William Noel McCormick, Jr.

— February 23, 2015 • #

A few weeks ago, my grandfather passed away after a long fight with cancer and Parkinson’s. He was a close part of our family, and we’re sad to see him go, but I wanted to write down some thoughts here.

His list of good qualities and accomplishments is almost too much to mention. During my childhood and after, we spent lots of time with my grandparents, and my grandpa was always a man of action. That’s one of the most memorable parts of growing up with him. In his presence, you couldn’t be bored.

Bill McCormick

For my whole life he was an avid boater, carpenter, fisherman, engineer, and builder, with a seemingly-endless knowledge of how things worked. As boys we grew up always excited to spend time in his shop building things (the Mecca for kids wanting to tinker); he always had a project for us, whether it was making wooden guns, boxes, model boats, or just messing around helping out with whatever his current project was. He was a master carpenter, and produced hundreds of pieces of furniture, tools, containers, and even boats.

Project list

He had drive to understand the way everything worked, take things apart, and get his hands dirty that instilled those same values in my brothers and me. The “how would Grandpa approach this problem?” question still crosses my mind today when I’m working on projects—around the house or at the office. The notion that there’s no better way to get something built than to start building was something that’s always been around in my family of engineers. I thought building things yourself and fixing anything was just what you do. When I’d be over at a friends’ houses and hear about the parents calling a plumber, mechanic, or A/C repairman, I always thought that was strange. Why wouldn’t they just look at it and fix it themselves?

All his life he had boats. So many boats. We grew up on his Catalina 22’ that he kept at Lake Lanier in North Georgia, and we’d spend weekends out on the Lake sailing and fishing. We took that boat on trips to the Florida Panhandle and the Keys. We visited Sombrero Reef and snorkeled from that boat. He showed me how you use a sextant to find your latitude, and plot a course on a nautical chart. His love of maps and geography was a major influence in my eventual selection of career. He used to show us his personally annotated atlases charting his travels all over the world.

Grandpa's wall of boats

His professional accomplishments are astonishing. He earned his degree in mechanical engineering degree from Auburn University. He served in the US Navy in the Mediterranean aboard a minesweeper. He worked at Ingalls Shipyard in Pascagoula, then spent over 30 years with the US Army Corps of Engineers, eventually appointed Chief of Engineering for the Corps’ worldwide operations. His travels with the Corps took him to Italy (as Mediterranean division chief) and all over the region: Greece, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Jordan, Sicily, Sardinia, and Tunisia. He made his way to far flung places like Prudhoe Bay and Attu in Alaska. He even had meetings with then Saudi Price Abdullah on construction issues when he was the commander of the Saudi National Guard.

Travels of the USS Fitch

He could always laugh at himself and have a good time. His sense of humor was incredible, and some of his stories are the stuff of legend.

Even though he had a long, fruitful, and incredible life full of accomplishments, all of that pales in comparison to his integrity and devotion to his family. We’ll miss you, Grandpa.

Public Speaking

— December 9, 2014 • #

Reading this post on the value of conference participation prompted some thoughts on the subject, from my perspective as someone who’s done it a couple dozen times, with a wide range of results.

A few years back, I had never presented or given a talk at a conference, but had attended quite a few. I’d always treated conferences and events with a focus on meeting people and absorbing the “state of the art” for whatever the industry or topic at hand. After a few conferences around a given sector, though, they begin to run together. If you’re a doer who is continually self-educating, you quickly find out that you’re already caught up with or ahead of the game on much of the subject matter you’re there to educate yourself on. With the pervasiveness of online information, you can read up on any subject without waiting for the so-called experts at a conference to tell you about it.

I think 2011 was the first time I gave an actual talk to a crowd of peers on a topic I cared about (read: not for school or an assignment). I’m not a natural at public speaking, so breaking down that wall and just doing it wasn’t easy. Ever since, though, I feel that events and conferences are barely worth attending unless I’m an active participant—whether I’m putting something out there I’ve been recently working on, talking about products or projects of my company, or even simply talking on a subject I enjoy and want to promote.

That’s not to say all events are wasteful if you don’t have an opportunity to present. After all, not every one of the thousand attendees can take the mic and have the floor. The value of active participation depends on your objective or desired outcome from the event you’re attending: strictly educational, promotional, or to meet and engage peers in the community. For whatever my motivation is going into an event, I find that a mission to engage with as many people as possible is where I draw the most value. I form lasting relationships that go beyond the last day of the show, and ultimately contribute to the other two motivators: I end up learning a ton and find plenty of areas to promote what I’m doing.

Ultimately, my primary reason for promoting public speaking to my peers is that you always get a return on the time you invest doing it. At the most minimal level, you get a lot smarter on your subject matter if you’re forced to organize your thoughts and convey them to someone else. And most of the time, you’ll end up having interesting conversations and meeting new people based on throwing something out there.

The Diminishing Coast

— September 29, 2014 • #

Yesterday I read this fascinating piece on the state of Louisiana’s gulf coast. This slow, man-induced terraforming of the coastline is permanently eradicating bayou communities, and becoming a high-profile issue in the state. One of the author’s contentions is that the misrepresentation of the state’s ever-changing shape on official maps is a contributor to the lack of attention paid to this drastic situation. I love this use of correct maps as an amplifier of focus, to clarify what bad maps are hiding from the general population.

This issue of map miscommunication isn’t isolated to crises like the one happening on the Louisiana coast, it’s inherent in thousands of government-produced official maps both nationally and internationally. Some of the quotes in the article from GIS experts I thought did a good job demonstrating this fact, that old data tells lies:

He pulled up an aerial image of Pass Manchac, the channel between lakes Pontchartrain and Maurepas. On both the image and the Louisiana state map, the area appears to be forest. Anyone who has visited the flood-prone town of Manchac, about a 45-minute drive northwest of New Orleans, knows it is surrounded by wetlands. “People see the vegetation and the trees and think it’s land,” Mitchell said.

Louisiana's moving edges

Where ancient natural processes of erosion and sedimentation collide with human influence — as in the canals, flood control systems, levees, and shipping channels in the bayous of Louisiana — it strikes a highlight through the age and inaccuracy of the maps on record. As a contributor in the article states, the various layers of government-produced data that are generally thought to be relatively static can be decades old:

His experience updating maps with digital tools has exposed how inconsistent existing maps already were. “The topographic layer might have been done in 1956, and the land cover layer was done in 1962, and the transportation came from 1945,” Mitchell said of his findings. “And those are some of the good ones.”

Keeping these sorts of data up to date is a costly affair, no doubt. But with a natural ecosystem as dynamic as that of southern LA, pretending that 50 year old data is good enough is an exercise in denial. The cartographer Harold Fisk created a map series in the 40s (featured in the piece) that shows a historical picture of the natural environment: a 200-mile wide swath of meandering Mississippi riverbed that was once used to spreading its southerly-transported sediment all over the southeast parts of Louisiana’s boot. This was massively disrupted when the Corps of Engineers rigidly fixed the riverbed shape of the river with dike and levee systems, to keep it from straying and affecting the extensive infrastructure and human settlement that runs along the riverfront from New Orleans to Natchez.

As drastic as the situation is, it’s one without a clear solution; it’s an issue of competing priorities, with completely opposite, but critical ends. Fixing the coastline and allowing renewed alluvial deposit to repair the missing land means tremendous impact on Louisiana’s oil and gas industry (one of the largest in the union). Doing nothing and keeping existing man-made infrastructure in place and unaffected means losing land at a lightning pace, not to mention the negative impact to the fishing industry up and down the coast (again, one of the nation’s largest producers). And with every passing year of the Corps’ nonstop work to control the river’s path, the risk of disastrous floods increases.

Louisiana from space

Last month at a GIS conference in New Orleans, I sat in on a talk given by Allison Plyer from The Data Center, a NOLA non-profit specializing in advocacy around opening and publishing civic map data for all sorts of local issues. She showed some of these maps published earlier this year by ProPublica in their “Losing Ground” series. I highly recommend the ProPublica maps, as well as The Data Center’s projects to showcase the human geography of greater NOLA, particularly their work post-Katrina.

Read the article, it’s a great piece of writing.

A Comparison of Activity Trackers

— July 16, 2014 • #

The concept of activity tracking is getting ever closer to ubiquitous nowadays with the prevalence of dozens of mobile apps, wearable wristbands, and other health monitoring tools like Bluetooth-enabled scales and video games based on exercise. Now the world’s largest tech company is even rumored to be working on some form of wearable hardware (and software APIs), at which point the whole concept of “life tracking” will reach 100% penetration. Everyone will be tracking and recording their lives like characters in cyberpunk literature.

I’m a casual runner and cyclist, and started testing a handful of fitness tracker mobile apps to map my activity. Since I’m a stats and data junkie, I did some extensive experimental testing with these four apps to size up the advantages of each in terms of technical capability, as well as the feature-set of services provided by each within their online social systems:

There are dozens of other options for wearable hardware for tracking activity, location, and more, but I still think most of them are either too costly or not mature enough to invest my money in. I seriously debated buying a Fitbit or Up, but I’m glad I haven’t given Apple’s potential push into that market.

Let’s run through the details of each and compare what they have to offer.


Each of these apps has its focus, but they all promise the same basic set of features (with the exception of Moves, which I’ll get to in a moment):

  1. Allow user to log an activity of specific type — running, walking, cycling, hiking, kayaking, skiing, etc.
  2. Calculate metrics about the activity including time, distance, map location (in the form of a GPS track), speed, pace, calories, elevation, etc.
  3. Share your activities with friends, and join a social network of other active people (including professional athletes)
  4. Compete against others in various ways
  5. Set goals and measure your progress toward said goals

Moves is a different style of app. It’s a persistent motion tracker that runs continuously in the background on your device, mostly for calculating steps and distance per day for all of your activity. No need to open the app and record independent activities. I wanted to include Moves in the mix primarily for its deep data recording and mapping capabilities. I’ll revisit Moves’ data quality later on when discussing data.

Mobile Apps

I’m an iPhone user, and iOS has matured to the point that serious, veteran app developers have ironed out most of the annoyances and kinks of basic app design concepts. Most of the conventions around app UI have arrived at general consensus in presentation, using a couple of well-known paradigms for structuring the user interface. Both RunKeeper and Strava use the home-row tab button UI layout, with standard “5-button” options list across the bottom. MapMyRun uses the sidebar/tray strategy to house its options, like most of Google’s iOS apps.

Activity trackers

The basic interfaces of all three of these apps are nice. RunKeeper and Strava are almost exactly level on features on the mobile side. They both have a basic social presence or feed of your friends’ activity, activity type selectors, and big “Start” buttons to get going with minimal fiddling. MMR’s look is a little cluttered for me, but it does include other functions on the mobile side like weight entry and nutrition logging.

All of them support configurable audio announcements of progress during an activity. A voice will chime in while you’re running to give you reports on your current distance, pace, and time since the start. Each also can be paired up via Bluetooth with an array of external sensors like heart rate monitors, bike speedometers, and others. Strava even has a nice capability to visualize your heart rate metrics throughout the course of your activities if you use a monitor.


In my testing, the reliability and consistency of all of these apps has come a long way since the early days of the App Store, back to iPhone 3G and the first devices with GPS. The only one of the group that I’ve been using that long (since 2009) is RunKeeper, and its reliability now is in another class than it was back then. Since the introduction of multitasking with iOS, apps run silently in the background when switching between apps while a tracking activity is in progress. I tested tracking with all three simultaneously without any issues.

During a couple of my test runs, Strava inexplicably stopped my activity for no reason, but didn’t hard crash. When I’d switch back to the app, the current activity was paused mid-way, which is an annoying bug or behavior to encounter when you can’t recreate your activity easily. RunKeeper still seems the most reliable option all around, including the mobile app dependability and the syncing operations with the cloud service. Multiple times I had trouble getting the activity to properly save and sync on Strava and MapMyRun, though usually it was just a delay in being able to get my data synced — didn’t involve data loss except for the paused activities and couple of app crashes.


All three of these apps function as clients for their associated web services, not just standalone applications. They’re not much different; each of them shows a feed of activity and a way to browse your (and your friends’) activity details. Stacking up your accomplishments against your friends for some friendly competition seems to be the main focus of their web services, but the motivators and ability to “plus up” friends’ activity might push some to work out harder or more often. The differences here are mostly minor, and deciding on the “best” service in terms of its online offerings will come down to personal preference. One of the features I like with Strava is the ability to add equipment that you use, like your running shoes or specific bikes. Doing this will let you see the total distance ridden on your bike over time.

Each service offers a premium paid tier with additional features. Strava and RunKeeper have free-to-use mobile apps with fewer features, while MMR goes with advertisements and in-app-purchase to remove the ads.

Data Quality / Maps

My primary interest in analyzing these services was to check out the quality of the GPS data logging. I ran all three of them on the same ride through Snell Isle so I could overlay them together and see what the variance was in location accuracy. Even though iOS is ultimately logging the same data from the same sensor, and offering that up to the applications via the Core Location API, the data shows that all three apps must be processing and storing the location values differently. Here’s a map showing the GPS track lines recorded in each — Strava, MapMyRun, and RunKeeper. Click the buttons below the map to toggle them on and off to see how the geometry compares. If you zoom in close, you’ll see the lines stray apart in some areas:

Each app performs roughly the same in terms of location data quality. The small variances in precision seem to trend together for the most part, which makes sense. When the signal gets bad, or the sky is slightly occluded, the Location APIs are going to return worse data for all running applications. One noticable difference between the track geometry (in this example, at least) is that the MapMyRun track alignment tends to vary in different ways than the other two. It looks like there might be some sort of server-side smoothing or splining going on to make the data look better after processing, but it doesn’t dramatically change the accuracy of the data overall.

I did notice that using these apps without cellular data enabled results in severe degradation of quality, I think due to the fact that the Assisted GPS services are unavailable, forcing the phone to rely on a raw GPS satellite fix. When using any location logging app without cellular data switched on, the device has to take longer to get a position lock. A couple of runs from my Europe trip exhibited this, like my run along the Thames in London, and one in Lucerne.

Run on the Thames

Since these motion trackers rely on the GPS track and time series data for calculating total distance (which is obviously way off with this much linear error), you end up with massively incorrect pace and calorie-burning metrics. This jagged-looking run activity in London reported itself to be 4.7 miles, and in reality it was only about 3.5. Soon I’d like to pair my iPhone up with an external GPS device I’ve been testing out to see what the improvement in accuracy looks like.

If you want to export the raw data straight from the web services, Strava and RunKeeper are the only ones that will give you a full time series-enabled GPX track file for each activity. MapMyRun only exports the track point data, which without the timestamp info for each point can’t be processed to calculate pace and other metrics with elapsed time as a variable.

The location data captured by the Moves app works a little differently. It splits your persistent movement activity up into day and week views, with totals of steps taken and calories burned, by type of activity. It does some cool auto-detection of activity type to try and classify car transport, cycling, running, and walking automatically. Because it’s always running in the background, though, the location data isn’t quite as granular as from the other three applications, probably due to less frequent logging using the location APIs.

Moves app examples

One caveat important to note is that Moves was acquired by Facebook back in May. That may turn a lot of people off to the idea of uploading their persistent motion tracking information to the Borg.

Wrap up

Strava and MapMyRun also support pulling the track info from external devices like mountable GPS devices, watches, and bike sensors.

Overall, my favorite is Strava as the app-of-choice for tracking activity. It performs consistently, the GPS and fitness data is high quality, and the service has a good balance of simplicity and social features that I like.


— June 7, 2014 • #

I recently took a trip to Tunis to attend the GCT-Tunisia conference, a geospatial industry event focused on capacity building and promotion of mapping tools in the fluid and exciting region of North Africa. It was a fascinating trip to visit a place at such a turning point in its development. Both Tunisia and Libya, each of which had significant representation at the conference, are still just 3 years out from revolutions that unseated regimes in power for decades. It was a welcome opportunity to visit during this period of transition (yet relative safety and stability).

Tunis Carthage Airport

Traveling from Florida to North Africa is a trek. We flew through JFK Airport in New York, to Atatürk Airport in Istanbul, then onto Tunis-Carthage. For the international legs we flew on Turkish Airlines, which was a first for me. Turkish didn’t have the luxury-by-default feeling of the Gulf airlines, but it was comfortable. And for being an international hub and one of the busiest airports in the world, Atatürk was easy enough to transit between gates and move through security. Even at 5am local time, the airport was a swarm, with a varied crowd that proved Istanbul really is “where east meets west”.

The flight to Tunis left early in the morning local time. There were some fantastic views of the Greek islands and Sicily’s Mount Etna from my window seat. Tunis-Carthage Airport is right in the geographic center of the city. From the east, you fly in right over the Lake of Tunis, a natural lagoon encircled by the city. Passport control was slow, but easy, and the terminal was bustling with people. We caught a car ride to our hotel - about a 20km drive through La Marsa up along the beach to Gammarth. For a city that underwent a revolution only 3 years ago, there are few visible signs. We heard from some of the locals that before and during the revolution, much of the European expat population left the country, but things seem to be recovering strongly. Our hotel and the neighboring ones on the waterfront were crowded all week with people from Europe and all over the region.

Sidi Bou Saïd

Early in the trip we visited the old town of Sidi Bou Saïd, which is a fascinating hilltop settlement and tourist spot with amazing views overlooking the Mediterranean. It’s packed with shops selling mostly artwork — paintings, pots, dishware, and the like. Since it’s positioned on the center of a bluff above the waterfront, it has labyrinthine streets winding between distinctive white and blue buildings. We didn’t do much here but buy some gifts for those back home, then eat some pizza at a nearby local joint.

The highlight of the trip was toward the end of the week, when the conference organizers put together an excursion tour that took us south to a town called Zaghouan, to visit an ancient Roman water temple at the base of the mountain. We hopped into a tour van early on Friday to make the journey into the countryside to Zaghouan, which gave Patrick and I ample opportunity to snap photos from the road (for some post-trip OpenStreetMapping). On the way out of town we stopped near the ruins of Carthage to see the destination of a 3000 year old aqueduct that once led to the cisterns where the Romans stored and supplied the city with water from the mountainous south. About 30 km south of Tunis we stopped on the roadside to see the remnants of the aqueduct, at a point where it’s remarkably well-preserved. It feels unbelievable to stand beneath a structure nearly 2000 years old and marvel at the fact that even this form of ancient plumbing is still standing. There are even sections of it where the original water pipeline is still covered and intact.

Djebel Zaghouan

Another hour or so of driving took us into the city of Zaghouan, which sits beneath Djebel Zaghouan, a craggy mountain that’s one of the northernmost peaks in the Atlas range. We wound our way up the streets into the foothills, to the “Temple des Eaux”, the Roman water temple. The Romans built the temple on top of a spring in the second century AD - it served as a place of worship, and the source of the aqueduct that supplied water to Carthage via the aqueduct. You could see the pipe where water was siphoned from the spring emerging from the side of the hill, where it slowly pitched downward onto the top of the aqueduct for its 100km downhill trickle. The views from the temple are incredible. The climate and topography make it feel like you’re in southern California, overlooking the olive orchards and almond plantations of the surrounding area. With our fellow geographers out in the field, everyone naturally couldn’t help but do some surveying while on site at such a historic place. One of our tour-mates, a surveyor that builds and operates 3D laser scanners, broke out the devices to gather some high-resolution scans of the temple site.

El Fahs

About 20km west of Zaghouan is the smaller town of El Fahs. There we were visiting the ruins of a Roman city called Thuburbo Majus. On a hilltop a few kilometers from the main town, it’s quiet, calm, and stunningly well-preserved and protected. We arrived there in the mid-afternoon to an empty site. There were two staff guards at the entrance that let us in, then we pretty much had the entire site to ourselves. The road through the site dates from nearly 2,000 years ago, and various of the structures were built over the next 3 or 4 centuries. The highlight of the walk through the ruins, for me, was an archway between the baths and an elevated temple, dating from the time of the Punic Wars — narrow, perfectly constructed, and still standing after 20 centuries. Completely unbelievable, and at a site with relatively little oversight or protection. I could touch the arch when walking beneath it.

Punic arch

Up on the site of the old forum, some local boys were kicking the football around. I overheard an argument about who was “Cristiano” as they were chasing the ball up and down the stairs to the columns of the capital.

Soccer on the forum

The wildflowers were so dense we could barely walk through them. I got some video walking through the “House of the Auriga” and the Winter Baths. A stunning place to get to visit, with beautiful weather the whole day of our excursion.

I’ve posted a bunch of photos from Tunis and the excursion up on Flickr.