Ron Lake – The Man In the Arena

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Theodore Roosevelt

I never met Ron Lake, but the majority of my career has taken place in the geospatial technology landscape he helped create. He is best known as the author and chief advocate of Geography Markup Language (GML), the XML encoding of geographic objects that underpins most of the Open Geospatial Consortium’s web standards and is a standard itself. This fact made him a pioneer, a visionary, and a source of controversy.

It is easy, for those of us who have worked with geospatial tools for a long time, to sit at a keyboard in 2019 and forget how much harder it used to be. By that, I mean working with geospatial data. It’s still probably more difficult than it should be, but it used to be so much harder.

Everything was mostly siloed between proprietary software. ESRI, Intergraph, MapInfo, Autodesk, and others who fallen off the back of my memory each had their own primary data format. Most also had some form of interchange format, such as the .e00 or DXF, that could be used to ship data around, but each system was essentially the Hotel California. There were also a host of government-produced data formats, but tools to actually be productive with those were few.

Some of the earliest attempts I encountered to address this problem were the free tools produced by Sol Katz. They helped me through a number of early projects as a very junior geospatial technologist. I forget how many platforms on which I built them. There’s a reason OSGEO named its annual award for him.

A few years later, after the founding of OGC and the spin up of its standards program, I heard about GML. GML and the subsequent WxS specifications were reflections of their time. XML was the new hotness, but SOAP hadn’t quite gelled yet. WxS relied heavily on shipping GML back and forth, but was a strange hybrid of XML-RPC and HTTP conventions, such as query parameters. They did things that seem strange in today’s highly REST-literate world.

GML was initially exciting because of its promise to ease data transfer. But a quick look revealed that it was…hard. This was not surprising. Spatial may not be special, but geography is another thing entirely. If the goal was to enable interoperable spatial processing, as was the discussion in those days, then the transport format needed to encompass as much of the concept of geography as possible.

Ron Lake didn’t merely author GML, he also evangelized it. This took its most prominent early form in the GML Dev Days/GeoWeb conferences of the early 2000s. If there is any conference that I wish I had been able to attend, it is those. It was ahead of its time as a vendor-neutral conference focused on geography on the web, but I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the effects of the knowledge transfer among the attendees, many of whom are now in leadership positions, continues to reverberate through the geospatial industry today.

I will offer an anecdote. It is often said that a company is a reflection of its leadership. In the 2008-2009 timeframe, my company had a project implementing an early form of the “sensor web” for a federal user. The project had a requirement to use WFS-T as its messaging mechanism and we used Galdos SystemsCartalinea product to meet the requirement. It was easily deployable in a lightweight fashion and had WFS-T baked in. As we ramped up throughput, Cartalinea fell over. Our customer directed us to contact Galdos. What followed was one of the most responsive episodes I had encountered with a software vendor. We shared our instrumentation data and Galdos produced build after build until the product met spec. There was never a hint of ego or defensiveness; Galdos simply worked to make the product right. I have never forgotten that.

It’s probably completely coincidental, but somewhat fitting, that GeoWeb wound down as GeoJSON was being introduced. Application development for the web was maturing. REST now had a name, Javascript was everywhere and was beginning to advance rapidly, and JSON was its baked-in transport format, so GeoJSON made sense for web mapping.

I recall Ron Lake continuing to advocate for GML and its various potential applications in blog posts, pre-social-media blog comment threads, and even on social media as it grew. As the news of Ron Lake’s passing spread, this tweet by Howard Butler put a nice bow on what had been some very passionate debate:

GeoJSON has won the day as the way to deliver maps on the web to humans using a browser. It is also being wedged into other use cases, but its shortcomings quickly become apparent. As Howard indicates, OGC continues to evolve its web specifications. WFS 3.0 is now in the wild. As late as 2016, I was supporting an OGC test bed looking at a SOAP wrapper for WMS. SOAP was old by then, but it is still in heavy use in some spaces and the need for reliable, open system-to-system interchange still exists.

In the end, it is not nearly as important what ideas are “right.” The important thing is that people like Ron Lake are willing to step into the arena and have the discussion. The majority of us are merely observers. We sit in seats just outside the ring and benefit from the loose change that flies from the pockets of those who are actually battling it out.

Ron Lake had a vision and worked to make it so. The momentum he helped create has brought geospatial technology to its current state, whether as a direct result of his efforts or as a reaction to them. Most of us would be lucky to have a fraction of his positive impact.

Rest in peace, Mr. Lake.