Scrappy collaboration in government: the misaligned web-mapping story


Coordinate changes over time due to tectonic plate movement.

Confession: We broke government conventions, worked beyond our agency’s mandate, attended an international technical committee meeting on personal time, uncovered significant negative impacts for unsuspecting users in Australia’s multi-million dollar mapping program, and achieved glowing praise and thanks from our agency for our efforts.

Welcome to ‘scrappy collaboration’.

$225 million has been committed to improving Australia’s GPS positioning tenfold, to 5cm accuracy. However technical shortcuts previously embedded in web-mapping software, which ignore tectonic plate movements, are causing metre-level map misalignments in web-mapping! This is an international problem which is being exposed by Australia’s advanced mapping program. Needless to say, misaligned maps are confusing for users and unacceptable for Australian mapping agencies.

When NSW Spatial Services discovered the project risks involved, and the minimal existing focus on the problem, we joined other Australian states, and worked beyond our agency’s mandate, to look for a solution.

An interdependent problem cluster

With investigation, we unravelled a cluster of interrelated problems:

  • Some of which had deep technical challenges;
  • With varying implications to diverse user groups and use cases;
  • Which were difficult to understand and explain;
  • With experts regularly talking past each other, each considering a different part of the problem;
  • With multiple holistic strategies possible (each strategy offering significantly different costs and benefits for each stakeholder group);
  • With high impact implications for software, data and users;
  • Requiring national and international collaboration between diverse stakeholders to resolve effectively.

Not my responsibility

The investigation turned out to be a significant time sink, distracting us from our core roles. If following a government playbook, we should have left the responsibility to others: Our software vendor, international standards foundations, national mapping organisations, …

But we knew we had a moral obligation to step up. Our team understood the overarching problem; had access to geodetic surveyors and software engineers; and had personal connections with international experts and influencers from open-source and standards communities.

A scrappy approach

A complex, interdependent problem cluster has a high barrier to entry. Each stakeholder only understands and can influence a subset of the issues. No one has a business case to solve the greater problem for everyone. This is difficult to solve with traditional top-down management approaches.

Instead, we adopted a scrappy, very personal approach, trading our time, and collected knowledge with collaborators to achieve common goals.

  • We very publicly admitted the embarrassing problems we were facing in technical forums, and asked for help.
  • We shamelessly drew down favours from our friends in open source communities, government agencies, industry and standards organisations.
  • We spent extra effort coordinating contributions, answering questions, and addressing related problems relevant to our collaborators (because that is what friends do).
  • We concisely compiled descriptions of the problems, along with suggested solutions.
  • Joel Haasdyk, our datum modernisation manager and geodetic surveyor, then used personal leave to travel halfway around the world to present recommendations to the standards technical committee.

When collaborating, we applied many of the hallmark characteristics prevalent in open source communities:

  • Respect the time of your collaborators; be concise in messaging.
  • Lead by example; put in the hard work.
  • Reach out to people; be vulnerable and ask for help.
  • Be clear about what you need and from whom.
  • Care about your collaborators; help solve their problems too.

Tap into your humanity – it has tangible business benefits.

Impact

The impact we achieved with collaborators was apparent from the reports coming from the standards community. Scott Simmons, Executive Director of the OGC Standards Program reported:

“I don’t know if I have ever seen a better and more compelling tag-team describe and lead discussion on a topic than Joel and Roger’s presentation on the time-dependent limitations inherent in most OGC spatial standards. I received many emails and face-to-face comments from attendees afterwards stating that it was so valuable to understand the problem and see that there is a solution. Resulting from the presentation, the majority of OGC Standards Working Groups now understand the necessity to update their standards to account for time-dependence of coordinates, with some already initiating updates.”

Future standards development will consider tectonic plate movement and will start to address Australia’s map misalignment problems impacting our datum modernisation program. We are at the start of the journey, there is still plenty more to do, but we now are heading in the right direction.

Counterintuitive solution

So, when faced with complex problems, consider expanding scope rather than constraining it. Consider solving the problems of others as well as your own. Attract the collective wisdom and resources of collaborators and you’ll likely find your solutions are more impactful, strategic and sustainable.

Cameron Shorter was a Geospatial Business Analyst with NSW Spatial Services at the time of writing. He has a personal blog about open source development and geospatial data, where this article was first published.

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