Foss4g 2014: The good, the bad and the beers

After the closing-party last night I am in a post-foss4g-mood. That is, I’m hung over and over-stimulated at the same time. So this should be a perfect time to reflect on the conference. TLDR: It was great, going to foss4g feels like coming home!

So, we (that is, Alexander and me) arrived in Portland by plane from Norway last saturday, and found our “condo” rented through AirBnB. Note to self: rent a place, skip the hotels, much better! The first days we spent drinking beers, shopping and enjoying the city. Tuesday was JsGeo-day: that is a whole day filled with two things I really enjoy: Geographic data and Javascript. Several good talks, interesting remarks and a real sense of belonging.

What is actually quite cool about an event such as JsGeo is that in my day-to-day life I share the interest with about 5-6 people, but all of a sudden I am in a room with about 100 people that are really into the same stuff. Also, seeing and hearing authors of frameworks I use daily is quite something. So: JsGeo was absolutely worth it, including the after-conference JsGeoBeers at Rogue Halls. Another interesting observation is that projections are regarded as so hard, guess that shows that more and more of the developers working with geo has no formal background in the field, and that the widespread use of web mercator have made people “lazy”?

Wednesday was the start of the actual Foss4g-conference, and a bit tired we found our way to the gigantic Oregon Convention Centre, and missed the introductory talks. What we did not miss was the opening keynote by Mike Bostock, known for the d3-libary. While I personally never have managed to wrap my head around d3 I really think Bostock hit a note in the audience. I’m not sure if it was the really great projections-work or his thoughts on tool-making or the combination that caught on, but his keynote was referenced frequently by other speakers throughout the conference.

One of my main takeaways from the overall conference vibe is that foss4g is turning more into a geo-tech conference than a strictly open source geo conference, but that might be because all the interesting stuff happens in opensource? Another observation is that while we still have the stable, cross-company developed products such as PostGIS, OpenLayers, Mapserver and GeoServer there are some new players on the field that are more in the services for pay, code for free-area. Wether this is a good thing or not can of course be debated, but as long as this results in great, open source code for all to use one can’t really complain.

For technology I really think JavaScript got lots of attention this year, as well as vector tiles and web stuff in general. Also nice to see so many talks on cartography and the related topic of design. These observations may also be explained by the fact that they are things that interest me, so I naturally gravitated towards these talks. While on the topic of talks, I’ve given up counting how many times I had to think long and hard about what track to choose, with 8 tracks in paralell and so many promising talks things do get hard. I really look forward to the videos beeing uploaded, there are lots of things to catch up on.

I’m not really going to go through all the talks I saw, but I have to mention some that really impressed me. I’ve started to realize that delivering a great talk is really hard, 25 minutes is not a lot of time, so limiting scope is important. Knowing your audience is also importand, although this is really hard. Nevertheless, the majority of the talks I attended where good, focused and thought me something. While it may seem unfair to mention only some of the talks I really think some deserves a special mention:

Fiona and Rasterio: Data Access for Python Programmers and Future Python Programmers by Sean Gillies was the first talk I saw after the opening keynote and this really struck a chord with me. Seans intent of doing GIS the pythonic way really reflects how I think code should be written.

TileMill and the Tower of Prince Henry, Reversed by Eric Theise was a talk I chose because it sounded a bit strange, and by God it was. The strangest talk I’ve seen, but in a good way. I can’t really describe this talk, neither the concept, but suffice to say he started out referencingart films from the seventies and ended up proposing a rather cool idea of “hearding” the user through a web map, limiting choice and the need for large tile sets. Really hope that this idea gets somewhere, I’m tempted to try to implement some of his ideas in OpenLayers 3!

“Sliding” datasets together for more automated map tracing by Paul Mach from Strava was excellent in that it had a limited focus on a really great idea implemented in a really impressive way. OSMers should really look at this guys work, there is seroius potential for saving time here. The main idea is fitting (or sliding) existing geometries in order to “merge” or correct them.

Cartography from code…? by Barend Köbben started off the last day of the conference for me, and what impressed me was the “code as a tool”-mindset of a die-hard cartographer. I really think this is needed, cartography hasn’t really taken the front-seat in web mapping, but I think cartography will be even more important in the future.

projections in web browsers are terrible and you should be ashamed of yourself Calvin Metcalf was by far the funniest talk of the conference, continuing the underlying theme of “projections are hard” that started at JsGeo, Calvins bold, fun and “no-filter” way of presenting made me laugh hard several times, while also conveying an important message that seems to me to be even more important in the states, where every state has it’s own “projection”. Use WGS84 geographic coordinates for data exchange and web mercator unless there are valid reasons not to was my main takeaway.

While these talks are the ones that really impressed me there was, as I said, really an abundance of great talks. One thing I did notice was that several talks was a bit america-centered, assuming everyone has the same background as americans when it comes to data formats, ways of doing things and the like, but since we are in USA this is maybe rather natural?

So, the “best” have been covered in great detail, what about the bad? Well, I do not really have that much to say when it comes to “bad”, I feel that last year maybe was better at getting a social context, with a smaller venue, more joint sessions and people mostly living on campus. Also, the amount of entertainment was considerably less this year, I really missed something like the festival of the spoken nerd from last year. Apart from that I don’t think there was anything bad to write home about.

And the beer: 10 excellent breweries and bars visited, 50 different beers tasted (in smaller or larger quantities): Portland really is beer geek heaven! With Foss4g in town is really was like beeing in paradise for me for a week!

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