Eric Gundersen & Alex Barth: “Working in the open lets us meet really cool people”

Eric Gundersen (top) and Alex Barth
Eric Gundersen (top) and Alex Barth

As CEO of Mapbox, Eric Gundersen coordinates product and business development. Eric has been with the team since the start, and splits his time working on projects in San Francisco and Washington, DC.

Eric got his start in the mapping and open data space at Development Seed, building open source tools for international development agencies. He holds a master’s degree in international development from American University in Washington, DC, and has dual  bachelor’s degrees in economics and international relations.

Alex Barth is an open data expert with years of practice in developing and implementing open data strategies and solutions on behalf of multinational organizations like the United Nations and World Bank. At Mapbox, he leads our data team to raise the availability and quality of freely accessible open data.

Before joining Mapbox, Alex was a developer and strategist for Development Seed. Prior to that, Alex managed information technology for an international development organization in Central America, where he became involved in the Central American open source community. In his free time, Alex has designed interactive robots and virtual reality interfaces, organized a traveling exhibit depicting life in Nicaragua and its sweatshops, and taken photos of his life and travels in Washington, DC, Nicaragua, and Austria.

Eric and Alex were interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.

Q: Mapbox is currently one of the coolest geo companies to work for, attracting top talent at neck-breaking speed. How do you do it, and how do you maintain the coolness factor?

A: So much of our work is out in the open, us coding on GitHub or editing on OpenStreetMap — working like this in the open lets us meet really cool people. When we find people who do cool stuff we ask them: You’re doing great stuff, would you like to get paid to do that?

Q: OpenStreetMap (OSM) relies on volunteers to map the world. Mapbox is relying on OSM to make maps. How do you help make sure there are people to map? How do you help recruit people to the platform?

A: We invest in tools to make it easier to map. We helped build the iDEditor, we love sponsoring mapping parties, collaborate with cities to do large data imports, and most recently have been designing micro-tasking interfaces like to-fix.

Q: With all that you’re doing — will you always be tied to OpenStreetMap as a basemap?

A: Our platform is totally data agnostic. We have customers using TomTom or HERE data to power their basemaps in addition to OpenStreetMap. For us it’s all about being a platform and providing the building blocks for developers to do whatever they want to locations. That said, you know our bet is all on open data in the long run.

Q: Do you aim to rewrite GIS in JavaScript?

A: Working on it.

Q: Verizon, Aol, MapQuest — what’s going on there?

A: Finally we can talk publicly 😉 — what’s so exciting for us is that MapQuest still accounts for an insane amount of map traffic, and it’s growing. Their team is going to use our building blocks to make their next generation mapping product on both mobile and web. And while I can’t comment on specifics, what I have seen looks really hot.

Q: An official Mapbox-MapQuest partnership announcement was made after our initial talk. Congratulations! Still no word on the Verizon mobile location data stream, and whether the ODbL OpenStreetMap license will be a barrier to using it. Can you comment on that?

A: Mapbox maps are 100% owned by Mapbox and licensed under our TOS. So everyone using Mapbox never has to worry about any data licenses from the dozens and dozens of sources we all pull together to make our map.

Q: What meat will Mapbox barbecue on the funeral pyre of HERE?

A: Obviously brats if the German auto consortium wins. But I’m starting to get excited to cook Peking Turducken — looking like the Chinese are making a for-real play, maybe with an American partner. If our bid wins, and we get a snapshot of the data, it’s going to be tallboy beer can chicken coast to coast.

Q: Mapbox is opening offices in South America and India. What are the business opportunities there for Mapbox to explore?

A: The data teams in Peru and India have been amazing! These are our dedicated teams for making OpenStreetMap better. From processing probe data we collect, to analyzing errors in OpenStreetMap, to tasking new satellite imagery — these teams run 24 hours a day 5 days a week feedback loop letting us be ultra-responsive and laying the groundwork to grow even more.

Q: Where do you see Mapbox in 2020?


Q: Do you consider yourselves geohipsters? Why / why not?

A: Ah, you saw the garage full of fixies?

Q: Thank you for the interview. Any parting words for the GeoHipster readers?

A: It’s the early days, and that is not meant to be prophetic.

All one planet

I am just going to leave this here while I work on my tractate (Working title: “Is (geo)hispterism exclusive?” (Thesis: “No”)).


Matt Richards, Josh Livni, Andrew Turner at SOTMUS 2014
Matt Richards, Josh Livni, Andrew Turner at SOTMUS 2014

Andrew Turner: “Share, experiment, fail, try again, share — ride that geofixie like a boss”

Andrew TurnerAndrew Turner (blog, Twitter) is the CTO of the Esri R&D Center in Washington, DC.

Andrew was interviewed for Geohipster by Atanas Entchev.

Q: You became an Esri employee when GeoIQ became part of Esri. Tell us about your mission at Esri.

A: Esri has had a long and storied mission to transform the world through geography. This philosophy was directly in line with our vision at GeoIQ. The difference is that I now have the support of a global community of users across government, business and organizations that are already using our tools and platform to manage their data, ask questions through spatial analysis, and ideally share this with the public.

My mission at Esri is to connect this community into the web where it has the immediate potential to connect with billions of people and give them direct access to their government, scientists, and local community organizers.

More specifically we are currently developing capabilities of the platform that leverage the best of both worlds — GIS and the Web. This includes adapting to community-adopted data standards for discovery and interoperability; interactive visualizations that realize the potential of hypermedia interfaces; and easy to use developer tools for anyone to experiment and share their own ideas.

Q: The GeoIQ acquisition signalled Esri’s commitment to open source. But can a software company with “closed source” embedded in its DNA reinvent itself? Is your role there to catalyze a metamorphosis?

A: If you want to talk about DNA, Esri has actually deeper roots in open-source. Anecdotally I’ve met colleagues at Esri that were hired by submitting patch requests to software when we used to ship the source code in printed binders.

The obvious benefit of building in open access through a system is that developers can better learn the capabilities and are given the freedom to experiment and develop custom solutions that fit their particular goals. Esri works across nearly all levels of government, business, and domains of science and engineering. This open access is imperative for each industry to best serve its own needs.

The concepts of open access have evolved over the past decades. Previously it meant libraries, SDKs, and APIs. Increasingly, and fortunately, modern declarative programming languages combined with the web have given us the ability to quickly share code and also to make it easily understandable and reusable. Imagine trying to comprehend someone’s Fortran77 code or COBOL — no wonder Esri used to hire anyone with the diligence to decipher the machine code!

Regardless, Esri has not had the awareness and perception of being an open company. So my role is multi-purpose. To clearly demonstrate where we are and have been effectively making our platform, standards, and code open and available. And secondly to work within our teams to improve where it is lacking and has a real benefit to the community to improve access.

Q: How much of today’s (geo)technology choices are driven by fashion? How much are driven by ideology? Open source development and adoption, in particular: Is it driven by fashion, ideology, or pragmatism?

A:  This is a long discussion by itself. Generally I think people are both pragmatic in using the tools they have available, but aspirational in what they want to become. So anyone choosing technology is going to look at their mentors and determine the best path from where they are to how they get to be like that person — for whatever value reason that may be. Open source in particular espouses so many different meanings to different people it would be nearly impossible to understand the difference between fashion, ideology and pragmatism. Fortunately we all have the freedom to vote with our time — and can choose the tools that we like using and hopefully also get the job done.

Q: You manage to command respect even in the most anti-Esri corners of the Twitterverse. How do you explain that?

A: Maximal SPM (Slides Per Minute).

Thank you for saying so. I am dedicated to share what I’ve learned and listening to others’ ideas. I keep an open mind and always ask for honest feedback — as I would rather know what can be better than accepting things just because.

Q: We haven’t heard much about GeoCommons lately. What is going on with that?

A: Look at our recent Open Data initiative, let your eyes unfocus like an autostereogram (magic eye) and you will begin to see the new shape emerging. We are committed to continuing and growing the GeoCommons community and vision — and you’ll hear more on that soon.

Q: In recent months we have seen the rapid growth of MapBox and Boundless — both serious Esri competitors. Just today (Monday, March 3, 2014) Gretchen Peterson — a top geospatial influencer — announced joining Boundless. Is this a trend? What do you make of it?

A: Foremost that there is a positive growth in the availability and utilization of location data. That alone is something to celebrate as it’s been talked about for decades and is finally part of the vernacular.

Second it indicates a positive trend in the desire for technology that improves geospatial data management, analysis, and visualization. It demonstrates that despite the common moniker “spatial isn’t special” that in fact it still requires some “very special spatial people” to solve the unique (and interesting) problems. ‘A rising tide floats all boats’

Q: The Esri International Developer Summit is coming up. Any exciting announcements we should look forward to?

A: Chris Wanstrath, CEO and Co-Founder of GitHub is our keynote speaker. That alone should signal our commitment, and validation, to open-source initiatives. Besides that — you’ll have to wait and see 🙂

Q: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview. Is there anything else you want to share with the Geohipster readers?

A: Make your own path. Technology today lets you conceive an idea and deliver it to millions of people in a matter of minutes. Share, experiment, fail, try again, share — ride that geofixie like a boss.

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

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

Tom was interviewed for Geohipster by Atanas Entchev.

Q: How did you get into maps/GIS?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This quote:

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

_why the lucky stiff