Having been born together with ArcView GIS 2 in the early 90s, the Shapefile soon became, and remains, the de facto standard for sharing geospatial vector data. To this day it remains a crucial player in the global GIS community, and is even extending its reach into neighboring disciplines such as Business Intelligence. In May 2017, Shapefile was awarded the Data Format Lifetime Achievement Award at the FME User Conference. Today, http://switchfromshapefile.org , a lobbying organisation, states that the continued use of the Shapefile proves that its “design was truly eternal.” The Shapefile is the only major spatial data format with a flourishing and interactive Twitter presence.
Several members of the GeoHipster Editorial Board contributed questions to this interview. (Update 2019: We still don’t know who is behind the account. -Mike)
Q: Are you on a mission? Like conquer the world or something? Or are you just out there having fun, enjoying the popularity?
A: No, not at all. I’m merely a data format having some fun. I think the fact that there aren’t more data formats with social media accounts is a huge oversight by my competitors. I mean, do you wanna reach out to your users or not? I certainly do. That said, my social media activity is manifold (hehe): In general, I aim to help people. I sometimes console them with their GIS- or data-related frustrations, I tend to retweet people looking for a specific shapefile and also tutorials on using shapefiles and similar content. Further, I follow and share some of my private interests. Finally, I engage with my critics and opponents (given civil language ).
Q: Does the personal geodatabase hate you? I mean, he was supposed to replace you, and look where he is today.
A: I’m not aware of PGDB’s feelings. Tbh, I haven’t talked to him for quite some time. Judging from his Twitter account I’d say he’s moved on to other endeavours. Anyway, water under the bridge. Let’s face it, I have outlived numerous opponents and intend to continue doing that.
Q: Indeed, many formats have come and gone, how do you remain relevant?
A: Honestly, it’s not that hard . Seriously: I think the sheer size of
#TeamShapefile is a key success factor. As David put it: “If every other format fails, Shapefile is always supported.” That’s the point right there. Annihilating customer pain is big! By addressing users’ needs unequivocally I have successfully occupied a big niche in the GIS market. At this point it’s not clear who could follow my footsteps. E.g., regarding http://switchfromshapefile.org (the most recent initiative trying to sway my users away from me) @anonymaps correctly pointed out: “If you have to suggest *eight* different formats, one of which is CSV, I fear your case is not yet persuasive.” Couldn’t have put it better what successfully serving a niche means. Heck, even the people behind http://switchfromshapefile.org say: “(…) the fact that [the Shapefile] is still used today proves that its design was truly eternal.” What else can I add to this? Finally, regarding success factors I believe reaching out to your users is crucial. E.g., all the course materials working with me certainly helps. And I’d also like to think that my social media activity has a little part in my sustained relevance.
Q: Tell us about your recent award at the FME Conference.
A: Well, that was just fantastic! If I’m being honest I’m like the next data format, woman or man: I do like the occasional pat on the shoulder. Receiving that award really meant a lot to me and I understand Dale had a big part in it. [Link to award ceremony] The only thing that makes me a tiny bit sad is that headquarters hasn’t given me an award yet. But I chalk that up to a mix of extensive objectivity and humility on their part. Oh well, there is still time. I’m gonna stick around a lot longer.
Q: Let’s say one of our readers is getting ready to start a new project and needs to store some geographic data, what would you say to them?
A: You know, the usual: Think deeply about the questions you want to answer, the entities involved in your analysis, the types of analyses you would like to be able to run on your data, etc. etc. But more to the point, my best piece of advice would be: Set up a good folder structure for storing all those shapefiles you are going to create. You know how they say 80% of successful GIS work is having a good folder structure? That one is actually true. In my experience, it _all_ boils down to a tidy setup, really. From there, the mightiest geodata infrastructures of the world have been built.
You know, other than with data formats where I’m pretty much the uncontested standard, in software there really is no orthodoxy these days. As a GIS pro you can’t go wrong with any of the warez that are members of
#TeamShapefile. (if it isn’t clear to those who don’t follow me on Twitter: I refer to the almost infinite number of programs that support me as #TeamShapefile) If, for some obscure and to be honest likely questionable reason, you truly can’t stay within #TeamShapefile, I’d suggest using Safe Software FME. It is a very reliable and versatile Shapefile converter. Besides a myriad of handy data transformers, it supports a limited set of ‘alternative’ formats for those who haven’t yet managed to join #TeamShapefile.
#TeamShapefile” suggests there is an opposing team?
A: Yes. There is an amorphous, really quite small group of Twitter accounts (there is no telling if they are real, sock puppets or bots) that occasionally give me some flak online – some of it in jest, I’m quite sure. As far as I’m aware, they haven’t coined a team name yet. You know, the data format “war” does sometimes get to me a bit. I simply don’t understand why people get so agitated about formats? I’m demonstrably the most used and hence best geodata format in the world. Thus, in my opinion there really is no need for format wars (except maybe in the raster domain where I have long been a strong proponent of *.asc but have recently started to see some points for the *.tif side as well). Yet, I do have the occasional skirmish with more or less vocal critics. Take my mothership for example: While in general it has my back, there have been some dissenting voices (and let’s not talk about the time when they dabbled in other formats such as PGDB et al.). Most recently, e.g. Andrew Turner (@ajturner) has “cast doubt” on my suitability for publishing data (https://twitter.com/ajturner/status/908000452083634177 …). But I’ll have him and everybody else know that I have done (and will do) more for geodata sharing than any open data initiative, OGC standardization process and all hipster data formats combined! In fact, I’d wager I have lived and breathed geodata interoperability for much longer than many of my opponents. And serving as a universal data publishing format is big part of that. Take my European friends from @swiss_geoportal (a brand that should still have some pull in geo): They feature me widely on what I understand is their data publishing platform (http://data.geo.admin.ch ), a well-structured collection of shapefiles that is elegantly exposed to the web.
But I shouldn’t get too worked up. After all, for example Craig (@williamscraigm) and Damian (@spangrud) of Esri are incredibly supportive of me both on Twitter and in real life. And while it’s a bit sad that headquarters has never granted me a formal recognition or an award, I do get a lot of love from my friends at Esri and my fans in the larger GIS community and related fields. I get a lot of support and plenty of
#TeamShapefile members in FOSS GIS and I feature in many of their tutorials. Further, I’m especially liked in research as well as in education and the Business Intelligence community (you know, the future and current decision makers). And, last but definitely not least, Dale (@daleatsafe) has been a great friend. He’s at Safe, the manufacturer of FME (should you ever need to convert a Shapefile he’s got you covered). By the way, as luck would have it, he’s recently been interviewed for GeoHipster and shared some really interesting insight about the geospatial industry and my pivotal and sustained role in it.
Q: I think you are like pizza — everyone loves you, but people feel guilty every time they consume you. They know they should be eating an organic kale salad. Does it bother you that you give guilt to millions of innocent geofolk?
A: First, I think your comparison is a bit off. There is certainly guilt spread around occasionally, but that doesn’t come from me. As to the pizza comparison per se? I guess you’re not entirely off. I’m quick, cheap, almost universally loved and uncomplicated to consume by anybody. Like pizza, I’m not pretentious. If you don’t know anything about your customer, you can never go wrong with either of us – pizza or Shapefile.
Q: Both you and Justin Bieber have been called unsophisticated. Both have millions of fans. Coincidence?
A: I’m a belieber in simple, yet powerful enough products that address a global audience with great success, is all I’m gonna say on this.
Q: Are you planning to retire anytime soon?
A: No. I’ve outlived many ill-conceived (cough, pgdb, cough) and well-conceived data formats. I’m clearly not done being useful to
#gistribe, the business intelligence and education communities, … heck, to #TeamShapefile in general. I have many plans and thanks to my sidecar files I enjoy a modular, highly extensible architecture: I am ready for any challenge the future might bring!
Q: Do you have any piece of advice for the GeoHipsters out there?
A: Hmm. My favorite saying by the great Steve Jobs himself comes to mind: “Real artists shp.” Use this as a guiding star to do great things – I’ll always be around to have your backs, friends!
Q: Do you consider yourself a GeoHipster, why or why not?
A: For sure! I consider myself a GeoHipster _avant la lettre_! And most likely I will be one long _après la lettre_ as well – if you catch my drift It will be sad when (if) geohipsterism isn’t a thing anymore. It’s just the course of time though, isn’t it? After all, it seems all good things come to an end – exceptions like myself merely proving the rule.
Dale Lutz (@daleatsafe) is the Co-CEO and Vice President of Development of Safe Software. Along with co-founder Don Murray, Dale created Safe Software’s core product, FME, a data integration platform which helps 20,000 organizations across the world get their data from where it is to where they need it to be. Don and Dale have driven the company’s success for over 20 years, leading FME development from vision to delivery, and pushing the edge of data technology. Dale is a big fan of hockey, Star Trek (a new series is coming — yeah!), and geospatial data.
Dale was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.
Q: Tell us about yourself, and what led you to found Safe Software
A: I’m a simple country farm boy from Alberta, Canada, who had an interest in computers before, well, you could even buy them. During my last year of comp sci at the University of Alberta, I took two masters level courses in Remote Sensing and Cartography. Got to write FORTRAN code to read LandSAT tapes! So I was always interested in the application of computing to mapping. After graduating, I got a job in Vancouver at MDA, and got to work with weather data and later a variety of custom-built in-house mapping systems. There I met my good friend and co-founder Don Murray, and when he left MDA and had time on his hands, he asked if I’d be game to join him and start a company to work on a data format called SAIF. I said YES! We really thought SAIF (Spatial Archive and Interchange Format) was going to change the world (but somewhat hedged our bets — we went for safe.com and Safe Software, thinking we were being clever). SAIF sputtered out, but the software we wrote that was capable of working with that do-all-things-for-everyone data format ended up being more than flexible enough to take on all comers. Yes, even XML.
Q: You registered safe.com in 1994 — what a catch! Your internet game was strong. What do you think the domain name is worth today?
A: Yes, we could have had anything back then. Cost us $50! Canadian! We get propositioned for it at least once a month. But remember, I’m a farm boy from Alberta. I’ve never forgiven Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington for selling Wayne Gretzky for $18 million back in 1988. Selling safe.com, for any amount of money, would make us no different than him. And that’s something I’m not willing to wear. So it doesn’t matter what it’s worth. It’s not for sale 🙂
Q: Safe Software is best known for data conversions, but FME does more than just convert data from one format to another. Tell us what else it does.
A: Yes, FME is so much more than a simple conversion tool. Called the ‘Swiss army knife’ of data, FME is a data integration platform that helps users move data exactly where, when, and how it’s needed. FME delivers all of the tools for seamless system integration in one package: data extraction, transformation, loading, validation, and automation. And its interface allows users to build graphical data workflows without coding. Over 350 different applications and data formats are supported in FME, including our spatial favourites like the almighty @Shapefile, MapInfo TAB, Esri Geodatabase, PostGIS, Oracle Spatial, GeoJSON, KML, and GML. And hey, we do BIM, raster, and point clouds for good measure too.
Q: To paraphrase Safe Software’s mission from your website, you are out to free the data. Where do you stand on open vs proprietary formats? Aren’t proprietary formats good for business?
A: We like open data formats, ideally ones where we can help fund an open source development by the OGR/GDAL folks so all can get at it (and help us support it) equally. The biggest seller formats for us include the host of XML variants (all of those are open) and the ever popular and even award winning Shapefile (also open). Proprietary formats can be good for business, provided we can broker an arrangement to get some API to read and write them (the days of reverse engineering binary are long over for us). But even with an API, proprietary formats end up being much more effort for us. Our differentiator is not so much the next format we can do, but what we can do with the data, how easily, and how fast, as it moves from source to destination. Therefore, we’d actually be happy if the world stopped making new formats of any kind. As the poet wrote: “Imagine there’s no formats. It’s easy if you try. Imagine all the people. Sharing all the data. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…”
Q: Are simple data formats too simplistic? Are complex formats too complex? Is there a happy medium?
A: Yes and yes and yes. Next question.
Seriously, there really is a happy medium. ArcInfo Generate — way too simple. Can’t do attributes. Can’t tell the difference between a line and a polygon. GML — very powerful and as a result can be made to be very difficult for software builders to cope with. But something like Geopackage aims to hit a sweet spot. Built on the easily-understood SQLite framework, but extends it with a powerful geometry model and even high performance raster support. As a result, it can both be used as an operational format (i.e. software can work on it directly) as well as an exchange format (the specifications and underlying technology are well documented and ubiquitous enough to remove hurdles for use). Our friend the Shapefile threads this needle surprisingly well too, for an old timer, and that is a key part of its success. I mean, when you look at it, it was built on the dBase framework!
Q: My first GIS experience was with PC ARC/INFO coverages in 1991. I see the format listed on your website as one of the 350+ FME supports. Do you still convert data out of PC ARC/INFO coverages in 2017?
A: I hadn’t tried out PC ARC/INFO reading on my mac EVER, so I just found an old (old) input file and give it a spin:
Works like it was 1991!
Doing a bit more digging, the team finds this trend underway for the PC ARC/INFO usage in FME:
In 2017, fewer than 1 in 50000 of the tracked translations involved PC ARC/INFO. So it’s still in use out there, but just barely. I suspect it is a bit jealous of @Shapefile’s trendline…
Q: It is cool to bash the shapefile, but it’s not going away, is it? Or is it?
A: Honestly, I really thought that with all the choices out there, the Shapefile’s share of the popular vote would be decreasing. Imagine my surprise when I saw the graph of the Shapefile’s share of writer usage in FME over the past 10 years:
If only my investment portfolio looked like that! Even in the face of stiff headwinds (i.e. more choice offered by new formats being continually invented), more Shapefile writers are being used in FME today than ever before. And our usage stats also show that the most popular FME translation goes from Shapefile to Shapefile.
So how could this be, when there are so many more sophisticated and modern choices to be had? The number of consumers of spatial data has grown substantially over the years, and their ranks have swelled by the inclusion of large numbers of business and other non-GIS professionals, who are more than happy enough to get their maps in a simple format that is supported everywhere. I’d look for Shapefile’s popularity to tank around the same time as Americans start getting their weather forecasts in degrees Celsius instead of Fahrenheit.
Q: What is the tech scene in Vancouver like? How about the hipster scene?
A: Metro Vancouver has a very vibrant tech scene. Being a short flight from and in the same timezone as Seattle and San Francisco makes our city an attractive place for American satellite offices, which in turn fuel a burgeoning startup culture. We’re located in Surrey (just outside of the City of Vancouver), which is one of the fastest growing cities in Canada. Next summer we’ll be moving to ‘Innovation Boulevard,’ Surrey’s new tech hub. Our brand new building is under construction as we speak, and we’ll be taking over the top four floors (and rooftop terrace!). We’re very excited.
As for the hipster scene, Vancouver is pretty well-known for its craft breweries, vintage clothing shops, and farmers markets. Every 3 months our teams at Safe get to pick a team-building exercise, and a recent fan favourite has been local foodie tours. So yes, it’s pretty hipster-y here.
Q: Tell us about your personal hipstery traits
A: I’m a big believer of eating healthy and supporting local whenever I can. I like to start each day with a customized smoothie, using Canadian-grown hemp protein, cashew milk, and acai berries, topped off with some organic fruit I planted, watered, picked, and froze on my own.
I developed web pages before it was cool. Check out www.dalelutz.com for the retro proof. Last updated August 1996.
I’ve also been to Portland twice in the past year to line up for hours to get Voodoo donuts.
Q: Are you a geohipster? Why / why not?
A: If being a geohipster means being as comfortable with an E00 as with a Geopackage, stopping to take a picture when you cross the equator on a trip, wondering how you could get your latest spatial tech innovation out there faster than those cool Mapbox cats, and having tcsh-command-line scripts running in an amber-on-black terminal on a Mac named after an obscure HBO sci-fi series company at the ready to bulk rename Shapefiles, then yes, guilty as charged.
Q: I think the FME socks are the best marketing idea to come out of a geo company in a long time — awesome idea! Whose is it? Are there more FME-branded garments in the works?
A: We are very proud of our Safe Sockwear. I still remember the meeting long ago where Employee #3 of Safe (a developer) came up with the concept. We’ve had sports socks for years and years, but only this May did we introduce the new Argyle look as swag for our FME International User conference. And has it ever been popular. #FMESockFriday is now a thing.
There is talk of branded slippers, but we will always prefer to be remembered as the company that encouraged its customers to have Safe Socks.
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our global readership?
A: Keep your fieldnames less than 10 characters long, keep your data formats open, keep your input going to your output, and most importantly, keep your stick on the ice — always be ready to take advantage of whatever opportunity gets thrown your way.
Eric Fischer works on data visualization and analysis tools at Mapbox. He was previously an artist in residence at the Exploratorium and before that was on the Android team at Google. He is best known for “big data” projects using geotagged photos and tweets, but has also spent a lot of time in libraries over the years searching through old plans and reports trying to understand how the world got to be the way it is.
Eric was interviewed for GeoHipster by Amy Smith.
Q: You’re coming up on four years at Mapbox, is that right? What do you do there?
A: I still feel like I must be pretty new there, but it actually has been a long time, and the company has grown tremendously since I started. My most important work at Mapbox has been Tippecanoe, an open-source tool whose goal is to be able to ingest just about any kind of geographic data, from continents to parcels to individual GPS readings, numbering into the hundreds of millions of features, and to create appropriate vector tiles from them for visualization and analysis at any scale. (The name is a joke on “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” the 1840 US Presidential campaign song, because it makes tiles, so it’s a Tyler.)
Q: I read that you’re working on improving the accuracy of the OpenStreetMap base map. Can you describe that process? I’m guessing one would need to figure out how accurate it is in the first place?
A: I should probably update my bio, because that was originally a reference to a project from long ago: to figure out whether it would be possible to automatically apply all the changes that the US Census had made to their TIGER/Line base map of the United States since it was imported into OpenStreetMap in 2006, without overriding or creating conflicts with any of the millions of edits that had already been made directly to OpenStreetMap. Automated updates proved to be too ambitious, and the project was scaled back to identifying areas where TIGER and OpenStreetMap differed substantially so they could be reconciled manually.
But the work continues. These days, TIGER is valuable to OpenStreetMap mostly as a source of street names and political boundaries, while missing and misaligned streets are now identified mostly through anonymized GPS data. Tile-count is an open source tool that I wrote a few months ago for accumulating, normalizing, and visualizing the density of these GPS tracks so they can be used to find streets and trails that are missing from OpenStreetMap.
Q: In the professional mapping world, I’ve noticed there’s a nervousness around datasets that aren’t time-tested, clearly documented, and from an authoritative source such as the US Census. These official datasets are great resources of course, but there’s a growing amount of data at our fingertips that’s not always so clean or complete. You’ve been successful at getting others to see that there’s a lot to learn about cities and people with dynamic (and sometimes messy) data that comes from many different sources. Do you have any advice on warming people up to thinking creatively and constructively with unconventional datasets?
A: I think the key thing to be aware of is that all data has errors, just varying in type and degree. I don’t think you can spend very much time working with Census data from before 2010 without discovering that a lot of features on the TIGER base map were missing or don’t really exist or are tagged with the wrong name or mapped at the wrong location. TIGER is much better now, but a lot of cases still stand out where Census counts are assigned to the wrong block, either by mistake or for privacy reasons. The big difference isn’t that the Census is necessarily correct, but that it tries to be comprehensive and systematic. With other data sets whose compilers don’t or can’t make that effort, the accuracy might be better or it might be worse, but you have to figure out for yourself where the gaps and biases are and how much noise there is mixed in with the signal. If you learn something interesting from it, it’s worth putting in that extra effort.
Q: Speaking of unconventional data: you maintain a GitHub repository with traffic count data scraped from old planning documents. For those who may not be familiar, traffic counts are usually collected for specific studies or benchmarks, put into a model or summarized in a report… and then rarely revisited. But you’ve brought them back from the grave for many cities and put them in handy easy-to-use-and-access formats, such as these ones from San Francisco. Are you using them for a particular project? How do you anticipate/hope that others will use them?
A: The traffic count repository began as a way of working through my own anxieties about what unconventional datasets really represent. I could refer to clusters of geotagged photos as “interesting” and clusters of geotagged tweets as “popular” without being challenged, but the lack of rigor made it hard to draw any solid conclusions about these places.
And I wanted solid conclusions because I wasn’t making these maps in a vacuum for their own sake. I wanted to know what places were interesting and popular so that I could ask the follow-up questions: What do these places have in common? What are the necessary and sufficient characteristics of their surroundings? What existing regulations prevent, and what different regulations would encourage, making more places like them? What else would be sacrificed if we made these changes? Or is the concentration of all sparks of life into a handful of neighborhoods in a handful of metro areas the inevitable consequence of a 150-year-long cycle of adoption of transportation technology?
So it was a relief to discover Toronto’s traffic count data and that the tweet counts near intersections correlated reasonably well with the pedestrian counts. Instead of handwaving about “popularity” I could relate the tweet counts to a directly observable phenomenon.
And in fact the pedestrian counts seemed to be closer than tweet counts to what I was really looking for in the first place: an indicator of where people prefer to spend time and where they prefer to avoid. Tweets are reflective of this, but also capture lots of places where people are enduring long waits (airport terminals being the most blatant case) rather than choosing to be present. Not every pedestrian street crossing is by choice either, but even when people don’t control the origin and destination of their trips, they do generally have flexibility to choose the most pleasant route in between.
That was enough to get me fixated on the idea that high pedestrian volume was the key to everything and that I should find as many public sources of pedestrian counts as possible so I could understand what the numbers look like and where they come from. Ironically, a lot of these reports that I downloaded were collecting pedestrian counts so they could calculate Pedestrian Level of Service, which assumes that high crossing volumes are bad, because if volumes are very high, people are crowded. But the numbers are still valid even if the conclusions being drawn from them are the opposite.
What I got out of it was, first of all, basic numeracy about the typical magnitudes of pedestrian volumes in different contexts and over the course of each day. Second, I was able to make a model to predict pedestrian volumes from surrounding residential and employment density, convincing myself that proximity to retail and restaurants is almost solely responsible for the number, and that streetscape design and traffic engineering are secondary concerns. Third, I disproved my original premise, because the data showed me that there are places with very similar pedestrian volumes that I feel very differently about.
If “revealed preference” measured by people crossing the street doesn’t actually reveal my own preferences, what does? The ratio of pedestrians to vehicles is still a kind of revealed preference, of mode choice, but the best fit between that and my “stated preference” opinions, while better than pedestrian volume alone, requires an exponent of 1.5 on the vehicle count, which puts it back into the realm of modeling, not measuring. There may yet be an objective measure of the goodness of places, but I haven’t found it yet.
Why did I put the data on GitHub? Because of a general hope that if data is useful to me, it might also be useful to someone else. The National Bicycle and Pedestrian Documentation Project is supposedly collecting this same sort of data for general benefit, but as far as I can tell has not made any of it available. Portland State University has another pedestrian data collection project with no public data. Someday someone may come up with the perfect data portal and maybe even release some data into it, but in the meantime, pushing out CSVs gets the data that actually exists but has previously been scattered across hundreds of unrelated reports into a form that is accessible and usable.
Q: What tools do you use the most these days to work with spatial data (including any tools you’ve created — by the way, thanks for sharing your geotools on Github)?
A: My current processes are usually very Mapbox-centric: Turf.js or ad hoc scripts for data analysis, Tippecanoe for simplification and tiling, MBView for previewing, and Mapbox Studio for styling. Sometimes I still generate PostScript files instead of web maps. The tool from outside the Mapbox world that I use most frequently is ogr2ogr for reprojection and file format conversion. It is still a constant struggle to try to make myself use GeoJSON for everything instead of inventing new file formats all the time, and to use Node and standard packages instead of writing one-of-a-kind tools in Perl or C++.
Q: You’re prolific on Twitter. What do you like about it, and what do you wish was better?
A: I was an early enough adopter of Twitter to get a three-letter username, but it wasn’t until the start of 2011 that I started really using it. Now it is my main source of news and conversation about maps, data, housing policy, transportation planning, history, and the latest catastrophes of national politics, and a place to share discoveries and things to read. I’ve also used long reply-to-myself Twitter threads as a way of taking notes in public as I’ve read through the scientific literature on colorblindness and then a century of San Francisco Chronicle articles revealing the shifting power structures of city planning.
That said, the Twitter timeline interface has become increasingly unusable as they have pulled tweets out of sequence into “in case you missed it” sections and polluted the remainder of the feed with a barrage of tweets that other people marked as favorites. I recently gave up entirely on the timeline and started reading Twitter only through a list, the interface for which still keeps the old promise that it will show you exactly what you subscribed to, in order.
Q: If you could go back in time, what data would you collect, from when, and where?
A: I would love to have pedestrian (and animal) intersection crossing volume data from the days before cars took over. Was the median pedestrian trip length substantially longer then, or can the changes in pedestrian volumes since motorization all be attributed to changes in population and employment density?
Speaking of which, I wish comprehensive block-level or even tract-level population and employment data went back more than a few decades, and had been collected more frequently. So much of the story of 20th century suburbanization, urban and small-town decline, and reconsolidation can only be told through infrequent, coarse snapshots.
And I wish I had been carrying a GPS receiver around with me (or that it had even been possible to do so) for longer, so that I could understand my own historic travel patterns better. I faintly remember walking to school as a kid and wondering, if I don’t remember this walk, did it really happen? Now my perspective is, if there is no GPS track, did it really happen?
Q: Are you a geohipster? Why or why not?
A: I think the most hipster thing I’ve got going on is a conviction that I’m going to find a hidden gem in a pile of forgotten old songs, except that I’m doing my searching in promo copies of 70-year-old sheet music instead of in the used record stores.
Jim McAndrew is a Geospatial Database Developer. Before adding ‘geospatial’ to his job title, he worked on large Oracle databases for pharmaceutical and manufacturing companies. For the last few years, he has been working with the US Geological Survey and the National Park Service to create tools that provide public access to government data.
He sometimes tweets @jimmyrocks.
Jim was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.
Q: How did you get into GIS?
A: I have loved maps for as long as I can remember. I used to study the maps in the phonebook, and I knew where every local road went. In college, I decorated my apartment with maps I had purchased from the Department of Transportation.
After a few years working as a software developer in manufacturing, I saw something called a “Mapping Party” for this open source mapping project claiming to be a “Wikipedia of Maps”. I was in luck, they would be holding a party in New York City the next weekend. I bought a bus ticket to New York, paid the extra fee to bring my bike, and I was introduced to OpenStreetMap.
I was hooked, and I thought that maybe getting into mapping could actually be a viable career option. I started attending different conferences and meetups that sounded interesting, and tried to learn all I could about the industry. I started a graduate certificate program in GIS, and eventually got a GIS job.
Q: Where do you work and what do you do there?
A: I am a researcher at Colorado State University working for the National Park Service (NPS) as a Software Developer. I started working on a new system to collect data from all the NPS units using an OpenStreetMap-style approach. I work on tools that allow data from this, and other internal systems, to be displayed on web maps. Now I am the Lead Developer on some of the NPS tools, including the internal side of the NPS mobile app project.
Q: Tell us about a cool project you are working on
A: The NPS mobile application project is the coolest thing that I’m working on, because it’s easy for everyone to access and use. It also involves working with Park Rangers that are extremely knowledgeable about their parks and are excited about sharing that knowledge. The coolest part of it for me is the opportunity to visit the parks and to do a little bit of field work.
Q: What technology (GIS and otherwise) do you use?
Q: Open source — Y/N? Why?
A: I prefer to use open source software whenever possible. The best part about open source software is that if you can’t figure something out from the documentation, you can always go look right at the source. If there is a bug in the source, you can find it yourself and suggest a patch. It is also easy to package software in a VM or a Docker image and share it with others as a working system without worrying about licensing.
Q: Is open source for everyone, or just for tinkerers?
A: Open source is for everyone! Open source tools tend to be a little less user-friendly and sometimes lacking in support. This has created a market for companies such as Red Hat and Boundless Spatial to provide support and integration for businesses. While the “Linux on the Desktop” dream may never really come true, the future will include more open source tools packaged in commercial software.
Q: Biking, hiking, any other hipster attributes?
A: I enjoy biking, hiking, and kayaking whenever I get the chance. I enjoy craft beer, I sometimes homebrew beer, and I enjoy working with yeast to make breads, pretzels, and pizzas. I was on a locally-roasted-coffee kick for a while (OQ Coffee in Highland Park is very good), but I have recently switched to drinking mostly tea and tisanes. I enjoy listening to a lot of obscure music. I also love emojis. 🎉
Q: Are you a geohipster? Why / why not?
Q: Words of wisdom for our global readership?
A: A few years ago I went skiing in Aspen, Colorado. If there’s still snow on the mountain, they open on Memorial Day, and charge a severely discounted price. I brought my skis that were a hand-me-down from the 1980s. People started commenting on how cool and “retro” my skis were. They were so out of date that they were cool again.
There’s always going to be some next big thing, but the basics remain the same. Don’t focus on doing what’s cool now, but instead focus on what you want to work on or learn, even if it’s something completely different than what you’re doing now; eventually, it’ll be cool again.
Grew up on a farm in Iowa. Started my GIS career as an intern for Emmet County, working on first iteration of E-911 for the sheriff’s department. Moved to South Dakota from there and worked for the SDDOT for a while with the esteemed title of “Automated Mapping Specialist”. Really enjoyed the work but was looking for a faster pace and more of a challenge. Ended up taking a project-related position with a consulting firm working for DM&E railroad out of Sioux Falls. Had great fun learning all about rail, sidings and frogs. When that project ended, I decided to take a position with HDR and moved down to Omaha, Nebraska, where I am currently.
Amy was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.
Q: How did you get into GIS?
A: I had been doing in-home child care, I have an Associates degree in Early Childhood Education. I was bored and broke and wondering what I should do. Driving down the road I heard a radio ad for the local community college that talked about computers and mapping. I thought… “I love maps!” and went and signed up for the program after that.
Q: You work for HDR, an engineering company. Tell us what you do there.
A: What I do day by day really varies based on the projects I’m on. The funnest part of my job is the variability of what I am involved with on a week by week basis and meeting new people and learning about what they do. I work on hydrology projects where we are looking at flood zones, levees, or stream flows for one project, and then I am managing the GIS database for a large transportation project and dealing with right of way, utilities, and shifting contracts. I also like to code, so I will put together web maps or write some scripts to automate work flows. It’s really fun to listen and evaluate what is currently being done and then to apply some type of technology to help streamline and document the work as well. Recently I’ve gotten involved with the sustainability group here at HDR, and now there is great potential to mix my love for GIS with my desire to make the world a better place.
Q: Do engineers “get” GIS?
A: Yes! I would say there are varying levels of “get” involved. I find that if you are on a project, and learn as much as you can about the overall big picture, then it is easy to plug GIS into it in ways that make sense and help meet those project goals. If someone isn’t getting the point of using GIS then it could be that you aren’t getting what the big picture is for them.
Q: What technology — GIS and other — do you use at work? What do you / don’t you like about it?
Q: You were a volunteer in a GISCorps project for North Korea. Tell us about the project, why you did it, and what you got out of it.
A: This project was for the World Food Program (WFP) and the information Management and Mining Action Program (iMMAP). We digitized features like roads, cities, rivers, and rail from historical maps. The idea was to create this data to support their humanitarian efforts. I got involved since I had been listed as a GISCorps member for some time and was waiting for a volunteer opportunity to come up that I could do at home. This project was great and I was able to put a couple hours in on a weekly basis. I am always trying to save the world and it really gives me a great sense of satisfaction to be able to do something with the skillset I have to help the world be a better place.
Q: You do lots of volunteer work, not just GIS. Tell us about your other volunteer activities.
A: I do like to do volunteer work, it’s my desire to make a difference that drives it. Though I would say I’m not doing a ton right now, there are a few things I’m involved in. I do manage a website for a local grassroots organization. For the last couple years I’ve been able to create some mapping for a local group that puts together garden tours in Omaha and hosted for them as well. Over the years I’ve done things like volunteer for Boys and Girls Homes, and also was a baby rocker at a NICU for some time. I think volunteering really does add a lot to your life and gets you out in the community, which is fun.
Q: What is the tech scene like in Omaha?
Q: What is the hipster scene like in Omaha?
A: Isn’t that the same as the tech scene? 😉 Ok, maybe not but there is some crossover. The hipster scene is good. There are some known areas in town where you will find great local music, food, and events. One of my favorite is the Benson First Friday Femme Fest — it’s an amazing opportunity to see all kinds of females taking the lead role and sharing their music, poetry, and art to the masses.
Q: Knitting and Dr. Who — is that hipster or what?
A: Probably. I still need to knit my Dr. Who scarf, I think once that is completed then I can really grab the hipster trophy. My list of nerd interests is strong and I think if I could pull together a group of geohipsters to crash the UC dressed in Dr. Who cosplay, then my life would be complete.
Q: Do you consider yourself a geohipster? Why / why not?
A: Sure. You know, unless in considering myself one I negate the title. 🙂 I think a geohipster is anyone who is constantly striving to do new and cool things with geospatial data. With that definition, I’m 100%.
Q: On closing, any parting words of wisdom for our global readership?
A: Keep pushing the arbitrary boundaries between geospatial and IT. Data is data and we all can and should be playing and working together. Also — volunteer for something. You do need to get away from the computer once in a while, and it will change your life to do so. And finally, if you love Dr. Who we should talk. 🙂
Nate Smith is technical project manager for the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team. He leads out the OpenAerialMap project and dives into all things technical across HOT’s operations. Originally from Nebraska, he is now based in Lisbon, Portugal, slowly learning Portuguese and attempting to learn to surf.
Nate was interviewed for GeoHipster by Amy Smith.
Q: We met at State of the Map Asia in Manila! What was it that brought you to the conference?
A: I came to State of the Map Asia through my role in two projects with the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team: OpenAerialMap and a new project called Healthsites. I had the chance to give short presentations about the projects, plus I wanted to connect with the OpenStreetMap community in Asia about the projects to get feedback and input on the direction of the projects.
Q: Tell us about the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) and how you got involved.
A: I’ve been involved in HOT in one way or another since 2011. At the time I had just joined Development Seed in Washington DC. I began to get involved in any way I could with HOT, most of it started with trainings about Mapbox tools or collaborating on projects. Most of it initially revolved around helping identify data that could be helpful in an activation or joining in tracing. Over the years, I gradually got more involved in working groups which is the best place to get involved beyond contributing time to mapping. I’ve since joined HOT as a technical project manager to help build and manage projects around some of our core tools like OpenAerialMap or OSM Analytics.
Q: For those who may not be familiar with HOT, “activation” is kind of like bringing people together to participate in disaster mapping or a similarly geographically-focused humanitarian mapping effort, did I get that right?
A: Right, a HOT activation in the traditional sense is exactly that. It is an official declaration that the community is coming together to aggressively map an area for a disaster response. The Activation Working Group is one of several working groups where anyone can get involved, and they define the protocols, monitor situations, and are in contact with many OSM communities and humanitarian partners around the world.
Disaster mapping is a core part of the work HOT does. Not everything but still a big part. If you’re interested in helping think about activation protocols or want to help organize during an activation, come join and volunteer your time to support the work.
Q: What are some interesting projects you’re working on?
A: I’ve been actively working on two interesting projects: OpenAerialMap, and for lack of a better name at the moment, the Field Campaigner app. OpenAerialMap launched two years ago and we’ve been slowly rolling out new features and working with partners on integrating new data since. What’s interesting is the work we’re doing this summer — we’re rolling out user accounts, provider pages, and better data management tools. This is exciting as it lowers the barrier to start collecting imagery and contributing to the commons.
The second project is our new Field Campaigner app. It has a generic name at the moment but it’s part of a move for us to have better tools to manage data collection in the field. A majority of the work the global HOT community does is remote mapping. While this is super critical work and extremely helpful for people on the ground, there is a gap in how work is organized on the ground. This work looks to help improve the way data collection is organized and coordinated on the ground — we want to see field mapping in OpenStreetMap to be distributed and organized well. This work also crosses over some similar work that is happening across the board in this area — Mapbox is working on analyzing changesets for vandalism and a team from Development Seed and Digital Democracy through a World Bank project are working on an improved mobile OSM data collection app.
Q: How easy/hard is it to build these tools? Once they’re out in the world, what are some ways that people find and learn how to use them?
A: It’s not easy building tools to meet a lot of needs. A core thing for success many times is dogfooding your own work. We’re building tools that serve a wider audience but at the core we’re testing and helping spread the word about the tool because we use it.
But just because it’s not easy doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be trying. The more we experiment building tools to do better and faster mapping, whether it is remote or in the field, the more information we will have to improve and address the challenges many communities face.
Q: It looks like your job is fairly technical, but also involves outreach. Is there a particular aspect of your work that you enjoy the most?
A: I think the mix of technical and outreach is what I love most. Spending part of my day diving into some code while the other part talking or strategizing with organizations is what I’ve had the chance to do over the last six years through working with Development Seed and now HOT. I enjoy trying to be that translation person — connecting tools or ways of using data to solve real-world problems. I think one of the things I enjoy the most is the chance to help build products or use data with real world impact. Being able to support MSF staff responding to an Ebola outbreak at the same time working with world-class designers and developers is pretty great.
Q: Looking at your Twitter feed, you seem to travel a lot. What’s your favorite / least favorite thing about traveling? Favorite place you’ve been? Any pro travel tips?
A: I traveled a bit while living in DC but now that I’m living in Lisbon, Portugal I’ve had the chance to do some more personal travel throughout Europe which has been great. This past year I’ve had a chance to travel through Asia a bit more through HOT-related projects. My favorite part of traveling is the chance to meet people and experience new cultures or places. There are some incredible geo and OSM communities around the world and it’s been awesome to meet and work with many of them. Least favorite — awkwardly long layovers – you can’t get out.
I think my favorite spots have been Bangkok and Jakarta. I find that I enjoy big cities that have great food options. As for tips, I would say pack light and do laundry when you’re traveling, and always make time for good local food.
Q: Would you consider yourself a geohipster? If so, why, and if not, why not?
A: Heh, that is a great question. I think I’ve become less geohipster moving to Portugal. I drink light European beer, I don’t bike because there are too many hills, and drink too much Nespresso. Although I’m still a Mapbox-junky, work at a cowork in my neighborhood, and love open source, so maybe I still lean geohipster. 🙂
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our global readership?
A: Get out and visit a new place in the world if you can. And while you’re at it, reach out to the OSM communities there and meet them in person. You’ll meet some incredible and passionate people.
GeoHipster Mixtape Volume 2
Last April we published the first GeoHipster Mixtape, a look into the tunes we chill to, scream to, and grind to during the work day. This is Volume 2.
On most days we listen to the soundtrack of work: phones, email notifications, office chatter, or the sound of the city. For some of us our daily soundtrack is a carefully curated playlist of our favorite tunes. Being in the latter group, music can provide the white noise needed to push through an hour of getting the labels “just right”, or the inspiration that sparks the fix for that problem with your code.
I was curious about what others are listening to during the day — what does a geohipster listen to?
As you might expect, asking anyone who likes music to pick a few songs can be a near-futile task. A desert island playlist would be drastically different from a top side one, track ones playlist. Making a mixtape is subtle art, there are many rules — like making a map. I recently talked to several of our interesting colleagues in geo to see what tunes get them through the day. I asked the impossible: pick 3 tracks they love to share for a mixtape.
For your listening and reading pleasure we have hand-crafted a carefully-curated playlist from the geohipsters below, complete with liner notes of the cool work they do while listening to the tracks they picked.
Ps. i couldn’t help but add a few selections of my own.
For your enjoyment, a YouTube playlist — the GeoHipster Mixtape Volume 2
Brooke Harding @BrookEHarding || GIS Specialist at USAID-Macfadden
Brooke is a Cartographer and Data Analyst specializing in Europe & Asia and government acronyms. Outside of the office she’s all about supporting her fellow #geopeeps through organizations like the NACIS (Check out their October 2017 conference in Montreal, eh?) and eating her way through #geobreakfastdc one waffle at a time.
- Paul Simon feat. Chevy Chase – Call Me Al
- T-Pain – NPR Tiny Desk Concert
- Nahko and Medicine for the People – Black as Night
John Nelson @john_m_nelson || Cartographer at Esri
- Seu Jorge – Changes (from The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou)
- Sigur Rós – Hoppípolla
- Flatt & Scruggs – Doin’ My Time (from 16 Original Bluegrass Hits)
Cristen Jones @thecristen // UI designer
Cristen’s an urban planner by training and used to be one of those civic hackers found at Boston-area hackathons and meetups. She’s worked with Code for Boston on http://willtheytow.me and http://codeforboston.github.io/ungentry , but more recently joined Maptime Boston as a co-organizer.
- Childish Gambino – Break
- Madeon – Pop culture
- Daddy Yankee – Shaky Shaky
Dylan Moriarty @dylanmoriarty // Illustrator & Cartographer
Dylan is bad at writing bios, but he has a swell website https://dylanmoriarty.github.io/ — believes in open source — loves hand-made maps & hand-drawn elements — helps run GeobreakfastDC & MaptimeDC (https://geobreakfastdc.github.io/ ) — works with the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team & designed Missing Maps — spends most waking hours listening to tunes
- Buddy Rich – Norwegian Wood
- tUnE-yArDs – My Country
- Medeski, Martin & Wood – Let’s Go Everywhere