Which type of mapmaker are you?

10 ways to make a map – and what they say about you

Once, in my earlier career, I performed a “Geomatics Striptease” during a presentation. Before you get worried, it was just a term I had coined to ask the geomatics profession a simple question: What unique skill do you have left after all the layers of overlapping disciplines have been peeled off? After stripping away IT, geography, GIS, remote sensing and so on, the one core skill unique to the profession was geodetic positioning – making sure that things are precisely & accurately in the right place.

Anybody can make a map these days so, beyond that, what unique skill can you contribute to society? Whatever your profession, you can probably list any number of skills that other disciplines also offer. So what is unique about you? Why should your customer pay you and not someone else? If you’re unsure about the answer, a good starting point might be to determine your preferred mapping style. It will provide some clues as you what makes you unique. So I’ve made this chart to help you find out:

(Click on chart for full size, or get it here from my Flickr page.)

which type of mapmaker are you

The red telephone box

Yesterday, on a Sunday family walk, I came across this red telephone box in Budleigh Salterton, Devon. I was strangely drawn to it. It wasn’t in the best state of repair but, being right on the beach and overlooking the sea, it had a real presence. Despite technological advances that now largely make it obsolete this phone box was, quite literally, standing its ground. It felt like a monolith out of Space Odyssey, its true purpose still waiting to be uncovered.


The red telephone box is not just an icon of design but also an incredibly well-proportioned cubicle. Within seconds, literally tens of ideas for alternative uses came to me. It could obviously be a Wifi hotspot or mobile phone charger, but why not a shower or heater cubicle (handy after a swim or surf), espresso vending machine, touchscreen web terminal, digital library, tyre inflator point, electric car charger, first aid dispenser, tourist information, light house, kite launcher, photo booth, exercise/physio stretch bar, hair dryer cubicle, immersive 3D / VR screen for education & entertainment, shoe polisher (with dog poo remover…), etc etc…

What else could it do? The red telephone box is clearly not done yet.

After 4 years on social media, the main thing I’ve learned is…

When I started out with social media in 2009 I was motivated by nothing more than a curiosity to explore and connect the dots. The journey began with Flickr, sharing pictures of places that inspired me. Then followed LinkedIn, Twitter and, finally, this blog which provided a creative outlet to expand on matters exceeding 140 characters. All along I remained  focused on personal interests relating to my profession – data, mapping, geography, technology, global issues, current affairs. Over the past 4 years  I have connected with people old and young, known and unknown, all over the world but also close to home, all sharing common interests. On average I have tweeted about 2-3 times daily, blogged monthly, and built an online network comprising hundreds of people.

So what I have learned?

First, pictures are mostly for telling stories rather than capturing a place or a moment.  I still post pictures via Twitter but my Flickr account has pretty much gone dormant. A smartphone camera is hardly the epitome of photography but still, it would be unfair to say that social media have replaced quality with quantity. Rather, it has become clear that a picture is really just about sharing a joke or connecting with like-minded people. I never envisaged this when I started out, but my most visited image on Flickr is not a scenic vista but a cartoon. Maybe I should do more of this.

I also learned that it is better to make data open. Once I converted the licensing of my Flickr images to Creative Commons, I started getting many more comments and enquiries about re-using my images. The highlight was when Sustrans, a British charity, asked to use this picture of Mother Iveys Bay on the cover of their Cornwall Cycle Map – yay!

However, opening your data also requires that you go into it with your eyes open. LinkedIn, for example, does for all intents and purposes what it says on the tin. It’s a great tool providing a simple and unintrusive way to stay in touch with fellow professionals. But beware of headhunters who distract you with irrelevant job openings because they have seen (but not bothered to read) your CV. Or people who endorse you for the wrong skills. Once you’re out in the open, you have take the good as well as the bad.

Twitter is a different beast altogether. It all depends on how you use it, so it’s down to personal preference. For me, the learning curve was steep: trying to avoid mindless chat or banjo-playing squirrels, the task of filtering the signal from the noise was significant. But with an employer encouraging staff to embrace social media, I kept at it. Today I use Twitter to get industry news, share knowledge, and poke like-minded people in a good-natured way (many of whom I have since met in the flesh). Used in targeted fashion, and in combination with other online sources, Twitter can easily beat the mainstream media and even trade journals.  And tools like Flipboard make curating and digesting information much easier. However, I now follow well over 200 people and am beginning to struggle to keep up in the limited time I’ve got. I really don’t know how anyone can follow thousands of accounts but I guess, beyond a certain point, tweets just become raw data which you need to filter like any other data. But I’m hesitant to go there as I don’t want to lose the human touch.

Still, for all the benefits that Twitter offers, it is not always the useful stuff that catches people’s attention. Of all my tweets there could have been any number of interesting things to share (or so I thought), but the messages that got the most retweets were mostly those where I used my allocation of 140 characters to dispense a dose of dry humour. Like this one, after Apple’s maps fiasco:


On my blog the story is similar. I enjoy the creative outlet that writing offers, and I have been grateful to receive positive reactions to a range of topics I posted on, including Big Data (From Lego to Play-Doh), migration (Where are you from?), books (A true sense of place), or mapping (Let the children map our world). But again the greatest reactions were for things like poking fun at marketing strategies (The Point of No-Geo Return), scoring geo-points in Germany vs England and Seven Questions to Test Your Geo-Personality, gazing into the future in The Next 100 Years, or for suggesting a simple (no) nonsense way for governments to assess the value of open data.

So, after 4 years in social media, what is the main thing I have learned? Well… it’s not about saving the world. It’s not about connecting 7 billion brains to progress knowledge. It’s not about empowering people to topple dictators. It’s none of those things.

It’s simply about having a laugh. (Blimey, and it took me 4 years to figure this out??)

How I used R to create a word cloud, step by step

Or: R is less scary than you thought!

R, the open source package, has become the de facto standard for statistical computing and anything seriously data-related (note I am avoiding the term ‘big data’ here – oops, too late!).  From data mining to predictive analytics to data visualisation, it seems like any self-respecting data professional now uses R. Or at least they pretend to. We all know that most people use Excel when nobody’s watching.

But anyway, R is immensely powerful. It is also command-line driven, which makes it quite scary, especially for those of us who don’t get to be hands-on as often as we’d like to. True, used in the wrong way, statistical algorithms can wreak havoc (garbage in – garbage out), but don’t let this intimidate you. I recently gave it a try myself and found myself hooked in a matter of minutes. And if I can do it, so can you!

There are now many free online courses teaching R but some of these represent a significant investment of time. So to get started and experience a taster of how R works, I would recommend the following: create a world cloud. If you’ve got 1-2 hours to fiddle around then the steps outlined below should help you create your first output with R. For example, here’s a word cloud of all my tweets over the past 3 years:

R word cloud 2010-2012 thierry_g

Yes, you can do this much more easily online with Wordle, but that is not the point… Besides, R also has a package to read directly from Twitter so you can plug all the power of R into it (but we won’t use that here).

So, here’s an example of how it works. I used R for Windows because the family iMac was already in use… As far as I know, however, the steps for the Mac version should be exactly the same.

Step 1: Install R.

Got to r-project.org and follow the download/installation instructions. Easy.

Step 2: Install RStudio.

Why? Because it makes R much more usable, so it won’t scare the pants off you. RStudio is an open-source user interface organising everything you need on one single screen. There are handy tabs and windows: command line, workspace, history, files, plots, packages and help . Do yourself a favour and download it from rstudio.com. Easy.

Step 3: Create a text file to turn into a wordle

You can use any text you like. For the sake of this exercise, the most obscure I could find was the transcript of a House of Lords debate on the state of the bee population… Copy & paste the text into a plain text file (e.g. lords.txt) and stick the file into a dedicated directory in your default documents folder (I’ll call mine ‘temp’). Make sure there are no other files in this directory.

Step 4: Open RStudio, install required or missing packages

For this exercise you need the text mining package (‘tm’) and the wordcloud package (‘wordcloud’). In turn, each of those make use of other packages too. Click on the Packages tab (bottom right window in RStudio) and see if they’re listed. If not, go to Tools > Install Packages (top menu bar) and install them from there. Rather than mess around manually with downloaded zip files, simply install the packages straight through the default CRAN mirror option (if you have a firewall, make sure the URL is not blocked). Once installed, tick the required in the list under the Packages tab – this will in effect load & activate them in the workspace (it’s the same as using the ‘library’ command in R). As you tick them, you may get some warnings of further missing packages that they rely on – if so, install those packages too.

All done? All packages installed? All packages ticked off in the list? Move on to Step 5.

Step 5: The data process – text mining, clean-up, wordcloud

Now we need to load the text file into RStudio and clean it up so that the word cloud makes sense (for example, you don’t want to highlight common words like ‘the’). For reference see Introduction to the tm (text mining) Package.

First, you need to load the text into a so-called corpus, so the tm package can process it. A corpus is a collection of documents (although in our case we only have one). The following command loads everything (beware!) from the specified directory (remember, I called it ‘temp’) into a corpus called ‘lords’:

lords <- Corpus (DirSource(“temp/”))

To see what’s in that corpus, type the command


This should print out contents on the main screen. Next, we need to clean it up. Execute the following in the command line, one line at a time:

lords <- tm_map(lords, stripWhitespace)

lords <- tm_map(lords, tolower)

lords <- tm_map(lords, removeWords, stopwords(“english”))

lords <- tm_map(lords, stemDocument)

The tm_map function comes with the tm package. The various commands are self-explanatory: strip unnecessary white space, convert everything to lower case (otherwise the wordcloud might highlight capitalised words separately), remove English common words like ‘the’ (so-called ‘stopwords’), and carry out text stemming for the final tidy-up. Depending on what you want to achieve you could also explicitly remove numbers and punctuation with the removeNumbers and removePunctuation arguments.

It is possible that you may get error messages whilst executing some of the commands, e.g. missing packages. If so install these as outlined above in Step 4, and repeat. Once I also got a message about Java being corrupted (JAVA_HOME not found), so looking this up on Google I found the solution was just to reinstall Java on my machine, reboot, and try again (note you can save your workspace in RStudio, so you never lose any work and always retain the history of what you’ve done). It might all go smoothly the first time, or it might not. Some issues can be specific to your particular hardware, operating system, or software versions. Be prepared for some fiddling – it’s called hacking! And remember, there’s loads of R help forums and tutorials online if you get stuck. Just type the relevant R command or error message into Google and you’ll find something relevant.

If all is well then you should now be ready to create your first wordcloud! Try this:

wordcloud(lords, scale=c(5,0.5), max.words=100, random.order=FALSE, rot.per=0.35, use.r.layout=FALSE, colors=brewer.pal(8, “Dark2″))

This command does what it says on the tin – try it as is, or fiddle with the settings to change the output. For further explanation of the command arguments  see e.g. this page. To highlight a few,  scale basically controls the difference between the largest and smallest font, max.words is required to limit the number of words in the cloud (if you omit this R will try to squeeze every unique word into the diagram!), rot.per is the percentage of vertical text, and colors provides a wide choice of symbolising your data, from single colours (e.g. colors=”black”) to pre-set colour palettes from the ColorBrewer package (e.g. colors=brewer.pal(8, “Dark2″)). Here’s the result:



Now, to go a step further, you may want to manually remove words from the cloud. For example, to get rid of the words “noble” and “lord”, you could use these commands:

lords <- tm_map(lords, removeWords, “noble”)

lords <- tm_map(lords, removeWords, “lord”)

Or you can make a list of words, c(“noble”, “lord”, etc…), to remove them in one go:

lords <- tm_map(lords, removeWords, c(“noble”, “lord”))

Just rerun the wordcloud command used above (hint: rather than type it all over again, use the Up arrow to scroll back to previously used commands) and see the result. Done!

Have fun!

Redefining the meaning of progress on the internet

On the internet nothing is too dangerous, or too remote, to connect people. So why are my radio and telephone not working?

Yesterday I was one of millions of people watching live as Felix Baumgartner jumped higher and faster than anyone else before him. It was an awesome feat; absolutely gobsmacking.

Once the initial euphoria has worn off, however, will we still be as impressed? Some records from the 1960s still stand, and probably always will. Baumgartner didn’t quite achieve the longest freefall ever, and obviously he didn’t walk on the moon or even go into orbit. He clearly pushed new limits but in truth the jump may go down in history as something unrelated to space exploration or daredevil pursuits.

Baumgartner takes a dive (Photo via Guardian.co.uk)

In the age of the internet, progress is not as clear-cut as it used to be. Take my internet radio, for example. It can play thousands of stations from around the world, but the menu is complicated and the signal often cuts out when the wifi goes flaky (it’s unreliable near the kitchen wall). Any old FM radio has no such issues. You press a single button and there you go: instant pleasure, without interruption. The only downside: fewer stations. So which is better?

Old radio (Photo by Frisno, Flickr CC)

It’s the same story with internet-based telephony. Whatever happened to just picking up the phone I don’t know. At work we have rolled out MS Lync: a great tool that enables you to do make calls, arrange teleconferences, share your desktop, or instant message with colleagues. But to make a call you have to wear a headset. Unless you want to spend the whole day looking like a dick (wearing a Bluetooth piece) or being physically chained to your laptop (via headphones), answering the phone becomes a panicked fumble with audio equipment that may – or may not – attach to your ear before the call goes to voicemail.

Now that’s what I call a telephone (Photo by mightyohm, Flickr CC)

I really miss my old telephone and radio. At the same time I was absolutely thrilled to be watching Baumgartner’s jump live. So what is progress?

Progress is when I hear someone casually mention Baumgartner at the swimming pool and I spontaneously whip out a device from my trouser pocket that lets us witness him jumping, live and in high definition, from a space balloon nearly 40km above the Earth and some 5000 miles away. 10 people crowded around my iPhone and felt as inspired by the live connection as by the jump itself. We were one of those 8 million live viewers on YouTube  – as TV channels will also have noted with interest. This is a new frontier where nothing is too dangerous, or too remote, to connect people. And anyone can do it.

Well, almost anyone. Now I need Baumgartner to fix my radio and telephone.

Art vs Science: We are all Leonardos now

It doesn’t take a genius to point out that we are experiencing a technology-driven renaissance. We can now share and create knowledge faster than ever before, driving exponential progress that impacts on every aspect of society. Some may lament the fact that we no longer have Concorde, but the web connects people faster than any aircraft could ever hope to.

Inevitably, tech commentators have been drawing comparisons between the current tech revolution and the invention of the printing press, which heralded the Renaissance around the 15th century. It brought learning to the masses and enabled the dissemination of ideas. This was the era of groundbreaking luminaries such as Galileo Galilei or Leonardo da Vinci: the earth was no longer the centre of the universe, and the world saw the first design of a workable flying machine. The progress which we are now experiencing in the 21st century is of a similar magnitude, and so the argument goes that we are witnessing a modern Renaissance. Call it Renaissance 2.0 or whatever.

But this is missing the point entirely.

Just consider this simple example: NASA’s visualisation of ocean currents. They’ve taken scientific measurements from a number of years, bundled them all into a visualisation model, and turned it into a youtube video. No big deal, surely. But look closely:

NASA Perpetual Ocean. (Credits: NASA, via Mashable)

Yes, it looks beautiful. Science and beauty, together in one picture. (You can read more how it was done in this article.)

This kind of thing hasn’t really happened since Leonardo was both a painter and a scientist. For the first time since the original Renaissance, science and art are finally converging again. Over the course of decades and centuries, people have become increasingly specialised in their jobs, but finally we are being freed again from the tyranny of pigeon-holing. Many of us were still brought up with the notion that your education would determine the entire course of your life. You could either become an artist or a scientist, but not both. You would go to school, get a degree (or not), and stick with that profession for life.

No longer. The latest technological advances now enable anyone to do almost anything. Scientists can tell their stories with artful visualisations, and artists can use scientific tools to express themselves – and not just their Macbooks. What we are witnessing now is not a new and faster printing press, but a reconvergence of science and art as envisaged by the cult book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Art and technology are no longer opposing worlds but complimentary again – as during the Renaissance. Just like it is possible to find emotional fulfilment in the technical pursuit of motorcycle maintenance, the new technology renaissance is liberating us to express ourselves in a more complete way. With the emergence of inexpensive 3D printers, for example, you will be able to create a custom part for your bike or a sculpture for your garden – or something in-between that nobody has ever thought of. And that is just the beginning.

‘Renaissance’ comes from the French language, meaning rebirth and rejuvenation. The current era is a renaissance not because of the increased speed of communication, but because it is enabling us all to become aspiring Leonardos, seamlessly embracing both art and technology.

A true sense of place: My 10 favourite books

Following on from my last (slightly off-topic) post about bookshops, I felt inspired to explore my oak bookshelf to find the books which, to me, have managed to convey a true and magical sense of place. Resisting the temptation of selecting publications from the technical worlds of mapping or geography, I went in search of books I have read and loved because of how they made me feel. A place is not just defined by its position in 2D or 3D space, but also by the time, feelings and senses. This also makes it impossible for anyone to ever to (re)visit the same place – except maybe in a book.

I hope you enjoy the list, and please do let me know if you can recommend any more!

1. 30 Days in Sydney – A wildly distorted account, by Peter Carey

As a student I spent two years in this magical city. Using a masterful blend of autobiography, fact and fiction, Peter Carey truly manages to capture the Australian spirit of Sydney, from its maritime heritage to its lush outback. Simply amazing, especially if you have visited or lived there.

2. A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts, by Andrew Chaikin

Published in 1994, the 25th anniversary of the first moon landing, this is the most complete and authoritative account of the Apollo Astronauts’ experiences. As I read it I had to keep pinching myself along the way – all of this really happened. I don’t think you’ll find a better read to get a sense of what it’s like to go to the moon, and then walk on it.

3. Quiet for a Tuesday: Solo in the Algerian Sahara, by Tom Stoppard

Similarly to the moon landings this is a beautiful account, accompanied by stunning images, that conveys a great sense of the desert’s space, light, and peacefulness. This time I didn’t have to pinch myself because I have been lucky enough to experience the Sahara myself during my days in oil exploration. This book transported me right back there.

4. Uncommon Places: The Complete Works, by Stephen Shore (Photographer)

This photo essay is just unbelievable. Reprinted in glorious high-definition, it captures Stephen Shore’s large format images of American scapes in the 1970s and 1980s. The quality of the pictures is so sharp you’d think they were taken yesterday. They not only preserve a particular era, the images also transform boring places such as car parks into fascinating spaces you never knew you wanted to explore.

5. The Life and Times of the Thunderbold Kid, by Bill Bryson

I was born neither in America nor in the 1950s, but this book captures Bill Bryson’s childhood so well that it brought back long lost memories of my own childhood which took place 20 years later, thousands of miles away. Similarly to Uncommon Places, this book manages to capture a place and time in an absorbing yet utterly different way. And because it’s written by Bill Bryson, it also makes you laugh!

6. On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan

Having read this novel a couple of years ago I can’t remember much about it except for one inconspicuous scene where one of the main characters goes on a bike ride along a country lane. McEwan’s masterful description of this ordinary setting took me down memory lanes that may or may not have existed in my life – immersed in green hills, fragrant fields, and hopeful youth. This is the stuff that powerful writing is made of, and it is impossible to do it justice here (certainly not with my writing!).

7. Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will, by Judith Schalansky

A beautiful and original work of art. This is indeed an atlas (it includes maps) but not as you know it. Schalansky, inspired by the Cold War’s travel restrictions in her native East Germany, compiled this world atlas of far-away islands so that the imagination is free to roam. Each of these islands is steeped in history but, even today, logistically very difficult to reach. The atlas deliberately blurs the lines between fact and fiction, taking you on a journey where it is unclear where history ends and the author’s dreams and imagination begin. A pure delight.

8. The Wave: In Pursuit of the Ocean’s Greatest Furies, by Susan Casey

This book masterfully intertwines a good story with oceanography, shipping, sailing and big-wave surfing. This is a book that conveys a true sense of the ocean like nothing else I’ve read (e.g. Moby-Duck – no typo here – doesn’t come close). I never thought a book about waves could be such a page-turner. And even though it is entirely non-fiction, the climax at the end is incredible. Spoiler alert: this is what a big wave feels like.

9. The Wild Places, by Robert Macfarlane

Macfarlane is probably Britain’s best wilderness writer, and this book doesn’t disappoint. I’ve already read it twice and will probably read it twice more. Even if you’re not interested in Britain’s wild places in particular, this masterpiece will transport you to peaceful and beautiful spaces whenever you need to. I particularly loved Macfarlane’s account of his overnight mountain bivvy on Red Pike in the Lake District where, under the stars, he suddenly found a snow-capped winter wonderland all to himself.

10. Eternity: Our Next Billion Years, by Michael Hanlon

This book takes place and time to the next level. Until I read it I had never fully appreciated the true timescale of human endeavour compared to the evolution of the universe. Being of a geo-background I take a natural interest in all of the global issues of the day, from climate change to technology to geopolitics, and the challenges at hand can sometimes seem overwhelming. This book really puts the ‘here and now’ into perspective. This sense was also reconfirmed when I later read Tim Flannery’s epic book, Here on Earth, which highlights the widely underestimated ability of nature and humans to adapt to change.

Oh, and one more thing…

11. Monocle magazine, edited by Tyler Brûlé

What the…? A magazine? And of all magazines, Monocle??

Indeed. Just let me explain. True, Monocle is somewhat pretentious – what with the fashion, the adverts for expensive briefcases and Rolexes, or some of the pompous commentary on culture, design and global affairs. Unfortunately it seems to be targeted at globetrotting yuppie hipsters and (wannabe) wealthy elites. But once you get over that, you will find an eclectic mix that truly celebrates places and their people. It champions small-scale entrepreneurism and intelligent city design. It celebrates creativity, passion, design and artisanship, from corner shops to handmade bicycles to Ordnance Survey’s cartography. In a nutshell, this is a monthly publication that might inspire you to believe that the world is fundamentally a good place, and it provides ideas for making it an even better one.

Happy Jubilee Holidays.

What my ideal bookshop would look like

This week, much-loved British bookseller Waterstones announced a surprising tie-up with its arch-enemy, Amazon, to sell Kindles and ebooks within its physical high street stores. Whether this is a stroke of genius or a unilateral suicide pact remains to be seen. Either way, Waterstones is probably right to embrace the digital age – whether it survives all depends on how it does it.

I love a good bookshop and so I’m keen for physical stores to survive. But I’m only a humble book reader, not an expert media commentator. So here’s from a user point of view, and slightly biased by my professional (data) background, what my ideal bookshop would look like:

1. Don’t turn it into a Starbucks or Costa. Their business model is based on charging £3 for a 50p cup of coffee. What you actually pay for is the rental of an armchair. So just cut out the middleman and provide comfy reading chairs yourself. And anybody who buys a book gets a free coffee thrown in.

2. A bookshop should be an oasis of calm in the urban jungle. The mind needs space and time to browse. If you provide quiet & attractive areas where people can enjoy their purchases (make them buy before they read, so they can enjoy their free coffee!) they will associate the shop with pleasure and come back again and again.

3. I don’t like current e-readers for two reasons: they don’t provide the satisfying tactile/sensual experience a physical book does, and their plastic covers look cheap and disposable. Why on earth would anyone want to make their book look disposable? Literature is not junk food. So cut the rubbish out and provide decent screens – iMacs or whatever – for people to browse. And if that is not compatible with a Kindle, it merely highlights the third issue I have with ebooks: compatibility. I don’t have to buy new furniture every time I get a book in print. So provide unified terminals for people to browse & buy any format they like – including print. And maybe a small onsite printing machine could churn out personalised, special editions – that would be cool. And to please the more digitally inclined, make sure to have a decent supply of power sockets and Wifi, so they can recharge not just themselves but also their devices.

4. Speaking of embracing digital, bookshops should be fountains of knowledge and entertainment, not just a shop. They could do well borrowing a few concepts from university libraries. Terminals should encourage you to explore, learn, have fun, and – oh – download (ie buy) content. And maybe the pièce de résistance could be a Wolfram Alpha type machine that let’s you type in any question and it gives you the answer, fed by open data, Wikipedia, open source as well as proprietary intelligence from around the web. This way you will also attract classes of school children on educational outings, and raise the next generation of book, sorry knowledge, buyers.

5. Another news item this week was that sales of fountain pens are on the rise again. Incidentally I bought myself one only 3 weeks ago, confirming the trend. The reason is that people increasingly value the personal touch in the digital age. So a good bookshop should also sell good stationary, pens and pencils, and provide spaces that inspire people to use them straight away. Doodle, draw, write a postcard (what a novelty!) – some things are simply more satisfying on paper.

The digital age has given us access to all the world’s information, on small devices originally designed to be held against one ear. That does however not mean we also have to consume and create all information on these devices. (Although I confess this blog post was written on a train using my iPhone.)

Bookshops have the unique opportunity to become focal points that bring together the analog and digital worlds in meaningful and satisfying ways. I hope they don’t waste it.

Forget the tech evangelists, these are the real people you should be learning from

Things go in and out of fashion all the time, and so it is with technology. If like me you are a data professional you will be familiar with today’s hot potatoes: open source, open data, big data, cloud, and so on.

Today, as I visited one of my employer’s more recent acquisitions (a small business specialising in high-end data analytics) I was reminded of the fact that each technology has its place. Being small, this business can easily mix & match the best tool and approach for every job at hand.

You might automatically assume that they went for the latest tech in everything. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth: their client industry still uses ASCII files as their ‘standard’ for data exchange, and so they have to cater for this outdated practice. And yet, they run a highly sophisticated operation. Technically it is built on a hybrid stack of proprietary, open source, and homegrown technology: SQL Server for the core database, PostGIS for the spatial bits, homegrown code for the clever analytics.

But the real sophistication lies not in the technology but in how they run their business (and how they spend their time). These guys are domain experts, highly focused on their customers.  They are passionate about what they do, but they also keep a low profile. There is no time to go round tech events evangelising their favourite piece of technology. They routinely beat the competition through hard work, a shrewd eye for opportunities, and quiet persuasion rather than public chest-beating. Besides, if they went to speak at conferences they would only be handing their hard-earned advantage to competitors. The only events they might attend are purely focused on their clients.

Now contrast this with some of the tech communities. By the very nature of technology these communities are focused more around the HOW rather than the WHAT or WHY. This is fine and provides useful inspiration for like-minded individuals, as well as social fun. However, people are tribal by nature, and so these communities invariably end up with leaders and followers. Unless members of a community make a conscious effort to keep an open mind, they can easily fall prey to ‘group think’ where nobody asks tough questions anymore, and any deviation from the gospel is seen as heresy.  I have witnessed this particularly in the open data or open source communities, and the same is true of some proprietary vendors. The end result can be reminiscent of a cult. And cults breed spiritual leaders: evangelists.

I’m highly suspicious of evangelists. As most people know, there is never a single solution to a particular problem. Sure, you need a tech strategy but you also pragmatism. A crusade for its own sake achieves very little.

So stop listening to the evangelists, keep an open mind, keep asking the tough questions, and seek out real people who run real businesses. They may be harder to find but when you do, it will be worthwhile.