<title>Ryan E. Bowe, metadata specialist</title>
<geoform>pixels and dot documenter</geoform>
Q: So, Ms. Ryan Bowe: Where are you, why are you there, and for whom do you work? Actually, what do you do there?
A: I am in the middle of nowhere in Kentucky, wandering aimlessly with purpose. The why behind my spatial location is not super special: I fell in love with Kentucky after being transplanted [while] in the middle of High School from the Carolinas (first North, but mostly South). So I stayed even though I bleed the wrong color — blue.
I work at an aerial survey company. I have (or have had) many responsibilities, and I’m proud to be able to say I have almost taken a project from start to finish. To hit the highlights (and my favorites) — I have planned and acquired imagery, and written metadata and final project reports.
Ryan GeoMetadata, traveling. A few weeks ago I sat in a duck blind on Sunday and took photos of mergansers, grebes, and blue-winged teal. Monday, I walked around the Tidal Basin in the Capital City. Not to be confused with KFFT.
Why was I in DC? URISA gave me the immense honor of representing the community on the NASA Earth Senior Review/National Interests Panel. Yes, I feel like Walowitz bragging about going to space, and my wardrobe now consists of several NASA shirts. No, you can’t call me Froot Loops. Yet.
In a few weeks I’ll be in Tampa. Then in a few more weeks I’ll be in my favorite National Park — Yellowstone.
Q: This one time you won something called the “Young Professional of the Year (2013)” from URISA. You received that from working with the URISA Vanguard Cabinet. The Vanguard Cabinet attempts to bring more young professionals into URISA. You’re involved with the Mentoring Program of Young Professional Committee with ASPRS. Why do you keep trying to drag young professionals into these two organizations?
A: My experiences with both organizations have been immensely rewarding. All of the time I have put into ASPRS and URISA has been repaid, and then not just some but significantly more. I hope to be able to share the love. Plus, I am not forever going to be a young professional by either of the typical definitions — 35 and under or less than 10 years of experience — so very soon I’m going to enact my succession plan and put in my application for the codger coalition. I’m excited about being replaced and getting old. I want to help other people have an even more rewarding experience than I have within both ASPRS and URISA.
@twendyp is demonstrating the success of my succession plan to the max. She did so much more with the Vanguard Cabinet than I did, and she also received Young Professional of the Year (2014). I was also hugely honored to receive the Barbara Hirsch Service Award with Wendy at GISPro in September 2014. We also talk about “Managing your ambition” in ArcNews.
When we are young, our desire to change is seen more as the “good” disruption (@candrsn) and less like Abe Simpson shaking his fist at the young whippersnappers on his lawn. We should all take advantage of it! Yes, I’m recruiting again. Dive in, cannonball preferred, and start making waves.
On a totally unrelated note, I had to ask the Internet about Whippersnappers and lawns. Apparently there is a [whipper] Snapper lawn mower. I find this exquisitely fitting.
Q: If you could consolidate the two organizations (URISA and ASPRS) into one super organization, would you?
A: Absolutely not. They each have their strengths and, honestly, there is not a tremendous amount of crossover in the organizational realms. I’d love to see the two organizations collaborate some more, though.
The one fear I have of not creating one super organization is the lack of volunteers and fresh blood. I can’t recruit people fast enough, and I really do not understand why. Thinking back to when I first joined, I did see both organizations as slightly terrifying. I didn’t have a clue how to volunteer for anything, and when I did see opportunities I was too intimidated to apply. I know the self-doubting thought of “I’m fresh out of school, still transitioning into a workplace. What could I possibly offer that my heroes aren’t already offering?” The Young Professional group of both societies allowed me to get my feet wet. No, no kiddie pool or water wing references here. Do not think of it as age discrimination. Think of it as a less intimidating introduction to the society. For me it was a little sink or swim, but I dove right in and I am still loving it. And we have made it better. Plus, I have had the honor of meeting many of my heroes who were the source of that initial intimidation. They’re not terrifying. And in my experience heroes want to hear about what is going on with Young Professionals. They are passionate people who want to help further the profession.
Q: So one of my most painful GIS memories has been dealing with metadata. You’ve got a @GeoMetadata handle on Twitter. Why do you love the most boring necessary thing in the world?
A: The short version: Cat food v. Tuna. Is the can that has lost its label cat food, or is it tuna? Would you eat it without the label identifying if it was Cat food or Tuna? (today’s never ask the Internet anything again moment.) This thought was presented to me in a metadata workshop eons ago, but the analogy works when you apply it to your data. Would you be willing to risk your research results on data whose accuracy you didn’t know? What if the easting and northings were not labeled or labeled incorrectly, and you thought your data was horribly inaccurate because of it? That is why data stewardship is close to my heart.
The long version: It goes back to why I chose geospatial. I went to Centre College in Danville, KY. It is a small liberal arts college where you didn’t have to declare your major until your sophomore year. Lucky me, I went to college thinking medical because most of my family is medical, and then journalism because I adored photography, but then I found this awesome Visual Anthropology course and had the honor of standing next to photographers from Time, Newsweek as well as U.S. News and World Report during the 2000 Vice Presidential Debate. There was no challenge in that photography. We were all waiting for them to drink water, take their glasses off and rub their eyes, or show any kind of photographable weakness. It was a pretty miserable photo assignment to me. Journalism was scratched and I was sold on anthropology. One of my courses was Ecological Anthropology, and we learned GIS and Remote Sensing. It solved all the verification and validation I saw with ethnographic data or even Pigs for the Ancestors by Rappaport. Anthropologists document a culture and then their work would be disproved for one reason or another. In some cases, if anthropologists had GPS and GIS, their data would have been harder to disprove.
Soon after that class I was looking for a research or teaching position, and it turned out to be in GIS. I was able to help pioneer and ultimately assist in teaching the first GIS course at the college. While working on the course, my advisor asked me what I wanted to do with my life. My answer was to do anthropology with a camera around my neck, a GPS unit on my back, and a GIS-enabled computer. Don’t knock the GPS on my back — we were using Trimble ProXRS receivers, and I never dreamed I could use something like an iPhone to instantly have GPS coordinates associated with my photos. Also, to my credit, I still do real photography with a dSLR every now and then. Anyway, so I went to grad school. One of our more awesome assignments was to take a piece of data without metadata or projection information and figure out what or where it was. I love the puzzling, but metadata really made sense at that point. All I needed was a bit of documentation and the puzzle was solved. Fast forward to a few years into my first job and there was a need for metadata on a tile level. Someone had found out that I loved it. Hundreds of thousands of metadata files were needed and I wrote them. Write them. I still write them and I still love it! There’s something awesome about getting to document a project. It is a little like the data without any information, except I have all the information. I have the privilege of synthesizing all the information for the data consumers. Yes, I am forced into the standards, but I like to think that the information is still useful. You’ll know the projection, the resolution, the accuracy, and locational information. So, as long as the metadata files travel with the data files, no one else has to puzzle! And if the client asked for the data in a standard for a reason, they can mine the metadata for all that information and serve it up to their end users easier. Obviously, metadata still makes my heart go pitter-pat.
Q: You even went so far as to write a metadata workshop that you’ve done at conferences and special events?
A: Yes, I love metadata so much I write it in my spare time. I’m on SlideShare and my website explains the presentations. Slides lose a significant amount without my personal touch. You will just have to wonder why in the world are there Ghostbusters, Mario, and Little Shop of Horrors references in there. Now you can call me Froot Loops.
Q: Ten years from now, drones have gone sentient. They are killing the humans of Earth with lasers originally purposed to collect LiDAR. Having worked in the mapping industry, you find yourself feeling incredibly guilty for having helped cause the end of the human race. You are in a cave with three things: a pen with which to write metadata, paper that the metadata will be written on, and something to drink. Do you have A: Tennessee Whiskey or B: Kentucky Bourbon and why?
I love the question because I am a 3DEP fanatic. I hope it becomes a recognizable part of the National Map. Now I propose we work on creating an impossibly strict standard for UAS metadata, though. No one will want to use drones then so they won’t go sentient. I really can’t talk because I have not piloted a drone or used data from one. My frame of reference is still only huge Z/I Intergraph DMC from fixed wing aircraft and digital cameras in a helicopter. It sure would be nice to participate in the UAS Mapping Symposium.
Q: With everything you do with ASPRS, URISA, etc. — are you a geohipster?
A: I believe I am geohipsteresque; in other words I am an aspiring geohipster.
Once I conquered the intimidation factor organizations gave me, I find their resources extremely useful. Access to ASPRS Archives of PE&RS was the original reason I joined ASPRS. Who knew I’d end up in the magazine eventually, and not just for book reviews. I believe organizations provide a breeding ground for new ideas. Sometimes structure inhibits creativity, but it does not eliminate their tremendous bodies of knowledge. I also know that both organizations are working very hard to restructure and rethink governance. Plus, we don’t want to let history repeat itself, and where else can we turn to see where we can improve on history?
If I had time, I’d be supporting the squirrels in the rats v. squirrels Maptime rivalry, but I’m sad to say I’ve only had the chance to make one meeting. I did have some help from @jace1101 in coercing a few colleagues to attend that inaugural meeting, though! At some time I hope to be able to give a metadata presentation there, if anyone is as crazy about metadata as myself.
So, I definitely have some quantifiable geohipster qualities. I have been known to wear Carhartts. I have “ugly” hunting dogs, which I have threatened to GPS because I don’t hunt with them, rather photograph them. I still write thank you notes in calligraphy. I have a glow in the dark Nalgene bottle with a GeoHipster and a Maptime sticker. Having a sticker totally qualifies me, right?
Q: So I leave the last question to you: What do you want the good readers of GeoHipster to know that we didn’t cover in this interview?
A: I love to think that I’m unique, but if you hang enough qualifiers we’re all unique. I have had some very special experiences, though. In addition to meeting my spatial heroes and photographing the 2000 Vice Presidential Debate, I have a few more other six-degrees-of-separation-from-fame stories. I have been published in Tropical Fish Hobbyist, Wild Bird, South Carolina High School Sports Report, Nature Photographer, Natures Best, World Equine Veterinary Review, and several other papers. I met Roger Tory Peterson at a Nature Photography conference. I have blown glass with Stephen Rolfe Powell. I interned with Art Wolfe. And I have been working my dream job for almost 10 years now. The camera is in the belly of the plane, the GPS unit is on top (or as a base station on the ground), and there is not a shortage of GIS-enabled computers.
Stephen Mather has been working in GIS, planning, and related fields since 1998, working for the last 7 years as the GIS Manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He has been interested in the application of computer vision to geospatial analyses since 2004, and has recently initiated the OpenDroneMap project — a project to bring together and extend a suite of open source computer vision software for use with UAS (drone) and street level images. He is also coauthor of the PostGIS Cookbook.
Q: How have you been enjoying the conference so far?
A: It’s been consistently good! There were sometimes two or three sessions that I wanted to be in at a time, so I had to figure out if I could clone myself.
Q: Clone yourself?
A: Yeah, well it would make it so much easier (well, probably the easier thing is to watch the video afterwards).
Q: Let me know if you figure out the cloning thing.
A: Oh, I’ll share it. It’ll be on Github.
Q: Awesome. Have you been to this conference before?
A: I went to variants on FOSS4G in DC, Denver, Portland, and Seoul.
Q: Wow, what was Seoul like?
A: That was FOSS4G Korea. It was awesome. The hospitality was amazing, the conference was really interesting. It’s a beautiful city, and it was lots of fun.
Q: Do you speak Korean?
A: Not adequately, no. (*laughs*). Not at all.
Q: You presented at this year’s conference. How did it go?
A: It was really fun. It was similar to a presentation I gave at North Carolina GIS a couple of weeks ago. The slides were already there, but it never ends up being the same presentation. OpenDroneMap is what I presented on, which started off as a GeoHipster joke at first, but then started to become a thing! People are excited about it, and are trying it out with their drones.
Q: Who started the joke?
A: Well, there was the GeoHipster artisanal vertices, and at the time I was thinking about computer vision and drones and where all that’s going, and the absence of an open source project that addresses that. When I made my prediction about 2014, I said it would be all about the artisanal pixel. We’d go from these global satellite images to these handcrafted satellite images effectively. Then I starting thinking, actually, that’s not a bad idea. The best way to predict the future is to stake a claim in it and make it happen.
Q: I definitely want to pick your brain about that later on in the interview. But before we get there, I wanted to ask you how you got started in the geospatial world.
A: I came from the biology side of things. As an undergrad I actually took a lot of music classes, and a lot of biology classes. At the time, a lot of biologists weren’t really thinking spatially. Everything was about static statistics, which assumes some normality that doesn’t really exist. There were people starting to pull on that thread, but it was the minority. My interest in GIS and the geospatial was applying it to understanding biology and ecology better, and then I never really got out of that rabbit hole.
Q: But you haven’t really left music either. You make custom guitars.
A: Very, very slowly. I’ve been making them for 12 or 13 years. I’m on guitar #2.
Q: That’s a really cool hobby.
A: It’s one of those things that seems like it should be harder than it really is. A lot of people think, “Oh, I couldn’t do that”, but actually it’s not that hard of a hobby, and for a woodworking hobby, it doesn’t require many tools. If you want to become a furniture maker, you need to invest a lot in tools just to start. The total cost for guitar-making is much smaller with a minimum viable set of tools, which is kind of cool. In that way, it’s kind of like open source. The barrier to entry for open source is just a laptop, which you may already have.
Q: Totally. Let’s go back to drones for a minute. For those who might not be familiar with it, what is OpenDroneMap?
A: OpenDroneMap is an open source project for taking unreferenced images and turning them into geographic data. Maybe you have a balloon, kite, or drone, and you’ve taken some overlapping photos of an area, and you want to turn that into an orthophoto as a TIFF or PNG or a point cloud. It’s basically an extension of the photogrammetric techniques. Back in the day, you’d fly with a nice camera that was well parameterized so that you could correct for all of the optical distortion. You’d have a plane that was flying a known route with inertial navigation and GPS to help you know exactly where the plane is at any given point in time, and then you construct three-dimensional data from that, with contours and orthophotos. If you extend that concept, and instead of having two overlaps with lots of knowledge about your position, you have three overlaps, then you can write an equation that back-calculates where all of your camera positions are. In the process of doing that, you generate a point cloud of all of the features that match, which is something that you can derive other products from. You could create a mesh from that point cloud, then paint those photos back onto the mesh. Now you’ve got the geospatial information you need, and it can be turned into an orthophoto. When I first proposed the project, I thought, well we could license something like this, or we could start an open source project. I had a hunch there was enough existing computer vision code out there to get it 50, 60, or even 70% of the way there, just with the existing code. Fortunately my hunch was right. This leverages years of computer vision stuff done by people all over the world.
Q: It sounds like it was worthwhile to see what other people were doing, and build off of it.
A: Yeah, the stuff that people had been doing was absolutely brilliant, and allowed me to move whole hog and jump into the parts I was interested in.
Q: When I was in college I took some courses in remote sensing and did work with Synthetic Aperture Radar. I’m a little familiar with working with imagery. I’m guessing that working with imagery from drones is pretty different from working with aerial and satellite imagery. What are some of the differences you noticed in working with drone imagery versus something from an airplane or satellite?
A: A plane or a satellite gives you a nice synoptic view. There’s a usefulness, not in the specificity, but in the synopsis. If you think of the world as you view it from the ground, you can observe and make sense of the world; it’s what we’re most familiar with. There’s a wide gap between what’s happening in the plane or the satellite and the first-person view. Drones, balloons and kites fill that gap. Drones fill it particularly well because they can fill large areas. That’s what brought me into working with them altogether.
Q: Speaking of working, you work for the government. Could you tell us more about that?
A: I work for Cleveland Metroparks. We manage about 23,000 acres, which includes forests, wetlands, open areas for people to picnic, a zoo, lakefront parks, and really a whole range of interesting cultural and natural resources. We provide access for passive uses such as picnicking and hiking, and active uses such as events that draw people into those spaces. It’s a really cool park system with a lot of energy and a great history, as well as an amazing staff and a good vision for where we are now and where we’re going.
Q: How long have you worked there?
A: Seven years.
Q: I did some LinkedIn stalking, and I saw that you are a manager there. I’m sure that GIS manager can mean lots of different things depending on whether you’re with the government, a private company, or what industry you’re in. What are the things you think are common descriptors of GIS managers?
A: I’m relatively hands on. I’ll hack a code, I’ll work on data when I get the opportunity, but I also make sure to give a lot of freedom to the people that work with me, because they’re brilliant, and I don’t have to worry much.
Q: You sound like a great manager!
A: I’ve got great employees! There’s coordination and advocating for resources, ensuring that my employees have what they need. There’s also the aspect of ensuring that folks within the organization, as well as outside of the organization, understand what we do, so that they can value and take advantage of it. In addition to giving the degrees of freedom that people need in order to grow, we make sure they have educational opportunities and that they have challenges. There’s a lot of autonomy, which again links back to the open source community, where there’s a lot of autonomy.
Q: You’ve written a book on PostGIS. Can you tell us about the book and how it came about?
A: A couple years ago a publishing company discovered my blog and asked if I’d write an outline on PostGIS. I wrote them the outline, and they said “This is great, when can you start?” And I said, “I can’t, my daughter’s due in a few months, and there’s no way I can write a book.” They said, “Well, you could get a co-author”, and I said, “I can’t even write half a book!” Their response was “Well, you could do 60/40!”, and I said “Alright, but you’ve got to find the co-author”. They found Paolo Corti, who’s an excellent writer and knows his PostGIS stuff, and also knows the middleware level of that, and how to get it out to the web. That adds a nice element. Paolo and I started on that and we realized between the two of us, we weren’t going to get it all done. We found Bborie at the Boston code sprint, and Tom works with me and wrote a chapter. [Interviewer note: Bborie, Tom, and Paolo co-authored the book with Stephen.]
Q: Thanks so much! It’s been a lot of fun talking with you. I have one last question for you. Do you consider yourself a geohipster?
A: I’m a geohipster, absolutely! I’m the guy who predicted artisanal pixels. I don’t ride a fixie, but I do ride an e-bike. When I’m in sound health, I bicycle from 2-3 days a week, so I think I qualify.