The first in our series of customer spotlights, Blaine Hackett is the Director of Business Development, GIS for RESPEC. Blaine has been working with Geographic Information Systems since 1990. He received his B.S. in Geography from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and Masters of Geographic Information Science from the University of Minnesota. He has worked in diversified GIS environments including state and local government, consulting engineering and planning, non-profit and Fortune 500 companies.
Our team sat down with him and picked his brains on data collection methods, the GIS industry and the future of geospatial technologies.
On Oct 1st, Flat Rock Geographics was acquired by RESPEC. What has that change been like?
Exciting! We saw this as an excellent opportunity that came about due to partnering on a project. The timing was really perfect and seemed meant to be. The folks at RESPEC were very interested in our structure at Flat Rock, our product mapFeeder and the clients we have.
We also appreciated that RESPEC was interested in not only supporting their expertise in water, natural resources, mining and energy but also branching out to find projects where the geospatial component was stand alone and not really aligned with their domain. We will be coalescing the GIS power users at RESPEC into a “GIS Center of Excellence”. This will allow us to tap resources and varied skill sets from across the company.
RESPEC also has an IT wing that excels at database migration and integration. This has always been a hurdle for us as we bring other databases into mapFeeder all the time but as you well know, most are fraught with problems and having experts to sort that out is very helpful.
And of course, at Flat Rock we were heavily involved with our clients in field data collection. We have put a great deal of time and effort into mapFeeder “talking” to Fulcrum as we saw it to be a superior product for field data collection. Internally, RESPEC has a great need for collecting data in the field, in remote areas and Fulcrum will be ideal to help our internal clients.
What do you and your company do? Who hires you?
Flat Rock was a full service geospatial solutions provider. We say that because we really want to use the best tool for the job. At RESPEC, we will continue to be a solutions provider, however, since RESPEC has about 230 employees working around the world, we will be involved in helping internal folks at the same time we will be seeking out new and exciting external projects.
We work for a number of different clients from state and local government, Fortune 500 and non-profits. We lean heavily on our software development skills but also are diversified in our GIS staff augmentation as well as many other types of project based work.
Tell us a little bit about the history between your company and Fulcrum? Explain to us what mapFeeder is.
At FOSS4G 2011 in Denver we met the Fulcrum guys and began having a conversation on how we might use Fulcrum as the field data collection tool for our clients. We were very early adopters of Fulcrum and especially integrating it as we have into our product, mapFeeder. We are able to pull data from Fulcrum into mapFeeder and vice versa making the pairing a great solution from field to office.
mapFeeder is our subscription based product used to track location based tasks. Simple maps, searching capabilities and reporting options make a simple but powerful tool to manage your work tasks on a daily basis. We have many modules that track things such as traffic signs, trees, utilities, permitting, water quality, etc. We have even created a CRM module. We like to say “if you can put it on a map you can track it with mapFeeder”.
What software technology stack do you all use?
For desktop we use QGIS and ArcGIS depending on the need. We use ArcGIS for basic analysis, cartography and data manipulation but we are also using Esri products for a project for the Minnesota Department of Commerce where we are leveraging the solar suitability data created at the University of Minnesota. The Commerce Department wanted to use the data for a consumer based application so citizens of Minnesota could use the app to see if their house was a good fit for solar energy.
What technologies in the last five years have made your workflows simplified?
Well, technology outside of geospatial has been something that has taken geo to a whole new level; mobile phones, tablets, and fast wireless network have really brought geo to the masses.
The capability of disconnected editing as Fulcrum has and automated synchronization of data has made the field-to-office workflow so much simpler. Gone are the days of coming into the office and “docking” your device to offload the data.
Walk me through a typical project…
Typical? Not to be difficult, but since we are a solution provider it seems no project is typical! A mapFeeder install vs. a custom app vs. a data analysis project certainly have their differences but I would say they all start out with a discovery stage. Of course we need to have a tight scope in order to give the client what they are looking for. Many times they don’t really know and we have to ferret out the workflow to create the scope of work.
For our custom development, we use Pivotal Tracker in a loose agile process. We try to break up the tasks into manageable “stories” so we can gauge the level of effort. Of course there is a testing phase to ensure the application is working as expected and Pivotal has a great workflow for that.
For mapFeeder setup, it depends on if a client is getting a pre-canned module or we are configuring a special module. Pre-canned is pretty simple but the difficulty is always if they have a previous database that has to be massaged and brought into mapFeeder. Everyone says their database is in great shape but the reality is that most are not. Porting the database can be the bulk of the time spent on a setup in some cases.
How did you get involved in GIS and data collection?
I will spare you the long story of how I got involved in GIS. Let’s just say I was very lucky to be in the right place at the right time. Things have changed a bit since I started back in 1990 but what a great career it has been.
As for field work, it just seemed that everywhere I went, some type of data needed to be captured in the field. Of course for the longest time there was nothing and then there was something but that was too expensive, then there was something not too expensive but a pain to get data out of, and then came Fulcrum. Inexpensive, easy to use and the capabilities keep piling up in what seems like a daily basis. The features like video capture today as opposed to just 2-3 years ago just blows me away. It is an amazing time with more data being captured than we know what to do with.
Is the world of geospatial projects getting more simple or faster?
This question reminds me of the eye doctor: “Better or darker… Better or darker?” Depends on the project of course but with the tools we now have make things simpler AND faster.
Sounds like you are a fan of GeoServer. Can you explain what GeoServer is for those that are unfamiliar and how your company uses it?
GeoServer allows us to serve up our data via WMS or WFS. We can make data available through our mapFeeder interface or serve the information up so it can be brought into GIS packages that use those protocols. It is a very versatile open source software that enriches our products.
What is the Minnesota geospatial community like? Where does it shine and do you wish there were more companies involved?
The Minnesota geospatial community is vibrant, especially the Open Source Geo world. Of course we have great OSGeo roots here with the creation of MapServer at the University of Minnesota. We have several groups that get together on a regular basis such as the MapServer User Group, MapTime, MN GIS/LIS and others.
I am not sure if we need more companies but we do need more diversity in geospatial skills. I think we are cranking out too many GIS Specialists and need to focus on database skills and a better understanding of web services. Although we have a vibrant OSGeo community, we need more folks to take on the “best tool for the job” mentality and not get too focused on one solution.
Any closing remarks?
We have really just scratched the surface with Fulcrum and all the capabilities. We have just implemented Fulcrum webhooks for synchronization with mapFeeder and now are looking at ways to utilize more of the functionality it has to offer. We are excited to start using more of the tools in the toolbox.