James Fee | Profiles from the Geospatial Community

Caitlin Dempsey


James Fee is well known for his popular GIS blog that has an active participation by the geospatial community.  The James Fee GIS Blog is a place to find posts that trigger discussions about many aspects of geospatial technology.  

Judging by the volume of comments, Mr. Fee often has his finger on the pulse of topics of interest.  PlanetGS.com is also the brainchild of Mr. Fee which aggregates feeds from geospatial blogs.  Mr. Fee joined WeoGeo last year as their evangelist.

How did you get involved with GIS? What drew you to this industry?

While in college I was not exposed to GIS at all. It was classic pen and paper cartography (with a little Aldus Freehand mixed in) and good old SPSS for analysis.

My final year I got a internship with a local city and was exposed to ArcInfo immediately. It was quite a shock, but the minute I saw how this tool could change my work, I was hooked.

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From there I experienced the progression of GIS from UNIX workstations -> Windows desktops -> classic web apps and now what I guess we classify as Web 2.0.

I like how GIS has moved from being in a back room to being out in the open where everyone can benefit. The speed at which change happens can make your head spin, but also make every day more exciting as the next.

And of course the ability of GIS to change the world by exposing impacts of humans on their environment.

A black and white photo of a man standing with a dark color shirt with arms crossed against a brick wall.

You run one of the most popular geospatial blogs. What led you to start it?

I started experimenting with PostGIS and Mapserver and wanted to try and give something back to what I was learning. My blog though quickly changed into being my thoughts about GIS and where I thought it was headed. I’ve learned so much through blogging because it helps me focus on where I think things are headed and feedback from commentators who most of the time prove to me much smarter than I.

In planning out your conference schedule, what deciding factors influence which ones you attend? What conferences out there are “must attend” for the geospatial professional?

Part of what I look at when picking a conference is who is speaking there and who will be there. The GeoWeb Conference that Ron Lake puts on might not be as big as most, but the crowd it brings in really helps give extra value.

Many of the bigger conferences in our space though are vendor based. You go to the ESRI UC if you are an ESRI user. You go to PBBI Insights if you are a PBBI customer, etc…

The biggest factor is will I get value out of my attendance. This is generally hard to answer until you’ve completed the conference unfortunately.

Many times I’ve been really excited to attend a conference, only to realize halfway in that it was a complete waste of time. Its hard to pick out any must attend conferences, but some on the short list I recommend are GeoWeb Conference, FME UC and ESRI Developer Summit.

I think the WhereCamps are always worth attending if there is one in your area as well.

What’s the one direction that you would like to see GIS evolve towards?

GIS is so often vendor focused. I’d like to see some of the tools and concepts to be platform agnostic.

As we try and take the GIS analysis to the end users and those that aren’t GIS Professionals, we need to match the tools they are using. This means working in the browser, on mobile devices and inside other applications (such as Excel).

APIs that allow this will succeed and those that are tied to specific products or licenses will fail.

You made the move relatively recently to WeoGeo as their evangelist (from your Twitter profile). What led you to join this company and how do you see WeoGeo contributing to the geospatial industry?

I’ve been working with trying to share data with as many people as possible. The problem that I ran into is that either you lock it up behind firewalls not allowing people to see it, or you give it away for free on some FTP site.

My clients and users couldn’t always work in those extremes.

That led me to the work WeoGeo was doing. Making geo-content discoverable using the one tool best suited for finding geo-data, a map.

So many data portals just throw up a search tool and expect the end user to figure out what combination of keywords will give them their results.

The logical tool to narrow down GIS data is a map. I think this is one of the best aspects of WeoGeo, using maps to find maps.

At the same time while we all want to share data in the open, giving it away for free; some clients of mine just couldn’t make that happen. They like using maps to find data, but want it all behind authentication and enabling user rights access to specific datasets.

WeoGeo does this as well and that gave me as a consultant the tools I needed to deliver products to my clients. In addition, some wanted to sell their data to cover their costs or because of licensing. With WeoGeo monetizing content is very easy and extremely inexpensive for all parties.

Data doesn’t have to be expensive, but the existing infrastructure sometimes requires data to be sold in the 4 to 6 digit range because the organizations can’t scale down to the neighborhood level. WeoGeo allows these companies to sell very small portions of their datasets cheaply enabling everyone access to data that before was inaccessible to the public.

Lastly being able to customize datasets before they are delivered. With FME Server in the background we support hundreds of file formats and thousands of projections. Users want to work with data in THEIR native formats, not the providers.

Any other thoughts or comments you’d like to add?

Every year I get excited and say this is the year things are going to come together. I really do think this is the case this year.

The infrastructure is in place, we’ve got lots of open standards to work with, we’ve got mobile devices that have GPS in them and users that want to consume geo-content.

Organizations that take the lead on this are going to be the forefront of the revolution of place that has begun to take place. Those that continue to do things the “old way” will falter and fade away. I think the choice is clear, embrace the sharing of data and you will be successful.

Follow James Fee on Twitter @cageyjames and visit the James Fee GIS Blog to participate in discussions relating to the geospatial industry.  

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.