geoMusings

geospatial technologies and practices

Personal Thoughts on the AppGeo Announcement

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I read with great interest today’s announcement that AppGeo is no longer an Esri Business Partner. I find the announcement significant for a number of reasons, which I will explore shortly. I have always respected AppGeo’s work. As a small business that does geospatial consulting, they have foregone the “grow at all costs” approach that is seen all too often in the consulting world. They generally stuck to what they do well and branched out conservatively in ways that tie logically back to their core business.

I first met the President of AppGeo, Rich Grady, at an early HIFLD meeting many years ago. (It may have even been before the group was called “HIFLD.”) The work they were doing then was very relevant to critical infrastructure protection efforts and, had some of their concepts for sharing data between state, local, and Federal agencies been adopted, we’d probably be better off today. I have always considered Rich one of the good guys in the geospatial industry and the company he has built reflects his integrity.

Over the years, our companies haven’t quite found the right vehicle to work together and we sometimes even compete against each other. That’s the nature of the consulting business. You will often compete against friends and still be able to have dinner together later.

So I was happy for Rich and AppGeo when I read their announcement. As I said above, I found it significant in a few ways…

Maryland Council on Open Data

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Back in May, I had the honor of being appointed to the newly established Maryland Council on Open Data. The Council had its inaugural meeting in Baltimore yesterday and was heavily attended, including attendance by Governor Martin O’Malley. I’ll discuss his remarks to the group later.

As the first meeting of a new group, it went off largely as I expected. The agenda consisted primarily of an overview of the establishing legislation, a review of ethics requirements, demos of the existing open data portals, discussion of the history of open data in Maryland, and remarks from the Governor.

I won’t go into details about the make-up of the Council, but they can be found here http://msa.maryland.gov/msa/mdmanual/25ind/html/53opendata.html. Nor will I do a deep dive into the legislation, but it can be found here: http://mgaleg.maryland.gov/2014RS/chapters_noln/Ch_69_sb0644T.pdf (PDF). I will instead focus on my take-aways from the meeting itself.

JS.GEO 2014 Locked in Solid

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A while back, I posted about about the 2014 edition of JS.GEO. After that post, things got a little fluid, but I’m happy to finally be able to provide an update.

According to JS.GEO Organizer Chris Helm, the event is “locked in solid.”

The event has a web site, a location, and a date. Tickets and sponsorships are available. Agenda is to be announced and they are actively seeking speakers.

The first event was one of those serendipitous things that turned out to be pretty awesome. It was personally very influential on me and changed the focus of a lot of what I was doing with geospatial and with programming. It’s probably the best single geospatial event I’ve attended in the last five years. The fact that FOSS4G will have already drawn a like-minded crowd to Portland should bode well for JS.GEO. My own attendance is still in question due to a number of factors but I highly recommend adding this to your schedule if you can.

ArcWhat? I Just Want My Map.

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TL;DR:

What follows is probably my last post related to the Esri User Conference and is highly Esri-centric. Open-source readers may want to jump off here, or exercise a willing suspension of disbelief.


A couple of posts ago, I did something that I generally try to avoid. I took Esri to task for its confusing product names without really offering any thoughts on how to make things better. I don’t really like it when people do that to me so I’ll try to correct that here. It bears noting that I was not the only person feeling this way at the UC. I was happy to see Adena’s post over at Directions touch on this and it also came up in a number of conversations I had while I was in San Diego.

Here are some things that I think may help. They represent most of the stumbling blocks I typically encounter when doing consulting/integration with Esri-centric users, especially new ones.


Spaghetti”. Licensed under Wikimedia Commons.

Slow Food

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In 1985, I was a junior in high school and I got my first job at a local chain steakhouse. I ended up staying there for a few years and did everything, including management. This particular location happened to be the busiest store in the chain, which had a couple hundred locations at the time. Basically, we just unlocked the doors and people came in. We often had a line and managers from all over the country came to see how we did business.

Eventually, I transferred to another store that happened to be much slower. I expected this to be a something of a cakewalk compared to the store I had just left. Sometime during my first day, the long-time manager made a point to remind me to close the back dining room after lunch and turn the lights out. The dark room looked uninviting to me so I asked if we could leave the lights on. He replied that doing so would raise the electric bill and affect the store’s profits. Over the next few weeks, I learned so many new techniques for managing food inventory, staffing levels, and equipment that I realized my initial impression was wrong. So I told the manager this. He was not surprised.

He said to me: “It takes more skill to run a slow store than a busy one.”

Lock-In

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I’ve been a consultant/programmer/integrator/other for over twenty years now. That’s not quite long enough to say I’ve seen it all but long enough to notice a few patterns. Admittedly, I’ve spent the vast majority of that time working in the defense world so the patterns may be heavily skewed to that but I think not.

I’ve run across a number of well-entrenched government-developed systems, such as command-and-control systems, with user interfaces and experiences that many professional designers would consider abhorrent. Yet, I have watched smart, motivated men and women in uniform stand in front of working groups and committees dedicated to “improving” systems and workflows and advocate passionately for these seemingly clunky systems.

Why? Because they know how to use these systems inside and out to meet their missions. User experience is ultimately about comfort and confidence. A user that is comfortable with a system will have a great experience with it regardless of its appearance. DOD tackles this reality through training. For all its faults, there is still no organization better at developing procedures and thoroughly training its people in them. It results in a passionate loyalty for the tools that help them do their jobs and places a very high hurdle in front of any tools that seek to replace current ones.

The Esri UC So Far #EsriUC

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So I’m halfway through the largest geospatial event of the year, attending it for the first time in four years, and I haven’t blogged yet. As always, it’s a busy week. Because this event draws people from all over the country (and world), my dance card fills up pretty quickly. And, by the way, there’s a conference going on.

This is the first I’ve ever attended the Esri User Conference as just an attendee. If it were a video game, I’d be playing it on the easy level. I sat through the entire plenary for the first time in years. It was nice table setting for the rest of the week. As the father of a dancer, I have developed an eye for choreography and there is plenty of it up on the plenary stage. If I were to level one piece of constructive criticism toward the UC, it’s that I’d let speakers be themselves a little bit more. That said, the content was delivered smoothly, which is really the larger point.

Gearing Up for the Esri UC

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With a house move behind us and a lot of unpacking and other tasks ahead, I am nonetheless getting ready to head out to the Esri International User Conference next week. This will be my first time attending since 2010 and is the first UC since then that has aligned with my schedule in a way that I can make it. Of course, the price is right this year as well ($0.00).

The “big” UC has steadily dropped in significance for me over years as it has become much easier to get Esri-related information through various other channels; primarily through social media and local/regional events such as the FedUC and local dev meetups. The last few trips to San Diego left me feeling that the content presented there is getting increasingly superficial compared to the other events. This year, however, I have been in the midst of building a house and moving so I have not had the time to attend the smaller events. As a result the UC makes sense. I am hoping the recent trend reverses itself.

I still do some Esri-based consulting so it’s important to stay current however I can. My government customers are starting to at least ask about ArcGIS Online, so I want to finally get my mind around it as best I can. The messaging around that platform has been so muddled that it’s still difficult for me to articulate what productivity advantages, if any, it actually offers. My own experimentation with it has left me wanting. The fact that it has been certified as FISMA compliant will certainly raise its profile with some of my Federal customers, though that’s typically only the first step in a very long process. I’m also curious about ArcGIS Pro.

Unlike previous years, I won’t be manning a booth (we sold ours a few years ago) or directly representing a customer so I’ll actually have the luxury to attend sessions and meet up with people. There are some people who, unfortunately, I really only see face-to-face at such large magnet events so I’m looking forward to catching up with them, as well as meeting new people. I will, however, be popping into the paper session of one of my co-workers. (It would be awesome if the online agenda provided permalinks to individual sessions.)

So, if you’re going to be in at the UC next week and would like to meet up, feel free to ping me on Twitter (@billdollins), via e-mail (bill [at] geomusings [dot] com), or drop a comment below.

CFPB Fellowship Seeking 2015 Candidates

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It’s no secret that I am contractor who spends a lot of my time attempting to develop software for defense users. I’ve been doing this for a long time, though I have added other customers to my portfolio over the years. The process of development in this arena gets more frustrating by the day. Recently, for example, a group policy update was pushed that removed any browser other than Internet Explorer from our development machines and rolled Internet Explorer back to version 9. These are just the latest such setbacks to productivity and they represent every stereotype we’ve ever heard about Federal Government computing.

Thankfully, there are countervailing examples which point to how things could be. One such example is the Technology and Innovation Fellowship at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). This two-year fellowship program provides an opportunity to show how Federal software can be developed, with an open-source-first approach, and also how software development can occur, via remote teams and distributed collaboration. These are not new concepts in the overall marketplace but are still fairly exotic in the Beltway region. Ultimately, the fellowship holds out the possibility of building technology that actually helps government work better and shows how modern tools and working arrangements be applied in the Federal Government.

I was clued into this fellowship program via a tweet by Mike Byrne, who has already helped show the way via the National Broadband Map at the FCC, and who is now at the CFPB. There are very few people I’ve met in the Federal Government who have a better vision for modernizing IT development and acquisition, coupled with the ability to get things done. If you’re of a technical bent and looking to work inside the Federal Government, this fellowship program may be something you want to check out.

Where Ya Been?

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It’s been rather quiet on the blog for a while. Sometimes the posts have to take a back seat to work and other things. This time of year tends to be busy anyway due to the end of the school year and its related activities, but this year has also included one move, construction of a house, and preparations for a second (final) move. In December we sold our house, which I had lived in for nearly 40 years, and moved into temporary quarters while the next house was being built. The sale of the old place was a pretty smooth experience as all of us, especially me, were ready for a change.

As a result, the experimentation and small projects which have driven the content of this blog since it started simply had to stop for a while. That’s not to say that there has been no activity. I have posted over the last few months related to some mapping work and the “software exhaust” that has resulted from it. It’s not really been possible, however, to sit down a create a well-structured discussion of those activies in the way that I would prefer, so I simply haven’t.