Terry Stigers: “When done correctly, maps are truly beautiful.”

My favorite picture of myself and my son. I’m the old, scruffy one.

“I was born, which came as a bit of a shock but I rallied quickly. I survived childhood, which is hardly surprising considering the time period during which this occurred. I also survived adolescence, which surprised the hell out of everyone who knew me back then. I attended college twice – once when I was too young to properly appreciate it, and once when I was old enough to know better. I have two degrees, neither of which gets much use these days. I have had a plethora of jobs but really only one career. Truth is I’m interested in pretty much everything, which doesn’t really pay very well. I am married to a long-suffering, saint of a woman who honestly deserves much better. We have the perfect child. In my life all things map related take the form of a hobby, albeit a surprisingly persistent one. I have only gotten paid to be a Map Dork once (twice if you count the time a local brewery gave me a case of beer for a map showing where their beer could be found). I haven’t yet died.”

Terry was interviewed for GeoHipster by Bill Dollins.

Q: Please tell us about your background. How did you end up working with GIS?
I am an archaeologist by training and education. While still in college, I took a class called ‘Computer Mapping’, which had the lot of us create a road atlas using MapInfo 5.0. I immediately saw the usefulness of GIS applied to archaeology, so over the course of the following Summer I contacted ESRI and secured myself a copy of ArcView 3.2 (back then ESRI gave students substantial discounts). The rest is archaeology (with a little bit of history and GIS thrown in).

Q: What do you think has been the most promising recent (within the last three years) development in GIS? What do you think is the most concerning?

To be honest, I don’t have an answer for this one. I’ve been out of the loop for some time now. It’s not that GIS no longer fits into my life (it does), it’s just that I no longer spend any of my time dallying on the bleeding edge. These days, when I play with maps I want tools that just work. Being at the forefront of any tech requires more troubleshooting than I’m willing to engage in at the moment.

Q: What does your typical work day look like and how do you typically use GIS in your work?

I was going to answer this with an apologetic explanation about how I pretty much don’t really use GIS any more. But then yesterday I began work on a banner graphic for my campaign page for my city council run. There is a landmark atop a ridge in our town: Poet’s Seat Tower (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poet%27s_Seat_Tower). I thought a profile view of the ridge and tower would make a nice banner graphic. While normal humans would probably just open up Photoshop and whip up something nice, the Map Dork in me stirred grumpily and insisted I do things differently. So I downloaded some elevation data and used QGIS to convert it into a DEM. I then downloaded a model of the tower from 3D Warehouse (luckily, the model in question was one I did myself years ago, so no recompense or attribution is needed), packed both the DEM and the model into a 3D modelling program (Bryce, in this particular instance), then exported a nice profile view using a distance mask for easy conversion to color. Now I just have to add a little color and I’ll be in business.

Q: Not surprisingly, you have written about your use of historical maps in the past. You have also occasionally written about techniques to produce historical-looking maps with modern GIS tools. What are some of the maps that have influenced you? What about cartographers?

I cannot point directly at any particular maps or cartographers – I love them all. And what I love most about old maps is the ease with which they (usually) can be interpreted. I am referring here to their relative lack of keys/legends. One glance at an old map and you can immediately pick out and identify features. Mountains, forests (many even differentiate between coniferous and deciduous forests), towns, wetlands. Modern maps are not good about this (although some meaningful progress has been made). I think it’s because modern maps are often trying too hard to be too many different things at once. One of the things I love so much about the GeoHipster calendar is that it usually showcases maps that deftly avoid this trap. Maps that instead focus on providing concise, easily interpreted information on a given subject as it applies to a given landscape. When done correctly (as they usually are) these maps are truly beautiful.

Q: Do you have any maps displayed in your home? If so, what are they?

We have three maps on display in our home. One is a stylized isometric map of Manhattan. Another is a subway map of the valley where we live (although this valley does not, in fact, have any subways). Lastly, we have a cloth map of Italy which identifies regions according to the wines and cheeses produced there. Because wine. And cheese.

Q: Despite your public break with social media, your recently joined Facebook. (I will admit that I almost contacted you first to tell you an account had been hacked.) What prompted you to do this now?

Truth is, I’ve been toying with the idea of joining Facebook for some time now. It seems to have an exclusive lock on local news around these parts. Is the town pool open? Did they change the venue for that Human Rights Commision meeting? Is the protest on the town common still being held despite the rain? The answers to these and a host of other hyper-local questions can only be found on Facebook.

What finally made me take the plunge, though, was my decision to run for local office (relax – it’s just the city council). On the local level, running for office is virtually impossible without a Facebook presence.

Q: In what ways do you think the pervasiveness of Facebook benefits local politics and in what ways might it be a detriment?

I think Facebook’s usefulness to local politics lies in communication. Despite all its shortcomings (which are legion), FB is a decent vehicle for interpersonal communication. It allows for community-driven rules, which is an absolute necessity for civil discourse (don’t take my word for it – just look at Twitter if you want to see what happens to communication when there are no rules). As far as I can tell, the major detriment FB poses to local politics lies in participants being haunted by their past. Luckily, this does not (yet) affect me, since I only took the plunge when I decided to enter into the local political scene. So my profile isn’t already full of embarrassing photos of my sordid past.

Q: What prompted you to run for office and what are you hoping to accomplish? How do you think your background in geography informs or affects your campaign or your positions on issues?

There is a portrait of my grandfather (August) that hangs on the wall in our stairwell. August was born in Germany in the year 1900. He had a highly refined sense of duty, so when his native land went to war August was quick to enlist in the navy. He survived The Great War and returned home to Germany, where he married his sweetheart, Mary.

In time the Nazis came to power in Germany, and one day they knocked on August’s door and ‘requested’ that he enlist in their navy. August refused, so the Nazis took him away and threw him in jail on imaginary charges. They released August after a day or so, since what they really wanted was more soldiers for their wartime ambitions. A short time later another knock came at the door, followed by another ‘request’, another refusal, more jailtime.

This routine repeated itself a total of nine times. August was fairly certain he wouldn’t survive a tenth repetition, so he and my grandmother grabbed whatever they could carry and fled for their lives. They made their way to upstate New York, where they quickly settled down to raise a family. Their third and last child was my mother, Ruth.

It turned out the Nazis did indeed return for August a tenth time. In his absence they instead arrested his brother, Karl, either by mistake or out of sheer bloody-mindedness. Karl died in a concentration camp.

When the United States entered into World War II, August immediately enlisted in the American navy. He was an intensely patriotic man and when his adopted country needed him he did not question or hesitate. When the United States later became embroiled in a conflict in Korea, August volunteered yet again. My grandfather believed in obligation and duty and he was fiercely loyal to the country that took him in when his native land betrayed him.

I walk by that portrait of my grandfather repeatedly every day. I usually smile and/or nod a greeting, grateful for the level of comfort my family enjoys thanks to the sacrifices August’s generation made on our behalf. Lately, though, passing by my grandfather’s portrait has become a rather more thoughtful process. I am fully cognizant of the current state of our nation and the world and I am, of course, concerned. I do not fear overmuch for my immediate family – we are middle-class white people deep in the heart of Liberal America – but I am nonetheless concerned. It’s not that we have nothing to fear – we just have less to fear than pretty much every other demographic in America. Which makes me think about personal duty and whether my privilege obligates me to do more than I have been.

Nowadays, encountering my grandfather’s portrait gives me pause. I watch the news and I see what’s going on and when I walk by August’s portrait I hear his voice ask: “So what are you doing about it?”

Frankly, I don’t have a satisfactory answer. For most of my life I have felt that voting constituted a sufficient level of personal participation in our participatory democracy. But a one-word answer no longer seems adequate when responding to my grandfather’s spirit. And trying to convince myself that participation in social media constitutes a meaningful contribution falls well short.

And so I find myself feeling honorbound to roll up my sleeves and wade into the rising waters of America’s current mess and do my part for the cleanup detail. And the best and most immediate way I can think to do this is to get involved in local politics.

Q: What do you do for fun?

Hang around with my kid.

Q: What does the term “geohipster” mean to you and do you consider yourself one? Feel free to respond with all of the irony you can muster.

To me, ‘geohipster’ describes a person who has a deep-seated love of GIS, but mainly just wants to use it to locate the nearest cup of pumpkin spice latte. Oftimes bearded – and always partial to flannel – geohipsters are the standard bearers for modern GIS. Let’s be honest here – the overwhelming majority of the population only use GIS as a tool to find their way to food, coffee, and beer (not necessarily in that order). Geohipsters are especially well suited to provide just such services.

I myself am not a geohipster. In fact, I am instead a geohippy. The two are very similar, except geohippies wear tie dye instead of flannel, our facial hair is considerably less well-groomed, and we tend to replace coffee with other – stronger – mind-altering substances. Also, there was a promise of free sex, but that one has yet to materialize and frankly I’m getting a little pissed off about it. 

Jim Barry: “Believe in it? Then just build it.”

Jim Barry
Jim Barry

Jim is a geodeveloper advocate at Esri in NYC. Before that, he worked in Redlands running the developer network program, and previous to that, running Esri’s tech support operations. Catch him on twitter @JimBarry.

The statements and opinions below are Jim’s and not the opinions or official positions of his current or previous employers.

Jim was interviewed for GeoHipster by Bill Dollins and Atanas Entchev.

Q: How did you get into GIS?

A: I guess it started with an obsession with maps when I was a kid.

Going way back though, back seat of the car on family trips, I was completely absorbed by road atlases. My mom was the original mapgeek and navigator in the family; still is. So I got the maps thing from her — total map nerd. Not to mention my other assorted quirks, like staring at the ground from the window seat of a plane. It’s like a big map, yo!

Maps just kept coming back to me over and over as I grew up. Orienteering in scouts and beyond. As an infantry officer in the army, maps were key. Grab a lensatic compass, a 1:50,000 topo in a waterproof case, a grease pencil, and let’s go. I really took to land navigation, on foot or on vehicles, any weather, any terrain, swamps, woods, or desert, mostly at night. It’s more than just dead-reckoning to point B; it’s route selection, contingency planning, speed and manner of movement, under stress, wet, cold, hot, miserable, dealing with obstacles, leading soldiers keeping them motivated, pressed for time, pushing thru it, learning and adjusting along the way until you reach the objective. Maybe a little philosophical, but sort of a microcosm of life itself, no?

As for GIS itself, grad school, studying urban planning, we had PC ArcInfo and ArcView v1. I taught a couple semesters of freshman level Geography, and spent a year running the mapping lab, keeping the hardware working and software updated, helping students working on their projects, and learning the concepts of working with and analyzing spatial data. 

During grad school, but on the side, my first year I took an overnight job doing mapping at an electric utility. I got a real sense of the importance of this kind of high-impact production mapping—a lot of editing, complete and accurate information, and a high level of quality control when electrical service for customers, and the safety of the maintenance crews were at stake. 

Then in my second year of grad school I got hired by a small town outside of Hartford to research and build their 10-year master plan of development. I used PC ArcInfo, ArcCAD, and ArcView for that. They had only been using AutoCAD. I was able to do some spatial analysis using whatever data I could find, convert, digitize, or otherwise collect, to provide support for some recommendations for development, preservation, transportation, and other aspects of the town’s growth and progress. 

I really liked working with the tools, so figured I’d try to work at Esri for a few years, learn as much as I can, then take back to municipal planning. Well, a few years turned into 24 and running.

Q: You have been at Esri for over two decades. How would you describe life at Esri to an outsider?

A: Always challenging. First couple of years I was a desktop GIS tech support analyst. To me, there’s no better place to learn how to be productive with this technology, than in tech support. Not only do you learn how things work best, but also the wide variety of ways things break, and how to quickly find the cause, work up a solution, alone or in groups, sometimes code up alternatives, workarounds, and communicate that to the user trying to get their work done, often under pressure themselves. Fun stuff. Even after moving up into running tech support ops, I’d grab calls myself from time to time to keep the problem-solving and tech skills sharp as I could. The tech moves and grows fast. It’s quick and easy to lose your grip on it, if you don’t keep chopping.

But overall, the ability to do important, impactful work, surrounded by and learning from some of the smartest people I’ve ever met. But more importantly, everyone here buys into the idealism that Jack projects. He’s a true believer in what technology, in general, and of course GIS in particular provides to improve our co-existence with our world, in a data-driven way.

I saw this quote once. I think it was meant to stoke one’s entrepreneurial spirit by saying “If you don’t work to realize your own ideas, you’ll end up working to realize someone else’s”. Being that I’m a fairly UNcreative person, that quote motivated me too, but probably in a direction 180° from its intent. Meaning, I consider my value more about building and delivering tangible, useful things from the ideas envisioned by creative people, freeing them up to continue being creative. That’s the main reason why I’ve always felt a good fit at Esri. Jack’s visionary thought leadership over the past several decades, and his commitment to build and constantly improve (and occasionally completely reinvent) has been an honor and a great experience to be part of. 

Q: You have been working in developer evangelism for over a decade now. During that time, Esri’s platforms have changed and grown significantly. How has working with developers shaped your view of the evolution of Esri’s platforms and what role has the developer community played in that evolution?

A: Understanding the evolution of developers, and of developing software apps and systems, starts by understanding the evolution of users and their expectations. 

Back in the 90s when I first started building custom mapping apps, this might sound really odd now, but usability wasn’t exactly our primary concern, generally. You designed and built the app, and then you deployed it with documentation and training. As your end-user climbed the learning curve, their productivity would increase. Back then, “powerfully useful” was more important than “intuitively usable”. But it was still mainly up to the user to commit effort learning how to use it.

Of course, nowadays, in most cases, that approach is absolutely insane. (Well, it was insane then too, but who knew?) Today, when you put an app in the hands of an end-user, it better be designed to be intuitive for them, and productively useful for them right away, for what they need it to do. Apps you build need to free your users up, so they can put almost all their mental effort into their work and put as little effort as possible into figuring out how the app works. 

That expectation bounces right back to the developers who build and use APIs, and the designers of the apps being used. It’s no longer enough that the API be powerful, fine grained, and comprehensive (hi ArcObjects). Now, its granularity also needs to be variable, doc accessible, learning ramp shallow, samples numerous, best practices proven, and user community robust, interactive, and supportive enough so that we meet these high expectations. It takes a lot of work to make things easy.  Also, the shelf life of things developers build is also shortening. Developers often need to deploy something good enough now, then iterate to continue improving it.

Q: You wrote about smart cities recently. Is “smart cities” the new buzzword de jour, or is it GIS trying to reinvent itself, or is it an entire new industry being born?

A: A new industry? No, it’s broader than that. It’s a way for cities to keep up with fully using technology to make itself run better. Of course, GIS is a key part of it—here’s how. A smart city is one that uses technology to continually sense its state and respond in efficient, optimized ways. Human intervention is removed whenever practical, to gain speed and scale. Combined with the hardware and software technology itself, it also includes a digitized articulation of the rules on which decisions can be made, and actions triggered. Then, on a separate thread, patterns can be sensed, stored, analyzed in order to continue improving efficiency in future iterations. 

Given that a city is a spatial system, spatial analysis has got to be a key part of these rules, decisions, and actions. Along with many other technologies, GIS fuels the decisions behind visualizing where things are and optimizing how, why, when, and where things move and interact. A GIS platform also provides cross-agency collaboration tools and the ability to perform modeling and predictive data analytics.

The data management, data analysis, data visualization tools that are a part of GIS and geospatial technology have a role to play in a “smart city”, from strategy down to the nuts and bolts. I can’t imagine how they wouldn’t.

Ok, so to me, yeah, in a way, “smart cities” can be seen as a buzzword, but it’s an important one, a motivating one. Meaning, it’s a simple term that helps everyone quickly focus in on what cities are trying to do to evolve. It’s easier for all of us to grab the handles and pull the wagon in the same direction if we’re not stuck struggling to understand what the term means. 50 years from now, a city’s “smartness” in this context will be so common, the concept itself is going to melt into the background and we’ll probably forget that the term “smart city” used to be a “thing”. Like the idea of an electric city was 100+ years ago versus today. But for now, we need the term, because it’s going to take a lot of domains working together to make cities smarter.

Q: Esri recently pledged $30,000.00 to the GDAL barn raising. Esri has famously used GDAL libraries under the hood of ArcGIS for many years now, so the pledge makes sense. How would you characterize Esri’s relationship with open-source and the open source community, particularly in geospatial? What steps do you anticipate Esri taking to help that relationship evolve?

A: Ask 10 people what “open” means, you’ll get 12 different answers. So, for me, I keep it practical, and I try to stay focused on how the level of openness helps or hinders productive work in any particular context.

As for open source software, I’ve seen some choose it based simply on principle. Some choose it when it’s free, or when its initial barrier to use is lower than other options. I mean, I get it. Open source provides a perception (sometimes an illusion) of control, and a perception (sometimes an illusion) of low cost.

But, over the past several years at least, I’ve seen a growth of users and developers who are trying to get their work done best, or build things that are more useful, whose technology selection has more to do with its capabilities, than whether or not they can contribute to the code base. On the surface, the terms open and closed imply a binary, but when it comes to technology it’s obviously a lot more complex and nuanced than that.

In our increasingly connected world, for a technology to be useful, it needs to be openly interoperable with other tech. It also needs to support open standards with regards to format (hi Shapefile), workflow, protocols, and interface (both UI and API).

And then there’s open data. It benefits all of us to support open data, particularly in government, in order to promote freedom and transparency, optimize operations, encourage collaboration, but also to engage the people who live there. In NYC there is a vast ecosystem of non-profits, startups, students, motivated citizens, and more, ready to pitch in, and they do amazing work. It’s a force multiplier to ensure that accurate, complete, timely data is pushed into the open, into the hands of everyone, fueling great ideas. Doing so continues to improve the lives of New Yorkers every day.

Back to open source though… 

Where a particular technology, any technology, open source or not, is better, more useful, more cost effective, it will be used. A few years ago, Chris Wanstrath was the keynote speaker at the Esri Developer Summit. He was a founder, and at the time CTO of GitHub. He noted that while GitHub has played a huge role in the support, usefulness, and growth of open source software, GitHub itself is not open source. He found that open source makes sense, when openly inclusive collaboration is the best approach to building something, and it doesn’t make sense when you want to build something that supports your core business model, and for as long as you want to maintain full creative control. When it comes down to it, the relationship between the two is more productive when it’s symbiotic rather than adversarial. The way I see it is this: our work contains a lot of constraints we have limited control over; it makes no sense to purposefully add more constraints by limiting our own options.

Q: You are from New Jersey — home of The Sopranos, Bridgegate, and Silent Bob. I hear you have a special connection to one of those. Tell us about it.

A: The shore area of New Jersey, yes, born and raised in that magical state where the government still believes pumping gas is a task best left to paid professionals. 

So yeah, after a couple decades in Redlands, I recently moved back to my hometown of Leonardo, NJ. Most of my family still live in the area, and it’s great to be back. Silent Bob, right, well, Leonardo is the town the movie Clerks was filmed in. The Quick Stop is still there, the dive bar of convenience stores. Anyway, when I was 14, I had a newspaper route and that store was the halfway point. I would go in and grab a soda for the return trip. One day, the guy who worked in there said I could have the coke for free if I’d go in the back and load the dairy case with milk, eggs, cheese, and stuff, that had been delivered, which at the time could only be loaded from the back of the store. Otherwise he’d have to lock up, stock the case, then reopen (“I assure you we’re open”). I think I was only hauling in $15 a week at that point with the paper route, so I’m like, cool. For a while, this turned into an almost daily thing. I hadn’t seen the movie til many years later, but it was weird to see our little hole in the wall store be a central character of a big movie. “Bunch of savages in this town”, indeed.

Q: Finish this sentence: If I could only keep one of my sports jerseys, it would be…

A: I’ve got a bunch, but this Hartford Whalers jersey I have, well, I normally resist wearing third party gear to games, but this one seems to be an exception. Wore it to a Rangers game last winter and it’s obvious that hockey fans get it. Plus, it’s a pretty cool logo.

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

A: Not at all. While I respect and am inspired by the innovation that comes from the unconventional thinking of all you hipsters, for the most part, my strengths (and weaknesses) seem to stem from being a straight up conformist. But then in a way, without us conformists, being a hipster lacks the frame of reference from which to diverge — there’s no contrast. So to all you real geohipsters out there… you’re welcome. 

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

A: If you have an idea — a solid idea that has a vision and a purpose, and you really believe in it — you’re ready to sink or swim in it — don’t wait, don’t check, don’t ask — just do it. Probably intuitively obvious to many; wasn’t obvious to me for a long time.

Meaning, what I’ve found that often doesn’t work, is trying to sell others on your idea when it’s still nothing more than an idea. All this does is open the door for it to be crushed under the weight of opinions. And at that point, your great idea becomes just another deleted slide deck. So. Don’t ask for permission. Believe in it? Then just build it. When you need others’ collaboration on bits of it, keep it focused, and limited to trusted resources. 

Here’s the point though. Believing in it of course means you’re ready to own the consequences, whether it works, or whether it lawn darts into the ground. Best case scenario, it works, and at that point you’ve improved things a notch or two for your users, added value to your product, helped move the ball forward for your organization. Not to mention you learned a lot along the way. But most importantly, those who earlier might have crushed your idea — they vanish. No one argues with success. No one debates whether something will work or not, after it’s already working.

Atanas Entchev to GeoHipster: “Nobody’s asked me for a geopackage yet”

Atanas Entchev
Atanas Entchev

The founder of GeoHipster, Atanas Entchev, learned BASIC in 1984 on a made-in-Bulgaria Apple ][ clone, and has been working with computers ever since. These days he splits his time between slinging shapefiles and searching for the perfect saddle for his Cannondale. Find him on Twitter, Instagram, and on his personal blog Mostly Subjective.

Atanas was interviewed for GeoHipster by Board Member Bill Dollins and CEO Mike Dolbow.

Q: For any readers who don’t know, tell us about yourself and how you got into geospatial.

A: My road to geospatial was long and circuitous. I graduated with a Master’s in architecture in my native Sofia, Bulgaria. Upon graduation I was assigned a job as an urban planner. In 1991 I came to Rutgers University in New Jersey to complete a Master’s in urban planning, where I was indoctrinated into the Arc world on PC ARC/INFO on DOS. While still in grad school and looking for a “real” job as a planner, I took a GIS internship position at the NJDEP, digitizing parcels in ArcInfo on a SUN Sparc workstation. Temporarily. As it turned out, there is nothing more permanent than the temporary. I have been “doing GIS” ever since.

Q: Between early pieces in Directions, to your own blog(s), to your activity on various social media platforms, you have been a visible face and an early adopter of social platforms in the geospatial community for almost two decades. What effect have those platforms had on the landscape of geospatial technology? How have those platforms changed? What would the ideal social platform look like to you, today?

A: The biggest effect social media platforms have had on the landscape of geospatial technology is that blogs and social media have all but eliminated the need to go to conferences. This is probably an unpopular opinion, and easily challenged by the fact that geoconferences seem to be multiplying. But you don’t need to go to a conference anymore to find out what’s happening in the industry. The blogs and social media deliver high-quality, high-signal-to-noise-ratio content, right to your screen, better than any keynote. Heck, you can “attend” multiple conferences simultaneously and be billable at the same time.

Obviously, there are other things that happen at conferences — geobeers, geoteas, geohookups — so conferences aren’t going away. But the reasons for going to conferences have shifted. Get out of work, anyone? Travel to a new city/country? On your employer’s dime? Sign me up!

Three things drive people to social networks: FOMO, interestingness, and utility — probably in that order. Early Twitter was interesting. Less so these days, but I stay because of utility. Instagram is interesting, but has no utility. Facebook has neither.

How have platforms changed? They become less interesting as they grow and mature. The ideal social platform must stay interesting, and combine interestingness with utility.

Q: Wow, I can’t believe that this December will mark the five year anniversary of the geohipster.com launch with a tongue-in-cheek industry poll. Looking back on that moment and what has happened since, were there any surprises?

A: The biggest surprise was that it took off the way it did. I registered the domain name on a lark, I thought some kind of website would be good for a few chuckles at most. Five years later GeoHipster is running strong, bigger than I ever thought it would be.

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge Glenn Letham and Renee Sieber, two early advisors who offered ideas and encouragement in the very beginning. Mike Dolbow became the first guest interviewer, then the advisory board took shape, then Mike and Jonah and Amy stepped up to share with me the many duties that go into putting out a web publication. Were it not for these people, GeoHipster would not exist today.

Q: Walk us through a typical day for you – not just for your day job, but also for your “side hustles”.

A: My day job as the GIS specialist in Franklin Township, New Jersey, includes multiple various GIS-related duties, so it’s never boring. I maintain several PostgreSQL/PostGIS databases; I dabble in SQL and Python. I make maps to print (PDF FTW); I help township staff with various geo-related tasks; I create shapefiles; I export databases to shapefiles to share with other organizations; I add new township streets to Open Street Map.

I use a mixed bag of tools: ArcGIS Desktop, QGIS, ArcGIS Pro, ArcGIS Online, CARTO.

My latest side hustle is designing, promoting, and selling the “I♥️SHP” merchandise. My plan is to grow it to a point where I can quit my job and retire. My other side hustle is GIS consulting — mostly training, teaching GIS novices how to use shapefiles (no joke; shapefile haters leave a lot of money on the table), and some GIS and web development. And, of course, I help run GeoHipster as Editor-in-chief.

After work and on weekends I ride my bike, sometimes with my daughter. Or tackle a side hustle task. Or go to the beach with my wife. Or we go to concerts (Buddy Guy, Jonny Lang, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Gov’t Mule this summer).

Q: The “I♥️SHP” merchandise seems to be really taking off. Any plans to expand it for the “sidecar files”?

A: As soon as Taylor Swift agrees to wear a “PRJ” shirt for the promo campaign. I have my people talking to her people. Seriously, though, I consider “SHP” a pars pro toto moniker, thus including all sidecars. The shapefile agrees.

Q: If the shapefile disappears tomorrow as though it never existed, to which format would you switch?

A: To whichever format has critical mass. For the record, I don’t use shapefiles exclusively — I use PostGIS on PostgreSQL and file geodatabases in equal measure. But when I need to create a quick disposable layer for a quick map, shapefile it is. And when it comes to spatial data exchange, the shapefile is the undisputed king. In my job I share spatial data with a large number of users, mostly external. Every single one of them asks for shapefiles. So I give them shapefiles. I’m not gonna fight them. If they start asking for geopackage, I will give them geopackage. Nobody has asked as of yet.

I wrote about my position in the shapefile debate on my personal blog. To quote myself: “To call for the abolition of the shapefile is akin to calling for the abolition of the .xls(x) format on the grounds that millions of people erroneously use it in lieu of “legitimate” databases.”

There is currently a shapefile vendetta raging on the twitters. I think it’s silly. If and when it is no longer needed, the shapefile will fade away.

Q: GeoHipster readers, and many others, have followed the ordeal of your family and your son, Eni, closely. Would you provide an update?

A: For those who may not know, last December my son was deported to Bulgaria — a country he does not remember and whose language he does not speak, but where he is “from”. We are working on bringing Eni back home. We are pursuing all possible avenues. This will be a long and complicated process. Meanwhile he has settled in Sofia, has found a job that he likes, and is making friends. He is in good spirits. We communicate via social media and chat almost daily. My son is making the most of this bizarre and unfortunate situation, and has made me proud with his ability to handle adversity.

I want to thank the hundreds of people, most of whom I have never met, for their outpouring of support for my family’s plight, and for reaffirming my faith in humanity.

Q: Sounds like you’ve been riding your bike more and more lately. Do you and Bill have some kind of exercise competition going?

A: I post more bike pics lately — or, rather, I post less other stuff than I used to — which makes it look like cycling is all I do. But I have indeed been riding more and more lately. I rode my first metric century (100+ km) in May, and I aspire to ride my first full century (100+ miles) next year. I love cycling — it is a great sport, great exercise, and with the right equipment you can cycle year-round.

Above all else, cycling for me is meditation on wheels. It helps me clear out my head. When I am on the bike, I think about nothing. It feels great.

Bill and I do not have a competition, but maybe we should. What would be the metrics, though? Bill? (We’ll let Bill answer this question on Twitter. –Ed)

Q: What is your grammatical pet peeve that would most surprise GeoHipster readers?

A: What would probably be most surprising to those who know me is that while I used to be a grammar nazi, I am working on kicking the habit, and I have made significant strides in this effort. I remember when, in the early 1990s, I wrote a letter — on paper — to TIME magazine, to complain about a grammatical error. I composed a letter, printed it in the computer lab, put it in an envelope, put a stamp on it, walked it to a mailbox… TIME wrote back, by the way, acknowledged the error, and apologized. Today I look back on this episode and cringe with embarrassment. There are far more important things to spend one’s time and energy on than correcting other people’s grammar. (or style, e.g.: Oxford comma, double space after a period, etc. 😉 ). I try to remember what The Duchess said to Alice: “Take care of the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves.”

Q: You’re the “OG” – Original GeoHipster – so I don’t think we really need to ask you that question. Instead, do you have any favorite answers to that question from the last five years?

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

Guido Stein: The only hipster attribute I wish I had that I lack is the hipster gene that makes them all slender and buff.

Alex Leith: I knit maps, then scan them at 10 µm before faxing them to myself.

Bill Dollins: ““GIS” as a distinct technological entity is disappearing”

Bill Dollins
Bill Dollins

Bill Dollins is the Chief Information Officer at Spatial Networks, Inc., where he is responsible for leading information management and security strategy. He works remotely from his home office in Southern Maryland, leading a team that is focused on optimizing the acquisition, management, analysis, and delivery of geospatial data.

Bill was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.

Outside of work, he can usually be found spending time with his family, wearing out a pair of Brooks running shoes, or figuring out how to lift heavier things. He blogs less frequently than he used to and is planning to remedy that situation. He can be found on Twitter, LinkedIn, and GitHub. He is a fan of Washington, DC area sports teams, as well as the Alabama Crimson Tide, due to multi-generational family loyalties.

Q: You are the first person to appear in GeoHipster twice. How do you feel about that?

A: I didn’t know that and I feel slightly intimidated. I guess I need to make this good. I’m setting precedent, so should I go with dry sarcasm, self-deprecation, or over-the-top hyperbole? I think I’ll just wing it and see where it goes.

Q: A lot has changed since we last conversed on these pages. Tell us about your new gig.

A: I’ve been working at Spatial Networks, Inc. since February 2017. Many may know us as the company that makes Fulcrum, the leading mobile data collection application for iOS and Android. I joined at a fortunate time, at the outset of a significant period of growth for the company. As a result, we’ve done a lot of hiring and reorganized a couple of times to position the company for continued growth.

In my current role, I wear two hats as CIO and GIO. In the former role, I oversee the implementation and use of corporate systems and also address our corporate technical compliance with regulations such as the EU’s GDPR. In the latter role, I lead the management of our corporate geospatial data assets.

Those assets primarily take the form of data collected to support our Foresight data-as-a-service offering. With Foresight, we offer on-demand geospatial context on any topic in any geography for any duration. Combined with a global footprint, that can make for some unique data challenges and that’s where our data management team picks up. The data goes through QA/QC, normalization and restructuring to make it more consumer-friendly and ready for delivery. We’re using a mix of in-house, commercial, and open-source tools to build and automate processes to ensure consistency and shorten time-to-market. As a result, the last 18 months have seen SQL become my primary development language. I was always comfortable with it, but now it’s where I do most of my hands-on work.

That said, my role in the company is primarily strategy and leadership. That has given me the opportunity to work with an outstanding leadership team to steer the direction of the company and its product line. It’s also given me a chance to appreciate the roles played by design, product management, customer support, sales, and marketing in building successful products. I always understood that conceptually, but seeing people talented in those disciplines performing at a high level has really driven it home for me in a practical way.

I could go on, but I’ll sum it by saying I’m even happier in this role than I expected and I’m looking forward to the growth ahead. Oh….and we’re hiring!

Q: Any other important changes since 2014?

A: In addition to leaving the company in which I was a partner for 15 years, I also sold the house in which I grew up and built a new one. That happened shortly after the first interview, so it’s been quite a while now. It was a freeing experience that I could probably write about at length.

I also dipped a toe back into academia for the first time in a couple of decades by teaching an online course in the Salisbury University Geography program. It’s been a rewarding experience working with the students. It’s a masters-level course, so most are already into their professional careers, which brings a variety of perspectives.

Additionally, my alma mater, UMBC, knocked off 1-seed Virginia in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament (Go Retrievers!), Alabama won their 16th and 17th college football national championships (Roll Tide!), and the Washington Capitals won their first Stanley Cup (C-A-P-S, Caps, Caps, Caps!).

Q: In your 2014 interview you talked a lot about layers in GIS. What precipitated that, and has your outlook on layers changed since then?

A: I think I was working on some sort of network modelling behavior, which is something I’ve circled back to many times during my career. I re-read that response and I think I was inarticulately trying to say that I find traditional GIS inadequate for modeling our world. I still think that’s true, but maybe that’s also okay. Maybe traditional GIS isn’t meant to do that kind of modeling.

It’s been observed over the last few years that spatial technology is becoming more componentized and spatial analysis is getting embedded within other software tools. This is probably most obvious in things like R and Pandas, which present as more traditional statistical and data analysis tools, rather than primarily as a GIS. It is possible to do sophisticated spatial analysis in those environments, but they don’t drag along all of the overhead of an ArcGIS or a QGIS. I think that trend is accelerating.

There remains, and there probably always will be, a core constituency for traditional GIS. These are things like local government planning, natural resources management, parcel mapping, as well as a fairly exhaustive list of other use cases we can intuitively think of as the core audience for GIS as we’ve come to know it. These aren’t going away anytime soon and I don’t necessarily think they need the kind of modeling that I was discussing previously.

So, I think what I was really talking through was the fact that I was trying to use the wrong tool for the job at hand. The exciting part about that is that there are increasingly modular, component-based spatial analysis tools maturing alongside the traditional, monolithic GIS stacks. Evolution in both approaches means that it’s becoming increasingly easy to find the right fit in terms of use cases for spatial analysis and GIS.

Q: You coined the term “shapefiled”, meaning geodata whose quality has been degraded by converting it (them?) to shapefile format. Yet the shapefile popularity continues to grow. How do you explain an (allegedly) inferior data format’s undisputed reign?

A: Whoa, good pull. I had totally forgotten about that.

Giving the shapefile grief is like shooting fish in a barrel, but there’s an old saying: “Don’t let ‘perfect’ be the enemy of ‘good enough.’” The shapefile is an ideal example of something that is good enough at what it does to meet the needs of a broad audience.

Context matters. The shapefile wasn’t even the best format in the Esri stable at the time of its inception. That was the ARC/INFO coverage and I don’t recall anyone being in love with the shapefile back then. It isn’t conceptually much different than one of its 90s contemporaries, the MapInfo TAB, which was (is?) also a collection of sidecars. So why did the shapefile take off?

In 1998, Esri was under a lot of pressure to publish the binary specification of the ARC/INFO coverage. It was also feeling some heat from the nascent Open GIS Consortium for openness in general, so they published the shapefile. Anecdotally, I had friends who worked for Esri at the time who said the shapefile, since it was non-topological, wasn’t considered a serious format, so it was published to take the heat off the demand for the coverage.

I’m pretty sure that was never an official stance and I could never verify it beyond the anecdotes, but the end result is that the industry finally had the published, royalty-free binary specification of a geospatial format that was already in wide use. It took off. Within a couple of years, all of Esri’s commercial competition supported read/write of the shapefile, but it went beyond that. You (Atanas) may remember that, in its pre-Microsoft days, Visio had a “maps” plug-in where you could make Visio-style cartoon maps. It also supported the shapefile…an office productivity app supported reading a real geospatial format prior to 2000. It was a time when geospatial data was still a mystery outside of GIS, so a useful, open format was pounced upon.

Which brings us to today. The shapefile was so widely adopted so quickly that it litters file systems everywhere. It won’t ever really go away. And, because it is good enough, it presents a challenge to any potential successor that the shapefile simply never had to meet: the compelling reason to change. Thus far, no one has really come up with that reason for people who use shapefiles.

So, while the GIS world continues to search for/debate the perfect format, the one that’s good enough keeps going.

Having said all of that, I will gleefully roast marshmallows over the shapefile’s funeral pyre.

Q: Where is GIS headed? Today “spatial analysis” and “data visualization” are considered parts of “GIS”. But is the term GIS even appropriate anymore? Is spatial still special? When I went to grad school, we called it “Computer Applications in Planning”. These days many universities offer graduate programs in GIS. Is GIS a profession? Or it is a splintering set of tools that many different professions increasingly incorporate into their arsenal?

A: I view technology, especially software, as a concrete manifestation of the knowledge base of its developers and of the discipline in which they operate. So, “GIS,” as a set of software tools is a manifestation of the geographic body of knowledge. In terms of the body of knowledge, I think spatial is still special. A good example of this is a recent Twitter discussion I saw in which Morten Nielsen described the issues involved with unprojecting spatial data (https://twitter.com/JimBarry/status/1014702749102034944). It’s a great encapsulation of what I mean.

Projections are a core concept in geography, and using them incorrectly can result in bad data, erroneous results, and faulty decisions. Morten correctly describes how this works. That’s the body of knowledge. It is manifested in great software tools that have everything you need to correctly address such issues, but many people today see coordinate transformation as plugging a “from” EPSG code and a “to” EPSG code into a dialog box or a function call. That’s a great way to get bad data.

“GIS” as a distinct technological entity is disappearing, as it should. Spatial and cartographic techniques are gradually getting modularized and incorporated into other environments. Most vertical domains already understand how to use location in their activities. They want “just enough” GIS to do what they already know they need to do. For example, is R a GIS? I don’t think of it as one, but it has spatial analysis and visualization capabilities.

But that’s the technology, which doesn’t represent 100% of the knowledge base. Back to the projection example above. Any organization can plug proj4 or something into a piece of software, but they probably still need someone like Morten, who understands the appropriate use of the tools.

So, I see GIS splitting apart and diffusing across application domains. But, as the technology becomes more commoditized, the need for spatial understanding will increase and the value of the larger geographic knowledge base will grow. For the foreseeable future, I see the value of the technology in something of an inverse relationship with the value of the knowledge base.

Q: What would you say to a high school graduate who wants to go into GIS?

A: Don’t. Become proficient at something else and learn how to apply geography and spatial analysis to it. That’s not as contrary to the previous answer as it may seem. If you understand geography at the conceptual and practical level, and aren’t afraid to get your hands dirty with code or technical integration, I think there’s probably still a lot of mileage in being the geographer in an organization that does something else for a living.

Q: The war on cubicle body is raging. Update us on its origins, and the current theatre of operations.

A: I covered the origins in some detail here, but the short version is that 24 years as a defense contracting cube dweller had left me in the worst physical shape of my life. I weighed more than I ever had, I was diagnosed with asthma, and I my cardiac health was not perfect — though not terrible. I have a family history of cardiac issues, so I sat up and paid attention.

I joined a gym and started working with a trainer. The “war on cubicle body” was something I dreamed up to keep myself motivated, as that’s been an issue for me with regard to fitness. I started tweeting and my social media circle, many of whom read GeoHipster, has been incredible in its support. I can’t thank everyone enough.

I chose running as my main line of attack. I find that I need to organize my efforts around a central activity, so I chose running because it’s got a low barrier to entry and it’s easy for me to put on shoes and get a few miles in at lunch time. All of my other strength and core training is centered around getting better at running.

I am currently training for the Army 10-miler in DC in October. It’ll be my longest run yet and I’m looking forward to it. It will be the last race I run in my 40s and is an early birthday gift to myself. I’m certainly not fast, I’m simply looking to enjoy the training process and finish the race.

Q: Levi’s or Carhartt?

A: Mostly Under Armour and Nike Dri-Fit these days. When I have to actually wear long pants, it’s Levi’s 550 relaxed fit, never skinny (see the aforementioned cubicle body).

Carhartt is for people who do real work for a living. I have soft programmer hands and donning Carhartt would be a disservice to those who really need to wear it.

Q: Starbucks, Dunkin, or gas station coffee? Why???

A: Truck stop coffee. I realize there’s debate on this, but coffee is primarily a caffeine delivery mechanism. The best coffee starches your shirt from the inside out and no place does that better than a place that caters to long haul truckers. My order of preference is Flying J, Love’s, and then TA.

Since truck stops are not ubiquitous, I’ve been known to darken the door of a Starbucks or two. Dunkin coffee is generally weak to the point of being worthless.

At home, I brew my own. <shameless plug>I have gotten hooked on the French roast by Maryland’s own Rise Up coffee roasters.</shameless plug>.

Q: Is hipsterism dead?

A: Don’t get my hopes up.

Q: On closing, any updates to the thoughts you left us with in 2014?

A: You are not defined by the tools you use. Do not settle for the limits they impose.


Keith Masback: “You are where you are because someone extended you a hand along the way”

Keith Masback
Keith Masback

Keith Masback is:

  • CEO, United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation
  • Member of the Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Advisory Committee on Commercial Remote Sensing
  • Member of the Department of Interior’s National Geospatial Advisory Committee
  • Councilor of the American Geographical Society
  • On Twitter: @geointer

 Keith was interviewed for GeoHipster by Bill Dollins.

Q: Thank you for agreeing to talk with GeoHipster. Let’s start by discussing your background. Please tell us about your educational background and your overall experience in the geospatial field.

A: I have a BA in Political Science from Gettysburg College, and that liberal arts education gave me an appreciation for the integrated nature of physical geography, political geography, and human geography. I was first thrust into the world of imagery and geospatial when I was selected to command a unit at Fort Bragg, NC supporting XVIII Airborne Corps responsible for ingesting, analyzing, and transmitting imagery and electronic intelligence from “national assets” down to tactical forces. It was a remarkably sharp learning curve, especially the technical pieces of how the national imagery and signals intelligence systems worked, and the broad range of skills my soldiers needed to know to succeed at their missions. The XVIII Corps topographic engineers depended on us for source material, and I successfully fought a bureaucratic battle for them to be co-located with us, inside our classified facility. So, as far back in 1994, I had religion regarding the powerful synergy between imagery and geospatial information. I’ve carried that on through successive positions on the Army Staff, at NIMA, and later NGA.

Q: Please explain the role of the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF). Why was it formed? What are some of its significant accomplishments? What benefits does it hope to achieve for the geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) community and the wider geospatial community?

A: USGIF was created in January 2004, shortly after NIMA was morphed into NGA. The USGIF founders very deliberately determined that they would create a 501(c)(3) educational nonprofit foundation, as opposed to a trade association. So, from its inception, the Foundation was focused on supporting GEOINT education, training, and tradecraft. By sitting at the intersection of industry, government, the military, and academia, USGIF was, and remains, uniquely positioned to support the development of the (then-new) discipline. We have remained steadfastly focused on our tagline: Build the Community | Advance the Tradecraft | Accelerate Innovation. We’ve doubled the size of our corporate and institutional membership over the last 8 years to just about 250. We recently launched an individual membership program and are on pace to welcome our 1,000th member in early 2016. After next year’s scholarship cycle, we will have awarded over $1M to students studying in the field. We have accredited 12 (soon to be 15) colleges and universities to grant GEOINT Certificates, and over 500 students have earned them to date. We are working on individual professional certification, under a cooperative research and development agreement with NGA, and in coordination with a number of organizational and corporate partners. Our volunteer-led working groups coalesce around ideas to encourage discourse, debate, and discovery. Finally, we maintain our place as the convening authority for GEOINT and related discussions by producing a number of events and programs, large and small, including the largest gathering of GEOINT professionals in the world, our annual GEOINT Symposium, which last year drew about 5,500 total attendees and 300 exhibits. We see a bright future, where GEOINT has transcended its national security roots, expanding beyond governments to multiple industry sectors. This will only increase the demand for educated, trained, and certified GEOINT professionals, and USGIF is poised to lead the way to meet that demand.

Q: Please describe a typical workday for the CEO of the USGIF.

A: I’m sort of hesitant to answer this question because I think I have one of the best jobs in our field, and I don’t want to inadvertently encourage anyone to try to unseat me. On any given day, I can be found lecturing on a campus and meeting the faculty and students in one of our accredited programs; meeting with senior national security leadership; “petting” a satellite in a factory; trying out new open source software; hosting one of our events or programs; having lunch with an executive from one of our member companies; engaged in a discussion with one of our working groups, or hanging out with the USGIF team at our offices by Dulles Airport. I subscribe to ‘management by walking around.’ I find it’s a great way to get to know our team, understand their individual concerns, and to feel the pulse of the organization. And, of course, to procrastinate.

Q: I’ll ask a question that we typically save for the end of an interview: What does the term “geohipster” mean to you?

A: The term conveys to me the idea of people who creatively challenge the status quo and who speak truth to power. They don’t conform to traditional norms, and uniquely express themselves across myriad mediums. Geohipsters are open to taking personal and collective risk in pursuit of progress, and have a sense of community. They take pride in their skills — their tradecraft — and have a passion for learning and growing. Importantly, I am convicted that this status has nothing to do with age, and while the proportion of younger geohipsters to older is likely skewed towards the former, geohipsters are comprised of people of all shapes, colors, and vintages. Finally, there does seem to be some correlation between geohipsters and alcohol.

Q: Based upon your answer to the previous question, what aspects of the geospatial intelligence field do you think are more “geohipster” than people outside of the field would expect?

A: I know that there are change agents at all levels of the traditional GEOINT Community, inside of the national security arena, spanning from the Intelligence Community, to the Department of Defense, to the Department of Homeland Security. We exist in sort of an underground network, operating both inside and outside of the bureaucracy to get things done. We establish and maintain relationships, identify new additions to the herd, and groom and mentor the geohipsters who are coming along with and behind us. I do a lot of mentoring, both because I feel a responsibility to  ‘pay it forward’, and because I always emerge from mentoring sessions smarter and more informed. So, in a more direct response to your question, I’d urge geohipsters to resist the temptation to wholesale write off the suits, the seniors, the leaders and managers who seem totally invested in the way things are / have always been. Working among them, often in hiding for their own bureaucratic survival, are people who think differently, who are patiently effecting change, and who are challenging The System. Find them, join them, and be part of creating the future.

Q: You have held senior leadership positions at both NGA and USGIF for over the past ten years. From this vantage point, how has the GEOINT community evolved over the past decade?

A: I think that GEOINT, as one of the intelligence disciplines and now well beyond, has grown up. A few folks gathered to create the idea in 2003. As the shotgun marriage that was the National Imagery & Mapping Agency transmogrified into the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, it was important to think differently about the future, and the change in names represented a very deliberate inflection point. I believe that the fabric that is the GEOINT Community has been woven slowly over the past 12 years, but that the pace of change and the impact of outside forces have accelerated dramatically over the last 24-30 months. For the most part, the most significant innovation taking place in the GEOINT field is in local hotbeds of creativity around the globe. GEOINT, forged in the cleanrooms of the defense and intelligence sectors, has escaped its confines and spread virally. The challenge now for government, industry, and academia is to keep up. Geohipsters will play a critically important role as the glueware to pull all of this together, mashing up traditional approaches with new ones, and blazing new trails.

Q: What are the greatest opportunities you see for GEOINT of the next five to ten years? What significant challenges do you foresee?

A:  I recently penned an article for our official magazine, Trajectory, titled The GEOINT Revolution. (Shameless plug: http://www.trajectorymagazine.com/business-and-technology/item/2077-the-geoint-revolution-html)   In that article I’ve identified ten technologies which I believe are coming together to create a unique synergy that is taking the idea of GEOINT, born in the national security context, and propelling it into the B2B, B2G and consumer space. I think this represents both an incredible opportunity and a huge challenge. How are we going to best share all that we’ve learned in our decade-plus of experience, and in turn, how will we learn from the thousands of bright minds working GEOINT for commercial enterprises and humanitarian relief, and their unbridled, unconstrained engagement with these technologies and data. In my article, I posit that the greatest challenge to the traditional national security GEOINT Community is going to be recruiting, educating, training, and retaining an appropriately skilled workforce to take advantage of the revolution which is underway.

Q: As we wrap up 2015, what could GEOINT be doing better and how is the USGIF helping to bring it about?

A: First, I think we ought to pay attention to this GEOINT Revolution that’s underway. Whether or not you agree with all the details in my recent piece, I think we can all agree that there is massive change taking place, and we can either throw ourselves into helping to guide it productively, or we can be dragged along behind it. Additionally, I think there is an old guard who believe that GEOINT is inherently a national security activity. They aren’t comfortable with the viral spread of GEOINT to almost every sector of the economy, nor are they comfortable with the idea that these ‘newbies’ are neither constrained by the approaches we’ve developed, nor burdened with the restrictions that accompany the national security approach to GEOINT. USGIF has a mandate to address all of this, to be at the forefront of integrating all of these discussions, and to ensure that both our academic certification and our professional credentialing efforts are reflective of this new reality.

Q: You mentioned that there will soon be 15 colleges and universities accredited to grant GEOINT certificates. What is the breakdown of those institutions between four-year schools and community colleges? How do community colleges figure into the USGIF educational outreach strategy?

A: At the moment, all of those schools are (at least) four-year schools. The bulk of the GEOINT Certificate programs are at the graduate level, with two notable exceptions being West Point and the Air Force Academy. We are very excited to have done some initial work with Northern Virginia Community College and the NSF-funded GeoTech Center run out of Jefferson Community and Technical College in Kentucky to embark upon a community college program. I’m confident that we’ll ultimately develop a meaningful credential based on the community college model.

Q: The impacts of sequestration on the intelligence community have been well-documented. What unexpected or surprising positives, if any, have you seen in the GEOINT community as a result of sequestration? Assuming sequestration comes to an end, how do you see these positives informing GEOINT going forward?

A: Going back to the roots of sequestration, the original intent was to have it be so gruesome and objectionable that it would force the polarized Congress to come to some sort of compromise to avoid it. When that didn’t work, and it hit, and the world didn’t cease to exist, it suddenly became acceptable. But it’s incredibly insidious by its very nature. I was on the Army Staff during the late 1990s as we sought to realize a peace dividend at the end of the Cold War. We were able to rationally plan a massive drawdown, strategically managing people and equipment and bases/camps/stations. It wasn’t perfect, but there was discretion allowed for how each service would walk itself back. Sequestration, especially initially, allowed for no such discretion, forcing salami-sliced cuts across every program. Imagine if I told you to cut your household budget by 10% — but that you couldn’t do it by simply getting rid of cable TV, or buying fewer groceries – rather that you had to cut 10% off your mortgage, your car payment, your cable bill, your groceries, your power bill, etc. It would be ridiculous, but that’s what sequestration forced on our government — and the national security GEOINT Community. As for positives, I’m sure that some fat was trimmed and some efficiencies were realized. Sequestration is a nonsensical way to do business, and the myriad negative impacts will be felt for years to come.

Q: It’s been interesting to see open-source projects such as Hootenanny released from the traditionally-cloistered world of GEOINT. Does this signal a culture shift and, if so, how much more can we expect to see?

A: I absolutely love the efforts of NGA to open up and to lead the way for transparency in the Intelligence Community. Edward Snowden, while a traitor who sold out our country and did unspeakable damage to the collective safety of the American people and our allies, did force a long-needed, difficult conversation regarding balancing privacy and security. I believe that NGA is on an unwavering path to opening up to the maximum extent practicable, creating trust and confidence in the American people, and delivering more value to a broader set of users. This is important for the privacy/security issue, but also because it signals that NGA recognizes the tremendous shift that’s underway, and appreciates that it has to be ‘all in’ if it wants to continue to be viable. I see leaders across academia, government, and industry who recognize what’s happening and who fully support the culture shift required to maintain relevance.

Q: In the wake of 9/11, security concerns caused a significant contraction in the availability of government-produced geospatial data sets that had previously been freely available. In recent years, that trend has been reversing with the push for open data across government. For example, the State of Maryland has legislated all of its data open by default. What role does the USGIF play in this issue and what do you see as a “happy medium” that accounts for appropriate security while also ensuring open government and public access to data?

A: I think this goes to the larger idea of the new global transparency. The hyper-availability of remote sensing and the ability to crowdsource massive open geospatial datasets has changed the game forever. Should sensitive critical infrastructure information (and other select datasets) remain protected? I think that’s a matter of common sense, but I think that this new transparency demands that geospatial data be open by definition, and protected by exception. There were kneejerk reactions on multiple fronts after 9/11, and this is just one example. Additionally, governments won’t necessarily be the producers or owners of the authoritative data. The GEOINT Revolution incentivizes business of all types to integrate imagery and geospatial data, and to conduct analytics with it in order to gain a competitive advantage. Multinational corporations are better positioned financially in many cases to invest in creating these data than most governments. USGIF’s role is to be the convening authority for discussions around this topic. Our Geospatial and Remote Sensing Law and Policy Working Group, for instance, is trying to sort out frameworks for dealing with this new technology, data, and information.

Q: The GEOINT field is known for its heavy reliance on single-source, highly curated data sets (often termed “authoritative”). How are crowd-sourced data sets being leveraged and do you see their role increasing?

A: I discovered this very early on during my first gig at the (then) National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA, now NGA). I referred to it as the “sanctity of the seal.” This reverence for exacting quality control of highly curated data was a source of great pride. If the NIMA seal was on a product, you could — and often had to — bet your life on it. And, to be sure, when it was produced, based off the data that was available, it was superbly accurate. The lag time for that production was sometimes measured in decades due to the standing requirement for NIMA to cover (almost) the entire globe. As a former Army Infantryman, I would challenge the mappers. I’d ask about the ability, in the digital age, to have a special ops team enter a notation into the (rapidly aging) authoritative database that a certain bridge in Afghanistan was no longer intact. The digital pedigree could be noted for all the other users, allowing them to make their own call about the veracity of that entry. For instance, rather snobbishly, I might be more inclined to believe the notation of that special operations unit, over say, a water purification unit. So, moving from the sanctity of the seal — still very much alive, especially in the world of aero and maritime safety of navigation — to a world in which crowd-sourced data are integrated into the larger whole is no small cultural shift. It is happening, and it will be more accepted as time passes. However, we must remember the differing nature of how these data are used. If your crowd-sourced map gets you and your wife to the wrong end of the block for a holiday party, you shrug your shoulders and adjust. If a vertical obstruction is improperly noted, a military aircraft is destroyed and its crew perishes. If a Marine unit evacuating an embassy has improper routing to an extraction point, they and their Department of State colleagues perish. I’m not suggesting that crowd-sourced data and information doesn’t have an important place in national security GEOINT, just that the stakes are a little bit higher, and we’ve got to figure out how to raise the confidence level to meet a very high bar.

Q: Somewhere, a geospatial analyst is going about her daily tasks as part of her job in a municipal or state government. For what tools does she have GEOINT to thank?

A: First of all, she’s probably incorporating overhead imagery, from space and/or from aircraft in her work. The technology on those spacecraft and aircraft and those sensors can trace back their heritage to national security efforts. She’s probably used Google Earth at some point, and it was created with the investment of Intelligence Community monies in a company called Keyhole, prior to its acquisition by Google in about 2004. Further, the digital elevation model in Google Earth is built on Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) data, collected in 2000 during an 11-day mission by the Endeavour shuttle. That mission was supported by investments from NASA, NGA, the Army, and some international partners. The subsequent processing, storage, and distribution of the data were managed by NGA, working with NASA. Regardless of what GIS package she is using, it has almost assuredly benefitted from engagement with the GEOINT community over time. Finally, increasingly, her education and/or training may be have been related to GEOINT-based curricula, and this will continue to increase in the future. From my perspective, she’s a GEOINTer, whether she knows it or not!

Q: What do you do for fun when you are not at work?

A: My wife and I have five children, ranging in age from 13 to 22. Parenting is a large part of what I do when I’m not at work, and (most of the time) it’s a blast. I was listening to a radio show on a late night drive many years ago, and a guest said that you could identify what was important in your life by identifying a succinct epitaph for yourself. Without a pause, I knew that I would want it to be: “He was a great father.”  In addition to that, I am a certified soccer referee and love the game of soccer, having played myself, and having coached all of my children over time. I used to really enjoy relaxing and watching NFL football on Sundays (and Mondays…and Thursdays…), but then my sons got me into fantasy football, and now Sundays during the NFL season are stress-filled days of watching every game at once on NFL Red Zone, eyes darting from my phone to the screen, leaving me utterly exhausted every Sunday evening.

Q: Which teams in each kind of football do you root for?

A: We only had one TV initially when I was growing up in New York, and my father was a diehard Mets fan (having been a baseball Giants fan, he was obliged to despise the Yankees). His baseball commitment interfered with shows I wanted to watch. So, he felt if I became a baseball fan, I wouldn’t feel as aggrieved. Being fair-minded, he named all the baseball teams. I thought Pirates sounded cool, so I chose them. I extended this to the Steelers. As it turns out, the decade of the 70’s wasn’t a terrible time to be rooting for the Pirates and Steelers: Two World Series wins and four Super Bowl wins. They’ve been my teams ever since. As for the “real” football, I am a NY Red Bulls fan and a Borussia Dortmund fan. For the record, and geo-related, I think it’s important to note that it is my position that the Red Bulls, Giants, and Jets all play in New Jersey (where I now reside), and thus New York’s only NFL team is the Bills, and their soccer team is the newly born NYCFC.

Q: What recent books would you recommend for the budding geospatial professional?

A: As a political science guy, I think it’s really important that budding geospatial professionals fully embrace human geography and political geography as totally integral to what they do. I simply can’t fathom someone working in our business who has no appreciation for those particular layers. I would also think that almost by definition, up-and-coming geohipsters would be motivated to understand the global context for their work. Another theme that I stress to junior professionals is the importance of networking. A couple of books that immediately come to mind:

Your Network is Your Net Worth” by Porter Gale

Prisoners of Geography” by Tim Marshall

Connectography” by Parag Khanna (Spring of 2016)

USGIF’s “Human Geography” Monograph Edited by Murdock, Tomes, & Tucker (Shameless plug #2)

The Phenomenology of Intelligence-focused Remote Sensing” Edited by Evans, Lange & Schmitz (Shameless plug #3; proceeds fund a USGIF remote sensing scholarship)

Q: Which Ghostbuster are you, and why?

A: Many years (and pounds) ago, I was often told I resembled Harold Ramis who of course played Dr. Egon Spengler. However, my rather sarcastic bent puts me more in the Dr. Peter Venkman category. I’ve had many Venkman moments in my career. Memorably, I was responsible for the global tasking of our imaging “spy satellites” as an NGA senior, so I represented the user community as we worked through critical decisions regarding spacecraft anomalies with engineers from the National Reconnaissance Office (which is responsible for buying, launching, and flying the systems). Early on in my tenure in this position, I had neither a full appreciation for the gravity of these situations, nor any clue about the technical aspects of spacecraft or sensor engineering. So, when it came time to make a decision, and it was my turn to speak, to break up the tension in the room, I’d pull from old movie lines and say things like “just make sure not to cross the streams…it would be bad” or “maybe it’s a stuck Fetzer valve.” No one laughed, so I sort of stopped saying that stuff out loud.

Q: Do you have any parting thoughts for our readers?

A: As I often like to say, the hallmark of my middling career to date is the credo that it’s better to be lucky than good. If you find yourself as an educated, trained, practicing geohipster in 2015, you’ve hit the jackpot. It’s game on, the GEOINT Revolution is underway, and you skated to where the puck was going to be. Pounce now, while the window of opportunity is wide open and your skills are in huge demand. Finally, pay it forward. You are where you are because someone extended you a hand along the way — a teacher, a colleague, a mentor, a boss. It’s your obligation to do so for others.

Lakshmanan Venkatesan: “When my wife texts me “Where are you?”, I respond with coordinates”

Lakshmanan Venkatesan
Lakshmanan Venkatesan

Lakshmanan (@iamlaksh1) is a domain consultant, GIS enthusiast, developer, and a blogger.

Lakshmanan was interviewed for GeoHipster by Bill Dollins.

Q: Thank you for agreeing to talk with GeoHipster. Let’s start by discussing your background. Please tell us about the region of India from which you come. Would you also discuss your educational background and your overall experience in the GIS field?

A: First of all thank you very much for giving me this opportunity. I am really excited and happy to connect with GeoHipster. I come from the Southern part of India — State of Tamil Nadu. I did my graduation in Civil Engineering and Masters in Transportation Engineering. I have more than 10 years of experience in spatial software development and domain consulting in Energy industry. Most of my experience is with Esri products, Microsoft technologies, and some bit of open source. I’m still a learner and GIS enthusiast.

I’ve started my career as a researcher in one of the premier technical institute in India (IIT Madras). I have developed a desktop GIS application which tracks vehicle information feed from GPS. We have conducted different experiments, published papers in international journals and conferences. Thereafter I was working in IT industry on various roles (as a developer, technology lead and consultant) in geospatial technology.

Q: Would you mind telling us about your current work?

A: Currently, I work for one of the top IT firms based out of India, and my client is a large Energy major. I play the role of Geospatial Analyst/Domain consultant, and take care of their ArcGIS Portal and custom JS applications along with data management. These days in addition to Geomatics, I do work with lot of other E&P (Exploration and Production) products and tools.  Everyday I do different tasks — writing Python code, database activities, upgrading ArcGIS infrastructure, creating reports or preparing road map etc.

Q: What first drew you to software development and GIS? What challenges do you find most exciting today?

A: I learnt BASIC and FoxPro during school days. I am always interested to work in computers and programs. Hence I decided to make a career in the IT industry. As part of the curriculum (in Civil Engineering), I needed to do thesis, when most of my friends decided to design a building or water tank or do some field experiment, I chose GIS. I started working in GIS (in year 2001). I started with  ArcView 3.1 (Avenue scripting). Working with shapefiles and preparing thematic maps and charts was so fun. It was a wonderful project and got a good grade too. I decided to stay in GIS.

I have been working in GIS for close to 13 years, challenges are many, solving complex spatial problems; projections; integration between systems, enterprise data management, automations, etc.

Q: When I first started blogging in 2006, your blog was one of the first I found. You may not know this, but the format of your blog was an influence on mine in that you blogged about concrete, useful solutions to technical issues. I realized I wanted to strike the same tone. You have since moved on from blogging and I am curious how valuable a resource you find blogs and social media to be today? How, if at all, do you use them in your daily work?

A: Thanks for your appreciation. I’m not moved from the blog because I was lazy to be honest.

I have plan to convert my blog to my own website near soon. This is in my To-do list in 2016.

One fine day, I decided to start the blog on my own. Initially I don’t know what to write and how. I decided to share my day to day technical challenges and solutions. I read a lot those days (even now); in addition to Esri forums, I started posting solutions to technical problems and tutorials on my blog. A lot of people liked this and many students, professionals connected with me through the blog. Blogging has opened new doors to me. I have connected with many professionals and fellow developers across the globe.

I receive at least one email per day on career guidance or technical problems. Several people appreciated me via emails, phone calls, and in person. I treasure appreciation from Jim Barry of Esri on my blog, and your appreciations and feedback.

I still believe individual blogs and technical forums were main source for learning new things or finding tips to solve any technical issue. GeoDev meetups, online events and organization level meetings were other sources for learning and development.

I like Twitter these days, where we can get an all updates/news in a quick glance.

Q: How has the GIS industry changed since you began your career? Which changes have had the most impact on you? What advice would you give to a young person entering the GIS industry today?

A: Industry has undergone tremendous changes. I feel that GIS industry focus has been changed shifted from mapping to data management to analytics. One of the biggest impacts is penetration of smartphones and gadgets. The maps /apps (GIS) is need for every organization. The evolution of Portal (Esri ArcGIS) and Javascript libraries (open source and Esri) brought major changes in the mapping industry. I would suggest young person to focus on mobile and cloud computing.

Q: As someone who has implemented geospatial systems for a long time, what recent developments in the geospatial industry have you most excited? How do you hope to integrate them into your current work?

A: Few weeks before, I was in meeting — where one of Esri product manager participated, we were discussing about Hadoop and tools for big data processing. In energy industry, there is so much heavy weight data that needs to be processed quickly for taking a decision in a timely manner. This is one of interesting areas which I would like to work on.

Q: What do you like to do in your free time?

A: During weekends, I will play cricket with my friends. My kid occupies most of my time these days. I read a lot via Facebook and Twitter feeds. I’m preparing for some technical certifications too.

Q: Complete this sentence: If I were Jack Dangermond for a day, I would…

A: Be more open (now they have started) to users unlike standard support process. I’ll make sure to simplify the licensing terms (especially credits) and costs.

Q: What does the term “geohipster” mean to you? Based on that response, what is the most geohipster thing you’ve done?

A: Geohipster means something new or different. Individuality I would say. Crafting their own future. In one of client presentation — I coined a term “#We Map your success”, it was well received and appreciated. My mind automatically converts any object into point/line/polygon. When my wife texts me “Where are you?”, I usually respond with coordinates 🙂

Bill Dollins to Geohipster: “Programming feels very similar to writing a poem”

Bill Dollins
Bill Dollins

Bill Dollins (Twitter, blog) is a programmer and partner at Zekiah Technologies, responsible for leading Zekiah’s geospatial consulting business.

Bill was interviewed for Geohipster by Atanas Entchev.

Q: You are a Senior Vice President at Zekiah Technologies. Do you consider yourself a mapper, a coder, a businessman, or a social media guru?

A: I tend to think of myself as a programmer first and then a businessperson. I have been programming for a very long time so that’s primarily how I think of myself. I’ve been at Zekiah since 2001 and I take the responsibility of keeping a stable flow of work for our staff very seriously so my role as a businessperson ranks high in my identity. As far as mapping is concerned, I can use my code to make maps but I am definitely not a cartographer. I had no formal training in geography prior to getting into GIS and learned a lot from some very patient professional geographers early on. I have a lot of respect for cartographers and geographers because the knowledge required to do what they do well is very complex and I’m not certain I would be doing them proper justice to hang my hat on that peg.

Social media is an interesting question. I don’t consider myself a guru with it. All of my presence on social media has its genesis in my blog, which was my first social media “property.” That really is an outgrowth of another component of my identity not mentioned above; which is that of a writer. I have written from an early age and programming, for me, is actually a creative experience that feels very similar to writing a poem. Writing is as core to me as programming.

Q: You do contract work for the US Navy, which we probably can’t talk about. So let’s talk about your extracurricular geoactivities which you document on your blog geoMusings. You write about integrating open source with Esri technologies. Tell us more about this. Do you do it for fun?

A: I have been programming in one way or another since I was ten years old. I am exceedingly blessed to be able to make a living at something that I truly enjoy. So, yes, I do it for fun and recreation. That said, very little of what I blog about is purely recreational. I, like many people, started in the geospatial world with Esri technologies. It will come as a shock to no one, especially Esri, that Esri tools alone rarely meet all of a user’s needs. So I have always been involved in integrating various technologies with Esri tools. I’ve gotten fairly adept at abstracting concepts and techniques out of my customer-focused work and turning them into free-standing examples for posts. That abstraction process is very recreational and keeps me mentally flexible.

Since the mid-2000s, I’ve been working more and more with open source geospatial tools. Given that most of my customers are Federal, they also tend to be long-standing Esri shops. As a result, my initial work started out focused on integrating open-source with Esri. My first visible effort with this was participating in zigGIS, which enabled direct read of PostGIS by ArcMap. PostgreSQL and PostGIS were of great benefit to one of my Navy customers and zigGIS was a natural fit. Since then my work has evolved to a point where about 50% of my work is purely with open-source tools, including some current Navy work. Part of that is due to the fact that open source tools are making significant inroads, and part of it is due to my intentionally seeking such work. As a consultant, I think proficiency with a diverse toolset benefits my business and my customers. As a programmer, it’s just damn fun!

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?

A: I think I’ll answer this through the prism of Geohipster. One common thread I have noticed in everyone you’ve profiled so far is a high level of energy, commitment, and enthusiasm for the work that they do. In that regard, I identify with them. I genuinely love what I do and can’t wait to solve the next problem.

The term “hipster” is a passing fad that is already losing its meaning. It is ultimately harmless.

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

A: There is a mainstream and we are all part of it. The mainstream of handling and representation of geospatial data is, has been, and continues to be the layer. Regardless of technology provenance, geospatial data, especially vector, always distills down to layers. It is the most basic representation in GIS and also its continuing greatest limitation.

Given that GIS descends from map-making software, the continued prevalence of the layer is understandable. Maps were compiled from mylar separates which became layers in our software. We structure our data as layers. This is a function of both schema and common limitations of our visualization software.

I never really thought much about this until a project I worked on in 2005. It was an R&D project focused at modeling and analyzing infrastructure interdependencies. The system used an agent-based modeling approach and my role was to to provide some ArcObjects interfaces to access the geospatial data. The relevant features were used to instantiate objects in model space that began to interact with and respond to each other. The layer constraint did not exist and each object’s relationships to other objects, regardless of type, were more easily modeled.

I will confess I got a little obsessed with this concept and began delving into it more. Most geospatial databases allow you to remove the geometry constraint to store heterogeneous geometries in a table, including ArcSDE. The biggest limitation was with visualization. In the case of ArcMap (at the time), it would crash if you tried to add such a layer. At a minimum, it is inconvenient in terms of symbology and geometry collision. Layers make that easier.

If I were ever to get the opportunity to dedicate myself to a problem, it would probably be this. I find my mind wandering back to it these many years later. I think that we will probably not get past this until, as an industry, we recognize that map-making is a distinct use case from modeling and analysis and we allow our tools to diverge accordingly, similar to the way CAD and GIS diverged long ago. I could go on about this topic ad nauseam but your readers would probably fall asleep.

Q: Geohipster (and geohipsterism as a concept) is sometimes criticized for being exclusive and/or attempting to foster divisions within the industry. On the other hand, the just-ended State of the Map US (SOTMUS) conference in Washington, DC looked like a huge geohipster lovefest. Where is the industry going? Further fragmenting into tinier factions, or consolidating into a homogeneous whole?

A: The idea that geohipsterism could foster divisions in the industry could possibly be valid if it were approached without irony. I think the direction you have taken Geohipster should allay any such concerns. I was skeptical of it at first but have come to find it quite informative. I appreciate the Q&A format with other-than-the-usual suspects.

I did not attend SOTMUS myself, due to prior family commitments, but there was a photo tweeted from it that I think sums up the current direction of our industry: https://twitter.com/ajturner/status/454809703315668992. There’s Esri, Boundless, and Google at MapBox, all in one photo. It represents the flowering of innovation across our industry from numerous sources, whether traditionally proprietary or fully open source or in between. I see integration as the rule for at least the next few years. With the exception of Google, that photo represents the spectrum of technologies that I am currently using in my consulting work to support customers.

I am integrating MBTiles into a mobile situational awareness system, I am part of a contract team that is placing Boundless technology at the core of a major solution for a civilian Federal agency, and my company is using Esri technology to produce maps and automate infrastructure analysis for defense and homeland security users. This is all current work and tracks with diversification seen by others I talk to.

I see absolutely no evidence that our industry is consolidating to a homogeneous whole. I suppose the risk of fragmentation is there but, right now, each tool suite has its strengths and all of the players have been great about implementing de facto and/or de jure open standards so it’s very easy to pick the right tools for the job and integrate them all.

As a programmer and integrator, I hope our industry never returns to days like the early 2000s, when Esri had little to no credible competition and the whole industry just seemed stagnant. I actually considered leaving the industry at that point. The current level of innovation and competition seems to be pushing everyone forward and even Esri is responding. I’m not sure that would have happened without the competitive stimulus of the likes of Boundless, MapBox, Google, and the wider, independent open-source geospatial community in general.

Q: You own a John Deere and georedneck.com. Do you consider yourself a (geo)redneck? Any plans for georedneck.com?

A: I will confess that my Deere is a baby one; a 17-horsepower lawn tractor. My father owns several farm tractors that would put mine to shame. I bought mine several years ago and it has been a tank. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend one if you are in the market.

It has become stylish to tack the prefix “geo” onto the front of just about everything, so I parked georedneck.com to head off any irrational exhuberance. I haven’t taken time to decide what, if any, concept may arise from it.

As far as actually being a redneck, I’d say I probably don’t quite fit the bill, but I will say that I am very comfortable with the culture and ethos. It is more nuanced than it is often portrayed and there is a lot to respect about it, if one takes the time to scratch the surface. Labels such as “hipster” and “redneck” can quickly descend into caricature and make it easy to forget we are just talking about people from different backgrounds who are trying to live their lives.

Q: You are always very nice and cordial online. Almost too nice and too cordial. Do you ever say anything bad about anyone?

A: Yes. Myself. I am my own harshest critic.

I was raised by a Southern mom who taught me to praise in public and criticize, directly to the person, in private. That practice has served me well. I strongly believe that a person or company should not initially learn about any negative opinion I may have via social media. I sincerely hope that others would extend the same courtesy to me.

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

A: Share your work. Share your thoughts. Share your experience. Share your talent. It has more value than you know.