Alasdair Rae: “I think the best maps are simple ones”

Alasdair Rae
Alasdair Rae
I grew up in Inverness in the Scottish Highlands and then went on to study geography in Glasgow at the University of Strathclyde, more of the same, with a good bit of GIS at The Ohio State University (Columbus, OH) and the University of Liverpool, where I did my PhD in urban and regional planning. I then worked at the University of Manchester before moving to the University of Sheffield in 2008, where I have been for the past decade. I've always been interested in maps and places, so I suppose it's only natural that I ended up being a professor of urban studies and planning and doing a maps and stats type blog. 

I live in the Hillsborough area of Sheffield with my wife Bethan and my two boys, Finlay (11) and Isaac (4). I've realised that an important part of being a modern parent is providing instant, on-the-spot IT support and ensuring maximum wifi speeds at all times! This is often much harder than my day job.

Blog: www.statsmapsnpix.com and @undertheraedar on Twitter.

Alasdair was interviewed for GeoHipster by Ralph Straumann.

Q: Alasdair, you are a professor at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning of the University of Sheffield in the UK. What is that you do there?

A: Yes, that’s right – I am indeed. For the next three years I have a research fellowship, which means I’m not officially teaching – though I always keep my hand in by doing guest lectures for people here and elsewhere.

Most of the time I’m doing research, travelling and a good bit of admin and management. The last two in particular are even less exciting than they sound. But I really can’t complain because the upside is that I generally get to follow my interests and do cool stuff.

For example, for the best part of this year one of the projects I’m running is looking at a spatial database of a million or so neighbourhood reports on things like graffitti, road defects and so on, and analysing it in relation to lots of other interesting datasets, like income, deprivation, health and so on. I’m also doing some work on trying to understand the impacts of Airbnb in Edinburgh, doing a project on housing market search behaviours and trying to understand travel to work patterns – and disconnections – in poor neighbourhoods across Great Britain.

I also try to write a lot, across many different platforms. I have a few academic journals articles on the go (more US Megaregions!), three book projects, plus writing for a variety of other outlets like The Conversation. And of course I like to blog and keep in touch with people on Twitter.

Q: Your Twitter bio mentions “stats, maps, cities, housing, transport”. Do you combine these themes into an overarching research topic or do you like to look at each of them separately?

A: Some of the stuff I do in my day-to-day job doesn’t make it in to the public domain – perhaps because it’s not ready yet, or because the data aren’t open, but lots of it does and what I think unites my work is a mission to create a bridge between data and knowledge. Data alone isn’t very useful so I try to help shed light on it in a way that helps bring it to life.

Because I’m interested in places, this means my work often focuses on cities, which are full of housing, which are all connected by transport. If I can take available data, do something to it, and then present it in a way which helps people understand things – or just take an interest in them – then I think that is worthwhile.

Q: How do GIS and maps fit into this mix?

A: GIS and maps are great tools. I also like the technical side of things, playing around with data and trying to make it do cool things, and I like communicating with the written word but sometimes you just can’t beat a good map. I think the best maps are simple ones and I’m learning all the time about how to make maps so I suppose my blog and Twitter feed are a reflection of this.

Q: I think you coined the term #geogiffery? Can you shed some light and also explain the concept around it to us?

A: I like making gifs, and sometimes it’s for a good reason – like when I’m looking at election results data – we’ve had a lot of these in the UK recently. Other times, I’m just experimenting, like in this blog post about the famous ‘coastline paradox’. Since it’s a gif and it’s also geo, I started to call them ‘geogifs’ – perhaps others already did but either way it became a bit of an obsession so I just called it ‘geogiffery’ and now Topi Tjukanov has taken it into new dimensions with his shipping geogifs and so much more! I do think geogifs have a role to play in dataviz and storytelling more widely. It’s a great format.

A geogif of US states’ population numbers by Alasdair

Q: I enjoy following your work, because you have interesting ideas and follow through on them in, I think, often particularly original ways. Where do you draw inspiration from?

A: I’m just interested in the world and how it works, or doesn’t work. But there is so much data out there today, and we are overwhelmed with information, so it’s hard to make sense of it all. I don’t think data and maps have all the answers of course, but they’re often a good starting point. So some of what I do is my attempt to understand the world better, and some of it is just me experimenting with ways to do this. For inspiration, it’s a mix of old stuff and newer stuff. For example, the graphics and dataviz teams at the New York Times, Washington Post and the Financial Times all produce great work and are a fantastic example of what can be done with new data and methods. But equally people like Waldo Tobler and Jean Gottmann are a good reminder that not much today is really new – it’s mostly just easier to produce.

One great source of older material that I like to look at is the National Library of Scotland map collection. It’s amazing stuff, and not just about Scotland, though a lot of it is. It shows you what is possible when you don’t think like a modern-day GIS or programming language and aren’t bound by its rules and parameters. One of my favourite collections here is the Bathymetrical Survey of the Fresh-Water Lochs of Scotland, 1897-1909, which in addition to being beautiful is also very informative. You can impress your friends, for example with the knowledge that Loch Ness has a mean depth of 132 metres, or 433 feet. Though only if you have the wrong kind of friends. And I can personally testify, from real world experience, that the water these maps depict is very cold indeed!

Loch Morar – the deepest in Scotland (and the UK) at 310 metres. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland (CC-BY-NC-SA).

Truly great work takes a lot of time and experience, and a lot of what I put on my blog is more like cuttings from the workshop floor, as it were, but I think that kind of knowledge sharing is always useful because a) it’s a good way to share ideas, and b) you never know what other people might find interesting and useful. A good example is my recent attempt to map, in a simple way, population density across Europe using a 1km grid dataset. I just ran off a set of simple maps showing the most densely populated grids square in each country and it’s been my most popular blog post to date, with tens of thousands of views.

The most densely populated 1km grid square in Spain, and Europe, according to Alasdair’s analysis

Q: Amazing! It goes to show, while your Twitter handle is @undertheraedar, your work is hardly under the radar: You tweet regularly, publish on your blog Stats, Maps n Pix and occasionally you and your work appear in traditional media as well. What motivates you to be so active?

A: About 10 years ago I decided to give my blog a silly name (Under the Raedar, hence my Twitter handle) and started it because I wanted a place to put my work that would either just sit in my hard drive or be hidden from the world in an academic journal. I also thought it would be good to share ideas and maps and stuff. I’ve continued blogging for the last decade and my Stats, Maps n Pix blog is the latest iteration of that. I try to publish things I think are interesting, and a lot of it relates to work I do in my day job but mostly it’s a kind of hobby I suppose.

A geogif of the 2017 US total solar eclipse

The reason I end up doing media stuff is that people have seen my blog and Twitter and over the years because of this I’ve got to know some well connected media people. I’m often asked to write stuff, or occasionally appear in TV things, and I generally think to myself ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’.

Why do all this stuff? The answer is that I’m interested in people and places and knowing more about the world. Maps and stats are one way of doing this.

Q: I’ve also learnt that you’re the editor of an open-access journal called Regional Studies, Regional Science (RSRS). Can you tell us more about this?

A: The Regional Studies Association is an international learned society, based in the UK, that I’ve been involved with for years. About 5 years ago I was involved in setting up a new Open Access academic journal – and this is how RSRS came into being. Myself and Prof Alex Singleton of the University of Liverpool were the founding editors and we took the project on because we believe in open publishing, open data, and open science.

We publish papers from academics at all career stages, provide mentoring for early career scholars, and publish papers quickly. To date, our papers have had over 200,000 downloads, which might not sound like a lot but for an academic journal that is no mean feat – though our authors and publisher (Taylor and Francis) can take the credit for this.

Q: In your Twitter bio you further mention “QGIS stuff”: Is QGIS your main tool for doing spatial analyses and producing visualizations? What other software do you use, more or less regularly?

A: Yes, I occasionally blog about QGIS stuff, true. I love QGIS, what it does, and what it stands for and I’ve been able to donate to the project as well, because I believe this is important with open source software projects – particularly ones that people really benefit from.

But in general I’m a pragmatist and use whatever I need to get the job done. If that means spatial stats in GeoDa I’ll use it, or it could be Excel, or perhaps I need to run a big geoprocessing job so I’ll turn to ArcGIS. Maybe I need to do some visual stuff so I’ll turn to GIMP. One tool I’ve used a LOT over the past decade and more is IrfanView – for batch image processing, renaming, resizing and lots more.

For a project I completed recently, I used QGIS, GIMP, Excel, and IrfanView. This is fairly typical. One really useful tool I used for editing massive text files is EmEditor because it can handle files up to 248GB and is super quick and I need this when working with datasets that have many millions of rows. Finally, I must confess that I still love the geoprocessing tools in the ET GeoWizards plugin for ArcGIS.

But most of my GIS stuff these days I do in QGIS and I’m really looking forward to getting to grips with QGIS 3.0 when it comes out.

Q: Ha! ET GeoWizards is a true classic, it has also saved me occasionally! I don’t think there are too many GIS specialists whose software stack encompasses both ET and QGIS. Speaking of (old and new) workhorses: Shapefile or Geopackage, do you have a preference or are you impartial in this arena, too?

A: My heart says Shapefile but my head says Geopackage. I think it’s okay to have a bit of both. I see no need for conflict between heads and hearts. Shapefile has better Twitter game though.

Q: Finally, can you tell us something people might not know about you?

A: I used to be a basketball player and played for the Scotland men’s team back in the early 2000s before I went to the US to do a Masters degree at Ohio State. Before that, I competed in the world 3v3 junior basketball championships in Frankfurt in about 1994 and was even in the dunk contest. I’m not sure if I can dunk a basketball anymore but I can still shoot almost 90% from the free throw line, based on ‘data’ collected during visit to my old home court in the Highlands last summer (i.e. taking 100 free throws). These days, I’ve discovered that indoor rowing suits me best and in the last year I’ve racked up about 1.4 million metres. I think I enjoy the monotony of it. Coincidentally, my only actual experience of rowing on the water is on the very same Scottish lochs I mentioned above.

Q: Wow! I like your empirical/statistical approach to re-discovering basketball. Too bad your impressive rowing activity doesn’t (yet?) yield GPS data that you could map. It was nice to learn more about you, Alasdair!

A: Thanks for having me.

Q: Thank you!

 

Nyall Dawson: “QGIS 3.0…it’s the magic unicorn fairy land of open source GIS™!”

Nyall Dawson
Nyall Dawson
Nyall has been a core developer with the QGIS project since 2013. During this time he has contributed over 5,000 commits to the project, and today is one of the most active developers on the project. Nyall’s contributions to QGIS cover a wide range of areas – from improvements to the map rendering and symbology engines, enhancements to labeling and print layout functionality, right through to optimisations of the underlying spatial processing algorithms utilised by QGIS.

Nyall is the proprietor and lead developer at North Road Consulting, an Australian spatial development consultancy which predominantly utilises international co-funding and crowd-funding campaigns to finance development into open source GIS applications.

You can follow Nyall’s work at https://github.com/nyalldawson and https://twitter.com/nyalldawson

Nyall was interviewed for GeoHipster by Kurt Menke.

Q: Nyall Dawson, where are you located and what do you do?

A: I’m a geospatial developer, analyst, and (I’d like to think) a cartographer, and the director of North Road. I’m heavily involved in the QGIS project and am one of its current core developers, however, in practice my time is generally split about 60/40 between making software and making actual maps (i.e. being a GIS “user”). I also teach crime mapping and spatial analysis at Charles Sturt University. Geographically, I’m based on the Sunshine Coast in Eastern Australia (and yes, the name does describe it perfectly!). It’s as close as Australia gets to perfection – people  only leave here if work forces them to.

Q: You seem to be equally talented in programming and graphic design. What’s your background?

A: I’ve bounced between these two disciplines since high school, and it turns out that spatial analysis is a great mix of the two. While I originally studied mathematics at university, my first job after graduating was as a designer in the marketing department for an IT wholesaler. I was a horrible fit. This pushed me back towards the IT side of things, and I spent a number of years working on corporate networks. I stuck it out long enough to realise that while I enjoy working with software, I wanted to use it to actually make something  (instead of just making it work for someone else).

At the time my wife Maryanne and I decided that we needed a change, so we sold up everything we had, quit our jobs and spent 12 months backpacking around Latin America and Europe. I started collecting maps of places we’d visited, obsessively geotagging every photo we took, and filling in gaps in OpenStreetMap so that I could accurately track where we’d been. It was while hanging out in a bar in Argentina called “The Map Room” that Maryanne suggested I should look into studying maps when we got back to Australia. It’s a perfect profession for me – map making strikes a great balance between that desire to create something useful and pretty, while still being driven by mathematical algorithms and code.

Q: Maryanne is wise! Connect the dots for us. After returning from that year long adventure how did you learn about GIS and cartography, and when did you discover open source GIS and QGIS specifically?

A: So, back in Australia, I enrolled in a masters in “Geomatics”, which was a bit of a mix between every spatial discipline. A couple of early pracs involving surveying sites using steel tapes(!) quickly lead to me dropping every subject that wasn’t pure GIS or cartography. Towards the end of my masters I started working for Victoria Police, as a spatial analyst in their intelligence division. I loved the work – it involved a great variety of tricky spatial and statistical problems with the occasional need to make a pretty map. This is how I got started with QGIS — the commercial GIS package they used just had no capacity for making pretty maps, no matter what tricks you tried. I got sick of creating maps that I was embarrassed to show off so went hunting for alternatives which we could use (in other words… free alternatives. They had no software budget at all). This hunt lead to QGIS, and it wasn’t long before I was totally converted.

I’ve always been a bit of an open-source zealot anyway, so QGIS was a natural fit for me. To me open source just makes sense. I hate the feeling of being at the mercy of some distant software vendor to fix bugs and improve my daily workflow, so I’d much rather just have the ability to dig in and fix things myself. It’s a great model all round – even end users with no coding knowledge can still directly influence an open source project through sponsored features or fixes, and in the end everyone benefits from this.

Q: When I first met you, you were working for the Victoria Police. Why did you decide to launch North Road?

A: Well, as I started using QGIS at Victoria Police more and more, I started hacking away in my spare time to add improvements and fix any little bugs I’d hit during my day job. Doing this for an open-source project was one of the best learning experiences I’ve had. There’s always motivation to improve your work and make sure it’s in top form before opening up a pull request and knowing that it’s going to be visible to everyone and reviewed in public! Plus, you can always watch the changes which are flowing in from other developers and learning from their experience too. Luckily I had some great mentors early on (including fellow Australian geohipster Nathan Woodrow!) who always made themselves available for my constant questions and to refine my rough ideas. Over time the contributions I made became more ambitious as my confidence (and skills) grew, and I started getting queries from users who’d benefited from these contributions. I remember receiving my first email from a user asking “I saw you made this change recently to QGIS, how much would it cost to extend it a bit further and make it cover my requirements too?” – I had no idea what people would usually charge for work on open source, or indeed whether it was even considered “bad form” to charge for working on an open source project (Hint for all open source contributors: it’s not! Your time is valuable and you have no obligation to work for anyone for free!).

Things grew from there until I hit a critical point (when we had our second child), where I had to either make a decision to make this a full-time thing and quit the police work, or scale back the after hours work. I opted for the self-employment option since it meant I could wear teeshirts instead of a suit, listen to any music I wanted to all day, and stay up all night wondering if I’d made a terrible decision and would be broke and homeless in a month. And so North Road was launched.

Q: Walk us through a typical day being a QGIS developer and committer?

A: Well, right now we’re leading up to the launch of the next major version, QGIS 3.0. It’s going to be huge – there’s tons of new features and optimisations, and we’ve totally ripped out and rebuilt some of the older code areas and replaced them with brand new backends (composer, server, and processing). It also brings the change to Python 3 and Qt 5. So currently most of my daily development time is focused on getting 3.0 into top shape and squashing regressions before the final release. It’s a little stressful! Fortunately, the QGIS project enjoys the backing of numerous generous sponsors, which allows the QGIS organisation to directly employ developers to work on the trickier bugs in the lead up to a release. This allows me (among others) to focus our time on these fixes, and as a direct result the final release will be much more stable. (Hint for QGIS users – if you’ve ever wanted to see stabler releases, this is one way you can directly influence the quality of the final release… those sponsorship dollars and donations have a direct effect on the stability of QGIS!).

Following the release I’ll switch back to focusing on feature development – which means my days are filled with fundraising, writing proposals, and, when I’m lucky, coding new features.

Q: What are your favorite new features of QGIS 3?

A: That’s a huge question! The thing to keep in mind here is that QGIS 3.0 has been actively developed in parallel to the stable QGIS 2 releases for the last 2 years. So while the changelogs for the last couple of releases were substantial on their own, those were just for releases with the normal 4 month release cycle. You can start to extrapolate here and get an idea how long the changelog for 3.0 will be! I don’t think there’s any part of the code or interface which hasn’t been refined and improved in some way.

But in short, the features which make it difficult for me to go back to QGIS 2.18 are:

  • The improved label tools which allow you to just pick up and modify any label in your project, without needing to alter your layers in any way.
  • The reworked processing analysis framework and all the new and improved algorithms available in 3.0
  • and surprisingly, all the refinements to Geopackage handling which make them easy and convenient to work with. It’s actually enough to convert me from team shapefile!

 

Q: What is a QGIS feature you’d love to have time to work on but haven’t gotten to yet? What’s your wishlist?

A: Great question! My wishlist is HUGE, and grows every time I make a map. There’s two items which I’d say are top of my personal cartographic hit list right now:

  • Adding “distribute spacing” tools to the print layout designer. 3.0 adds a bunch of new “distribute item” actions which allow items themselves to be evenly spaced within a layout, but I want to be able to distribute the gaps between items instead. It’s a common functionality in desktop publishing and illustration applications which hasn’t yet found its way to QGIS.
  • Adding more automatic label placement options and refining the logic we already have. It’s good, but there’s always more we could do and finding ways to improve the automated placement benefits everyone – even if all you use QGIS for is visualising a bunch of shapefiles.

Fortunately, the QGIS user community has adopted a great attitude toward crowd-funding of features, and there’s been many funding campaigns which have allowed tweaks like these to happen in the past. I’ve already got a few campaigns lined up and ready to go for similar improvements following the release of 3.0!

Q: You mentioned that your time is generally split about 60/40 between making software and making actual maps. What types of projects do you work on when you’re not developing?

A: It’s a mix – these days it’s a whole range of analytical maps showing various statistical outputs right through to “simple” maps of various reference layers for government reports. Fortunately at the moment I’ve got a number of clients for whom high-quality visualisations are essential, so I get to spend time polishing maps and making outputs which I’m proud of. Surprisingly, they’re also almost exclusively print and static maps too. (On a slightly different topic, I personally suspect we’re going to see a swing back toward valuing static, non-interactive maps and data visualisations sometime. Everybody’s just so busy that maps and visualisations which can effectively and instantly communicate their message to a reader, without any data exploration, are likely to see a resurgence for projects where interactivity isn’t a key requirement!).

Q: I know you are a tabletop gamer. What are your favorite games these days? What else do you do for fun?

A: I’m all for co-operative, story-based games at the moment. The Arkham Horror Living Card Game is getting a lot of play (and accordingly, inspired the “Exploring the Depths of Madness Through QGIS symbology” talk I gave at the recent QGIS Australia meetup). TIME Stories and the Pandemic Legacy series are recent favorites too!

Incidentally, I love seeing board games with great cartography. There’s been quite a few games which have inspired me to try different mapping techniques. One personal favorite is the map for the GMT “Liberty or Death” game… that’s a beautiful map, which perfectly balances cartographic attention to detail with usability as a game set piece. It’s gorgeous (and incidentally, inspired a few QGIS symbology tweaks!), and I love that I can learn better map making just from gaming.

Apart from gaming, something I’ve recently rediscovered is how relaxing it is to just put on headphones and listen to an album without doing ANYTHING else. No dual-screening, no checking emails, no fixing QGIS bugs — just tuning out and listening!

Q: Do you consider yourself a geohipster? Why or why not?

A: Well, for a long time I was a holdout flag-carrying member of team shapefile, yet I’ve recently been won over by GeoPackage. I’m not sure if that makes me a geohipster or the opposite! (Shapefiles are retro-cool now, aren’t they?)

I *did* just move out to the country and to a place with our own vegetables and chickens, a farmer’s market next door, and an old avocado farm I can raid if I jump the back fence. I guess that makes me either a hipster or a hippy.

Q: Any words of wisdom or final thoughts you’d like to share with the GeoHipster community?

A: If I’m speaking philosophically, I think it’s crucial these days to have something “unique” you can bring to the profession. I don’t believe it’s enough to just be a “GIS specialist who knows XXX desktop GIS platform”. You’ve got to have something extra which differentiates you and helps you stand out from all the other GIS professionals. For example, you want to be “the GIS specialist who is a statistical wiz” or “the GIS specialist who can code and automate all those boring processes” or “the GIS specialist who can craft effective story-telling maps and visualisations”.

But if I’m speaking as a QGIS developer I’d say: mark down February 23rd in your diary,  download QGIS 3.0 and enjoy. It’s the magic unicorn fairy land of open source GIS™!

Anna Riddell on monitoring relative sea level change, accounting for the wiggle of the centre of the Earth

Anna Riddell
Anna Riddell
Anna works for Geoscience Australia as a Geodesist, but is currently doing a PhD at the University of Tasmania. Her research is focused on using Global Positioning System (GPS) data from Australian sites to derive a spatially-comprehensive vertical velocity field for the continent.

Anna was interviewed for GeoHipster by Alex Leith.

Q: You’re a Geodesist-hipster, right? So what is hip in the world of geodesy currently?

A: Geodesist-hipster doesn’t roll off the tongue as nicely as Geo-hipster, but we’ll stick with it for now.

There are so many exciting projects and new things popping up in geodesy, so these are just a few of them that I am excited for.

In Australia, it is predicted that by 2020 there will be in excess of 30 GNSS satellites visible at any one time. With the regular launch of new satellites, the major GNSS constellations are soon to reach maturity, creating a whole new world of multi-frequency, multi-constellation applications.

Other Earth observation missions are also being launched in the near future, one of which is the GRACE follow-on, which will enable the monitoring of changes in ice sheets and glaciers, the amount of water in large lakes and rivers and changes in sea level by observing changes in gravity.

In the realm of relativistic geodesy, there is some excitement around using optical lattice clocks for measuring elevation changes as well as the possibility to use the new clocks to redefine the SI unit of time and frequency (the second), effectively re-defining time… A bit closer to home we have the National Positioning Infrastructure capability and the Satellite Based Augmentation System trial, which is testing next-generation SBAS, a world first, in Australia.

Q: Australia has a new datum (GDA2020) that has just been released, and one day it might be dynamic. Do you think we can actually have one, considering the software challenges?

A: ‘Dynamic datums’ sound scary, but aren’t as daunting as they sound. The International Terrestrial Reference Frame (ITRF) could be considered as a datum that is continuously updated, where a new frame is realised every 4 years or so as new data becomes available and realignment is required. The new time-dependent Australian Terrestrial Reference Frame (ATRF), to be implemented in 2020, will be similar with periodic updates and realignment with the global frame. I wouldn’t say that it will be a major challenge for software, as the tools and resources needed are available and will be updated with each release. Noting that GDA2020 (current release) will still be available for users who do not need a time-dependent reference frame.

Q: Precession or nutation: which is your favourite?

A: Nutation! It’s more of a short term wiggle of the Earth’s spin axis due to the effect of the moon’s orbit, and more interesting to look at over short time spans (months to years).

Q: You studied at the University of Tasmania (same as me!); who was your favourite lecturer?! (You don’t have to answer this…)

A: Picking favourites is always dangerous (considering that I work with some of my lecturers now).

Christopher Watson (while teaching us least squares via first principles), for his entertaining idiosyncrasy of starting nearly every written sentence (on the white board) with ‘So,…’. I think the maximum count during one lecture was ~35 ‘So,…’ sentences.

Volker Janssen gets an honourable mention for the infiltration of AC/DC flavoured questions in some of our assessments.

Q: And after graduation, you joined Geoscience Australia, the largest geo-organisation in Australia, as part of their grad program, how was it?

A: The graduate program was an exciting year allowing me to experience the diverse range of earth-science related research undertaken to provide advice to the Australian Government. It was a fast-track introduction to the whole agency where we were encouraged to ‘step outside our comfort zone’ and explore areas that were not within our speciality/focus of our uni degrees. My 3 projects during the 12-month grad program were focused on:

  • Assessing the vulnerability of buildings to earthquake damage in Papua New Guinea;
  • Understanding the operation of Geoscience Australia’s geodetic networks, including the construction and installation of CORS and conducting a levelling survey from the Majuro tide gauge to the GNSS site in the Marshall Islands;
  • Classifying islands in the south Pacific on their vulnerability to climate change, specifically for groundwater storage and availability.

Q: GA are sponsoring your PhD, what is your elevator pitch for your thesis?

A: My PhD research is focused on looking at the vertical motion of the Australian tectonic plate, using permanent GPS sites all over the continent to track surface deformation. Part of my research is looking at reducing the error sources in precise GPS analysis, such as accounting for the wiggle of the centre of the Earth which presents as noise in the reference frame (ITRF2014). Having more accurate and precise estimates of vertical land motion in Australia will also enable more reliable observations of sea level change at tide gauge sites around the Australian coastline. Observations of sea level from tide gauges are made relative to the land that the tide gauge is attached to. Without knowledge of the vertical motion of the land (most commonly from GPS), our observations of sea level change can be biased. Relative sea level measurements are important for understanding local effects such as flooding and inundation, but the combination of sea level estimates from satellite altimetry and tide gauges requires knowledge of vertical land motion.

Q: What’s a surprising fact about plate tectonics that we don’t know yet?

A: There are around twelve tectonic plates that make up the surface of the Earth, but one plate (the Pacific plate) accounts for about 90% of all earthquakes, aka the ring of fire! This video is a great visualisation of earthquakes over a 15 year period. Plate tectonics (from the Late Latin tectonicus, from the Greek: τεκτονικός “pertaining to building”) a.k.a Earth’s lego blocks?!

Q: You grew up in a small town, Wynyard, Tasmania, and then lived in our nation’s capital, Canberra. What’s different and what’s the same?

A: Although Canberra is our nation’s capital, it could still be considered as a rural city (not big and bustling like Sydney). My moving progression has been steady with a moderate change from rural Wynyard to Hobart and then a smaller change from Hobart to Canberra. I am not a big city person, so Canberra suits me well. It is hard to compare what it was like living in Wynyard to living in Canberra as they were such different stages of my life. When I was in Wynyard, I was living with my family and growing up (still doing that now too…). The move to, and then working in Canberra was the first step into the working world, and so the comparisons are hard to draw.

The biggest difference for me would be not being near the beach and seeing open water. Living on the NW coast of Tas meant that you were nearly always in sight of water (river, dam, ocean), or driving along the coast with the salty tang of the sea. In Canberra, Lake Burley Griffin doesn’t quite compare with its brown colouring and periodic blue-green algal blooms.

Canberra also has a much larger temperature differential than Wynyard with hot highs (> 35 degrees celcius) and freezing winter mornings (sub-zero). I do prefer the crisp, clear and sunny winter days of Canberra in comparison to the (mostly) dreary and grey Tassie winter!

Q: I found another interview with you that says you used to ride horses, do you still ride?

A: Moving to Hobart was the end of my competitive horse riding era, which mostly focused on Show Jumping and Eventing. During my undergrad I worked at a racing stable, which was a great way to keep riding and get my horsey fix without having a horse of my own. I still occasionally ride for pleasure, but no longer competitively. My horse, Flynn, is now retired and enjoying the good life in a paddock full of lush grass out the back of Sheffield.

Q: And what else do you do in your free time that isn’t GeoRelated?

A: I enjoy team sports, with football (soccer) taking up most of my Sundays during the season. We are just about to start our Summer Cup games as a pre-season warm-up before getting into the football season, running from March to September.

While in Tasmania I have a list of walks/experiences and adventures to undertake which I am slowly accomplishing on weekends that don’t involve football. (e.g. Tahune airwalk, Russell Falls, Cape Pillar, Cape Hauy, Maria Island, sampling all the wine and cheese…).

Tim Wallace to GeoHipster: “Try to get the whole picture before you criticize”

Tim Wallace
Tim Wallace
Tim Wallace is a Graphics Editor and geographer for The New York Times, where he makes visual stories with information gathered from from land, sky and space. He has a Ph.D. in Geography from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Q: How did you get into mapping?

A: I’ve always been into maps and geography. I grew up outside of Boston in a family that took one kind of vacation—road trips to go camping. We drove everywhere we could in the Northeast: Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, of course, but also New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and even Newfoundland (my favorite). For me, as an elementary school kid and middle schooler, it was pretty spectacular seeing all those beautiful landscapes in person, as well as discovering how they all were connected thanks to the maps we collected along the way.

While my first job (at the age of 8) was in journalism (I was a paperboy for the Boston Globe, of course!), the realization that I could have a career in journalism came much later, after a few years as an aspiring maritime archaeologist. I’d gotten both my undergraduate and masters degrees in archaeology, but after realizing the thrill of diving on a wreck was an opportunity I’d only experience rarely, I found myself drawn to the kinds of storytelling and visual explanation that are crucial to the preservation of cultural heritage. I was already doing a lot of cartography as an archaeologist, but without a great deal of formal training, I felt like I was winging it more than I wanted to be. So I decided to go for a PhD in geography.

Q: The title of your thesis is “Cartographic Journalism: Situating Modern News Mapping in a History of Map-User Interaction”. It was published in 2016, but you’ve been at the New York Times since 2012… so you completed a PhD while working at the NYT? That sounds impossible – how did you manage to pull it off?

A: Oh, boy. Short answer: writing retreats and sticking to a strict schedule. Long answer: It wasn’t easy, and I didn’t do it alone. Once I’d started at The Times, many people asked me why I would bother finishing. And as time passed, doubt crept in that I was even capable of it. In fact, I don’t think I would have finished if I hadn’t had the support of my wife, Kelly, and family, who understood on a deeply personal level what finishing might mean to me. I don’t talk about it much (because really there’s no point), but I struggled with dyslexia and short term memory issues as a kid—so much that one teacher told my folks that I would never be able to go to college. So, if I’m being honest, a good percentage of my drive to finish was thanks to family support—and also the desire to stick it to those long-since-gone teachers and prove to myself that I’m every bit as capable as the next geographic nerdlinger. Take that, Mrs. Baldwin! Hahaaa!

Q: You started off as an intern for the New York Times, but now you work as a graphics editor. What’s that like? Can you walk us through a typical day?

A: One of the greatest things about my job is that when I wake up in the morning, I often have no clue what I’ll be working on that day. Breaking news, fresh assignments or successful pitches often turn any expectations of how a day (or even a week) might go, upside down. Having said that, there are a handful of things that I often do (even if I don’t know when I’ll be doing them). I make maps, solo or along with a handful of other geographers in the department, and those same geographers and I assist other colleagues with mapmaking. I work with satellite imagery quite a lot, and increasingly, various types of drone imagery. Sometimes that drone imagery comes from flights that I or my colleagues have piloted. Occasionally I find myself working alone, but our department, and the newsroom as a whole, is extremely collaborative. So it’s pretty rare that the work I do isn’t done in support of a team effort.

Q: You work with a wide range of data types, from satellite imagery to spatially referenced data, and not so spatially referenced data. Can you tell us about the tools that you use?

A: Our department has a handful of internally-built tools (some of which have been opened to the public, like ai2html!), but everyone works with their own little hodgepodge of tools that suit their pace and type of work. For short deadlines (sometimes only minutes), we keep it simple (often only using illustrator and/or photoshop); for enterprise stuff we often have time to get a little experimental and try new tools and techniques. Geospatial tools I use include GDAL (my bash profile is a mess with functions for common tasks, like cleaning up gross shapefiles or pansharpening Landsat imagery), Mapshaper (made by my colleague, Matthew Bloch!), Arc/Q GIS (am I allowed to list them interchangeably like that?), GeographicImager, MAPublisher—but I’ll dabble in ENVI or Pix4D if I have time! Because of our often-frantic work pace, our spatial database management is borderline atrocious though. So, please don’t ask me about that. 🙁

Q: How often do you get to experiment, try out a new tool or a different approach to a problem?

A: Every story is at least little different from any other, so some level of experimentation is a part of the job. Dedicated whacky experimentation time usually only happens when we know a story is coming that we want to cover very differently. But I work with a group of creative people who are always pushing to do better work with new and surprising techniques, so some days feel almost like I’m in a little R&D graphics lab.

Q: This past October, you worked on the New York Times’ story How California’s Most Destructive Wildfire Spread, Hour by Hour. For just two hundred words and one map, it communicates a wealth of information. How did you achieve the brief yet comprehensive final product?

A: The Tubbs fire was unique for several reasons, but chief among them was the unusual rate at which it moved down a hill and into a populated area. We felt pretty strongly that this needed to be explained visually to give our readers the best sense of what happened. Projects like this are big team efforts. Derek Watkins was reporting from California for the first part of the production of the graphic. Others of us back in New York were helping delineate the fire’s perimeter using the latest data from the state, images from the European Space Agency, Landsat and DigitalGlobe. We were also using the DigitalGlobe imagery to determine which buildings were destroyed. If we weren’t sure about a building and Derek had access, he would go take a look and we would update our map with what he found. The locations of deaths were mapped with old-fashioned reporting. The timeline was put together using VIIRS, MODIS and GOES-16 data and we tried our best not to imply any more precision than we had. You may notice the lines aren’t sharp, for example. Their gradient is meant to visually display the fuzziness of the precision of our timeline based on our amalgam of sources.

Q: Is it normal for news publications to employ top notch geographers, or is that something unique to the New York Times?

A: What it means to be a Geographer in a newsroom and what we do has changed over time, but we’ve always been around. Maps have appeared in newsprint for centuries and many reporters do geography all the time! The type of work we’re doing now though feels special, like we’ve hit an inflection point where institutions are leaning on Geographers not just for maps or square mile calculations, but also for their perspective on news events as they happen across cultures and landscapes.

Q: Many people I’ve talked to who make maps professionally often make maps in their spare time for fun. Do you have any fun mapping projects in the works?

A: I’ve made a habit of putting myself to sleep at night with satellite imagery instead of a long read. I sometimes tinker with ideas too, but I’ve found that it’s pretty important to step back a little from my work during certain hours so that I don’t burn out!  

Q: You also run a website called  Bostonography with Andy Woodruff. For those who might not know, what is Bostonography? How did it come about?

A: Andy approached me about it at NACIS in St. Petersburg in 2010. He’d just moved to Boston and I’d just left. So, with his fresh eyes and my perspective as a recent Bostonian, it made good sense to team up. And it has been a lot of fun pretending to be the modern day Kevin Lynches of Boston. I just wish we had more time for it!

Side note: Amy’s favorite on the site is Whoops: Dunkin’s are Closer, which is a correction of an earlier Bostonography map showing distances to the nearest Dunkin’ Donuts across Boston. The farthest place in Boston from a Dunkin’ Donuts appears to be a cemetery, which you point out is ironic, because there’s another great Bostography map showing distance to cemeteries.

Q: What do you do for fun? Any hobbies? Your website has a lovely photo of your writing coach, who looks like a lot of fun…

A: I really don’t think I could enjoy spending time with Kelly, my son and my dog, Lucy, any more than I do. We cherish the weekends when we can stretch out our walks in the park, build worlds out of train tracks, hit up the zoo or go for a swim. I love taking photos and experimenting with photography too. I bake and cook a lot. Oh, and I might make a map here or there for fun (like this housewarming gift for my parents).

Q: Are you a geohipster? Why or why not?

A: Why, sure! I’m a geographer living in Brooklyn, I make my own pickles and babka, and I collect old maps. I should at least be geohipster-adjacent with these qualifications, right?

Q: Any words of wisdom you’d like to leave with the geohipster community?

A: Be friendly, share your knowledge and try to get the whole picture before you criticize. We all work differently and have a lot to learn from one another.

Ian Dees to GeoHipster: “It’s important to produce something that affects others in a positive way.”

Ian Dees
Ian Dees
Ian Dees is making it easier for people to find and use all sorts of geodata. He is a member of the OpenStreetMap US board, founder of OpenAddresses and All The Places, and is always looking for new data to explore and share.

 

Ian was interviewed for GeoHipster by Mike Dolbow, about a month before the announcement that Mapzen is shutting down operations. We at GeoHipster wish everyone from the Mapzen team the best of luck in finding their next adventures. –Ed

Q: You’re part of a team at Mapzen. Tell us how you got started with them.

I joined Mapzen because I was excited to focus on maps and map data as part of my day job. I was also excited to work with the team at Mapzen, who have built some great services based on the data that I’ve enjoyed building for the last decade of my life. I ended up on the Tiles team working on the map data that makes up the Tilezen service but I also spent time working on other data systems like Terrain Tiles, All the Places, and OpenAddresses.

Q: What are some cool projects you’ve been working on lately?

I’ve been working with Seth Fitzsimmons on updating Mapzen’s Terrain Tiles dataset for the last few months and we finally got it out the door earlier this month. I enjoyed updating the Terrain Tiles using newer AWS products like Batch that allowed me to spin up tens of thousands of CPUs to regenerate every tile in the world using newer and higher resolution elevation data. It was quite a thrill playing around with that setup!

I’ve also been working on adding data to Mapzen Places through a web scraping project called All the Places. Mapzen Places is a dataset with hundreds of millions of “venues” or points of interest from around the world and a system to link them into a hierarchy of administrative boundaries. All the Places will scrape location data from websites and output GeoJSON that will then be matched with existing Mapzen Places entries to add details like phone number, opening hours, improved location, and more.

Q: You’re the founder of Open Addresses, correct? What’s the story behind how that effort began?

OpenAddresses began when I finished importing the buildings and addresses in Chicago. I was looking around for more data to import into OpenStreetMap while also dealing with the recently-formed Data Working Group’s import guidelines. I decided that taking the time to go through the import process for the hundreds of datasets I was finding wasn’t a good use of my time so I collected the sources into a spreadsheet so others could import them if they wanted.

At some point Nick Ingalls from Mapbox came along and helped me move this spreadsheet into GitHub along with a system to download and merge the data together. After lots of help by hundreds of contributors (like yourself – thanks!) we have over 500 million address points collected and the data is used by Mapzen and Mapbox’s geocoders to provide extremely accurate and up to date search results.

Q: I have to admit, Open Addresses is one of the Github repos I contribute the most to. I think of it kind of like a treasure hunt, finding county data sources for addresses, particularly in my home state. Did you ever think it would grow to over 100 contributors?

Absolutely not! It was a thrill to see the community grow so rapidly. I think the thing that really kicked it into gear was Mike Migurski’s addition of continuous integration builds that generated preview of changed sources in a pull request. It made it clear to the contributor what was getting added and what the data looked like. The instant gratification that those maps provided really made people excited to spend a bit more time looking for more data to add.

Q: I have to admit that is a really cool feature – almost like earning badges in an app or something. But also, I’ve done enough painstaking geocoding that if I’m helping someone, somewhere have an easier time at that, it seems a noble cause. Are there any other contributors expressing that kind of desire? Or, conversely, has there been any backlash from a source that didn’t know its data was being used?

I think there are two types of contributors: one like you who can see where this data ends up being used and is excited for where their contribution ends up downstream. The other is a “casual contributor” that somehow finds the repository and is able to quickly and easily add a data source. This doesn’t happen as much anymore because we cover so many places already, but they get quick confirmation that their contribution is helpful and we can more easily offer fixes if something is wrong.

We have received one or two requests to stop using a data source because we misinterpreted the licensing information, but the vast majority of requests we get are to point to a better source of data or to offer newer or more complete information directly to us. To help with both of these situations we’re working with Portland’s TriMet team to build a tool for data providers to submit data directly to us.

Q: You also were on the team behind CensusReporter. Census data – and interpreting it – has long been the bane of the digital geographer’s existence. I can’t believe it took the geo community that long to have something dedicated to making it easier to use. I refer people to the site all the time. What was the most challenging obstacle to overcome for that team?

It was a blast working with the small team of Ryan Pitts, Sara Schnadt, and Joe Germuska on Census Reporter. Joe had built similar systems before and wanted to make them better, so it was great to build on top of his vision and work with Sara and Ryan to build innovative interfaces on top of the data that I pulled together. The most challenging part of that project was building something that handled the depth of the data that Census Bureau provides while also making it approachable and searchable for reporters who didn’t have the time to completely understand how Census had organized the data. I think one of the most successful parts of Census Reporter is that it’s simple enough to use and update that it only takes a few hours every time Census releases new data twice a year to maintain. Otherwise it runs itself!

Q: You’re also on the Board for OpenStreetMap US. Other than, uh…spraying an occasional fire extinguisher on the mailing list, what are your duties there?

I’ve been the treasurer on the OpenStreetMap US board of directors for several years. That involves making sure bills get paid, taxes get filed, and coordinating sponsorships for State of the Map US. One of the trickiest parts of being active with OpenStreetMap US is figuring out how to spend our money in a responsible way that improves the community of mappers in the United States. We’re constantly looking for ways to do that and if anyone out there has suggestions, please let us know.

Q: Does any of this work compare to being on Obama Election 2012 campaign?

I built some of the strongest relationships I’ve ever had in the 8 months or so I was on the Obama 2012 campaign. Going through that experience made me re-organize my career priorities entirely: before 2012 I was concerned about how I would be able to move up the ladder into a challenging position while not transitioning into management. After 2012 I realized that an extremely important part of having a job is being emotionally happy and producing something that affected others in a positive way. Working with and learning from amazingly talented people also became very important to me, and I think both of these things had a huge effect on what I chose to do in my career afterwards.

Q: You recently moved back to Minnesota after several years away. What brought you back?

My wife and I grew up in the midwest, and went to college in the midwest, so when we spent 3 years in Virginia at her teaching job we felt out of our element. We definitely wanted to get back to the midwest as soon as possible and a job in Minneapolis opened up at the perfect time. She took it and we moved as soon as we could. It feels great to be back in our element now!

Q: You describe yourself as a “Map Nerd” on various social media outlets. Does that equate to being a geohipster?

When I think of a “nerd” I think of someone who enjoys obsessively figuring out a problem or topic. I call myself a map nerd because I enjoy all aspects of maps: everything from understanding where you are while wandering outside to finding the right command line incantation to reproject a shapefile. I’ve always spent way too much time on a computer and focusing on maps, map data, and the systems around it gives me somewhere to focus when I want to learn new things. I suppose focusing on these geo topics makes me a geohipster 🙂 .

 

Kumiko Yamazaki: “Do your part and keep the community going”

Kumiko Yamazaki
Kumiko Yamazaki
Kumiko Yamazaki* is a tech manager at MapQuest, Inc. in Denver, Colorado. She has spent her entire career in the geospatial industry as a cartographer, GIS analyst, and software engineer. You can follow her on Twitter at @kyamazaki.

Q: How did you get into GIS?

A: I was always into maps. When I was a kid, I could point out every state/province/prefecture in the U.S., Canada, and Japan, and name all its capitals. Then came naming every country and all of its capitals, major rivers, mountain ranges, and other geographical features. When I went to college, it just felt natural to take a few geography courses and these few courses ended up turning into an entire degree in the field. My cartography and GIS classes were my favorite and I was ready for a career in the mapping industry!

Q: You work for MapQuest (or is it “mapquest”?). Tell us what you do there.

A: I work on the MapQuest developer brand as a part of Verizon Location Services. I’m currently the tech manager for the Developer Services engineering team and we are primarily responsible for all of the API documentation, the provisioning and management of API keys, and our self-serve platform that allows customers to pay for additional usage of our services. All of this can be found at https://developer.mapquest.com.

In general, we’re a very fast-paced team and we jump from one project to another at incredible speed. Some days I feel we’re THE mapping team, but that could just be me forcing my way into tackling more map-related projects.

Prior to this role, however, I’ve also had several other positions at MapQuest which includes being a cartographer, technical writer, and software engineer. There are a few special individuals here who have helped me along the way and I owe everything to them… at least a few beers, anyway.

Q: Tell us about some of the technologies you use at work. Are they mostly open source, or mostly proprietary?

A: Lately I’ve been using QGIS on a daily basis to analyze TomTom and OSM data and I admit I’m a bit rusty with this. I understand GIS concepts and know what I want, but I simply can’t find the one icon out of the 50 million icons on multiple toolbars that are shown.

Aside from QGIS, most of what we do is programming so lots of JavaScript-ing and PostgreSQL/MySQL.

Q: You are from New Jersey (which is my adopted home state). Why is New Jersey the butt of so many jokes?

A: Well these days, you can probably blame Chris Christie! Also maybe spillover from Filthadelphia? I don’t know, I really love New Jersey (Exit 16E before anyone asks, “what exit??”). You grow up with a certain toughness living there, especially in the densely populated areas, that prepares you for the rest of your life.

Q: You now live in Colorado. What do you miss most about New Jersey?

A: The shore, the cultural diversity, and Bruce Springsteen. I love that NJ has an identity unlike, for example… Delaware! It never leaves you, it defines you, and you make sure everyone knows you are from Jersey.

Q: What do you like most about Colorado? How is the geo scene there? How about the geohipster scene?

A: That’s an easy one – hiking in the Rocky Mountains. The geo scene is quite good, although I haven’t been as good at attending many meetups here. It seems most major companies are opening offices in the Denver area so it’ll be interesting to see what mapping divisions and even potential startups will make it here.

Q: What do you do for fun?

A: It’s difficult to get away from coding and mapping even when I’m not “working” because this is what I enjoy doing. My next side project is to create some artwork using OSM data that I can put up on all my empty walls. No details yet as the idea is still forming in my head!

If I’m not at my computer though, I enjoy hiking, craft beer, oxford commas, and playing modern board games.

Q: Do you consider yourself a (geo)hipster? Why / why not?

A: I love maps and I ride bicycles. Does that qualify me as a geohipster?

Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our global readership?

A: Take care of each other. Be kind, be courteous, be professional. This was the first community I “joined” on Twitter, not fully understanding the purpose of Twitter or what I was supposed to be doing. But you know, you make some friends along the way, maybe even lifelong friends – all because you had a common interest in maps. So do your part and keep the community going, and someday, it may even lead to an interview with the GeoHipster team 🙂

*The above interview represents Kumiko’s views. Not those of MapQuest or Verizon.

 

Toward Helping a Friend

A note from GeoHipster CEO Mike Dolbow

As I write this article, I am packed and prepared for three days “off the grid”, and honestly I could use a break from the daily news. I recognize that I have a tremendous privilege in being able to afford such a break, and that others are not so lucky. Nothing brought this fact to life as much as the recent news that Eni Entchev was deported…despite living in the U.S. for 25 of his 27 years.

Atanas with his son, Eni.

Eni is the son of Atanas Entchev, and sometimes we refer to Atanas as “the OG”…as in, “Original Geohipster”. While we may be using “OG” in jest, let’s face it – without Atanas, “Geohipster” might only be a Twitter account. It probably wouldn’t be a website with over 100 interviews published since it started almost 4 years ago. And it most definitely wouldn’t be the small independent business partnership it is today.

I certainly know I wouldn’t have been able to meet and/or interview so many amazing people these last few years without Atanas’ ideas, support, and generosity. And so when I learned that Eni’s family had set up a funding drive to pay for legal fees and living expenses, I knew I had to act. Like many of you – our amazing colleagues in the geospatial community – I donated from my personal funds. But also, with support from the GeoHipster Advisory Board, I’ve pledged 25% of the revenue from our 2018 GeoHipster Calendar sales.

So, this holiday season, as many of us take some time to celebrate our good fortune with loved ones, I hope you’ll consider either donating directly or buying a calendar to help reunite the Entchev family. Sure, hanging a unique calendar with 13 different pages of “map art” on your wall might make you the talk of the office. But knowing that in some small way you’ve also helped out a friend in need? To me, that’s what the geospatial community is all about.

Hanbyul Jo to GeoHipster: “Letters look like paintings when you don’t know the language”

Hanbyul Jo
Hanbyul Jo
Hanbyul Jo is a New York-based software engineer. She works at the open source mapping company Mapzen, where she develops tools to make web mapping more accessible.

Q: How did you get into mapping/GIS?

A: It was a lot of connecting dots. Mapzen, where I work currently, is where I got into mapping. Before working at Mapzen, I was at the intersection of visual arts and technology. I did some random things including installations and performance. I was not sure what I was doing at that time, so went to a 2 year master program covering technology and arts hoping to figure out what I can/want to do. (Now that I reflect, I was more lost in the program…it was fun wandering.) In the 2nd year of the program, I got into making physical objects in a parametric way with digital fabrication tools. For my thesis project, I wanted to fabricate the map of Brooklyn out of paper. The problem was that I did not have any clue about how to get the shape of Brooklyn at that time. Any concept of geo data at that time was foreign to me. Repeating some unfruitful tries, I started getting into this whole map thing. Looking back, my thesis project was a hot mess… However I didn’t fail! As I was leaving school, I had to start thinking about what the next step would be. As I narrowed down my interests, I thought that maps are a combination of many things I like, such as programming, cities, visuality, data. I looked up map companies that I could find in New York City, and here I am now.

Q:Tell us about your work with Mapzen. What’s your latest exciting project?

A: It is Mapzen.. we don’t put that much emphasis on zen 😉 (This was Hanbyul’s response to me originally capitalizing the “Z” –Ed.) I work as a front-end developer at Mapzen. It is my main job to develop tools that can make web mapping accessible for non-tech/geo-data savvy people. Since Mapzen is not a big company, I’m also responsible for some general front end work such helping other teams’ demos, UI work etc.

A new project that I am excited about is a tool for people to generate basemaps easily. Our cartography team is trying to offer basemaps in a modularized form so that they can be assembled as user needs, e.g.. making labels super dense with a yellow theme. This project just started and is still in a very early stage. If you are a cartographer in need of basemaps that are easily tweakable, we will reach out to you soon!

Q: Your Github account is pretty busy, and you have some cool maps hosted there, like this Seoul building explorer. Can you tell us more about this map and the inspiration behind it?

A: I sometimes think I would never have put anything on GitHub if it were not for my job. All the thoughts such as, ‘What if some people point out this is not the best practice? What if I am doing something totally ridiculous?’ really freaked me out at first. I anyway had to do it on daily basis because my current job requires as many things as possible to be open source, and then I finally got used to it.

Thanks for checking out Seoul Building Explorer. That was one of my full-stack projects that I got to every bit of what it takes to make a web map out of geospatial data. As a person who develops tools for cartographers, I often try to get my hands on the full workflow that cartographers should go through (from geospatial data to web map). When I was looking at how to deal with tiles, I noticed South Korea started making a lot of geospatial data open source. That was the basic foundation of Seoul Building Explorer. The map was iterated several times. The original data had a really wide range of building data such as materials, purposes of the buildings etc. It was so exciting that there is data openly available for me that I put all of them at once at first. Then I realized maps trying to tell everything often fail at telling anything. I started thinking about what I want to see in the map as a person who spent a lot of time in that city, and I also got some feedback from my coworkers with urban planning and design backgrounds. With some inspirations such as built:LA and the NYC PLUTO dataset map, Seoul Building Explorer got shaped as it is now.

Q: As far as I’m concerned, you delivered the coolest talk at JSGeo 2017 (among a pretty amazing slate of presenters), wowing the audience with pictures of 3D printed maps in materials like chocolate and ice! How on earth did you ever come up with that?

A: Did I? 😊

I am always jealous of people who grew up reading maps. Top down view maps were not part of my growing up. All buildings and landmarks were relatively positioned around me: the post office is next to the supermarket, my friend’s house is two units next to mine. Maybe this is because there was no street number system in Korea (where I grew up)? Even after mobile devices became prevalent, I didn’t often have to go somewhere that I was not familiar with, so didn’t really use maps that much.

After moving to NYC, maps became part of my life. I started looking at maps much more often than before as a newcomer of the city. While struggling to read the directions from it, my illiteracy of maps left me room to consider them as visual objects. Just like how letters look like paintings when you don’t know the language.

As I answered before, I first got interested in maps to fabricate with them. Working at Mapzen, I discovered many ways to convert/export maps into easily fabricatable forms (which was my js.geo talk topic. I gave a similar talk at NACIS 2017, you can check it out here). Also some of my great friends and classes at grad school taught me a great deal of craftsmanship and tips when dealing with real life materials. It really helped me to go through the whole fabrication process to know what to expect from real life materials.

Q: Geohipsters are often described as thinking outside the box, doing interesting things with maps, and contributing to open source projects. So, the evidence is stacking up: do you think you’re a geohipster?

A: I have really problem with labeling myself in my life. Hehe… but if I am a geohipster, why would I be in a geohipster box? 🙂

Q: When your chocolate maps become an international sensation, what words of wisdom will you deliver to your adoring fans?

A: Floss your teeth after eating chocolate.

2018 GeoHipster Calendar is Now Available

We’re pleased to announce that the 2018 GeoHipster calendar is available to order! Thanks to all who submitted maps for the calendar.

If your map made it into the calendar, we will send you a complimentary copy (please email pbr@geohipster.com for details).

Note: We’re switching print-on-demand vendors this year on a trial basis. The good news is the calendar costs less this year! The bad news? Previewing the content requires Flash. (Say it with us now, “ew”!) But trust us, the maps included are just as funky, unique, artful, and hipster-ish as in years past. If you’re really curious, Kurt Menke gave us a preview of his submission in November. Besides, what other calendar can you buy that has PostGIS Day marked on it?

Many thanks to Jonah Adkins for the cover design and image processing, and Bill Dollins for organizing the effort on behalf of the GeoHipster Advisory Board. Also, special thanks to our guest judges from recent years for helping us out!

Next year we aim to have a new way to propose map submissions for the 2019 calendar all year round. But in the meantime, get your 2018 calendar now, and pick up one for a friend (or your boss) while you’re at it. Have a great holiday season!

Damian Spangrud to GeoHipster: “Reinvent with a purpose”

Damian Spangrud is a Geographer and Director of Solutions at Esri. Damian often speaks about the role of GIS, technology, and innovation trends. In his 25+ years in the geospatial industry Damian has enjoyed working across a wide range of topics and technology and tweets about all things spatial, weather, and various geeky topics @spangrud.

Q: How did you get into GIS?

A: I have always been interested in maps and technology (although separately). After becoming disillusioned with being a Biology major at the University of Colorado Boulder, I switched to Geography and took ‘Automated Cartography’ and was hooked. I didn’t know what GIS was until a year later and ended up with an internship at the City of Boulder, working in the Open Space department. We had PC ARC/INFO, AutoCAD, and ArcCAD (all on Windows 3.0/3.1). The GIS team worked in a small farmhouse and the GIS manager lived upstairs. That turned into a job and eventually led to working in a GIS research lab at Montana State University Bozeman (Sun SPARCstations and electrostatic plotters) and ultimately at Esri.

Q: How did you end up at Esri?

A: I was finishing my Master’s degree in Earth Science at Montana State University Bozeman. I had enough of academics and needed a job. And while Bozeman was beautiful, there were just not many jobs in the area. I had been using GIS and modeling tools as a fundamental part of my thesis, so I sent out a bunch of resumes related to my GIS work (ahh the days before online job searches). Esri and a couple environmental consulting companies contacted me and I was intrigued by the job at Esri as it allowed me to work with new technology. In the summer of 1994 I joined the ArcView 2.0 team at Esri, I was brought on as the Technical Product Manager for ArcView. I ended up writing a LOT of Avenue (that was the scripting language for ArcView), I even wrote the buffer wizard. Over time I became the Product Manager for ArcView, and eventually the Product Manager for all of ArcGIS. Then a few years ago Jack Dangermond (President of Esri) asked that I take on a new role as Director of Solutions to lead a team working on solutions across ArcGIS. In over 20 years at Esri, it is amazing to see the growth of maps into a core part of society/expectations, and especially knowing that GIS people have been behind the scenes making all of this spatial revolution happen.

Q: You are a Director at Esri. What does an Esri director do?

A: An Esri Director is like a Senior VP at most companies. At Esri that means we focus on listening to our users and supporting our teams and making sure we have a strategy, process, and the answers to the hard questions so the teams can focus on getting the work done.

Q: What do you do at work — overall, and in your day-to-day duties?

A: I wear a few hats at Esri so my day-to-day varies considerably. I work with a couple of great teams of people — the Solution team works closely with customers to build ready-to-use apps and maps that help people do more with GIS (http://solutions.arcgis.com/gallery) and the APL (Applications Prototype Lab) team who are always pushing the boundaries of how we use GIS (https://maps.esri.com/). So, I mainly just try to stay out of their way! But I also try to help by providing critical feedback to team planning and direction. In addition, I work across the various parts of Esri to help on our overall strategy, which sounds fun (and it is) but it mainly means lots of meetings and lots of information bits to synthesize. As part of my role I evangelize spatial thinking and GIS at various events around the world and I keep my hands in the technology and make time to focus on individual mapping / analysis projects (some of these are highlighted here).  

Q: A lot has been tweeted about GIS data formats, and about the shapefile in particular. Where do you stand on the pro/con-shapefile continuum?

A: I don’t understand the anti-shapefile feelings. Yes it is old, yes it is messy, yes it has its limitations… But don’t we all? You don’t have to love it, but why expend the energy hating it? Should we use the shapefile as THE primary format for the next 20 years, of course not. I don’t know anyone who thinks it should be. Given the rapid growth of data especially from new sensors and methods, I’m not sure we will ever see a single format as dominant as the shapefile was at its peak. I do love the geopackage, but its adoption is coming at a point where the community is so comfortable using so many formats and across so many platforms that it’s going to be hard for it to become dominant.

Q: You are a Mac person. As (presumably) a Mac fan, how do you reconcile the fact that desktop Esri products never really caught on on the Mac platform? ArcView 2 for Mac was in the works, but never made it to a full release. What happened?

A: Mac person? Seriously? I’m so inept on Macs that my kids know better than ever asking me for help (thank God for YouTube videos). But I digress; I have a copy of ArcView 2.1 for the Mac here at my desk (unopened 3.5 floppy disks!), and we made media and books but we never shipped it. The Mac at that time wasn’t very powerful and while ArcView worked on the Mac… it didn’t work well. ArcView 2x/3x was built on a cross platform technology so we could get it to run on various UNIX platforms (this was pre-linux) and PC. That extra layer of tech, while wonderful at allowing us to work across platforms, added another layer of technology and load on the system. And the Macs of the late 90s were very underpowered for graphics and CPU. We had hoped that the CPU would catch up to PC speeds by the time we released; they didn’t and we just didn’t see the Mac as viable in the late 90s. Macs have since become speed demons but in many local governments they are still a minority (and special and difficult to request), so for the desktop we still see PCs as the main platform, but lots of folks (IRL and at Esri) run ArcGIS on their Macs using Parallels (or similar).

Q: You fly kites, which is probably the most hipstery of all hobbies we have talked about on these pages. Tell us about your fascination with kites.

A: Flying kites is a wonderful interplay of wind, technology and people. It can be both solitary and social as well as calming and exciting, even terrifying on high wind days. As a kid we lived for a few years in Nebraska, where it was always windy. We’d buy those cheap Gayla kites for a couple bucks and have ‘kite wars’, fly them a few thousand feet up, and even tie them to the deck at night and they’d still be flying in the morning. While in Boulder for college I worked at Into The Wind, one of the best kite stores ever!  And I spent most of my paychecks getting more kites (as well as yo-yos). I have all sorts of kites, from tiny kites (postage stamp size with sticks made from ⅛ diameter toothpicks), to huge kites that I anchor to my car. Some are traditional / or “static” kites (you let out string and fly them), others are stunt kites that you control with multiple handles and make spin and swoop at over 90 mph. I don’t get out and fly as much as I used to (various life responsibilities and poor wind quality here in Redlands makes it difficult), but it helps keep me sane.

Q: According to your Twitter bio you are also into food. Anecdotal evidence shows that a higher-than-average proportion of geo people have a strong relationship with food. They know and appreciate good food, they like to cook. I know of some who left the industry to become chefs. What is your relationship with food, and do you think that there’s a correlation between geo and food that warrants further exploring?

A: I have a VERY active relationship with food! I’ve always cooked, and like reading cookbooks, but I’m never good about following directions exactly. I tend to improvise and blend flavors and techniques from other recipes (sort of like my GIS analysis). People have said I should start a restaurant, but I fear that being focused to do something I enjoy would make it less fun for me. I don’t think there is any special relationship between the geo community and food. I think the food community has taken off over the last few years so you just see more of them. (And to the younger generation: learn to cook the basics, it will go a LONG way later in life.)

Q: Do you consider yourself a geohipster? Why/Why not?

A: In the traditional sense, I’m probably not a geohipster. I fit few of the geohipster stereotypes: I don’t have a man-bun, I don’t bike to work, I don’t write JS daily, I’m not a coffee or beer snob, and I like using applications with UIs. That being said, I love maps, mapping, geographic analysis, and geographic science. I feel that we should look at using geographic science in new and interesting ways, making it more approachable and integrated into all aspects of business and science. And I did get maps into two years of the GeoHipster calendar, so that counts for something. So, I’m probably the old odd guy on the edge of the circle, feeding strange ideas and sharing thoughts, hopefully fueling these crazy hipsters to do more (and reminding them to stay off my lawn!).

Q: On closing, any final words of wisdom for our global readership?

  • Don’t be afraid to learn.
  • Reuse tools, code, and apps. Just because it has been done doesn’t mean you can’t reuse those bits to do you own thing.
  • Don’t reinvent just because. Reinvent with a purpose that has real value.
  • Learn enough about projections to be dangerous
  • Fear the rainbow color ramp
  • Normalize your data
  • Always know the minimum mapping unit appropriate for your map and scale
  • Remember Large Scale is zoomed way in (1 : smaller number) and Small Scale is zoomed way out (1: bigger number), but you’ll probably get it wrong 50% of the time.
  • Every map is a lie, but you should make your lies with purpose!