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Driving Innovation with Research and Online Courses

Thursday, June 12th 2014
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Summary:

Most organizations want to be innovative. They want to explore new ideas toward fulfilling their mission. They also want their employees or members to expand their expertise and feel challenged and stimulated by their work. Robert Cheetham, founder and president of Azavea, discusses that company’s less than conventional approach to cultivating innovation and how the commitment has paid off.

Innovation is important to most organizations, whether they are governments, non-profit organizations or commercial firms. Like many firms working in the geospatial marketplace, Azavea naturally pursues technological innovation as part of serving our customers and partners. However, in this article, I would like focus on our somewhat less conventional approaches to cultivating innovation.  

Innovation at Azavea

Our innovation tactics can be organized into four elements. First, we are a B Corporation, a for-profit company that leverages the power of business to effect positive social impact. Our mission is specifically aimed at applying geospatial technology for civic impact and advancing the state-of-the-art through research. In pursuit of the research component of that mission, a significant portion of our work includes our collaborations with academic institutions, federal agencies, philanthropic foundations and non-profit organizations. The outcomes yield results ranging from new open source software toolkits to white papers on a range of topics related to civic technology, including gerrymandering, citizen science and augmented reality.

Second, Azavea shares its commercial success through pro bono work with nonprofit organizations, mentoring programs like Summer of Maps, organizing civic hackathons like EcoCamp and Hacks for Democracy, and by donating a portion of its profits each year to charitable organizations around the world. (Figure 1)

Figure 1. Azavea staff members participate in a hackathon

Third, many of the company’s software projects (OpenTreeMap for urban ecosystem management, DistrictBuilder for redistricting, and GeoTrellis [Figure 3] for fast geoprocessing) are made available under open source licenses.

Fourth, and I will discuss this topic in detail, Azavea invests 10% of employee time in research and learning programs with the primary goal of developing new solutions and techniques, and expanding employee skills (Figure 2).

Ten-percent Time for Research and Learning

Percentage-based R&D programs are not a new concept. Google has had a well-known 20% time for R&D program in place for many years, and Google’s program was based on a similar 15% program at 3M. Azavea’s program is available to all staff after their first six months with the company. No one is required to pursue a project, but the program is integrated into the planning and operations of the company. These research and learning projects can take many forms. Some are applied research concerned with new software tools and techniques (or new to us, at least). For example, current research projects include:  an effort to apply genetic algorithms to generate transit routes; UI/UX design experiments with Google Glass; application of the OpenCV computer vision framework to recognizing trees in Google Street View; better PostGIS import tools; Emacs integration with Django; and an exploration of machine learning algorithms for space-time forecasting.

Each of these projects attempts to strike a balance between several areas of concern. They address a topic or dataset related to the company’s business. They also need to support exploration in an area of interest for the individual. The project should show progress within three to six months; if that seems unlikely, we encourage folks to scale back the scope in order to enjoy the satisfaction of achievement on a regular basis, as well as enable a mid-stream change of direction. Finally, the research plan needs to include a mechanism by which the results will be shared with others. This can take the form of a blog article, a presentation at a conference or meet-up, release of the source code on GitHub, or other forum. Learning is great, but it’s often better when it can contribute to a broader intellectual commons, whether inside the company or elsewhere.

Figure 2. Azavea staff listen to a local researcher at a lunch talk

In addition to technology research, Azavea staff can use their 10% time for professional development activities that include attending conferences, training classes, webinars and workshops. Some of our software developers have also used their time to participate in code sprints or hackathons that help them learn new programming languages or create open source solutions that benefit local communities.  

MOOCs

Over the past two years, as their quality and availability have increased, massive open online courses (MOOCs) have presented new opportunities for Azavea staff to maintain and improve their job-related skills. Participants are able to expand their knowledge in areas of interest without having to conform to a college or university schedule. They are also able to join their online classes at work, at home or anywhere on the Web.

While there are a number of MOOC platforms available, the Coursera education platform has been the most popular with Azavea staff. Coursera partners with top universities to offer free online courses open to anyone. A wide range of both technical and non-technical subjects are available throughout the year.  Dr. Anthony Robinson’s popular geospatial MOOC, Maps and the Geospatial Revolution, is an important example. Over the past two years, Azavea’s project managers, software developers, UI/UX designers and other staff have attended Introduction to Data Science from the University of Washington, Gamification from the University of Pennsylvania, and Principles of Reactive Programming and Functional Programming Principles in Scala from École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland through the Coursera platform.

Taking a MOOC requires a measure of dedication. They are generally four to eight weeks in length and the 10% time is rarely enough to cover all of the activities required for each course. This often means that staff must invest some of their personal time to complete homework assignments on time. But they gain valuable knowledge and skills that they might not otherwise obtain on the job, and they have access to university programs around the corner or around the globe. MOOCs also provide an important social opportunity to connect with people who have similar capabilities and interests.

We have also begun to see job applicants listing technical MOOCs on their resumes, and having seen the impact of the higher quality MOOCs on our own staff, we tend to view these credentials with some respect. The classes are rarely easy, and the fact that job applicants are taking courses to improve their skills is a good sign that they have a positive attitude toward ongoing learning opportunities and will fit well within our culture.

Making 10% Time Work for Employees and the Company

While the 10% program has been popular, over the years, we have learned that some people find it challenging to allocate the time on a regular basis. We have taken a few steps to mitigate this issue. First, each person prepares a short research proposal that outlines their idea, some milestones and a research plan. This formal plan helps to set expectations as well as ensure the project has some connection to the company’s broader strategy. Second, we set aside one day a month – an R&D Code Sprint Day – where there is both explicit social permission and peer pressure to invest in your research or learning project. The day starts with a stand-up meeting for the whole company. Each person with a research project says a brief word on the status of their effort and what their goals are for the day. Third, we hold a quarterly “R&D Social” in which people have a chance to share the results of their projects with brief presentations to their colleagues. Fourth, we send out a monthly survey to gather progress reports, and these are shared in the monthly company newsletter.

The opportunity to work on cutting-edge research is an important part of a company culture that encourages and takes pride in innovative applications of geospatial technology. But you are probably wondering about the return on investment. This is not “University of Azavea”; we are a commercial firm that needs to turn a profit. There is no doubt that the learning projects, conferences and other training programs have immediate impact, whether they are instructor-led or MOOCs. The outcomes are not always easy to measure, but over the years, many staff research projects have become new software tools that make us more productive, have won awards, have led to federal research grant funding, or have enabled the firm to pursue new business opportunities in areas and domains we had not previously explored. The GeoTrellis solution is a great example.

Figure 3. GeoTrellis powers Priority Places, a tool developed to help citizens and entrepeneurs locate facilities in Asheville, NC. Click to visit site.

GeoTrellis (Figure 3) began as an individual’s 10% time aimed at building an online application for finding the best neighborhood in which to buy a house. This idea failed as a product but the technology was transferred to an economic development prototype for the city of Philadelphia and ultimately received grant funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to support performance optimization research. Over the course of several years, the project changed form and scope, but it is now a flagship open source software toolkit that supports high performance geoprocessing for a broad range of use cases, and it was recently submitted to the Eclipse Foundation’s LocationTech working group.

Investment in a stimulating, intellectually challenging and open environment for our employees is an explicit part of Azavea’s mission, as well as being a strong attraction to potential job candidates and an element of our retention strategy. The addition of learning and professional development opportunities to our R&D program has contributed to a more productive, innovative and engaged workforce while also enabling the company to grow and prosper.


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