Kurt Menke: “The most gratifying aspect of teaching these workshops is seeing people shed their technological insecurities”

A former archaeologist, Kurt Menke (@geomenke) runs Bird’s Eye View GIS and is based out of Albuquerque, New Mexico. He works mainly in ecological conservation, public health, and education. He has been an avid open source GIS proponent ever since he made the switch from ArcIMS to MapServer back in 2002. He recently authored the 2nd edition of “Mastering QGIS” for Packt Publishing, and “Discover QGIS” for Locate Press. He is also an OSGeo Charter Member. In his spare time he enjoys big wild spaces, mountains, vinyl records, and good coffee.
Kurt was interviewed for GeoHipster by Randal Hale.

 

Q: Kurt Menke, where are you located and what do you do?

A: I live in Albuquerque, New Mexico which, contrary to what you often hear reported, is actually located in the United States. I run my own consulting business, Bird’s Eye View, and have worked at home since 2008. I consider myself a GIS generalist. I have been doing GIS for almost 20 years so “what I do” has changed over several times. I’ve built desktop and web mapping applications, developed data, conducted spatial analyses, and created maps. My mission is to help solve the world’s mounting ecological and social problems using GIS technology. Basically I want to use this technology to make the world a better place. My bread and butter is spatial analysis and cartography. Some of my favorite work involves modeling wildlife habitat and wildlife corridors. Many of my clients are non-profit conservation organizations in the western US.

I also do some work related to public health, and I’ve been involved in education and training for a while too. I’m a big fan of open source software and in 2010 I developed a full semester course called “Introduction to Open Source GIS and Web Mapping”. I usually teach it in the summer at my local community college. It’s now a required course there. I also was one of the major contributors to the GeoAcademy curriculum. That effort lead to me being an author. In the last two years I’ve authored “Discover QGIS” and co-authored two editions of “Mastering QGIS”. I’d like to get more involved in showing organizations how to migrate to FOSS4G.

Q: On LinkedIn you’re listed as a former archaeologist. What brought you into that field? How did you make your way from that into GIS?

A: I grew up in the suburbs of DC and started out at the University of Maryland where I picked Anthropology as my major. I eventually transferred to the University of New Mexico, partly because it had a great Anthropology program, but mostly to get away from home and have an adventure. I’ve been here ever since. After graduating I started working as a contract archaeologist. I did that for 8 years. It was a fun way to spend my 20s, but it’s hard work, and you end up collecting a lot of unemployment between gigs. It got to the point where I was ready to get a ‘real job’ instead of being a shovel bum. Some kind of synergy happened. I had a boss who was into remote sensing, which I’d never heard of, but it sounded cool. I’d always loved maps. I had a huge collection of paper USGS topo quads. He convinced me to enroll in the Geography Master’s program at UNM.

At the time I was completely computer illiterate. It sounds strange now, but it was still pretty common in the mid 90s. I ended up getting a job at the Earth Data Analysis Center at UNM, which is a GIS/Remote Sensing business that runs out of the university. It was there that I really cut my teeth on GIS. The first computer I used was a UNIX workstation through a terminal. We ran Arc/Info 7 and I loved it. It was all command line and I got really good at it. I ended up working at EDAC for 10 years. It was also there that I was first exposed to open source GIS. I did a lot of work developing web applications with MapServer, GRASS and PostGIS. Now I call myself a reformed archaeologist.

Q: What is a wildlife corridor and how hard are they to model? What tools do you use to do that?

A: Those are big questions. I’ll try to summarize. Wildlife have a home range or an area where they operate on the landscape. They also need to migrate occasionally. This might happen to find new food sources, better breeding grounds, or might be part of seasonal movements. A wildlife corridor is a route an animal uses to get from A to B. They also get called linkages or connectivity areas.

I think the ‘why they need to be modeled’ is important here. Wildlife habitats are becoming increasingly fragmented by human development, and habitat patches are becoming smaller. This has likely caused wildlife-vehicle collisions to increase. If a corridor can be accurately identified, people can work with transportation departments to build overpasses or underpasses for wildlife. It’s a win-win because it makes the road safer for people and removes barriers for wildlife movement.

There is also scientific consensus that the long-term survival of many species is dependent on protecting wildlife corridors. This is especially true for big animals with big home ranges, like mountain lions, elk, wolves, pronghorn antelope, etc. There’s the theory of island biogeography, which essentially states that the smaller an island, the fewer species it can support and vice versa. This is a universal ecological pattern found in the world. Fragmented habitat is like a small island.

They are hard to model, and this is just because the world is complicated and our understanding of how critters operate is incomplete. Corridors look very different from species to species. For example, a desert tortoise is not going to move like an elk. From a data perspective, you have to know a lot about the species, and you have to be able to represent things that are important to the species in a GIS. The first step is identifying where the habitat is. This usually involves a raster analysis, unless someone has already produced a good model for your area, but that just never seems to be the case. Variables usually include elevation, vegetation, hydrology and human impacts.

The next step is developing a resistance raster that represents ease of movement across the landscape. You can simply work off the idea that it is easier for a critter to move through good habitat than bad. So resistance is the inverse of habitat. Sometimes though people will develop a custom resistance surface if they know a lot about the animal. It likely includes a lot of the same variables in the habitat model but weighted differently.

From there it’s common to use some sort of least cost path tools. However, least cost paths are only one pixel wide which probably doesn’t represent reality so well. There is a nice tool in ArcGIS named Corridor that sums the cost and allows you to extract a swath of pixels as the corridor. Corridor Designer is one of the first tools I used. It was/is an ArcGIS toolbox with a suite of tools for modeling corridors using this approach. It probably doesn’t run so well on new versions of ArcGIS, but it was really handy. The coolest new tool is the open source Circuitscape. You essentially provide the habitat polygons and a resistance surface, and it outputs a connectivity raster for the entire study area. Of course this can all be scripted as well. I know there’s a package for R called Grainscape I’d like to check out.

Climate change is disrupting some of these patterns which throws a wrench into the works. People are now working on potential range shift models. Where will lynx habitat be in 2100 and where will the corridors be?

Q: I’ve seen your blog postings on community Health Maps. How much “GIS” is in the health field? It appears you’re doing workshops for people who are on a very limited budget.

A: This is a project I’ve been working on for a while. Community Health maps is a project of the National Library of Medicine, an agency I’d never heard of until I got involved. The goal is to empower public health organizations, working with underserved and at risk populations, with mapping technology. So yeah, our target audience is not GIS professionals, but public health workers. For the most part they are not computer savvy, but really need some basic geospatial tech. I teach half-day workshops where they learn how to 1) use Fulcrum to map their communities with smartphones, 2) map that data with CARTO, and 3) go even further with QGIS. The most gratifying aspect of these workshops is seeing people shed their technological insecurities. It’s common for people to show up and admit they’re scared of the technology. To then see in a few short hours, they are getting it all to work, and actually getting excited about the possibilities, is a beautiful thing. I also moderate a blog and have produced some related lab exercises. Overall I don’t think the health field is benefitting from geospatial tech nearly as much as they could. There are big programs at agencies like the CDC, but that isn’t really helping the typical public health worker in their day-to-day work.

Q: I’ve interviewed a few authors — and you mentioned Discover QGIS and Mastering QGIS — how hard is it to keep books on QGIS up to date? The QGIS developers have a quick release schedule and I imagine it’s easy to get far behind.

A: It’s hard. First of all, if all goes as planned, it takes a good 6 months from the start of the publishing contract to the end of the editorial process. During that six months, QGIS will have undergone at least one version change and is halfway to the next. Once out, the book is ideally current with the latest LTR for a year. As an example, we planned on getting the second edition of “Mastering QGIS” out in March of 2016 to coincide with the release of QGIS LTR 2.14. All our copy was complete by then, but due to issues with the publisher it wasn’t published until September. In a normal cycle that’s halfway through the book’s relevancy. I’m now considering updating “Discover QGIS” for the release of QGIS v 3.0. That book has over 700 screenshots, most of which will need to be updated. Then there’s accounting for all the great new features. It’s a daunting prospect. I want it done, but don’t want to do it.

Q: For me work/life balance is hard. What do you do for fun? I’ve seen on a year-end blog post you lift weights? You hike?  

A: It is for me too, but it’s getting better. I really try to quit work at 5pm. Since I work at home, that routine is important to my overall sanity. As I was getting ready to leave the university and start my business, I spent a few years essentially working two jobs. It took a toll. The body really wasn’t meant to sit 50-60 hours a week. I started gaining weight and having problems with my elbows and wrists. Eventually I got an adjustable height desk which has helped.

I do lift weights. A few years ago my wife and I started really cleaning up our diet and working out with a trainer. He’s got his own little private gym. It’s just us and a few others. Now we lift weights 3 nights a week and do some sort of cardio on the weekend. It’s a blast, plus most of the aches and pains associated with being a desk jockey have gone. Workouts are also usually in the evenings so they get me to stop work on time. It’s my favorite part of the week. We’ve both gotten pretty fit. This winter I set two weightlifting PRs. I was most proud of back-squatting 315!

I also love hiking. I spend a lot of time up in the Sandia Wilderness outside of Albuquerque. One of my hobbies is climbing 14-ers (peaks over 14,000’). I’ve climbed 23 of the 54 in Colorado, and another 3 in California. I like backpacking too. A while back I hiked across Oregon on the Pacific Crest Trail. My buddy and I covered 500 miles in 40 days. It was an amazing experience. I can’t imagine being able to take that much time off now.

During the week, after work and working out, I can usually be found on the couch watching any one of the great TV shows out these days. I also love vintage film noir. The movies relax me. I listen to a ton of podcasts too. Lately I’m into S-Town, Criminal, Monday Morning Podcast (Bill Burr), Crime Writers On…, I Brew My Own Coffee, WTF with Marc Maron, and recently Hangouts with James Fee.

Q: How bad is the coffee addiction? It seems like it may be a problem.

A: Ha! It’s pretty bad, but what do they say? Admitting it is the first step. I’ve always loved coffee. A few years ago I started getting bummed that what I brewed at home wasn’t anywhere near as good as what the local coffee joints were serving. So I did some research and invested in a decent burr grinder, a scale, and a Chemex. Give Chemex a goog if you don’t know what one is. It was a game changer. I threw out my drip machine.

With the Community Health Maps project I’ve been traveling a lot. So I’ve started checking out the best coffee shops wherever I go to see what they have going on. That lead to getting into all the single origin coffees coming out. From there I started buying other brewers like an AeroPress, Kalita Wave, siphon, Moka pot, V60 etc. They’re all really affordable. Then I found a vintage Swiss espresso machine in my father in law’s garage. He didn’t want it, so I sent it out to be refurbished. That was expensive.

Anyway now I pretty much have a state of the art coffee shop in my kitchen. I’ve turned into a total coffee geek and I’m ok with it. I even bring an AeroPress and a portable hand grinder with me on trips to places without good local coffee. I can brew up great coffee in my hotel room.

Q: Almost 4 years ago we defined the geohipster to be a person who lives on the outskirts of mainstream GIS. So I’m reading back through this and we’ve got the makings of a geohipster. Do you feel like one?

A: What is it The Stranger says, “that’s a name no one would self-apply where I come from.” That’s where I am with it. I think in some respects I operate on the outskirts of mainstream GIS (ahem I meant the geospatial industry) and in others probably not. I’d love to be considered a geohipster, who wouldn’t, but I’ll leave that to others to decide.

Q: I leave the last question up to you: Anything you wish to tell the GeoHipster readers.

A: GIS and geo are simply ever-evolving tools for turning data into information. For me the application and the data are more important than the actual tools used. Mainly because every 5 or 10 years the tools completely change. Don’t get me wrong, that’s part of what keeps the job interesting day to day, learning new tools, but it’s the applications that can have a lasting impact.

Randal Hale: “80% of hipsters have a spatial component”

Randal Hale
Randal Hale

Randal Hale runs North River Geographic Systems. He enjoys long walks on the beach, talking about your feelings, and spatial databases. You may find him at your local conference, possibly in a canoe, or on a bike — but not all at once.

Randal was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.

Q: How and why did you get into GIS?

A: So way back in 1989 (it’s not that long ago, right?) young Randy started college. I ended up through some twists and turns as a Geology Major. About a year or so before graduation, it hit me that in order to use this degree for anything I was going to have to go to grad school and A) Work for an an oil company or B) Teach. Ugh.

My department received a phone call about that time from the Tennessee Valley Authority mapping department. Hence started my career in the Federal Gov’t — I went in and interviewed for the wrong job and was hired for a summer job that didn’t start until October. TVA has a long history in Mapping. They are probably the 2nd or 3rd oldest mapping organization in the nation. At the time they also had a store that sold aerial photography (9×9 prints) and topographic maps. The map folding and selling turned into a my first foray into GIS.

TVA had just started using this new software called ARC/INFO and they had a huge job that required a lot of digitizing of data from 7.5-minute quadrangle maps. So I would digitize streams and roads and then get the GIS IT guy to print out a map at a known scale. I would then take the map and measure all the roads and streams using a planimeter (that’s what they told me to do). One day the IT guy came back and asked what I was doing and when he finished yelling he sat down and taught me how to extract that information from the data I was producing. I received a day or so of instruction. He gave me a stack of manuals. I read those at lunch. I was hooked. That led to AML development, shell scripting, and the eventual loss of most of my hair (at least that’s what I blame it on). I was there for about 16 years and learned a lot on life, mapping work flows, and data standards.

Q: You have been running your own GIS consulting business for 10 years. If you could do it over again, would you take the same path? What would you do differently?

A: Oh — things I would have done differently. I think I might stay on the same path. With a few exceptions:

  • I would tell anyone that is starting a business — actually learn about running a business. I can do complicated things with maps — I didn’t understand taxes. If you assume my work week is 40 hours I’ll spend about 8 hours bookeeping, 8 hours advertising, and 40 hours working (that’s the joke). I still question if I’m “doing it right”. Friends would go “Oh running a business is easy”. HAH.
  • Say No to people. It took me forever to learn to tell clients no. It’s easy to lose money on a job. It’s really easy if you work for yourself. There were jobs I took on I should have walked away from — but it’s hard to say no. In 2016 I think I walked away from 3 jobs where I didn’t think I was the best fit. Best thing I’ve done.
  • Learn to take a break from work. I will sit and worry about business. I like worrying — I’m good at it. This year I actually learned to step away and find hobbies that don’t involve GIS.

Q: Tell us about some of the cool projects you are working on and the technology you use.

A: Cool Projects. Heh. I’m not sure how cool they are.

So my first project as a consultant was with a small forestry firm within driving distance of Chattanooga. It started out simple enough. Soon 4 shapefiles turned into 8. 8 turned into 100. It was painful. I couldn’t manage the data easily. We needed to upgrade to ArcEditor or ArcInfo. They couldn’t afford the price tag. So I migrated them to QGIS and PostGIS. We are running an enterprise database that churns out a lot of data on cheap computers. It’s not glorious or cool — but it’s functional and pain-free. I guess that makes it awesome. We’re on the verge of having a thing called a “web map”.

One job involves a water utility. I’m still working on that one. That project is migrating data out of an Esri file-based geodatabase into PostGIS. We are installing QGIS alongside ArcGIS. There’s a few things they need ArcGIS for — but all data maintenance will be QGIS/PostGIS. They also are using Fulcrum to help with data maintenance/collection. I actually had to open ArcGIS for this one and muck through domains and subtypes in the file-based geodatabase. Which really this is more about making the client comfortable with the transition. There’s no question on it working or not working — it’s all comfort level.

A volunteer job I’m working on — Caribbean SEA (http://www.caribbean-sea.org/). They are a 501(c)(3) that operates in Chattanooga. They work locally and in the Caribbean educating people on the benefits of clean water. So after helping do things like help run their website and make sure email works — we’re diving into GIS. They will have one of their projects in PostGIS/QGIS. They are also about to embark on a mobile app for people to report water quality problems. Every water quality report has a point. Every point goes on a map. It’s going to be a game changer for them and the people they help.  

Q: These days you are all about PostGIS and QGIS. How and why did you take that route? Do you use Esri software?

A: I think I’ve been an Esri software user for nearly 23 years. I started with ARC/INFO 6 and stayed current up until 10.2. One of my clients has 10.5 I think (we’ve not opened it so I’m not sure entirely). In 2009 I even went so far as to be an Esri Business Partner and Certified Trainer for a short span.

In early 2013 I worked on a job that took me to the Caribbean. I worked alongside AppGeo (www.appgeo.com) and Spatial Focus (www.spatialfocus.com/) on assigning addresses in the US Virgin Islands. When you’re standing on St. Thomas you can’t say “Take me to 123 Main Street”. Addresses are by parcel number. Many streets weren’t named. Your address might be “Az42” and that’s it. It’s hard to order a pizza and almost impossible to get an ambulance to your location. Addressing is complicated. It’s also a bit fun to figure out. We built an address repository from scratch. The addressing repository was to reside in PostGIS.

I was incredibly worried because I knew nothing on PostGIS except it didn’t “work” with ArcGIS. I had QGIS installed (1.7.x) and started learning how it all functions together. QGIS and PostGIS are flexible enough to run on anything. I went and bought a cheap laptop for $350 (4GB of RAM and a 300GB hard drive). I loaded Linux on it. I loaded PostGIS, QGIS, and a few other pieces of software. I took a copy of the address repository and off we went.

Over the course of 4 months I learned a lot. I had one co-worker there who was great at improvising — Zac. We would hit a problem and he would sit down and write a solution. I had one co-worker Carol who was excellent at designing processes. So by the end of the project we had built a process that combined commercial and open source software to churn out address information from the MAR (master address repository) for the good people of the US Virgin Islands. Up until that one point I always assumed you couldn’t mix commercial and open source software. We had strung together Fulcrum, ArcGIS, Google Docs, QGIS, Python, and PostGIS into possibly not the most elegant solution — but it worked and it worked well.Total software purchase for the job was about $300 US. All on a $350 laptop. Run your current commercial software on a laptop with those specs.

When consulting you run into a lot of clients that go “Look — we don’t have any money — but we’ve budgeted $30,000 to buy software to run our GIS”. When I came back from the Caribbean I started asking “Why is software the centerpiece of your GIS and not your data?”. It completely changed the way I look at geo. With my toolset of QGIS and PostGIS (and Fulcrum) I can do about anything that needs done. GIS is fun again. I don’t spend 4 hours listing out software a client has to buy — I spend 4 hours discussing data and what problems they need solved.

Q: Do you miss ARC/INFO on Solaris? Do you miss coverages? (I do, for which I get ridiculed occasionally.) Why / why not?

A: I do miss it. I used to do a lot of remote sensing. All of our landcover went into coverages — I mean everything at the time went into coverages — roads, streams, landcover, etc. It had polygons. The polygons were also standalone arcs. You had labels — those were also the centroids for the Polygons. You could attribute nodes if I remember correctly. The move away from coverages was painful. I swore for a long time file-based geodatabases were just less functional coverages.

My first dive into GIS was on Solaris. I enjoy Unix. So these days thanks to the flexibility of the tools — Linux is my operating system of choice. I have one laptop that is running Windows 10 and one Virtual Machine running Windows 7. About once a month I stop and go “Oh god — why am I running Linux” and then I remember I haven’t rebooted my workstation in 3 weeks and haven’t bought virus software in 5 years.

The other thing I miss about ARC/INFO Workstation: You actually had to know what you were doing to use it. That sounds mean. It’s true though. ARC/INFO was a time investment. You had to know the commands. You had to know what happened when you used those commands. For a while I taught a model builder class I had written for ArcGIS. Most taking the class didn’t know model builder existed or what half the ArcToolbox tools did. I feel like now it’s just push buttons until you don’t get an error. Make PDFs. Woot. Sigh.

It’s hard to explain — coverages are ancient history. Sometimes you need to see where you came from to appreciate where you are.

Now that I re-read this — I’ll go back to yelling at clouds and tie an onion to my belt.

Q: How long did it take you to become comfortable with PostGIS? How long will it take for an old phart? (Asking for a friend.)

A: A year before it started to make sense. I’m not a database person — most desktop GIS people (there are a lot of them out there) never think in terms of databases. Spatial SQL didn’t make sense for a while. I was used to a desktop GIS way of thinking. If you wanted a buffer you had to create a file. If you wanted to do some analysis — there was a lot of pre-processing that you might have to do before hand. Most people look at a desktop GIS and go “shapefiles!”. I’ve run into QGIS users and ArcGIS users who produce shapefiles all day every day. When you’re able to comprehend that PostGIS/PostgreSQL and QGIS give you an enterprise-level database — for free — it will change your life.

Eh — about 5 years ago — maybe 6 I was at a conference. I was exploring Free and Open Source at that point. I had a salesman with a commercial company start a conversation over support. He argued — FOSS4G has no support. I argued back “well you’ve got the internet.” Actually — I was a bit wrong — you’ve got email lists, commercial firms, conferences (unofficial plug — FOSS4G in Boston for 2017), books, etc. So I leverage all of those. You’ve got so much support — it may not be typical as in you have a 1-800 number to scream at someone — but I’ve not been compelled to yell ever in the last 4 years at developers in the FOSS4G world.

The really awesome part — it makes GIS fun again.

So Join a listserve. Buy a book. Participate in the discussion. I’ve emailed developers with suggestions and in a few cases I’ve felt like I’ve affected the software. I like filing bug reports.

Q: I enjoy reading your blog. I learn from the technical articles, but I enjoy the personal pieces even more. I like your folksy storytelling style. Will we see more of this?

A: Everyone (including yourself upon occasion) has told me to write something and write more. Heh — I enjoy it. The work blog provides that outlet. So I use it to vent — I talk about technical and I talk about life.

I tend to get lost in work. Figuratively as I will sit here for hours wondering over some technical problem and literally I think at times I “lose me”. I will catch myself at times during the week going “Oh man I can’t go do that I need to work”. It’s hard to get up and walk off. Sometimes if I’m stuck I start typing. I’ll talk about finding a nifty tool in QGIS and Grass or accidentally eating squirrel. Writing helps me find my way out of work. It’s also a great mental health check. I’ve started a lot of blogs and halfway through I realize something was eating at me and I’ve vented enough to make it go away. Many of you are probably saying “Thank you” for me not finishing an article and hitting the trash button.

Not getting as lost has been easier as of late because I’ve taken a sabbatical from boards and other things. I’m going to do my best in 2017 to write 52 articles. I’m already a bit behind. Some may be “cheats” and just reposts of emails — BUT — 52 things. They will probably lean in to the technical but there will be more family and friends that get brought into the mix. I look around and my family has never been “this old” before. Aging parents, aging pets, and changing thoughts make for an interesting life.      

Q: You own a canoe and a bicycle. As far as I can tell, you spend more time in the canoe than on the bike. Why is that?

A: Well… Hah. Growing up my first taste of freedom was a bicycle. I would ride for a while after school. I would ride a bike to work. Bike riding has always been a thing I do — but the canoe…

So when I was around 14 or so my friend Danny called and said “Hey — I’ve saved up some cash and I’m gonna go buy a canoe”. We drove up to Ocoee TN and he bought a 17-foot Kennebec Old Town Canoe. We immediately drove to Parksville Lake and threw it in the water. 15 minutes later we had flipped it. I was hooked. We did a lot of trips to places I’d never have gotten to see had I not been in a canoe.

It’s relaxing. It’s fun. It’s a low maintenance hobby. I can throw my canoe in any body of water and just explore. No gasoline needed. No new tires required. Give me about 15 minutes and you’ll never know I was there. Being in a canoe opens up a whole new transportation network you never think about — lakes and streams and rivers. I have threatened to take up fishing again. My one problem with that — it adds a level of cursing back into my relaxing sport. It’s like ruining a perfectly good walk in a field with a golf club.

When I graduated college my gift to me was a canoe — a 15-foot, 8-inch Old Town Discovery. I’ve had it for 23 years now.

    This year I’ve got two plans:

  • Do an overnight trip because I haven’t done one of those in forever.
  • The second is to take my laptop and do something with QGIS while floating down a river.

Q: Not until I got involved with GeoHipster did I realize that in some parts of the US “hipster” is a dirty word. Is that the case in your home state of Tennessee? If yes, why do you think that is?

A: Nah — not a dirty word here. Of course it doesn’t stop me from poking at people and calling them hipsters and implying it’s bad.

Hipsters seem to push outside of the norm. Depending on what you are doing here in The South that can be a bonus or a detriment. I have one client that no doubt calls me a “hipster”. If I head down to the local organic market, I’m going “ugh hipsters”. Hipster might have an implication of being “not that useful” since you’re working outside the norm. So ultimately I don’t know why it’s bad — except people love giving labels to everyone. Plus people love getting offended over anything and everything.

Q: So, are you a geohipster?

A: Am I? I suppose in some circles yes and others no. Let’s figure it out. I don’t program in JavaScript (-1). I do sometimes touch GeoJSON (+1). I’ve never made a vector tile (-1). I hate GitHub 80% of the time (-1). I did build a Docker image the other day though (+1). I don’t run my website in GitHub (-1). I do have a cat — a lot of geohipsters have cats (+1). I didn’t renew my GISP so that should give me some street cred (+1). I own a business so that removes some street cred (-1). I don’t have skinny jeans (+2). I’m not a huge fan of coffee (-1). Wait – I HAVE A BEARD (+1) … but it’s not long or weird like some hipster beards (-1). Most bands I like everyone has heard of (-1). I like tacos (+11) which means nothing except I like tacos.

I’m going to go with probably. I may be 80% geohipster. That’s how the saying goes, right — 80% of hipsters have a spatial component?

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

A: Words of Wisdom. I can finally read my manifesto to the world.

People of the world — turn off your snapbook, your facegram, your tweetchat, and go outside. Find your nearest neighbor. Talk to them. I enjoy social media — but we’re missing a lot by not talking to people. Find someone you wouldn’t normally talk to and engage them in conversation.

GIS people of the world — if you’ve only ever used one type of Geographic Information System — try a different one. You may be going “OK you want me to use QGIS!”. Try them all — gvSIG, OpenJUMP, ArcGIS, etc. Of course — if you’ve ever been worried about trying QGIS and other open source alternatives to you commercial software — give them a shot, it will change your life. QGIS is coming up on a major release soon — help them out. It’s a great community of people.

Finally — go find a cause and volunteer. Want to help animals? People? Take a few hours a week and make it happen. It doesn’t take much to make a difference.

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.

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.

Shoreh Elhami: “GISCorps is nothing without its volunteers”

Shoreh Elhami
Shoreh Elhami

Shoreh Elhami is the founder of GISCorps, a URISA program that coordinates the deployment of volunteers to communities in need around the world. GISCorps was endorsed as a program by the URISA Board of Directors in October 2003 and since then has attracted over 4,000 volunteers from 98 countries worldwide. To date, over 950 GISCorps volunteers have served in 175 on-site or remote missions in 61 countries.

Email: shoreh.elhami@gmail.com

Shoreh was interviewed for GeoHipster by Randal Hale.

Q: So, Mrs. Elhami, where are you located and what do you do?

A: Shoreh will do!

Q: You are the boss, so it will be Shoreh!

A: I’ve lived in Central Ohio for 29 years; the first 11 years in the City of Columbus, and then moved to Powell — a small suburban city north of Columbus. I work for the City of Columbus Department of Technology; my title is Citywide GIS Manager.

Q: Shoreh, how did you get into GIS? You are / were an architect at one time, correct?

A: Yes, I studied architectural engineering in Iran (where I was born and raised) and practiced as an architect/ urban planner for a few years before we decided to leave the country. I was introduced to GIS at the Ohio State University where I ended up going to graduate school to study City and Regional Planning. I applied for a Research Assistantship position and was assigned to a project that used GIS for studying and analyzing the impact of urban sprawl on a protected watershed. Talk about luck as not only did I end up working on an interesting project, but also learned how to use GIS to conduct analysis. It meant no more drawing / overlaying polygons on mylar and calculating results by hand; I was in love!

I was then offered a job shortly before I graduated, and ended up working at a planning agency where I used my GIS skills for building models and conducting a variety of analytic models for a County Master Plan. This was in the early 90s when GIS was not used as often in a master planning process, so it was a unique and gratifying experience.

Q: What does a Citywide GIS Manager do in Columbus, Ohio? I’m not sure we’ve ever interviewed one. It sounds like something that can make you have fits upon occasion.

A: At the City of Columbus, GIS is used in almost every department, both on desktop as well as online. We have over 300 datasets,+/-100 data editors, and 30 or so GIS applications which are all supported by my team. We work very closely with GIS users and decision-makers on creating new datasets, maintaining the software, geodatabases, and designing applications. Our most recent project is our Open Data Portal. It’s a work in progress, but it is where anyone with interest in Columbus GIS data can visit and download data. In short, it’s an exciting and at times quite a challenging job!

Q: Sometime around 2001 you started this small thing called GISCorps. Why? What does it do?

A: Yes, it was in 2001 at the URISA conference in Long Beach when I started talking to a few colleagues about an idea which later on became GISCorps. The idea was and is quite simple as it’s about making one’s GIS skills available to entities that need GIS assistance but cannot afford to employ GIS professionals. Originally, I thought most of our projects would be on-site and involve teaching. However, we learned very quickly that our volunteers’ skills are very much needed after disasters. In fact, our first few major missions were launched shortly after the 2004 Asian tsunami that struck Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand, and then Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

We recently launched our 176th project, and over 950 volunteers have been deployed to those projects in 61 countries. The majority of these projects are conducted remotely (80%) and +/- 40% have been in response to disasters. We currently have over 4,000 registered volunteers from 98 countries. It’s worth to mention that for on-site projects, we always make sure that the travel expenses are covered by the organization that is requesting assistance. For remote projects there are no [travel] expenses, as volunteers work from their home / office, using their own equipment.

Q: When you started there weren’t a lot of volunteer organizations around. Now there’s HOT and Ushahidi. What makes GISCorps different? The same?

A: You’re right, we are the old kids on the block as far as GIS volunteering goes! Several new organizations were formed shortly after the Haiti earthquake in 2010, and we actually collaborate with several of them via a relatively new organization called Digital Humanitarian Network or DHN. I think what differentiates GISCorps from other organizations is our recruitment model. We take time to not only select candidates from our extensive database, but also for almost every project (except large crowd-sourcing ones) we get on the phone and interview volunteers to make sure they are the right person for the job. We take that quite seriously, as our volunteers’ work represents who we are. Another distinction is that a large percentage of our volunteers are hard-core GIS professionals and ready and equipped to perform all and any GIS-related tasks. Having said that, we also engage in projects that do not require a lot of GIS skills (mostly crowd-sourcing projects) and many of our volunteers enjoy those efforts as well.

Q: How many people do you have helping you run GISCorps? The organization is a non-profit, correct?

A: GISCorps’ business is run by a Core Committee, which at this time has seven members. We meet virtually once a month, and at least once a year face to face.

We are a program of URISA, and since URISA is a non-profit organization people who donate to GISCorps can benefit from our 501(c)(3) status.

Q: What was the best mission of GISCorps? Assuming you can pick the best one.

A: Please don’t ask me to do that, as I have many favorites; it’s as if they ask you which one of your children you love the most!

Q: So with all of that going on — there are more important things to discuss. What’s the best Persian meal you make?

A: Seriously? You’re asking me about my culinary skills?! Actually this may be surprising to some of your readers: I love cooking, and if I may say so — when I have time — I can deliver pretty nice dishes. My daughter loves my Tahchin the most, so I pick that one. You can check out a recipe (not mine but somewhat close to how I make it) here.

Q: We talk about people being geohipsters — our best definition is: doing things differently, or making a difference in the world of GIS. So are you a geohipster?

A: If getting joy and satisfaction from spending time on geo matters that helps others is doing things differently then I’m a geohipster! But I really want to be clear — and this is not self-deprecating — GISCorps is nothing without its volunteers; that’s who is making a difference. We, the Core Committee, are just instruments to help make that happen.

Q: The last question is yours — anything you wish to tell the world?

A: The world? That would be too audacious of me… All I know and believe in is that we are here on earth for a flicker of time, and we should focus on using our skills on doing good. That’s all that matters!


	

Maziyar Boustani: “GISCube is unique because it offers geoprocessing on the web”

Maziyar Boustani
Maziyar Boustani

Maziyar Boustani received his bachelor’s degree in Iran, then moved to US to receive his master’s degree in GIS. After finishing his school in 2012, he started working at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena since. He is working as a GIS developer and Software Engineer, focusing on earth science projects and big data.

Mazi was interviewed for GeoHipster by Randal Hale.

Q: So Mazi, we met at FOSS4GNA 2015 in San Francisco (technically Burlingame). Where do you work?

A: Yes, it was nice meeting you at FOSS4GNA at your QGIS talk. I am currently working at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Q: What do you do at JPL?

A: I am working as GIS developer and software engineer at JPL for 3 years, working on a variety of earth science projects, finding solutions for big data problems, as well as being involved in some interesting open-source projects.

Q: So what sort of Big Data Problems are you working on (if you can tell us)? Big data and GIS together? That seems to get a lot of discussion these days.

A: At JPL our team deals with a variety of data received from satellites, as well as model data generated by scientists.

Also within the last two years our team is working on two projects from DARPA called Memex and  XData to find some solutions for big data problems. Provided data can be public tweets, financial, employment, and more. Some challenging questions have been asked, such as visualizing data geographically, as well as finding the connections between different data.

For example, in terms of geospatial data, I had a challenge of visualizing big point data on a map. I found the solution by using D3 JS library with generating vector point tiles using Python SciPy k-means clustering by running in Apache Spark. You can find the repository on my GitHub page at (https://github.com/MBoustani/Khooshe).

Q: I see you graduated with a bachelor’s degree in civil surveying and Geomatics from Iran. How is the GIS field in Iran, and how were your classes? That’s an area in the world we haven’t seen on GeoHipster as of yet — educate us!

A: The GIS field in Iran is booming and growing very fast. At the time I was studying (2004) there was no university major called GIS — it was part of Civil Surveying major, but in terms of classes, we had a very updated curriculum and were using mainly ArcGIS Desktop for GIS analysis and processing.

Q: At FOSS4GNA 2015 I did a QGIS workshop and you came to it — afterwards you demoed this small program (I say that jokingly) that you have been working on called GISCube. What is it and why did you make it?

A: So when I started getting into the field of GIS (back in 2005) ArcGIS was the only software for doing GIS processing and making maps. I was mainly using ArcGIS for many years (until 2012) before I started working at JPL. Our team at JPL was one of the early groups using and distributing open source code and software. Because of that I started  researching for open source alternatives to ArcGIS and found out about QGIS and GDAL/OGR.

We have some scientists who are working with geospatial data but they are not familiar with GIS software like QGIS and not comfortable writing Python code using GDAL/OGR. So I came up with the idea about making GIS processing and visualization easier by developing a web-based GIS application that can be run internally on the JPL server for all employees.

Q: And that’s what GISCube does, correct? It allows you to visualize GIS data using a web browser? It also allows you to do simple GIS analysis things like buffers?  

A: Yes, to start you first upload your geospatial files (such as shapefile, GeoTIFF, GeoJSON, and more), after which you can visualize them on a map, get metadata, and extract it to other metadata file formats. And most importantly, a series of geoprocessing tools lets users implement processing in the browser.

Q: And you gave all that work away on github (https://github.com/MBoustani/GISCube)? Why?

A: Making your project open source not only helps to have broader user base, but also helps to have a community of developers around the project to help you expand the project at no cost.

Q: In the middle of our interview you went back to Iran to visit friends and family. You get to see all the news reports on Iran like I do, but you just went back for a visit. Were you born there?

A: Actually I was born in Boston, MA, but grew up in Iran for 23 years, came to US for education and work. I am not following the news, but definitely I know it creates a very wrong image of Iran for non-Persian people. It was very impressive to see the number of US tourists visiting Iran increasing day by day. It’s a place worth visiting for sure.

Tabiat bridge -- Tehran, Iran
Tabiat bridge — Tehran, Iran

Q: Would you consider yourself a geohipster?

A: Can you define geohipster for me?

Q: That’s a good question. So we took a poll, and the ultimate answer we came up at the time was that geohipsters more or less shun the mainstream GIS world, have a sense of humor, and like to do things differently. So do you feel like one now? Because it appears you’re doing all sorts of things differently, and doing it quite well.

A: Yes, I am considering myself a geohipster, it sounds cool. However, I have noticed most of the questions in the poll were about visualization, so I would like to see more GIS people thinking about GIS as processing and generating data instead of just visualization. I believe GISCube is unique because  you can’t find many projects that focus on geoprocessing on the web.

Unfortunately when you talk about GIS, most people are talking about Mapbox, Leaflet, OpenLayers, map projections, and more. I would like to see more geohipsters focusing on developing libraries and applications to make the GIS processing much easier and faster than what we have now.

Q: I always leave the last question for you to say whatever you would like. Mazi – what would you like to tell the world?

A: Be creative, come up with crazy ideas, and yes, you can make it happen, just work hard 🙂


	

Nathan Woodrow: “Having non-programming hobbies is super important to your health”

Nathan Woodrow
Nathan Woodrow

Nathan Woodrow is a QGIS developer, blogger, father, and reborn Warhammer 40K lover. He has been an active developer and member of the QGIS project for the last five years. His QGIS/GIS blog at nathanw.net showcases some of the upcoming features in QGIS, as well as offers tips and tricks for developers and users. Previous to moving into the private sector, he worked as a GIS officer in local government for seven years. His bio pic is also a lie, as he has cut off all of his hair but has no good photos. 🙂

Nathan was interviewed for GeoHipster by Randal Hale.

Q: Nathan, how is life in the Land Down Under? I believe you are on the Gold Coast, Australia?

A: Good, thanks, and no shortage of Vegemite that is for sure; so delicious! — but let’s not talk about the current government, OK?  Yes, I currently live on the Gold Coast. I have been living here with my wife and two children for almost three years. I was born and raised in Warwick, a town about 150km south-west of Brisbane, where it gets nice and cold in winter and bloody hot in summer — mind you I have become a bit softer in my tolerance of the cold since moving to the coast.

My GIS career started in the local council in Warwick fresh out of high school, not even knowing what GIS was, and after starting with Digital Mapping Solutions (DMS) I moved to the Gold Coast to be closer to the airports for travel accessibility. Also so we’d have family around, as that’s where my wife is from originally.

Q: You are one of the developers on QGIS. How many of you are there out there working on this project?

Lots. Spread all around the world. There are 32 developers with direct commit rights to the code base, including myself. However, if you don’t just count core contributors, which you shouldn’t because that is what open source is all about, we have a large number of other contributors. “Contributors” includes people who just commit fixes and/or features but never come back, it also includes people who hang around the project regularly but just don’t have direct commit rights.

There are also people working on the docs, website, managing the tickets that come in, all jobs that make the cogs in the wheel that is QGIS turn. It’s a very friendly project to work on, which I think has helped in our success in being a large community of project maintainers and users.

Q: I ran into you on Twitter several years ago (@madmanwoo) with some wayward question on how QGIS works. How did you get involved in the QGIS project? Was the local council in Warwick using it?

A: In fact if my Twitter search didn’t fail me, it was Bill Dollins (@billdollins) who introduced you to me in a tweet when talking about me moving from MapInfo to QGIS.  (https://twitter.com/madmanwoo/status/135338467524743168)

My first involvement with the project, from a contribution point of view, was when I added expression-based labels (http://nathanw.net/2011/10/27/expression-based-labeling/). I had started to use QGIS at council for data entry, but expression labels were something that MapInfo had that I really missed in QGIS; without it I was never going to be able to use QGIS more in my day job.  After opening a ticket and sitting on it for a while, I sat down over a weekend, hacked in an expression-based label to see how it would work, and was pretty impressed at the speed and how easy it was to get going. It still took me about two months to add the UI and finally get it added to the core project. After that I was added as a core contributor and here we are now.

I was the first one at council to use QGIS in a full production setup. The first version I used was 1.7, but at that stage it just wasn’t ready for full time usage. After 1.8 I pretty much stopped using MapInfo and started using QGIS for all my tasks. Readers of my blog would have seen the progression. It didn’t take long for the bug to bite and for me to promote QGIS to other councils, and anyone else that would listen. It wasn’t our “official” desktop GIS, however I started to move other people onto it for all their mapping tasks. I was quite happy when I managed to get an older foreman using it to update our kerb and footpath assets, including splitting and joining.

Q: There’s been some discussion on when QGIS 3.0 comes out. With every release the software grows. In your opinion, what’s the next big hurdle for QGIS as a desktop software?

A: For the me the biggest thing is the user experience of the whole package as one thing. QGIS is getting very large in code, usage, and function. At times things can go into the application without full thought on how the overall workflow fits together, which can leave the user confused when moving through to get their work done. To do this correctly you really need to design full workflows around a user story and not just a single feature for a single use case, which can leave a function hanging on the side and not really fitting in. I will also add that I am fully guilty of doing the single function style of developing myself — it’s much easier.

Of course this is a complicated process, because QGIS has a massive user base with very different use cases, but I think as we evolve we need to address some of the workflow issues within the application. This is not to say we are not already doing it, or getting better. Every release adds new custom controls that are used throughout the application for consistency. Things like data-defined buttons, layer combo box, etc., are all generic controls that we can reuse to help the flow and feel of the application. Consistency is almost always the key.

I guess that also raises the question does QGIS have a future in a world that is moving “all the things” to the web? My answer is of course yes it does, but I’m also biased.

Q: In order to do all of this you have to know something about programming. Are you more programmer or GIS person?

A: I consider myself more of a programmer these days, although my imposter syndrome is quite strong at times as there are some super smart people, and reading past GeoHipster interviews does help that feeling. My current job and involvement in QGIS still keeps me in the GIS space, which I very much like, just more on the programming side and less on the map-making and data entry work. GIS is still great though, and I enjoy it when I can. The people in the GIS circles are excellent, and the problems in this space are fun to work on, but I guess just out of natural evolution of my current work I have landed more on the development style of things.

Personally I believe good programming knowledge helps you in GIS every day, even if you are just better at scripting things — you have just saved yourself some money and time where someone else couldn’t.

Q: How did you get started in programming, and what was the first programming language you learned?

A: My first programming language was Borland Delphi in the programming course at high school. If I remember right the first thing we wrote was a fake cash register application, after that I did a small bit of game programming making a Pokemon shooting game that lasted on the school network years after I left. Pokemon + sniper rifle = awesome fun!1! (don’t judge me I know you think it’s awesome)

Once at council, the other GIS guy and myself took the intro MapBasic course, the scripting language that comes with MapInfo. The plan was to cut down some of the tasks we had to do every week but took ages to do. After plain MapBasic I “progressed” into using VBA with Access and embedding MapInfo maps into Access forms for custom applications — you can almost hear the screams from here but hey at least they worked for the tasks. Once I saw that you could also use MapInfo in .NET, I started to use VB.NET for everything, moving onto C# after that — because who really uses VB.NET any more. Once I picked up QGIS, my only path there was C++ so I left C# and MapInfo for Qt/C++ and QGIS.  After using QGIS for a long while, I started to really like writing Python, and now that is my go-to language for most things these days.

Q: With everything you did, you also developed Roam. What is Roam? I see it starting to pop up everywhere.

A: It’s nice to see you are starting to see it used by others. I think unless you hit critical mass with a project, it can be hard to see who is really using your stuff.

Roam is a Python-based QGIS application that is mainly focused around easy tablet-based data collection. Roam, which used to be called QMap, started as a plugin I developed while working for my old council to aid in our data collection process. The first version was very very primitive. It ran as a plugin in QGIS and had pretty poor UI, but it worked quite well for our needs.

After starting with DMS we invested a lot of time in making it a lot better and released it under a new name as most of the code was redone. Roam was the first project using QGIS and Python outside of a plugin that I had done, so there was a lot of learning involved in how to do it, but I am quite happy with what it has become and the number of users — there was even a Roam workshop at the recent QGIS conference. It’s also GPL, just like QGIS, which makes me quite happy as it gives people a good (bias warning) data collection application for Windows.

Q: Have you ever eaten kangaroo? If not, what’s the most random thing you’ve eaten in Australia?

I’ll pass on kangaroo, some tell me it’s good others tell me it’s bad so I will just stick to what I know 🙂

Not very many out there, but I do like my typical Aussie Vegemite and Milo in the mornings though. Tend to have more Milo in a glass than milk, and Vegemite nice and thick on toast.

Q: What is Milo?

A: THE BEST THING EVER!!

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milo_(drink)

This was full about a week ago.

Milo -- "THE BEST THING EVER!!"
Milo — “THE BEST THING EVER!!”

My son also loves it, so that isn’t all just me 🙂

However I did just read this on Wikipedia:

Milo contains some theobromine, a xanthine alkaloid similar to caffeine which is present in the cocoa used in the product; thus, like chocolate, it can become mildly addictive if consumed in quantities of more than 15 heaped teaspoons per day

That might explain it. *eats spoon of Milo*.

Q: I always leave the last question wide open for the interviewee — now’s your chance to tell the entire world what you wish to tell them.

A: I see a lot of people in GeoHipster interviews giving out good GIS advice. I’m not sure I have anything like that I can give out. However, I will try to offer something a bit more general which has helped me recently.

Outside of family and friends, hobbies are the most important things you can have in life, especially if you are a programmer. Having non-development hobbies is super important to your health. After my daughter died two years ago I realised I didn’t have any hobbies outside of programming, and it drove me into a massive hole. My answer to the question “what do you do in your free time?” was “programming”; after Eloise died it turned into “nothing”, as I had lost interest in anything programming-related because that is all I had and burnt myself out on it. Bit boring I know, but the moral of the story is: For your own mental health get something that you can do when the normal thing you do gives you the shits and you need a time out.

Some lighter general advice is to get involved in your local open source project. It’s not always a rose garden, but it’s normally a lot of a fun to be involved in a project that other people put their love into. Luckily there is a lot of great GIS open source stuff coming out to get involved in.

Martin Isenburg: “May the FOSS be with LAZ”

Martin Isenburg
Martin Isenburg

Martin Isenburg received his MSc in 1999 from UBC in Vancouver, Canada, and his PhD in 2004 from UNC in Chapel Hill, USA — both in Computer Science. Currently he is an independent scientist, lecturer, and consultant. Martin has created a popular LiDAR processing software called LAStools that is widely used across industry, government agencies, research labs, and educational institutions. LAStools is the flagship product of rapidlasso GmbH, the company he founded in 2012. Martin’s ultimate goal is to combine high-tech remote sensing and organic urban farming in a “laser farm” that promotes green projects as hip and fun activities for the iPad generation.

Martin was interviewed for GeoHipster by Christina Boggs and Randal Hale.

Q: Thanks, Martin, for taking the time to have a chat with GeoHipster! Tell us about your ideas on “Front yard chickens”. Chickens are so awesome. We’ve heard that your chickens were about to be equipped with lasers. How did that go?

A: Happy to talk geospatial chickens. See, in the backyard chickens are a fun way to be green. But put three (not twenty!) in the front yard, and they create green communities. You meet your neighbors (dragged to your fence by their kids), and soon you are bartering eggs for kale because Lori and Dan across the street now have “front yard veggies”. And why lasers? Not for arming or roasting the chickens (common mistake), but for filming them in real-time 3D. Sort of like Radiohead’s video “House of Cards”, but better. A “happy feed” of urban farm bliss to lure folks beyond this neighborhood into green fun. Troubles over “cluster-bombing” the homeland with garden-fresh zucchinis forced me to put this project on hold.

Q: Can you give us an overview of LiDAR and how it works?  

A: Fire a really short burst of laser light, and measure the exact duration until its reflection comes back. That allows you to compute the distance to whatever object was hit. Record the exact position from where and the exact direction in which you fired the laser, and you can calculate the exact position of these hits. Repeat this several hundred thousand times a second with an airborne LiDAR whose laser beam sweeps out the terrain, and you get enough information to model ground, buildings, and vegetation in 3D.

Q: How has LiDAR data storage evolved over the years?

A: The LiDAR points were first stored and exchanged as plain text files: x, y, z, intensity. But ASCII becomes inefficient as a storage format as point numbers go up. Several industry players got together and created a simple binary data exchange format — the LAS format — that was eventually donated to the ASPRS. LAS has become a huge success, and everybody supports it. Nowadays the specification is maintained by the LAS Working Group (LWG) of the ASPRS. That sounds fancy, but is really just a dozen or so email addresses that get cc-ed when an issue is discussed.

Q: You explained that LiDAR data is huge. How much data are we talking about?

A: One LiDAR return — how the hits are called — is typically 28 bytes. An airborne survey with 4 shots per square meter may average 8 LiDAR returns per square meter. For a small area of 100 square kilometers this is over 20 GB of raw LAS. Subsequent processing steps often create multiple copies of this data. Nowadays countries either have, or are going for nation-wide LiDAR coverage. So many terabytes of LiDAR are already out there, and petabytes are going to come.

Q: You developed the compressed LAZ format. Can you give us some background?

A: I spent years of graduate work on compressing polygon meshes, but few people have such data. When I stumbled upon folders of LAS files, I figured having a compressor for these point clouds may actually be useful. I wrote the LASzip prototype mainly to supplement an academic paper, but people found it on my web pages and used it. In 2010 I was asked to release LASzip with an open license to defeat a proprietary format that federal agencies feared would make compressed LiDAR costly. Eventually the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) sponsored the open-sourcing of LASzip.

Q: What is the development process that you use for making changes to the compressed LiDAR format?

A: I am very careful with changes, and try to be as transparent as possible about them. First I seek community input on new features via the “LAS room” and the “LAStools” forums. Once discussed, the new feature is implemented as a prototype for testing. If the prototype proves itself over time, these features are moved into the new release. But maybe the time has come to make LASzip an official standard with a committee overseeing future changes.

Q: The release of LAS 1.4 means new point types. This is a disruption of the LAS format in general. What opportunities does this present for LASzip?

A: I have held back extending LASzip to LAS 1.4. Like you say, the new point types in LAS 1.4 are a “natural break” in the format that offers the opportunity to improve the compressor without creating incompatibilities. An open “call for input” was issued to get feedback on features the community wants to see in the next generation of LASzip.

However, LASzip can already compress LAS 1.4 content. NOAA stepped up to sponsor the “LAS 1.4 compatibility mode” where new point types are re-coded into old ones by storing their new attributes as “extra bytes”. Added bonus: many older software packages can read re-coded LAS 1.4 content without upgrade.

Q: You’ve released a simpler interface to LASzip in 2013. How did that turn out?

A: When Esri came knocking, saying the LASzip code was too complicated, I asked them to sponsor the effort for a simpler DLL. But then I decided to create this DLL without further delay. LAZ was the de-facto LiDAR compression standard, and I wanted to remove any possible hurdle for its adoption. It is disappointing that Esri has still not added LAZ support to ArcGIS. The new DLL was essentially written for them.

Q: Recently Esri announced a variation of the open LAS standard called “Optimized LAS”. Can you describe the changes to how LAS files are supported?

A: The name is rather misleading. “Optimized LAS” is a closed format that compresses the content of a LAS file into a proprietary file. The resulting ‘*.zlas’ files are very similar to the ‘*.laz’ files produced by LASzip, which is why the new Esri format is also known as the “LAZ clone”.

Q: So from your view, how do they stack up?

A: The technical differences between LASzip and “Optimized LAS” are minimal. In terms of compression and speed, the two are almost identical. In terms of features, Esri includes spatial indexing information into the *.zlas files whereas we had been storing it as separate *.lax files. It took just a couple of hours to “upgrade” LASzip to match the feature set of “Optimized LAS” by adding one option for spatial sorting and another option for integrating the spatial index into the file. The argument that Esri could not use LASzip due to missing features is obviously a dud. The “LAZ clone” was created to tie LiDAR folks long-term to the ArcGIS platform.

Esri likes to point out that their format contains point statistic summaries. This is so trivial that any developer could add this in an afternoon. Such summaries are a good idea. I encourage Esri to propose a new “Variable Length Record” for that purpose as an addendum to the LAS specification. This is why they are part of the ASPRS LAS Working Group.

Q: Some readers may have seen this post back in 2014, believing the LASzip controversy was resolved. The post was your April Fools’ Day prank. Why did you do it?

A: I modified LASzip just a few days before April 1st 2014 to feature-match the “LAZ clone”. The triviality of these modifications made it obvious that further technical reasoning with Esri was moot. My last hope was to show Esri management how much applause they would garner from working with the community. So I wrote a prank press release, stating that Esri and rapidlasso were developing a joint compressor. Almost everything in this press release was true, except that Esri had not agreed yet to such cooperation. The response was incredible as the collected comments show…

Q: What are the ramifications of dueling data formats? What’s the point the entire GIS community at large should take home?

A: The instant loser is the user who will have to convert data back and forth. The instant winners are companies that provide data converters. Hey wait, that includes me! 🙂 The long-term loser is the GIS community that will find more and more LiDAR locked to a single platform. The long-term winner is the provider of this platform (or so they hope).

A proprietary format can only be read via the interface the vendor provides. This prevents access to the content on other operating systems or from other programing languages. In contrast, an open format allows unrestricted access to the content. For example, Howard Butler and Uday Verma have created a pure JavaScript version of LASzip that can decompress LAZ inside a web browser. As the saying goes, closed formats go to hell (but open formats go everywhere)… 😉

Q: You just mentioned processing LiDAR in a web browser. Is that a new thing?

A: Yes, plas.io and potree have paved the way for LiDAR in the browser based on JavaScript and WebGL. Now several commercial offerings have emerged. Compression is an even more pressing concern as the data will often come via the web. Having a pure JavaScript decompressor for LAZ allows plugin-free rendering of compressed LiDAR via all modern web browsers, including on mobile devices.

Q: But closed formats cannot be decompressed with JavaScript?

A: Exactly! JavaScript is — by definition — open source. A format cannot compete in the world of plugin-free decompression without providing an open implementation. Plugin-free WebGL rendering of compressed LiDAR in the web browser via JavaScript is a force to be reckoned with. That’s why I like to call them “jediscripts” in the context of this “laser war” with Esri.

Q: The term geohipster is bestowed affectionately. With your urban farming and your front yard chickens, I feel like using Steven Feldman’s geohippy term. Do you feel more like a geohipster or a geohippy?

A: The original idea behind downtownfarm — the mash-up of chickens and lasers — was to get away from the granola-hippy image of urban farming and make green more trendy and cool. How about geoyuppy?

Q: Before we let you go, is there anything you’d like to add for our GeoHipster readers?

A: Defend “open LiDAR formats”, practice the art of “LAS liberation”, and fork plugin-free “jediscripts”. We all know “The Force Awakens” later this year. May the FOSS be with LAZ… 😉


	

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

Srikant Panda
Srikant Panda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: What do you do?

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

Srikant at his work station
Srikant at his work station

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

Q: Where do you live in India?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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