Srikant Panda: “The whole community of photogrammetry and GIS is a family”

Srikant Panda
Srikant Panda

Srikant Panda is a photogrammetrist, philosopher, friend, and owner of a brand new house.

Srikant was interviewed for GeoHipster by Randal Hale, who prefaced this piece with the following:

Many of you are going to be reading this and going “Who is Srikant Panda?” I said the same thing about a couple of years back when he randomly contacted me about photogrammetry work. GIS is boring these days — but the stories… So we started talking. We talked about mapping. We talked about life. We talked about philosophy. He sent me pictures of India, and I suddenly realized that this man who lives half a world away isn’t terribly different from myself. So I decided to tell you a little about Srikant, who studied geology, and who became involved in mapping… which incidentally is what I did. Our paths aren’t terribly different, but where we live is quite different. Friends: Meet Srikant!

Q: Srikant, you’re not exactly a “typical” GIS person…

A: Well, there is a lot of difference between GIS work and photogrammetric work. Honestly, I am not much a GIS guy but a photogrammetric technologist. What we do here is tremendously used in GIS projects.

Q: We cover a lot of people from the GIS side of life on GeoHipster, but I don’t think we’ve covered your area of expertise.

A: In this generation everyone knows about maps and their use. Everyone is familiar with Google Maps. Hence most of the people know about GIS and its application. But few people have known and understood what is the science behind photogrammetry, and what exactly is done that makes it different from a normal map making/digitization.

Q: You do photogrammetry. How did you get your start doing it?

A: I am a graduate in Geology and completed my graduation from Berhampur University that is situated in the southern coastal belt of the state Orissa in India. I am a great lover of the subject Geology. The chapters of Geomorphology and Aerial Remote Sensing/Photo-Geology were my favourite subjects. After my final year exams were over in 2004, I came to Hyderabad — a city in South India — to explore more on my further studies on Aerial Remote sensing. There is an old photogrammetric institute named MapWorld Technologies, where I wanted to complete my photogrammetric courses. It took me 6 months to undergo a training on Aerial Remote Sensing. In the institute I used the Russian photogrammetric software named Photomod to learn aerial triangulation and stereo compilation.

After the training was over, I got a job in a well known photogrammetric firm named IIC Technologies. There I started my career.

Q: What do you do?

Before I answer what I do, it is necessary to understand what is the difference between a 2D map and a 3D map; the difference between an aerial image and aerial orthophoto.

Srikant at his work station
Srikant at his work station

A: I am a digital map maker. In my maps you will find the X, Y, and Z information of the terrain. The Z value in my map makes it special as I compile the map in 3D environment. I use aerial photographs as input, and use 3D mouse and 3D glasses to plot them. Unlike the traditional symbol-and-line map, we produce digital orthophotos, which are the real and scaled representation of the terrain. Orthophotos or orthomaps are one of the final outputs of my work. Apart from that, the two important outputs are planimetric maps and topographic maps.

Q: Where do you live in India?

A: My house is located in a small village at the hills of the southern coastal belt of Orissa. A small village named Badapada surrounded by green hills and with a population of around 2,500 is considered a remote tribal area. The nearest city is Berhampur, which is 120 km from the village. It takes 5 hours to travel from the village to the city. My parents live there. They love each other so much. My brother lives in New Delhi. My two sisters are married, and they live a few kilometers away from the village. My parents visit us at different time of the year, but they never leave the village in Spring and Rain. The village remains the most beautiful in this time. Once a year my company grants me a 10-days’ of leave to travel and stay with my family. It takes 35 hours to reach the village from Pune (30 hours of train journey and 5 hours of bus journey). We all siblings reach the village in Spring or Rain.

Q: Here in the United States there has been a ton of discussion on drones. Is there much talk in India about drones, and how do you think that will impact photogrammetry?

A: In India there are peculiar map-restriction policies. Private companies are restricted to execute aerial photography. The policies are slightly now changed, where the permission from NRSC and Defence are required. It is a challenge for the private companies (except a few) to invest in large format aerial cameras and an aircraft. So UAV and a medium format camera is a great alternative, and private companies are much excited to use the UAVs for large scale mapping, surveillance, videography etc., and other applications. Now the big problem in India is the repeated threats of jehadi militants. If UAVs are frequently used in India, they may be misused by the militants where a bomb can be dropped on a monument or building. So the Indian government has put restriction over the flying height of the UAVs. Lots of permissions are required for the use of drones.

There is too much of advertisement of drones in magazines, shows etc., but what I feel is, there are only few UAVs which can actually produce nadir/vertical aerial photos for the photogrammetric mapping. Yes, the UAVs will play a great role in the field of photogrammetry in the coming days. A small company can invest in a drone and a medium-format aerial camera for large scale mapping jobs, which can be a rail/road/river/transmission line/corridor mapping, or a golf course mapping, or a stockpile, or a volumetric calculation job.

What I feel is, it is difficult for the current photogrammetric software to do the aerial triangulation of the aerial photos which are taken by the UAVs. It is because of the shake in the camera due to the wind, and the photos are not vertical, or near vertical. Another challenge for the UAV user is to calibrate the medium- or small-format cameras. But I am sure there are many software companies who have almost developed their photogrammetric software, which can perform aerial triangulation using the photos taken from a UAV. Ortosky, developed by SRM Consulting, is a nice software which processes the UAV data very well. They are also working on their software which can calibrate the camera.

For Photogrammetric mapping, it requires not just a camera but a complete camera system. A gyro mount, a very good medium format camera, IMU GPS, good lenses. When you combine all these, the weight may vary from 2 kg to 5 kg. In such situation the payload and the endurance of the UAV should be good. 1 kg of payload and 15 min of endurance is not a good photogrammetric UAV.

Q: What does the future hold for you, career-wise?

A: I would like to start my own company where I can market interesting and efficient geospatial products. Along with that I would like to keep myself busy with photogrammetric mapping work. It is a challenge in India to start your own company, but there are a few companies who are willing to help me start my own unit. They have always encouraged me and ready to support me. I am really thankful for their trust in me. I may soon start working independently.

Q: Back in 2014 you told me you were in the middle of building a house. In the United States home-building is a huge endeavor. How close are you to being done, and overall how difficult was it?

A: You asked me the question at a good time. It took me around five years to complete the construction of my house in the village. Well, the only job I did was to send the money to my parents every month. My father worked hard and managed the construction. I prepared the design of the house in VrOne CAD software. It is very expensive to construct a house in India, and so I had to construct step by step. The construction work is just finished, and as per Hindu tradition, we make a celebration on the day of inauguration. This celebration will be on 16th of Feb 2015. It is a big achievement and a dream come true.

Q: So I leave the final question to you: Do you have anything you want to share with the worldwide good readers of GeoHipster on life, photogrammetry, and mapping?

A: One thing which I feel very important to mankind is to contact and communicate with others. It is a very strange world that we remain busy with our work and don’t even care knowing the rest of the world. Eight years back it was a challenge for me to learn photogrammetry when I was new in this field. I started contacting people on the Internet, and I was glad that they answered my questions. This way my friendship with dozens of people became intense. Being a stranger and remaining far far from each other, we discussed many things related to photogrammetry and the culture in their country. This way gradually I not only learned photogrammetry, GIS, LiDAR, but also the cultures in USA, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Poland, Mauritius, Africa, Latvia, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, Russia, Alaska, Morocco, Tunisia, Spain, and Japan. For me the whole community of photogrammetry and GIS is a family, and we should communicate with each other, asking our doubts, and exchanging our ideas. I have not just received the answers to my questions from friends, but have also received a lot of love.

I love the words of Gandhi and would like to share them with all my friends and readers:

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”

Stephanie May: “If you don’t know what your map is supposed to be telling us, neither do we”

Stephanie May
Stephanie May

By day, Stephanie specializes in spatial data file formats, transformations, analysis, and geospatial product management. At other times she opines for free on thematic map styles, urbanism, and best practices in geodata. Once upon a time her maps were featured in Atlantic Cities, Gizmodo, Huffington Post, the New Yorker, and the New York Times. She has taught Web Mapping and Cartography at San Francisco State University and the City College of San Francisco’s GIS Education Center. Favorite tools include R Studio, Quantum GIS, ArcGIS, Illustrator, Python and Javascript. @mizmay on Twitter, @mapnostic on Instagram.

Stephanie was interviewed for GeoHipster by Jonah Adkins (@jonahadkins).

Q: You’re currently on the GeoTeam at Apple. What’s it like working for one of the best-known tech companies in the world, and what are you doing there?

A: Working in tech is something I really wanted to do, but it isn’t for everyone. Instead of cleaning and exploring data in small batches, choosing my map type, and tweaking my visualizations until they are just right, I work on one big reference map in the cloud, with a lot of other people. While I love the size and scope of the projects I work on now, there are things I miss about having my own personal cartography and data analysis projects that I could use to hone and practice the craft.

Q: I read an excellent article  about your San Francisco Rental Map project. What prompted you to create this project and great resource?

A: Any great data visualization takes great data and a ton of time. That map was a breakthrough for me. Tilemill was pretty new; I’d been playing with it for a while, using it to make simple slippy maps of data for the San Francisco Bay Area. I had to hack it hard to get it to render the output of my little geospatial analysis, but it did a beautiful job. People said it was useful at the time, but I’m not really convinced. Using Empirical Bayesian Kriging to model one bedroom rental prices? I’m not sure what that even tells you. I still think it’s pretty though. Ultimately what that project was really about was finally feeling like I’d broken out of my government job analyzing data and making maps for internal consumption to something that could reach a larger audience.

Q: At State of the Map 2014, you co-presented on ‘Teaching Mapping To Geographers’, specifically the disconnect between OSM and geography students. In your opinion, is the divide between GIS professionals and OSM greater, and what do you think can happen to bridge that gap?

A: I mean, I love OSM; it is an audacious experiment that worked and continues to work, but on the whole GIS professionals don’t want to digitize features and tag them with categories as an extracurricular, and I’m not entirely sure the core OSMers want them to participate otherwise. I really admire what the Red Cross and HOT OSM have been able to do to use OSM as a vehicle for citizen mapping. Those are really the folks that hold the key to bridging the gap between OSM and GIS professionals. As for geographers, I think we are more interested in OSM phenomenologically and for the data. In addition to all the great projects people are doing as part of OSM or on behalf of OSM, people ask great questions on the OSM talk-us mailing list and have really great ontological discussions about map features, and I find following those discussions fascinating.

Q: In reference to teaching geography and cartography: You’d be wildly rich if you had a nickel for every time you’ve said…

A: WGS84 is a datum, not a projection. Choropleth not chloropleth. If you don’t know what your map is supposed to be telling us, neither do we. You should have spent more time on this. I hate heatmaps.

Q: Cartographer to cartographer: Your favorite map(s)?

A: There are so many talented cartographers out there, and for anyone reading this who doesn’t know, you Jonah Adkins are a prime example. The pop art map tiles you designed recently. Woohoo! Rosemary Wardley did a similarly awesome pop art thing that I really loved, a map tile for the map “quilt” at NACIS (errata: I tagged her wrong on Twitter). In general, among my most favorites, I love colors and I love information design done beautifully and unconventionally. I admire the work Eric Fischer and Miguel Rios have each done independently to make a beautiful image from a gazillion data points. I love “Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River” (Fisk, 1944), and the Willamette River Map by Daniel Coe. I’m doing a thing with pairs here! The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map has stood out in my mind for years as something beautiful and complex with so much data behind it.  But my favorite maps of all time are antiques from the 17th and 18th Century. The old cadastral maps from France, the earliest maps of the U.S. Census, and Minard’s Port and River Tonnage map — less famous and more beautiful than his map of Napoleon’s march. Those are my favorites, I think because they convey to me a certain obsessive something that you get to only by giving yourself all the time in the world and a little freedom to play. But also, every day I am pleased and humbled by scores of maps that embody the principles of good, practical cartography: keep it simple, less is more, make it a composition by harmonizing and arranging your elements, and remember you are telling the story.

Q: The standard #GeoHipster interview question: What does the phrase mean to you, and are you a #geohipster?

A: I think #geohipster resonates for a few reasons. First, it is startling when people think you are cool just because you make maps. Most of us, me included, were not always quite so objectively cool. Second, because the geoweb is pleasingly small once you break out of GIS professionalism or whatever other standard paradigms there are, which is a great ferment for ironic inside jokes. There are so many warm, genuine, supportive people who make maps and map-making tools, and will share the best parts of themselves and what they are learning from this crazy ride we’re on right now in a world that is just starting to think about the implications of relating through location. Am I a #geohipster? Without question, yes I am, whatever that means.

Steven Ramage: “Fitness for purpose is one of my favourite terms”

Steven Ramage
Steven Ramage

After a number of years working with internationally-recognised organisations (Navteq, 1Spatial, OGC, and Ordnance Survey (OS)), Steven is now working for what3words, based in London; they’re helping to simply and precisely communicate location using only words. He also consults for OS, the World Bank, and is a Visiting Professor at the Institute for Future Cities at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland. He is a fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), and of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS).

Steven was interviewed for GeoHipster by Ed Freyfogle.

Q: You’ve had a long and diverse geo career that’s taken you around the world. Briefly take us through your experiences. What makes you a geohipster?

A: Less of the long please! I’m still ONLY in my 40s. I started thinking about geo in my first job in container shipping, so I’m probably more of a geoshipster than geohipster :d)

I wanted to track container shipping in the early 90s, something akin to DHL Smart Sentry today, but the tech just wasn’t there. Then I moved to the marine survey and offshore services arena and was thrown in at the deep end (no pun intended) having to learn the basics of dredging, rig positioning, cable lay surveys, and seismic surveying. Spent considerable time in Aberdeen, Great Yarmouth and IJmuiden in the Netherlands. With the word GPS in my CV, a headhunter contacted me for a job with Navteq (now Nokia HERE) and I was the first market development manager for what was called the Wireless and Internet division. I had a blast dealing with Mapquest, Ericsson, Nokia, Telcontar, Vodafone, and all the other LBS players in the early days, and used to attend GSM in Cannes before it became MWC in Barcelona. I also lost a small fortune when I left Navteq (prior to the Nokia acquisition) and gave up my stock options — a lesson that cost me but also taught me well.

I joined Laser-Scan in 2001 (and helped rename it to 1Spatial) as Product Manager for some spatial tools that operated in databases, essentially server-side topology management in Oracle9i. I stayed there 9 years and was part of the Management Buyout team in 2003, which again taught me a lot but also challenged me considerably. In 2004 my son, Thomas, was born and unfortunately later that year my wife, Nina, was diagnosed with cancer. She’s much better now but I owe a great deal to my colleagues at 1Spatial for their support. In 2010 several people, whom I would call mentors, highlighted a vacancy for an Exec Director position at the OGC – Geoff Zeiss, Maurits van der Vlugt, and Peter Woodsford. So I dropped a note to Mark Reichardt and after a Skype interview with half a dozen people in the US I took on the marketing and communications role. I focussed the comms round ‘location’ reusing an existing strapline (c/o Sam Bacharach): Making location count. I also changed the website (for better or worse) to reflect domains and communities of interest. The biggest topic for me in international geospatial standards is business value and after 4.5 years as the initiator and chair (with some interims) I’ve just stood down from the business value committee. Publishing a paper on standards and INSPIRE, as well as a joint paper on international geospatial standards with INEGI, Mexico for UN-GGIM are some of the small achievements in this area.

Latterly I was invited by Vanessa Lawrence CB (former DG and Chief Exec of OS) to join Ordnance Survey to head up their international activities. I REALLY didn’t want to leave Norway where I had been living near a mountain with a fjord at my back door, but the opportunity was too good to miss and I really admired all the directors and hoped I could learn from them. So for just over two years I ran Ordnance Survey International, building a very competent team of industry experts. The opportunity for OSI to highlight the major investments, lessons learned, and their capabilities around national mapping are massive and a large number of countries can learn from them. Due to health issues I took 3 months off international travel for the first time in 20 years and during that time a number of opportunities arose, which meant I would have to step down from my position as Managing Director. That’s when I joined what3words as a director. I’ve not seen anything this new in geo since Google Earth, at least from the perspective that it can truly have a global impact if adoption happens.

So lots and lots of geo, but I prefer to focus on the policy, strategy and business elements. There’s enough tech experts now today like Scott Morehouse, James Fee, Paul Ramsey, Chris Holmes, Carsten Roensdorf, Joanne Cook, Seb Lessware, Rob Atkinson, Sophia Parafina, Bill Dollins, Anne Kemp, Brian Timoney, Katherine Prebble, Simon Greener, Albert Godfrind, Jo Walsh, Gretchen Peterson, etc.

Q: The geo industry uses software to describe the world. And yet many participants in the industry focus very much on tasks in a single market. National mapping agencies are typically exactly that: national. It’s rare to meet industry insiders considering the global picture. What are the megatrends you see happening globally?

A: Back in 2006 I supported something called ePSIplus, which is now quite fashionable and important around open data and public sector information reuse. I’d like to think that in 8 years’ time what3words will be as important. Addressing is a topic that is being tackled by the UN in Africa, CRCSI in Australia, it’s a topic for debate around OpenStreetMap etc. To me this is more of a policy debate than a technological one. The same for sensors or drones or UAVs and other obvious trends around open data, open source and open standards. I see considerable support and investment coming through collective or community activities, such as CitiSense for the World Bank or UN-GGIM.

As I travelled the world with the OGC and OS, I often saw different flavours of the same problem: how to access, share and benefit from geospatial information resources (also how to fund them nationally). I also see many individuals and organisations jumping on the IoT, smart/future/connected cities, big data etc. bandwagon, and actually not enough attention being paid to data quality and access/sharing issues; all the technology in the world is not particularly helpful if the fundamentals are not there. Fitness for purpose is therefore one of my favourite terms.

Q: You were executive director of the Open Geospatial Consortium, a global body with many governmental organisations around the world developing open geospatial standards. But one of the biggest innovations in geo in the last decade has been the rise of crowdsourcing, most notably OpenStreetMap, which has no real defined standards, no one specifically “in charge”, and, by design, only a very rudimentary structure. Many attribute OSM’s success precisely to its simplicity. So which is it? Is the future top-down standards or bottom-up innovation?

A: The OGC, OSGeo, OSM and all the other open initiatives function based on communities and volunteer support, but communities need leaders. Not dictators or people with a personal, vested interest, but those with vision and tough skin. I watched Steve Coast from afar and thought he did a fabulous job, but he obviously decided to move on. It may need some more similar energy and enthusiasm to reinvigorate the community. The smart money is probably on Kate Chapman and the teams working on Humanitarian OpenStreetMap and Missing Maps. I’ve been fortunate that some of the leading open mapping and crowdsourcing people in the UK are friends, Muki Haklay, Peter Ter Haar and the #geohippy Steven Feldman, better to ask their views, they’re better qualified on this topic.

But to answer your question explicitly, I think it’s a balance of government policy driving procurement language for existing, proven geospatial standards and therefore vendor software compliance with those standards. Then bottom-up technological advances that move faster than government policy and where the crowd determines the usefulness and value of the solution.

Q: You recently left one of the oldest, most traditional geo brands in the world, the UK’s Ordnance Survey, to join the geo start-up what3words. Explain your reasons, beyond the obvious hipster points of being able to say you work at a start-up.

A: As mentioned earlier, I still support Ordnance Survey (in my spare time) through my consulting firm, advising them on geospatial standards and smart cities. When I met Chris Sheldrick, the cofounder and CEO of what3words, I completely understood  his passion for simply and precisely communicating location, and I was impressed that he came from running a music events company! Chris won’t mind me saying, but he wasn’t really aware of organisations such as Esri or Pitney Bowes, and he certainly hadn’t had much exposure to geocoding prior to setting up what3words. Kevin Pomfret introduced Denise Mckenzie to Chris, and Denise then introduced me. I’m sort of the geo industry veteran in the team, and so I have seen and done some of the things we want to try, and so hopefully I add value. After 20 years working in the location sector, I also have a fairly decent international network that we are connecting with daily.

It’s not really about making it trendy for me (any more). My mother was nominated as Scottish person of the year 2006 and she was awarded an MBE for her services to the community, so I’ve got major aspirations to try and do something similar to what my parents achieved in Scotland. Since geo is where it’s at, I’m hoping I can make a difference through what3words.

Q: One complaint leveled against What3Words is that it is not open. Is it possible to be hip and closed?

A: Twitter. Facebook. iTunes. At least one of these apps is used by us, our friends, or family daily. I think this shows that it is possible. However, for a number of people it is not necessarily a simple case of open or closed — what concerns them is how they will be charged in the future and to that end we come up with a model that doesn’t charge citizens or end users in the event of humanitarian assistance or international development activities.

Q: You’re a guest lecturer at Southampton University. What’s the advice you’d give to the geohipsters out there at the start of their geo careers. Should they be trying to land a job at a “big name”? Should they be joining (or founding) a geo-focused start-up?

A: Interestingly enough I was a guest lecturer at the Business School, not the Geography Department, presenting to MSc students on global entrepreneurship, strategy and innovation. I’ve obviously done both and I think it does pay to gain experience in different-sized organisations, different industry footprints, and different visions and missions. If you can put up with trying to navigate through large organisations and cope with the bureaucracy and communication challenges, you certainly learn a lot and have more resources available. But nothing beats doing it firsthand where you understand innately cash flow and customer service — the basis for any business.

Q: Any closing thoughts for all the geohipsters out there?

A: There are some fabulous people in the geospatial community, and that’s what makes doing our jobs fun. My global network is not all geohipsters, and that’s good because we need different kinds of people to challenge us to keep us awake and relevant. Also many of my network have become friends over the years and that means places to stay!  A large number of people have done the groundwork for future geohipsters, and so it’s a great time to build on all that work and take it to the next level.

Finally, a shameless plug. Think about the 135 countries out there that have poor or no addressing and how what3words could help support economic growth, international development, financial inclusion and other areas.

Disclosure: Ed Freyfogle is a co-founder of Lokku Ltd, which is a seed investor in What3Words.

Gretchen Peterson: “Cartography is fundamentally about where things are, not about the technology that displays them”

Gretchen Peterson
Gretchen Peterson

Gretchen Peterson is a cartography explorer who is constantly on the lookout for new techniques, tricks, and solutions that collectively elevate the status of maps. Peterson shares these adventures in her cartography books, blog, and twitter stream, and also, sometimes, cracks extremely funny nerd jokes. As a Data Scientist at Boundless, Peterson designs basemaps with open source technology, and recently wrote a blog series on QGIS.

Gretchen was interviewed for GeoHipster by Jonah Adkins (@jonahadkins).

Q: You’re pretty much renowned the world over for your cartography publications (Cartographer’s Toolkit, GIS Cartography: A Guide to Effective Map Design First Edition and Second Edition). Tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to be an author.

A: Thanks Jonah, but I’m definitely not renowned the world over. In fact, before I took a position at Boundless last year, one of my siblings was counting unemployed people in our family and included me in the tally. It was obvious that not even my own siblings knew what I was doing all day, even though at that time I was running a successful geo consultancy. That said, I do occasionally run into people who know me, which is a pretty neat thing, although it can be embarrassing when you’re recognized taking a selfie with your own book at the Esri User Conference bookstore.

My background is in natural resources. I’ve been a life-long advocate for environmental stewardship, and GIS, as a means of cataloging, understanding, and anticipating Earth’s processes, was a subject that a professor urged me to study and was the subject of my second most important internship. (The first was censusing common terns, which involved less time on a computer and more time getting pooped on.)

My first non-internship job was at a technology firm in which I was asked to not only do GIS but to also make maps of the results. This is that moment when you realize how important proper results visualization is for your own career’s sake as well as for the success of the projects that you’re working on. If an analysis points out where the county should purchase land to protect an important species, you’d better be able to map it adequately.

There was a significant dearth of practical cartography books at that time: the early 2000s. With some training in design — I was a landscape architecture major in college my first year — I decided that if no adequate books on the subject materialized in the coming decade, I’d figure out good map design principles myself and then write about it for others. And that’s exactly what happened. The first book I wrote is more of a comprehensive textbook on cartography while the second is full of practical tools like color palettes and typefaces. It turns out that both books have been embraced by college professors and career professionals alike.

Q: You recently made the jump from being a private consultant to working for Boundless as a Data Scientist. Has that been an easy transition?

A: Working at Boundless has been just as exciting as I had hoped it would be. Some of the brightest geo minds work there, and they have a sense of pride in helping do good things for the geo community. I think that in most professional positions one ultimately is happiest when making important contributions, whatever they may be, and I have plenty of opportunities for that in this position.

Q: You give regular cartography tips on your blog. If you could give only one piece of advice to someone what would that be?

A: This is not a fair question! I’ve been giving advice on my blog for close to 5 years, and there’s still so much I haven’t covered! But seriously, if I had to say only one thing it’d be to study existing maps, both old and new, and begin to compile a list of map patterns that can come in handy for future mapping projects. The patterns part of map patterns is a term I’ve borrowed from software engineering where it’s been shown to be a good idea to thoroughly understand how problems are commonly and most efficiently solved. They say that all innovation is derivative, and that extends to cartography as well.

Q: I think we got started in GIS around the same time (late nineties) — we’ve seen a lot.  What do you think is the greatest accomplishment in cartography in the last 5 years?

A: The greatest change has been the movement from cartography as a medium that only specialists could use to cartography as a medium that everyone can use. This new ease-of-use has resulted in an influx of design-oriented, rather than science-oriented mappers to join the field. As a results, the aesthetic level of all maps has increased dramatically and thereby engaged the public to such an extent that they’ve become demanding users of maps rather than blasé bystanders by virtue of the maps’ enhanced readability, interactivity, and beauty. This is all good.

Q: We had a conversation once about emotional cartography/ers and the need for affirmation (#mapaffirm). Are you an emotional cartographer, and why is affirmation in design work important?

A: Ah yes, this is an important subject, especially for those new to the profession. It’s a “haters gonna hate” kind of situation with the map critics out there. And some mappers get down about how their maps are received.

I’m not an emotional cartographer, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be sympathetic to those who are. Gordon MacKenzie, who wrote Orbiting the Giant Hairball, talks about his position at Hallmark as one of shoring up employees’ egos. If a designer came to him with an idea, he invariably responded that it was a good idea, whether or not it truly was. His reasoning was that if it wasn’t a good idea, the designer would eventually realize that and halt production. Perhaps along the way the designer, with the confidence of being backed by a design director like MacKenzie, would come up with a superior product idea.

We also have to remember that rarely does anyone appreciate creative endeavours, especially those that push boundaries, as much as they should when the object is first released. Only time can prove the utility and lastingness of a great map. Just as Mark Twain had to stand up for himself after an editor tried to suggest changes to one of Twain’s introductions, so we can too, for the maps we make today, whether or not they win awards this year or meet with critical favor at the time they are first released. (It did not end well for the editor. Twain not only refused to edit the piece, but also rescinded the piece altogether.)

So, even if you feel like you need to attend a meeting of Emotional Cartographer’s Anonymous, you must have a certain courage when it comes to publishing maps. And if a map that you made was indeed a terribly misinformed piece of drivel, then just remember what @mysadcat said, in its infinite wisdom: https://twitter.com/MYSADCAT/status/468835053863452674/photo/1.

Q: What are your desert-island, all-time-top-5-favorite maps?

A: First and foremost would be Google Maps. It’s likely the most extensively and most frequently used map, with the most factual coverage, and with the biggest team behind it, that the world has ever seen. By a long shot. It’s Lewis Carroll’s life-sized scale map concept at heart, in that it contains so much spatial information at such large scales that it comes close to being intellectually life-sized but has none of the cumbersome problems that Carroll’s 1:1 scale map would have.

“It has never been spread out, yet,” said Mein Herr: “the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.” –Lewis Carroll, The Complete Illustrated Works, Sylvie and Bruno Concluded

The second choice would be any thematic map that illustrates the power of zoom-level mapping, where one can discern patterns at many scales, and thus draw from it a multitude of important conclusions. Dot maps are particularly well suited for this, such as the Ethnical Dot Map by the University of Virginia Demographics Research Group.

My third choice would be the Dymaxion map of world wood-density, which is made of wood and foldable. It has all my favorite components: a cool projection, a very meta media vs. content message, and it’s tactilly interactive! The creativity that went into this is inspiring.

My fourth choice would be the North American Bird Flight Range Shifts series for the intuitive animations of ranges over time, the small-multiples aspect, and the underlying mission to better understand our natural resources through superb visualizations. Plus, the Stamen Design blog post on the subject includes a gif of an owl being bopped on the head by a much smaller bird.

And lastly, I would bring along a kusudama made from the pages of an old map book. This work of art was created especially for me by a good friend. Personal maps should always be kept close to the heart.

Kusudama made from the pages of an old map book
Kusudama made from the pages of an old map book

Q: The standard #GeoHipster interview question: What does the phrase mean to you and are you a #geohipster?

A: My guess is that a geohipster would be a person who is receptive to new techniques and new technologies inasmuch as they make a better world through geo. A geohipster would also be a person who is able to reach into the past for anything that can be adapted and put to good use in the present.

In this sense of the term geohipster I would hope that I could be included. I don’t fear new technology but I also don’t want to dwell on it to the exclusion of other ideas that could be useful, since cartography is fundamentally about where things are, not about the technology that displays them. Just as we don’t need parchment anymore for maps, so too we may not need computers in the future. As long as I’m massaging spatial information into wisdom or into tools that make wise decisions possible, I’m happy.

I do have to confess to never having GPSd my biking trips. If that’s one of the criteria, then I’m not a geohipster.

Q: What’s next for you? Any new books planned?

A: No new books are in the works at this time, but I’m looking forward to discussing cartography and QGIS at the upcoming Denver Geospatial Amateurs gathering and FOSS4GNA.

Todd Barr: “If your gut tells you it’s wrong, it is”

Todd Barr
Todd Barr

Todd Barr (blog, Tumblr, website) has been bouncing around the Beltway for 16 years, working in the spatial industry for the past 14. He holds an MSc in Geography from the University of Denver, and keeps considering getting another one in BioDefense. When he’s not peeing on Esri’s leg, he can be found either in a park playing Hide and Go Drone with his daughter, or wasting time on the internet. Todd is currently a Spatial SME 2 at Eglobaltech. That being said, all opinions are his own and are not that of his employer. He also secretly wishes he was a hat guy.

Todd was interviewed for GeoHipster by Bill Dollins.

Q: You have worked in the government services sector for a long time. What do you see as the greatest challenges or difficulties in that area? What do you see as the greatest opportunities?

A: I really see three major challenges facing the feds:

  1. How limited the use of GIS is. It seems that once it’s “on a map”, it’s good enough. I know it’s a time-and-money thing, but if we could just push it a bit more, and dive deeper into the science and analysis part.
  2. Not enough sharing of data. When I was working with Transportation for the Nation (TFTN) it was amazing to see how much savings would occur with a single, albeit it huge, open data set.
  3. The lack of innovation, or a culture of innovation. This isn’t just in geo, but geo is what I have the best view of. Geoplatform is GOS 2.0, ArcGIS Online for Organizations is just an obfuscated Server and SDE. There are champions out there, but they are too few and too far between.

Case in point: During my time on platform, I was shocked as to how many times Jack would drop by the governing department, especially when we were building two stacks. It was so bad that a stakeholder would hide when Jackie D would drop by.

Opportunities: From a vertical market perspective, Public Health has the greatest opportunity and compatibility with GIS. I really think that if someone pushed the predictive aspect of GIS into the BI of an organization, there would be doors flying open.

Q: You have a passion for emergency management, which you have channeled into a focus of your career. The emergency management field has gotten a lot of attention over the last 15 years in the wake of events such as 9/11, the 2004 hurricane season, Katrina, Haiti, Sandy, and unfortunately many others. What have been the most effective applications of geospatial tools you have seen over that time and in what ways does the geospatial industry still fall short?

A: GIS falls short across the board in all implementations in the field of Emergency Management. Geovisualization does really well. This has been my COP rant for years. Sure — you know where it is, and what is happening — but that just puts you in reactive mode, not proactive mode. With the recent Ebola scare, sure we knew were the cases were, but why weren’t there predictive models being rolled out to help the people “on the ground”? I think that Emergency Managers, and that whole community — even those that think they “get it” — don’t. There aren’t a lot of “geo preparedness models”. They are normally built after the event, not in preparation for.

And Esri doesn’t really do much in the realm of selling the hard-core analysis part of GIS as much as VIPER, or whatever they’re hawking now.

OpenStreetMap — hands down, OpenStreetMap. When the Haitian earthquake hit, I was on a National Guard contract. The difference between the ways this “institution” reacted, and the way the community reacted, was night and day. That first weekend made me an OSM advocate. Sure, it has its issues, but it’s hands down the best spatial platform for response.

Q: In your recent blog post, “Looking for a job as a Geo Silverback,” you allude to “whistleblowing” as one of the factors affecting your employment situation. What led you to take that step and how has it affected you since?

A: Ethics, balance, and being able to sleep at night knowing I did the right thing. Contractors have a bad enough perception as it is, we don’t need to feed into that by actually doing things that reinforce that perception. There are times when contractors are handed contracts on a silver platter, and all they have to do is run a find-and-replace in an RFI from “The Contractor” to “<!–Insert Large Contractor Here–>”. But this wasn’t that, it was an under-the-table slide of inside information. Not something we teased out of the client, or we had better insight into the document than the other competitors. Which, I’m sure, the employer would have. But — and this is the economist in me talking — it fundamentally altered the playing field, giving one actor an unparalleled advantage. Not because of insight, not because they had the best team or the best price, but because they had inside information that no one else was privy to.

The feeling when I read the email made my stomach turn, and watching my coworkers rationalize why it was okay, how “this might not be the final document.”  Or that “it was because the client wanted us to win.”  It’s the same thinking errors that go into a 15-year-old shoplifting. This is becoming a rant, I’ll stop now.

Tl;dr: I don’t like to compete with people when the field isn’t level.

Q: As a self-proclaimed GeoSilverback, what observations or advice do you have for an undergrad just getting started on a career in geography? Do you think there will be such a thing as a “career in geography” in the coming years?

A:  I’m actually working on that blog entry for later this week. Two things here: Own your personal brand — because that’s what you are, you are a product. Jobs come and go, but build your career. Two, 90% of life is just showing up.

As for the future — no, Location Tech/Geospatial is going to be absorbed by the Big Data/Data Scientists tsunami that’s coming. We’ll be specialists within the greater field of Data Crap. Coincidentally, that’s what the DC in Washington DC will stand for in the future.

By the time this is posted I should have the blog entry up, so go there. #shamelessselfpromotion

Q: You have active presence across various social media channels. In fact, it is how we originally connected. Which channel do you find most effective? How has social media benefitted you professionally and in general?

A: The Twitters. I often quote this one line I ran across a while back “Facebook is for people you knew in high school, and on Twitter you meet the people you’re supposed to meet.” I’m sure my Twitter feed would make a personal branding expert drop a deuce in her pants right there, but I don’t like to put on airs. I’m good at what I do, I say “fuck” a lot, and I clean up well.

For three years I tried to figure out where G+ fits into my social media ecosystem. Which is why I stand by my “G+ is the Detroit of social media. Lots of infrastructure, but no one lives there.”

Social media has amplified my professional network by a factor of 4-ish.  Increased my knowledge of obscure/non mainstream tech. Point-blank Twitter has made me better at managing the nooks and crannies of my career.

Q: Prior to your life in geo you spent time in comedy. This penchant comes through, for example, in your “Drunken Geographer” Tumblr. Whom do you consider to be your comedic influences? Do you have any future plans with comedy?

A: WC Fields, Groucho Marx, Woody Woodberry, Benny Hill, George Carlin, and Kevin Smith.

Kevin Smith isn’t so much a comedian as a wordsmith with a humorous edge; he also shares my birthday. There you go haters, now you can find out my yahoo mail password.

Growing up where I did, we had to get a special antenna to get the Kansas City stations. There was an independent station — Channel 41 — that would play “Up All Night”. I would sneak up and watch Benny Hill, Groucho, and WC Fields. Fuse them with Carlin, and you can see where my belligerent, filthy, pointing-out-the-clay-feet-of-bullies, direct sense of humor comes from. For whatever reason, I can say things others can’t and generally walk away unscathed, so it’s working for me.

Woody Woodbury was a chance find in my dad’s vinyl collection. My love of him can only be explained through the U Tubes. Someday I will play that at an AA meeting.

I have 3 things that are in the works. Drunken Geographer “The Podcast”: The setup is based on Fat Man on Batman and a couple of other podcasts. I get someone who is “popular” in geo, we sit around, drink, and talk about why we love geography and what we would do with it if we got a grant from a foundation to just “Do Something”. I’m going to lasso Liz Lyon in on this, because when I start going raunchy, she can reel me back. I honestly run all the Tumblr posts past her before they go live. She’s a good gauge for what is too racy. I have no sensor for that.

Also, I have mapped out and written a “choose your own adventure” ArcGIS Desktop story that should be up on drunkengeographer.com.

The second thing, which is ready to go (I’m just looking for a venue), is a one-man show called “Tubing with Fags”.  Basically it’s me looking at the end of my marriage, my medical issues, the duke out for custody, and its aftermath. I really think the mental quill and paper, and writing all that stuff down in my memory really got me through.

The third is a collaborative effort with a law dog friend of mine. We both were in Washington Improv Troupe, just at different times.  Ed Gein the Musical. I wrote the intro song on her Facebook page during a really boring meeting.

I also have a couple of pop-up comedy things planned, one around GIS Day, and the second one around the Esri FedUC.

Q: I think this is the part of the interview where I ask you about hipsterism, but I can’t bring myself to do that. So, I’ll ask if you have any final thoughts you’d like to share with the GeoHipster readers?

A: Dammit, I had prepped an answer to this one. I’m not a GeoHipster, I’m a Spatial Punk.

Your ideas and dreams aren’t stupid, what if Frederick F. Russell was all like “I just don’t know how much of typhoid fever I should try to cure. What if I look stupid, what if I fail.” WE’D ALL HAVE DIED OF TYPHOID and apes would rule that planet, since typhoid isn’t a species jumper.

Don’t be close-minded, don’t be a zealot for one tech or the other, no one ever has all the answers to a problem, and never trust a bully.

Lastly, if your gut tells you it’s wrong, it is.

Thierry Gregorius: “Build a unique skill, stay focused, and never grow up”

Thierry Gregorius
Thierry Gregorius

Thierry Gregorius is a GIS professional with nearly 20 years’ experience in the oil & gas, land & property, and environmental sectors. Originally from Luxembourg, he studied geomatics in Germany, Australia and the UK, graduating with a PhD in satellite geodesy. Thierry has worked internationally throughout his career, including Shell‘s global exploration division in the Netherlands and Landmark Information Group in the UK. He is currently a principal consultant with Exprodat, a London-based GIS consultancy delivering services to the global energy industry.

Thierry is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and serves as External Examiner for Geomatics at Newcastle University. He is married with two children and lives in England’s southwest where he spends most of his spare time outdoors, surfing, swimming, cycling or hiking with his family. He also enjoys mountaineering and fine malt whisky. You can find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Thierry was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.

Q: You and I (and several other folks I know) have this in common: Considered careers in architecture, then veered off into GIS. Why did you choose GIS over architecture?

A: I loved how architecture combines opposing fields such as art and science, or design and engineering — in a spatial way. As a kid I basically dreamed of becoming an architect and fighter pilot. Both are highly spatial occupations, so I guess GIS was not such a huge leap. Flying jets was a non-starter as my native Luxembourg had no air force and besides I grew too tall to fit into a cockpit. So yes, I seriously considered architecture as a career. But this was the late 80s and many architects were unemployed and desperate enough to go into interior design. I was interested in spatial relationships, not soft furnishings.

So my career adviser took a look at my profile and suggested geomatics (surveying) for which there was much more demand at the time. I didn’t really know much about it but immediately liked the look of the curriculum. It had many of the spatial elements of architecture (or indeed jet flying), it had maths and science, and it even had a bit of art and design in the form of cartography. I was also really attracted by the outdoor aspect of the profession, although sadly these days most GIS and geomatics jobs are desk-bound — a trend that needs reversing, I feel, as it is important not to lose touch with the world we’re mapping.

There is a saying that goes “An architect knows something about everything, an engineer knows everything about one thing.” The same is true for GIS professionals; we work in a very multi-disciplinary way. So I’ve no regrets — choosing geomatics over architecture provided many job opportunities and allowed me to travel the world (as it happens I’m currently in Australia doing a piece of work for a client). And besides, I still do a bit of architecture and flying in my spare time…

Q: You have 20 years of geospatial experience, most of it in the Oil & Gas industry. What do you do for Exprodat as a GIS analyst? Can you tell us what your typical workday looks like? What technologies do you use?

A: I’m a so-called strategic consultant. People hire me to troubleshoot, audit or design their GIS frameworks in a wider, organisational sense. So it’s more like management consulting. I might call it geospatial acupuncture… you know, optimise data flows, find pressure points, clear blockages, that sort of thing. I basically help organisations make sure that their people have what they need to progress their GIS to the next level — and that goes far beyond technology.

Even though GIS technology has vastly grown and matured, many organisations still find it difficult to make it work for them. Most of the issues I encounter aren’t to do with technology at all. Much of my job involves talking to stakeholders across an organisation to find out what they’re really trying to achieve, what data they need to achieve it, and how they like to work. I then help them create a GIS strategy with clear priorities and a framework that works for them, including the necessary governance, support and skills.

Technology choices should be the final thing to consider after all the other requirements are clear, but it’s amazing how often people still do it the other way round. Technology can be a real distraction when designing a strategy. What I try to do is more about improving people’s awareness and confidence so they can find their own solutions. Once people really know what they want to achieve, the technical solution often designs itself.

The oil industry is a bit of a mystery to outsiders, but thanks to its geopolitical and global nature it provides some really interesting challenges, also for GIS folks. And contrary to what you might read in the media, the people are really nice! The geoscientists I’ve worked with have real passion for what they do, and they’ve been quietly doing 3D and “big” data for more than 20 years. The industry is as advanced as Aerospace and Defence — not many people realise that drilling a deep-water well is as complex as landing a probe on the Moon. But strangely this level of sophistication is not always reflected in the industry’s handling of GIS and spatial data. For many companies it is still an afterthought, like data exhaust, or simply the “topo department” that makes maps. Over the years the industry has gradually woken up to the true power of GIS, but they still have some way to go.

Exprodat is exploiting this niche and has been going from strength to strength. It’s a boutique consultancy that specialises in geospatial services, training and GIS workflows tailored to the world of oil and gas. It’s a real fun place to work, and we’re helping clients all over the world. When I invited Steven Feldman to meet Exprodat’s board they hit it off immediately, even though we’re an Esri partner and he’s an open source evangelist. And working for a privately owned company is like a breath of fresh air after long stints at large corporates — in my two years at Exprodat I’ve not once heard the term “shareholder return”. We just love what we do and aren’t scared to say no to projects that don’t fit our values. Clients see that and appreciate the authenticity. We don’t bullshit people.

Q: I enjoy reading your blog Georeferenced. When I first saw your post “GIS is not as simple as it used to be”, I assumed the title was meant tongue-in-cheek. Then I realized it was not. But wasn’t GIS supposed to get easier, not harder? Or is “powerful and easy-to-use” — the sales folks’ favorite catchphrase — an oxymoron?

A: Well yes, GIS should be powerful and easy but that’s rarely the case. In reality, each solution can lead to new problems and we need to be careful to not just pass the buck. Sure, we can hide all the complexity under the hood and present users with a clean, crisp interface. Google Maps was the first example of that, and there have been many others since. But as soon as users try to go one step further they immediately hit roadblocks.

For a geoscientist, for example, data comes from many sources including hardcopies and other analog data — not just the digital firehose. To this day there is still no satisfactory way of easily assimilating all this data in an organic way, like a scrapbook, on a map that can be queried or analysed in seamless ways. If users like geoscientists — who have a day job other than GIS — want to do something slightly different, they need to go back to their GIS folks and ask them to add another button, include a new query, preload some more data or, worse, clean up a lot more data before they can even load it. People can’t just chuck all their stuff into GIS, and that is a serious shortcoming. A paper scrapbook has no such problem, although obviously it has other limitations.

So with GIS, and technology more generally, it often feels like we’ve just taken an analog problem and turned it into a digital problem — but not solved the problem. The internet, GIS, tablets… all of these are great tools, of course, and I still pinch myself every time I look at Google Earth on my iPhone. But it feels like something’s still missing. We’re not quite getting at the true nature of things.

Hopefully the current state of technology is just a temporary aberration, as evidenced by the slow death of the desktop PC. I’d like to see something more organic, something more human — where the technology works for us, not vice-versa. Maybe in the future we’ll just be able to conjure up a kinetic holographic model in front of us so we can literally handle the data with our hands (or voice), like sculpting clay. Or something like that.

If that’s not going to happen, we might as well go back to drawing maps by hand. Ok, I’m joking of course. But at as it is, drawing maps by hand is more fun, and for many people a GIS interface is still a rectangular hole for round pegs.

Q: I had just laid my claim to the title O.G. (Original Geohipster) when I read your post “King George III was a geohipster”. What a downer! But His Majesty was into maps big time, so I concede. What do you think led the King to collect over 50,000 maps? Practicality or hipsterism?

A: I’ve no idea! I can only guess it was curiosity coupled with obsessiveness — which are not unusual traits in geospatial people, if I dare say so… King George III’s Wikipedia page doesn’t even mention his map collection, so maybe it was his guilty secret. Maybe he just preferred maps to mistresses, unlike other royals.

Q: You blogged about your appreciation for analog gadgets: watches, cameras, etc. Such preferences are often considered eccentric nowadays, when you can wear on your wrist an electronic watch that is also a computer and a camera. How do you explain your “eccentricity” to someone who doesn’t understand why you prefer the less accurate device to the more accurate one?

A: I guess it comes back to what I said before about technology. My self-winding mechanical watch may be slightly less accurate than a digital one, but it never needs a battery and when I hold it to my ear it ticks at 3 beats per second — it’s alive. Digital stuff is nice and convenient but just feels too disposable to have soul. I like things that are well-made, preferably with natural materials, where you can feel with all your senses the creativity, dedication and craftsmanship that have gone into them. I’d much rather have a beautiful and well-made watch that lasts a lifetime and is made of nothing more than metal and glass, than an electronic gadget synced with atomic clocks that bites the dust after 5 years and then becomes toxic waste.

Q: Is there fashion in technology? Does the desire to be different sometimes trump other more “rational considerations” — in tech as well as in couture and in everyday life? Is it wrong if it does?

A: This is very unhipsterish, but I don’t really do fashion, or even pretend to understand it! I’m bewildered by people queuing through the night to get the latest iPhone. I used to follow technology news, but I’ve taken a step back. It’s all just too hysterical — it’s like someone brings out a new sandwich toaster and everyone goes nuts. Maybe these people see in iPhones what I see in automatic watches or well-made bicycles. It’s good to be passionate about something, I just don’t share that particular passion. And that’s not to say I don’t appreciate technology — I do. But to me technology is just the conduit, not the end goal.

As for being different, it really inspires me when people make maps in new and surprising ways, like when those first D3 maps came out. And the people who made them weren’t even GIS people. What a relief! We are not alone in the universe.

Q: You ride a Dutch bike, skateboards, and surfboards. You prefer to draw maps by hand. Have you been called a hipster because of these activities? If you have, did you take it as a compliment or as an insult?

A: Ha, no! The only thing people ever call me is “tall”. And believe me, a dangly 6’7” creature is not a pretty sight on a surfboard. One advantage of having pushed past 40 is that it’s OK to do stuff and not look cool. And I’ve always refused to let my inner child die. It’s important to hang on to your sense of curiosity and wonder. I like learning new things, making connections, asking “why” or “why not” questions. This attitude is also critical for my job. So the worst insult anybody could call me is “grown up”.

The Dutch bike, by the way, is just a relic from my time living in Holland – a 28” frame with double cross bars. It’s simply the best bike I ever had, which is why I keep riding it in the UK despite the strange looks I get. And I rode it way before hipsters found Dutch bikes hip.

Q: Thank you for the interview. Any final words for the GeoHipster readers?

A: If hipsters are defined by being different, then I think all geospatial folks are basically geohipsters. We don’t fit into any camp, really. Let’s face it, anyone working with GIS full-time is not a geographer, computer scientist, engineer, geoscientist, or whatever. If you want to be one of those things, go study their degrees and enter their professions proper. To make your mark in a particular domain you can’t afford to dabble in multiple disciplines because you’ll be up against specialists with many years of dedicated practice and experience.

Over the years there has been much discussion and debate about what career a GIS professional should aspire to, or what a GIS career even is. In my opinion you need to have at least one skill that nobody else has. I once called this the “geomatics striptease” — what expertise and value is there exclusively to us geospatial folks? I came to the conclusion that, if I had to strip off my non-exclusive layers, my naked self would be a geodesist and cartographer. No other field does these things, or at least not as well.

There may be a few other exclusive skills in GIS or geomatics, but many so-called geospatial expertise areas also reside in other professions. They’re not unique and this can be a danger area for career development — unless of course you want to become a multi-disciplinary generalist. In which case, sure thing, go ahead and become that ‘architect’ who orchestrates input from different fields. But whatever you do, it needs to be a conscious decision, and it requires focus. If you dilute yourself too much as a professional you’ll become the Swiss army knife that people only use when there’s nothing better at hand.

So to stay relevant, build a unique skill, stay focused, and never grow up. If you do those things, nobody can eat your lunch.

James Fee: “If you have spare time this weekend, learn dat”

James Fee
James Fee

James Fee is the creator of Planet Geospatial, which has helped build a community around geospatial blogs. He has also keynoted conferences including the Safe Software FME UC, URISA, BAAMA and many more. You can follow him on Twitter, view his presentations on GitHub, and connect with him on Facebook and LinkedIn.

James was interviewed for GeoHipster by Mike Dolbow and Atanas Entchev.

MD: I get the sense that your GIS career has had a few unusual twists and turns. Can you tell us how it all started, and what the biggest surprise has been?

JF: It started with a small job for the City of Mesa, AZ working on the mid-decade census. A Sun SPARC workstation was dropped off and I was the only one who wanted to read the Arc/INFO manuals. So I just started with the “A” commands and worked down to the “Z” commands. Good thing I needed ADDITEM first than WORKSPACE. The biggest surprise has been how easy it is for GIS to adapt to changing technologies. Honestly we are doing the same things we did 25 years ago but quicker and cheaper with less bodies around to get it done. I don’t do GIS in the same way I did it in the early 90s. I don’t even call myself a GIS practitioner. But I do the same basic commands I did with Arc/INFO back in the day, just with JavaScript and PostGIS.

AE: I see a trend in recent years where a number of prominent geogeeks now do “more database, less GIS”. Why do you think that is? Is there money in GIS?

JF:  GIS has always been databases. The difference now is not be so special about it. Why do we need SDE when PostGIS/SQL Server and Oracle can do the same work? Why do we need a special proprietary GIS file format when SQLite, PostGIS and even CSV get the job done easier? That doesn’t mean the skills to run such operations are simple, just the tools are more robust, cross-platform, and easier to learn. Databases are the key to solving spatial problems and they don’t need to be tied to some special GIS silo. Even Esri sees that. I doubt there is money is GIS on its own. We all see that. The money is in spatial and solving problems in those applications and databases that are necessarily spatial by default.

AE: You are one of the earliest geo bloggers, and one of the most opinionated. Have you experienced any adverse effects from your blogging?

JF: If I have I don’t recall. Blogging has opened up thousands of doors for my growth and sanity. I’ve never been told to take something down and I don’t think I’ve ever done so.

MD: I’ve never had the patience to keep a blog updated, but I certainly appreciate the value. Have you ever looked back at old posts like this one and marvel at how much things have changed? Or do you spend more time pursuing current topics like Metadata Madness (which I couldn’t agree more on)?

JF: I started blogging because I was fed up with SDE and Oracle Spatial. I found PostGIS and wanted to learn more. Blogging seemed the very 2005 thing to do. Things have changed for sure but many of the same projects and players are still around doing what they do best. I don’t really go back and look at my old blog posts except when I’m googling a subject and something I wrote is the best result. The old circular reference never fails when you’re in a hurry. I always look forward rather than reflect on debating the need of open-sourcing Avenue.

AE: Last week you announced the end of Planet Geospatial and Spatially Adjusted, and moving all your blogging to Tumblr. Does this signal the end of long-form blogging for you? Do you think long-form blogging is dying?

JF: I moved to Tumblr because it is easier to share and write on the iPhone and iPad. I’m so over “rolling my own” solution with blogging. Twitter and Facebook have taken over for blogs. It’s more democratic these days. Rather than wait for a blogger to write a subject and make a comment, you can just write 140 characters and let the community run with it. I don’t think Tumblr limits me from long-form blogging. It just allows me to share things quicker than WordPress or Jekyll ever did. After over 2,200 blog posts and 10,000+ comments, change is inevitable.

MD: Over the last few years you’ve hosted “Hangouts with James Fee”. Your “10 Years of Steve Coast” hangout lasted almost an hour in August. What inspired you to pursue this kind of format? Is it easier to host a hangout than it is to write an opinion piece?

JF: It’s fun to hear the conversations. We always say that when we’re having beers talking about how much we love the shapefile. It just seemed natural to have such a hangout and the team at WeoGeo did much to get it done. It’s easier to have a hangout of course, there doesn’t go much prep into it. Some things need to be written down though and that’s where the blog still has its point. Generally these hangouts could last hours if we didn’t put up a hour time limit. I wish I had time to get more done, they’re a blast and it’s never hard to find someone to join in.

AE: Is dat the next big thing? Why/why not?

JF: dat is great for working with large datasets. One can stream any format into any format. It’s an ETL but it is so much more than that. I like it because its CLI is so easy to use. So much data resides in huge data stores that are hard to access and use. I envision dat being that key that opens them up and allows me to get at the data in the tools I like to use. I feel like it is the key to open government data moving forward. If you have spare time this weekend, learn dat.

AE: I admire your passion for baseball, even though I don’t understand the sport. Any chance a Euro transplant such as myself can learn to appreciate baseball?

JF: Sure, baseball is all about statistics. That’s why I think spatial geeks love it so much. Every play, every movement of each player, every pitch, every swing is tracked and loaded into a database. It’s such a social sport too. Grab a beer, your friends, and head to a ballpark for a great evening. That and the Giants are World Series Champions again!

MD: Speaking of your fandom, it appears you are a Giants fan for baseball, a Lakers fan for basketball, and and Arizona State fan for football. This is confusing even for a New-Englander-turned-Minnesotan. Can you explain your allegiances?

JF: So there is no simple answer. I’m from Southern California so I grew up a Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Rams and California Angels fan. I disliked the Dodgers because they were everything the Angels were not. Thus I rooted for the Giants just to annoy Dodger fans. The Rams moved away and I swore off the NFL but at the same time I went to college at Arizona State University (thus college football replaced the NFL). Before Phoenix had a baseball team, it was the Triple A Phoenix Firebirds affiliate for the San Francisco Giants so I just started rooting for them. Then after graduation I moved up to San Francisco and the Giants replaced the Angels officially. Of course it made it hard to root for the 2002 World Series but I was pulling for the Giants. Thus it’s Giants in baseball, ASU for all NCAA sports, and the Lakers for basketball (though there isn’t any reason to pay attention this year).

AE: Thank you for the interview. Any parting words for the GeoHipster readers?

JF: Open data is a buzzword but it’s the wave of the future. Projects like dat are going to be critical for any project moving forward. Learn these tools (dat, PostGIS, Python, JavaScript) and you’ll be successful for the next decade.

Amy Smith: “One of the things I love about Maptime is that it’s open to all skill levels and backgrounds”

Amy Smith
Amy Smith

Amy Smith is a Geospatial Data and Technology Specialist with Fehr & Peers in San Francisco. She’s had some great opportunities working with geographic information systems in a variety of fields, including environmental studies, satellite imagery analysis, water resources, and transportation planning. Amy currently spends her days working with an amazing group of people focused on improving transportation in our communities. In her free time she enjoys exploring the hills of San Francisco.

Amy was interviewed for GeoHipster by Christina Boggs.

Q: A few years back we used to work together but I don’t actually remember how you got into GIS. You have a master’s in it right?

 A: I do! I have a Master’s in Geography and Regional Studies. I got into GIS through a chance encounter with a geography professor whom I passed in a hallway on campus. Somehow we started talking about geography. I was undeclared at the time. I was trying to decide between GIS and intro to computer science for a general requirement. He told me a bit about GIS and geography, and that really won me over. Who knows, I could have been a computer scientist if I hadn’t met him!

Q: You didn’t leave computers entirely though, you’re pretty slick with code… In fact, you’re a great promoter of Python. Which came first – GIS or coding?

A: My first programming/scripting language was Matlab. I learned it while I was working on my master’s studying space-based synthetic aperture radar data in the Florida Everglades. Through learning Matlab, I learned the basics of programming logic. When I started using desktop GIS every day for work, it got me thinking about ways I could be using programming for spatial analysis, which led me down the path to Python. Since then, I use it almost every day, and not just for spatial analysis.

Q: What other tasks do you use Python for?

A: Lately I’ve been using it to prepare transit data for travel demand models. Since many of the inputs of the models are text-based, Python lends itself well to these types of tasks. It can also come in handy for automating things you’d rather not do manually. For example, I had an Excel spreadsheet with multiple worksheets that needed to be saved as individual CSVs. Instead of exporting them one by one, I wrote a script to iterate through each worksheet and save it as a CSV. Kind of a mundane example, but it’s this type of thing that I think can save lots of time at the end of the day.

Q: Speaking of time, you did a transportation study and saved time by scripting some node-based analysis of road segments to bicycle accident occurrences. I saw your talk at the ESRI UC where you talked about becoming one of the points. Do you know if that study has been reviewed by any of the traffic safety folks out in your area, has it helped any?

A: That was one of the first projects where I got a chance to develop a custom script tool for ArcGIS. The tool uses a roadway network and collision data to pinpoint high incident collision areas that might need attention. The tool was applied most recently by Placer County here in California to run a collision analysis of their entire county-maintained roadway network, which used to be a manual review process. They used some of the results to apply for grants and received several grants funding highway safety projects. Another benefit of the tool is that the county can continue to use it with new data in their safety programs.

Q: You’ve taught workshops on Python and even done some online workshops. Do you have any more in the future, or are you branching out to something different?

A: I’m planning some internal Python training here at Fehr & Peers for our planners and engineers who’d like to learn more about it. I’m always happy to talk with others about Python, so I hope there are more opportunities out there for workshops. I’m still learning too, so I’m always on the lookout for workshops and meetups others are hosting. In terms of branching out, I’ve recently been diving into JavaScript. There’s a library I’ve been learning about called D3 that has some great spatial as well as non-spatial capabilities. I’m still in the “stumbling through it” phase, but luckily there’s a great user community online and here in the Bay area that’s eager to share knowledge.

Q: A few months back you attended my first #maptimeSF with me; now that you’ve moved out to San Francisco I see you get to go to #maptimeSF more often. For someone who is thinking about attending their first Maptime, how do you think it helped you as an advanced GISer?

A: Maptime is a meetup that’s happening in many cities around the world where folks can get together, learn about maps, make maps, talk about maps, or maybe just hang out with friends. One of the things I love about Maptime is that it’s open to all skill levels and backgrounds. People are encouraged to ask questions and learn from each other. It’s a very welcoming environment. I’ve learned a lot about how others outside of my industry are using geospatial data and technologies. It’s also encouraging to see a thriving interest and enthusiasm for maps.

Q: Hearing about your work in transportation is really interesting. The water side still misses you. What are you up to at Fehr & Peers? Any interesting projects you can share with us?

A: I have so many great memories from my time with the Department of Water Resources in West Sacramento — it’s where I really started to get my feet wet (pun intended) with Python! It’s also where I learned to drive a boat. I definitely miss the field work collecting bathymetry data in the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta (picture below for proof), and of course the people too!

Amy Smith collecting bathymetry data in the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta
Amy Smith collecting bathymetry data in the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta

 One of the great things about GIS is that it’s applicable in many different industries. Transportation planning has a lot of great uses for GIS too. One of the more recent projects I worked on focused on improving cyclist and pedestrian access to transit stations. The project had a large data organization component that involved gathering available spatial data and organizing it in a consistent way so that we could use it in a series of network analyses. We looked at some of the ways that a well-connected network might help improve access to transit, making it easier for people to walk and bike to stations. I’m currently working on a project, also transit-related, that involves improving transit in an area that doesn’t have a lot of existing transit. It can be a challenge to anticipate how new facilities will affect travel in an area if you don’t have many observations on how people are currently using transit. In this case, we’re identifying places that have developed transit networks and that share similar characteristics with the study area that’s considering improving or expanding their transit system. Both of these projects are very much rooted in spatial analysis, but also require local knowledge. Another fun part of my job is getting to know new areas and talking with people to learn about qualities specific to their region that might not be obvious from just looking at the data.

Q: If people are looking to check out some of your cool stuff, where can you be found online?

A: I tweet about spatial topics, transportation, and my endless appetite for spinach @wolfmapper.

Q: Geohipster Amy Smith is awesome! How do you feel about being part of spreading the geohipster gospel?

A: I’m a big fan of GeoHipster! I was trying to disguise myself a bit by using a seriffed font, but I think you found me out anyway. 🙂

Q: Speaking of transportation, I’ve got to wrap this interview up so I can cycle to work. Is there anything else you would like to share with #geohipster readers?

A: I recently learned about a spatial data format called topoJSON that’s one of my new favorite things. I found out about it at a recent Maptime on D3 and have been reading more about it on Mike Bostock’s wiki. Also, I’ll be helping host a webinar on transit planning with Code for America next month. Tune in if you’re interested!

Happy cycling!

Ed Freyfogle: “Every startup is vulnerable, that’s what makes it exciting”

Ed Freyfogle
Ed Freyfogle

Ed Freyfogle is a German/American entrepreneur living in London. He is one of the founders of Lokku, makers of the OpenCage Geocoder.

Ed was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.

Q: You are the only geo person I know with an MBA from MIT. By contrast, I know people who wish they had an MBA from an Ivy League school so they could get out of geo. So what is your story? How did you get into geo?

A: It’s a bit of a long story, so bear with me.

I guess like most people “in the industry” I’ve always liked maps, as a kid was drawing maps, all that kind of stuff. Before MIT I had worked  as a software developer at Yahoo Germany during the first internet wave of the late nineties. It was a great case of being in the right place at the right time. I learned an immense amount. After five years there, with all its amazing ups and then the downs of the crash in 2001, it was time for something new. Also, while I really enjoyed programming I also wanted to learn the business side. So I got an MBA at MIT and thought a lot about what I wanted to do, and where I wanted to do it (I mainly grew up in the US). My conclusion was that I had really enjoyed Yahoo when it was small and had the startup feel; when I joined the Munich office was 15 people and I got to work on pretty much every system. I also concluded I had really enjoyed living in Europe. So in 2005 I moved to London in the hopes of finding a startup to join. Back then the scene was microscopic compared to today, I couldn’t find a startup where I liked the people, the idea, my role, etc. So in the end I started my own company, Lokku, along with another ex-Yahoo, and we’re still thriving today.

Those that know their geo history will recall that 2005 was the year Google Maps came out, shortly followed by Housing Maps, the first “mash-up” to put pins on a map. Heady times! Lokku’s first product, and still our biggest, was a real estate search engine called Nestoria. Initially we were just for London, today we’re in nine countries. A friend of mine from Yahoo, Mikel Maron (who later went on to start Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team), knew about maps, and was advising us, and that’s how I got into the London OpenStreetMap scene, going to a few of the pub meet-ups. I’m proud to say we sponsored the very first State of the Map conference back in 2006 (and have sponsored many more since). In 2006 there was a mapping party on the Isle of Wight, and afterwards we made tiles and started using them on Nestoria if someone searched for a home on the Isle of Wight. I’m pretty sure this was the first ever commercial use of OSM in a consumer service.

A few years later we launched Nestoria India and Nestoria Brazil. To do that we needed geodata for those countries. I have the sense most readers of this blog focus on the US or Canada, and I have no doubt there are impressive technical and licensing challenges around getting US geodata, but if you want to experience some grade-A bureaucracy I invite you, dear reader, to try to purchase Indian geodata. It was impossible, at least for a tiny start-up like ours. So basically we had to launch using only OpenStreetMap as our geodata source. I can not pretend OSM in India is perfect, it still lacks coverage. But then of course so does any other geo datasource given how rapidly things are changing in India. Anyway, OSM was good enough, and now Nestoria India is one of our fastest growing markets. This is classic “Innovator’s Dilemma” stuff, the new technology is “good enough” for experimentation, and then all of a sudden it’s good enough for day to day stuff, and then all of a sudden it’s the norm, and the existing models with their old cost structure can’t compete.

So we thought about that and thought about whether there is a way we could help make that happen, and the result was last year we launched our brand OpenCage Data. Our hypothesis was that companies want to use OSM, but right now it’s too chaotic for them – the documentation isn’t always great, the way to learn is to get on mailing lists, the toolset around OSM is evolving very rapidly — and that all of this puts off companies who are used to more stability. We talked with lots of people, anyone who might have any possible use case for geodata, but especially people outside of the existing market. Companies put off by the cost, or not even really aware of how using geodata would help them. We learned a lot: OSM is not on most people’s radar yet. The thing that came up again and again was geocoding. So this summer we launched the OpenCage geocoder. We try to differentiate on simplicity/ease of use, by aggregating many different open geodata sources, and by then annotating our results with things developers would find useful. It’s early days, but we’re learning a lot and getting good feedback.

Finally, over the years we’ve been approached by a lot of different people asking for advice, help. We never had a good framework to channel that so we usually said no. But over the last year we’ve started seed investing in some of these ideas. We provide a bit of money, but also advice, connections, etc. It has to be in a category we have expertise in and one of those is geo, so now we’re involved in a few different geo startups.

Q: You are involved with several startups, and you run the #geomob London event. How do you manage to juggle so many different things?

A: Well some of the things I’m a driver, others it’s just as an investor / advisor, but yeah, there is plenty to keep me busy — also I have two small children, so there’s not a lot of down time.

#geomob is a regular event we run. It’s a lot of fun. It is amazing how many cool things are happening in geo and location-based services in London (the city where OpenStreetMap was invented). We try to create a forum to show off that innovation. Every few months we have an evening event where five or six different speakers get 15 minutes each to talk about their project. And it’s not all startups — we usually have a good mix of startups, hobbyists, academics, and the occasional megacorp. Afterwards we all go to the pub and have a few beers. We see lots of wacky ideas and experiments. And some of those crazy ideas turn into great things. Some of the speakers are polished, some aren’t. It’s a healthy mix from all across the geo spectrum.

Our next event is November 4th, if you’re in London, join us.

Q: I am intrigued by the business side of a geo startup. I watched your APICon 2014 presentation where you talk about OpenCage Geocoder — your latest startup. Your MBA background comes through strongly in that presentation. You are also very open about your business strategy. Doesn’t that make the business vulnerable?

A: Every startup is vulnerable, that’s what makes it exciting. No risk, no fun.

Lots of people who work in big companies or organizations perhaps don’t appreciate that with a startup the main challenge is creating momentum from a standing start. You start with literally nothing. And then you have to make it happen. No one comes to you. You have to create the momentum.

In general it is clear there is massive societal benefit to open data. But it’s not yet clear if all of that benefit goes to the end consumer and is just a cost society needs to shoulder (i.e., through taxes so that government services release all their data), or if there is role for private companies. Our bet is that there is. Anyone who has feedback on what we’re up to we’d love to hear from.

BTW, I’m choosing to take your “You MBA background comes through strongly in that presentation” as a compliment.

Q: In the same talk you refer to “Berlin, Berlin” as an error of redundancy. But do you know that there is a Berlin in New Jersey, another in Maryland, and yet another in Connecticut? Maybe “Berlin, Berlin” does make sense after all? Or perhaps addressing cannot — or should not — be standardized globally?

A: For those who aren’t familiar with the problem here’s a brief description. I was in Berlin, Germany, I tweeted, and Twitter showed my location as “Berlin, Berlin” (i.e., Berlin the city, in Berlin the state). Of course there are multiple Berlins, but Twitter has the coordinates from my phone. There is no ambiguity. They know I am in Berlin, capital city of Germany, yet they choose to show the location in a way that makes no sense to a local.

Absolutely addressing can not be standardized globally. It’s too late, there are almost as many formats as there are countries. That’s part of the rich tapestry of the human experience. Software should be able to solve the problem and present the location in the way a local considers normal.  I blogged about this and how we’re solving it on the OpenCage geocoder. Our solution is open source and we’d love everyone’s help. Pull requests here please.

Q: On addressing: I like What3Words and what they do, but how realistic is it to expect the whole world (including non-English speaking regions) to embrace an entirely new spatial reference system? Do you think this will happen before or after the US adopts the metric system?

A: Many industries and contexts in the US have adopted the metric system, as you’ll know if you buy a 2-liter of Coke. But I take your point that it isn’t the norm in most consumers’ heads. But so what? That doesn’t stop the rest of the world from using it to get their tasks done.

And it’s the same with a solution like What3Words. It is not an immediately compelling solution in a place like London, which is well addressed and has highly accurate postcodes. But if you’ve ever been to a meeting in India you will concede that there are parts of the world where addressing can only be described as a disaster. There are no addresses. You are navigating by landmark and frankly it is hugely painful. Not just for me the tourist, but for the locals as well. Those parts of the world need a better solution, and it needs to be one that is simple enough for the average person. That solution is not long/lat. I think it might be What3Words.

As a product person, What3Words is great in its attempt to make something complicated simple. I recently watched this excellent talk by Vladimir Agafonkin, maker of the mapping library Leaflet, on simplicity, and how it is needed in geo. It’s too early to say if What3Words will succeed, but I love that they are innovating by being simple. As an investor What3Words falls squarely in that category of most people dismiss it as crazy, but it just might not be, and if it succeeds it will be on a massive scale.

But if some parts of the world want to keep doing things the hard way or say measuring temperature in Fahrenheit, that’s cool. It’s a big world and there’s usually more than one way to do it.

Q: SplashMaps is another one of your business ventures, and the most hipstery one, IMHO. How did you come up with the idea? How is the business doing? Are the maps selling?

A: We’re just investors in SplashMaps, full credit goes to David and the team. But I agree with you, it is hip. It’s an amazing product, a customisable fabric map, perfect for all sorts of outdoor uses where you’ll get wet, muddy, sweaty, etc. So yes, in 2014 I’ve invested in a company that makes physical maps, which I guess is a little contrarian. I wrote about all our reasons for investing on our blog.

Good news for all the hipsters out there who can’t wait to get their hands on one (did I mention Christmas is coming?); in the very near future SplashMaps will be available globally, to date they’ve only been in Great Britian. If you know a geohipster who needs a gift, you’re going to have a tough time beating a SplashMap.

For me, SplashMaps is exciting because it’s a great example of the kind of innovation that’s possible when the barriers around access to and cost of geodata go away. I’m also more intrigued lately by taking digital products and bringing them back to analog as a way to create value. You can go on a tough hike using your digital map. But people want tangible artifacts they can hang memories and stories on. Everyone in the geo industry can remember the pleasure of gathering around an atlas, looking at far away tropical islands, sliding your finger along a journey you took. This tangible experience is a basic human urge that digital doesn’t meet, and one that SplashMaps taps into.

Q: I understand you moved out of Shoreditch, which is London’s counterpart to Williamsburg in Brooklyn. What’s up with that?

A: Don’t worry, I now live in the Barbican in central London. Shoreditch’s not far, but it’s gone a bit too upmarket. Anyway, I think of myself not so much as a hipster as a digital brutalist, so the Barbican’s a better match for me, my wife, and our two kids. All that said, these days the cool kids are all in Moabit and Wedding, so I’m working on convincing my wife it’s her idea that we move to Berlin. Let’s see.

Q: We haven’t talked about humor on GeoHipster, which I realize is a serious lapse. Let’s fix that. You were a humor columnist for the MIT student newspaper. Do you have a joke I haven’t heard?

A: Wow, you’ve done your research. Yeah, I used to write an anonymous advice column for the school newspaper called “Ask Alfred” in which I pretended to be a greedy and lecherous version of Alfred P. Sloan, the business school’s namesake (CEO of GM, often credited with inventing the modern corporation). In hindsight it was an attempt to poke fun at the divergence between the high-minded ideals espoused by the school and the profit-driven reality (greed, if you will) of the industries most MBAs go into. On the other hand though, I do think in the open geo world, particularly here in Europe, there’s a tendency to err too far in the other direction — thinking everything should be free all the time, all code needs to open source, we all need to be motivated by altruism all the time. As anyone trying to pay rent in central London will tell you, goodwill alone will not get you far.

I’m not sure what the joke is here. These days my comedy is more situational and slapstick.

Q: Thank you so much for the interview. Any parting words for the GeoHipster readers?

A: In the geo industry (if I can say so as an outsider) we all get that something major has changed with the rise of the smartphone; all of a sudden we all carry around a supercomputer that knows exactly where we are at all times. But I don’t think anyone grasps how radically this will change everything. For everyone, but particularly for the geo industry. We are at the start of an amazing ride. Anyone who’s up for the trip I would love to meet with. So if you’re London come say hello, we’ll go grab a pint. If that makes me a geohipster, so be it.

Brian Timoney: “The ‘G’ stands very much for ‘geospatial’ and not ‘GIS'”

Brian Timoney
Brian Timoney

Brian (@briantimoney) is an information consultant based in Denver, Colorado. With 15 years experience primarily in the geospatial sector, he has worked in a variety of sectors including energy, defense, and local government. Brian speaks both English and Spanish with a Philadelphia accent, and is a US Marine Corps veteran.

Brian was interviewed for GeoHipster by Mike Dolbow and Atanas Entchev.

AE: You blog and tweet about geo, data visualization, and business analytics. Which of those is of the most interest to you nowadays and why? Is spatial special?

BT: While analytics are hot (if the prevalence of the term “data science” is any indicator), the usefulness of raw insight often hinges on a visualization that is both accessible and meaningful. As for where Geo fits in, the popularity of map-based listicles e.g. “38 Maps that Explain the Global Economy” either indicates a serious, ongoing demand, or the delight of the otherwise well-educated to engage in geographic thinking for the first time since middle school.

MD: Your blog post summing up findings on How the Public Actually Uses Local Government Web Maps is so succinct and forehead-slapping that I find myself constantly referring customers to it. Do you see any evidence that the tide is turning in local government web maps, moving from overcomplicated user interfaces to simpler designs?

BT: Anecdotally I know of some projects in Europe that were directly influenced by those articles, and some vendors have engaged with the ideas in those articles. Yet we still see local government opting for the visual grammar of desktop GIS because it both feels familiar and risk-free. Or put another way, government websites aren’t punished for the users who leave because of a crappy user experience.

But what is significantly turning the tide is mobile. My new favorite quote is from CartoDB’s Javier de la Torre who said the future of geo “isn’t an application with 100 buttons, but hundreds of apps with one button.”

MD: Your series on Why Map Portals Don’t Work expands on your observations, taking a deeper dive on the subject of simplicity in web mapping. If you had to pick one part of that series for customers to focus on, which one would it be and why?

BT: My kingdom for an auto-complete search text box! Google has made text-based search such an intuitive part of using the web that maps that leave the user no choice but to interact with map elements — pan, zoom, etc. — make discovering user intent much more difficult than it should be. And make no mistake, users end up alienated.

MD: You must feel some validation when you see Vladimir Agafonkin’s recent FOSS4G talk on how simplicity will save GIS. What do you think this means for the future of web mapping?

BT: If you see the world as a Pareto 80-20 proposition, then you could make the case that the history of web mapping interfaces is one of bloating the map out to solve the last 20% of use cases. Vlad’s exclusive focus on the core 80% of map functionality is what has made Leaflet so successful, especially outside the traditional GIS boundaries. He was the star attraction at the recent JS.geo, and his story highlights the need to keep our industry open to outsiders. Just to be clear, there are plenty of workflows out there where an OpenLayers or Google Maps or Esri Javascript API makes the most sense. But Vlad’s commitment to both Leaflet as an open source project and iterating only on a core subset of functionality  has served everyone very well.

AE: FOSS4G 2014 generated a lot of buzz and excitement, but is open source making serious inroads in the geo market space? Esri still rules the geo desktop. Microsoft is still king of the PC. Do you see this changing any time soon? Or will the desktop decrease in market share to a point of irrelevance?

BT: For me, the big takeaway from this year’s FOSS4G was that the “G” stands very much for “geospatial” and not “GIS”. I think back to the 2007 FOSS4G show in Victoria where there was much more seeing the market as the GIS market dominated by ESRI. Today, the opportunities run so much broader and deeper. Take an outfit like the Climate Corporation, who gave a FOSS4G presentation on doing geo things using ElasticSearch: they were an open data/big data/analytics startup that were bought for $1.1 billion. They had a specific operational need — spatial search — and I seriously doubt they spent 15 minutes thinking of it as a “GIS” problem but rather a very specific type of indexing challenge.

When you say “Esri still rules the geo desktop” I think that would be better expressed as “…the GIS desktop”. But what about people doing spatial things elsewhere? People are doing geo things in R Studio. People are doing geo things in IPython Notebooks. To see GIS as having a foregone monopoly on spatial analysis and mapmaking is to miss the much larger picture. Unfortunately, some of the biggest losers in this changing landscape are current students unknowingly suffering from a lazy Geography curriculum that offers little in the way of spatial reasoning and data fluency but instead only a mediocre grasp of a particularly byzantine desktop interface.

AE: I am reminded of this ancient Persian proverb: “The dogs bark, but the caravan goes on.” Microsoft bought Minecraft to keep the caravan going. Should Esri buy SimCity? Because, you know, geodesign…

BT: Everything I know about Geodesign I’ve learned from James Fee’s Spatially Adjusted blog. I have nothing further to add.

AE: Do you consider yourself a (geo)hipster? You are a skier. Is skiing a hipstery pastime? (Or is it only if your heels are disconnected, as Mike Dolbow suggests?)

BT: The hippest thing I’ve ever done was switch from pleated khakis to flat-front khakis.

I also shave every morning and tuck in my shirt during business hours.

But if hipsterism is essentially about alternative status hierarchies, then count me in. Ever since Boundless named me the 26th most influential Geospatial tweeter, I’ve been looking for a new lunch table to sit at.

While I ski, it’s only in the context of enjoying the finest in chairlift technology, for which I happily pay a pretty penny. Mike is correct: in Colorado, “real skiers” are the tele-markers who ascend mountains using skins and free-heel down in knee-deep powder off-piste. To them I say “we will each go to our respective graves with very different ideas of ‘fun’”.

MD: What’s up with the “Geospatial Amateurs”? Has your intentional irony achieved the desired result? Can those meetups only take place where weed is legal?

BT: Geospatial Amateurs was the brainchild of Peter Batty (@pmbatty) and Nate Irwin (@nateirwin) and was very much informed by experiences with previous iterations of developer groups and meetups where well-intentioned sponsorship by vendors ended up creating environments that weren’t really what was originally envisioned. By putting “Amateurs” in the title, we accomplish two important goals: it’s a signal to vendors that this isn’t really anything you need to bother with, while communicating to curious outsiders that while it might be a bit nerdy, it’s not self-serious and insular nerdery.

As for weed, clearly you fall into the pattern of most of my East Coast friends for whom it holds an exotic allure akin to a 19-year-old frat boy pondering topless beaches in Europe. I’m within a 5-minute walk of three retail outlets and yet I guarantee you have given it more thought than me over the past few months. But to reassure you, the Geo Amateurs seem much more into craft beer.

AE: Thank you for the interview. Any parting words for the GeoHipster readers? Is spatial special?

BT:  Stop reading blogs during working hours.

Oh, you’re waiting for your buffer intersection to finish?

Cool — you’re still billable. Carry on.