Interview with Tom MacWright: “If you want to make anything new, you have to ignore some of the rules”

Tom MacWrightTom MacWright is a guitarist in Teen Mom and keyboardist at Mapbox.

Tom was interviewed for Geohipster by Atanas Entchev.

Q: How did you get into maps/GIS?

A long time ago I made the Swem Signal, which basically made my college’s library a little more navigable. Then I started at Development Seed and helped make a lot of data-driven websites, until the maps on the websites sort of took over and we entered into this three-year vision quest that is Mapbox.

I like making stuff. I wasn’t into maps as a kid and I get lost all the time. But geo is fun because it’s connected to everything else, just like everything else.

Q: What does your typical day at MapBox look like?

Most of the time I wear my Programmer Hat, which means that my day might have a meeting or two, but it’s mostly hanging out in our garage/office with a full-screen text editor and headphones on, listening to, currently, Darwin Deez. But it can be the opposite of that too – we’re almost at fifty people but there aren’t real job descriptions yet, so I also might handle helping people on support or writing for the blog. I’m playing it cool but it’s actually the most incredible job in the world.

Q: According to your Twitter bio you are first a guitarist and then a keyboardist (coder). I am jealous (I put down the guitar many years ago). How do you reconcile the two? Or do they complement each other?

There’s definitely something to the combination, since it’s so common in this field. Just at Mapbox, Jeff & Ian did sound engineering, Ryan & Vladimir are in bands (Collapser & Obiymy Doschu), and Tristen went to school for jazz performance. Just the other week, we played with these cool folks The Can’t Tells and one of them is also a coder who works for a Brooklyn food startup. It might be something about the sort of creativity required for coding, but also: demographics.

It isn’t too hard to reconcile the two, as long as your band doesn’t make the big time – work from 9 to 7, band practice from 7 to 9:30, shows a few times a month. There isn’t too much technology involved in the kind of music we make, so besides making our website, there’s isn’t too much “synergy.” I mean, we released an actual vinyl record. I don’t even have a record player.

I have been able to slip my music into a few Mapbox videos, though.

Q: We define hipsters as people who think outside the box and often shun the mainstream (see visitor poll with 1106 responses). Would you consider yourself a hipster? How do you feel about the term hipster?

It’s probably better to address ‘hipster’ and ‘geohipster’ separately:

Hipster’s meaning expired in 2009. Most of style’s emblems have smeared into the mainstream of upper-middle-class young white existence. Everyone wears nerd glasses. Non-skinny jeans are a distant memory. Indie folk never really made it, but it emerged from chemical waste with a four-on-the-floor beat and overwrought costumes and is really a hit now.

Or at least I don’t hear it much anymore: the last time was a hackathon where I brought up the idea of a PBR price index and it sparked an hour-long rant about the ‘hipster invasion’ so I zoned out and made some things instead of talking.

As far as thinking outside the box: I don’t think the world, or most work, encourages creativity. It’s a total privilege to be at a place where you can try new things and have fun. When you have that privilege, it’s your responsibility to use it.

Shunning the mainstream? In the narrow world of geo, absolutely: the practice of GIS, only 50 years young, has more norm-enforcement, standards, critiques, best practices and unwritten rules than we could ever need. If you want to make anything new, you have to ignore some of the rules.

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

I agree with David Foster Wallace that attitudes generate words much more than words generate attitudes.

You don’t have to read between the lines to see exclusivity, elitism, and division. But a lot of it is just misunderstanding.

Take the Spherical Mercator projection for example: it introduces wild levels of distortion. It isn’t good-looking at a worldwide level. The reason why it’s still so popular in software is technical. It’s not rocket science, but it is hard to explain without some coding background and knowledge of caches and tiles and layered maps. Since few traditional cartographers understand that stuff, they criticize the decision as if it were arbitrary: why would anyone ignore their centuries of effort and whiff it so bad?

Likewise, through the eyes of someone who likes simplicity and writes code, the ‘datum’ system of geographers seems absurd. Why would we actively resist a global standard system? It’s like the world of text encodings before UTF8, except nobody sees it as a problem. But if you look deeper, there’s something to it – datums are a real attempt to be future-proof in a world of continental plates. WGS84 doesn’t just ‘fix’ that problem, and there are more cultural facets than first appear. What about people who know UTM by heart?

That is to say, with the embrace of tech in geo, the landscape changed. Some people know tech, some people know geo, some know a bit of each. Everyone has a lot to learn, it’s better to be helpful than judgmental.

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

The majority of geospatial data is Microsoft Excel 97 spreadsheets with lists of street addresses slated for junk mail delivery.

No, but seriously, people who consider themselves to be GIS people definitely trend more towards defense, environment, and government, and they all use software that comes on a DVD in shrink wrap.

Q: Will MapBox ever enter the mainstream? Will you be happy or sad if that happens? Would that be like Arcade Fire winning a Grammy?

What we’re making is the infrastructure that shiny and famous things will be built upon. So yeah, we’ll win a Grammy, but it’ll be for best Producer.

Q: What is new with Teen Mom? Did you find a new bassist yet?

We’re still trying to fill the spot, so I’m playing bass for the interim. We’re recording a new single this month, and then working on our first LP as a follow-up to Gilly. We’re also doing a solo album each, just to keep thing interesting.

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

This quote:

when you don’t create things, you become defined by your tastes rather than ability. your tastes only narrow & exclude people. so create.

_why the lucky stiff

Interview with Renee Sieber

sieber_smallRenee Sieber is an Associate Professor at the McGill School of Environment & Department of Geography at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

Renee was interviewed for Geohipster by Atanas Entchev.

Atanas Entchev: Geohipster was started as a call to gather under one roof geo developers pushing the boundaries of various new technologies. It has attracted 3,540 visitors from 43 different countries in its first month. Most of the traffic comes from North America and Western Europe, but we also have visitors from Pakistan, Colombia, Ethiopia, India, Senegal. What do you think accounts for this interest?

Renee Sieber: Age and background may be important to answer this. I wonder if these are GIS professionals who are grappling with the new technologies as well as ways to convince their bosses that there needs to be new technologies incorporated into their everyday practice. In this way, it’s people who are well-versed with spatial analysis and the complications of such. They understand the importance of geometry and topology but know that there are new tools and techniques out there that can aid in spatial data handling and representation. So the interest is from people who are coming together for greater understanding of what’s necessary to keep up and they’re finding common cause with the neogeographers and neocartographers who have built some of the tools.

It may be simply a rebranding of the term of neogeographer as well; out with the old neo and in with the new neo. Or not. Neogeography has been the domain of the engineer and the physicist–those who love the cartography and are comfortable with the tech but feel that the geographic understanding is too much baggage (who needs them projections?). This is the cool space for the analysts.

It should be mentioned that neither the geohipsters nor the neogeographers may reflect on the social implications of their work. Maps are cool; spatial analysis shows you cool associations. Tobler’s Law lives but not the underlying reasons why things are clustered or not. At least, I hope the geohipsters understand the modifiable areal unit problem. I really hope they grapple with power of what maps show and what they don’t. Who Google Map Maker serves and who it doesn’t. The ethics of doing analysis and mapping and not merely the cool. To go all political, the libertarian ideology underlying “anyone can use it, so if you can’t use our transparent GUI then it’s your problem. If your area is not mapped then it’s not my fault.” The deserving spatial analysis and the undeserving.

AE: We define hipsters as people who think outside the box and often shun the mainstream (see visitor poll with 1019 responses). Would you consider yourself a hipster? How do you feel about the term hipster? Is this a brand new term or are there hipsters of old?

RS: I like that hipsters are trying to think of new techniques to improve on data handling. I’d like to think they “get” the special nature of spatial data. Instead of treating spatial data as 2 columns in a spreadsheet or something that can generate pretty pictures, they understand the importance of scale and aggregation. I do worry that hipsters are replicating old problems, like trying to attribute causation when they drill down through the layers. That learning the tech is all that matters, as opposed to a deep understanding of the geographic content.

Would I consider myself a hipster? No, but I would consider myself out of the mainstream. I don’t do much GIS anymore. I frequently rail against GIScientists for failing to consider the negative social implications of technology, particularly as they embrace big data. I’m certainly outside the mainstream of the Critical GIS/geoweb folks who I believe use quite alienating arguments in their search of the pure social critique. I guess I associate hipsters with an excessive trendiness (and unfortunately, an excessive amount of maleness, but perhaps that’s for another day). I love geoweb tech as much as the next person but I don’t want to necessarily be branded by it.

Are there hipsters of old? I don’t know. Maybe geohipsters are the newest incarnation of Dangermond’s power users.

AE: You talk about “tribes” in geo. Are Geohipsters a tribe?

RS: I ignited a firestorm at the AAG annual conference a couple of years ago when I said that there were tribes around geospatial data handling/analysis/representation/modeling and the Ironsheep/Floating Sheep followers were in the wrong tribe if they were graduate students. I’m not so sure that’s correct anymore, although doing geospatial anything for fun is a sure ticket out of academia. With the advent of big data, followers need to be even more invested in the computational algorithm. Of course, the algorithm these days relates to data mining and harvesting and streaming and not necessarily shortest path analysis. But it’s still the math that matters and computer science achieves even more importance in geospatial data handling than before. All of that background to say that geohipsters are a proto tribe. The moment there’s a specialty group or a conference then it’ll be a full fledged entity. Then the internecine (within and without) warfare can truly begin.

AE: You say that hipsterism is disdain. What are Geohipsters disdainful of/towards?

RS: Disdainful of a single product/platform way of handling data. Therefore, disdain for traditional GIS. Disdain for the people who say “It took me so long to learn GIS; why should I learn anything new?”. The geoweb upends much of what we think of as data handling as well as data sources. Potential data sources are so different now. The idea that you can overlay Twitter data on a road network and make that meaningful is a sea change both in the heterogeneity of the source but also in the value of volunteered contributions. You can now infer where unreported roads are from thousands of pings of in-car navigation devices. You can abandon the traditional road network entirely for the all-volunteer Open Street Map base. Or you can add to your data with your own remote sensing devices, like drones (don’t get me started on the geosurveillance problems with drones, even if they’re used for “peaceful” purposes). Or you, a human might not be getting the data at all: in the Internet of things, locational things can talk to and learn from other locational things. So hipsterism is a disdain of people who “don’t get it” in terms of the sea change.

AE: Is there a mainstream of geospatial data handling/representation?

RS: We’re in a moment of flux, where existing users/developers are trying to come to terms with all this new hardware/software/data. While I think that geohipsters is a reaction to the mainstream, the mainstream is also changing. So it’s not always easy to identify what one is railing against. Used to be .SHP/.DBF but now XML? I’d like to think that mainstream will be the rigorous analysis that produces the choropleth map, a map that supports fundamental geographic principles. So depart from the old tech but adhere to the traditional principles. To return to an earlier idea, one important mainstream principle should be a reflection of who is hurt and whose agenda is served by what is being done. So wear the fedora as a nod to the outsider status but the other clothes remain the same.