...so take it easy.
My name is Michal Migurski. I play the role of CTO for Code for America, a Bay Area non-profit organization helping make government digital services beautiful, simple, and easy to use. Until December 2012, I was technology head at Stamen, a San Francisco design and development studio focused on data visualization and map-making. Below, you will find my weblog, tecznotes, and a collection of smaller and older things I've worked on.
Background photo by Fred.
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The hard part of coming to State of the Map is that I’m only a little bit connected to the OpenStreetMap project right now, and not spending most of my time on geospatial open source like I used to. I’ll come back to it, but today I’ve had a number of conversations about projects of mine, their status, and whether I have abandoned them. Metropolitan Extracts have not yet been run during 2014, TileStache is stable but has a few outstanding pull requests, and it’s high time I merged Walking Papers with Stamen’s more-stable Field Papers offshoot. Thankfully Vector Tiles remain happily running on the US OSM server.
I wish I could say I had easy answers for these projects; they seem genuinely useful to people but not something I can maintain at the moment and not something I can exactly delagate at CfA.
If you’ve attended a movie or generally looked at things in the past five years, you’ll know that we’re in the age of ubiquitous gotham.
The MPAA has switched to Gotham for their ratings screens. If you pay attention to the previews before a movie, it’s now the go-to font for all movie titles. Obama’s 2008 campaign standardized on Gotham and Sentinel (another H&FJ face) for their celebrated visual identity. In 2012, Obama switched things up and standardized on Sentinel and Gotham. Code for America uses these two excellent fonts on our website via the H&FJ cloud service.
Gotham is the inception horn of typefaces.
It’s a major, inescapable part of the visual landscape, and I think it needs a boycott.
You might be interested to know that the celebrated type foundry Hoefler & Frere-Jones who created the typeface is going through an acrimonious divorce right now. Do yourself a quick favor and read Tobias Frere-Jones’s opposition to Hoefler’s motion to dismiss. The short version is that Frere-Jones joined Hoefler’s foundry over ten years ago, and brought with him a set of “dowry” fonts that he had developed for his previous employer. In return, Hoefler allegedly promised 50% of the company, changed its name to Hoefler & Frere-Jones, and spent a complete decade referring to Frere-Jones as “partner” while quietly stalling on making the status official. Frere-Jones finally got fed up waiting and forced the issue, things went pear-shaped, and the studio is now called Hoefler Company.
I’ve had my issues with H&FJ in the past, but this current situation is an object lesson in the perils of half-assing legal relationships. Hoefler is a celebrated designer himself, but in this story plays the role of jerkface suit. Frere-Jones is probably too naïve for his own good, but here he is serving as a critical example for why you should always get it in writing, even just a one-sentence napkin scrawl of intent. I left my own former company Stamen Design in 2012 after nine years, and my experience working with Eric and Shawn and eventually departing was a cakewalk thanks to Eric’s above-board handling of my 25-year-old self in 2003.
So, to draw attention to the need for businesses to treat designers with respect, and the need for designers to insist that business processes happen by the book, I think it’s time we put an end to the age of Gotham everywhere.
Today, we wrapped up a bunch of fake cities from the goofy tail end of our Code for America site redesign process into a 2015 cities April Fools joke.
Today, everyone on the tech team dressed up as me, right down to the yellow DURR.
Today, Frances and I merged streams and made progress on a proof-of-concept we’ve been thinking about for the Digital Front Door project. Lane wrote that linked post.
Today, I participated on a panel hosted by Zipfian Academy on Data Science For Social Good, with folks who work in education, power, petitions, and health. These are my notes:
Code for America works at the source of data: cities, governments, and the primary source data they produce.
Governments are famously behind on technology, while Silicon Valley is famously out front. So, the biggest technical challenge we face is the bridging the trough of disillusionment rollercoaster ride of the Gartner Hype Cycle.
We try to build that bridge by working on things that matter to cities, like public records, public services, and communications.
At the same time, we are building and supporting an international community of civic hackers, through projects like the Brigade and a new API for collecting and hosting information about civic tech projects.
Right now, one of the emergent data science issues we see is ETL or Extract/Transform/Load. At our weekly Open Oakland Brigade hack night, people like former fellow Dave Guarino are helping city staff publish ethics commission data.
Come to Open Oakland meeting every Tuesday, 6:30pm at city hall to participate. Search Google “ETL for America” to learn more.
If you live in SF, come to SF Brigade meeting every Wednesday, 6:30pm at Code for America 9th & Natoma.
All in all a good day.
Apropos the Julie Ann Horvath Github shitshow, I’ve been thinking this weekend about management, generally.
I don’t know details about the particular Github situation so I won’t say much about it, but I was present for Tom Preston-Werner’s 2013 OSCON talk about Github. After a strong core message about open source licenses, liability, and freedom (tl;dr: avoid the WTFPL), Tom talked a bit about Github’s management model.
Management is about subjugation; it’s about control.
At Github, Tom described a setup where the power structure of the company is defined by the social structures of the employees. He showed a network hairball to illustrate his point, said that Github employees can work on what they feel like, subject to the strategic direction set for the company. There are no managers.
This bothered me a bit when I heard it last summer, and it’s gotten increasingly more uncomfortable since. I’ve been paraphrasing this part of the talk as “management is a form of workplace violence,” and the still-evolving story of Julie Ann Horvath suggests that the removal of one form of workplace violence has resulted in the reintroduction of another, much worse form. In my first post-college job, I was blessed with an awesome manager who described his work as “firefighter up and cheerleader down,” an idea I’ve tried to live by as I’ve moved into positions of authority myself. The idea of having no managers, echoed in other companies like Valve Software, suggests the presence of major cultural problems at a company like Github. As Shanley Kane wrote in What Your Culture Really Says, “we don’t have an explicit power structure, which makes it easier for the unspoken power dynamics in the company to play out without investigation or criticism.” Managers might be difficult, hostile, or useless, but because they are parts of an explicit power structure they can be evaluted explicitly. For people on the wrong side of a power dynamic, engaging with explicit structure is often the only means possible to fix a problem.
Implicit power can be a liability as well as a strength. In the popular imagination, implicit power elites close sweetheart deals in smoke-filled rooms. In reality, the need for implicit power to stay in the shadows can cripple it in the face of an outside context problem. Aaron Bady wrote of Julian Assange and Wikileaks that “while an organization structured by direct and open lines of communication will be much more vulnerable to outside penetration, the more opaque it becomes to itself (as a defense against the outside gaze), the less able it will be to “think” as a system, to communicate with itself. The more conspiratorial it becomes, in a certain sense, the less effective it will be as a conspiracy.”
Going back to the social diagram, this lack of ability to communicate internally seems to be an eventual property of purely bottoms-up social structures. Github has been enormously successful on the strength of a single core strategy: the creation of a delightful, easy-to-use web UI on top of a work-sharing system designed for distributed use. I’ve been a user since 2009, and my belief is that the product has consistently improved, but not meaningfully changed. Github’s central, most powerful innovation is the Pull Request. Github has annexed adjoining territory, but has not yet had to respond to a threat that may force it to abandon territory or change approach entirely.
Without a structured means of communication, the company is left with the vague notion that employees can do what they feel like, as long as it’s compliant with the company’s strategic direction. Who sets that direction, and how might it be possible to change it? There’s your implicit power and first point of weakness.
This is incidentally what’s so fascinating about the government technology position I’m in at Code for America. I believe that we’re in the midst of a shift in power from abusive tech vendor relationships to something driven by a city’s own digital capabilities. The amazing thing about GOV.UK is that a government has decided it has the know-how to hire its own team of designers and developers, and exercised its authority. That it’s a cost-saving measure is beside the point. It’s the change I want to see in the world: for governments large and small to stop copy-pasting RFP line items and cargo-culting tech trends (including the OMFG Ur On Github trend) and start thinking for themselves about their relationship with digital communication.
Modest Maps is a BSD-licensed display and interaction library for tile-based maps in Adobe Flash 7+, written in ActionScript. This is an active project I'm working on with Darren, Shawn, and Tom.
Mappr is a geographic browser of Flickr's photo collection. I wrote a large portion of this application with Tomas and Eric, notably the place-name matching and geolocation bits, and pretty much the entire back-end.
Jitter and 3D Geometry
Updated experiments in 3D geometry handling using OpenGL and PHP.
Photos taken from the roof of the SOMA-SF warehouse space I lived in, summer of 2002.
Collages of freeway satellite imagery to satisfy a fetish for complex interchanges.
Quickdraw and basic 3D
Rough experiments in 3D rendering basics and matrix math.
moveon: fahrenheit 9/11 national town meeting / part of a nationally-broadcast conversation between Michael Moore and MoveonPAC directors.
stamen google news visualizer / data visualisation experiment intended to give a high-level view of who's making news at the moment, and who made the news at specified times in the past.
bmw design priorities / rich internet application development in collaboration with DesignworksUSA Advanced Communications Group
moveon: bush uncovered / map of moveon.org's bush uncovered event series
naral/pro-choice america / map of the march for women's lives
sflnc / web dev political activism on behalf of the san francisco late night community
bipole / audio-video synchronicity courtesy of me & andy w.
video riot / “an edgy electronic tailgate party and a real-time drive-in multiplex”
viberation / event production, multimedia installations, dancing all night
Map Projection / a collection of classes used to project GPS data points onto maps, implemented in PHP 4
OSC hub / PHP-based client and server for Open Sound Control, optimized for use with Max/MSP implementation.
flash component of the H&K global website, a database-driven worldwide office map
coho / content management display component, for Apache/PHP/MySQL
sordid / command-line mp3 sorting utility for mac OS X, unix