it. In Wikipedia Spanish is the second language after English. Now, more specifically about Latin America, I think it has to do also with the development of an Open Data movement, and the realization that crowdsourcing will often provide better results than relying on private or governmental data. I would expect in the future for OSM to have more contributors in Santiago de Chile than in New York, honestly.

Q: Let’s delve a bit into your background. Is it true you were very unhip as a child, and then only really blossomed during your studies in Berlin, the current epicentre of EU hipdom?

A: What? No way! Before Berlin, Madrid was the capital of fun in Europe. Although I have lived in London and Rome too, and I have to recognize that Berlin is one of the most fun cities to live now in Europe, that’s for sure.

On the other hand, Germany is a country that teaches you how to destroy and reconstruct potatoes in 1,000 different ways, that must have helped somehow.

Q: It’s great to see an EU company trying to conquer the world. Any other up-and-coming players in the European geo space that geohipsters should be keeping tabs on? Who’s doing hip stuff?

A: Hey! I think there are a ton of European geo-startups trying to conquer the world! Take a look at Mapillary or Nutiteq for example.

Q: Any final advice for geohipsters out there?

A: Take a look at our jobs page https://cartodb.com/jobs 😉


Andrew Hill: “What are the limitations of what we call a map?”

Andrew Hill headshot
Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill (Twitter, website) is Senior Scientist at Vizzuality and is responsible for innovation, education and community engagement at CartoDB.

Andrew was interviewed for Geohipster by Atanas Entchev.

Q: You hold a Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. How did you get into mapping? Do you consider yourself a “map guy”?

A: When I was an undergrad, I started working on a project to study the spread of influenza. As part of that work, we were using Google Earth to map how different mutations spread around the world and what host species were responsible. They were pretty ugly, but they were new and definitely got a lot of people in that field thinking about data visualization and mapping. I ended up doing a masters in epidemiology, where I learned Python and PostgreSQL/PostGIS. At that point, I feel like I unknowingly sealed my fate to work on data visualization and mapping. In my Ph.D. I shifted to focus on the overlap of big data, data visualization, and global biodiversity. Maps weren’t really a specific topic in any way, my advisor just encouraged me to play with data and scientific questions and see what would emerge. So much of that play ended up taking place on maps.

With all that being said, I don’t consider myself a “map guy”, no. I just like to experiment and to solve puzzles. It is something I really learned to appreciate studying biology. I look for problems and just play with them until I get something interesting and worth sharing. I’m confident it is a skill totally outside of maps, but maps are fun.

Q: You work at Vizzuality, where — as the name suggests — you focus on data visualization. What do you say to those who say that data visualization is not “real GIS”?

A: I should confess right now that I’ve never taken a GIS course in my life. To me, GIS is a lot of things, visualization only being one of them, that all together give us the ability to gain insights from geospatial data. “Real” or “not real” seems like a rather silly distinction to make (unless you are struggling to give a justification for why you don’t do any visualization). I do think that data visualization is advancing fast. While many of the fundamentals remain unchanged, new technologies are giving us ways to see data like we never could before and it’s helping us extract the stories hidden within. I think the challenge for GIS now is to ensure that the methods we use lead us to telling stories that are truthful. This is especially important the further we venture into a world of dynamic and animated maps.

Q: You talk about the future of mapping. Will data visualization and data analysis further diverge in the future? Does “GIS” artificially clump together disciplines that are otherwise separate, just because of the spatial component in the data being handled?

A: Have you ever read E.O. Wilson’s Consilience? For all the criticisms of that book, I think it gives a nice and simple way to think about how knowledge emerges from diverse domains of study. In this case, it seems obvious that GIS and visualization come together because they can give us insights that neither domain could give us alone. Where the two domains overlap is an area still not fully explored. A lot of the exploration has been progressing lock-step with technology, in particular web technology. So I feel that this is just the beginning, not the end.

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: Labels, they come and go. A few of my co-workers call me hipster not too infrequently. They mean it in the kindest way though… I think. The word “shun” might be an extreme here, but if you are defining geohipster as thinking outside the box and engaging in dialogue outside of the mainstream, then sure, that is where I want to be.

Q: What do you think about some Geohipster readers’ concerns that “geohipsterism” (and hipsterism in general) implies exclusivity and elitism and engenders division?

A: Does it? I’m a social dunce so I might be the worst to comment on this. I guess, the times in life that I’ve felt most excluded from a group it has been because of people not labels. I’m sure some sociologists would pick a fight over that statement. But really, do geohipsters want to be exclusive? I doubt it.

Q: Is there a mainstream of geospatial data handling/representation? Who/what is part of it?

A: It’s funny, with biologists, when you talk about GIS you talk about things like Mantel tests, kriging, niche modelling and of course mapping. I collaborated with a couple groups in school that were doing shit like, comparing the microbial diversity in extreme environments to see if they were more related to one another an ocean apart than they were to local communities a few meters apart. These questions mixed geospatial proximity, genetic distance, community composition and all sorts of nuance. Then they’d be like, oh, can we map this!? Those are the death metal groups of geospatial data handling. The mainstream is latitude & longitude and most of us are part of it.

Q: We first met when you gave a CartoDB presentation in Philadelphia. I was impressed by the technology. Where is this going?

A: The development of CartoDB moves really fast. As always, we are trying to make it easier for you to turn data into maps. We just launched some new services to turn things like IP addresses or Postal Codes into geospatial data. We are pushing hard to make it easier for teams to work on CartoDB. We are also releasing new public map pages, so you don’t even need a website to share your maps and create community discussions around them. Those are all happening right now.

In the medium term, we are aiming to lower the bar for nonprofits, startups, and students to use the platform. We think there is a beautiful ecosystem of doers and creators, and we want to give them a tool that really makes their work shine. We are just finalizing new ideas to make this happen and should have some announcements soon. We are also trying to make sure that we see the original mission of Vizzuality flourish in CartoDB. That means making the world better through our work and the work of those who share our vision. It means finding better ways to tell the stories that matter.

That leaves the longer term. I could spend a week talking about this part of the answer alone but am going to spare you. In 2013 we spent a lot of time figuring out what the mappers of 2014 would want. We built our roadmap around that vision and got to work. Now suddenly here we are, a few months into 2014. I think we did a pretty good job and became a driving force for dynamic maps on the web. We aren’t finished and have a lot more we want to develop. While development continues we are going to be forming a vision for 2015 and beyond. Two years ago, could you have guessed where online mapping would be today? It was only about two years ago that we put the SQL and CartoCSS editors into CartoDB’s browser-based mapping interface. I remember writing a query in my browser and seeing the map display the results live, it blew my mind then and still blows my mind sometimes today. But look how far it has come. Our vision for the future is still coming together, but through experimentation, collaboration, and honest desire to navigate uncharted water, I know we will be in the right place when we get there.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share with the Geohipster readers?

A: There are a lot of reasons why geo is so in-focus right now, mainstream or other. Maybe a major one is that maps seem to be the right proportion of truth and deception to make data accessible, to make data approachable, and to contextualize otherwise foreign concepts. Whatever the reason though, journalists, data scientists, artists and many others are picking up maps as a regular tool in their work. The exciting part isn’t really that more people are using maps. What’s exciting is that a small portion of them, but still more than times gone by, are thinking about how to break maps. Asking questions like, what are the limitations of what we call a map? Where can we change the notion of a map to enable new types of knowledge transfer? How can we bend map technology to do totally new and unexpected things? These people are pushing maps into the future. These people make this such an exciting time to work in this field.