Takeaways from the FME International User Conference 2014

June 24, 2014

Sharing is Caring

Six years ago FME users gathered in Vancouver, BC to share knowledge. Five years ago they visited Whistler, BC to do the same thing. This year the conference returned to Vancouver to share knowledge and celebrate Safe Software’s 20th birthday (retrospective video).  Some 360 users and 100 Safe Software staffers shared their energy, commitment and playfulness. Users and staff learned quite a lot amidst great food, great scenery and a warm, welcoming atmosphere. Here are the key ideas I took away.

An FME banner set against the windows of the Vancouver Convention Center

Do What You Love

Don Murray and Dale Lutz, the co-founders of Safe Software, clearly love what they do. They found a problem 20 years ago and, along with their colleagues, are still solving it. The problem, put succinctly, is minimizing the data manipulation necessary for analysts to actually use geospatial (and other) data in support of an organization’s needs. At one time the company called this process Extract, Transform, Load - ETL. Today, the terms are Connect, Transform, Automate. The products, languages and formats supported over the years have changed, but the goal of streamlining the process of creating data that are fit for use has not.

The other thing that has not changed, and I know this from 14 years of working with the pair, is that these gentlemen are themselves. There are no “on stage” or “corporate” personalities. They have the same goofy, stand-up comedian style whether in an interview at a trade show or on stage speaking to their users and partners.

Murray and Lutz have created an environment where their people can do what they love. Many staffers commented to me about how much they like coming to work and how there’s a strong commitment to a balanced work and home life. There are also opportunities to innovate, including time to pursue personal interests.

Missed Opportunities

Safe invited several of its long-term partners to contribute to the user conference by giving keynote presentations: Esri, Boundless, Hexagon, Autodesk and Google. The request was that each company look into the future. Several didn’t take full advantage of the opportunity to speak to Safe’s very savvy, and I believe, very influential, global user base. Instead, three presenters took generic PowerPoints and demos out of the drawer and spoke for 30 disappointing minutes.

I applaud Safe for reaching out to these key players in the geospatial industry. I am frustrated and sad that these firms did not craft meaningful messages for this important audience.

Boundless: Do Your Learnings; Many, Many Learnings

Paul Ramsey, a geospatial architect at Boundless, crafted a memorable and valuable message. He connected what he does (manages the open source OpenGeo Suite among other things) and what Safe and its products do. He shared what he learned from using FME. And, he started it all with a story, one that everyone in that room could retell at this moment. (I did, indeed, have a flashback to Paul Donato speaking at Location Intelligence Summit 2014 because he, too, was a storyteller.)

The story, which provides the title of this section, goes like this. Some years back Ramsey attended CeBIT, a large technology show in Hanover, Germany. Lacking hotel rooms, the city paired visitors with locals who had a room to rent. Ramsey’s host was studying to be a veterinarian, which required passing one huge test. At the end of one day, Ramsey’s host shared how he’d spent his day: “Doing many, many learnings.” Ramsey used that story to encourage those in the audience to keep doing their “learnings,” something key to each individual’s future as well as that of the geospatial industry. That idea of continued learning, out beyond our comfort zones, was referenced repeatedly during the conference, both in formal presentations and in hallway conversations.

Ramsey then shared what he’d learned from using FME:

  • Data is not a solid - It’s a liquid that you pour and change.
  • Good tools are easy to integrate - If they are not, it’s not the user’s fault, it’s the fault of the developers.
  • Good tools push users to learn more, often outside of the tool itself - Ramsey noted that FME pushed him to learn Perl, SQL, Tcl and about the value of databases. That database experience eventually led him to write PostGIS, a spatial add-on for open source PostgreSQL.

Ramsey warned that tools, especially tools that do quite a lot, can keep individuals locked in, never needing to stray beyond their boundaries. And, he further warned about open tools locked to non-open ones, what open source guru Richard Stallman once called the Java Trap.

Google: Maps are the Next Document Type

Adam Evans, manager of Enterprise Geospatial at Google Canada, suggested that maps would be the next document type, one akin to spreadsheets. He did not fully explain how, but the assertion was the buzzed-about takeaway from his keynote. Less discussed, but very important for Google’s vision of the future of mapping, are the company’s key goals for mapping (and I guess all its) technology: interoperability, usability, scalability and discovery. I’ll focus on the last two since I think the examples made the biggest impact on the attendees.

The example Evans gave of scalability related to Google.org’s (Google’s charitable arm) crisis maps that provide information during earthquakes, fires, floods and other situations. During such events new data are made available by the U.S. government typically via geoplatform.gov. Google took the data from that portal and repurposed them to scale in a way the government platform could not, as people from all over the world want to know the status of the event, their loved ones and their property.

Evans pointed to the “just released” Google Maps Gallery as a solution for discoverability. (It was actually February of this year, All Points Blog coverage.) The gallery is “an interactive, digital atlas where anyone can find rich, compelling maps from governments, businesses, non-profits and schools” and is envisioned to play a role as a portal for authoritative open and non-open map data. More than one attendee remarked to me how much it looks like ArcGIS Online.

Attendees have some fun showing off their new Safe Software umbrellas on the steps of the convention center at the end of the conference’s first day.

FME 2015 Enhancement

Murray and Lutz shared some the features that might someday make it into FME 2015. The list was organized around the key abilities of FME: connect, transform and automate.

Connect refers to reading or writing new datasets and services. Among those that may appear:

  • SharePoint reading and writing
  • Industry Foundation Classes (IFC) writing - Revit reading was added in FME 2013 and the vision is to support writing both IFC2x3 and IFC4.
  • Minecraft writing - It turns out that Minecraft’s data format is a pointcloud, and FME already has some very fast tools for that. The pointcloud tools could be used to speed other processes, too. There’s a lot of interest in gaming platforms and support for Minecraft, the pair suggested, may be just the tip of the iceberg for FME game support.
  • Web Services including OAuth2  - This enhancement has implications for simplifying database connections of all types if data are relocated.
  • Web Filesystems reading and writing - Filesystems mentioned included Box, Dropbox, GDrive and S3. The vision is that accessing data held in these would be “just like” they were local.

Transform refers to changing data into another format.

  • PDF - There are a lot of users producing PDFs as final output (even though it’s a format where data go to die). Users want to combine maps (say that FME creates in Mapnik), titles, tables, logos, etc. into single or multiple page PDFs. I was especially pleased to hear that a graphic interface where the user can draw where each element will go is in development.
  • FME Workbench enhancements - FME Workbench is a graphical environment and the desktop environment where users build complex workflows from FME’s transformers. It’s where most users spend most of their time. The pair showed a variety of tools that help organize and simplify the messy spider diagrams and the crowded interface. The possible enhancement that got the biggest reaction? The ability to stretch out the name of a data source to see its full (long) name.
  • Frankenbench - Frankenbench is a new possible implementation of Workbench that incorporates FME’s data inspector and viewer, which currently are separate apps.

 Automate refers to the ability to combine a series of steps into a single routine.

  • IFTTT-like Interface for FME Server - The proposed interface for creating server workflows is very elegant. It’s a very simplified (no programming knowledge required) and looks to the lay person (me) like “If This Then That” (IFTTT). Even a non-programmer (me) could use the pull-down menus and pick lists.
  • Server Enhancements - There are proposed simplifications to the licensing server (including, in time, dropping FlexLM) and taking better advantage of Amazon Web Services. Safe is considering offering license scaling so users can implement as many instances as are needed to deal with occasional high demand.

Thank You’s

The staff had put together a video of “thank you” and “Happy 20th Birthday” messages for Murray and Lutz that was shared at the closing session. The founders, and we in the audience, were quite emotional and needed a moment to compose ourselves after it played. Thankfully, just at that moment two cakes, complete with candles, were wheeled to the stage to the strains of “Happy Birthday.” Murray and Lutz blew out the candles and thanked the staff, who joined them on stage, as well as the audience of users and partners. The tears were gone by that point and everyone was smiling, myself included.

Murray and Lutz and their colleagues gather onstage at the close of the conference to celebrate 20 years of connecting, transforming and automating data.


Safe Software is poised for continued success as geospatial (and pretty much all) data and services move to the cloud. The company will be a key provider of the glue that makes the Internet of Things, open data, new sensors and good old-fashioned geodata valuable and useful in today’s world. FME is, and will continue to be, the spatially-enabled “If This Then That” for technologists who solve data and automation puzzles.

Other FME UC Coverage and Resources:

Disclosure: Safe Software covered travel and lodging for this event. I also took home a t-shirt and a new spork.


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