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

Terry Stigers (Right) with his son

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.

Chris Whong to GeoHipster: “How we build is as important as what we build.”

Chris Whong is an NYC-based civic hacker, urbanist, mapmaker, and data junkie. He most recently worked as the founder and director of NYC Planning Labs, promoting the use of agile methods, human-centered design, and open technology to build impactful tools at the NYC Department of City Planning. He’s perpetually tinkering with open source geospatial technology, open data, and web projects, sharing his work via tweets, blog posts and speaking events. He teaches graduate level technology courses for Urban Planners at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service, promoting the use of open source tools for mapping, data analysis, and visualization.

Chris was interviewed for GeoHipster by Mike Dolbow.

Q: Whong’s law states that “Every government agency, everywhere is working on a ‘new system’; It will solve all of their data problems and will be ready to use in 18-24 months.” My 20+ years in government have taught me that you’re 100% right on this, and I can’t believe I didn’t think of it myself. Please tell me this will be the subject of your first TED talk.

A: I actually came up with this a few years ago when I was in sales, and was speaking to different state and local governments several times a week. There was always a huge amount of faith everyone had that the “new system” would solve all of their data woes in the near future, but it never seemed to actually arrive. I’d love to do more research on this front, as every government technologist I’ve encountered has some version of this story for “new systems” large and small.

Q: Even after all the gigantic government IT failures, I still can’t believe how many ginormous contracts I see being awarded. (Despite their past success, I’m still looking at this $26 million award with side eye.) But they can’t all be failures, right? Maybe just the billion dollar ones?

A: I think the ones you hear about are the BIG ones… there are probably hundreds of little ones that are just as bad but not big enough to show up on anyone’s radar. There has been some reporting recently in NYC about ballooning construction costs for what should be simple projects like park restrooms. I think you’ll find a lot of the same incentives and poor practices at play in both construction and IT projects. My hunch is that it’s the bigness of NYC that allows for these kinds of things to slip through the cracks. A $14M bathroom is peanuts in a $11B capital budget… and you can’t really inspect that budget unless you’re willing to slog through hundreds of pages of screen printouts published as a PDF.

Q: You recently left your post at NYC Planning Labs. What was your favorite project to work on in that job?

A: That would be ZAP Search. It’s a frontend search tool for looking up information on land use applications in NYC. Basically, anyone who wants to change zoning (including the city) has to go through a governmental process, and there’s an information system that tracks each action. I love this project because we were able to seamlessly integrate spatial data into a non-spatial database. You and I know it’s just a simple join to add geometries to a row in a table, but this has eluded everyone and been a huge excuse for years. In government, spatial is still the realm of “GIS people”, who tend to not be the same thing as app developers.

When you’re dealing with a city that’s the size of New York, the map becomes a critical part of the search UI for making individual projects discoverable. Adding geometries and displaying them on a map goes a long way towards making the data instantly relatable to people. Nobody knows obscure project names or even addresses of things being built near them, but everyone knows where they live and can relate to things happening nearby.

I should add that the GeoSearch API comes in at a close second. (GeoSearch is the autocomplete geocoder API that powers address search in all of our apps) We didn’t even build it, the heavy lift for us was transforming the city’s official address database into a format that would work with the Open Source Pelias geocoder built at Mapzen. It’s a wonderful open source story, and I like to think a contract to build a highly-available autocomplete geocoder in government would have taken years and millions of dollars. We did it in a few weeks, basically for free, by leveraging open source.  We also made it publicly available and wrote a nice little documentation site to help people get started using it.

Q: Can you tell us what’s coming next for you? And whether or not you’ll need to add a corollary to Whong’s law?

A: I’m planning to write a book about my 3-year stint in local government (but I know I’ll just get consumed with side projects during my time off!) I want it to be a relatable easy read full of anecdotes and things I’ve learned being a solo open source developer and building a small (but highly effective) digital team. I’ve accepted a position at Qri (qri.io), an open source startup building technology for distributed data collaboration, discovery, and version control. It touches on a lot of the pain points I’ve experienced working with, publishing, and sharing data over the years. I’ll be exploring use cases, building tooling around the core platform, and trying to grow the Qri user community.

Q: Do you think every government organization needs “an 18F” to show the way towards better IT, better user experiences, better designs in government apps?

A: Yes, and it’s important to remember that the culture change is the most important thing these teams bring. The tech tooling is just a fraction of the overall environment. Openness, collaboration, good design practices, continuous learning, introspection/retrospection, sharing, focusing on the user, iterating and shipping code continuously, etc. are what lead to better products. These things require culture change way beyond just saying “use open source software”.

I’ve also described all of the above characteristics as values that are at odds with the way government is usually structured when it comes to tech delivery.

It’s important to think about the long-term sustainability of these progressive values. How do you get them out of the 18F-style team and into the regular standing operating procedure of an agency? How to you make the myriad controls and requirements codified into tech policy support this new way of working? These are things I didn’t stick around NYC Planning Labs long enough to tackle, but they remain issues that my former colleagues are faced with every day.

Q: Have you always been a New Yorker? What do you like – or dislike – about the city?

A: I came here in 2011 to study Urban Planning at NYU. Someone once told me that it takes 7 years to finally call yourself a New Yorker, so I guess I’ve passed that milestone. I always say that once I started getting involved in civic tech, I began bumping into the same people at meetups and events all over the city, and found “my scene”. After that, the big, busy, hectic city got a lot smaller and really felt more like home.

I love that there is so much opportunity here. Whatever you’re interested in, the best and brightest people on the planet who do that thing are either already here or will be passing through regularly. There’s always a meetup or conference, there’s always someone who wants to grab a coffee or a drink, and there’s always someone who knows someone who wants to chat about their bold idea or passion project.

Q: I’m an old school jQuery guy. But I know you’re more impressed with the modern frameworks. What’s your preference and why?

A: My lead developer and I had a healthy React vs Ember debate when I first stood up Planning Labs, and he won because he had better arguments for why Ember was a better fit for a small scrappy team. It’s opinionated, but it brings everything you need for building single-page apps so you can prototype quickly and not have to worry about the myriad parts of the app architecture you would if you were assembling things from scratch. I am still a fan of React, if only because I don’t have to have 3 files open to manage the same component, and I actually like JSX (don’t hate, congratulate!). I was able to squeeze a little React into our portfolio via gatsby.js, the static site generator that powers planninglabs.nyc. Everything else is made with Ember, which we’ve built some powerful mapping integrations with and has served us well.

Q: As a former Carto employee, your GeoHipster cred is already well established, as far as I’m concerned. Now’s your chance to embrace the label, or provide evidence to the contrary.

A: I’m proud of the progressive spatial stack we put together at Planning Labs. We were pulling vector tiles out of the carto maps API before they were officially released (you know, “before it was cool”), and figured out how to consume them with MapboxGL. We even got to play with the new PostGIS ST_AsMVT() function to produce vector tile protobufs right from the database. We pioneered print-friendly web map layouts using paper.css, and even got to automate print map creation for New York Land Use Applications, effectively building GIS on the web with automated data and a custom UI. So yeah, I’m a geohipster and proud! I’m bummed to miss JSGeo this year 😦

Q: As a geographer, does it bug you that so many “New York” teams actually play in New Jersey?

A: I care so little about professional sports that I didn’t even know New York teams play in New Jersey. I didn’t care before and I still don’t care.

Q: What are the merits of a saltwater reef aquarium, and do you provide treasure maps to the inhabitants?

A: A reef tank was something I really wanted to do back in 2010, but I was about to move to NYC and it wasn’t a good time to start the hobby. My wife finally gave permission last year and I’ve been obsessive over starting up the tank. We’ve got a nice 34-gallon reef set up in our apartment with a few fish, some corals, a shrimp, and a crab. It’s high-maintenance, and requires a lot of water production, saltwater mixing, water chemistry testing, cleaning, etc. The payout is worth it, my kid loves to help with feeding and water changes, and the critters all have their own little habits and personalities. The tank is a big stress-reliever, and it’s just fun to nurture a little ecosystem and look to the community for advice and support. I have not integrated mapping or open source technology or into my fish tank yet.

Q: I’m sure our readers in between jobs, or considering a change, would appreciate any final words of wisdom.

A: We were successful at Planning Labs because I refused to compromise on the really important things. I always said “how we build is as important as what we build”, and that meant not doing things the way government IT is comfortable doing them. We still had lots of government cruft in our way over the years, but the basics of modern technology-building were not up for debate, and that made all the difference. By the way, sharing is a BIG part of what I consider to be part of the basics, and is probably our most progressive trait. Half the fun of working on something is sharing the achievements and lessons learned (and the finished product) with others in your community. In my experience, talking openly about what you are working on in government is either discouraged or flat out forbidden.

In summary, figure out what your values are, and apply them to every decision, every project, etc. If your personal values don’t align with your organization’s you will need to fight, defend, and evangelize them at every turn (or go find another organization whose values match yours). The former is preferable if you’re in public service.

Maps and Mappers of the 2019 GeoHipster calendar — Team Bright Rain, April

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: I was surprised that we were the only collaboration to submit an entry, we are a team of two strong here at Team Bright Rain:

David Puckett

Bright Rain Solutions’ owner, operator, geospatial developer, data wrangler and self professed Grand Poobah. I’ve been part of the Geo Community for over twenty years and still get fantastically excited about all things geo. I’ve been known to run a workshop or two and have taught a class on web mapping. I consider myself a ‘bridger’ between the proprietary and open source worlds. And some of my best friends are “proprietarians”.

Andrew Lindley

Bright Rain’s Dynamic Technologist with an earnest mission to change the way you put boots and hats on maps. Drew has been with Bright Rain for two years and earned a degree in Geography from the University of British Columbia. He was also the star student in my GIS programming class, from which I promptly drafted him.

Q: Tell us the story behind your map (what inspired you to make it, what did you learn while making it, or any other aspects of the map or its creation you would like people to know).

A: When it hit me, I literally jumped out of my chair and hollered, “Hexes in Texas!,” with a rousing “Yes! Divorce Rates in Texas!” and All My Hexes Live in Texas was born. It could have been the boots… I happened to be wearing cowboy boots that day… It could have been the H3 hexagon project we had going. But it was definitely cosmic inspiration.

The map is honest to goodness tongue-in-cheek grit but it also brought several interests together for us and that’s why we were excited (and committed enough) to create and submit it. It’s funny yet not so silly that we couldn’t actually wrangle some real data and present it in, dare I say, a (geo)hip way. We love the slight clash between the slick, modern feel of the web map and the old timey western feel of the title text, hat and boot.

Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.

A: We are web (map) developers so our toolset in making this map definitely embodies that. The map was created as a web map and later exported and enhanced in Adobe Illustrator to create the final image output. Mapbox GL was used to display and extrude counties as hexagons based on the divorce rate within the county. The hexagons themselves were generated using Uber Engineering’s H3 Hexagonal Hierarchical Spatial Index (Javascript) library (at scale level 5).

DATA

Data was gathered from the state of Texas (population per county and divorces per county) and the US Census Bureau (us states: Tennessee).

Texas 2012 Population Estimates by County

https://www.dshs.texas.gov/chs/popdat/ST2012e.shtm

Texas 2012 Marriage and Divorce by County

http://www.dshs.state.tx.us/chs/vstat/vs12/t39.shtm

Texas County Boundaries (shapefile, SHAPEFILE!)

http://gis-txdot.opendata.arcgis.com/datasets/9b2eb7d232584572ad53bad41c76b04d_0

ANALYSIS

Analysis was conducted in QGIS where the divorce rate per thousand was calculated and the hexagons were assigned a value for extrusion (based on divorce rate calculation). The resulting hexagons with divorce rates assigned were exported as geojson for direct use in the web application.

AND

An interactive, web map version is here:

http://dev.brightrain.com/hexes-in-texas/

Tobin Bradley: “The open source community and ethos feels like home to me”

Tobin Bradley
Tobin Bradley is an indoor enthusiast. His hobbies include staring at screens (computers), staring at screens (books), staring at screens (movies), and staring at screens (video games). He wrangles code at Mecklenburg County Government in North Carolina and occasionally writes about it on his blog.

Tobin was interviewed for GeoHipster by Mike Dolbow.

Q: Good gracious, you’ve been blogging over at Fuzzy Tolerance since 2005! When you started, did you ever think it would last over 14 years? What does that first post make you think of?

A: Something Jeff Atwood of Stack Overflow fame said that stuck with me is the worst code he’d ever seen was the code he wrote six months ago, and that that was always the case. Looking at my first blog post from 14 years ago on Loading .NET User Controls at Run Time, complete with poorly formatted code from one of my 47 blog engine migrations, makes me contemplate the sturdiness of the window across from me and the elevation of this floor.

But it also makes me realize why I’ve never gone back and edited those old blog posts, even the ones that make me cringe. It’s me, or at least the part of me I choose to share. Fuzzy Tolerance started even earlier as (oh it pains me to write this) The Programming Consultant Newsletter, a PDF I’d share with our staff and other local GIS folks every month. I’m an introvert and slightly autistic, the kind of person you’d see at a conference pretending to be part of a wall while eyeing the exits. Writing has always been the way I can help people and express myself. So it doesn’t surprise me that I’ve been doing it for so long, and in the event of a civilization-ending zombie apocalypse, I’d probably still write blog posts with spray cans on the sides of abandoned grain silos.

Plus it’s a good way to archive my aging brain. Recently somebody thanked me for a bit of complicated PostGIS-related SQL I shared that I had no recollection of whatsoever. I was pretty sure I was being confused with a smart person until I found the blog post.

Q: All right, let’s back up a little for our readers here. How did you get into GIS…or geospatial…or whatever we’re calling it these days?

A: Accidentally.

I was always headed for something related to problem solving and technology. My parents bought me a Commodore VIC-20 in my formative years, a 5KB of RAM powerhouse (if you had the Commodore 64, (a) congratulations and (b) I hate you). It marked the point in my life when I became an indoor enthusiast. The things I managed to do with BASIC are probably still illegal in most states.

Naturally I went to college expecting to become a programmer. Two classes later and I was disabused of that notion. I could do the work, but I didn’t enjoy it. This is a failing on my part; I have an awful time learning things if I don’t have an immediate practical application for them. I realized I didn’t like programming per se, I just liked solving complex and interesting problems. If I weren’t an indoor enthusiast with an aversion to dirt I’d be perfectly happy being an auto mechanic.

During that existential crisis I happened to take Geography 101 as an elective with an amazing professor, Dr. Tyrel Moore. I went in thinking I’d memorize the state capitals, which was what I thought geography was at the time. Boy was I wrong. I was fascinated by the breadth and scope of the subject matter, but I’ve often thought if my first geography professor wasn’t an amazing teacher, I could have gone in an entirely different direction. Thanks, Dr. Moore.

I had no idea GIS was a thing when I became a geography major. With my programming background, it was a natural fit, and the rest is a succession of lucky breaks and happy accidents. We still call it GIS in Mecklenburg County, but once Data Science becomes a hackneyed term nobody uses anymore, I’m sure local government will switch to it.

Q: Your second Fuzzy Tolerance post was on Open Source Software. Even though the first FOSS4G conference (under that moniker) was only a year away, that still seems awfully prescient to me, especially considering that you work in public sector IT. Did you have a crystal ball hidden somewhere? And did you feel like a lonely voice back then?

A: A nice thing about local government is the antiquated technology actively encourages one to experiment with other things. Combine that with my natural nerd inclinations and I was playing around with things like Linux and MySQL and PHP very early on. At that point I had a loose understanding of what open source was; my interest in open source software was born out of practical rather than idealistic considerations.

The big turning point for our GIS group was when we launched an important website using new internet mapping software from our proprietary GIS vendor with much public fanfare, only to have it explode in a furious ball of nothing. We were battling “server unavailable” messages around the clock. We threw more hardware at it. It crashed faster. We brought the vendor in, who gave us a very expensive shrug. It was black-box proprietary software, so we couldn’t fix it. We couldn’t even tell what was wrong.

Fortunately that wasn’t one of my apps, but I had some apps coming down the pipe, and there was no way I was building them around that software. Some people looked cool and important with a pager strapped to their waist; I was not one of those people.

So I tried UMN’s MapServer, not overly optimistic about it because I thought web mapping was too niche for open source software. MapServer was better than our proprietary product in every imaginable way. It was faster. It was stable. It scaled better. And from a programming perspective it was much easier to work with. I released a couple of apps using it, and we had zero problems. It was…awesome.

That opened our eyes. We’re still a mixed proprietary and open source shop, but it’s exceedingly rare that we create something that doesn’t use open source software, and many of our projects are built entirely with open source software. We also release a lot of our software under an open source license. While I love the ethos and spirit of open source software, our use of open source is still entirely for practical reasons. For many problems, it’s the best tool for the job.

Personally, I’ve been rocking Linux at home (currently Manjaro KDE) exclusively for 15+ years. The open source community and ethos feels like home to me.

Q: You’ve been working for Mecklenburg County for a long time. Is there anything special about this organization that keeps you interested and invested?

A: Oh, not really. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great place to work, but it has the perks and pitfalls of most local governments. If our GIS group can be said to have accomplishments, I don’t think they’re accomplishments other local governments couldn’t achieve.

I’ve been very lucky in two ways. First, I’ve managed to have great bosses. One bad boss and I would have fallen back on my rock guitar god/professional video gamer career. Second, our GIS group does work with all of our government agencies, making for a wide variety of interesting and ever-changing problems to solve. Even after 20+ years (!), I still look forward to coming to work.

Q: I think I first caught on to your blog around when you started writing about customizing Google Maps, which inspired me to do the same for the organization I was supporting. Back then, they were one of the few choices for a slippy map API, but now there’s probably a dozen, depending on how you count. How do you keep up with technology changes, and how do you decide what to recommend/implement at work?

A: Without the constant technology changes, I’d have left GIS at some point. It’s the constant learning that makes this job so interesting.

At the start of every month I write out the things I want to learn more about. It’s my job to investigate these things, but in all honestly I’d do it even if it wasn’t, and I think it’s something everybody should do. It’s very easy to turn on autopilot and keep doing the same thing the same way over and over, but if you aren’t learning, you aren’t growing, and if you aren’t growing, you’re shrinking. Literally. You’ll shrink.

I try not to steer the ship by recommending or advocating a particular technology direction unless I’m directly asked or I see an iceberg ahead. I tried that early in my career with limited success. I’ve found it’s much more effective to drop guideposts and let people come to them on their own. When people notice my apps are always up, or that an app does a particular thing they’ve been struggling with, they move in that direction naturally. Otherwise it’s whip-cracking and cat-herding, and I have no talent for those things.

Q: You’ve got a lot of code on Github, like your Bootstrap and Leaflet template. Does your organization actively support you open sourcing your apps, or do you just ask for forgiveness later?

A: Ug, that’s an old one. I should probably redirect that repo to Bryan McBride’s Bootleaf, which is much better. Mine was first (ha!), but as with most things, if Bryan McBride and I both did it, you should go with Bryan’s version.

I wouldn’t say my organization actively supports open sourcing apps (I don’t know of anybody else in the organization that has), but it isn’t opposed to the idea. In the early days it was something I did and waited patiently to see if I was going to be flogged, but these days even crusty old mainframe programmers know what GitHub is. Most people I talk to don’t share their code because they think it’s terrible, which is true. What they don’t understand is everybody’s code is terrible. No matter how terrible your code is, there are people it can help, and there are people that will help you make your code better.

My county has a park locator app. So do all 100 other counties in North Carolina. So does every county in the United States, and probably every local government around the world. The wasted effort and money in government because we aren’t sharing code with each other should be an outrage. I’m not big into leadership by fiat, but making all publicly funded code open source is a law I would wholeheartedly support.

You’ve also open sourced your current GeoPortal, which when I use it, strikes me as the “anti-portal”. This app is so simple, I can use it and browse it even though I live over 1,000 miles away. I have to believe there will be other local governments using this somewhere. Are you aware of any?

A: GeoPortal is a fun project. It’s one we initiated within our group, which is different — most of our projects are initiated by our customers, aka other county agencies. That gives us leeway in terms of design and functionality that we often don’t have on our projects (read: when you see one of our apps with 37 buttons, know that a battle was lost). It’s also very fun modern tech: vector tiles, reactive UI components, progressive web app, etc. It’s good to have one project your group completely owns that can be used to try new things and blaze trails for future apps.

I know places that are using our projects like GeoPortal and the Quality of Life project and our Dirt Simple PostGIS HTTP API, and if they want to give us a hat tip for that, that’s very nice. I don’t like to call them out myself though. Taking something we wrote like GeoPortal and customizing it for their own jurisdiction is a herculean effort (I’ve seen my code), and I don’t want a smidgen of credit redirected from somebody that worked really hard on their app to us. But I’ll say this to others that may be functionally autistic/dead inside like myself: knowing that something you shared is helping other people will touch and affect you in ways you won’t expect. When people thank me for a project I’ve shared, I hide in my office for an hour.

Speaking of hat tips, GeoPortal needs to give a giant one to Brian Timoney. His blog posts on how people actually interact with web sites was a real eye opener, and it got me started on a path of learning more about UI and UX, to the point where the map on GeoPortal is now an optional click (gasp!). For my money, good design is still the most glaring problem in government websites today, and unfortunately it’s an area governments rarely invest in.

Q: Judging by your Twitter bio picture, you’re both a musician and a dad, like me. I personally find that lessons I learn in those two roles can be applied in GIS, in IT, and in public sector work. Have you found the same thing, and if so, are some experiences more influential than others?

A: To call me a musician is stretching the term a bit. 23andme has officially confirmed the dad part though.

My first lesson as a father was that I owe my parents an apology. Beyond that, it’s hard to pick out individual things, as I am a fundamentally different person since my son was born. I have a lot more patience. I understand that people have their own motivations and histories, and if I want to connect with and motivate people I need to understand those things and not judge them. A number of children’s cartoons no longer piss me off. It’s a really strange experience going from not understanding people at all to having a wife and son that I’d step in front of a bus for without a second thought, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Being a musician, aside from the expense of new gear and the noise complaints, is a total quality of life improvement. It builds focus, tenacity, patience, confidence, and peace of mind, all of which translate to your life in positive ways. I did not pick up the guitar at 16 for any of those reasons. I picked it up because I thought it would help me woo women in ways that my personality and stick-like figure did not. Turns out an autistic stick-figure kid carrying a guitar around everywhere is mostly just weird.

Q: Tube amps or solid state? Seriously.

A: If your gear inspires you to play and create music, it’s the right gear. If it doesn’t inspire you to play and create music, it’s the wrong gear. If a Squier Strat plugged in to a Peavey Bandit is what inspires you, make your music and tell all of the gear snobs to stuff it.

But the correct answer is tube amps.

Q: OK, the evidence is building. But I’m starting to feel like I don’t have to ask EVERY interviewee if they’re a geohipster. Would you be OK if I skipped it this time?

A: I have never owned a non-functional scarf, which I think rules out the hipster part. I have also never intentionally achieved “cool”, though after many years of work I have “non-threatening” down pat. It mostly involves smiling a lot without showing teeth. I do own a tie that plays Christmas carols. Do with that what you will.

Q: Any words of wisdom or parting shots for our readers?

A: For my fellow local government tribe, I try to encourage people to be present and thoughtful about everything they do. The most common answer to why a local government does something the way it does is because that’s the way it did it yesterday. This is always a bad answer.

But for everybody, my biggest wish is that people would realize how amazing they are, how important they are to other people in ways they don’t understand, how smart they are and the ways they can and do contribute. Imposter syndrome isn’t a new thing, but it seems to hit the tech field pretty hard. The next time your inner voice is giving you an itemized list of your failures, ask yourself if that inner voice was an actual person, how long would you listen to it before you punched it in the mouth. If the answer is not very long, feel free to ignore that voice and go do awesome things with whatever time you have on this planet. And share some code along the way.

Toward Helping a Friend

A note from GeoHipster CEO Mike Dolbow

As I write this article, I am packed and prepared for three days “off the grid”, and honestly I could use a break from the daily news. I recognize that I have a tremendous privilege in being able to afford such a break, and that others are not so lucky. Nothing brought this fact to life as much as the recent news that Eni Entchev was deported…despite living in the U.S. for 25 of his 27 years.

Atanas with his son, Eni.

Eni is the son of Atanas Entchev, and sometimes we refer to Atanas as “the OG”…as in, “Original Geohipster”. While we may be using “OG” in jest, let’s face it – without Atanas, “Geohipster” might only be a Twitter account. It probably wouldn’t be a website with over 100 interviews published since it started almost 4 years ago. And it most definitely wouldn’t be the small independent business partnership it is today.

I certainly know I wouldn’t have been able to meet and/or interview so many amazing people these last few years without Atanas’ ideas, support, and generosity. And so when I learned that Eni’s family had set up a funding drive to pay for legal fees and living expenses, I knew I had to act. Like many of you – our amazing colleagues in the geospatial community – I donated from my personal funds. But also, with support from the GeoHipster Advisory Board, I’ve pledged 25% of the revenue from our 2018 GeoHipster Calendar sales.

So, this holiday season, as many of us take some time to celebrate our good fortune with loved ones, I hope you’ll consider either donating directly or buying a calendar to help reunite the Entchev family. Sure, hanging a unique calendar with 13 different pages of “map art” on your wall might make you the talk of the office. But knowing that in some small way you’ve also helped out a friend in need? To me, that’s what the geospatial community is all about.

Making GeoHipster an independent business

When a door opens

Making GeoHipster an independent business

By Mike Dolbow, GeoHipster CEO

Mike Dolbow
Mike Dolbow

Someone somewhere, with a similar addiction to being busier than humanly possible, said that when a door opens, you should walk through it. In other words, when opportunity knocks, if you’re at all interested, you should pounce. I guess that’s what I was thinking about this time last year when Atanas Entchev reached out to the GeoHipster advisory board to see if anyone was interested in undertaking an effort to make GeoHipster a business independent from his previous ventures. I immediately said yes, and convened a hangout with several other board members to go over the options.

Fortunately for me, two other board members, Jonah Adkins and Amy Smith, also expressed interest in taking on new duties, and Atanas agreed to stay on once he knew he wouldn’t have to run the entire operation himself. It took a while for us to figure out the optimal formal business structure: a sole proprietorship LLC registered in Minnesota, which allows me to take over most operational and financial duties while the others focus on communications, editorial duties, and creative efforts. And yes, I fully realize and enjoy the irony that drips from the phrase, “CEO of GeoHipster, LLC”…and the fact that our fiscal year will start on Groundhog Day.

On the outside, however, very little will change about GeoHipster as a website and a collaborative effort. Our mission remains the same, we still rely on volunteer authors to help us generate content, and our editorial policy is unchanged. By undertaking this transition behind the scenes, we hope the result is a more sustainable GeoHipster, so we can continue interviewing interesting geohipsters from around the world, and our readers can learn from their experiences.

A few of my family members and colleagues have asked me why I decided to do this. Perhaps I was inspired by my good friend and fellow dad Justin Bell, who holds down a day job, plays in two bands, owns a side business, and teaches classes at night. I figure if he can make time for all those things plus family time, I can make time for something that I enjoy. And ever since that first interview I conducted with David Bitner, I’ve very much enjoyed my involvement with GeoHipster. It’s a major change of pace from my day job, a place where I can promote my tutorial on REST endpoints, and probably the only way I’ll ever be able to use a basin wrench as a metaphor.

Or maybe it’s all just a ploy to score another GeoHipster t-shirt. Might as well look stylish when walking through that door that just opened.