Carl Anderson (@candrsn) started hacking on a TRS-80 in the 70s, quickly upgraded to an Apple II+, and has used all sizes and types of computer systems in his career. He is a polyglot and seeks answers using technology instead of seeking specific technology to answer questions. He is dogmatically pragmatic. In the last 30+ years he has worked for and supported local county, state, and federal government, the private sector and universities, and volunteered for too many things. He is the President of URISA, has served in many roles in local and international GIS organizations, and really enjoys working with the people he meets.
Carl was interviewed for GeoHipster by Randal Hale.
How did you get into GIS/mapping?
I have always been interested in the spatial relationships between things, and that interest drew me to measuring and representing those relationships. Specifically, in the early ‘80s I came across a book on microcomputer computational graphics and I was hooked. (Myers, Roy E. (1982) – Microcomputer Graphics).
So that interest drove you to pick a college major? Or was this a learn-on-the-job (as many of us did) career?
The path I took was in no way linear. I had taken programming courses while in high school, started out as an art major in college and later switched to engineering sciences. All the while I kept picking up odd jobs that included measurement, design, spatial analysis and information management components.
I’m currently fascinated with hybrid setups — taking commercial and open source, and building a hybrid system. You did that at Fulton County (Georgia), where you were the GIS Manager?
I was at Fulton County for a long time. I filled many roles while there, from traffic analysis in Public Works, to GIS management in the Planning department and later IT department, to leading a Business Intelligence division of the IT department. That last division included GIS, Database Development, Web Development and Data Integration, and was quite a challenge.
With regard to hybrid setups, I am proud of what we achieved at Fulton County. I had learned that things can really hum along when each component does its own one thing well. Back in the early 90s it took a lot more heavy lifting to connect components. Today, using REST, GeoJSON, WFS, WMS, XAML, OBDC, and others it is really easy to hook things up. We used to run into issues with every piece of software we tried, and had to patch code in Perl, PHP, the Linux kernel, mars NWS (a Novell emulator), TN 5470 (to talk to the IBM mainframe), and too many others. I took a bit of grief over building systems that combined both open and proprietary components, but it was the only way forward as we knew that as long as we did not require a line item in the budget, we could do nearly anything we wanted.
That hybrid approach allowed us to be super responsive to our client base and keep up and leverage the changing technology and internal (county-government-wide) standards. We were able to build custom GIS apps for Planning, the Tax Assessor, the Tax Commissioner, 911 and EMA, the Police and Sheriff, Voter Registation, and more. Using a hybrid approach, the end users were not affected when we upgraded core GIS software, or even when we switched databases.
One particular technology journey was especially interesting. We had to change the data storage system several times, and we were never completely in control of the timing. We started out moving from ARCStorm to SDE 3.0, but had to backtrack due to a need to reload data from original sources. We then moved to Oracle for a few years but were using a license borrowed from a different department that wanted it back. I had been playing with Postgresql95, and we moved everything from Oracle during a stressful week of dump as SQL, refactor as a PostgreSQL95 variant, and load SQL. After migration we managed to keep systems in sync using a mixture of Perl and PHP. PostGIS did not yet exist, so we developed our own spatial storage and predicates. In late 2001 we got turned on to PostGIS. As the 2000s progressed, it got easier to move and model data, so we started to connect live to client data systems and integrate on the fly with data caching. When I left we were connecting systems using MSSQLServer, PostgreSQL, Oracle, Berkley DB, MS Access, SharePoint, and others. The whole journey required us to reject what we had been doing, refocus on what we really needed, and find a solution — any solution — that fit our true needs. Rejecting your own work as the path forward is an important but painful thing.
While you were chugging along at Fulton County, you ended up helping co-write something called FGDC-STD-016-2011? How painful/fun was that?
Otherwise known as the FGDC Address data standard, it was a lot of work and a lot of fun in a geeky kind of way. The most important thing I learned is that developing a standard takes a long time. The Address Standard took 5 years from kick-off to adoption. Reviewing addressing practices in the US revealed many odd things that you might not suspect exist. Part of that work was informed by a custom geocoding engine we wrote at Fulton County. It used a more natural linguistic pattern to locate candidate addresses instead of the more literal matching engines available to us in commercial GIS software. Currently I am helping on an international address framework standard (ISO 19160-1), likewise lots of fun in an internationally-geeky way.
So I’m going to slow-pitch one question, then stick you on another one. You are now President of URISA. Given the whole idea of GeoHipster (people who work/think outside the box) I’ve been questioning as of late how effective the big organizations are (URISA, ASPRS, GITA) at maintaining a connection with the industry when it seems to be changing at a rapid pace. First off — what is URISA? Secondly — how is URISA adapting to the needs of its members (assuming it is)?
URISA, officially the “Urban and Regional Information Systems Association”, got started in 1966 as an organization to help share ideas and results using a (then) new-fangled thing (computers) to solve problems in urban and regional planning and government.
Our tagline is “Fostering Excellence in GIS”, and we take that to heart; we exist to help GIS practitioners succeed. One of the big roles URISA continues to fill is to help make newer, useful techniques and technology feel safe for GIS practitioners to implement. As a community of GIS practitioners, URISA allows people to see what their peers are doing in GIS, what is working, what is not, how people can repeat successful ideas. It is also working to identify practices in setting up and managing GIS systems that are particularly useful, effective or efficient.
I was at a conference a few months back and someone said “Blah blah I know a guy who maps caves” and I responded “Blah blah blah I know a guy who maps caves”. We both knew the same guy. I know how busy we get and it’s been a while since I sat in a canoe. Are you still a member of the Athens Speleological Society? How did you end up mapping caves?
At the moment I am only an armchair caver, but I do feel then need to get underground again. I have always felt a stronger affinity to the Dogwood City Grotto, in Atlanta GA. than the Athens Speological Society near the University of Georgia.
When I was at Georgia Tech I ran into several great people who used the mapping and survey of caves as a way to investigate the spatial relationship of caves. People like Bill Putman, Ed Stausser, Steve Attaway, Marion Smith, Jim Smith — they all stirred up my curiosity and got me mapping caves. Cave surveying is quite different from modern above-ground survey techniques. The equipment has to be super rugged, be able to get completely wet, and fit into a small backpack. At Georgia Tech and later, some super-cool armchair caving projects were undertaken, like running 100s of paper topo maps through a scanner and digitally automating the plotting of 1000s of caves. Did you know that paper topo maps shrink over time, and that they do not shrink in a uniform way? Figuring out how to account for that was a problem.
You’re currently working with Spatial Focus and are working with the U.S. Census Bureau. What are you doing with Census?
I am supporting the LEHD program that produces statistics on jobs, workers, workplaces and the connections between them. I focus on making sure that we always get the geography right.
Finally — I haven’t asked you about skinny jeans, your favorite capa mocha half caf latte (I have no idea what I’m saying), or your bike or whether it’s a fixie or a flexie (I think I made that word up) or how your record collection is coming along. 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 geohipster?
I am pretty sure that I do not entirely fit in anywhere. A friend recently mentioned that if I am hip, it is entirely by accident and not planned. As some examples, in the ‘80s I frequented a PBR bar in Atlanta and I have had long hair and a beard most of the past 30 years, including a fabulous mullet in the ‘80s. Possibly cool now, but at the time — not so much.
With regard to the mainstream, as a polyglot I think that I am pretty good at making choices for software / language / tool for each task I encounter. I don’t think that I choose what I already know, but what will cause the best outcome.
Oops, almost forgot… Favorite Linux distribution?
I installed my first Linux distro in 1993, it fit onto two 1.44MB floppies, and was released by a Portuguese telco company. Ironically, I do not speak Portuguese. It had exactly what I needed. Later I have used Debian, Redhat, SUSE, and all sorts of other distros. Using a polyglot parallel, my favorite distro is the one that has the tool that I need that day. As an aside, I really loved the Enlightenment Window Manager in the late ’90s. For its time, it was really creative and challenged the boundaries of what window decorations and widgets could be.
Finally — any parting words of wisdom for the good-looking and smart readers of GeoHipster?
Try to live life one, or less, mistakes at a time. Try to make the successes big and the mistakes small. Try nearly everything once — if it is not good, don’t do it again. Lastly, living in the present is much more fun than living in the past.