Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Exciting job news: I am rejoining Ubisense

I am excited to announce that I have decided to rejoin my friends at Ubisense, where I worked from 2002 until I went to be CTO at Intergraph in 2005. I was a co-founder of Ten Sails, the company that provided early stage funding to and later merged with Ubisense.

There are two main parts to the business: Precise Real Time Location Systems (RTLS), and geospatial consulting. I’ll be involved with both sides of the business.

The RTLS technology tracks objects to an accuracy of a foot or so, using local sensors. Many, but not all, the applications are indoors, where it is especially hard to track location accurately. The difficulty is that whatever type of sensing technology you use, signals tend to reflect off walls, floors and ceilings, and direct signals are frequently blocked by furniture, people or other obstacles. This means it is very easy to get false readings that can result in serious errors in location calculation. Ubisense uses a technology called ultrawideband (UWB), enabling many interesting applications that can’t be implemented with less accurate sensing technologies.

There are potential applications in many different industries: right now we have good traction in several, including manufacturing, transit, military training, plant safety, and logistics. And many people’s favorite “unexpected” application seems to be cow tracking! The technology has really matured since I was last at Ubisense. I’ll talk in much more detail about the technology and applications in future posts.

On the geospatial consulting side of the business, Ubisense is primarily focused on implementation services to GE Smallworld customers (Smallworld continues to be the leading geospatial software platform in utilities, according to Daratech). As readers of my blog know, I am enthused about the potential of applying the new generation of geospatial technologies to more traditional GIS application areas. So I’m excited about the opportunity to work with Smallworld customers on a geospatial strategy that enhances the strengths of their existing system for complex applications by adding in newer, simpler geospatial technologies to help broaden the use of their geospatial data.

Since this is a full time role, I won’t be continuing in my role as Chief Technology Advisor at Enspiria, where I was previously spending a week a month or so. I very much enjoyed my time working at Enspiria and wish them all the best. But I will continue with my two advisory board positions, at FortiusOne and PublicEarth.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The GIS Certification emperor has no clothes

Today there has been a flurry of discussion about the GISP certification on twitter. I thought I would repost an article that I originally had published in Geospatial Solutions magazine in November 2003 (!!), which I can no longer find online (except in obscure archives). I think that everything there is still relevant (the "grandfathering" provision I refer to is no longer available, but it is still relevant in that many people received their GISP this way). I know and like various people involved with the program, and believe that they have good intentions, but continue to feel that it is misguided for the reasons I outline below. I have no issue with the code of ethics part of the program. And I also have no issue with a certification program that actually attempts to measure competency or skills in some specific way (for example ESRI has announced a more specific program that will evaluate skills with their products, which makes more sense to me). But I still don't see how GISP in any way evaluates a person's competency. Anyway, here's the old article, unchanged from 2003 ... (also, the FAQs on the GISCI site that I reference haven't changed since then!)

The Certification Emperor Has No Clothes
Peter Batty, Nov 1, 2003
Geospatial Solutions Magazine

The GIS certification process recently rolled out by URISA and others aims to "recommend a formal system to evaluate the competency of professionals whose primary job responsibility involves the design and use of geographic information systems" (see But a major argument against GIS certification is stated in the frequently asked questions (FAQ) at the certification site.

In answer to the question "Why not test an individual's knowledge of GIS skills to certify competence as other professions do?" the FAQ responds: "It is felt that general agreement on the skills needed for the GIS profession has not yet been achieved, given that there are so many different professions that use GIS technology . . . it is very difficult to design a single examination that can fairly evaluate the basic skills needed". After "not yet been" I would add "and will never be". The range of spatial applications and technologies, and skills needed, continues to diversify rapidly and promises to do so well into the future.

The problem of creating an exam is swept under the carpet by requiring formal GIS education in order to be certified. The obvious issue with this is that the great majority of GIS professionals do not have any formal GIS education. To overcome this objection, there is a grandfathering provision, which allows anyone with eight years of technical experience in the industry to become certified. How this evaluates anyone's competency is a mystery.

Furthermore, a five-year recertification process requires one to do a certain amount of GIS-related education. The problem with this is that the most appropriate development path for many GIS professionals may not be to take academic GIS study. It may instead be to learn more about XML, or environmental policies, or relational database tuning, or utility network design. To insist that someone has to do education within a very narrowly defined set of GIS courses or conferences would do the industry a major disservice. This is not to say that a continuing GIS education is bad. It may be a great option for some people. But it is just one of many valid options to help people do their GIS-related jobs better.

In 2008, the grandfathering option goes away, which means that a prerequisite to being certified is to have obtained a degree in GIS. If anyone took certification seriously, this would massively reduce the talent available to the spatial industry as the 99.9 percent of people who have degrees in other subjects would be excluded. Obviously I don't think that will happen, but again it begs the question of why bother with the certification process?

Does certification pass the test?
Many of the reasons advanced for certification do not stand up to scrutiny. One is helping employers with recruitment. But a glance at someone's resume will give much greater insight into whether someone is appropriately qualified for a position than certification does. Another is that "it is felt that the nation's taxpayers deserve assurance that competent and ethical GIS professionals are being hired with their public tax dollars". I smile at the thought of millions of taxpayers lying awake at night worrying about the competence of their government's GIS professionals. Personally, I'd prefer that the GIS professionals my tax dollars are funding be doing their jobs rather than spending time applying for a certificate that bears no relation to their competence. It is even claimed that GIS certification will improve the lives of citizens, which seems like a particularly desperate attempt at justification.

As spatial technology expands into the mainstream, a hugely diverse range of skills is required to implement systems and move the industry forward. The space is so broad that it makes no sense to try to have a certification process. To implement a consistent process, the certification criteria need to be either so broad that they're meaningless (as with grandfathering) or so narrow that they apply to a tiny fraction of relevant people, and would greatly hamper the industry if anyone took certification seriously.

We should not be trying to hide spatial technology in the back room and restrict who can use it. Instead, we should be promoting usage by everyone.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Great co-founder opportunity in web geo startup

A friend of mine has put together a really interesting business plan for a web-based geo startup and he's looking for a technical co-founder. I've been seriously contemplating doing it myself but have some other plans that I think will prevent me from doing so (more on that soon!). He has excellent experience as a CEO and in business development and fund-raising in this space. And he has some great investors lined up, so will be able to pay a reasonable salary from the beginning. He's looking for someone with experience building large scalable database apps, web and geo experience highly desirable. Location would be Denver/Boulder, or possibly the bay area as a second choice. Drop me an email if you're interested in finding out more.

Thoughts on the upcoming Apple Tablet

Much of the tech world has been obsessing over the rumored upcoming Apple tablet, which is expected to be unveiled to the world on January 27. So I hesitate to add more to that, but there are so many rumors out there that it's hard to wade through them, so I thought I would throw in a high level perspective on what we are likely to see, and include links to some of the more interesting articles I've come across.

I think the announcement is particularly interesting as Steve Jobs is said to have stopped Apple tablet projects before - according to the New York Times:
Another former Apple executive who was there at the time said the tablets kept getting shelved at Apple because Mr. Jobs, whose incisive critiques are often memorable, asked, in essence, what they were good for besides surfing the Web in the bathroom.
So if they are announcing this (and you buy this quote, which is plausible), there has to be something substantial about the tablet beyond just being a MacBook without a keyboard or a larger iPhone.

So I think (not based on any inside info, just on filtering all the rumors and thinking about what makes sense from an Apple perspective) that there will be two big ground-breaking things about the Apple tablet.

First, it is widely predicted that the tablet will be Apple's attempt to redefine the world of printed media (like the iPod redefined the music recording industry and the iPhone redefined the mobile phone).
This certainly makes sense. The Kindle and other eReader devices have made an interesting start in that space, but as I said in my initial review of the Kindle, it is good for sequential reading of text, but not good for more random browsing, like reading newspapers and magazines. And indeed the Kindle is only good for text, not for other kinds of media. With the Apple tablet I would assume that of course you will be able to browse arbitrary web sites, but imagine that it is also highly likely that there may be a simplified full screen user interface, which would provide a great platform for magazines, newspapers, book publishers etc to create compelling multi-media content including text, photos, video, audio, etc. Available content would presumably include a mix of free and paid, like the current app store / iTunes models (and this would give the struggling traditional news media industry another potential business model for the future). One interesting potential screen technology for such a device comes from Pixel Qi, who have been linked with the Apple tablet in some posts. Obviously it would also be a good device for watching movies, TV shows, youtube and other video content.

However, I think that doing that alone is probably not enough to hit the size of market that Apple would want. The tablet clearly won't replace an iPhone, as it won't fit in your pocket. So the question would be how many people, if they already have a smart phone and a laptop, would buy another device in between those two (in size and cost), with a lot of overlap in functionality. This is partly a cost question, and partly one of convenience - would traveling techies, even devout Apple fan boys like me, want to carry three devices everywhere: iPhone, Tablet and MacBook? I think not. So I believe that the second big thing is that the device has to be a good replacement for a laptop too, and again there are plenty of rumors that support that.

For this to be the case, obviously there needs to be a mechanism for text entry that is a good alternative to typing on a physical keyboard. A simple on screen touch keyboard probably isn't going to be good enough to persuade people to give up laptops in large volumes. So I think Apple must have more up its sleeve here. One of the more intriguing rumor threads that has appeared in various places is that the new device will have a "steep learning curve", and that the way that you interact with it is "unexpected". Obviously having a steep learning curve is not something that you would expect in general from an Apple device, especially one aimed at the mass market, unless there is a compelling reason for this. So I think that this has to be around a new mechanism for text entry, and more broadly interaction with the device. Apple acquired a company called Fingerworks in 2005, which had a lot of interesting technology in the areas of multi-touch interaction, gestures, and text entry, and Apple also owns a lot of patents in this area - these are discussed in various places including AppleInsider (who also discuss a tactile touch keyboard) and gizmodo. The old Fingerworks web site was recently taken down, which has increased speculation that their technology is involved. One of the more intriguing aspects of this is the use of "chords", which means that you can trigger different actions by pressing different combinations of fingers (for example, your thumb and third finger versus your thumb and fourth finger) - this video at CrunchGear gives some examples. Another is an approach to user interaction where the keyboard and pointing device are integrated, you don't have to move your hands from one place to another as you do with a touchpad or mouse.

So in summary, the two key things that I am looking forward to seeing are a big focus on updating printed media (magazines, newspapers, books), and something intriguing and new in terms of user interaction, covering text entry and new ways of using multi-touch surfaces. The latter could make the tablet another major step forward for computing in general (as the iPhone was in many ways ... I am amazed at how much of my "computing" I do on my iPhone these days).

One final comment is that to meet its aims as a news reading device, you will need the ability to be connected to the Internet all the time, but most people will not want to pay for two separate wireless data plans for their iPhone and Tablet, so it will be interesting to see how they will address that. Obviously I would assume they would support WiFi, but I would also assume that some or all models would also have 3G wireless built in. Will there be an option for simple tethering with an iPhone I wonder (if Fake Steve Jobs' rant - bad language warning! - has been enough to make AT&T finally get their act together!)? Or will there at least be some sort of package deal on a data plan if you have both an iPhone and an Apple Tablet?

I'm looking forward to the announcement on January 27 :) !!