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In 2001,Clyde England tried geocaching and found it to be a relaxing antidote to the pressure-cooker world of corporate information technology. The game was an ideal indulgence of England’s twin passions for physical fitness and the countryside of his native Western Australia.
England was a techie by nature and by profession. His day job involved collecting information related to the housing and construction industry and selling cuts of the information to businesses and the public. The job required specialized technical skills. Large databases can become almost unusable if they’re poorly designed or if queries –or requests for information —aren’t well expressed. Database architects are skilled not only at optimizing performance but also extracting complex combinations of information based upon customer requests. England had soaked up these skills at work,not knowing that they would later come in very handy.
A proclivity for technology tinkering led England to write some extensions for Ozi Explorer,the mapping software that many geocachers use. He began enhancing his own software with database routines that sorted geocaches by various criteria. He shared these improvements with some friends,who quickly began asking for more. Geocaching Swiss Army (GSAK) knife was born.
GSAK is to geocachers what Excel is to financial professionals:An indispensable way to organize,track and record searches and finds. Many experienced geocachers carry a laptop running GSAK with them in their cars and constantly filter and sort through its database to plan their routes. Want to find all caches within a two-mile west/northwest radius that were placed within the last six months and contain travel bugs? Set a few switches in a GSAK filter and you’re there. Want to log your finds on the road and then upload them quickly when connected to the Internet? GSAK does that too. Want to see full Web pages,including images,when you’re 20 miles from the closest Internet connection? GSAK can download and store the information needed to serve that need as well.
England gave away GSAK for free until a takeover and reorganization at his company in 2003 left him jobless. Uncertain what he would do next,he started charging a licensing fee for GSAK to see if there was a market. There was. Since then,GSAK has been a career for Clyde England.
Early versions of GSAK managed only a few variables,such as location and name,but requests from customers caused England to quickly expand the criteria. Today,users can filter caches by nearly any combination of characterists listed in Geocaching.com descriptions. Clyde England doesn’t claim to understand why anyone would want that level of granularity. “I’m a fairly simplistic geocacher. I don’t use half the capabilities of my own program,”he laughs. He just aims to give customers what they want.
From Hobby to Career
Maintaining and enhancing GSAK is a full-time job. In fact,Clyde England has only logged a couple of hundred finds himself. The demands of supporting thousands of other geocachers takes up too much of his time to get out in the field.
Each morning,he finds his mailbox stuffed with questions,requests and suggestions submitted by his tens of thousands of registered customers. The forums on GSAK.net bristle with more than 1,000 requests for new features.
Clyde England will be the first to admit that there’s plenty more he could do with the software. Flexibility is somewhat limited by an underlying third-party database engine that is “getting long in the tooth”and the need to smoothly integrate new features without disrupting existing customers.
The task of improving the program has been made easier by GSAK’s support for macros,or small programs that users can write to automate common tasks. Customers have submitted hundreds of their favorite macros to GSAK.net that they freely share with each other. Some,like the macro that inserts a collection of waypoints into a Google map that can be displayed on a geocacher’s blog or website,have thousands of fans.
The constantly expanding range of geography-based services on the Internet also present an opportunity. England admits he’s only scratched the surface of what can be done with Google maps and Google Earth,for example.
But then again,he’s just one man. England has declined opportunities to build a company around GSAK or to expand the program into non-geocaching applications. “I’ve been tormented about whether I should expand my horizons,but geocaching is the main use of GSAK and it will probably stay that way.” He is grateful to an active and generous group of forum members who answer many of the day-to-day questions and leave him time to focus on new features.
England has plenty of ideas for what he wants those features,but asked to reveal them,he politely declines. “Some features I would rather make a surprise,”he says. “I want to give my customers something to look forward to.”