Achim Tack & Patrick Stotz: “More and more nonsensical things are mapped just for the sake of mapping”

Achim Tack (top) and Patrick Stotz
Achim Tack (top) and Patrick Stotz
Besides other engagements, Achim and Patrick work as data journalists at Germany-based Spiegel Online, one of the most widely read German-speaking news sites. They're also the creative duo behind the information visualization blog mappable.info, where they share new tools and spare-time projects around their passion for maps and geospatial data. Here they speak about their background, their interests, and inspirations.

Q: Hi Achim and Patrick, where are you based and what do(es each of) you do?

A: Patrick: We both live and work in Hamburg, Germany and feel lucky to have jobs where we spend a fair amount of our time working with geospatial data and making maps. I’ve joined Spiegel Online (a major German news site) last year and work there as a data journalist. We’re still a very small team and my responsibility ranges from gathering, cleaning and analyzing data to making maps and other kinds of (mostly interactive) visualizations.

Achim: In my main job I work as an analyst for a consulting firm (GGR) that focuses on topics like accessibility of public services and communities’ adaptation to demographic change. Applying our models, we produce a lot of datasets and while looking for appealing ways to present them I got in touch with the local data-driven journalism (DDJ) community. Journos know a lot about storytelling that researchers and analysts often don’t. About a year ago, I was offered to join the Spiegel Online data journalism team besides my job at GGR.

Q: I see. How does your two-job situation work for you, Achim, I imagine it can be stressful?

A: Achim: Better than I’ve expected, to be quite honest. I work on a fixed four days GGR / one day Spiegel Online schedule. On the technical level, data journalism and urban analytics have a lot in common: both fields center on the generation, cleansing, and analysis of data. I am very grateful that both employers show some flexibility, but I also believe that they both benefit from the knowledge transfer between jobs.

Q: Of course, I also had a glance at your Twitter bios: Among other things, Achim’s says “a passion for #maps, #geodata and #ddj”, Patrick’s says “data journalism & dataviz” and “map nerd”. Is the spatial theme a unifying one for you, and if so, how come?

A: Patrick: Definitely, it’s our common interests that got the two of us in touch in the first place. We share a deep fascination for understanding the geography of places, as well as for the beauty of maps. At least that’s what led both of us to studying urban planning at university (not in the same city though) and later on to starting our blog mappable.info.

Achim and I got to know each other around four years ago. Back then, Achim already worked at GGR, and I was a research fellow at HafenCity University Hamburg. We were working together on a joint research project building a GIS-based tool for predicting the (fiscal, ecological, social…) consequences of urban planning projects. The final version was a set of custom-built ArcGIS Toolboxes programmed with Python (ArcPy) scripts. The whole approach of programmatically controlling a GIS, designing your own interfaces (within the given limitations) and working on a final product fit for usage in public administration was new to us and held a lot of challenges.

Achim: While working on the project, we quickly realized that we share the same passion and interest for maps and geospatial data. If I think about it now, starting mappable.info maybe was a counterreaction to working on often complicated tasks. It was our fun place to explore some new tools and simply publish small projects online without many restrictions.

Q: To what degree can each of you mix and match the skills that you acquire in your various activities?

A: Achim: Starting from a relatively similar university education, we both got different skillsets. I gained some experience in the fields of scraping and data handling, whereas Patrick deepened his knowledge in data visualization and front end design with D3.js, etc. But at least from my point of view, these days you can’t train for one job anymore but you have to broaden and adapt your skillset on a per-project basis. My urban analytics job benefits from skills learned in DDJ and vice versa. It’s getting more common to consult with universities or other research institutions when doing DDJ.

Patrick: I agree. I’d say that the lines between DDJ and cartography (and other disciplines) have become quite blurry recently. In my eyes some of the best cartography nowadays is done by the New York Times graphics department. At the same time bloggers, cartographers, and geohipsters (or however you want to call them) might analyze and visualize data and turn it into a story that’s far superior to a lot of the things we’re used to seeing in journalism.

Mappable -- Limited accessibility
Mappable — Limited accessibility

 

Q: What then is your take on the interplay between more recent developments in general like the open data movement and digital humanities on one hand and more traditional fields such as journalism and GIS on each other?

A: Achim: I’m excited to see the changes in both fields — traditional GIS and journalism — in recent years. Today open (geo)data is used in most of our projects. And I’m not only talking about “fun projects” or civic hacking, but serious consulting projects. Open data has not only the value of being free, but of being quickly and easily accessible.

On the software side, I think in the coming years we will see a trend toward more open software such as QGIS in public administration. Mostly because of budget reasons, but I believe the influx of younger employees could lead to them bringing their open source toolstack with them as well.

Q: What are some projects you’re excited about or working on right now (if this is not giving away too much)?

A: Achim: We have to differentiate between professional projects and private “afterwork projects”. At GGR for example, we just finished a multi-year federal research project about tradable land-use certificates. We developed a WebGIS platform to conduct a semi-automated fiscal impact analysis for close to a hundred clients.

Like every geo-nerd, I still have a few datasets sitting around that I always wanted to play with. One idea is a spatio-temporal analysis of business locations and the transfer of this data into a predictive model for urban retail areas… But I might need some more free weekends for that 😉

Patrick: Oh yes, that idea has been on our list for a long time. I have to admit though that after turning my hobby into my everyday job, I’ve become a bit reluctant towards ‘just for fun’ mapping projects. I’d definitely like to keep mappable.info as well as its little spin-off project travel score running as before, it’s just hard to find the time besides a full-time job and the other stuff I want to do in my spare time.

Patrick at the world's longest-named place
Patrick at the world’s longest-named place

Q: You’ve mentioned your shared website mappable.info a few times: is that URL an implicit mission statement (as in “map all the info!”)?

A: Patrick: No, that’s not quite it. We started the blog at the beginning of 2013. At least from our perspective, that was a time when publishing maps online got a lot easier. Mapbox and CartoDB skyrocketed, and we were thrilled about all the new possibilities that were coming up. Of course, there had been tons of great examples before, but for us, coming from an urban planning perspective and a rather narrow Esri ArcGIS-centered view and education, this was like a small revolution. Our first project was mapping all hotels, hostels, and airbnb apartments in Hamburg. We scraped the data from various sources. Putting them on a map and styling in CartoDB was super easy. That’s what mappable was about in the beginning. Trying out new tools, playing with the aesthetics of maps, and bringing data onto a map that you hadn’t seen mapped before.

Achim: I’d like to add one more point of view: Recent years have seen the generation of very large datasets, which have a direct or indirect spatial reference, and therefore are “mappable”. Previously, when thinking about spatial data, classic things like land-use-parcels or streets came to mind. But today it also means live tracking data of taxis, whales, or planes; retail sales of store locations, or the opening date of every Starbucks in the country. What’s new is that a number of those datasets – while clearly having a spatial component – were not generated to be spatially analyzed. I like to speak of recyclable datasets, since what we deal with are often residues from other processes, stored away in databases. Their spatial relevance becomes clear only on the second or third sight. Analyzing and mapping those datasets can lead to completely new insights.

Mappable car-sharing timelapse
Mappable car-sharing timelapse

Q: What do you make of such skeptics like Brian Timoney (and me) who keep surfacing things that maybe shouldn’t have been mapped? Do you have a good rule to go by that you could share when it comes to maps or other forms of information visualization?

A: Achim: Yea, we quickly found out that not everything should be mapped – openly available but legally protected car sharing data for example 😉 But seriously: I agree that there is a danger that more and more nonsensical things are mapped just for the sake of mapping. Currently, interactive maps in most cases guarantee quite high user interaction rates. From the journalism standpoint this poses a challenge: You always have to ask yourself if the nice and well-designed map you could roll out really adds to the story or is simply done to gain more page impressions.

That’s why I expect to see a lot of maps coming from PR departments in the next years. You could compare this situation to the field of infographics. They got a lot of attention in the past years so now it feels like more or less every advertising agency publishes 2-3 infographics per week. But at least from my personal view the effect wears off. I see a lot less infographics being shared in my social media feeds compared to maybe a year ago. I fear this will happen with maps, if too many nonsensical ones are published.

Patrick: Sure, just because making online maps nowadays is easier than ever, doesn’t mean that everything that’s mappable should be mapped. The first question we always ask if someone wants a map visualization is if the spatial component of the data set is actually the most important thing. Sounds pretty straightforward, but obviously isn’t understood by everyone. We actually put together a small checklist on making geodata visualizations when we first got invited to speak at a journalist conference about making maps. In our everyday work, we must admit though, that we don’t really work with a fixed set of rules. One thing we always try to achieve is to keep our visualizations as simple as possible. That’s probably the influence of reading some books by Edward Tufte.

Q: Speaking of Tufte, who else would you consider a source of inspiration for your work, and how did you learn about them?

A: Patrick: Difficult question, there are just so many. I think we both draw a lot of inspiration from our twitter feed and from quite a long list of blogs we follow. To name a few (and risking to forget a lot more who do awesome work in the process): Alberto Cairo, Nathan Yau, Gregor Aisch, Lynn Cherny, Andy Kirk, Mike Bostock, Maarten Lambrechts and John Burn-Murdoch when it comes to dataviz and Andy Woodruff, Lyzi Diamond, Hannes Kröger and Alan McConchie when it comes to mapping. It just amazes me again and again how much their openness and the openness of the whole mapping and the dataviz community helps in learning stuff and keeping up to date. It’s not like I don’t appreciate my university education, but it’s that openness that enabled me to learn new tools and points of view and finally to switch fields and get a job where I can do what I’m passionate about.

Q: And do you know already where the path will take the two of you? Will we see more maps by you?

A: Achim: Although it was very quiet on mappable in recent months, we still do create lots of maps of course. Unfortunately the ones I create for our customers at GGR are not open to the public in most cases. But on the other hand hundreds of thousands of Spiegel Online visitors have already viewed our maps – that’s a good compromise that makes me quite happy 🙂

Q: Finally, any words of advice for us geohipsters or the world at large out there?

A: Patrick: To the geohipsters: Read this blog post on the future(s) of OpenStreetMap by Alan McConchie and help OSM moving towards what he calls singularity. To the rest, and this might sound awkward considering I’m now a journalist myself: don’t let all the bad news cloud your world view. Check out the works of Hans Rosling and Max Roser and acknowledge the long-term positive trends, too.

Achim: I can only agree on this and would like to add just one thought: Given the fact that we see so many technical improvements to mapping like HD-satellite videos or high precision maps for autonomous driving, we sometimes should take a moment to appreciate the craftsmanship of mapping like the globes from Bellerby Globe Makers, or even pick up a pencil and a piece of paper and start doodling.

Vasile Cotovanu: “Better to publish a (not perfect) map than having a masterpiece … unpublished”

Vasile Cotovanu
Vasile Cotovanu
Vasile Cotovanu is the author of the “SwissTrains” railway map -- one of the first animated public transport maps on the web. He has worked as a software engineer on the mobile team of local.ch, one of the most used websites in Switzerland.

Q: Hi Vasile, I’ve looked up your Twitter bio: “Husband and father, neogeographer, hacker and hiker, mobile software engineer, curious, never stop exploring”. I understand you’re currently between jobs and indeed exploring. What is it that you did in your old job?

A: The Twitter bio is outdated, but at the same time current 🙂 About the exploration bit: I am always doing that, no matter whether I’m hiking the Swiss mountains or I’m playing with new technologies. With regard to the job, yes, I am taking a few months’ time off to explore some pet projects that I’ve never had time to work on 🙂 Before this, my previous position was software engineer in the mobile team of local.ch, one of the most used websites in Switzerland.

Q: You have an education as a geomatics engineer. How did you get interested in that specifically?

A: My passion for geography started in early childhood, when I was reading Jules Verne books side-by-side with the world atlas 🙂 Geomatics came in 1997, before graduating high school, when I had to make a choice about which university to attend. I stumbled upon a technology newspaper that had a GIS software article and presented a classic solution for finding a location for a new company branch (I think it was a bank) based on some criteria like target population, existing branch offices, easy access, etc.

So I wanted to find a university that was dealing with such problems and the closest I could find was to study Geodesy at Technical University of Civil Engineering in Bucharest, Romania. After graduation in 2002, I worked as a technical analyst dealing with surveying and photogrammetry projects with a strong focus on the GIS-related programming part. It was the time of learning and discovering Geomedia, ArcGIS and FME.

However, in 2005 with the online maps revolution that started with Google Maps I joined also this “train” and started to work as a freelancer and created various map mashups. Since then I didn’t work anymore in the classic field of geomatics but embarked on a rather different path: I was doing web-programming with a focus on geo-related projects – which I’m still doing today. Except that I ditched the “web-” prefix, because with time I got experienced in working in the whole production pipeline from raw geo data to presenting them on a map, no matter if on web or (more recently) on mobile.

Q: Did your work for your old employer also relate in any way to maps, geo data or GIS, or have these things been hobbies for you?

A: One of the goals of my former company was to provide the best local search experience in Switzerland. So you can imagine it was dealing with a lot of geodata! I joined them when they needed someone to help them migrate to a new online maps provider, and also to grab (read crawl) the Swiss public transport data for the local search directory.

My colleagues there called me “Mr. Geo”, as most of the geo-related questions were routed to me, but also because I had this passion, or obsession even, for geo-quizzes. So they were always testing me by showing me photos from their trips and asking me to guess the location 🙂

Over the last two years at local.ch I wasn’t exposed to maps and geo-related topics as much any more as I wanted, but more to mobile technologies. So this was a perfect opportunity for me to foster learning how to do native development on mobile platforms (iOS and Android) and apply my geo-related knowledge also there.

Q: You’re famous for your “SwissTrains” railway map. In my mind you were one of the first, if not the first, to build animated public transport maps on the web. When did you start this project, and why this fascination with trains? Are you actually what we call a ‘ferrophile’ in German, i.e. a train lover, rather than a geohipster?

A: Actually both! In the railway department, call me trainbuff, railfan, trainspotter, whatever fits 🙂 Yes, I love trains! As a little child I used to go to a friend and play with his model trains. Later I studied building tracks and railway models. And today I am still playing with trains, except that I am drawing and animating them on web and mobile platforms 🙂

I started the SwissTrains project in 2007 as a challenge to visualize the impressive network of Swiss Railways which consists of 13,000 trains on 5,000 km of tracks, generating 150,000 timetable stops across 1,800 stations. In the early years I did a lot of the heavy-lifting myself, because no vector data were available; so I manually digitized the whole Swiss rail network and mined the timetable data from the official providers.

After some really nice press coverage and a lot of feedback from not only train enthusiasts, I pushed the project to the next level: I open-sourced it, helped others to implement it for their regions, and from time to time I improved its codebase by updating the APIs or adding new tools to it.

Q: I imagine your railway maps have experienced quite some technological development over time. What technologies did you use, do you use, and why?

A: Back in 2007 I was still working on a Windows machine, and for my projects I used commercial GIS tools like GeoMedia (to digitize and analyse the network topology) and MySQL (to store and query the timetable data). The two “databases” were integrated with a pair of custom-made scripts and FME workspaces that didn’t always run smoothly. Thus, there was also a bit of manual work involved, which obviously wasn’t great. On the (web)client the things weren’t smoother: the old GMaps v2 wasn’t too fast and I was doing a lot of rendering, e.g. the network polylines were loaded via the client instead of deferring to a tile-service of some sort. I don’t even want to mention some aspects of the UX or performance in mobile browsers at the time 🙂

So as you can imagine I needed to do something to make SwissTrains scale and perform nicely. I cut all commercial software dependency and started relying on open source tools exclusively. For instance, for capturing and analysing network topology changes I started using a custom online editor based on the GMaps API and later the GeoAdmin API. For managing timetable information I started using SQLite and custom-made integration scripts written in Ruby or Python. On the client side, I took the benefit of GMaps v3 which had a mobile first approach, so it rendered nicely on small screens. Additionally, I delegated the load of extra layers to tools like Fusion Tables.

However, any time I revisit the project, I am tempted to refactor big parts of the code. But I try to keep this urge that every programmer has (right?) in check and focus on what is really broken. Or I add wholly new features like realtime imagery updates of the trains, because, remember, my ultimate goal is to play with model trains, but in the browser 🙂

Q: What are you currently working on? I think I’ve seen a tweet of yours where you were looking for beta testers recently?

A: SwissTrains, what else? Jokes aside, yes, I plan to release it on native mobile platforms like iOS and Android. As a matter of fact, I’m testing it in a beta phase for iOS, so anyone can enroll here via Testflight.

SwissTrains iOS v2
SwissTrains iOS v2

Besides that, as said in the beginning, I have some other pet-projects that are in the idea or alpha phase with focus on geo and mobile platforms. They will certainly keep me busy. Plus I have a 4 year old toddler that develops slowly but surely into a trainspotter like his dad 🙂

Vlad -- future trainspotter
Vlad — future trainspotter

Q: And do you know already where the path will take you? Will we see more web maps by you?

A: That’s not yet defined, but I know one thing: I want to work on more geo-related projects, ideally in a company that deals also with native mobile technologies. Therefore I’m currently fostering my iOS and Android experience and preparing myself for the next employer.

However, I will still have a soft spot for web and maps in general, so I will not stop publishing those completely. On the contrary, like in the past, I plan to continue rolling out maps on my personal website. Most of them are listed here: http://www.vasile.ch/work

Q: On closing, what words of advice would you like to give to all the geohipsters out there, or to the world in general?

A: I usually don’t give advice to strangers, but since you asked, here we go: Keep exploring and have fun with your map projects. If you get blocked by whatever reasons, let’s say technical, then you can park the idea for later but not for too late because better to publish a (not perfect) map than having a masterpiece … unpublished. And please, don’t call it MVP 🙂

Maps and mappers of the 2016 calendar: Andrew Zolnai

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.

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Andrew Zolnai

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: I’m a geologist who turned to computer mapping 30 years ago and GIS 20 yrs ago – high school Latin helped me transition to coding just short of programming – and I now started my third business and assisted two others. I’m taking a ‘business process first’ approach, using mind mapping as a ‘talking point’ to help firms help themselves, which will determine workflows in resources planning that may invoke web maps. My Volunteered Geographic Information also helps individuals and academics put themselves on the map.

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: Ken Field’s hexagon maps featured on the BBC during UK elections this spring inspired me to do the same in the US Gulf of Mexico: 50K oil wells taxed arcgis.com, so binning the data points allowed to show progressively more detail at large scales as you zoom in. It clearly shows for example the march of wells further offshore with time, in a way that speaks to stakeholders and public as well as engineers and mappers.

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

A: Esri ArcGIS for Desktop Standard and Model Builder, scripts adapted from Esri’s Ken Field for US Gulf of Mexico wells, posted on ArcGIS Online.

'Hexagon binning, US Gulf of Mexico oilwells' by Andrew Zolnai
‘Hexagon binning, US Gulf of Mexico oilwells’ by Andrew Zolnai

What does a GeoHipster listen to? — Everything!

Music & Maps : A GeoHipster Mixtape

On most days, we listen to the soundtrack of work:  phones, email notifications, office chatter, or the sound of the city. For some of us, our daily soundtrack is a carefully curated playlist of our favorite tunes. Being in the latter group, music can provide the white noise needed push through an hour of getting the labels “just right”, or the inspiration that sparks the fix for that problem with your code.

I was curious about what others are listening to during the day – What does a GeoHipster listen to?

As you might expect, asking anyone who likes music to pick a few songs can be a near futile task. A desert island playlist would be drastically different from a top side one, track ones playlist. Making a mixtape is subtle art, there are many rules – like making a map. I recently talked to several of our interesting colleagues in geo to see what tunes get them through the day. I asked the impossible: pick  3 tracks they love to share for a mixtape.

A GeoHipster mixtape. 

For your listening and reading  pleasure we have hand-crafted a carefully curated playlist from the GeoHipsters below, complete with liner notes of the cool work they do while listening to the tracks they picked.

Ps. i couldn’t help but add a few selections of my own.
Sorry/Not Sorry
jonah



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Joey Lee @leejoeyk // Open Science Fellow at the Mozilla Science Lab

A font made from satellite imagery. WAT. Joey is one of the minds behind  Aerial Bold  – a kickstarter funded project that finds letters in buildings, ponds, trees, and everything else  in satellite imagery.

Generationals – “Reading Signs”
Banoffee – “With her”
Kings of Convenience – “I’d rather dance with you”


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Vicky Johnson @hurricanevicky // GIS Specialist at USAID via Macfadden

A self-admitting geogrump, Vicky regularly talks about maps, all things Buffalo, and nostradamus-style death predictions. Her writings on maps, like “The Maps We Wandered Into As Kids”  are some of best out there. Seriously. Read her stuff.

Ludovico Einaudi – Night
Michael Daugherty – Lex
Grimes –  Kill v Maim


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Jereme Monteau  @jerememonteau  // CoFounder & CTO @ Trailhead Labs

Jereme works on making trail data accesible and open. Through the smooth OuterSpatial platform he’s working on, organizations can provide beautiful maps of their trails, like the Napa County Regional Park & Open Space District

Jereme provided some DJ set links with the caveat:
“……Basically, for any kind of work, especially geo/maps. I’m into DJ sets, which is also kind of the only time I’m into DJ sets. :-)……”

https://soundcloud.com/atish/atish-038-september-2013-anti …
https://soundcloud.com/odesza/no-sleep-mix-04 …
https://soundcloud.com/robot-heart/eric-volta-robot-heart-burning-man-2014 …


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Amy Lee Walton @amyleew // Designer @Mapbox

Amy Lee’s recent map stylings like “Vintage” and “Blueprint” have wow’d us all and she continues to produce amazing examples of modern cartographic design.

The Beatles – I Want You (She’s So Heavy)
Fetty Wap ft. Drake – My Way
Drake – Hotline Bling


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Jim McAndrew @jimmyrocks // Developer, CSU Research Associate at the National Park Service

Among many of the cool OpenStreetMap related work at NPS, Jim is working on synchronizing ArcGIS Online Services with the OpenStreetMap API via Places-Sync

Kraftwerk —Computer World
Boban I Marko Markovic Orkestar — Devla (Khelipe Cheasa)
Mad Caddies — Down and Out


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Lauren Ancona @laurenancona // Sr Data Scientist at City of Philadelphia

When she’s not sciencing the shit out of data, she’s learning all the things by making projects like Parkadelphia – a project that let’s everyone from Von Hayes to the pope view when and where they can park in Philly.

Farrah Fawcett Hair / Capital Cities
Genghis Khan / Miike Snow
Light Up / Mutemath


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Chris Pollard @CRVanPollard // Manager, Geospatial Application Development Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC – Philadelphia’s MPO)

When Chris isn’t fracturing bones from shredding rails, he’s spinning up apps like RideScore & CyclePhilly and for the greater Philadelphia region’s planning authority.

Beach Slang – “Ride the Wild Haze”
Interpol – Heinrich Manuever
Band of Horses – Laredo


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Mamata Akella @mamataakella // Senior Cartographer, CartoDB

Mamata’s cartography as inspired so many of us over the last few years. She cooks up fancy visualizations at CartoDB, and is giving us a special sneak peek at a current project – only to be described as….seismic!

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Ant Banks/ Mac Mall / Too Short / Rappin4Tay / E-40 – Players Holiday
Whitey Morgan and the 78s – I’m On Fire
Phoebe Ryan – Mine (The Jane Doze Remix)


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Will Skora @skorasaurus // Operations Manager at SVDP Cleveland

Way back in March of 2015, we interviewed Will for GeoHipster where he talked about his awesome project Marilliac , a hot meal finder app for Cleveland. More recently, he’s been working on transit data and isochrones with OpenCleveland’s RTA project.

BT – Dynamic Symmetry
Tim Hecker – Virgins (Virginal I or II)
The Future Sound of London – Lifeforms (Life Forms End)


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Atanas Entchev @atanas // O.G.

Our very own OG, Original GeoHipster , resident cross bike, definitely not fixie, driver and all around shaman of neo-modernist-post-classic-pre-retro map enthusiasts to the realm of geographic hipsterism.

The Alan Parsons Project – Turn of a Friendly Card
Marina and The Diamonds – Froot
Ryan Adams – Style


Got an idea for a topic (any topic) you want us to talk to GeoHipsters to? Let us know!

Andy Woodruff: “Seriously, buy an actual textbook!”

Andy Woodruff
Andy Woodruff
Andy Woodruff works to design and build custom interactive maps with Axis Maps, a small company that grew out of the cartography program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2006. He is currently one of the Directors at Large of the North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS). Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he’s also a co-organizer of Maptime Boston, and a semi-active mapper of all things Boston for Bostonography.

Q: How did you get involved in geography and maps?

A: I’m a lifetime geographer, that kid who stared at maps in the back seat during family car trips. A map is a wonderful canvas for imagining what the world looks like, and there was always a little thrill in finding myself on the map and seeing imagined places become real. That kind of fascination followed up through my undergraduate and graduate studies in geography and cartography, and on into the start of my career.

Q: How did you learn how to code?

A: The first code I ever wrote was probably BASIC programs on the TI-86 calculator in high school. I have no formal coding background but started learning in earnest in grad school at the University of Wisconsin, in a course on animated and interactive maps. We used Flash, and I became captivated by what ActionScript could do for mapping, so I got really into it and went from there. Flash may be dead to many of us now, but learning it was not at all a waste of time. Those skills transferred well.

Q: How did you meet your company partners?

A: My two partners, Dave Heyman and Ben Sheesley, were the first two people I met when I visited Madison in 2005 to tour the UW Department of Geography, where they were already in the grad program. They started Axis Maps along with a third partner while working on their degrees (the company turns 10 in May!), and then I joined them after finishing my master’s. The roster has varied a bit over the years, and we now also have Josh Ryan working with us, but the three of us have been there for quite a while.

Q: You all work remotely, what tools do you use to keep in touch and organize projects?

A: The usual suspects, probably: Slack for real-time communication, GitHub for code collaboration and issue tracking, Dropbox for other file sharing, Basecamp for project management, Skype for some calls.

Q: What is your company’s typical stack?

A: I never like the word “stack” because it evokes a more rigid workflow or set of tools than I think we have as a company that specializes in custom maps. That said, there are common elements. At the end is most often D3 or Leaflet, and flat geodata files like GeoJSON or CSV. But the road to get there can vary quite a bit. Some things that often enter the mix are QGIS, mapshaper, TileMill (yep, old school TileMill), PostGIS, GDAL, and probably more that I’m forgetting.

Q: You worked with Cindy Brewer on http://colorbrewer2.org/. How many iterations did you go through? What were your goals for the project?

A: ColorBrewer was sort of inherited by Axis Maps for maintenance. Mark Harrower had worked with Cindy to build the original version based on her color research. Around 2009, when Mark was with Axis Maps, he proposed refreshing it, mostly in terms of UI, and we worked with Cindy on that. That was still in Flash though, and a few years ago I started the conversion to HTML and JavaScript to keep up with the times. So it’s really on version 3. The goal is simply to maintain Cindy’s (and Mark’s) original purpose; what we’ve brought to it is relatively minor UI and usability updates, and a few features better suited to the modern cartographer or web developer.

Q: What are some of you favorite examples of work you have conducted?

A: It’s most fun to get to work on something that real, ordinary people will use and enjoy. One favorite from my day job is the Napa Valley map and trip planner we made a year or two ago, which is used by tourists in the area. A favorite side project is the neighborhood mapping project for Bostonography because discussions with people about that have taught me a lot about what neighborhoods mean to people, and about some real-life neighborhood issues in Boston. One other longstanding favorite is typographic city maps, which started as a fun idea and went on to be good for business!

Q: What interesting facts have you learned about the Boston area while working on maps?

A: Too many! It’s a geographically fascinating city. Can’t say that all of these were news to me, but a few interesting things, facts or otherwise:

  • The actual landform of Boston has changed drastically over time. Quite a lot of the city was water 400 years ago.
  • The street layout can be learned but is still really hard to explain. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve failed to give people directions despite knowing the route perfectly. (“Go straight, but it’s not really straight, then turn at the place where seven roads converge, then…”)
  • Everything is closer than it seems; many of us would probably overestimate distance on a map. It’s a compact place and the concepts of “near” and “far” here are a lot smaller than what I grew up with in the Midwest.
  • Nobody can agree on neighborhood boundaries. That’s the subject of an ongoing project.

Q: Which startup/tool/platform do you see paving the future in the geospatial industry?

A: In the world I know best, which is public-facing web maps, I’m excited by what CartoDB does and what they might inspire. They’re doing a great job in the “fast mapping” world that appeals to journalists and others, while also being a gateway to learning more advanced technology, i.e. PostGIS. I think that approach will be good for the future of maps in general.

Q: You are quite involved in the mapping community through Maptime and NACIS.  Where do you think the mapping community is heading? What skills do you see as being important to becoming geographical/map-fluent?

A: When I joined NACIS ten years ago, a transition was starting in cartography from a concentrated few experts to a vast “democratized” array of mappers. Just judging by NACIS membership and conference content over the last decade, there’s a good trend in the mapping community. Where once there was a backlash against so-called amateurs, now they’re mostly embraced and everyone wants to exchange knowledge. The steady attendance of our Maptime chapter in Boston has been good evidence of that! So I think we’re headed in a direction where we all help ourselves get better. Setting aside technical skills, I think important ground to be gained is in cartographic skills and concepts, which have not always spread very far from academic settings. Ideally, academic expertise would be as approachable as Maptime is for technical expertise. We can’t just tell everyone to go back to school, although I’m currently developing a mapping workshop that includes this bit of advice: “seriously, buy an actual textbook!”

Q: Lastly, who inspires you?

A: Inspiration comes from all over the place, but to name a few people on the mind lately:

John Nelson and his consistently breathtaking aesthetics; Eric Fischer for his mapping and finding meaning in “big data”; Mamata Akella and the creative map symbology experiments she’s been doing; Tim Wallace (my partner in crime for Boston maps) for his collaboration and the amazing ideas he shares, and of course his clear and subtly beautiful map design!

Q: And for old times’ sake… which would you choose?

  • Cambridge versus Boston  – They’d chuck me in the Charles if I didn’t say Cambridge.
  • D3 versus R – D3! But I’ve never even used R.
  • WebGL versus vector tiles – they kind of go hand in hand, don’t they?
  • Leaflet versus OpenLayers – Leaflet. Haven’t actually tried OpenLayers since an older version years ago.
  • CartoDB versus Mapbox 😉 – Oh boy, don’t want to make any enemies!
  • Front end versus back end – Front end is a lot more fun.

Michael Terner: “Choice is back”

Michael Terner
Michael Terner
Michael Terner has been working in the geo/GIS industry since 1985, initially in state government where he was the first manager of MassGIS. In 1991 he co-founded Applied Geographics/AppGeo, where he remains a partner and Executive Vice President.

Questions from Randal, Mike, and Atanas

Q (Randal): So Michael, you are Executive VP at AppGeo. AppGeo has been around for around 25 years. You’re one of the founding partners, correct? What’s the history of AppGeo? ArcINFO was still command line at that point, and I’m pretty sure Windows NT hadn’t made a strong appearance in the market place. Plus I still had hair.

A: Yeah, I hate to admit it but I’m increasingly feeling like one of the “old guys” in this industry. I got my start in GIS in 1985, straight out of college when I got an internship with the Massachusetts state government in a small environmental agency. My task was to see what this new “GIS technology” was all about and see if it might help Mass with hazardous waste treatment facility siting. Long story short, that internship led to 7 years in state government where I had the privilege of helping to get MassGIS started, and was the first Manager from 1988-1991. In that time I took my ARC/INFO (correct spelling of the day) training on a Prime 9950 mini computer and ARC/INFO 3.2. Our first disk quota was 600MB, and the system administrator said “you’ll never fill that up.” We did in 3 months. I also helped Massachusetts buy its first copy of ARC/INFO to run on a new VAX computer at version 4.0. I have no nostalgia for the bad old days of command line, 9-track tapes, and needing to start projects by table-digitizing the data that you needed. I do miss AML a little bit.

I left state government to co-found AppGeo with two partners in 1991. My partner for 24 years, David Weaver, retired late last year. Our president Rich Grady joined us in 1994, and we’ve built a strong, internal management team. In hindsight, the one thing I think we’ve done best these past 25 years is anticipate and willingly change as technology evolves. We started AppGeo with one UNIX workstation that ran ARC/INFO for 3 people using terminal emulation on PCs connected to the workstation. We ran ArcInfo on Windows NT, and we’ve evolved through ArcView, ArcView IMS, ArcIMS and ArcGIS Server and ArcGIS for this and that. We’ve seen a lot of technology and devices come and go, and beginning in 2008 we began pivoting from Esri as the sole solution for all problems. Initially with open source, and now increasingly with newer web platforms from Google Maps to CartoDB alongside open source. Again, I have no nostalgia and have never had more fun in this industry than now. Choice is back, and innovation is flourishing. Everywhere. I still have some hair, but as my daughters remind me, my forehead has grown considerably since then.

Q (Randal): So what does AppGeo do?

A: We’re geospatial consultants, plain and simple. We help customers solve geospatial problems and we help them plan and implement geo. We both spec and create data. And we build a lot of applications. Nowadays, almost always on the web, and increasingly what we build is optimized for mobile device access. Sometimes our customers want our ideas; other times they need extra capacity, and sometimes they need special skills such as programming or project design. We really believe in “dogfooding” and “eating what you cook.” As such doing things like creating data and maps as well as applications helps us be more confident in the kinds of recommendations we put forth in our strategic plans. Now we also resell some technology, and we have our own software as a service (SaaS) offerings that we serve out of the cloud to many dozens of customers. Pretty much everything we do has geospatial in it, but as geospatial — or location — has gotten more mainstream, increasingly our work involves integrating with non-geospatial business systems or tying geospatial technology into traditional IT infrastructures. Which is good. As our development team will say: “spatial is not special, it’s just another column in the database.” It’s a bit of an exaggeration, but with SQL extended for spatial operations, not by much.

Q (Randal): One of the things I’ve noticed about AppGeo is that you have several business partnerships. Two of the most interesting were Esri and Google. One of the two decided they didn’t want to partner with you in the GIS realm anymore. Which one ran?

A: As a small business, we have always been open-minded to partnerships. In addition to geospatial supplier partnerships, we have partnered with a wide variety of other consultants on projects. From big engineering firms to well known IT consulting firms to firms that are highly specialized in a particular market such as airports. We add the geo/location expertise.

And we’ve always been very open to partnering with the geospatial software providers. In addition to the two you mention — Esri and Google — at various times (and to this day) we’ve been partners with Intergraph, Bentley, FME, and CartoDB. Our loyalty is to our customers, and we want the expertise needed to help them solve their problems, and we need to understand the tools that are out there very well to provide that expertise. Partnerships help us to do that.

So to your question: Esri kicked us out of their partner program after almost 20 years in the program. I blogged on that topic in 2014 and provided a good amount of detail on what we think happened, and what it means. Many, many people read the piece, and as I’ve traveled around, several other people have sought me out to tell me “their story.” We’re certainly not the only ones who have met this fate, but not many have talked about it openly. As I wrote, it was not a healthy partnership, and in the end it was good that it happened. We have never been stronger, and there are many other firms — including Google — that have welcomed us as a partner, and respected our non-denominational outlook on partnership. We still use a ton of Esri and feel very comfortable as a customer of theirs. As our clients know, our expertise in Esri didn’t disappear with our partner status. We greatly respect the company and Jack Dangermond as a strong and tough businessman. And, in our “best of breed” outlook on the geospatial landscape, Esri is the best at many things. But, in our opinion, not all. And that’s probably why we parted company.

Q (Mike): Any regrets about publicly airing all of those details? Do you think AppGeo would be different today if you had been able to stay in the program?

A: No regrets whatsoever. In fact, we have been a bit surprised at how many people were interested in the story. In the end, we had heard that Esri was telling the story to some of our mutual customers in “their terms”, and we felt it was important for people to have the ability to also hear that story directly from us. Quite honestly, I don’t think things would be much different for us if we had stayed in the Esri partner program. Business remains good, and we would still be using a variety of technologies, and we would still have our primary loyalty to our customers. Really, the biggest difference is in the posture of our relationship with Esri. Now we’re an Esri customer and user instead of a partner. And thus the kinds of conversations we have with Esri are somewhat different.

Q (Atanas): How is partnering with Google different than with Esri?

A: As you might expect, it’s an enormous difference. Google’s program is certainly not perfect, but Google is very clear with their partners on the role of the partner channel and Google’s expectations. It took some getting used to, but we have hit our stride and the partnership is very productive for us. Here are a few of the biggest differences:

  • Google has many, many fewer partners than Esri, and the partners are selected/recruited based on their qualifications. And there is not an annual fee to be in their partner program.
  • Google’s program is re-selling oriented. We do a lot of related services (e.g., application development), but that is between us and the customer; we work very closely with Google on providing the right subscription-based products. Unlike Esri, Google allows their partners to sell any of their geo products, not just the lower-end subset of products.
  • Google has other, non-geo product lines (e.g., Gmail/Google for Work; Google Cloud Platform; Search; etc.) and many of Google’s geo partners sell, or even specialize in these other product lines. Google’s partner conference (which I just attended in March) mixes all of these different partners, and it’s a really interesting and diverse ecosystem. There’s a specialized track for each product line (we followed the geo track), but you also get to see the whole cloud-based vision of the larger company and interact with, and learn from the non-geo partners.
  • Probably the biggest difference for us is that there is a very active exchange of leads and joint selling. We got more leads from Google in our first month in the program than we did in the entire life of our Esri partnership which spanned almost 20 years. Fundamentally, Google and their partners work together on sales which was not the case for us with Esri.

Q (Mike): While we’re drawing comparisons, you’ve been working with customers around the country. Are you noticing any regional differences in the way GIS or mapping technologies are approached?

A: Honestly, I don’t see fundamental “technological approach” differences across the country. Pretty much everywhere I go Esri remains the dominant player, but also I see people’s eyes and minds being ever more open to new approaches like open source (e.g., QGIS) or cloud-based platforms (e.g., CartoDB, Fulcrum). There may be slight regional differences in the rate of uptake of new technology, but everywhere people are more curious than I’ve ever seen. People are also increasingly interested in open data across the country, and even in Canada, which does not have the same public records laws and open records history as the USA.

The biggest regional differences are in governmental organization and the priority of particular issues. The things that vary on a regional basis are more like, “Do you work with more counties vs. cities/towns?” Or, “Is the drought, or agriculture, or public lands a big issue?”

Q (Mike): I’ll ask you what I asked you in Duluth last fall — can the open source community band together to make sure the Yankees never win another World Series?

A: Wish it were so. But as a fellow Red Sox fan I feel good about where we stand relative to the Yankees in the 21st Century, i.e., 3 titles Red Sox to 1 for the Yankees.

Q (Atanas): Hippest commute mode: ferry, train, or bike?

A: I’m a big public transit fan, mostly because the downtown Boston driving commute is terrible. Usually I’m on the commuter rail. But during the window from mid-May through the end of October there’s a commuter ferry from Salem (the neighboring city to my hometown of Beverly) into downtown Boston. So my favorite, and by association hippest, commute is the 1-2 days/week during the summer I get to bike the ~3 miles from home to Salem for a wonderful high speed ferry ride into Boston (and then back). This is the morning “entering Boston” view:

'Entering Boston' by Michael Terner
‘Entering Boston’ by Michael Terner

Q (Randal): So with all these questions behind us … do you feel geohipsterish? We did a poll way back in the beginning days of GeoHipster to define a geohipster, and the best we could come up with are they shun the mainstream, have a wicked sense of humor, and do things differently. Do you feel like one?

A: Yes, I hope so. I’m not sure I “shun” the mainstream, but I don’t believe there is a mainstream that lasts very long in technology. If you stand pat, you die. We’ve lasted 25 years so at a minimum we’ve bobbed in and out of the ever-changing tech mainstream fairly effectively. In 1985 when I started in this business, Esri was not mainstream. I appreciate humor (especially Randy’s) greatly, and I hope I’m occasionally funny (even if my family might disagree). Yes, I think we often approach things differently, and aren’t afraid to “try different”, and that’s been a great asset.

Q (Randal): I usually leave the last question up to you to say whatever you want to say to the world, and I’m going to do just that … BUT with a twist. Something big is coming to Boston in 2017, and you and the Geo community did a tremendous amount of work to make this happen. So what is coming to Boston in 2017?

A: Yes, the Global FOSS4G Conference is coming to Boston in August of 2017 as the three-continent rotation returns to North America after a successful stop in Seoul, Korea in 2015, and the upcoming conference in Bonn Germany in 2016.  See our nascent web-site to mark your calendars. The Boston geo community rallied, and I am extremely proud to have led our awesome Boston Location Organizing Committee (the BLOC) in generating the winning proposal to host that conference. We had incredibly tough competition with really strong proposals coming from both Ottawa and Philadelphia, and we are committed to putting on an awesome conference and rewarding the faith OSGeo has put in us. We are also excited to support the upcoming FOSS4G North America that will be held in Raleigh, NC in just 4 weeks. Please show your support for FOSS4G and learn lots and have fun with us in Raleigh.

Maps and mappers of the 2016 calendar: Terence Stigers

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.

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Terence Stigers

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: I never formally studied GIS so I’m tempted to say I ‘fell into’ it, but that would imply there was something accidental about the process. I am a historian and archaeologist, and whilst studying these disciplines I heard about this new-fangled thing called GIS that ostensibly used computers to model and study spatial relationships. Immediately recognizing how useful such a thing could be for archaeology, I happily invaded the geosciences department of the university I was attending. At the time the only remotely related offering they had was a class titled ‘Computer Mapping’. I enrolled and ended up walking away with a copy of MapInfo 5.0 (still got it, too). Having exhausted the university’s offerings, I did some digging and learned that Esri (at the time, at least) offered substantial discounts to enrolled students. A series of phone calls and emails later had secured me a shiny new copy of ArcView 3.2a for a tenth of the retail price. I spent the summer teaching myself how to use it, and the rest is GIS (with a little bit of history and archaeology thrown in for good measure). So I didn’t actually fall into GIS but rather actively and doggedly hunted it down. But GIS isn’t my job. I do it for fun.

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: I made this map to explore some techniques I intend to employ for an upcoming project. My friend Drew asked me to produce some maps for a new book he’s writing, so I decided to get a jump on things. It’s an academic book (but not a textbook), so I’ll be dealing with substantial size constraints and will be limited to greyscale. So the trick is figuring out how to convey enough information with the least amount of clutter. Whenever possible I try to produce maps devoid of legends. I feel every entry on a legend represents a failure on the part of the cartographer. An ideal map should need only a scalebar, a north arrow and maybe some labels. I try my best to attain this ideal. I usually turn to old maps for inspiration for these endeavors, and on this map you can see the results in the larger rivers and bodies of water. I also used Tanaka-style illuminated contours for this map, a technique I have long been fond of but only recently became able to leverage (I first encountered the idea of Tanaka contours using GIS software in an ArcUser magazine about a decade ago. It was a spirited effort, but was more a terraced DEM than anything else). It is a very effective tool for conveying a lot of elevation information at a glance. And doing so without a color ramp or the clutter of hillshading.

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

A: The only tool I needed for this map was QGIS (2.8.1, I think). The hydro symbology I achieved through the simple expedient of a series of semi-transparent layered negative buffers with varying dash arrays for outline symbology. I did the illuminated contours using a technique developed by Anita Graser (QGIS superstar extraordinaire) that she obligingly outlined in a post on her blog (http://anitagraser.com/2015/05/24/how-to-create-illuminated-contours-tanaka-style/). I had to tweak it just a little bit (mentioned in the comments, if you’re interested). All the data used came from MassGIS, OpenStreetMap, and myself. The town depicted is Greenfield, Massachusetts, and is the town in which I reside. Over the course of some years I have amassed, manipulated, and refined a sizeable amount of data pertaining to this town. Because of this, I have an intimate knowledge of these datasets, so they are my go-to datasets whenever I experiment with cartographic techniques (unless I need something they can’t provide. A volcano, for instance).

'Greenfield, Massachusetts' by Terence Stigers
‘Greenfield, Massachusetts’ by Terence Stigers

Link to full-size map

Maps and mappers of the 2016 calendar: Nathan Saylor

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.

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Nathan Saylor

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: I’m the GIS coordinator for Hardin County, Ohio, where I do a variety of map projects to support and promote various county entities. I really enjoy my position there as I’m a one-person shop and there is ample opportunity to learn and experiment with my craft.

I am also the owner of Saylor Mapping. This was started to answer the many requests coming to the county GIS for cemetery mapping services that the county felt was beyond its reasonable scope to handle. Saylor Mapping is also breaking into municipal utilities as well.

I am also very involved with #GISTribe, which has a scheduled meet every Wednesday at 3pm ET on Twitter (though we’re active all the time), as well as the gistri.be archive and blog.

Personally, my wife Marti and I have been married for nearly 18 years and have six clever kids.

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 deadline for the Ohio GIS Conference map competition was looming, so being in Buckeye country, I pondered what the map might look like if Michigan wasn’t there. I had never really thought about it, but looking at it, I considered what the impact of its sudden absence might be and within about 30 minutes came up with some economic reasons why this might be proposed by the fictitious Ohio Consortium for Greater Lakes.

Of course this is born out of the well-known rivalry between Ohio State and Michigan, and this was totally a play at the judges. While I had a lot of humored responses and requests for copies (download available here), sadly Ohio missed the opportunity to formally recognize the genius in their midst (I say with tongue firmly in cheek).

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

A: The data was from Natural Earth, and I used ArcGIS Desktop. If you fancy yourself a fontophile and an anglophile, you’ll have noticed the font used for the lakes is Blackadder which was named for a British comedy alluding to the jest in which this map was made.

Go Bucks!

'Great Lake Expansion Proposal' by Nathan Saylor
‘Great Lake Expansion Proposal’ by Nathan Saylor

Will Cadell: “People talk about ‘thinking outside the box’; I don’t think there is a box anymore”

Will Cadell
Will Cadell
Will Cadell is the founder and CEO of Sparkgeo.com, a Prince George-based business which builds geospatial technology for some of the biggest companies on Earth. Since starting Sparkgeo, he has been helping startups, large enterprises, and non-profits across North America make the most of location and geospatial technology.

Leading a team of highly specialized, deeply skilled geospatial web engineers, Will has built products, won patents, and generally broken the rules. Holding a degree in Electronic and Electrical Engineering and a Masters in Environmental Remote Sensing, Will has worked in academia, government, and in the private sector on two different continents, making things better with technology. He is on the board of Innovation Central Society, a non-profit society committed to growing and supporting technology entrepreneurs in North Central BC.

Q: Sparkgeo. What does your company do exactly? Do you have any competitors in the custom geospatial consulting field?

A: At Sparkgeo we put maps on the internet.

I try to keep this description as simple as possible. It goes back to the question of what a GIS person does, which is actually really hard to explain and terribly boring at dinner parties. Instead, I stick to maps and the internet, both of which are critical features of what Sparkgeo does. The other leg of our stool is people. Really, we work in places where maps meet people on the internet.

We find ourselves doing lots of interesting things. Things like building data pipelines, building geospatial compute engines, building UIs, undertaking broad data acquisition and analysis projects. We have found ourselves in the enviable position of only doing interesting things.

With that in mind we end up touching the “full stack”. A web mapping project is actually a full stack effort; you must consider every piece of the data flow to build a great map. The web map is the tip of the spear, but the data supporting that map is really the shaft, it’s the weight of the effort. Understanding the linkages between data and its delivery, and being somewhat flexible about how to sculpt those linkages is why Sparkgeo is useful.

I am sure we have competitors, but there is simply so much important geospatial work to do in the technology sector presently, I don’t feel pressured by it. Really the most competition is for talent. Indeed, that talent gap is to a large extent why we exist.

In the last year or so we have been spending our spare time on maptiks.com, which is like Google Analytics for a web map. Our thinking here is that although lots of organisations spend time on mapping technology, few seem to iterate back over their maps to make them incrementally better, and fewer still inform that process with actual data.

Q: What libraries and tools does your company use? Can you provide some examples of your favorite projects?

A: These are some of our favorite things:

  • Mapnik
  • Python
    • GDAL & OGR
    • GEOS
    • Shapely
    • Fiona
    • Django
    • CherryPy
    • Pillow (PIL)
  • Javascript
    • Mapping APIs:
      • LeafletJS (inc cartodb.js & mapbox.js)
      • Openlayers
      • Google Maps
      • ESRI JavaScript API
      • Cesium.js
    • Turf.js
    • AngularJS
    • ReactJS
  • Amazon Web Services
    • All the things

However, it’s not about the tools or the library; it should be about the question and how best to answer it. Sometimes the best answer is “don’t do this thing”, sometimes the answer is “buy a bigger boat”, and sometimes the answer is “we’ll help you build a thing”. We are in the enviable position of not having to sell licenses for anyone so we can actually be objective (and opinionated) about technology choices.

Q: Tell us about your work with Nextdoor. What technology stack did you use? What lessons did you learn?  

A: Of course I can’t tell you too much about how Nextdoor works. What I can say is that we have helped them achieve a number of their business goals through the development of a custom geospatial datastore accessed through a custom python API. In essence though, we just added some focused geospatial expertise to their already talented engineering team.

We have used this model a great deal in helping technology companies achieve their geospatial business goals. By attending stand ups and taking on the “geo” tickets we can add the capacity necessary to give a typical web engineering team the geo-confidence they need to keep their velocity up. Often these kind of engagements become much longer term relationships.

Although ultimately we are a “professional services” organisation, we have become a lot more about people and relationships than we are about projects and requirements. That way we get to work with some of the biggest tech companies, hottest startups, and most interesting non-profits on Earth.

Q: You are the CEO of your company. Describe the tasks you do in a typical week.  

A: I talk to a lot of people. I write a lot of emails. I pitch ridiculous ideas. I write reports. I do a bunch of administration. I solve problems. I remove barriers. I remind clients about our invoices. I go and buy snacks for the team. I manage payroll. I ponder our future. I talk to our accountant about tax management. I go buy more sticky notes for the office. I stress about project pipelines. In fact I stress about a lot of things 🙂

…and occasionally I get to write some code or make a map. It’s actually the best job I’ve ever had. I’m always having to learn new things and solve new problems. I tell everyone, including our team, if they stop learning they should leave. That’s true across the board, there are too many interesting things to do to waste time being bored.

Q: You recently wrote an article about remote working (http://buff.ly/1OEEWte). What does the breakdown of your company look like? How many are remote and how many work from the office? How do you bring together everyone? How do you promote company culture with remote workers? Explain how you manage/check in with employees that are working remote. What are the strengths/weaknesses in the current setup?

A: I first heard the term “remote first” in terms of the workplace mid last year and I realised it fits us well. We have an office in Prince George, BC (well North of the wall). But on any given day a member of the the team could be anywhere and it’s not a big problem. We typically have a check-in meeting, our version of a stand up — except people are on different projects — at 8:30am Pacific. It lasts for 15 minutes max, plus any necessary bonus rounds. People attend it from where they happen to be. It’s “early” for the Pacific timezone because we have some people on Eastern time. Even a remote company has to figure out timezones 🙂

Remote first means that we communicate first using tools like Hangouts and Slack, it means that people are kept in the loop by default, and things don’t get decided “without the remote guy”. If a team is meeting, then everyone on that team is invited, and that meeting will happen on a common set of tools used by people in or out of the office.

This remote culture is critical for us. The first employee I brought on (@gridcell) was remote, and now 40% of our company is remote. The really important bit, however, is how we interact with our clients. Being based up in the frozen wastes of the North and working for organisations in the tech sector means we must be really good at “being remote” because we are always remote to our clients. So independent of whether Sparkgeoers are in the office or not, we are still operating in a remote manner. This must be true for our clients too; they need to be ok with our periodic on-site presence, and our very present nature on IM or videoconferencing. It’s worth noting that with some clients being remote is not a great fit, and that’s fine. I am happy to say that we do have some great clients whom I have never actually met. Likewise, I also know that sometimes I have to hop on a plane and travel 2000 miles to shake a hand. Remote doesn’t mean not having a personal relationship and remote doesn’t mean distant.

Q: How does your company advertise? SEO? Content? Starting up Slack groups…?

A: Sometimes we do little ads in places across the interwebz (for instance on the GeoHipster website), seeing what sticks. Relevant content, however is the most valuable piece of advertising on the web. Good content has a long tail and brings people back and back.

More recently, our Maptiks growth guy (@julienjacques) suggested starting a Slack group. We did that, and now it’s grown to 900 users. The funny thing is it has turned into a real community, and as such we don’t really advertise on it because that would defeat the purpose that has evolved around it. If we (or others) were to advertise crassly on it, then it wouldn’t actually be a useful community 🙂

Q: You follow mapping trends and new technologies in depth. Are there any particular tech companies and/or startups that you follow? Any of them going to be the next big-bang disruptors?

A: I follow all the usual suspects (CartoDB, Mapbox, Esri, Stamen, Google, Boundless…) and do my best to catch up with contacts in each of them on my travels.

I am especially interested in the satellite space (hahaha) right now. The idea of Imagery As A Service seems to be booming. Planet Labs, Digital Globe, Astro Digital, UrtheCast, SkyBox, Spire all being players to some extent. Then there are companies like Orbital Insight who are taking remote sensing and magic-ing it into actionable broad data products. I think the days where someone would go to a website and purchase an image from a marginally navigable image library, then download an enormous file.zip via FTP are numbered… thankfully.

But there are the big players, too. Apple is very interesting right now; Google has always been in the geo sand box. But with the consumerization of geo I think more players will emerge here. Amazon has a location platform and drones…? UPS…?

Then there is the sharing economy: Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, Nextdoor. The quantified & wearable self: Fitbit, Under Armor (who bought MapMyFitness), Strava, RunKeeper. The nature of our industry and the ubiquity of smartphones & wearables is such that good, hard geospatial questions pop up everywhere. As a result of this phenomenon we’ve worked in the tech space, in hospitality, in finance, in conservation, with satellite companies, in hardware, in software, with government. The point isn’t to consider the tools or be confined to a vertical, the point is the pursuit of interesting questions and how we can use geography and technology to answer them. People talk about “thinking outside the box”, I don’t think there is a box anymore, I wonder if there ever was.

Q: Which industry do you see as needing more mapping technologies? Are there one or two fields that seem to be pretty behind the times?

A: Automotive will be the next industrial geospatial leapfrog.

Consider: A driverless car needs to know a great deal of information about its surroundings and virtually every piece of fixed knowledge (i.e., data not detected by vehicle in transit) will be geospatial in nature. Every major automotive vendor will need a data provider, and that data will be constantly updated. In this scenario the 80/20 rule will not suffice. If that vehicle cannot reach its destination because it doesn’t know the way, then the entire vehicle has failed. That failure might simply be a new subdivision not being present, but nevertheless the lack of a street or a misnamed building will result in the vehicle not being able to drive itself, thus failure. A driverless vehicle needs to have a complete and constantly updating map of navigable routes.

Automotive will drive (hahaha) efforts in open data, in data pipelines, in ETL, in base map production, in data storage, in connectivity, in routing. For the driverless future to happen geospatial needs to be a lot better.

Q: What is your current method for skiing on a mountain you do not know well? Do you use the paper maps that they provide, or a new app (Have you heard of fatmap.com?)

A: I ski a DPS Wailer 99. I love the backcountry, but with a young family I find myself on a ski hill more often these days. That said, my 7- & 9-year-olds are on double diamonds now, so we’ll be hitting some family backcountry soon. We are also lucky enough to have many kilometers of groomed & floodlit XC skiing within city limits (Prince George, BC) so that is a common after-work activity.

The interesting thing about backcountry skiing around central British Columbia is the lack of documentation; every trip is a little bit exploratory. That, combined with relatively poor and out-of-date maps (Canada is big and largely empty) leaves me doing a lot of navigation by feel. It can get pretty cold, too; devices and batteries tend to become less reliable below -20.

I do, of course, appreciate the irony in the mapping guy navigating largely by instinct.  

Q: It must be fascinating to compare the world you grew up in with the one that your daughters are growing up in. Do you mind sharing a little insight you have as a parent and geographer/technologists. Can they read maps? What routing technology do they use to get to a new place?

A: My girls love maps. They have been completely brainwashed by me; they know exactly how important good maps are. Their navigational abilities are somewhat untested, but they do have a good sense of direction; we test that on the trails a lot. Their use of technology is interesting; we keep screen time to a minimum, but the way they interact with touch interfaces is fearless. I think we will see great advances in industrial design as interface designers embrace touch and haptic technologies. We are also trying to expose our girls to what it means to write code; their lives will take them in many different directions, but having some exposure to the discipline of code is valuable.

Which do you prefer when it comes to maps?
Data or design - Both
Functionality or beauty - Again, both. But wait, “functionality” doesn’t mean lots of buttons -- it means fit for purpose. As a community we need to de-couple features from functionality.
Historical or futuristic - Neither; it’s the story that compels 
Markers or pins - These are the same thing 🙂
Clusters or heatmaps - Clusters (unless it’s a weather map) 
Markdown or Handlebars  - Markdown
And other things…?
Black and local coffee or pour-over with butter - Black Americano, no pollution, and lots of it
Fitbit or Strava - Fitbit & MapMyFitness (Fitbit have an interesting geo conundrum presently - Strides or GPS for distance https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/your-device-can-too-smart-will-cadell ). Strava has done an amazing job of socializing athletic pursuit; I started using MMF first though, and most of my data now gets piped into Fitbit.
Twitter or Facebook - Twitter
Commuter or road bike - Both & MTB too
Nordic, alpine, or telemark skiing - Mountain Touring, Skate Skiing, Classic Skiing. Tele is cool but you have to be really talented to ski anything big, and I’m not 🙂

Q: Any closing comments for the GeoHipster readers?

A: Thanks for the opportunity to tell you a little about Sparkgeo. Also, thanks to the geohipster community for keeping things sufficiently geo-weird.

 

Maps and mappers of the 2016 calendar: Kenneth Field

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.

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Kenneth Field

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: I tend to call myself a professional cartonerd having never had a job with the word ‘cartographer’ in it. I have a Bachelors in cartography and PhD in GIS and spent 20 years in academia the UK. I was Course Director for GIS programmes at Kingston University in London and did all the usual academic stuff of research, teaching, supervising students, publishing etc. I’ve been privileged to have won a few awards for my maps, writings about maps and interior design (kitchen tiles!). I recently ended a 9-year stint as Editor of The Cartographic Journal and I’m currently Chair of the ICA Map Design Commission. I also co-founded The Journal of Maps, and am on the advisory board for the International Journal of Cartography.

I got totally frustrated by the admin-heavy bureaucratic nonsense of University life and moved to the dArc Side in 2011 to work with Esri to support high quality cartography and help develop the next generation of tools to support more intuitive, better map-making. That involved moving from the UK to California which is a switch I can heartily recommend. I’ve been called a ‘cartographer in residence’ though that implies some sort of temporary job which I hope isn’t the case. It’s a terrific place to work and I have so much freedom to experiment and push the boundaries of what’s possible in cartography.

I’m an advocate for high quality cartography and deliver keynotes, workshops, training and research support internationally and on the conference circuit. I blog about the good, the bad and the ugly under various guises (blogs.esri.com, cartonerd.com and mapdesign.icaci.org), tweet far too much (@kennethfield) and sometimes I make maps (carto.maps.arcgis.com). I’m currently writing a book on cartography with Damien Saunder which we hope will be out by the end of the year– the more I publicize that, the more I am committed to getting it finished! More than anything I’m passionate about encouraging and helping others make better maps through identifying and sharing best practices (and explaining cartofails).

I can also be found on a snowboard, in a pair of hiking boots, behind a drum kit, or supporting my once great football team Nottingham Forest.

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: I tend to make thematic maps. I’ve always been skeptical about 3D thematic cartography and often struggle to find a compelling reason to switch from a planimetric map. The key, for me, is to use that third z dimension for something really useful and not just for the sake of making a glitzy map. As technology has improved to overcome many of the failings of static 3D cartography (fixed point of view, occlusions, labelling, etc.) I figured it was time to experiment. The 2015 General Election in the United Kingdom gave me the excuse I needed. It’s an online map, called Political Causeway, which you can view here (use Firefox or Chrome).

The map shows the results of the UK election in 3D on an interactive virtual globe and positions it as a new development of the tradition of using cartograms to represent election results.
The map shows the results of the UK election in 3D on an interactive virtual globe and positions it as a new development of the tradition of using cartograms to represent election results.

The challenge of trying to display results for 650 irregularly shaped and sized constituencies in the UK has spawned many different outcomes. Maps that show geographical constituency boundaries face the challenge of trying to accommodate distortions arising from the simultaneous display of visually incomparable areas. People are disproportionately distributed across space, and while constituencies attempt to iron this out for voting it creates a cartographic problem. After Danny Dorling’s innovative work on the development of cartograms for elections, we’re seeing increased use, particularly of hexagons, for political cartography. Of course, using hexagons as a data-binning technique can be traced back to the mid-1800s, but they are the very essence of carto-hipsterism. Equal-area and tessellated hexagons provide a good visual structure that also allows a reasonable amount of adjacency topology to be incorporated. They are abstract but ultimately a good visual way to display election results.

And why 3D? Partly the technical challenge, but also the structure of the voting meant I could use separate layers on the map to encode different aspects of the vote — with winners sitting on top and other political parties being represented in a second-place layer, third-place layer and so on.

For the 2015 UK election, virtually every media organisation used some sort of hexagonal cartogram (I wrote a blog on it here). As a fan of cartograms I also wanted to use hexagons, but I also wanted a challenge: to develop a three-dimensional hexagonal cartogram on a spherical virtual globe… and make it make sense. The map was inspired by a picture of David Cameron visiting the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland taken in 2013. Hexagonal mapping and political photo-opportunities collided and my map idea was born. The map went on to win the Google Award for UK election mapping at the 2015 British Cartographic Society Annual Symposium.

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

A: The map was designed and produced as part of my work at Esri. I always attempt to challenge conventional thinking while building maps that are heavily informed by cartographic concept and theory. Sometimes this requires us to think outside the box, break rules, and bring new ideas to the table. It’s an exciting area to be involved with — marrying creativity with new technology to create innovative and interesting cartographic products.

In two-dimensional space the creation of equal area tessellated hexagons is relatively simple. Creating hexagons that curve across a surface is more complicated due to the geometry involved. The initial challenge was to build a set of hexagonal regions that partition the Earth’s surface. This was achieved computationally by creating an icosahedral discrete global grid. A number of grids of different resolutions were built and used in different ways in the final map. I used Kevin Sahr’s excellent DGGRID program to generate the grids — the key being that to wrap a hexagonal mesh around the globe the overall mesh has to include occasional pentagons else the tessellation wouldn’t work. Think of a football (a.k.a. soccer ball).

Once general grids had been developed, they were further processed to build a grid of 650 tessellating hexagons covering the UK. The Election results were manually collated during the live television coverage and entered into a spreadsheet, then processed into formats to support the creation of different layers in the final map. ArcGIS Pro was used to build a layer of three-dimensional extruded hexagonal polygons for each of four layers representing the winners, runners-up, third place, and also-rans (others). I’m calling them hexstones. Each hexstone in each layer was extruded proportionally to the candidate’s number of votes giving a causeway-like 3D surface and volumetric blocks. The base heights for each layer were modified so each layer sits relative to the layer beneath to build up the final three-dimensional political causeway. The model ultimately looks like a way of viewing the stratification of the election results a little like we might cut away layers of geological structure to see beneath. I liked the way this supports the causeway metaphor beyond simply the hexagonal shapes.

One of the limitations of any three-dimensional map of prisms (of whatever shape) is the inability to look ‘inside’. This is overcome through interactivity in the final map, but I also created a capstone for each constituency that shows the share of vote for the same four layers of results but in a single layer. This provides a way of seeing the political pattern of voting across all candidates across the top of the hexstones. It also allows the map to be viewed from above and reveal more than just the winners. At least — that’s the idea.

A range of supporting datasets (a custom 2D base map of hexagonal patterns, 3D leader lines, 3D labels, a 3D legend and pop-ups) were produced to support the final map, so it becomes something to explore rather than just look at and expect everything to magically happen for you. Interaction in a 3D environment is absolutely critical.

The map was published from ArcGIS Pro to Portal for ArcGIS into a 3D Web Scene which takes advantage of the 3D capabilities of WebGL browsers. The map must therefore be viewed in either Google Chrome or Firefox. The published web scene layers were configured to build the final map. The icosahedral global grid data was used to create a custom hexagonal basemap of different resolutions to create an abstract world map. Using a standard map of real global geography would not have suited the abstract 3D cartogram. A little transparency allows an imagery layer to bleed through, giving just a hint of a real world. The UK is outlined in hexagons of the same grid used for the 3D symbols. This illustrates the bloated England 3D cartogram compared to the fewer constituencies in Scotland and Northern Ireland. It provides an explicit comparison of the size and shape of the cartogram compared to the hexagonal representation of the real geography of the UK.

The 3D hexstone and capstone layers can be turned on and off in the legend. This supports the viewing of not only the winners, but the landscape of the runners-up, third place and the also rans. Party colours across the map give a recognisable link to the political affiliations. The undulating nature of the hexstones shows total voter turnout across the map… a small but subtle illustration of where the electorate were motivated to vote to a greater or lesser extent.

A layer of labels can be added to the map. These are scale-dependent so as you zoom in, pan and rotate the globe they update to give a reasonable amount of labelling in the immediate view atop the causeway. Simply adding all labels at once would swamp the map. More are revealed as you zoom in, and vertical leader lines anchor the labels to each constituency hexstone/capstone, and pop-ups can be revealed by clicking the label. This gives detailed results for each constituency, and reveals the full statistical makeup of the results.

A legend is viewable, again built from 3D hexstones that shows the party affiliated colours (to aid map interpretation), this time proportionally scaled in height by the total number of constituencies each party gained. Legend labels can be queried to get further details of the map and the overall results.

The map is fully interactive so you can zoom, pan and rotate. This gives the map user an ability to zoom across the landscape and position the view camera to any desired location and angle. This partly overcomes the limitation of a static 3D map that some features are inevitably occluded and foreshortened. Some pre-fixed positions are available to provide quick navigation. Of course, foreshortening does occur because it’s draped across a virtual globe with a curved surface. I’d usually use an isometric projection, but given each hexstone is broadly the same height (scaled by voter turnout) the need to visually assess the height of a hexstone and compare to another isn’t a crucial cognitive task. In addition, because the UK is relatively small, the curvature of Earth has a minimal impact.

This map exhibits some degree of technical and conceptual innovation. It has certainly pushed our ability to develop 3D products that support ease of use, clarity and interpretation, and it pushes election mapping and the use of hexagonal cartograms as a way of representing and reporting results. It was an hex-periment certainly, and I’m calling it helecxagon mapping.

'Political Causeway' by Kenneth Field
‘Political Causeway’ by Kenneth Field