Interview: Understanding The Science And Engineering Of The World Through 3D Mapping and Visualization

Golden Software is at the forefront of understanding the world through science and engineering. The Colorado based company delivers products that are used by scientists, engineers, educators, and business professionals in many discplines including marine data, atmospheric modeling, geological studies, bathymetric modeling, archaeological research and surface terrain mapping etc.. This company is heavily customer oriented with many positive responses from users. 3D Visualization World interviewed Blakelee Mills, Chief Executive Officer of Golden Software LLC. to learn more about this dynamic company.

Read the original interview on 3D Visualization World: Understanding the Science and Engineering of the World Through 3D Mapping and Visualization

3DVW: Could you please explain how what Golden Software is, how it began and how you became involved in this kind of work?

BM: Since its inception in 1983, Golden Software has provided modeling and analysis tools that make it easy for users to transform data into actionable insight.

The founders of the company, Patrick Madison and Dan Smith, saw a need for mapping programs for use with the newly popular personal computers. At the time, mapping programs required mainframe computers and pen plotters. The first Golden Software product, PlotCall, operated on a personal computer. It also offered dramatic improvements on the level of printed resolution for the maps it generated.

As hardware and software technology improved, our software programs have also evolved. Today, we offer seven different applications that can display subsurface to atmospheric data and everything in between. Scientists, engineers, educators, and business professionals across the globe use our software solutions.

I worked for Golden Software as an intern while studying at the Colorado School of Mines. During this time, I worked directly for Pat who was gracious enough to introduce me to the business aspect of Golden Software. My ability to understand the scientific and technical components of Golden Software as well as the business development component paved the way to my position as CEO.

3DVW: Golden Software is strongly 3D and visualization oriented. Please explain your products in terms of their 3D and visual capabilities.

BM: We pride ourselves in producing software tools that generate publication-ready maps, graphs, and models. Many customers use our programs to conduct the preliminary data analysis and to create the final images for use in reports, presentations, and publications. Every aspect of the final display is customizable so users can achieve the exact output they desire without the assistance of an image-editing program.

This isn’t to say our software tools will make any dataset look great. The quality of the final display depends greatly on the quality of the data; however, very few datasets, if any, are perfect. Our programs provide ways to filter, manipulate, sort, and enhance data to ensure the best visualization. Gridding algorithms fill in missing data points, spatial filters pinpoint areas of interest and exclude unnecessary areas, duplicate handling removes redundant information, and data statistics facilities a deeper understanding of the data to ensure it is accurately visualized. We know how important it is for customers to have tools that make their lives easier, not harder.

Most of our software is 3D focused. Surfer, our flagship program, has numerous powerful and customizable interpolation methods for creating surfaces (grids) from 3D data. Surfer creates many grid-based maps and models and includes many grid manipulation operations. Voxler is a true 3D visualization application capable of displaying XYZC data in many different formats. Strater’s output is two dimensional, but that output is a representation of complex three-dimensional borehole data. Even MapViewer and Grapher, ostensibly 2D plotting software, include options for displaying 3D data.

3DVW: It seems that your software allows users to see details and perspectives within data that are not normally seen. Is that true and can you explain it in more detail?

BM: This is correct. The precision, quality and control our software provides lets users gain a deeper understanding of their data. Here is one such example (article available here):

Analyzing the many variables in a marine environment can be a challenge. Tidal patterns affect maritime traffic, coastal communities, and aquatic breeding periods. To further complicate matters, an important aspect of marine data acquisition is time. Typically, data is gathered over time, as opposed to spatially, which results in large, multi-variate datasets that contain a wealth of information. However, the information is not very useful if it cannot be properly visualized.

Traditional 2D and 3D visualization techniques such as line/scatter or bar plots are adequate for basic analysis but fall short when one needs to analyze both large and small data patterns. Dr. Richard Koehler, founder of Visual Data Analytics, has spent his career demonstrating a different approach to visualizing data which better facilitates the understanding of complex ecosystems.

This 2D line graph is the daily passage of adult Chinook salmon. The X-axis represents the day of the year and the Y-axis represents the total number of salmon passing the gauge station. Each line plot represents a different year.

The migration of Chinook salmon is typically displayed as a series of line graphs. Major patterns such as peak passage times are easy to discern, but smaller patterns or seasonal variability is hard to identify. Source: Graph plotted in Golden Software’s 2D and 3D graphing software, Grapher.

Additionally, the above graph represents only five years of data. What if five years isn’t enough? One can see how messy the graph would quickly become when adding another 10, 20, or 50 years of plots.

Using this time map technique, the Chinook passage data is plotted in Golden Software’s contouring, gridding, and 3D surface mapping software, Surfer. In this map, an additional 71 years of data is displayed. Despite the extra information, it is quite easy to distinguish temporal patterns, both large and small, that would otherwise be missed in the 2D line graph. The smaller spring and summer run patterns are now easier to see in this display. Also notable is the steady increase of salmon in recent years during the August through September run.

The spring run can be seen in late April, and the summer run is in June with an obvious low count from years 1975 to 2000. The fall run is late August through September with notable increases in recent years. Data source: Map plotted in Surfer.

3DVW: What are the Raster Tools all about? Who uses them and can you provide a few examples?

BM: The Raster Tools concept stemmed from discussions with end users who primarily use Esri’s ArcGIS for their visualization needs, whether by choice or by employer mandate. Transforming XYZ data into a raster dataset is the first step when creating an ArcGIS map. These users needed more control over this process. They would use Surfer’s gridding algorithms to interpolate their data to create more accurate and precise rasters. We developed Raster Tools as an easy way for these users to harness the power of Surfer’s gridding algorithms directly within the ArcGIS environment.

ArcGIS is a central tool for many organizations. Essentially, anyone who needs more control over the interpolation of their data will benefit from Raster Tools. Raster Tools offers twelve different interpolation algorithms, including Kriging with multiple variogram models, supports faults and breaklines, and provides filters to handle duplicate points.

3DVW: Surfer 13 has been updated recently. Can you describe a few projects where it is being used and some of the benefits it offers?

BM: Surfer is industry-agnostic, so we see a variety of interesting use cases. Some include:

  • Identifying emerald ore deposits
  • Modeling ground water resources for potential mining areas
  • Surveying archaeological Tel Sites
  • Mapping the distribution of geochemical elements in urban environments

Longtime Surfer user, Rick Koehler, summarizes the benefits he experiences with Surfer. “I’ve used Surfer for many years. It helps me tell my data’s story which allows me to clearly communicate important information with clients.”

3DVW: Do people and organizations interested in modeling find your products useful? Can modeling link with some of the products?

BM: Our products display a wide variety of data for many different customers in many industries. Search and rescue personnel use Surfer to generate 2D and 3D bathymetric maps to coordinate their underwater search missions; oil and gas customers visualize and analyze well logs and geological cross sections in Strater; renewable energy companies evaluate terrain in Surfer for solar panels and wind turbine placement; environmental consultants generate 3D contamination plumes in Voxler to assess remediation efforts; construction companies ensure concrete slabs are level with Surfer’s tolerance tools; GIS experts generate precise and accurate raster datasets with Raster Tools to enhance their vector-based maps. Finally, graphs are an important aspect of any company in any industry, so Grapher is a useful program for anyone.

It is uncommon to find a software tool that performs all of your required workflows. As such, our products are versatile and interface with many other programs. We support numerous file formats which streamline the process of moving from one software tool to another. Additionally, almost every feature is accessible through automation. Scripts can be written using a variety of languages to interface our programs with other software programs or automate tasks.

3DVW: There are many interesting projects to read about on your site. We enjoyed the Netherlands project entitled “Surfer Aids in Search for Missing Anchor”. Could you explain why Surfer was used in this particular project and how it helped?

BM: There are many challenges when conducing an underwater search and rescue. One such challenge is the inability to see potential obstacles beneath the water that would threaten the safety of the divers. Additionally, the dive team needs to know the total time they will spend under water, but cannot complete this calculation if the depth to the bottom is unknown.

In the search for the missing anchor, a 3D bathymetric map of the area of interest played a key role. Created in Surfer, this model mapped out the ocean floor in three dimensions. The dive team could fully plan their dive before entering the water. They were able to locate potential hazards and calculate their total dive time. Once the anchor was located, the bathymetric map was used to strategically position the salvage crane. Surfer enabled the searchers to see beneath the sea.

3DVW: Since Golden Software has a long history and is used widely, you must have made a few observations along the way. What do think users look for most in your products and what do you consider to be the main reasons people choose your products?

BM: First off, people want software solutions that simplify their lives. They want tools that solve problems, not create more. Thereafter, people want to work with a company that has their best interest in mind. How frustrating is it when you make an effort to suggest a software improvement only to have a support rep say, “We don’t track requests like this.” That is unacceptable.

We put significant effort into developing intuitive visualization and analysis tools. We realize software features are only as good as the user interface. Many software providers advertise extensive feature sets, but if those features are useless if they’re not easy to access. When you take the time to request a feature or improvement, we track your request. The vast majority of new features and improvements come directly from user requests. We pride ourselves on our top-notch technical support, and one of our goals is to nurture meaningful relationships with our users.

“Surfer appears to have been designed by people who really understand what scientists like myself want to do. This allows me to look at data and ask questions without being concerned at the technicalities of how to load, manipulate and map data.” Barry Gardiner Senior Scientist

3DVW: Could you explain where you see 3D mapping and visualization heading into the future? Where does more work need to be done?

BM: The 3D mapping and visualization space is experiencing significant growth, and it is not going to slow down any time soon. On the technological front, datasets are growing and hardware systems are speeding up. On the personnel front, more and more people recognize the value in visualizing their data thereby creating an increased demand for modeling tools. We as modeling software providers need to keep up. It’s our job to provide easy-to-use solutions to streamline workflows and facilitate the transformation of data into knowledge for our users.

Software solutions need to be easier to use. We live in an age where we need to do more with less. Intuitive modeling software lessens frustrations and increases productivity, and while it’s an obvious requirement, it’s not necessarily an easy one to obtain for software developers. Developing the backend component is usually straightforward. The difficulty lies in how a user interacts with the features. It’s no easy task trying to get in the mind of a user! Like I mentioned before, a program may boast many bells and whistles, but those are useless if they’re not easily accessed.

3DVW: It seems like Golden Software puts a lot of effort into helping people understand your products to use them effectively. Please explain what you are offering on this front.

BM: I cringe when I hear software companies charging for basic technical support. I realize it’s an easy way to make money, but it indicates a larger issue around the usability of their software. That’s not our method. We support customers free of charge every step of the way. Live support is available via phone, email, and LiveChat, and customers can access online training videos, knowledge base articles, and forums 24 hours a day.

“Golden Software is in a class all its own! Your software is outstanding. But, what I really appreciate is when I have a problem, in a matter of minutes I can get a friendly, live, competent technician on the phone. Who else offers that service in this day and age?” Paul Lundegard, PhD, Environmental Geoscientist.

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