Alasdair Rae: “I think the best maps are simple ones”

Alasdair Rae
Alasdair Rae

I grew up in Inverness in the Scottish Highlands and then went on to study geography in Glasgow at the University of Strathclyde, more of the same, with a good bit of GIS at The Ohio State University (Columbus, OH) and the University of Liverpool, where I did my PhD in urban and regional planning. I then worked at the University of Manchester before moving to the University of Sheffield in 2008, where I have been for the past decade. I’ve always been interested in maps and places, so I suppose it’s only natural that I ended up being a professor of urban studies and planning and doing a maps and stats type blog.

I live in the Hillsborough area of Sheffield with my wife Bethan and my two boys, Finlay (11) and Isaac (4). I’ve realised that an important part of being a modern parent is providing instant, on-the-spot IT support and ensuring maximum wifi speeds at all times! This is often much harder than my day job.

Blog: www.statsmapsnpix.com and @undertheraedar on Twitter.
Alasdair was interviewed for GeoHipster by Ralph Straumann.

Q: Alasdair, you are a professor at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning of the University of Sheffield in the UK. What is that you do there?

A: Yes, that’s right – I am indeed. For the next three years I have a research fellowship, which means I’m not officially teaching – though I always keep my hand in by doing guest lectures for people here and elsewhere.

Most of the time I’m doing research, travelling and a good bit of admin and management. The last two in particular are even less exciting than they sound. But I really can’t complain because the upside is that I generally get to follow my interests and do cool stuff.

For example, for the best part of this year one of the projects I’m running is looking at a spatial database of a million or so neighbourhood reports on things like graffitti, road defects and so on, and analysing it in relation to lots of other interesting datasets, like income, deprivation, health and so on. I’m also doing some work on trying to understand the impacts of Airbnb in Edinburgh, doing a project on housing market search behaviours and trying to understand travel to work patterns – and disconnections – in poor neighbourhoods across Great Britain.

I also try to write a lot, across many different platforms. I have a few academic journals articles on the go (more US Megaregions!), three book projects, plus writing for a variety of other outlets like The Conversation. And of course I like to blog and keep in touch with people on Twitter.

Q: Your Twitter bio mentions “stats, maps, cities, housing, transport”. Do you combine these themes into an overarching research topic or do you like to look at each of them separately?

A: Some of the stuff I do in my day-to-day job doesn’t make it in to the public domain – perhaps because it’s not ready yet, or because the data aren’t open, but lots of it does and what I think unites my work is a mission to create a bridge between data and knowledge. Data alone isn’t very useful so I try to help shed light on it in a way that helps bring it to life.

Because I’m interested in places, this means my work often focuses on cities, which are full of housing, which are all connected by transport. If I can take available data, do something to it, and then present it in a way which helps people understand things – or just take an interest in them – then I think that is worthwhile.

Q: How do GIS and maps fit into this mix?

A: GIS and maps are great tools. I also like the technical side of things, playing around with data and trying to make it do cool things, and I like communicating with the written word but sometimes you just can’t beat a good map. I think the best maps are simple ones and I’m learning all the time about how to make maps so I suppose my blog and Twitter feed are a reflection of this.

Q: I think you coined the term #geogiffery? Can you shed some light and also explain the concept around it to us?

A: I like making gifs, and sometimes it’s for a good reason – like when I’m looking at election results data – we’ve had a lot of these in the UK recently. Other times, I’m just experimenting, like in this blog post about the famous ‘coastline paradox’. Since it’s a gif and it’s also geo, I started to call them ‘geogifs’ – perhaps others already did but either way it became a bit of an obsession so I just called it ‘geogiffery’ and now Topi Tjukanov has taken it into new dimensions with his shipping geogifs and so much more! I do think geogifs have a role to play in dataviz and storytelling more widely. It’s a great format.

A geogif of US states’ population numbers by Alasdair

Q: I enjoy following your work, because you have interesting ideas and follow through on them in, I think, often particularly original ways. Where do you draw inspiration from?

A: I’m just interested in the world and how it works, or doesn’t work. But there is so much data out there today, and we are overwhelmed with information, so it’s hard to make sense of it all. I don’t think data and maps have all the answers of course, but they’re often a good starting point. So some of what I do is my attempt to understand the world better, and some of it is just me experimenting with ways to do this. For inspiration, it’s a mix of old stuff and newer stuff. For example, the graphics and dataviz teams at the New York Times, Washington Post and the Financial Times all produce great work and are a fantastic example of what can be done with new data and methods. But equally people like Waldo Tobler and Jean Gottmann are a good reminder that not much today is really new – it’s mostly just easier to produce.

One great source of older material that I like to look at is the National Library of Scotland map collection. It’s amazing stuff, and not just about Scotland, though a lot of it is. It shows you what is possible when you don’t think like a modern-day GIS or programming language and aren’t bound by its rules and parameters. One of my favourite collections here is the Bathymetrical Survey of the Fresh-Water Lochs of Scotland, 1897-1909, which in addition to being beautiful is also very informative. You can impress your friends, for example with the knowledge that Loch Ness has a mean depth of 132 metres, or 433 feet. Though only if you have the wrong kind of friends. And I can personally testify, from real world experience, that the water these maps depict is very cold indeed!

Loch Morar – the deepest in Scotland (and the UK) at 310 metres. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland (CC-BY-NC-SA).

Truly great work takes a lot of time and experience, and a lot of what I put on my blog is more like cuttings from the workshop floor, as it were, but I think that kind of knowledge sharing is always useful because a) it’s a good way to share ideas, and b) you never know what other people might find interesting and useful. A good example is my recent attempt to map, in a simple way, population density across Europe using a 1km grid dataset. I just ran off a set of simple maps showing the most densely populated grids square in each country and it’s been my most popular blog post to date, with tens of thousands of views.

The most densely populated 1km grid square in Spain, and Europe, according to Alasdair’s analysis

Q: Amazing! It goes to show, while your Twitter handle is @undertheraedar, your work is hardly under the radar: You tweet regularly, publish on your blog Stats, Maps n Pix and occasionally you and your work appear in traditional media as well. What motivates you to be so active?

A: About 10 years ago I decided to give my blog a silly name (Under the Raedar, hence my Twitter handle) and started it because I wanted a place to put my work that would either just sit in my hard drive or be hidden from the world in an academic journal. I also thought it would be good to share ideas and maps and stuff. I’ve continued blogging for the last decade and my Stats, Maps n Pix blog is the latest iteration of that. I try to publish things I think are interesting, and a lot of it relates to work I do in my day job but mostly it’s a kind of hobby I suppose.

A geogif of the 2017 US total solar eclipse

The reason I end up doing media stuff is that people have seen my blog and Twitter and over the years because of this I’ve got to know some well connected media people. I’m often asked to write stuff, or occasionally appear in TV things, and I generally think to myself ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’.

Why do all this stuff? The answer is that I’m interested in people and places and knowing more about the world. Maps and stats are one way of doing this.

Q: I’ve also learnt that you’re the editor of an open-access journal called Regional Studies, Regional Science (RSRS). Can you tell us more about this?

A: The Regional Studies Association is an international learned society, based in the UK, that I’ve been involved with for years. About 5 years ago I was involved in setting up a new Open Access academic journal – and this is how RSRS came into being. Myself and Prof Alex Singleton of the University of Liverpool were the founding editors and we took the project on because we believe in open publishing, open data, and open science.

We publish papers from academics at all career stages, provide mentoring for early career scholars, and publish papers quickly. To date, our papers have had over 200,000 downloads, which might not sound like a lot but for an academic journal that is no mean feat – though our authors and publisher (Taylor and Francis) can take the credit for this.

Q: In your Twitter bio you further mention “QGIS stuff”: Is QGIS your main tool for doing spatial analyses and producing visualizations? What other software do you use, more or less regularly?

A: Yes, I occasionally blog about QGIS stuff, true. I love QGIS, what it does, and what it stands for and I’ve been able to donate to the project as well, because I believe this is important with open source software projects – particularly ones that people really benefit from.

But in general I’m a pragmatist and use whatever I need to get the job done. If that means spatial stats in GeoDa I’ll use it, or it could be Excel, or perhaps I need to run a big geoprocessing job so I’ll turn to ArcGIS. Maybe I need to do some visual stuff so I’ll turn to GIMP. One tool I’ve used a LOT over the past decade and more is IrfanView – for batch image processing, renaming, resizing and lots more.

For a project I completed recently, I used QGIS, GIMP, Excel, and IrfanView. This is fairly typical. One really useful tool I used for editing massive text files is EmEditor because it can handle files up to 248GB and is super quick and I need this when working with datasets that have many millions of rows. Finally, I must confess that I still love the geoprocessing tools in the ET GeoWizards plugin for ArcGIS.

But most of my GIS stuff these days I do in QGIS and I’m really looking forward to getting to grips with QGIS 3.0 when it comes out.

Q: Ha! ET GeoWizards is a true classic, it has also saved me occasionally! I don’t think there are too many GIS specialists whose software stack encompasses both ET and QGIS. Speaking of (old and new) workhorses: Shapefile or Geopackage, do you have a preference or are you impartial in this arena, too?

A: My heart says Shapefile but my head says Geopackage. I think it’s okay to have a bit of both. I see no need for conflict between heads and hearts. Shapefile has better Twitter game though.

Q: Finally, can you tell us something people might not know about you?

A: I used to be a basketball player and played for the Scotland men’s team back in the early 2000s before I went to the US to do a Masters degree at Ohio State. Before that, I competed in the world 3v3 junior basketball championships in Frankfurt in about 1994 and was even in the dunk contest. I’m not sure if I can dunk a basketball anymore but I can still shoot almost 90% from the free throw line, based on ‘data’ collected during visit to my old home court in the Highlands last summer (i.e. taking 100 free throws). These days, I’ve discovered that indoor rowing suits me best and in the last year I’ve racked up about 1.4 million metres. I think I enjoy the monotony of it. Coincidentally, my only actual experience of rowing on the water is on the very same Scottish lochs I mentioned above.

Q: Wow! I like your empirical/statistical approach to re-discovering basketball. Too bad your impressive rowing activity doesn’t (yet?) yield GPS data that you could map. It was nice to learn more about you, Alasdair!

A: Thanks for having me.

Q: Thank you!

Nyall Dawson: “QGIS 3.0…it’s the magic unicorn fairy land of open source GIS™!”

Nyall Dawson
Nyall Dawson

Nyall has been a core developer with the QGIS project since 2013. During this time he has contributed over 5,000 commits to the project, and today is one of the most active developers on the project. Nyall’s contributions to QGIS cover a wide range of areas – from improvements to the map rendering and symbology engines, enhancements to labeling and print layout functionality, right through to optimisations of the underlying spatial processing algorithms utilised by QGIS.

Nyall is the proprietor and lead developer at North Road Consulting, an Australian spatial development consultancy which predominantly utilises international co-funding and crowd-funding campaigns to finance development into open source GIS applications.

You can follow Nyall’s work at https://github.com/nyalldawson and https://twitter.com/nyalldawson. Nyall was interviewed for GeoHipster by Kurt Menke.

Q: Nyall Dawson, where are you located and what do you do?

A: I’m a geospatial developer, analyst, and (I’d like to think) a cartographer, and the director of North Road. I’m heavily involved in the QGIS project and am one of its current core developers, however, in practice my time is generally split about 60/40 between making software and making actual maps (i.e. being a GIS “user”). I also teach crime mapping and spatial analysis at Charles Sturt University. Geographically, I’m based on the Sunshine Coast in Eastern Australia (and yes, the name does describe it perfectly!). It’s as close as Australia gets to perfection – people  only leave here if work forces them to.

Q: You seem to be equally talented in programming and graphic design. What’s your background?

A: I’ve bounced between these two disciplines since high school, and it turns out that spatial analysis is a great mix of the two. While I originally studied mathematics at university, my first job after graduating was as a designer in the marketing department for an IT wholesaler. I was a horrible fit. This pushed me back towards the IT side of things, and I spent a number of years working on corporate networks. I stuck it out long enough to realise that while I enjoy working with software, I wanted to use it to actually make something  (instead of just making it work for someone else).

At the time my wife Maryanne and I decided that we needed a change, so we sold up everything we had, quit our jobs and spent 12 months backpacking around Latin America and Europe. I started collecting maps of places we’d visited, obsessively geotagging every photo we took, and filling in gaps in OpenStreetMap so that I could accurately track where we’d been. It was while hanging out in a bar in Argentina called “The Map Room” that Maryanne suggested I should look into studying maps when we got back to Australia. It’s a perfect profession for me – map making strikes a great balance between that desire to create something useful and pretty, while still being driven by mathematical algorithms and code.

Q: Maryanne is wise! Connect the dots for us. After returning from that year long adventure how did you learn about GIS and cartography, and when did you discover open source GIS and QGIS specifically?

A: So, back in Australia, I enrolled in a masters in “Geomatics”, which was a bit of a mix between every spatial discipline. A couple of early pracs involving surveying sites using steel tapes(!) quickly lead to me dropping every subject that wasn’t pure GIS or cartography. Towards the end of my masters I started working for Victoria Police, as a spatial analyst in their intelligence division. I loved the work – it involved a great variety of tricky spatial and statistical problems with the occasional need to make a pretty map. This is how I got started with QGIS — the commercial GIS package they used just had no capacity for making pretty maps, no matter what tricks you tried. I got sick of creating maps that I was embarrassed to show off so went hunting for alternatives which we could use (in other words… free alternatives. They had no software budget at all). This hunt lead to QGIS, and it wasn’t long before I was totally converted.

I’ve always been a bit of an open-source zealot anyway, so QGIS was a natural fit for me. To me open source just makes sense. I hate the feeling of being at the mercy of some distant software vendor to fix bugs and improve my daily workflow, so I’d much rather just have the ability to dig in and fix things myself. It’s a great model all round – even end users with no coding knowledge can still directly influence an open source project through sponsored features or fixes, and in the end everyone benefits from this.

Q: When I first met you, you were working for the Victoria Police. Why did you decide to launch North Road?

A: Well, as I started using QGIS at Victoria Police more and more, I started hacking away in my spare time to add improvements and fix any little bugs I’d hit during my day job. Doing this for an open-source project was one of the best learning experiences I’ve had. There’s always motivation to improve your work and make sure it’s in top form before opening up a pull request and knowing that it’s going to be visible to everyone and reviewed in public! Plus, you can always watch the changes which are flowing in from other developers and learning from their experience too. Luckily I had some great mentors early on (including fellow Australian geohipster Nathan Woodrow!) who always made themselves available for my constant questions and to refine my rough ideas. Over time the contributions I made became more ambitious as my confidence (and skills) grew, and I started getting queries from users who’d benefited from these contributions. I remember receiving my first email from a user asking “I saw you made this change recently to QGIS, how much would it cost to extend it a bit further and make it cover my requirements too?” – I had no idea what people would usually charge for work on open source, or indeed whether it was even considered “bad form” to charge for working on an open source project (Hint for all open source contributors: it’s not! Your time is valuable and you have no obligation to work for anyone for free!).

Things grew from there until I hit a critical point (when we had our second child), where I had to either make a decision to make this a full-time thing and quit the police work, or scale back the after hours work. I opted for the self-employment option since it meant I could wear teeshirts instead of a suit, listen to any music I wanted to all day, and stay up all night wondering if I’d made a terrible decision and would be broke and homeless in a month. And so North Road was launched.

Q: Walk us through a typical day being a QGIS developer and committer?

A: Well, right now we’re leading up to the launch of the next major version, QGIS 3.0. It’s going to be huge – there’s tons of new features and optimisations, and we’ve totally ripped out and rebuilt some of the older code areas and replaced them with brand new backends (composer, server, and processing). It also brings the change to Python 3 and Qt 5. So currently most of my daily development time is focused on getting 3.0 into top shape and squashing regressions before the final release. It’s a little stressful! Fortunately, the QGIS project enjoys the backing of numerous generous sponsors, which allows the QGIS organisation to directly employ developers to work on the trickier bugs in the lead up to a release. This allows me (among others) to focus our time on these fixes, and as a direct result the final release will be much more stable. (Hint for QGIS users – if you’ve ever wanted to see stabler releases, this is one way you can directly influence the quality of the final release… those sponsorship dollars and donations have a direct effect on the stability of QGIS!).

Following the release I’ll switch back to focusing on feature development – which means my days are filled with fundraising, writing proposals, and, when I’m lucky, coding new features.

Q: What are your favorite new features of QGIS 3?

A: That’s a huge question! The thing to keep in mind here is that QGIS 3.0 has been actively developed in parallel to the stable QGIS 2 releases for the last 2 years. So while the changelogs for the last couple of releases were substantial on their own, those were just for releases with the normal 4 month release cycle. You can start to extrapolate here and get an idea how long the changelog for 3.0 will be! I don’t think there’s any part of the code or interface which hasn’t been refined and improved in some way.

But in short, the features which make it difficult for me to go back to QGIS 2.18 are:

  • The improved label tools which allow you to just pick up and modify any label in your project, without needing to alter your layers in any way.
  • The reworked processing analysis framework and all the new and improved algorithms available in 3.0
  • and surprisingly, all the refinements to Geopackage handling which make them easy and convenient to work with. It’s actually enough to convert me from team shapefile!

Q: What is a QGIS feature you’d love to have time to work on but haven’t gotten to yet? What’s your wishlist?

A: Great question! My wishlist is HUGE, and grows every time I make a map. There’s two items which I’d say are top of my personal cartographic hit list right now:

  • Adding “distribute spacing” tools to the print layout designer. 3.0 adds a bunch of new “distribute item” actions which allow items themselves to be evenly spaced within a layout, but I want to be able to distribute the gaps between items instead. It’s a common functionality in desktop publishing and illustration applications which hasn’t yet found its way to QGIS.
  • Adding more automatic label placement options and refining the logic we already have. It’s good, but there’s always more we could do and finding ways to improve the automated placement benefits everyone – even if all you use QGIS for is visualising a bunch of shapefiles.

Fortunately, the QGIS user community has adopted a great attitude toward crowd-funding of features, and there’s been many funding campaigns which have allowed tweaks like these to happen in the past. I’ve already got a few campaigns lined up and ready to go for similar improvements following the release of 3.0!

Q: You mentioned that your time is generally split about 60/40 between making software and making actual maps. What types of projects do you work on when you’re not developing?

A: It’s a mix – these days it’s a whole range of analytical maps showing various statistical outputs right through to “simple” maps of various reference layers for government reports. Fortunately at the moment I’ve got a number of clients for whom high-quality visualisations are essential, so I get to spend time polishing maps and making outputs which I’m proud of. Surprisingly, they’re also almost exclusively print and static maps too. (On a slightly different topic, I personally suspect we’re going to see a swing back toward valuing static, non-interactive maps and data visualisations sometime. Everybody’s just so busy that maps and visualisations which can effectively and instantly communicate their message to a reader, without any data exploration, are likely to see a resurgence for projects where interactivity isn’t a key requirement!).

Q: I know you are a tabletop gamer. What are your favorite games these days? What else do you do for fun?

A: I’m all for co-operative, story-based games at the moment. The Arkham Horror Living Card Game is getting a lot of play (and accordingly, inspired the “Exploring the Depths of Madness Through QGIS symbology” talk I gave at the recent QGIS Australia meetup). TIME Stories and the Pandemic Legacy series are recent favorites too!

Incidentally, I love seeing board games with great cartography. There’s been quite a few games which have inspired me to try different mapping techniques. One personal favorite is the map for the GMT “Liberty or Death” game… that’s a beautiful map, which perfectly balances cartographic attention to detail with usability as a game set piece. It’s gorgeous (and incidentally, inspired a few QGIS symbology tweaks!), and I love that I can learn better map making just from gaming.

Apart from gaming, something I’ve recently rediscovered is how relaxing it is to just put on headphones and listen to an album without doing ANYTHING else. No dual-screening, no checking emails, no fixing QGIS bugs — just tuning out and listening!

Q: Do you consider yourself a geohipster? Why or why not?

A: Well, for a long time I was a holdout flag-carrying member of team shapefile, yet I’ve recently been won over by GeoPackage. I’m not sure if that makes me a geohipster or the opposite! (Shapefiles are retro-cool now, aren’t they?)

I *did* just move out to the country and to a place with our own vegetables and chickens, a farmer’s market next door, and an old avocado farm I can raid if I jump the back fence. I guess that makes me either a hipster or a hippy.

Q: Any words of wisdom or final thoughts you’d like to share with the GeoHipster community?

A: If I’m speaking philosophically, I think it’s crucial these days to have something “unique” you can bring to the profession. I don’t believe it’s enough to just be a “GIS specialist who knows XXX desktop GIS platform”. You’ve got to have something extra which differentiates you and helps you stand out from all the other GIS professionals. For example, you want to be “the GIS specialist who is a statistical wiz” or “the GIS specialist who can code and automate all those boring processes” or “the GIS specialist who can craft effective story-telling maps and visualisations”.

But if I’m speaking as a QGIS developer I’d say: mark down February 23rd in your diary,  download QGIS 3.0 and enjoy. It’s the magic unicorn fairy land of open source GIS™!

Andrea Sward: “Don’t let ‘playing it safe’ stop you from doing something you really want to do”

Andrea Sward
Andrea Sward

I am a geospatial analyst with nearly three years of professional GIS experience. Originally from Canada, the search for adventure brought me to Wellington, New Zealand a little over a year ago. Things have worked out well, as I managed to quickly find meaningful GIS employment that aligns with my passion for nature, conservation, and the environment. I have been very fortunate to be able to explore many of New Zealand’s beautiful places in my spare time. My partner and I are currently planning to move to Melbourne, Australia in the new year, but we hope to come back and travel to some of the areas we missed!

More about my professional background can be found on my LinkedIn account.
Andrea was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.

Q: You are geohipster on Instagram. This is awesome. What prompted you to pick that handle?

A: It can be quite difficult to pick an instagram handle! The name geohipster emerged because while I consider myself a geography geek (geogeek), I’d like to think I also have a few cool/quirky hobbies and interests that make me less of the stereotypical “geek” and more of a “hipster”. GIS does seem to work its way into my hobbies though. For example, I’ve started getting into brewing beer and making metal jewelry and inspiration is often drawn from geography, nature, and GIS.

Q: How did you get into GIS?

A: I was a geography major at the University of Toronto and discovered GIS towards the end of my degree. Starting off in GIS can be quite intense, there is a lot to know! My first introductory course was challenging but opened my eyes to a whole new discipline. After graduating, I took a postgraduate program in GIS at Algonquin College in Ottawa. This was a great program and allowed me to really immerse myself into all things geospatial. It provided a good foundation to start into my career. A lot of the time I am learning things on the job. GIS is a changing and growing industry, there is always more to know!

Q: You are a Canadian who lives in New Zealand, about to move to Melbourne, Australia. What inspired you to move down under?

A: I’ve had the idea in the back of my mind to travel to New Zealand and Australia for several years but struggled to find the right timing. After finishing school, paying off my student loans, and gaining some work experience, I had a bit of a crossroads moment of deciding whether to settle where I am, or try something new. So I wrapped up my last contract at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. I packed a bag, sold my furniture, and bought a one way ticket to New Zealand. I thought, worst case scenario, I don’t find any work and just have a really nice holiday. After a week of being in Wellington, I had a contract to work at the Department of Conservation. I have now been working there almost 15 months.

It was just one of those moments that anyone could have. I decided I wanted to do something, and I gave it a go.

Soon after moving to New Zealand, I met my partner. He has a job opportunity in Melbourne starting in the new year and we’ve decided to make the move. I will miss Wellington and my colleagues and friends, but I must admit, the same sense of adventure that brought me to New Zealand is starting to bubble up again as I get ready for the next move. I have been told wonderful things about Melbourne and the GIS community there. I’m really looking forward to getting involved and meeting new geogeeks and geohipsters!

Q: Was it easy to find a GIS job in New Zealand? What is the GIS scene like there?

A: There is a really strong community of geospatial professionals in Wellington and around New Zealand. For me, it was easy to find a job but perhaps I got a bit lucky being at the right place at the right time. I’ve enjoyed being part of two networks in Wellington — the Emerging Geospatial Professionals group, and the Women in Spatial group. These groups meet up every so often for a guest presentation along with drinks, nibbles, and general chatting. This is a great way to meet people outside of your organization and there is often discussions around current job vacancies. People are often very passionate about their work and I find that inspiring.

I’ve found the geospatial industry in New Zealand to be quite progressive. There is a lot more openness to collaboration between organizations and a strong desire to get things done. An example of a strong collaboration can be seen in New Zealand’s earthquake preparations. We are sitting on a lot of active faultlines that cause a lot of earthquakes. Often these are just little wobbles, but there have been a few major shakes recently. There was a lot learned from the devastating Christchurch earthquake in 2011, and again more recently in Kaikoura in November. There is a need for a strong geospatial plan for national emergencies such as these. Up-to-date national datasets must be readily available offline, as well as a GIS action plan for possible future earthquakes.

Q: Tell us about your current job — what you do, what technologies you use, what cool projects you work on.

A: I am a geospatial analyst at the Department of Conservation (DOC). The department has a GIS team of around 30 people spread across the country that provide geospatial support to the rest of the organization and its partners. There is a variety of work we do, which can keep things interesting! A lot of my work is generally for published projects, such as information panels, brochures, wall maps, and public reports such as the Conservation Management Strategies. I have a love for cartography and take great pride putting together a polished map.

New Zealand has a big problem with invasive species like possums, stoats, and rats preying on the native bird population. There are also a lot of species of weeds sprawling over the landscape. Much of DOC’s work is focused on pest eradication and we provide geospatial support for this. With the recent announcement by the government to have New Zealand predator-free by 2050, we have a new spring in our steps to keep track of eradication activities around the country.

In terms of technology and software, we primarily use Esri software for our work, Skype for team chatting (it’s very helpful to have team support at your fingertips), and Garmin GPS units out in the field.

Q: What’s a hip thing to do in New Zealand? Cycling? Skiing? Deconstructed coffee?

A: There is so much to do and see in New Zealand! Skiing and cycling are certainly popular, as well as going on a tramp (hike). I’m personally a big fan of some of the geothermal areas in New Zealand, that means soaking in hot springs! There are also quite a few white water rafting spots around the country that can be a lot of fun.

Wearing shorts in any weather is also the hip thing to do, as well as walking around barefoot! People here are just doing their own thing, and I really respect that. I think the culture in New Zealand is pretty relaxed and has also helped me to relax a little too. And I must say, the coffee here is out of this world, I’m not sure I can go back to drinking the North American stuff…

Q: Are you insulted by maps that omit New Zealand? Why / why not?

A: Ha ha, oh dear, poor New Zealand! I wouldn’t say it’s insulting but I would perhaps question the quality of the map. Sometimes New Zealand appears twice on a map, so maybe it all evens out.

Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our global readership?

A: I can only compare my experience in New Zealand to the one I had in Canada, but I must say how impressed I am with the geospatial industry here. I think there is a lot of good stuff going on and other organizations in other countries could perhaps look to New Zealand as a model.

In terms of any personal “wisdom”, I would just encourage people to branch out a little and not be afraid to try new things! Don’t let ‘playing it safe’ stop you from taking a risk and doing something you really want to do.

Regina Obe: “People spend too much time learning a programming language and forget what a programming language is for”

Regina Obe
Regina Obe

Regina Obe (@reginaobe) is a co-principal of Paragon Corporation, a database consulting company based in Boston. She has over 15 years of professional experience in various programming languages and database systems, with special focus on spatial databases. She is a member of the PostGIS steering committee and the PostGIS core development team. Regina holds a BS degree in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where she wanted to build terminator robots but decided that wasn’t the best thing to do for Humanity. She co-authored PostGIS in Action and PostgreSQL: Up and Running.

Regina was interviewed for GeoHipster by Randal Hale.

Q: Regina Obe – so where are you in the world and what do you do?

A: I’m located in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. I’m a database application web developer, Consultant, PostGIS  project and steering committee team member, and technical author on PostGIS and PostgreSQL related books.

Q: So in my prep work I found you have a degree from MIT in Mechanical engineering with a focus in Bioelectrics and Control systems? What’s that about? How did you end up in working in databases?

A: Hah you just had to ask a hard one. It’s a bit long.

Bioelectronics and control was an amalgamation of all my interests and influences at that point.

My favorite shows growing up were the 6 million dollar man and bionic woman. Like many geeks I loved tinkering with electronic and mechanical gadgets and got into programming at the wee age of 9. I was also very attached to graph paper and would plot out on graph what cells my for loops would hit.

My mother was a forensic pathologist; basically she tore dead people apart to discover how they died and what could have been done to save them. I spent a lot of time reading her books and dreaming about human augmentation and control.

When I came to MIT I had ambitions of getting a BS in Electric Engineering or Mech E., moving on to a PhD, getting my MD, and focussing on orthopaedic limb surgery. MIT’s Mechanical Engineering department had a course track that allowed you to fashion your own major. You had to take X amount of Mech E. and could take any other courses you wanted as long as you could convince your advisor it followed some sort of roadmap you set out for yourself. So that said — what else would I fashion if given the opportunity. At the time MIT did not have a biomedical engineering major.

So my course work included classes in bio-electrical engineering like electrical foundation of the heart where I built and programmed electrical models of hearts and killed and revived rabbits. Basic EE courses with breadboards, class in Scheme programming, electro physiology of the brain etc. On the Mech E. side, I took standard stuff like Fluid Mechanics, Dynamics, Systems Control and for my thesis, programming a simulation package that allowed you to simulate systems with some pre-configured blocks. Most of which I can’t remember.

I looked around at other people who were following my dream and realized I’m way too lazy and not smart enough for that kind of life. When I got out of college, there were few engineering jobs requiring my particular skill set. I got a job as a consultant focussing on business rules management and control. Business rules were managed as data that could become actionable. There I got introduced to the big wild world of databases, then SQL, cool languages like Smalltalk, and trying to translate what people say ambiguously into what they actually mean non-ambiguously.

I found that I really enjoyed programming and thinking about programs as the rules to transition data and reason about data. It’s all about data in the end.

Q: So you dive into databases and SQL and this thing called PostGIS comes along. You’re on the Project Steering committee and Development team for PostGIS. What is PostGIS and how much work is it being a developer and a member of the project steering committee?

A: Yes I’m on the PostGIS steering committee and development team.

PostGIS is a PostgreSQL extender for managing objects in space. It provides a large body of functions and new database types for storing and querying the spatial properties of objects like buildings, property, cities. You can ask questions like what’s the area, what’s the perimeter, how far is this thing from these other things, what things are nearest to this thing, and also allows you to morph things into other things. With the raster support you can ask what’s the concentration of this chemical over here or average concentration over an arbitrary area.

Some people think of PostGIS as a tool for managing geographic systems, but it’s Post GIS. Space has no boundaries except the imagined. Geographic systems are just the common use case.

Remember my fondness for graph paper? It all comes full circle; space in the database. I like to think of PostGIS as a tool for managing things on a huge piece of graph paper and now it can manage things on a 3D piece of graph paper and a spheroidal graph paper too 🙂 . PostGIS is always learning new tricks.

Being a PostGIS developer and member of PSC is a fair amount of work, some programming, but mostly keeping bots happy, lots of testing, and banging people over the head when you feel it’s time to release. I think it’s as much work as you want to put into it though and I happen to enjoy working with PostGIS so spend a fair amount of time on it.

Q: I love PostGIS. I spend a lot of time in QGIS/PostGIS these days and people are constantly asking – ‘HEY WHEN DO WE GET SOMETHING LIKE ROUTING WHERE I CAN DO TIME/DISTANCE MEASUREMENTS?”. You’ve been working on a piece of software called pgRouting which does?

A: This is a leading question to talk about our new book coming out by LocatePress – http://locatepress.com/pgrouting.

Been working on is an over statement. My husband and I have been working writing the book pgRouting: a Practical Guide, publisher Locate Press. We hope to finish it this year. That’s probably biggest contribution we’d done for pgRouting aside from Windows stack builder packaging for pgRouting.

Most of the work for pgRouting is done by other contributors with GeoRepublic and iMapTools folks leading the direction.

My friend Vicky Vergara in particular has been doing a good chunk of work for recent versions of pgRouting 2.1-2.3 (including upgrading pgRoutingLayer for QGIS to support newest features and improving performance of osm2pgrouting) some neat things coming there. She’s been super busy with it. I greatly admire her dedication.

You’ll have to read our book to find out more.  Pre-released copies are available for purchase now and currently half off until it reaches feature completeness. We are about 70% there.

Q: With everything you are doing for work, what do you do for fun?  

A: Work is not fun, don’t tell me that? My goal in life is to achieve a state where I am always having fun and work is fun. I still have some unfun work I’d like to kill. Aside from work I sleep a lot. Like to go to restaurants. Never been big on hobbies unfortunately. Going to places causes me a bit of stress, so not much into travel I’m afraid.

Q: You’ve got a few books out and about. How hard is it to write a book for a technical audience? How hard is it to keep it up to date?

A: It’s much harder than you think and even harder to keep things up. Part of the issue with writing for technical audiences is you never know the right balance. I try to unlearn what I have learned so I can experience learning it again to write about it in a way that a new person coming to the topic can appreciate. I fail badly and always end up cramming too much. I’m an impatient learner.

I always thought 2nd and 3rd editions of books would be easier, but they have been so far just as hard if not harder than the first edition. We are also working on 3rd edition of PostgreSQL: Up and Running. Piece of cake right, what could have changed in 2 years. A fair amount from PostgreSQL 9.3 to 9.5. PostGIS in Action, 2nd edition was pretty much a rewrite. Might have been easier if we started from scratch on that one. So much changed between PostGIS 1.x and 2.x. That said I think we’ll try in future to maybe not write sequels and maybe tackle the subject at a different angle.

Leo wants to write SQL for Kids 🙂 .  He thinks it’s a shame children aren’t exposed to databases and set thinking in general at an early age.

Q: Leo wanting to do a SQL for kids brings up a good question. If you had a person come up and go “What should I learn?” what would you tell them? In the geo world we get beat over the head with Python. You are neck deep in databases. Programming language? Database? What makes the well rounded individual in your opinion?

A: You should first not learn anything. You should figure out what you want to program and then just do it and do it 3 times in 3 different languages and see which ones feel more natural to your objective. Think about how the language forced you to think about the problems in 3 different ways.

You might find you want to use all 3 languages at once in the same program, then use PostgreSQL (PL/Python, SQL, PL/JavaScript J ). That’s okay.

Forget about all the languages people are telling you you should know. I think people spend too much time learning to be good at using a programming language and forget what a programming language is for. It’s hard to survive with just one language these days (think HTML, JavaScript, SQL, Python, R – all different languages). A language is a way of expressing ideas succinctly in terms that an idiot-savantic computer can digest. First try to be stupid so you can talk to stupid machines and then appreciate those machines for their single-minded gifts.

The most amazing developers I’ve known have not thought of themselves as programmers.

They are very focused on a problem or tool they wanted to create, and I was always amazed how crappy their code was and yet could achieve amazing feats of productivity in their overall user-facing design. They had a vision of what they wanted for the finished product and never lost sight of that vision.

Q: Your PostgreSQL Up and Running book is published by O’Reilly. O’Reilly books always have some artwork on the front. Did you get to pick the animal on the front? For your PostGIS book you have a person on the front. Who is that?

A: We had a little say in the O’Reilly cover, but no say on the Manning cover. I have no idea who that woman is on PostGIS in Action. She’s a woman from Croatia. She looks very much like my sister is what I thought when I first saw it.

For O’Reilly they ran out of elephants because they just gave one to Hadoop. Can you believe it? Giving an elephant to Hadoop over PostgreSQL? So then they offered us an antelope. Leo was insulted, he wasn’t going to have some animal that people hunt on the cover of his book, besides antelopes look dumb and frail. I apologize to all the antelope lovers right now. Yes antelopes are cute cuddly and I’m sure loving. Just not the image we care to be remembered for. We wanted something more like an elephant and that is smart. So they offered us up an elephant shrew (aka sengi), which is a close relative of the elephant –  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Afrotheria . It’s a very fast small creature, that looks like it’s made of bits and pieces of a lot of creatures. They blaze trails and are very monogamous. What could be more perfect to exemplify the traits of a database like PostgreSQL that can do everything and is faithful in its execution, aside from having to explain “What is that rodent looking creature on your cover?”.

Q: Way back when GeoHipster started we more or less decided thanks to a poll that a geohipster does things differently, shuns the mainstream, and marches to their own beat. Are you a geohipster?

A: Yes. I definitely shun the mainstream.  When mainstream starts acting like me it’s a signal I need to become more creative.

Q: I always leave the last question for you. Anything you want to tell the readers of GeoHipster that I didn’t cover or just anything in particular?

A: When will PostGIS 2.3 be out? I hope before PostgreSQL 9.6 comes out (slated for September). I’m hoping PostgreSQL 9.6 will be a little late to buy us more time.

Also – Where is the Free and Open Source Software for Geospatial International conference (FOSS4G) going to be held in 2017? In Boston August 14th – 18th. Mark your calendars and bookmark the site.

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

Hugh Saalmans
Hugh Saalmans

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

Hugh was interviewed for GeoHipster by Alex Leith.

Q: How did you end up in geospatial?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: What on Earth is Location Engineering?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Terry Griffin: “Agricultural big data has evolved out of precision ag technology”

Terry Griffin, PhD
Terry Griffin, PhD

Dr. Terry Griffin (@SpacePlowboy) is the cropping systems economist specializing in big data and precision agriculture at Kansas State University. He earned his bachelor’s degree in agronomy and master’s degree in agricultural economics from the University of Arkansas, where he began using commercial GIS products in the late 1990s. While serving as a precision agriculture specialist for University of Illinois Extension, Terry expanded his GIS skills by adding open source software. He earned his Ph.D. in Agricultural Economics with emphasis in spatial econometrics from Purdue University. His doctoral research developed methods to analyze site-specific crop yield data from landscape-scale experiments using spatial statistical techniques, ultimately resulting in two patents regarding the automation of community data analysis, i.e. agricultural big data analytics. He has received the 2014 Pierre C. Robert International Precision Agriculture Young Scientist Award, the 2012 Conservation Systems Precision Ag Researcher of the Year, and the 2010 Precision Ag Awards of Excellence for Researchers/Educators. Terry is a member of the Site-Specific Agriculture Committees for the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers. Currently Dr. Griffin serves as an advisor on the board of the Kansas Agricultural Research and Technology Association (KARTA). Terry and Dana have three wonderful children.

Terry was interviewed for GeoHipster by Todd Barr.

Q: Your background is in Agronomy and Agricultural Economics. When along this path did you discover spatial/GIS technologies, and how did you apply them for the first time?

A: During graduate school my thesis topic was in precision agriculture, or what could be described as information technology applied to production of crops. GPS was an enabling technology along with GIS and site-specific sensors. I was first exposed to GIS in the late 1990s when I mapped data from GPS-equipped yield monitors. I dived into GIS in the early 2000s as a tool to help manage and analyze the geo-spatial data generated from agricultural equipment and farm fields.

Q: Precision Agriculture is a huge market for all sorts of devices. How do you see spatial playing a role in the overall Precision Agriculture sandbox?

A: Precision Ag is a broad term, and many aspects of spatial technology have become common use on many farms. Some technology automates the steering of farm equipment in the field, and similar technology automatically shuts off sections of planter and sprayers to prevent overlap when the equipment has already performed its task. Other forms of precision ag seem to do the opposite — rather than automate a task they gather data that are not immediately usable until processed into decision-making information. These information-intensive technologies that are inseparable from GIS and spatial analysis have the greatest potential for increased utilization.

Q: What do you see as hurdles for spatial/data analytics firms who want to enter the Precision Agriculture space, and what advice would you give them?

A: One of the greatest hurdles, at least in the short run, is data privacy issues as it relates to ‘big data’ or aggregating farm-level data across regions. A tertiary obstacle is lack of wireless connectivity such as broadband internet via cellular technology in rural areas; without this technology agricultural big data is at a disadvantage.

Q: While there have been attempts at an open data standard for agriculture (agxml, and most recently SPADE), none have seemed to catch on.  Do you think this lack of a standard holds Precision Agriculture back, or does it really even need an open standard?

A: Data must have some sort of standardization, or at least a translation system such that each player in the industry can maintain their own system. Considerable work has been conducted in this area, and progress is being made; we can think of the MODUS project as the leading example. Standards have always been important even when precision ag technology was isolated to an individual farm; but now with the big data movement, the need for standardization has been put toward the front burner. Big data analytics relies on the network effect, specifically what economists refer to as network externalities; the value of participating in the system is a function of the number of participants. Therefore, the systems must be welcoming to all potential participants, but must also minimize the barriers to increase participation rates.

Q: What is your preferred spatial software, or programming language?

A: All my spatial econometric analysis and modeling is in R, and R is also where a considerable amount of GIS work is conducted. However, I use and recommend to many agricultural clients QGIS due to being more affordable when they are uncertain if they are ready to make a financial investment. For teaching I use Esri ArcGIS and GeoDa in addition to R.

Q: If money wasn’t an issue, what would be your dream Spatial/Big Data project?

A: Oddly enough I think I already am doing those things. I am fortunate to be working on several aspects of different projects that I hope will make a positive difference for agriculturalists. Many of the tools that I am building or have built are very data-hungry, requiring much more data than has been available. I am anxious for these tools to become useful when the ag data industry matures.

Q: You tend to speak at a number of Precision Agriculture conferences, you have spoken at a regional GIS group, have you ever considered speaking at one of the national conferences?

A: I’m always open to speaking at national or international conferences.

Q: Lastly, explain to our audience of geohipsters what is so hip about Precision Ag, Big Data and Spatial.

A: Agricultural big data has evolved out of precision ag technology, and in its fully functional form is likely to be one of the largest global networks of data collection, processing, archiving, and automated recommendation systems the world has ever known.

Mark Iliffe: “Maps show us where to direct our resources and improve the lives of people”

Mark Iliffe
Mark Iliffe

Mark Iliffe (@markiliffe) is a geographer/map geek working on mapping projects around the world. He leads Ramani Huria for the World Bank, is Neodemographic Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham after completing his PhD at the Horizon Institute, and a mentor for Geeks Without Bounds.

Mark was interviewed for GeoHipster by Ed Freyfogle.

Q: Suitably for a geohipster, your OpenStreetMap profile says “I own a motorbike and have a liking to randomly spend weekends finding out ‘what is over there’”. What have you found?

A: I think I wrote that around a decade ago while getting into OSM, while on a foreign exchange trip in Nancy, France! I found out a lot of things, from that time trying to take a 125cc Yamaha (a hideously small and underpowered motorcycle — think Chimpanzee riding a tricycle) around Europe was slow and cold to new friendships. Also, a career path in maps and a love of all things geospatial, via counting flamingos in Kenya…

Q: Everyone has to start somewhere, and for you I believe that was mapping toilets (or places toilets should be). Indeed I think we first met when you presented your sanitation hack project Taarifa at #geomob by squatting on the table to demonstrate proper squat toilet technique. Tell us about Taarifa.

A: Taarifa is/was a platform for improving public service delivery in emerging countries. It came out of the London Water Hackathon in 2011, basically as an idea that we could do more with the data that is being generated by the many humanitarian mapping projects that had been enabled by OSM at the time, such as Map Kibera, Ramani Tandale and Haiti Earthquake mapping. As a community open-source project, it showed the potential of how feedback loops between citizens and service providers could be used to fix water points or toilets. We used Ushahidi as a base, adding workflow for reports; we tried to push these back to their community, but the core developers had other objectives — fair enough. We as the Taarifa community though we had something special regardless, but it was a hack, it wasn’t planned to be deployed anywhere.

In January 2012 I was in a meeting with a colleague at the World Bank who’d head that Taarifa had been suggested to fill a need on monitoring the construction of schools in Uganda. He arranged a meeting with the project manager for me, went along, and a week later I was coding on the plane to Uganda to pilot Taarifa across 4 districts around the country. Ultimately, it ended up being scaled to all 111 districts at the request of the Ugandan Ministry of Local Government.

From this the Taarifa community started to grow, expanding the small core of developers. In 2013 we won the Sanitation Hackathon Challenge, then received $100K World Bank innovation award to set up Taarifa in the Iringa Region of Tanzania. Taarifa and collaborators on that project, SNV, Geeks Without Bounds and ITC Twente then went on to win a DFID Human Development Innovation Fund award of £400,000. Since then it’s gone in a different direction, away from a technical community focus to one that concentrates on building the local social fabric that is wholly embedded and ran locally in Tanzania.

I feel that this was Taarifa’s most important contribution — not one of technology, but one which convenes development agencies and coders to innovate a little. Now, the main developers of the code haven’t worked on the main codebase for over a year, but Taarifa’s ideas of creating feedback loops in emerging countries still move on, in its grants, but also have been absorbed into other projects too.

Q: Actually I think I’m wrong, even before Taarifa you were an intern at Cloudmade, the first company to try to make money using OpenStreetMap. Founded by Steve Coast (and others), the VC-funded business hired many of the “famous” names of early OSM, before eventually fizzling out and moving into a different field. What was it like? Any especially interesting memories? What sort of impression did that experience leave on you? Also, what’s your take on modern VC-funded OpenStreetMap companies like Mapbox?

A: Cloudmade was fantastic, learned a lot from each of the OSMers that worked there — from Steve Coast, Andy Allen, Nick Black, Matt Amos, and Shaun McDonald. At Cloudmad, I wrote a routing engine for OSM — now common tools like PgRouting weren’t really around — I tried to build pgRouting from source, wasted three days, so started from scratch. In hindsight, I should have persevered with pgRouting, got involved in developing the existing tool instead of starting from scratch.

As it was my first tech company to work at, they were based in Central London and I was broke. I had to stay with my uncle in Slough about 30 miles away. I used to work quite late and slept in the office floor a few times. Once Nick was in early and caught me stuffing my sleeping bag back into the bottom drawer of my desk. The advice was to probably go home a bit more — advice that I’ve used selectively since, but I don’t sleep on my office floor anymore!

The VC situation is always going to be complex. I wasn’t too surprised when Cloudmade eventually pivoted, and their ideas and creations such as the “Map Style Editor” and Leaflet.js live on regardless of the company. At SoTM in Girona I made the comment that OSM was going through puberty. On reflection, I think it was a crude but accurate way to describe our project at that time. We didn’t know what OSM would or could become. OSM didn’t know how to deal with companies like Cloudmade, and neither did the companies know how to deal with OSM; to a certain extent I think we’re still learning, but getting better. Though at the time, like teenagers having to deal with new hormones, emotions ran riot. This all without realising that in the same way OSM has changed the world, OSM also is changed by it — and this is a good thing. Gary Gale has also mused extensively on this.

Now with the generation of companies after — CartoDB, Mapbox etc. — I think that they are much more perceptive to supporting and evolving the OSM ecosystem. Mapbox Humanitarian is one of them, but also their support for developing the ID Editor. In turn, the OSM community is growing as well, especially in the humanitarian space, with Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) supporting numerous projects around the world and acting as a useful interface to OSM for global institutions.

Q: Did you ever think back then that OSM would get as big and as global as it has?

A: TL;DR: Yes.

Recently, I had a discussion with a friend in a very British National Mapping Agency about the nature of exploration. Explorers of old would crisscross the world charting new things, sometimes for their own pleasure, but mostly for economic gain. These people then formed the mapping agencies that data from OSM ‘competes’ with today.

By working with the numerous army of volunteers, OSM embodies the same exploratory spirit — whether mapping their communities, or supporting disaster relief efforts. But instead of the privileged few, it’s the many. Now OSM is making tools and gaining access to data that make it easier than ever before to contribute, whether map data or any other contribution to the community.

Q: Despite those humble beginnings I believe you are now Doctor Mark Iliffe, having very recently defended your PhD thesis in Geography at the University of Nottingham. Congrats! Nevertheless though, doesn’t fancy book lernin’ like that reduce your geohipster credibility? In the just-fucking-do-it neogeo age is a formal background in geography still relevant? Is it something you’d recommend to kids starting their geo careers?

A: Thanks! Doing a PhD was by far the worst thing I’ve ever done, and will ever probably do — to myself, friends, and family. But it wasn’t through book learning, I did it in the field. Most of the thesis itself was written at 36,000ft via Qatar/British Airways and not the library (nb. This was/is a stupid idea, do it in the library).

Hopefully the geohipster cred should still be strong, but I wouldn’t recommend a PhD to kids starting their careers. Bed in for a few years, work out what you want to do, get comfortable, and then see if a PhD is for you. When I started my PhD, I’d done a small amount of work with Map Kibera and other places, and knew I wanted to work in the humanitarian mapping space but full time jobs didn’t exist. Doing a PhD gave the space (and a bit of money) to do that. Now these jobs, organisations, and career paths exist. Five years ago they didn’t.

Q: Though you live in the UK, for the last few years you’ve been working a lot in Tanzania, most recently with the World Bank. A lot of the work has been about helping build the local community to map unmapped (but nevertheless heavily populated) areas like Tandale. Indeed this work was also the basis for your PhD thesis. Give us the details on what you’ve been working on, who you’ve been working with, and most of all what makes it hip?

A: Ramani Huria takes up a lot of my time… It’s a community mapping project, with the Government of Tanzania, universities, and civil society organisations, supported by the World Bank and Red Cross. Ramani Huria has mapped over 25 communities in Dar es Salaam, covering around 1.3 million people. Dar es Salaam suffers from quite severe flooding, partly due as Dar es Salaam is the fastest growing city in Africa with a population of over 5.5 million.

Ramani Huria is powered by a cadre of volunteers, pulling together 160+ university students, 100s community members to collect data on roads, water points, hospitals, and schools, among other attributes. One of the key maps are of the extent of flooding, this is being done by residents of flood prone communities sketching on maps. Now that these maps exist, flood mitigation strategies can be put in place by community leaders — this could either be through building new drains, or ensuring existing infrastructure is maintained. That’s the hip part of Ramani Huria, the local community is leading the mapping, with ourselves as the international community in support.

Ramani Huria -- a community mapping project
Ramani Huria — a community mapping project

Q: Over the last years there has been a big push by HOT and Missing Maps to get volunteers remote mapping in less developed areas like Tanzania. Some OSMers view this as a bad thing, as they perceive that it can inhibit the growth of a local community. As someone who’s been “in the field”, what’s your take? Is remote mapping helpful or harmful?

A: The only accurate map of the world is the world itself. With the objective of mapping the world, let’s work on doing that as fast as possible. Then we can focus on using that map to improve our world. Remote mapping is critical for that — but how can we be smarter at doing it?

To make a map of flood extents, so much time and effort goes into its creation. But a lot of it is basic, for example digitising roads and buildings. This is time-consuming — it doesn’t matter who does it, but it has to be done. But the knowledge of flooding is only held by those communities, nowhere else. The faster you can do this, the faster these challenges can be mitigated. Remote mapping gives a valuable head-start.

In Ramani Huria, we run “Maptime” events for the emerging local OSM community at the Buni Innovation Hub — these events grow the local community. Personally, I think we should move towards optimising our mapping as much as possible — whether that’s through remote mapping or image recognition — but that may be a step too far for the time being. I’d love to see interfaces to digitise Mapillary street view data, it’s something we’ve collected a lot of over the past year. Can we start to digitise drains from Mapillary imagery in the same way Missing Maps uses satellite imagery?

Q: You’ve recently been in Dunkirk in the refugee camps with Mapfugees, what was it like?

A: Mapfugees is a project to help map the La Linière refugee camp around Dunkirk, France. Jorieke Vyncke and I met up in Dunkirk to discuss with the refugee’s council — made up of the refugees themselves — and the camp administrators to see how maps could help. The refugees themselves wished to have maps of the local area for safe passage in/out of the camp. The camp itself is surrounded by a motorway and a railway, making passage in and out quite dangerous. Other ‘Mapfugees’ volunteers worked with mapping the surrounding areas with the refugees, leading local amenities and safe routes were identified.

At the same time, the camp itself was mapped, providing an understanding of camp amenities, so services to the camp can be improved. This is very similar to my experience of community mapping elsewhere — the map is a good way of discussing what needs to be done and can empower people to make changes.

Q: As you no doubt know, here at GeoHipster we’re not scared to ask the real questions. So let’s get into it. On Twitter you’re not infrequently part of a raging debate — which is better: #geobeers or #geosambuca? How will we ever settle this?

A: #Geobeer now has my vote. I’m way too old for #geobuccas as the hangovers are getting worse!

Q: So what’s next Mark? I mean both for you personally now that you’ve crossed the PhD off the list and also for OSM in places like Africa and in organizations like the World Bank.

A: For me, in a few months I’m going to take a long holiday and work out what’s next. I’m open to suggestions on a postcard!

Looking back, OSM is just past a decade old and is still changing the world for the better. In OSM, projects like Ramani Huria, but also mapping projects in Indonesia and others are at the forefront of this, but more can be done. I believe that organisations like the UN and World Bank need to move away from projects to supporting a global geospatial ecosystem. This isn’t a technical problem, but a societal and policy based concern.

This doesn’t sound sexy and isn’t. But at the moment, there are over a billion people that live in extreme poverty. Maps show us where to direct our resources and improve the lives of people, the human and financial resources required to map our world will be immense, moving well past the hundreds of thousands of dollars and spent on mapping cities like Dar es Salaam and Jakarta. To build this, we need to work at a high policy level to really embed geo and maps at the core of the Global Development Agenda with the Sustainable Development Goals. Projects like UN GGIM are moving in that direction, but will need support from geohipsters to make it happen.

Maps and geo are crucial to resolve the problems our world faces, to solve this problem we should use our natural geohipster instincts… JFDI.

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

A: Get out there — you never know where you’ll go.

Andy Woodruff: “Seriously, buy an actual textbook!”

Andy Woodruff
Andy Woodruff

Andy Woodruff works to design and build custom interactive maps with Axis Maps, a small company that grew out of the cartography program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2006. He is currently one of the Directors at Large of the North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS). Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he’s also a co-organizer of Maptime Boston, and a semi-active mapper of all things Boston for Bostonography.

Andy was interviewed for GeoHipster by Katrina Engelsted.

Q: How did you get involved in geography and maps?

A: I’m a lifetime geographer, that kid who stared at maps in the back seat during family car trips. A map is a wonderful canvas for imagining what the world looks like, and there was always a little thrill in finding myself on the map and seeing imagined places become real. That kind of fascination followed up through my undergraduate and graduate studies in geography and cartography, and on into the start of my career.

Q: How did you learn how to code?

A: The first code I ever wrote was probably BASIC programs on the TI-86 calculator in high school. I have no formal coding background but started learning in earnest in grad school at the University of Wisconsin, in a course on animated and interactive maps. We used Flash, and I became captivated by what ActionScript could do for mapping, so I got really into it and went from there. Flash may be dead to many of us now, but learning it was not at all a waste of time. Those skills transferred well.

Q: How did you meet your company partners?

A: My two partners, Dave Heyman and Ben Sheesley, were the first two people I met when I visited Madison in 2005 to tour the UW Department of Geography, where they were already in the grad program. They started Axis Maps along with a third partner while working on their degrees (the company turns 10 in May!), and then I joined them after finishing my master’s. The roster has varied a bit over the years, and we now also have Josh Ryan working with us, but the three of us have been there for quite a while.

Q: You all work remotely, what tools do you use to keep in touch and organize projects?

A: The usual suspects, probably: Slack for real-time communication, GitHub for code collaboration and issue tracking, Dropbox for other file sharing, Basecamp for project management, Skype for some calls.

Q: What is your company’s typical stack?

A: I never like the word “stack” because it evokes a more rigid workflow or set of tools than I think we have as a company that specializes in custom maps. That said, there are common elements. At the end is most often D3 or Leaflet, and flat geodata files like GeoJSON or CSV. But the road to get there can vary quite a bit. Some things that often enter the mix are QGIS, mapshaper, TileMill (yep, old school TileMill), PostGIS, GDAL, and probably more that I’m forgetting.

Q: You worked with Cindy Brewer on http://colorbrewer2.org/. How many iterations did you go through? What were your goals for the project?

A: ColorBrewer was sort of inherited by Axis Maps for maintenance. Mark Harrower had worked with Cindy to build the original version based on her color research. Around 2009, when Mark was with Axis Maps, he proposed refreshing it, mostly in terms of UI, and we worked with Cindy on that. That was still in Flash though, and a few years ago I started the conversion to HTML and JavaScript to keep up with the times. So it’s really on version 3. The goal is simply to maintain Cindy’s (and Mark’s) original purpose; what we’ve brought to it is relatively minor UI and usability updates, and a few features better suited to the modern cartographer or web developer.

Q: What are some of you favorite examples of work you have conducted?

A: It’s most fun to get to work on something that real, ordinary people will use and enjoy. One favorite from my day job is the Napa Valley map and trip planner we made a year or two ago, which is used by tourists in the area. A favorite side project is the neighborhood mapping project for Bostonography because discussions with people about that have taught me a lot about what neighborhoods mean to people, and about some real-life neighborhood issues in Boston. One other longstanding favorite is typographic city maps, which started as a fun idea and went on to be good for business!

Q: What interesting facts have you learned about the Boston area while working on maps?

A: Too many! It’s a geographically fascinating city. Can’t say that all of these were news to me, but a few interesting things, facts or otherwise:

  • The actual landform of Boston has changed drastically over time. Quite a lot of the city was water 400 years ago.
  • The street layout can be learned but is still really hard to explain. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve failed to give people directions despite knowing the route perfectly. (“Go straight, but it’s not really straight, then turn at the place where seven roads converge, then…”)
  • Everything is closer than it seems; many of us would probably overestimate distance on a map. It’s a compact place and the concepts of “near” and “far” here are a lot smaller than what I grew up with in the Midwest.
  • Nobody can agree on neighborhood boundaries. That’s the subject of an ongoing project.

Q: Which startup/tool/platform do you see paving the future in the geospatial industry?

A: In the world I know best, which is public-facing web maps, I’m excited by what CartoDB does and what they might inspire. They’re doing a great job in the “fast mapping” world that appeals to journalists and others, while also being a gateway to learning more advanced technology, i.e. PostGIS. I think that approach will be good for the future of maps in general.

Q: You are quite involved in the mapping community through Maptime and NACIS.  Where do you think the mapping community is heading? What skills do you see as being important to becoming geographical/map-fluent?

A: When I joined NACIS ten years ago, a transition was starting in cartography from a concentrated few experts to a vast “democratized” array of mappers. Just judging by NACIS membership and conference content over the last decade, there’s a good trend in the mapping community. Where once there was a backlash against so-called amateurs, now they’re mostly embraced and everyone wants to exchange knowledge. The steady attendance of our Maptime chapter in Boston has been good evidence of that! So I think we’re headed in a direction where we all help ourselves get better. Setting aside technical skills, I think important ground to be gained is in cartographic skills and concepts, which have not always spread very far from academic settings. Ideally, academic expertise would be as approachable as Maptime is for technical expertise. We can’t just tell everyone to go back to school, although I’m currently developing a mapping workshop that includes this bit of advice: “seriously, buy an actual textbook!”

Q: Lastly, who inspires you?

A: Inspiration comes from all over the place, but to name a few people on the mind lately:

John Nelson and his consistently breathtaking aesthetics; Eric Fischer for his mapping and finding meaning in “big data”; Mamata Akella and the creative map symbology experiments she’s been doing; Tim Wallace (my partner in crime for Boston maps) for his collaboration and the amazing ideas he shares, and of course his clear and subtly beautiful map design!

Q: And for old times’ sake… which would you choose?

  • Cambridge versus Boston  – They’d chuck me in the Charles if I didn’t say Cambridge.
  • D3 versus R – D3! But I’ve never even used R.
  • WebGL versus vector tiles – they kind of go hand in hand, don’t they?
  • Leaflet versus OpenLayers – Leaflet. Haven’t actually tried OpenLayers since an older version years ago.
  • CartoDB versus Mapbox 😉 – Oh boy, don’t want to make any enemies!
  • Front end versus back end – Front end is a lot more fun.

Michael Terner: “Choice is back”

Michael Terner
Michael Terner

Michael Terner has been working in the geo/GIS industry since 1985, initially in state government where he was the first manager of MassGIS. In 1991 he co-founded Applied Geographics/AppGeo, where he remains a partner and Executive Vice President.
Michael was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev, Mike Dolbow, and Randal Hale.

Q (Randal): So Michael, you are Executive VP at AppGeo. AppGeo has been around for around 25 years. You’re one of the founding partners, correct? What’s the history of AppGeo? ArcINFO was still command line at that point, and I’m pretty sure Windows NT hadn’t made a strong appearance in the market place. Plus I still had hair.

A: Yeah, I hate to admit it but I’m increasingly feeling like one of the “old guys” in this industry. I got my start in GIS in 1985, straight out of college when I got an internship with the Massachusetts state government in a small environmental agency. My task was to see what this new “GIS technology” was all about and see if it might help Mass with hazardous waste treatment facility siting. Long story short, that internship led to 7 years in state government where I had the privilege of helping to get MassGIS started, and was the first Manager from 1988-1991. In that time I took my ARC/INFO (correct spelling of the day) training on a Prime 9950 mini computer and ARC/INFO 3.2. Our first disk quota was 600MB, and the system administrator said “you’ll never fill that up.” We did in 3 months. I also helped Massachusetts buy its first copy of ARC/INFO to run on a new VAX computer at version 4.0. I have no nostalgia for the bad old days of command line, 9-track tapes, and needing to start projects by table-digitizing the data that you needed. I do miss AML a little bit.

I left state government to co-found AppGeo with two partners in 1991. My partner for 24 years, David Weaver, retired late last year. Our president Rich Grady joined us in 1994, and we’ve built a strong, internal management team. In hindsight, the one thing I think we’ve done best these past 25 years is anticipate and willingly change as technology evolves. We started AppGeo with one UNIX workstation that ran ARC/INFO for 3 people using terminal emulation on PCs connected to the workstation. We ran ArcInfo on Windows NT, and we’ve evolved through ArcView, ArcView IMS, ArcIMS and ArcGIS Server and ArcGIS for this and that. We’ve seen a lot of technology and devices come and go, and beginning in 2008 we began pivoting from Esri as the sole solution for all problems. Initially with open source, and now increasingly with newer web platforms from Google Maps to CartoDB alongside open source. Again, I have no nostalgia and have never had more fun in this industry than now. Choice is back, and innovation is flourishing. Everywhere. I still have some hair, but as my daughters remind me, my forehead has grown considerably since then.

Q (Randal): So what does AppGeo do?

A: We’re geospatial consultants, plain and simple. We help customers solve geospatial problems and we help them plan and implement geo. We both spec and create data. And we build a lot of applications. Nowadays, almost always on the web, and increasingly what we build is optimized for mobile device access. Sometimes our customers want our ideas; other times they need extra capacity, and sometimes they need special skills such as programming or project design. We really believe in “dogfooding” and “eating what you cook.” As such doing things like creating data and maps as well as applications helps us be more confident in the kinds of recommendations we put forth in our strategic plans. Now we also resell some technology, and we have our own software as a service (SaaS) offerings that we serve out of the cloud to many dozens of customers. Pretty much everything we do has geospatial in it, but as geospatial — or location — has gotten more mainstream, increasingly our work involves integrating with non-geospatial business systems or tying geospatial technology into traditional IT infrastructures. Which is good. As our development team will say: “spatial is not special, it’s just another column in the database.” It’s a bit of an exaggeration, but with SQL extended for spatial operations, not by much.

Q (Randal): One of the things I’ve noticed about AppGeo is that you have several business partnerships. Two of the most interesting were Esri and Google. One of the two decided they didn’t want to partner with you in the GIS realm anymore. Which one ran?

A: As a small business, we have always been open-minded to partnerships. In addition to geospatial supplier partnerships, we have partnered with a wide variety of other consultants on projects. From big engineering firms to well known IT consulting firms to firms that are highly specialized in a particular market such as airports. We add the geo/location expertise.

And we’ve always been very open to partnering with the geospatial software providers. In addition to the two you mention — Esri and Google — at various times (and to this day) we’ve been partners with Intergraph, Bentley, FME, and CartoDB. Our loyalty is to our customers, and we want the expertise needed to help them solve their problems, and we need to understand the tools that are out there very well to provide that expertise. Partnerships help us to do that.

So to your question: Esri kicked us out of their partner program after almost 20 years in the program. I blogged on that topic in 2014 and provided a good amount of detail on what we think happened, and what it means. Many, many people read the piece, and as I’ve traveled around, several other people have sought me out to tell me “their story.” We’re certainly not the only ones who have met this fate, but not many have talked about it openly. As I wrote, it was not a healthy partnership, and in the end it was good that it happened. We have never been stronger, and there are many other firms — including Google — that have welcomed us as a partner, and respected our non-denominational outlook on partnership. We still use a ton of Esri and feel very comfortable as a customer of theirs. As our clients know, our expertise in Esri didn’t disappear with our partner status. We greatly respect the company and Jack Dangermond as a strong and tough businessman. And, in our “best of breed” outlook on the geospatial landscape, Esri is the best at many things. But, in our opinion, not all. And that’s probably why we parted company.

Q (Mike): Any regrets about publicly airing all of those details? Do you think AppGeo would be different today if you had been able to stay in the program?

A: No regrets whatsoever. In fact, we have been a bit surprised at how many people were interested in the story. In the end, we had heard that Esri was telling the story to some of our mutual customers in “their terms”, and we felt it was important for people to have the ability to also hear that story directly from us. Quite honestly, I don’t think things would be much different for us if we had stayed in the Esri partner program. Business remains good, and we would still be using a variety of technologies, and we would still have our primary loyalty to our customers. Really, the biggest difference is in the posture of our relationship with Esri. Now we’re an Esri customer and user instead of a partner. And thus the kinds of conversations we have with Esri are somewhat different.

Q (Atanas): How is partnering with Google different than with Esri?

A: As you might expect, it’s an enormous difference. Google’s program is certainly not perfect, but Google is very clear with their partners on the role of the partner channel and Google’s expectations. It took some getting used to, but we have hit our stride and the partnership is very productive for us. Here are a few of the biggest differences:

  • Google has many, many fewer partners than Esri, and the partners are selected/recruited based on their qualifications. And there is not an annual fee to be in their partner program.
  • Google’s program is re-selling oriented. We do a lot of related services (e.g., application development), but that is between us and the customer; we work very closely with Google on providing the right subscription-based products. Unlike Esri, Google allows their partners to sell any of their geo products, not just the lower-end subset of products.
  • Google has other, non-geo product lines (e.g., Gmail/Google for Work; Google Cloud Platform; Search; etc.) and many of Google’s geo partners sell, or even specialize in these other product lines. Google’s partner conference (which I just attended in March) mixes all of these different partners, and it’s a really interesting and diverse ecosystem. There’s a specialized track for each product line (we followed the geo track), but you also get to see the whole cloud-based vision of the larger company and interact with, and learn from the non-geo partners.
  • Probably the biggest difference for us is that there is a very active exchange of leads and joint selling. We got more leads from Google in our first month in the program than we did in the entire life of our Esri partnership which spanned almost 20 years. Fundamentally, Google and their partners work together on sales which was not the case for us with Esri.

Q (Mike): While we’re drawing comparisons, you’ve been working with customers around the country. Are you noticing any regional differences in the way GIS or mapping technologies are approached?

A: Honestly, I don’t see fundamental “technological approach” differences across the country. Pretty much everywhere I go Esri remains the dominant player, but also I see people’s eyes and minds being ever more open to new approaches like open source (e.g., QGIS) or cloud-based platforms (e.g., CartoDB, Fulcrum). There may be slight regional differences in the rate of uptake of new technology, but everywhere people are more curious than I’ve ever seen. People are also increasingly interested in open data across the country, and even in Canada, which does not have the same public records laws and open records history as the USA.

The biggest regional differences are in governmental organization and the priority of particular issues. The things that vary on a regional basis are more like, “Do you work with more counties vs. cities/towns?” Or, “Is the drought, or agriculture, or public lands a big issue?”

Q (Mike): I’ll ask you what I asked you in Duluth last fall — can the open source community band together to make sure the Yankees never win another World Series?

A: Wish it were so. But as a fellow Red Sox fan I feel good about where we stand relative to the Yankees in the 21st Century, i.e., 3 titles Red Sox to 1 for the Yankees.

Q (Atanas): Hippest commute mode: ferry, train, or bike?

A: I’m a big public transit fan, mostly because the downtown Boston driving commute is terrible. Usually I’m on the commuter rail. But during the window from mid-May through the end of October there’s a commuter ferry from Salem (the neighboring city to my hometown of Beverly) into downtown Boston. So my favorite, and by association hippest, commute is the 1-2 days/week during the summer I get to bike the ~3 miles from home to Salem for a wonderful high speed ferry ride into Boston (and then back). This is the morning “entering Boston” view:

'Entering Boston' by Michael Terner
‘Entering Boston’ by Michael Terner

Q (Randal): So with all these questions behind us … do you feel geohipsterish? We did a poll way back in the beginning days of GeoHipster to define a geohipster, and the best we could come up with are they shun the mainstream, have a wicked sense of humor, and do things differently. Do you feel like one?

A: Yes, I hope so. I’m not sure I “shun” the mainstream, but I don’t believe there is a mainstream that lasts very long in technology. If you stand pat, you die. We’ve lasted 25 years so at a minimum we’ve bobbed in and out of the ever-changing tech mainstream fairly effectively. In 1985 when I started in this business, Esri was not mainstream. I appreciate humor (especially Randy’s) greatly, and I hope I’m occasionally funny (even if my family might disagree). Yes, I think we often approach things differently, and aren’t afraid to “try different”, and that’s been a great asset.

Q (Randal): I usually leave the last question up to you to say whatever you want to say to the world, and I’m going to do just that … BUT with a twist. Something big is coming to Boston in 2017, and you and the Geo community did a tremendous amount of work to make this happen. So what is coming to Boston in 2017?

A: Yes, the Global FOSS4G Conference is coming to Boston in August of 2017 as the three-continent rotation returns to North America after a successful stop in Seoul, Korea in 2015, and the upcoming conference in Bonn Germany in 2016.  See our nascent web-site to mark your calendars. The Boston geo community rallied, and I am extremely proud to have led our awesome Boston Location Organizing Committee (the BLOC) in generating the winning proposal to host that conference. We had incredibly tough competition with really strong proposals coming from both Ottawa and Philadelphia, and we are committed to putting on an awesome conference and rewarding the faith OSGeo has put in us. We are also excited to support the upcoming FOSS4G North America that will be held in Raleigh, NC in just 4 weeks. Please show your support for FOSS4G and learn lots and have fun with us in Raleigh.

John Reiser: “The best work often occurs once you move outside of your comfort zone”

John Reiser
John Reiser

John Reiser is a Business Intelligence Analyst at Rowan University. He previously worked in state government and in a private planning firm. John is active in several professional organizations and also serves as a consultant on GIS, cartography, and data analysis projects. John lives in New Jersey.
John was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.

Q: Where do you work and what do you do there?

A: I am a business intelligence analyst at Rowan University. I work primarily with University Advancement, dealing with fundraising recordkeeping and prospect research. We use technology to better connect with and support our alumni, as well as help find individuals who have both the capacity and the inclination to give philanthropically to Rowan. I also consult and work on projects in my spare time.

Q: You hold a graduate degree in urban planning. What attracted you to GIS?

A: The first time I can recall really getting excited about GIS was during my undergraduate program in Geography. The program at the time focused on raster-based analysis and did very little with vector data. This was 2004 and there was no easy access to large datasets like county-wide parcels. Thankfully, I was able to get copies of Burlington and Gloucester Counties’ parcel data, driving to their respective offices and picking up CDs, merging the data together and then using it to project ridership potential for a planned light rail in Gloucester County, comparing it to the recently-opened RiverLine in Burlington County. I continued research into access to transportation while pursuing my masters at Rutgers. Even though I initially wanted to pursue physical and transportation planning, I would get involved with projects that required GIS, and continued to build my knowledge on the software and myriad types of data available.

Q: Do you miss planning? How much of what you learned in planning school do you apply in the job you hold today?

A: I do miss working as a planner and I miss working with GIS on a regular basis, but I make up for it by working on side projects. My current project is NJ Parcels, an easy-to-use statewide listing of property assessment and sales information for New Jersey. I get to wear many hats as I work on the site, from system administrator, database administrator, software developer, UI/UX designer, and project manager. So far, I feel like I am successful in juggling the different roles and responsibilities to keep the site running smoothly. Over 2015, NJ Parcels served up 9.7 million pageviews to approximately 3 million users. I also develop and manage Florida Parcels, which is an attempt to do the same for the Sunshine State.

I do want to use the data I’ve collected to build the site for planning projects in New Jersey. I have assisted NJ Future to overcome difficulties matching the spatial data to the assessment records, namely where there are multiple lots but only one assessment record that contains the additional lots in a free-form text field. I am currently working on a project looking at distributed ownership in New Jersey — people who purchase property a distance from their listed owner address. This can help understand a variety of planning issues, from absentee landlords, transitional neighborhoods, market speculation, and the effects of out-of-state investment in places like the Jersey Shore. I am planning on releasing my findings in the spring of this year.

Two things I learned from planning school still weigh heavily in my mind: the need to build consensus, and having patience. Projects, both software development and large redevelopments plans, benefit greatly from consensus-building efforts. That extra work at the beginning trying to get buy-in from stakeholders and from the community might be seen as side friction, but it ultimately makes the project go smoothly. Patience is also critical. It takes patience to build a plan and see it through fruition. Not everything can get solved in a single meeting or a code sprint, and that’s okay.

Q: You have experienced GIS in state government, in academia, and in private consulting. Which environment is the most interesting? The most challenging?

A: State government can be frustrating because of the nature of the business. Interesting projects can spring up and die just as quickly as the whims of the politicians in charge change. I was told on occasion to simply stop working on a project because it was no longer supported by the Governor’s Office. Private consulting can be incredibly rewarding, but it has its own difficulties. The profit-driven nature of the private world shapes the outcome and the timeframe. Sometimes you just need to produce, even if it’s not the product you originally wanted to produce.

Academia allows for greater flexibility in exploring a project. Some truly amazing work has originated within academia. And if you’re fortunate to work with students, you’ll be constantly amazed what bright, passionate young minds can produce. However, the nature of the academic world can also be far more difficult to navigate than government or the private sector. Colleagues that block or stifle your work can do so simply because they can. Performance metrics are often ignored, and I have been amazed at the amount of “thinking with the gut” that is performed in higher ed. Unlike government, you’re not keeping your fingers crossed that the next election things will be better, instead you are stuck playing actuary and guessing if it is worth waiting around for retirements to occur. Academia can be an amazing place to work and be a contributor to some awesome projects, but it can also be immensely frustrating as Sayre’s law will demonstrate itself time and time again if you do not have the right people involved.

Q: You are equally well versed in Esri technology and in open source geospatial technology. Is mixing and matching geotools a necessity, a challenge, or a luxury?

A: To me, finding the right tool for the job is both a challenge and a necessity. I’ve seen fanatics on both sides — commercial and free software — produce projects that don’t meet their full potential because they’ve married themselves to a single software platform. Taking a step back and evaluating the options is important. Just because something happens to be your current favorite doesn’t necessarily make it the best choice for the task at hand. The best work often occurs once you move outside of your comfort zone.

Q: What are you working on now, and what technologies do you use?

A: At work I write SQL for Oracle on a daily basis and I use PostgreSQL for my side projects. It is amazing where the differences and similarities lie in the two DBMSs. I’m grateful that the one I find myself less frustrated with happens to be the free one.

I primarily use Python as my programming language of choice, but I have been looking into using Node.JS again after about two years of not using it to build an API to NJ Parcels. I also need to brush up on R and use that in my projects more often. I also use Tableau both at work and in my other projects. It’s a great tool for quick visualizations of complex data.

Q: Bike, beard, beer — you are in firm control of the ultimate hipster triad. Do people call you a hipster, and how do you feel about it if (when?) they do?

A: I don’t get called hipster often; I don’t think I dress well enough. I think I tend to come across more as a lumberjack with a desk job.

Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for the GeoHipster crowd?

A: When I was teaching GIS in higher ed, I stressed the importance of projects and building a portfolio. Recent grads looking for work often have little to show to potential employers, so having some tangibles that demonstrate your capabilities is crucially important. I would always encourage them to work on projects that aligned with their personal passions. It’s much easier to convince yourself to dedicate the extra time if it’s something you enjoy or strikes your interest. It’s also much easier to stick with the project after you’ve gotten the job. I’ve started countless projects over my 15 years in the workforce and most were abandoned or anything but successful, but I’ve learned a lot from each project. Take that experience and funnel it into your next project. I never would have thought that I’d be developing web sites around assessment data back when I was initially struggling with getting and using the same data a decade earlier. I don’t know what I’ll be doing ten years from now, but I know there will be a wide variety of options ahead of me because I continued to learn, adapt, and put my mix of talents to use. I’m likely preaching to the choir, but I feel it needs to be said: keep working towards the next big thing.