John Reiser: “The best work often occurs once you move outside of your comfort zone”

John Reiser
John Reiser
John Reiser is a Business Intelligence Analyst at Rowan University. He previously worked in state government and in a private planning firm. John is active in several professional organizations and also serves as a consultant on GIS, cartography, and data analysis projects. John lives in New Jersey.

Q: Where do you work and what do you do there?

A: I am a business intelligence analyst at Rowan University. I work primarily with University Advancement, dealing with fundraising recordkeeping and prospect research. We use technology to better connect with and support our alumni, as well as help find individuals who have both the capacity and the inclination to give philanthropically to Rowan. I also consult and work on projects in my spare time.

Q: You hold a graduate degree in urban planning. What attracted you to GIS?

A: The first time I can recall really getting excited about GIS was during my undergraduate program in Geography. The program at the time focused on raster-based analysis and did very little with vector data. This was 2004 and there was no easy access to large datasets like county-wide parcels. Thankfully, I was able to get copies of Burlington and Gloucester Counties’ parcel data, driving to their respective offices and picking up CDs, merging the data together and then using it to project ridership potential for a planned light rail in Gloucester County, comparing it to the recently-opened RiverLine in Burlington County. I continued research into access to transportation while pursuing my masters at Rutgers. Even though I initially wanted to pursue physical and transportation planning, I would get involved with projects that required GIS, and continued to build my knowledge on the software and myriad types of data available.

Q: Do you miss planning? How much of what you learned in planning school do you apply in the job you hold today?

A: I do miss working as a planner and I miss working with GIS on a regular basis, but I make up for it by working on side projects. My current project is NJ Parcels, an easy-to-use statewide listing of property assessment and sales information for New Jersey. I get to wear many hats as I work on the site, from system administrator, database administrator, software developer, UI/UX designer, and project manager. So far, I feel like I am successful in juggling the different roles and responsibilities to keep the site running smoothly. Over 2015, NJ Parcels served up 9.7 million pageviews to approximately 3 million users. I also develop and manage Florida Parcels, which is an attempt to do the same for the Sunshine State.

I do want to use the data I’ve collected to build the site for planning projects in New Jersey. I have assisted NJ Future to overcome difficulties matching the spatial data to the assessment records, namely where there are multiple lots but only one assessment record that contains the additional lots in a free-form text field. I am currently working on a project looking at distributed ownership in New Jersey — people who purchase property a distance from their listed owner address. This can help understand a variety of planning issues, from absentee landlords, transitional neighborhoods, market speculation, and the effects of out-of-state investment in places like the Jersey Shore. I am planning on releasing my findings in the spring of this year.

Two things I learned from planning school still weigh heavily in my mind: the need to build consensus, and having patience. Projects, both software development and large redevelopments plans, benefit greatly from consensus-building efforts. That extra work at the beginning trying to get buy-in from stakeholders and from the community might be seen as side friction, but it ultimately makes the project go smoothly. Patience is also critical. It takes patience to build a plan and see it through fruition. Not everything can get solved in a single meeting or a code sprint, and that’s okay.

Q: You have experienced GIS in state government, in academia, and in private consulting. Which environment is the most interesting? The most challenging?

A: State government can be frustrating because of the nature of the business. Interesting projects can spring up and die just as quickly as the whims of the politicians in charge change. I was told on occasion to simply stop working on a project because it was no longer supported by the Governor’s Office. Private consulting can be incredibly rewarding, but it has its own difficulties. The profit-driven nature of the private world shapes the outcome and the timeframe. Sometimes you just need to produce, even if it’s not the product you originally wanted to produce.

Academia allows for greater flexibility in exploring a project. Some truly amazing work has originated within academia. And if you’re fortunate to work with students, you’ll be constantly amazed what bright, passionate young minds can produce. However, the nature of the academic world can also be far more difficult to navigate than government or the private sector. Colleagues that block or stifle your work can do so simply because they can. Performance metrics are often ignored, and I have been amazed at the amount of “thinking with the gut” that is performed in higher ed. Unlike government, you’re not keeping your fingers crossed that the next election things will be better, instead you are stuck playing actuary and guessing if it is worth waiting around for retirements to occur. Academia can be an amazing place to work and be a contributor to some awesome projects, but it can also be immensely frustrating as Sayre’s law will demonstrate itself time and time again if you do not have the right people involved.

Q: You are equally well versed in Esri technology and in open source geospatial technology. Is mixing and matching geotools a necessity, a challenge, or a luxury?

A: To me, finding the right tool for the job is both a challenge and a necessity. I’ve seen fanatics on both sides — commercial and free software — produce projects that don’t meet their full potential because they’ve married themselves to a single software platform. Taking a step back and evaluating the options is important. Just because something happens to be your current favorite doesn’t necessarily make it the best choice for the task at hand. The best work often occurs once you move outside of your comfort zone.

Q: What are you working on now, and what technologies do you use?

A: At work I write SQL for Oracle on a daily basis and I use PostgreSQL for my side projects. It is amazing where the differences and similarities lie in the two DBMSs. I’m grateful that the one I find myself less frustrated with happens to be the free one.

I primarily use Python as my programming language of choice, but I have been looking into using Node.JS again after about two years of not using it to build an API to NJ Parcels. I also need to brush up on R and use that in my projects more often. I also use Tableau both at work and in my other projects. It’s a great tool for quick visualizations of complex data.

Q: Bike, beard, beer — you are in firm control of the ultimate hipster triad. Do people call you a hipster, and how do you feel about it if (when?) they do?

A: I don’t get called hipster often; I don’t think I dress well enough. I think I tend to come across more as a lumberjack with a desk job.

Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for the GeoHipster crowd?

A: When I was teaching GIS in higher ed, I stressed the importance of projects and building a portfolio. Recent grads looking for work often have little to show to potential employers, so having some tangibles that demonstrate your capabilities is crucially important. I would always encourage them to work on projects that aligned with their personal passions. It’s much easier to convince yourself to dedicate the extra time if it’s something you enjoy or strikes your interest. It’s also much easier to stick with the project after you’ve gotten the job. I’ve started countless projects over my 15 years in the workforce and most were abandoned or anything but successful, but I’ve learned a lot from each project. Take that experience and funnel it into your next project. I never would have thought that I’d be developing web sites around assessment data back when I was initially struggling with getting and using the same data a decade earlier. I don’t know what I’ll be doing ten years from now, but I know there will be a wide variety of options ahead of me because I continued to learn, adapt, and put my mix of talents to use. I’m likely preaching to the choir, but I feel it needs to be said: keep working towards the next big thing.

Maps and mappers of the 2016 calendar: Mario Nowak

In our series “Maps and mappers of the 2016 calendar” we will present throughout 2016 the mapmakers who submitted their creations for inclusion in the 2016 GeoHipster calendar.


Mario Nowak

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: I studied geography at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, and did a Master in Geographic Information Science. I also studied land-use planning at ETH Zurich. Now I’m working for sotomo, a company based in Zurich specializing in political surveys, data journalism, and data visualization.

Q: Tell us the story behind your map (what inspired you to make it, what did you learn while making it, or any other aspects of the map or its creation you would like people to know).

A: The map shows the rental prices for a flat in every municipality in Switzerland. We did this map on assignment for the Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger. They used it for an article on rental prices in Switzerland.

It is the remake of a similar map my boss made in the nineties, but with newer data. In fact, this map is an animated map (see here): The temporal dimension is perceptible in the GIF version. The map also hints at the fact that Switzerland is a country of mountains, but in this map, the highest peaks are where the prices are the highest.

Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.

A: The data comes from Wüest & Partner. It has a price value for every municipality (around 2,500[CHF]) for every year from 2000 to 2015. I only needed to extract the centroid of each municipality from a shapefile (done in QGIS) and match it to the data.

The map was then completely done in R. Two packages were particularly important: automap with its autokrige function, and the package plot3d (and the PDF file 50 ways to draw a volcano).

I did a lot of kriging interpolations to get a smooth surface. I also did linear interpolations between every time-step to make the growing of the mountains smooth. Otherwise, the GIF would have consisted of only 15 images. Finally, I produced high resolution raster image files and stitched them together using a tool called GIF animator.

Of course, there was a lot of trial and error involved in making this map, but now I am quite pleased with the result. It was, by the way, also nominated for the German reporter prize (however, it did not win 😉 ).

'Monthly rental prices for 4-room flats in Switzerland' by Mario Nowak
‘Monthly rental prices for 4-room flats in Switzerland’ by Mario Nowak

Shoreh Elhami: “GISCorps is nothing without its volunteers”

Shoreh Elhami
Shoreh Elhami
Shoreh Elhami is the founder of GISCorps, a URISA program that coordinates the deployment of volunteers to communities in need around the world. GISCorps was endorsed as a program by the URISA Board of Directors in October 2003 and since then has attracted over 4,000 volunteers from 98 countries worldwide. To date, over 950 GISCorps volunteers have served in 175 on-site or remote missions in 61 countries.


Q: So, Mrs. Elhami, where are you located and what do you do?

A: Shoreh will do!

Q: You are the boss, so it will be Shoreh!

A: I’ve lived in Central Ohio for 29 years; the first 11 years in the City of Columbus, and then moved to Powell — a small suburban city north of Columbus. I work for the City of Columbus Department of Technology; my title is Citywide GIS Manager.

Q: Shoreh, how did you get into GIS? You are / were an architect at one time, correct?

A: Yes, I studied architectural engineering in Iran (where I was born and raised) and practiced as an architect/ urban planner for a few years before we decided to leave the country. I was introduced to GIS at the Ohio State University where I ended up going to graduate school to study City and Regional Planning. I applied for a Research Assistantship position and was assigned to a project that used GIS for studying and analyzing the impact of urban sprawl on a protected watershed. Talk about luck as not only did I end up working on an interesting project, but also learned how to use GIS to conduct analysis. It meant no more drawing / overlaying polygons on mylar and calculating results by hand; I was in love!

I was then offered a job shortly before I graduated, and ended up working at a planning agency where I used my GIS skills for building models and conducting a variety of analytic models for a County Master Plan. This was in the early 90s when GIS was not used as often in a master planning process, so it was a unique and gratifying experience.

Q: What does a Citywide GIS Manager do in Columbus, Ohio? I’m not sure we’ve ever interviewed one. It sounds like something that can make you have fits upon occasion.

A: At the City of Columbus, GIS is used in almost every department, both on desktop as well as online. We have over 300 datasets,+/-100 data editors, and 30 or so GIS applications which are all supported by my team. We work very closely with GIS users and decision-makers on creating new datasets, maintaining the software, geodatabases, and designing applications. Our most recent project is our Open Data Portal. It’s a work in progress, but it is where anyone with interest in Columbus GIS data can visit and download data. In short, it’s an exciting and at times quite a challenging job!

Q: Sometime around 2001 you started this small thing called GISCorps. Why? What does it do?

A: Yes, it was in 2001 at the URISA conference in Long Beach when I started talking to a few colleagues about an idea which later on became GISCorps. The idea was and is quite simple as it’s about making one’s GIS skills available to entities that need GIS assistance but cannot afford to employ GIS professionals. Originally, I thought most of our projects would be on-site and involve teaching. However, we learned very quickly that our volunteers’ skills are very much needed after disasters. In fact, our first few major missions were launched shortly after the 2004 Asian tsunami that struck Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand, and then Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

We recently launched our 176th project, and over 950 volunteers have been deployed to those projects in 61 countries. The majority of these projects are conducted remotely (80%) and +/- 40% have been in response to disasters. We currently have over 4,000 registered volunteers from 98 countries. It’s worth to mention that for on-site projects, we always make sure that the travel expenses are covered by the organization that is requesting assistance. For remote projects there are no [travel] expenses, as volunteers work from their home / office, using their own equipment.

Q: When you started there weren’t a lot of volunteer organizations around. Now there’s HOT and Ushahidi. What makes GISCorps different? The same?

A: You’re right, we are the old kids on the block as far as GIS volunteering goes! Several new organizations were formed shortly after the Haiti earthquake in 2010, and we actually collaborate with several of them via a relatively new organization called Digital Humanitarian Network or DHN. I think what differentiates GISCorps from other organizations is our recruitment model. We take time to not only select candidates from our extensive database, but also for almost every project (except large crowd-sourcing ones) we get on the phone and interview volunteers to make sure they are the right person for the job. We take that quite seriously, as our volunteers’ work represents who we are. Another distinction is that a large percentage of our volunteers are hard-core GIS professionals and ready and equipped to perform all and any GIS-related tasks. Having said that, we also engage in projects that do not require a lot of GIS skills (mostly crowd-sourcing projects) and many of our volunteers enjoy those efforts as well.

Q: How many people do you have helping you run GISCorps? The organization is a non-profit, correct?

A: GISCorps’ business is run by a Core Committee, which at this time has seven members. We meet virtually once a month, and at least once a year face to face.

We are a program of URISA, and since URISA is a non-profit organization people who donate to GISCorps can benefit from our 501(c)(3) status.

Q: What was the best mission of GISCorps? Assuming you can pick the best one.

A: Please don’t ask me to do that, as I have many favorites; it’s as if they ask you which one of your children you love the most!

Q: So with all of that going on — there are more important things to discuss. What’s the best Persian meal you make?

A: Seriously? You’re asking me about my culinary skills?! Actually this may be surprising to some of your readers: I love cooking, and if I may say so — when I have time — I can deliver pretty nice dishes. My daughter loves my Tahchin the most, so I pick that one. You can check out a recipe (not mine but somewhat close to how I make it) here.

Q: We talk about people being geohipsters — our best definition is: doing things differently, or making a difference in the world of GIS. So are you a geohipster?

A: If getting joy and satisfaction from spending time on geo matters that helps others is doing things differently then I’m a geohipster! But I really want to be clear — and this is not self-deprecating — GISCorps is nothing without its volunteers; that’s who is making a difference. We, the Core Committee, are just instruments to help make that happen.

Q: The last question is yours — anything you wish to tell the world?

A: The world? That would be too audacious of me… All I know and believe in is that we are here on earth for a flicker of time, and we should focus on using our skills on doing good. That’s all that matters!

Machiko Yasuda: “You’d be surprised how much spatial thinking is involved in something as basic as selling and shipping things”

Machiko Yasuda
Machiko Yasuda
Machiko Yasuda ( is a journalist-turned-web developer, who especially likes writing Ruby.

She loves to teach and organize. She has taught bike safety, web development at General Assembly and coached at Rails Girls. She helps organize a pair programming meetup and Maptime LA. Outside of work, she likes rock climbing and is currently obsessed with learning about alignment and Nutritious Movement.

Q: Where do you work and what do you do there?

A: I currently work in Los Angeles at the Reformation, an eco-friendly women’s fashion company. Reformation makes “clothes that don’t kill the environment”, and I make apps that help the in-house team and factory design, manufacture, and ship clothes around the world.

Q: How did you get attracted to mapping?

A: When I was little, I onced asked my parents for an e-mail address and my own domain for my birthday. I always wanted to “work for a big website” but didn’t know how. I chose colleges by comparing how professional their daily newspapers looked, and immediately joined the Daily Bruin at UCLA to work on their site. We mapped local crime data from the police logs, but that was about it.

I always wanted to get more into web mapping, but without a geography degree or an ArcGIS license I felt like I had no options. In 2010 though, at my first full-time job out of college at a daily local paper, I learned about Google Fusion Tables and that really changed my life. I found myself mapping census data with Google Fusion Tables, even converting latitude and longitude in degrees, minutes and seconds from the National Park Service into decimals in Excel — because I didn’t know any other way. That’s how I got into mapping and code.

I couldn’t answer this question without a shout out to all those early tutorials and open-source tools I first used: Google Fusion Tables tutorials from John Keefe at WNYC:,  SHPEscape for converting data formats:  and for colors.

Q: You are one of the co-organizers of MaptimeLA. Tell us how and why that happened, and what keeps you going back.

A:  After I got my first apprenticeship at a software start-up, I heard about the original Maptime in the Bay Area. I had met many developers through the local tech meetups, but not many interested in GIS and maps. I wondered, out loud, on Twitter, whether LA could start a Maptime. A few months later, Alan from MaptimeHQ contacted me with others who were also interested. Voila! That’s how MaptimeLA started.

MaptimeLA grew out of a handful of local map enthusiasts from all sorts of industries — architecture, software, transportation, environment, consulting, local government, social justice, to name a few — and we all have a love, a rather nerdy sort of love, for Los Angeles.

Los Angeles is a vast, often confusing, sometimes intimidating, mysterious place. Mapping and meeting people from other corners of LA are two ways to explore this city, and that’s what I think brings people back to Maptime here.

You can see through the maps we make at MaptimeLA, whether it’s maps of historic restaurants or food banks, that everyone’s trying to visualize their appreciation for LA and share it with others.

Mapillary's Johan explains the workings behind the app to MaptimeLA at Opodz
Mapillary’s Johan explains the workings behind the app to MaptimeLA at Opodz

Q: You are representative of a new generation of software engineers for whom GIS / spatial / mapping is just one of many tools in their arsenal. Will a GIS / mapping skillset be to the office worker of the future what typing is to the office worker of today? Or is it already?

A: I work in e-commerce and tech, and you’d be surprised how much “spatial thinking” is involved in something as basic as selling and shipping things. Whether it’s querying addresses and calculating distances, visually displaying geographic information, or estimating employees’ commute times, offices have a lot of “spatial needs”, as Ken Jennings calls it in his must-read book on different kinds of mapping nerds, “Maphead”.

In Ellen Ullman’s 1997 book, “Closer to the Machine”, she talks about how graphical user interfaces of the Internet and in particular, spreadsheet software, embolden users by being able to bring shape to data. ( ( The 2000s equivalent, I believe, are open source mapping tools.

Q: Along the same lines, you are representative of a new generation of software engineers who “do GIS” outside of the Esri ecosystem. What do you think about open source? Is open source the future of computing?

A: I wouldn’t have been able to learn GIS without open source software and tutorials — starting with Google Fusion Tables, QGIS, GDAL, ogr2ogr, Leaflet, Mapbox, and more. I already see a lot of friends in small non-profits using free tiers of Google Maps and Google Fusion Tables to create maps for their own without much coding necessary. The abilities to gather data, map boundaries, layer data and publish it are the new spreadsheets.

The more we can build mapping tools like OpenStreetMaps to involve as many new people as possible, the better for everyone.

I remember when I first moved to a new neighborhood two years ago, I noticed that on Apple Maps, my neighborhood was spelled incorrectly. “Del Rey” was spelled “Del Ray” everywhere. “Del Ray Blvd.”, “Marina Del Ray Elementary,” and “Del Ray” as the neighborhood. At the time, I did not know anything about OpenStreetMap, but was still able to somehow easily log in and request a spelling change. And now it’s fixed:

Everyone these days knows about Wikipedia, but not very many of even the computer-heads know about or use OpenStreetMap. I hope Maptime can change this.

Q: In his infamous rant about cloud computing, Oracle’s Larry Ellison says: “The computer industry is the only industry that’s more fashion-driven than women’s fashion.” Do you agree? Why / why not?

A: Agreed. In the computer industry there’s an even higher level of pretentiousness that comes with all the hardware and software choices you have to make: Mac vs. Windows, vim vs. something else, mechanical keyboards vs. everything else, and in GIS, Esri vs. everything else. I’ve found that at Maptime especially, that attitude drives people away and we try not to do that by making sure our tutorials and workshops cover as many operating systems and libraries.

Q: What is the normcore of GIS?

A: I don’t know how to answer this! Maybe Google Maps? It’s so ubiquitous, at least for us in developed areas. It’s plain, it’s unpretentious, it’s basic.

Q: As befitting to a geohipster, you cycle. Tell us why you do it.

A: Unlike most Angelenos, I didn’t get a car and a driver license at 16. I didn’t drive for all of college at UCLA and used a bike instead. As an especially unathletic, non-active, map-obsessed and tree-hugging child, biking was perfect for me. I got a scholarship to become a bike-safety instructor — where I got interested in hands-on teaching as a form of advocacy.

Q: On closing, any final thoughts for the GeoHipster crowd?

A: Cheers to another year of much mapping!

The Special Tool

Mike Dolbow
Mike Dolbow
Mike Dolbow is a GIS Supervisor for the State of Minnesota and the operations manager of the Minnesota Geospatial Commons. He has served on the GeoHipster Advisory Board since 2014.

This past summer, I put a new set of stairs on the end of my deck. In the grand scheme of home improvement, it was a small job, but I’d never done anything like it before, so there was a lot of cursing, achy muscles, and extraneous trips to the hardware store. But that’s how I roll: chuck the manual and learn by doing. I’ve found that understanding your own learning style is a surprisingly underrated secret to success.

In a way, I learned that secret from my dad, who also made sure I had the skills to figure out how to get a job done with the tools available. He told cautionary tales about how my uncle would often dismiss a potential project because he thought “you need a special tool”, or it simply couldn’t be done. The way my dad saw it, that was a poor excuse for not doing the job. Sure, having a “special tool” would make it easier, maybe even faster. But if you had the will, you could find a way to get it done.

My uncle passed away years ago, but my dad and I still honor his memory with a running joke about “the special tool”. You see, now that he can afford some of those tools, he takes a sick pleasure in buying them for me. That way I don’t have any excuses when it comes to my own home improvement projects.

For example, the first Christmas I was a homeowner, he gave me a basin wrench. I looked at it and was like, “Dad, what the heck is this thing?” He replied, “Mike, that’s the special tool!” He proceeded to explain how important it would be in the upcoming faucet replacement jobs I had planned. And once I looked at the old, rusty supply-line nuts under the sinks of my 1915 St. Paul home, I knew he was right: the basin wrench would save me tons of time.

The original special tool: a basin wrench
The original special tool: a basin wrench

But if I hadn’t had it, I would have found a way.

Years later, he gave me his old carpenter’s square shown below. Could I have drawn that angle on the 2×4 without it? Sure. Did it save me time because I had it? Absolutely. And I’m sure there are also a bunch of hyper-specific tools that might have saved me time in adding those stairs. But if I had waited around to acquire every single special tool that would possibly aid in the process, I’d probably still be working on it now.

So, what does this mean in my day job at the intersection of IT and geospatial?

Well, if it’s not obvious by this point, I’m going to be wary of anyone who says they absolutely need software X,Y, or Z in order to get a job done. Listen, I’m going to tell you my requirements for a finished product. I’ll try to get you the tools you need to get there, but ultimately I don’t care how you get there, you have to figure it out.

With developers, I cringe if I hear them say stuff like, “I need a fully loaded Eclipse IDE with a local JBoss server and plugins for Git, Maven, Spring, and Hibernate pre-configured.” Well, for one, I barely know what some of those things are, but for the small web apps we build, I’m thinking you’re only going to need about half of them. Heck, if you really know what you’re doing, you ought to be able to write a decent app with Notepad++. But I simply can’t guarantee that you’re going to have the exact suite of tools you had at your last job, and you’re going to have to adjust.

On the geospatial side, I get concerned if someone says they need the full Esri stack to get anything done. “No, I don’t just need ArcGIS Desktop, I need the Advanced level. I also need an ArcGIS Server install with enterprise ArcSDE at 10.2 and an AGOL subscription.” Well, that adds up to some pretty hefty maintenance fees very quickly. If I just need a map of our office on our website, most of those tools are overkill.

Ultimately, I guess I can’t blame people for wanting to work with the best tools available: whether you’re talking Esri, Microsoft, Oracle, Mapbox, or Google, there’s some amazing stuff to work with out there in the IT and spatial worlds. Having access to so many amazing tools is a tremendous modern luxury. And if you’ve had a tool before, I know it can be hard to go without it. But sometimes, your favorite “special tool” won’t be available, and I might not be in a position to change that, even if the reason is simply “bureaucracy”. So let’s make sure we know enough about the problem to fix it with whatever we have at hand. After all, we’ll never run out of problems to solve.

Besides, the best tool you’ll ever have available is the one you’ve been using since you were born: your brain. So let’s put it to work, get the job done, and learn something along the way.

Maybe next time my dad will give you the basin wrench.

Maps and mappers of the 2016 calendar: Ralph Straumann

In our series “Maps and mappers of the 2016 calendar” we will present throughout 2016 the mapmakers who submitted their creations for inclusion in the 2016 GeoHipster calendar.


Ralph Straumann

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: I’m a senior information management consultant with Ernst Basler + Partner in Switzerland as well as a Visiting Researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) of the University of Oxford in the UK. In my day job I consult clients regarding effective and efficient data infrastructures, data processing, and information-centric workflows. With the OII, I work on various topics in the field of Information Geographies, e.g. who and where produces, disseminates, accesses, and reproduces information on the internet. Besides these topics, I have a strong interest in information visualisation, and cartography, obviously.

Q: Tell us the story behind your map (what inspired you to make it, what did you learn while making it, or any other aspects of the map or its creation you would like people to know).

A: My map in the 2016 GeoHipster calendar is part of a small series of maps and visualisations in the Geonet project of the OII. My collaborator, Mark Graham (Senior Research Fellow at the institute), and I started the series with an updated version of the OII internet population map, or rather: cartogram. This was followed by an analysis of how internet access has evolved over time, both from a global and explicitly spatial, and a more regional perspective.

Further, we wanted to look specifically into those countries and territories that tend drop out of internet population maps because of their very low internet penetration rates. Thus, we mapped the places where internet penetration is below 10% (i.e. only 10% of the population have accessed the internet at least once over the last year) or for which the World Bank offers no data or estimates. Seeing the shape of it, we called this region the Archipelago of Disconnection.

To highlight this region and the implications to a wider audience, Mark and I came up with this very simple map design and a very subtle colour scheme. Because the message of the map itself seemed so powerful to us, it didn’t need much embellishment or emphasis. The Archipelago of Disconnection is geographically centred on Sub-Saharan Africa where 28 countries have internet penetration rates lower than 10%. To think that in these places very few people have access to all the vast online resources that much of the rest of humanity is so accustomed to! Effectively, these countries and their residents are largely barred from participating in the cultural, educational, political, and economic activities that the modern internet affords. This is what Mark and I wanted to draw attention to.

Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.

A: Quite simply, the data we used encompassed the World Bank’s Worldwide Development Indicators dataset and spatial data from Natural Earth (a fantastic resource!). The input data needed some work in order to make the identifiers of territories truly congruent (not all of them are well-defined and globally agreed upon).

Then we used ArcGIS 10.3 to design the map; the overall production involved clearly much less work than the aforementioned cartograms. I somewhat atypically opted for manual labelling as I found tweaking labelling placement rules did not give satisfying results with a sensible time investment.

All in all, the map which can be seen in full detail here (with accompanying text and the annotations the calendar team opted to remove) is a pure ‘GIS map’.


'Archipelago of Disconnection' by Ralph Straumann
‘Archipelago of Disconnection’ by Ralph Straumann

13 maps in 13 days: Stephen Smith

Sending off the year 2015, we present to our readers the mapmakers who contributed their work to the 2015 GeoHipster calendar.


Stephen Smith

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: I’m a cartographer by night and a GIS Project Supervisor by day. I work for the Vermont Agency of Transportation where I help our rail section use GIS to manage state-owned rail assets and property. Most of the time my work entails empowering users to more easily access and use their GIS data. I’ve used Esri tools on a daily basis since 2008, but recently I’ve been playing with new tools whenever I get the chance. I attended SOTMUS 2014 in DC (my first non-Esri conference) and was really excited about everything happening around the open source geo community. I got some help installing “Tilemill 2” from GitHub and I haven’t looked back. Since then the majority of the maps I’ve made have been using open source tools and data. Lately I’ve been heavily involved in The Spatial Community, a Slack community of 800+ GIS professionals who collaborate to solve each other’s problems and share GIFs. I’m also starting a “mastermind” for GIS professionals who want to work together and help one another take their careers to the next level.

Q: Tell us the story behind your map (what inspired you to make it, what did you learn while making it, or any other aspects of the map or its creation you would like people to know).

A: This map was born out of an inspirational post shared on Marty Elmer’s MapHugger blog. In it he featured a wonderful map of Great Britain from the 1940s. I really fell in love with the style of the map and thought it would be a fun exercise to try to replicate and update it using modern tools and data.

Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.

A: I’ve done a full writeup on my blog which discusses in depth the color palette, specific data sources, software used, manual processing, and the stylistic choices I made while creating the map. It also features a high resolution download of the map perfect for a desktop wallpaper.

'The United States - Her Natural and Industrial Resources' by Stephen Smith
‘The United States – Her Natural and Industrial Resources’ by Stephen Smith

13 maps in 13 days: Joachim Ungar

Sending off the year 2015, we present to our readers the mapmakers who contributed their work to the 2015 GeoHipster calendar.


Joachim Ungar

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: I’m a cartographer working at an Austrian IT company, named EOX IT Services, based in Vienna. We are mainly involved in the Earth Observation domain, most of the time being contracted by the European Space Agency (ESA). The first time I got in touch with GIS was in high school where we first heard about vector and raster data, projections, and so on. I liked it from the first day, so it was a rather easy decision to study Cartography and Geoinformation at the University. Back then I was rather drawn into data processing and learning more about the Open Source tools (GDAL, QGIS) than analyzing data or creating thematic maps with commercial tools.

Q: Tell us the story behind your map (what inspired you to make it, what did you learn while making it, or any other aspects of the map or its creation you would like people to know).

A: There were a couple of things coming together. I want to mention that we, at EOX, build an Open Source, back-end system for managing and serving EO data to portals for viewing and download, called EOxServer. Soon thereafter, we started to build clients as well and needed background maps. As we are committed to Open Source and Open Data, it was clear that we wouldn’t use one of the big commercial solutions (e.g. Google Maps). First we used a couple of voluntarily maintained OSM servers where we got our maps from, but we needed to have guaranteed uptime.

Mapbox was just starting off getting huge, but at this point I decided to get back to my cartography roots and do it myself. Moreover, ESA needed to have the maps in the WGS84 projection and not in Spherical Mercator, but almost all of the aforementioned solutions just supported the latter. But there was TileMill, which in my eyes revolutionized the process of styling maps for the web. I probably would have failed, mainly in keeping the motivation up, if TileMill (or something comparable) weren’t there already.

Downloading some SRTM data, creating a hillshade, and combining it with some OSM data shouldn’t be that hard, I thought. Well, let’s say I pretty soon found out this couldn’t be done in two weekends.

In the end it took us over a year and several iterations until we were able to publish Terrain and later Terrain Light. I was pretty obsessed for quite a while about all kinds of details. But it was worth it, I think. If you look close enough you’ll discover many neat details, like that the contour lines are light blue over ice, blue on the ocean floor and brown over land. We recently published a blog post about creating smooth centerlines from polygons if you are interested:

Of course we use EOX::Maps on a daily basis, and even ESA is now one of our customers, paying for the maps as a service. We also use it for our new product, called mapalupa (, a tool where you can easily publish your global (or large area) data on your website, overlaid on an interactive globe using Cesium. Terrain Light is the default background layer there, and I think it works quite nicely on a globe as well.

However, there are always things to improve. So I guess what I have learned is that it can be very satisfying to map the world once, but you are never done doing so.

Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.

A: For preprocessing I wrote some tools in Python which make use of GDAL, OGR, rasterio, and so on. For styling we used TileMill and some Mapnik hacks, so we could render the maps in a WGS84 projection. The tile cache is created and hosted by MapCache, a MapServer project.

For the hillshading we first used SRTM, but later switched to ASTER GDEM and filled some messy parts (bigger ice shields e.g. in Greenland) with GTOPO30. For the rest we used, of course, OpenStreetMap and some datasets from Natural Earth.

It’s great that there is so much data and software out there which can be used. Especially, I would like to mention the person from USGS who was extremely friendly and supportive when we asked to get the global ASTER data. We are not even US taxpayers, but this commitment to Open Data and customer support was very impressive. Last but not least I like to thank all people who spend their time and effort for the Open Source / Open Data idea and therefore provide so many powerful tools which help to compose and realize new things.

'Mont Blanc web map at various zoom levels' by Joachim Ungar
‘Mont Blanc web map at various zoom levels’ by Joachim Ungar

13 maps in 13 days: Dr. John Van Hoesen

Sending off the year 2015, we present to our readers the mapmakers who contributed their work to the 2015 GeoHipster calendar.


Dr. John Van Hoesen

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: I’m an Associate Professor of Geology & Environmental Studies at Green Mountain College in Vermont. I stumbled into GIS as an undergraduate and for most of my graduate work focused on using it as spatial analysis tool exploring geologic processes and environmental issues (and I made a lot of fugly maps along the way). Straddling the fence of academia and the consulting world it became clear that fugly wouldn’t cut it and I eventually embraced cartography as an art rather than an afterthought.

Q: Tell us the story behind your map (what inspired you to make it, what did you learn while making it, or any other aspects of the map or its creation you would like people to know).

A: A post by Geomorphology Rules on Facebook prompted me to celebrate “Worldwide LIP Appreciation Week.” Much to the disappointment of Steven Tyler, this is related to Large Igneous Provinces. I couldn’t find any other reference to this during the official week of celebration, however it seemed like a great topic to mention in my Intro to Geology course. But when I went looking for a good map of LIPs I was disappointed, so I decided to create one.

Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.

A: I started with some Blue Marble imagery from NASA and following some great advice from John Nelson with idvsolutions applied a little desaturation and knocked down the brightness in the bright white polar regions. I found ready-made shapefiles (LIPs, hot spots, etc.) created by Mike Coffin and provided by the Institute For Geophysics at the University of Texas, Austin. I also used a dataset from the Large Igneous Provinces Commission to create a simple graph illustrating the frequency of igneous pulses over geologic time (this is meant more as illustrative than definitive, of course).

Cartographically I chose the orange and red based on the USGS Cartographic Standards palette, and the yellow, blue and purple mainly for contrast. I re-projected all the data into Winkel tripel (see Goldberg and Gott (2008, PDF)). I couldn’t figure out how to reproject to Winkel tripel in QGIS so that was done in ArcMap 10.1 and then symbolized in QGIS and exported to Illustrator for the marginalia (I know, I know, I could use Inkscape but we have a site license…)

'Large Igneous Provinces (LIPS) - Atlantic Ocean' by John Van Hoesen
‘Large Igneous Provinces (LIPS) – Atlantic Ocean’ by John Van Hoesen

13 maps in 13 days: Markus Mayr

Sending off the year 2015, we present to our readers the mapmakers who contributed their work to the 2015 GeoHipster calendar.


Markus Mayr

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: I’m a University Assistant at the Technical University of Vienna in Austria at the department of Geodesy and Geoinformation. But more than that, I’m an OpenStreetMap contributor and GIS nerd that can not decide whether it is more exciting to do JavaScript mobile programming or Python based backends. So, instead, I sometimes end up doing cartography with OpenSource tools.

Q: Tell us the story behind your map (what inspired you to make it, what did you learn while making it, or any other aspects of the map or its creation you would like people to know).

A: One lecture of the bachelor study program “Landscape Architecture and Landscape Planning” at the University of Life Sciences and Natural Resources (also in Vienna) is about learning trees — lots and lots of different trees. To make it more practical, the students walk around in the nearby Türkenschanzpark and study the different characteristics of the trees planted there. About 8 years ago, I was one of these students. One semester of learning how an e.g. one-year-old Juglans regia looks (and tastes) like left a lasting impression with me.

When data about all these trees became publicly available, it became of great interest to me. Still remembering the days of searching for one specific tree in the park, I started drafting a map…

Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.

A: The map was composed using only open source software and data from freely available sources. Since the cadastre of trees of Vienna was imported into the OpenStreetMap some time ago, I was able to use solely data from OSM for this map.

The base layout and main cartographic work was done using QGIS. The map then was exported as a vector file and post-processed in Inkscape. While a lot of cartographic work can already be done within QGIS, some cartographic details just have to be crafted manually (e.g. the smoothing of the walking paths, more precise labelling, or slight generalization of the few buildings). (a hooray for traditional cartographers 😉 )

Inkscape proved to be up to the job — despite the slightly sluggish performance because of the many elements on display. The possibility to search for similar elements via XML-SVG attributes was a powerful feature that helped me a lot. Maybe, at some point in the future, Inkscape will be extended by a set of cartography tools?

'Trees of Tuerkenschanzpark' by Markus Mayr
‘Trees of Tuerkenschanzpark’ by Markus Mayr