Monday, February 28, 2011

Book Of The Month for February 2011 - "The Candy Bombers"

Oh my gosh, I've been negligent!

I just realized that I never did a Book of the Month for January, and today is the last day of February.  I hustled over to my book stacks and pulled a few good candidates off the shelves.  Plenty of fodder for future months!

This month's choice was a surprise book.  It's one I had never heard of and picked it up from the bargain rack at Barnes & Noble, thinking I'd give it a read when all else had been devoured.  I got it home and started glancing at the opening chapters and realized I needed to put this book at the head of the reading list.

"The Candy Bombers, The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America's Finest Hour" by Andrei Cherny is a must-read for anyone interested in early post-war Europe and early Cold War history.  In fact, the drama and situations Cherny outlines regarding immediate post-war Germany and our more recent history at 'peace enforcement' post-war Iraq share startling parallels.

I had always thought that America ended the war in Europe with a clear vision of just what to do with this conquered country.  Cherny makes it clear that America stumbled into her post-war role in Germany, moving hesitantly towards the realization that we bore not just a huge responsibility in getting this wrecked nation back on its feet, but that unless America and her post-war allies, the British and French,  took decisive steps the Soviets would have their way with Berlin and ultimately the entire German nation.

Cherny's story pivots around two key players in post-war Germany; General Lucius Clay and Secretary of Defense James Forrestal.

Clay was Harry Truman's very last choice for the post of military governor of Germany.  A number of seemingly more suitable civilian candidates turned the president down flat when offered the position - the job and all it implied was viewed as political suicide.  Out of frustration Truman told the Pentagon to find a general officer who could be ordered to take the job.  They shoved Lucius Clay through the door to the Oval Office and a few minutes later he came out the effective overlord of post-war Germany.

As it turned out, Lucius Clay was perfect for the job.  An extremely talented Army Corps of Engineer officer with extensive wartime project and program management experience, Clay had the intelligence, experience, education, political savvy and powers of observation that were precisely what the ruler of post-war Germany needed to not just set the defeated nation on the course to reconstruction but to stare down the Russians in what were effectively the opening gambits of the Cold War.  Cherny does a great job of tracing Clay's metamorphosis from a believer in the good intentions of the post-war Soviet Union to a ram-rod believer in the Soviet Union's evil intent towards Germany and all of Eastern Europe.  Clay arrived in Germany in 1946 believing in and determined to abide by the the Allied agreements on the partitioning and control of Germany and Berlin.  In a very short time he realized the Russians had long since stopped abiding by wartime agreements and were charting their own course for domination in Eastern Europe.  Clay's observations often put him at odds with Truman administration officials who still viewed the Soviets through the lens of wartime cooperation and good will.

Clay found an able, if somewhat unstable ally in James Forrestal, the Secretary of the Navy who was about to become Truman's first Secretary of Defense.  Forrestal was a self-made man, a multi-millionaire investor and Democrat who was driven and passionate about national defense.  Forrestal was also nobody's fool, and he quickly discerned that the Soviets were now the emerging global enemy - an enemy that needed to be stared down wherever they tried to force their hand.

And the first place the Soviets tried to force their hand was in Berlin.  I won't go into the details of mechanics of the Berlin Airlift.  The book tells the story quite well.  The Airlift is not just a simple story of the movement of supplies to keep a city alive, it is the story of a defenseless nation watching as their former conquers marshaled all the technology of war to beat back a looming menace and set the conditions for the rise of a free and democratic Germany.

This book demonstrates that America is a force for good in this world.  It's a lesson far too many of today's  politicians need to learn and understand.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Measuring Things

US Coast & Geodetic Survey leveling party working in Atlanta, 1927
In the olden days, like before GPS, before you could make an accurate map real men had to go out and measure things.  This 'measuring' was called surveying, and it involved the extremely precise and accurate determination of the horizontal and/or vertical location of points on the ground known as survey control.  This survey control establishes the accurate framework upon which a map is built.  Horizontal measuring was called triangulation. Vertical measuring was called leveling.

The picture above comes from the US Coast & Geodetic Survey 1927 Seasons Report prepared by Captain E. O. Heaton (USC&GS).  It shows a topographic leveling party at work in Atlanta.  If anyone can figure out where in Atlanta these guys are working I'd love to know!  

A few things to note.  The fellow holding the umbrella is most likely a black local laborer hired to help the party haul equipment and provide general assistance.  The umbrella he's holding isn't to keep the surveyor from getting sunburned - it is to protect the instrument from direct sun and prevent glare when sighting through it.  To ensure accuracy survey parties often used umbrellas to shade their instruments and stabilize temperatures.  

The fellow squatting is a surveyor who is acting as the recorder.  He is writing down the readings being called out by the surveyor looking through the instrument.  The recorder's job was extremely important because he didn't just write down what the surveyor called out, he would do on-the-fly quality control checks on the values the surveyor gave him to ensure they were staying within the accuracy standards established for that particular survey.  If the recorder makes a single mistake, such as not catching an error in the surveyor's observations or by writing something down wrong (like inadvertently transposing a number or putting a decimal point in the wrong place) he could lose an entire day's work.  In my experience you wanted your  most meticulous guy and your best mathematician doing this job - perfectionists made good recorders.  The recorder is writing his notes down in a bound hardback book known as a survey field notebook.  That notebook would be turned in to the USC&GS at the end of the project and go on to become a part of the legal record of the survey.  I have no doubt that very notebook still exists in the archives of the USC&GS now held by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  I'd love to take a peek at it!

(The job of recorder is one of those skills that has been replaced by computers.  Today's surveying instruments now automatically store the readings and calculate values internally.  The computer integrated into the survey level lets the surveyor know via a digital display if the readings are within the specifications set for the job.  It's called digital leveling.)

But what is the surveyor looking at?  Well, there are two people missing from this photo that make up the leveling party.  The surveyor is looking through the survey level at a stadia rod being held by another party member known as a rod man.  A stadia rod is a long pole marked off in feet and inches.  Behind the surveyor is another rod man with another stadia pole (the location of the stadia poles is determined by the survey party chief and is based mainly on topography and the ability to see both poles from where the survey level is set up).  The surveyor looks though the level and calls out the elevation mark he sees on the first stadia rod.  He then reverses direction and calls out the elevation he views on the second stadia rod.  The difference in numeric values he views on the two stadia poles is the difference in elevation between them:

Click on the image to open full size

Additionally, if this is a simple differential leveling job (and I think it is based on the type of level being used), there is another crew of chain men measuring the distance between the two stadia rods.  In 1927 this would have been done using steel survey tapes or chains.

Leveling is slow, tedious and physically demanding work.  There were no old farts out working on leveling parties except perhaps as party chiefs.  The rod men and the chain men were constantly moving, carrying the survey forward.  The instrument man and the recorder were responsible for moving and setting up the level in a new location, and the party chief was moving between all members of the survey party and scouting ahead for new setup locations.

Their work was absolutely critical, though.  The meticulous work of the surveyors of the US Coast & Geodetic Survey and the US Geological Survey created the accurate spatial framework that this countries maps and charts continue to be built upon.

But that's not the end of this story!  I got interested in this picture for a particular reason.  The vertical survey control for the airport I work at was established by this particular USC&GS survey project.  I would like to think that it was these three unnamed gentlemen who, sometime in 1927 or 28, ran their traverse down into College Park, GA and set the single elevation benchmark that became the origin point for all vertical survey work done at the airport until the advent of GPS-based survey in the late 1990s. 


Friday, February 25, 2011

A Really Neat Thing

I'm a geospatial engineer (or, if you read my last post, a Topographer) and a large part of my job these days deals with making geospatial data - mapping data - available to users in easy to use formats. In the past (like, waaaaay back in the 1990s) it was easy - paper maps were the pinnacle of content delivery for most organizations.  Hit the 'Print' button, wait for the map to come off the plotter then sneakernet it to your customer.

Then this thing called the Internet came along, and folks started to think hard about ways to deliver maps and geospatial data across the web. Early efforts were crude by today's standards, little more than snapshots of maps posted on websites. But considering we were moving up from a plain paper map (itself a static representation of the earth's surface) the early web technology was pretty slick and drew lots of ooohs and aaaahs from users.

Things improved rapidly from there, but it was clear to early developers that creating worthwhile web maps was going to take some pretty heavy duty custom programming. The early web technologies - web servers, web mapping software and even the web browsers themselves were still rough around the edges and smoothing out those rough edges took lots of dedicated programming. This is where we started to see the rise of the IT-centric GIS professional, folks who focused heavily on web development to help other GIS professionals get their content out to users via the web.

It is the rise of the IT-centric GIS professional that gave me lots of heartburn. I watched as basic GIS skills and concepts - those skills and concepts that defined our profession - were de-emphasized in favor of IT skills. This rapidly increasing dependence on IT services for content delivery also triggered some nasty organizational battles. Suddenly IT managers and CIOs were able to leverage this emerging technology to their advantage. Their argument was simple - "If you want access to the heavy web and database server technology you say you need to do your job then you'll have to move your GIS organization into IT.  We need keep a proper eye on you and make sure you don't put our precious network infrastructure at risk."

Just as I was nearing the brink of despair the lighbulb came on (and in my addled brain it's a very dim bulb).  For the past few years ESRI, the Big Dog in GIS technology, has been pushing the concept of the "ArcGIS map service."  An ArcGIS map service is simply a map definition file (map extents, content layers, coordinate system, text styles, etc.) similar to an XML file that sits on a GIS map server waiting to be 'consumed', or used, in another application.   I'd attend ESRI seminars and conferences and listen to the ESRI Acolytes expound the virtues of ArcGIS map services; they were going to revolutionize geospatial content delivery, they were going to bring web mapping to the masses, they were going to cure world hunger, boils and wheat rust.

I have been beating ESRI up for years over the direction they are taking the GIS profession - we are in a situation where the software defines and drives the profession and not the other way around.  The result is that now that when you say 'GIS professional' to someone they immediately think of the software, not the skillset; a GIS professional is now merely someone who operates GIS software, not someone who has the education, training and experience to solve complex spatial information issues.

But on the issue of web mapping it looks like ESRI is on track to redeem themselves.  ESRI's goal is to make mapping ubiquitous - both the creation of maps and the access to maps via the web.  They realize that if web maps were to become easy to make and easy to access they needed to find a way for the GIS professional to step right over all the complex IT technology and put their maps out on the web with just a few button clicks.

While ESRI is not quiet there yet, the concept of the ArcGIS map service takes them a far bit down the road towards realizing their goal.  Just as important - by easing the technology burden ESRI is, perhaps intentionally, starting to ease the GIS professional's heavy dependency on IT.  Creating ArcGIS map services is simple, and it all starts with the desktop mapping and geospatial data management software.  Once the GIS professional creates a map he or she 'publishes' it to a GIS map server using simple functions built into the desktop software.  Once that ArcGIS map service - that map definition file - is available on the map server a large and growing number of applications can use it.  You can use a service or combination of services to make custom web maps that run inside your own website, you can display and use map services in applications like AutoCAD and Microsoft SharePoint.

In the arena of 'mapping for the masses' ESRI gives the average user a number of ways to create custom maps using map services.  On ESRI's website you can create maps from ArcGIS Services available on ESRI's data servers (or your own GIS map server if you have one set up).  You can search for available map services a number of ways - content, geographic extent, developer, etc., then add them to your map.  Once added, you can stack the services for the best presentation of data (for example, if you were building a map that showed rivers in a particular region and you were using one map service that provided a map background and another service that showed rivers you probably want to make sure the services are stacked so the rivers layer is sitting on top of the map background layer).  After you build your map and have it looking the way you want it you save it on the website and you can then view it either in the native map viewer, in the ArcGIS Explorer Online website (this site uses Microsoft Silverlight to add some unique functionality like the ability to do markups) or you can view it using ESRIs ArcGIS Explorer desktop application which you can download for free.  Heck, ESRI even makes applications for the iPhone, iPad and Android devices that let you view your maps anywhere you have an Internet connection.

Last but not least, you can embed your map in your website or blog using code automatically generated for you.  The map at the top of this blog entry is a perfect example.  I created this map using three map services available at  It uses an imagery basemap (Microsoft's Bing Imagery) service, a digitzed USGS topographic quad sheet service and on top of it all a dynamic US National Grid overlay service.  You can roam around and zoom in and out on this map from within the blog, or you can click the "View Fully Functioning Map on" link to open the map using the native map viewer.

From a GIS professional's perspective this is exciting technology.  For the first time the average GIS professional has the power to create and launch robust GIS-based web maps and have them available across a number of platforms.  Gone are the days when a GIS professional needed to also be a code jockey to get even the simplest representation of his or her data out on the web.  The ArcGIS map service concept doesn't allow GIS personnel to completely ignore the IT burden (we have not even touched on the issue of RDBMS-based geodatabases), but it is clearly a move in the right direction.  I like it, and for the first time in about five years I give ESRI an 'atta-boy'!


Sunday, February 6, 2011

In Praise of the Old Topographer

Progress is good.

Without progress we wouldn't have a lot of great things like:

Electronic ignition
Cell phones
Frozen pizza

Few could argue that these developments have significantly enriched our lives or made them easier.  (Have an issue with electronic ignition being on the list?  Ever hand crank a car to get it started?)

But too many people equate change with progress.  If you change something, particularly if you change something that few people really understand, you can claim progress and nobody really stops to say, "Uh, I don't think so".

So it is today with my 'profession' - Geospatial Information Services (GIS).

I put the term profession in quotes when using it in conjunction with GIS, because I'm not really sure GIS is a profession.  It certainly is a job - there are thousands of people working GIS jobs around the world, but in my opinion it's not really a profession, not yet anyway.

And the story of GIS is the story of change without real progress.

Background.  I have been working in the mapping, survey and geographic analysis field almost continuously since 1980.  I watched as the US military, particularly the Army geospatial engineering field, transitioned from the old manual analysis and production methods to computer-based analysis and production.  When I started it was all hand drawn overlays and paper maps.  Today it is GIS software and web-based mapping services.  I have certainly seen change in my field - fundamental, earth shaking change.  I'm not so sure I've really seen a lot of progress.  In fact, I would claim we've actually moved backwards in our ability to provide clear analysis and decision support tools to our customers.  We have moved forward with change, yet backwards with progress.

How can that be?  Simple.  The GIS field has traded fundamental skills for computer application expertise,  and the lack of fundamental skills and the ability to do critical analysis makes the field a slave to the software.

Change without progress.

Go up to any GIS professional and ask him or her to describe their job.  They will stumble around trying to explain it to you and invariably the words 'arcgis', 'computer', 'database' and 'web maps' will leak out.  The GIS professionals today can not think about, describe or relate their jobs without first thinking about the computer application.  For far too many of them the computer application is their job.  Continue the line of questioning and ask them if they think they can continue to do their job effectively without their computers and GIS software, even for just a short period of time.  Again, most will say no - in their minds their 'profession' is inseparable from and defined by the software.

Ask a civil engineer to define his or her profession.  You won't hear words like 'autocad' or 'microstation' slip out, yet AutoCAD and MicroStation are the two leading engineering design packages in use around the world.  Reason?  Civil engineers don't define their profession in relation to software applications.  Civil engineers are educated and trained to solve complex issues using analytical skills.  I work every day with extremely competent civil engineers who plan and manage multi-million dollar projects, yet they don't even know how to open up an AutoCAD drawing file on their desktop computer.  They were hired for their engineering and problem solving expertise.  Software applications are merely enabling technologies that allow them to work more efficiently.

Put the same question to a land surveyor.  You won't hear terms like 'terramodel', 'geomatics office', or 'civil3d'.  These are software packages that enable surveyors to do their jobs more effectively and efficiently, but they do not define the profession.  The survey profession is defined by a set of standards tied to analytical and problem solving skills.

In each of these cases the profession defined what it needed from the software and the vendors responded.  In the GIS field things evolved the other way.  In the beginning (way back in the 1970s), the term 'GIS' defined software, not a skill set (the original term GIS stood for 'geographic information software' and has only recently morphed into 'geospatial information system').  Other professions like Forestry, Geology and Geography started using GIS technology to better manage large amounts of data that had a spatial component - things like timber stands, mineral lease boundaries and census data.  The software was revolutionary, but it was an enabling technology and not an end in itself.  Because the software was used by a broad range of professions there was little standardization.

As the years progressed and GIS software matured, more and more individuals became captivated by the GIS concept.  I will admit, in addition to having powerful analytical capabilities GIS packages like ESRI's ArcGIS are just plain fun to work with.  However, these applications do little to enforce standards.   Everybody gets to do what they want.  That's not the software's fault - it's up to the GIS professional to apply recognized standards.  But before you can have standards you have to clearly define your profession, and if you can't define your profession how can you define your standards?  It was as though GIS had no conceptual roots - a discipline born anew, without heritage or precedent.  And nobody wanted to take ownership.  So, heavy GIS software user self identified themselves as 'professionals' and happily motored along, defining themselves any way they wanted.  As a result the GIS profession has become a primordal soup of software users with varying skill sets.  Some are damned sharp, other's have trouble finding the ArcGIS icon on their computer desktop.  Yet all get to claim the title of 'GIS Professional' because, well, nobody told 'em they can't.*

I refuse to be defined by a software package.  I am better than that, and my employers didn't hire me for my button pushing skills.  They hired me to solve complex problems and provide unique services no other group in the organization could provide.  If I can provide the answer by scribbling a few calculations on a notepad, great.  If I have to fire up high end GIS software to run a complex analysis, OK.  How I arrive at the solution is immaterial to my employer, they just want an accurate answer that conforms to the established standards of the disciplines I'm touching.

But if GIS is the software, what is the discipline?  What melds geography, geology, forestry, hydrology, landform analysis, civil and structural engineering, environmental science and surveying into a multi-discipline approach to problem solving?  What discipline applies the best approach to describing the land and the structures on it and features below it with accuracy and precision?  What discipline relates data using a multi-disciplinary approach to solve the unique and complex problems beyond the realm of other earth science and engineering disciplines?  That discipline doesn't exist, you say?


The discipline I describe has existed for over 150 years.  This discipline opened the American west to exploration and settlement, unlocked the vast natural resources of this country and helped fuel it's rise to an economic world power, it charted America's home waters for safe navigation, mapped vast expanses of Central and South America and even mapped the Moon to identify safe landing areas for our Apollo missions.  Most came to this discipline from other professions.  It drew in its share of civil engineers, geologists, surveyors and geographers.  It was once the leading career choice for the top graduates from West Point.  This discipline started to die out in the 1980s, with the rise of specialization and computerization, when we tried to replace broad experience with computer algorithms.  Yet it is a discipline that is still as relevant today as it was in the mid-1800s, perhaps even more so as our infrastructure, development, enviromental, and energy issues start to intersect in ways only spatially-based analysis can address.

This is the discipline of the old Topographer!  

A topographer of the old Coast & Geodetic Survey, conducting
what is essentially a geospatial analysis using a plane table survey set

By definition, a topographer is someone who precisely maps and describes a portion of the earth's surface and the man made features on it.  That is about as elegant a description of what I do as any I've found.

So, don't call me a GIS professional, analyst, manager, coordinator or anything else related to a software application.

Call me a topographer.


OK, this post isn't intended as a shot across the bow, but as a starting point for discussion.  I'm certain most, if not all, GIS professionals reading this will have issues with my opinions.  So let's take the discussion to the next level.  Give me your input!

* I understand we have this thing called the GISP certification program.  In its current form it's a joke.  What does it certify?  Other professions with established licensing standards, like the engineering and survey fields laugh at the GISP certification program.  How can you certify against something that doesn't have standards?