Tina Cormier: “Impostor syndrome will get you nowhere”

Tina Cormier
Tina Cormier
Tina is a remote sensing scientist with over 10 years of experience working at the crossroads of spatial analysis and machine learning. She is an active member of the FOSS4G community and an OSGeo charter member. At TellusLabs, a Boston startup, she is responsible for turning raw images into agricultural and environmental insights that help answer critical questions facing our society. In her previous position at the Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC), she linked field measurements with remotely sensed optical, LiDAR, and radar products to model ecosystem responses to changes in the environment. Tina earned an M.S. in Natural Resources from the University of New Hampshire and an Honors B.A. in Environmental Science from Saint Anselm College.

Tina was interviewed for GeoHipster by Randal Hale.

Q: Tina Cormier, where are you located and what do you do?

A: I live in Brunswick, Maine. As far as what I do, my answer is “way too many things”! But at work, I am a remote sensing scientist on the data science team at Telluslabs, a Boston startup. Like most startups, it’s a very fast-paced environment. We are a small (but growing) team, and I’m constantly amazed at how much we accomplish in a short period of time.

We use machine learning to combine decades of remote sensing images with in situ reference data. Every single day we incorporate new images and ground data into our system. Why? We want to leverage the information locked inside of this unprecedented historic record of the earth to answer critical questions that we care about — questions about the environment and questions that affect our economy. Right now, we are primarily focused on agriculture and building a living map of the world’s food supply, but our tech stack is structured to allow us to quickly branch into other important sectors as the team grows and as we hire the resources to do so.

My specific role involves converting raw satellite imagery into “insights”, or features that are meaningful for our modeling team. For example, millions of raw satellite reflectance values may not be very meaningful, but when we can turn them into a Crop Health Index, now we’re talking. Even more valuable insights begin to coalesce when we can compare today’s crop health index value to a long term average, or when we can turn on a rapid detection and alerting system for extreme anomalies in the growing regions that we monitor. Then we can start to answer questions about the status of the world’s food supply on any given day or season.

I also work on creating raster visualizations (typically developed in QGIS) for our web app, Kernel. Day to day, I spend a lot of time writing code, primarily in R — though I’m determined to get a better handle on Python and become fluent in PostgreSQL/PostGIS — right now, I’d say I’m conversational at best!

I’m something of a compulsive FOSS4G user and evangelist, which is why I recently became a charter member of OSGeo (that just means I get to vote on things — mostly new board and charter members). In the last couple of years, I’ve worked hard to bring R into the light for geospatial data science folks via social media and presenting at conferences. Last year, I presented three talks and a workshop at FOSS4G, which was tons of fun!

Q: How do you get to be a charter member of OSGeo?

A: To become a charter member of OSGeo, you must be nominated by an existing charter member (thanks, Alex Mandel!) and demonstrate a number of positive attributes with regard to the open source community. My nomination was based largely on my role as a geospatial R evangelist — a role I didn’t necessarily want, but the mix of a large gap in representation with oppressive guilt made me do it! In particular, my almost excessive participation at last year’s FOSS4G conference in Boston was largely responsible for my eventual nomination/election to the group.

Q: How did you get into the Geospatial Field? Was it an end goal of college?

A: So, no. Geospatial was not an end goal or even on my radar. I got my undergraduate degree in Environmental Science from Saint Anselm College. There, I worked on a project where we radio-tagged turtles and tracked them over the course of a year — turns out, they travel surprising distances through all sorts of habitats — I mean, they are turtles, so who knew? We used triangulation to figure out where we were each day and put our turtle sightings on a map — no GPS! I’m laughing to myself about this now. But really, I loved that project so much. That said, I had no idea that I was doing GIS or even what it was.

Fast forward through a few confused and frustrating years post-graduation where I did everything from coaching soccer and teaching high school (something I hope to go back to at some point later in my career) to working for a pharmaceutical company as a clinical data manager, checking to make sure drug trial protocols were followed. One day I woke up and said to myself, “Ok, I need to make a move here, I’m going to grad school.” And so it was. I knew I wanted to stay in the environmental field and sort of assumed I’d go the PhD/professor route.

The following fall, I started a Natural Resources/Remote Sensing Masters degree at the University of New Hampshire. I still had no idea what GIS or remote sensing was, but I got a teaching assistantship that paid my way and it all sounded quite interesting, so I decided to dive in. I had to get up to speed pretty quickly, though, as I was charged with teaching GIS and remote sensing classes that I had never taken before! My Master’s thesis was an exciting (to me) combination of remote sensing, GIS, and machine learning — I built a model that predicts vernal pool locations based on image and GIS-based predictors. My journey can pretty accurately be described as a fortunate series of chances, risks, and leaps of faith that somehow worked in my favor and landed me in a career that I enjoy. And the rest, as they say, is history!

Q: You mentioned R and you did a workshop at FOSS4G in Boston on R which was pretty well received (I tried to sneak in and couldn’t). What is R and why do you like — possibly love — R? I don’t know enough about it but I’m trying.

A: R is an open source software project and programming language. It is held in pretty high regard by academics and data scientists, and is becoming more mainstream among spatial analysts as well. For those who want to automate their work through coding, R is essentially a fully functional command line GIS. The most important reason that I use R (or any programming language) is because it offers repeatability, automation, and documentation of my work — YUP, I just did that…RAD!

I will admit that I didn’t always love it. I had a hard time learning it, and that process involved a lot of foul language. Fortunately, I had some great mentors to pull me through, including an amazing group of former colleagues from the Woods Hole Research Center.

What I like (love?) about R is that I can script my entire workflow — from data cleanup/wrangling (for which R is exceptional), to spatial and statistical analysis, to publication of beautiful figures to tell my story — all in one environment. And once I’ve coded my workstream, I have a complete record of what I did, including which files I used and how I processed them. Working with terabytes (maybe petabytes?) of data — many thousands of images and files — there is no option about programming; it is a necessity to automate my work. R does have some drawbacks though — the biggest of which is that it does everything in memory. Advances in technology have provided a lot of ways to work around the memory limitation though, including better hardware as well as easier ways to chunk up the data and distribute processing. As a spatial data scientist, R is the complete package, with possibly the exception of cartography. While I’ve seen folks do some neat things with maps in R, my go-to for a single, really nice map is still QGIS.

Q: So when you’re at college you meet this dashing young man whom you eventually married — correct?

A: Yes, sir! We met in graduate school. I had been there for about 6 months and kept hearing about this other student, Jesse, who was doing field work in New Zealand. One day around Christmas he showed up in the lab (to my delight). He ended up being my TA for one of the remote sensing classes. Hope there is a statute of limitations for that sort of impropriety, but we are married now, if that helps his case.

Q: Two married people in the GIS field — do you both sit around and talk about spatial things?

A: Sometimes, but over the years we have developed a code of conduct regarding work talk. Jesse and I have worked together for a long time, including 2.5 years at the Southern Nevada Water Authority in Las Vegas and 6 years at the Woods Hole Research Center. Early on, we agreed that we would only talk about work during our commute. At home, work is off-limits. And today, even though we don’t work together anymore, the same pretty much holds true. We’ll talk about each other’s days over dinner, and we may discuss a programming puzzle now and then, but for the most part, we keep work at work. It’s a nice separation that keeps us mostly sane.

Q: OK — You’re working at Tellus. You’ve worked at Woods Hole Research Center. What is the most exciting thing you’ve done up till now in the industry?

A: That’s a tough question, as I’ve had the good fortune of doing a lot of fun things during various jobs, including field work in all sorts of environments, from the tropics to the desert (not always fun, but always interesting). Some of my most wonderful work memories come from teaching technical workshops in various parts of the world. During my time at WHRC I taught workshops here in the US, but I also frequently traveled to South America — Colombia, Peru, Bolivia — thank you, undergraduate minor in Spanish! My farthest trip was to Nepal, which was just amazing. The workshops were designed to build capacity in remote sensing, programming, and forestry within indigenous groups, government agencies, and non-profit organizations in developing countries. I made some lifelong friends who were gracious enough to share their culture with me, teach me to salsa, and even introduce me to their families and friends. I’m forever grateful for the opportunity to share my experience while seeing some incredible places and meeting equally incredible people.

Q: Which is better: A horse or bicycle? Why?

A: I suppose there are pros and cons to each. To my knowledge, bicycles are not spooked by plastic bags, motorcycles, mailboxes, or any other brand of vicious predator you may happen upon in the course of a ride. A bicycle is not typically going to buck you off, though I feel like I may have been bucked off by a bike in the past. It won’t walk away when you try to get on, demand carrots and apples (and frisk your pockets looking for them if you don’t deliver), ask for a scratch in just the right spot (the belly on my guy), knicker when you arrive, look longingly after you when you leave, play with you, choose to be your partner, and it won’t love you back. A bicycle does not have a mind of its own, with memories of positive and negative experiences. It doesn’t have good days and bad days, and it cannot learn, grow, bond, and communicate with you. So, while horses can be dangerous for many of the above reasons, those are also the reasons why horses will always be better than bicycles, in my opinion.

Q: Anything you want to tell the world?

A: I guess having worked in tech/geospatial for “several” years now, I could offer some advice.

  1. Don’t be afraid to try something new, and don’t be afraid to fail and break things. If you never fail, you aren’t pushing yourself hard enough!
  2. Learn to code (see #1).
  3. Impostor syndrome will get you nowhere. Focus on your strengths and what you bring to a situation, and don’t lament not knowing what everyone else seems to know. They don’t.
  4. Help people. You didn’t get wherever you are on your own — pay it forward when you can.
  5. Take time off. It never feels like a good time, but you need to do it, so just do it.
  6. Adopt an animal (unrelated, but still important!).

I’m still working on all of these… except #6… I’ve probably done enough of #6 for the moment.


Maps and mappers of the 2018 GeoHipster calendar — Vanessa Knoppke-Wetzel

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: I’m really passionate about data visualization, and am a huge advocate that everyone is capable of creating beautiful, well-designed, and user-friendly maps, graphics, and data viz (even if they say “they can’t” because they never learned). I sort of stumbled upon cartography – it never was my original plan, but I’m so very glad I did. My feelings about the importance of balancing design and analysis all began when I attended NACIS in Portland, OR, and a panel was discussing the importance of design in maps vs some that argued it wasn’t as needed anymore in many cases, because of advances in technology. I had no idea how much listening to those discussions would affect me, but ultimately I realized a trend in the talks I give, the research I enjoy (and research I did), and the products I enjoy exploring, all ultimately are related to sharing knowledge, breaking it down to shareable pieces, and exploring how to find new ways of visualizing things… on screens.

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: All of the above really is a backdrop for why I made this map (although at the time I had not fully fleshed out and realized all of this). At the time, I was constantly frustrated with map design, and was always “waiting” to learn more about how to design maps to look a certain way, based on certain styles or aesthetics that had to be defined (like cubism, or impressionism). My mom is an artist, and I had spent so much of my life constantly surrounded by art, exploring art mediums (my mom always picked up new creative hobbies), and taking all the art classes I could. This, I think, is why I kept expecting there to be a book or class that explained what I was searching for, which ultimately was how to translate the aesthetic of maps off-screen to on-screen: what techniques did I need to learn and practice to learn how to do X? I got frustrated, and as a result, decided to create a map on-screen actually mimicking brushstrokes (I love painting). I should note here, one of my secondary frustrations was that neither Illustrator nor Photoshop could ever approximate the particular brush-strokes and looks I wanted them to. I knew there had to be products out there besides these “standard ones” that weren’t just CLONING a brush-look, but creating a better approximation of what happened. Corel Painter, as it turns out, was the solution – at least, one of them. Not only does it have a multitude of brush types, but it goes beyond brushes (sponges… pens… so many things). Additionally, there are different background textures that can be applied, and the different paper textures also are programmed to react differently to different paints, brushes, ‘wetness’ of paint, etc. Really fantastic. Anyway: this map was me exploring texture and paint. The topic is also near and dear to my heart – Madison, WI has so many beautiful places to run, so I wanted to show my favorite places. Finally, I always had admired the iconography of old maps, so I decided to draw some “detailed, but sketchy” icons for my favorite parts of the running routes.

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

A: I used my mental map for the creation – a very purposeful choice, as the world in our head bends differently than accurate data ;), Corel Painter 12, and a drawing tablet.


GeoHipster @ Mapbox’s Locate Conference: Kairos Aerospace


Ari Gesher, Matt Gordon and Julia Chmyz work at Kairos Aerospace, a Bay-Area-based company specializing in aerospace solutions for environmental surveying and digital mapping. Ari, Matt and Julia were interviewed in person during the 2018 Mapbox Locate Conference in San Francisco.

Describe Kairos Aerospace.

Ari: Kairos applies the notions of faster, cheaper, iterative cycles of technology to Aerospace. Specifically, with the mission of building sensors to spot very large leaks of Methane.

Julia: A less high-level description of Kairos — Kairos deploys aerial sensors, spectrometers, optical cameras, and thermal cameras to conduct large-scale surveys of assets from oil and gas companies, to survey those assets to discover things about them.

Matt: Kairos is a bunch of physicists and engineers who care about health and safety and climate change. We fly sensors and sell data about environmental pollutants (specifically methane) to oil and gas producers.

What led you each to Kairos?

Ari: I ended up at Kairos because the two original founders, Steve Deiker and Brian Jones, both worked at Lockheed for a long time, and they decided to start their own company. Steve’s wife worked with me at Palantir, and they knew that everything they were going to do was going to require a lot of heavy data processing, and that was not an area of expertise for them. They approached me for advice around what it would take to build a team with that kind of ability. That was late 2014. I was instantly interested, it sounded really, really cool… But, for reasons of childbirth, I was not about to switch jobs; I ended up being the original angel investor. Two years later I came on board as the director of software engineering.

Julia: Brian’s wife worked with the woman who was married to my grandfather. And so, my grandfather was actually another one of those original investors — This was 2015 — and he was saying to me, “Julia, there’s this great new company.” And I’m like, “Okay, Grandpa… I’m sure. That’s cool.”

Grandpa says, “They’re so great! They’re so great! You gotta send ‘em your resumé.” I was in school at the time (I’m a year out of college now), and I said, “Okay, fine grandpa, I’ll send ‘em my resumé.”

I hadn’t really looked into it, I just didn’t really want to work at this company my grandpa thought was so cool. But I sent my resumé, and I was really clear about this, I was like, “My grandpa’s really excited about this, but I’m not sure it’s such a good fit.” — expecting to give them an easy way out.

And instead, they wrote back and said, “We’re really interested! Your resumé looks great, we’d really love to have you on board.” So I came in and talked, and actually got to see for myself. And I was like, this looks really great. So I was an intern in the summer of 2016, when we were a third of size we are now. And then I came back full-time a year ago.

Matt: There’s a lot of funny history between Ari and I, which I won’t go into. I had just done my postdoc at Stanford in physics, and Ari recruited me to go work at Palantir. Then, about six years later, I quit and I was bumming around a bit, and making fire art.

Making what?

Matt: Making fire art… yeah… and I thought I would go get a real job. Ari, at that point, was an angel investor, and he tried to recruit me into his current job.

Ari: That’s right, I tried to hire Matt for my current job.

Matt: And I turned him down to go start my own company, to develop online treatment for substance use disorders. Which, let’s say, the world was not ready for… [Polite chuckles] Mark my words: you’re going to see it.

And then about a year after doing that, Ari saw I was on the job market again, and asked me to come work at Kairos, on a team of four people – two full-times, an intern, and a couple of physicists who commited code to our code base (for better or for worse).

How many people are there now?

Group: 18.

So it’s grown quite a bit?

Matt: Yeah. It’s moving.

Ari:  Yeah there was sort of two different phases. The first two years, Brian and Steve quit their jobs and were literally in their garage in Los Altos, developing the hardware that is the heart of the methane sensor (which is the imaging spectrometer). And there’s pictures; like, one of them’s across the street, positioning a methane cell in the light path of a heliostat, the other one’s at the laptop with the original Mark-1 Spectrometer, making sure it worked.

Do they still have that?

Ari: They do — it sits on a shelf, and looks like a broken projector or something. [chuckles] So, the first two years was just validating that the hardware would work, and at the end of that, they had the design for what is today our production spectrometer, and the first production-designed unit (although we’re probably going to throw that one out pretty soon.)

The next two years have been developing both the operational side (How do we hook this thing up to a computer, and fly it, and collect data?), and also the software pipelines that sit behind it (How do we take that data off the instrument once it’s done? How do we upload it to the cloud, and develop the algorithms, from scratch, that turn that spectrographic data into the plume images that we have?).

Walk me through the process of: going out and sensing the area, to: you have a final product; and what that final product looks like.

Ari: The way that this works is that we’re given an area, a spot on the ground — the job we’re working on now is about 1,300 square miles?

Matt: We’re given a shapefile.

Ari: Right, we’re given a shapefile, and if we’re lucky, we’re also given a list of assets (another shapefile that tells us where all their wells and storage tanks and things are, so we can identify things once we find a plume over them). We then draw up flight plans to go fly over that area… like, if you look at it, you see the plane going back and forth like a lawn mower. And then, that data goes through the processing pipeline.

Example of a flight path

What comes out the other end are a stack of rasters that show us various measures of what the spectrometer has picked up. At a very rough level, what we’re actually sensing is a methane anomaly. Methane is everywhere in the atmosphere at some level; so it’s not “Is there methane here or is there no methane?”, but “Is there elevated methane?”

We use the large survey area, or chunks of it, to develop what we think the background levels of methane are in that area of the atmosphere. And then, we look for places in the data where there are elevated levels, and use that to interpolate a plume shape.

Example of a plume

One of the things we like to do at GeoHipster is geek out about the tools that people use; tell me about your day-to-day.

Ari: We’re mostly a Python shop. Very large amounts of effort dedicated to making GDAL install and compile correctly.

Matt: I do a lot of the GIS stuff at Kairos. There’s all the code for taking remote sensing data and GPS, and figuring out where that was placed on the ground. Then, taking all of that and creating GeoTIFFs out of that, with all the different metrics that we’re interested in.

Ari: And that’s all custom software, we don’t even use GDAL very much. We use GDAL to open the dataset that we write, but how we figure out what goes into each pixel is all ours.

Matt: Yeah, the ground placement of remote-sensed data is an art form… it’s interesting how much we’ve built from scratch. I think people with a lot of background in this probably know a lot of tricks and tools (and I’ve heard tell that there’s a book, but I’ve been unable to find it).

In terms of GIS nerdery: we used to do a lot of ad-hoc analysis in QGIS, and as we were increasing the number of reports we wanted to produce for customers, we wrote a QGIS plugin. It’s custom, and it’s not published anywhere because it’s specific to our workflow and our data, and it gives people summary information.

Anyone who has used QGIS will know that it’s like, incredibly powerful and can be incredibly frustrating. And if anyone from QGIS is reading this, I want them to know that I really appreciate the tool. We love it, and we would use something else if we thought it was better, and we don’t. There’s nothing else better.

Julia, you work on the tools that pilots use when they’re out collecting data. Can you tell us a bit about those?

Julia: There’s the feed that the flight operator sees in the plane, and the spectrometer frames that are being taken. There’s also all the IMU data that’s used for path stuff and all the later calculations… and this is our flight monitoring Mapbox Leaflet. The back end is built in Python, and the front end is in React.

Matt: Ari’s contribution was the X-Wing fighter.

Julia: The point of this is to make everything work as smoothly as possible — so the flight operators don’t have to spend their time staring at multiple log files, which is what they were doing before this.

Matt: So imagine a terminal, and just watching lines of term logs scroll past… in an airplane. In a very small plane.

Ari: Well, now that they use this, they say that they get kind of bored on the plane, because it gives them everything they need. In fact, we built this this tool not just to spit the information to the operator, but it also ingests all the raw data coming off the instrument; and we have a bunch of agents that watch that data for different conditions, and control the instruments.

It’s called R2CH4 as an homage to R2D2, who’s an astromech repair droid — and its primary job is not to save the universe, its primary job is just to make the X-Wing go.

I wouldn’t have caught that reference.

Well, CH4 is Methane sooooo… [makes the “ba-dum-tssssss” joke sound]

What do you do when you’re not at work – any hobbies? Matt, I heard about yours a little already: I know you’re a fire artist and you hang-glide?

Matt: I don’t hang-glide anymore, but yeah, I build weird Burner kinetic fire art. I’m making a fire Skee-Ball machine right now, where the balls are on fire. You get to wear big, fireproof kevlar gloves. I was going to bring it to Precompression, which is the pre-Burning Man party they do in SF, but the SF fire department nixed it.

Ari: I dabble in home automation. That’s kind of my tinkering hobby currently. I mean, I’ve had really good hobbies, but now my hobbies are basically my two children. But, you know… I used to be a DJ for a little while. I swear I used to have better hobbies — but I’ve really just been well-employed for like twelve years.

Julia: I spend most of my free time either outside, like hiking, or reading — real books with paper.

Ari: I thought that was illegal now?

Julia: It is here.

Just one last question for you.

Ari: 4-3-2-6! I’m glad you asked — it’s my favorite coordinate system.

Matt: 3-8-5-7 is way better, man.

Julia: …

Are you a geohipster? Why or why not?

Ari: Oh, absolutely. It’s interesting that all of us came to Kairos, not completely illiterate in the ways of GIS, but certainly not as well-steeped. And I was actually thinking about this on the way home: we have non-GIS operational data about what we do, but the core of what we do — everything is geo data. Like, there’s no non-geo data. And, what we’re trying to build is: taking a novel stream of data about the earth, and then running it through very, very modern software pipelines, to automate its processing, it’s production, all of that, in a way that requires understanding the bleeding edge of technology and blending that with GIS. And that’s what we spend all day doing.

Matt: I am geohipster because I make artisanal Geo data. And I’m opinionated about it. And I’m obnoxious. So, here a thing that I do, which is super geohipster: We produce a lot of stuff internally at the company, in WGS84 — which is not a projected coordinate system. It’s a geo-coordinate system — and I constantly complain about this. That we are producing GeoTIFFs in 4326, but we should be producing them in a projected coordinate system.

Julia: …And I want to tell you, we were doing all this way before it was cool.

Ari: One last thing — we use US-West 2 as our AWS data center, because it’s carbon-neutral (they run entirely on hydropower), so it fits in well with our overall mission.

Julia: I didn’t know that! I’m glad about that.

Ari: Suuuper hipster.

It is. Thank you guys!


Muthukumar Kumar: “Connect with other geogeeks”

Muthukumar Muthu
Muthukumar Kumar
Muthukumar Kumar lives approximately near bulges.become.bowls (Munich, Germany). An active blogger, he has been blogging with Geoawesomeness for the past 5 years and loves talking about everything geo with geo-geeks from across the world. You can reach him on Twitter @muthukumarceg

Q: Muthu, let’s dive right into the meat of the matter. How does someone end up in the position of deciding what is geoawesome? And indeed what does it mean for something to be geoawesome?

A: What does the term “geoawesome” mean? Hmm, that’s a great question. Definitions are a tricky thing. The way I see it, the term “Geoawesome” stands for all the cool and innovative things happening in the geo-industry today.

Take the idea behind What3Words for example. The addressing system that we use today doesn’t work well in many parts of the world including in my hometown, Chennai. With today’s technology, we could say, why not just use GPS coordinates or a complicated set of alphanumeric characters to solve this problem. There are many such (complicated) solutions created by Google and others. These solutions don’t work well in the real-world. Try giving out your GPS coordinates over the phone or even typing it without making a mistake. What What3Words did was to remove all these complicated aspects, divide the entire world into 3x3m grids and give each 3x3m box in the world a unique 3-word combination (in different languages). That’s it. It’s simple, elegant, and it works. Now, that’s what it means for something to be geoawesome.

To answer your first question – you get there by making lots of Skype calls with geogeeks around the world. Talking to all these wonderful people from across the world has been a highly rewarding and enriching professional experience. I would highly recommend it to anyone who is passionate about geo-technologies.

Q: One of the megatrends around geo in the last decade is that with the ubiquity of smartphones and social media more people than ever before are being exposed to geographic tools, location-based services, and geo content. You sit at the top of this trend. What’s your view?

A: Smartphones and apps have changed a lot of things in the geo industry. Without smartphones, we wouldn’t have so much geo-tagged data. It has fundamentally changed what one would even refer to as the geo industry. Just because it’s spatial, it’s not special (anymore). Before you get the pitchforks ready, sure, there is still spatial stuff that can’t be done by people without a geospatial background, but most of the times you don’t need any knowledge of map projections to work with location data, and I think that’s great. It has made GIS/Location intelligence ubiquitous.

Smartphones have also made the lives of the traditional geo industry better. Just a decade ago, if you were a data collector, you would have needed a bulky GPS/GNSS receiver and a laptop to collect geo-tagged data about your points of interest. Today all you need is a smartphone and an app.

It’s interesting that you mention social media. Just the other day we interviewed an amazing startup from Cincinnati – Spatial ai as part of a new series at Geoawesomeness called “The Next Geo” which was started to highlight innovative and enterprising startups working with location data. Spatial was co-founded by an ethnographer who had an epiphany and realized people share things on social media that he would probably never hear when he goes out to interview them for his research. Thanks to social media and location data, Spatial is now able to understand where people live and work and the mobility systems that connect them, among other things. Understanding how we interact and experience our cities is going to have a huge impact on designing mobility systems for the future. And of course, with all this data, Spatial can also answer more fun questions like “Take me to a restaurant in Chicago with an amazing view of the sunset”. All this is happening today, so it is exciting to see what is going to be possible in the next 5 years.

On a more fundamental level, one of the biggest challenges that we as a species face today is climate change and the challenges that come with having to satisfy the needs and desires of 7 billion people. Social media is going to play a major role, as more and more cities have to undertake urban planning projects to mitigate these risks. How do we use location data and social media to help cities make local decisions in a more democratic manner?  

It took me a while to understand that sometimes the solutions that have the biggest impact on our communities don’t have to be on the scale of “Jarvis”. It can be as simple as an application that sends an SMS to farmers with the weather information for the day. Not long ago, Fraunhofer institute in Germany published an article announcing the launch of an app that uses your smartphone camera as a remote sensor. Now imagine how useful this is going to be for a small-time farmer who doesn’t have access to satellite imagery and analytics to understand what is affecting his/her crops.

I am personally excited to see how we use all the data we generate from our earth observation satellites, combined together with data from our smartphones and other sensors.

Regardless of whether you like to call it GIS, Location Intelligence, Spatial analysis or whatever today’s buzzword generator calls it, the fact is it’s a great time to be working with location data.

Q: What kind of feedback do you get from your readers?

A: We get our fair share of “bouquets and brickbats” and a ton of spam emails from all the kings in exile with a large inheritance. Jokes aside, the community has been very kind to us. It was feedback from a reader that led to the creation of “The Next Geo” series. It was with the help of a reader that we kicked off the Twitter Q&A idea #GeoChat. So it is fair to say that we have received a lot of great ideas from our readers.  

We have had our share of (constructive) criticism as well. Be it the blog post “top masters programs in GIS” or “top geospatial companies”, we have gotten a ton of “why would you leave out this program or this company” emails. However, without these emails we wouldn’t have been able to improve our awareness of the community, so keep them coming!

There is one feedback that we are always trying to incorporate and improve: We would love for more people from diverse backgrounds and from different corners of the world to blog together with us and share their views.  We have had 70 people blog for Geoawesomeness and I would love to get that to 100 by the end of this year. So if you are reading this and want to blog together with us, just drop me a line.

Q: What has been your favorite bit of geoawesome content the last few years?

A: There are a lot of really interesting blogs/websites out there that I try to follow on a regular basis – Wired’s Map Lab, CItyLabs, Google Maps Mania, Nat Geo, Digital Geography, Slashgeo (which sadly doesn’t exist anymore), GeoHipster, and of course Geoawesomeness 🙂 The best place to find out about the latest and greatest about the geo industry (imho) is Twitter.

Q: When not working on Geoawesomeness you work on satellite stuff, which is of course also fairly, well, geo awesome. Tell us a bit about that.

A: When you say “Satellite stuff”, you make it sound like I am the sidekick to Elon Musk at SpaceX (that would be amazing though). I graduated with a masters in space application engineering from TU Munich and am currently working as a GNSS software engineer at Trimble. Trimble is one of the pioneers when it comes to GPS/GNSS receivers for high accuracy applications, and I am working at their R&D center here in Munich for the better part of the last 3 years now. If I am right, Trimble is one of the few geospatial companies to be listed on the stock market in USA, so that’s something!

Q: You’re based in Munich. While I used to be a regular around the Glockenbachviertel and the beer tents at Oktoberfest (Himmel der Bayern oder Armbrustschützenzelt, natürlich), I concede it has been a while. What’s the Bavarian geohipster scene like these days?

A: The Munich “geohipster” scene is well and alive. A lot of companies working in the space industry call Munich their home. The geo startup scene is also considerably more active compared to a few years ago, thanks largely to a huge interest in the mobility as a service. It is not on a level like Berlin though – we don’t have a Geomob here in Munich. Maybe we should change that! Now, if I only knew someone who knows a thing or two about organizing a Geomob. Say Ed, do you by any chance have any experience with that?

Q: Heavy is the head that wears the crown. Do you ever have days where everything you see is just “geo normal” and nothing seems quite geoawesome? (Editor’s note: this never happens to us at GeoHipster, everything we do is effortlessly geohip.)

A: “Geo normal”? Hahaha this is the first time that I come across this term. I have been accused of perhaps overusing the word “awesome”, but I would gladly take that over ever using the word “geonormal”. Is there ever a day when things are normal? Let me answer that with a quote from Javier, the CEO of Carto: “There’s never been more location data available. There has never been a better time for geography.” There is never a dull day for geography!

Q: Any closing advice for anyone looking to build a geo media empire?

A: I am flattered that you would call Geoawesomeness a “geo media empire”. I am not sure if I am in a position to give out any advice; however, I will say this one thing: Connect with other geogeeks. It is amazing how much one learns just by talking to someone for 5 minutes. And to those of you who are wondering “Sure that sounds great, but how do I actually connect with others?” The answer is simple — write them an email or a tweet with whatever it is that you want to say (Twitter is amazing). I emailed Esri once asking if Jack Dangermond might be interested in blogging for us and sharing his views about the industry, and guess what? He did! Sometimes all it takes is an email or a tweet 🙂

Maps and mappers of the 2018 GeoHipster calendar — Kurt Menke

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: I am the owner of a small geo consultancy Bird’s Eye View based out of Albuquerque, New Mexico. My biggest focus areas are conservation, public health and training, but my clientele have become more and more diverse in recent years. I am an avid open source proponent and have authored two books on QGIS: Mastering QGIS and Discover QGIS. In the small amount of spare time I seem to have, I like working out, getting out into big wild spaces/mountains, playing board games while spinning some vinyl, raising chickens, and good coffee. I also love having the time to be creative and put together a nice 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: This map was produced for a coalition working to protect the San Gabriel Mountains called San Gabriel Mountains Forever. The target audience was U.S. Congresswoman Judy Chu’s staff and the general public. It shows a series of proposed protections: expansion of the existing San Gabriel National Monument, a new National Recreation Area, expansion of several existing wilderness areas along with 6 new wilderness proposals, and several new wild and scenic rivers. The goal was to create a map highlighting these proposals with a clean modern look.

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

A: This was created with the QGIS nightlies, which last fall was version 2.99. This gave me a chance to check out some of the new emerging features coming with version 3. The proposal data was digitized using QGIS. The Stamen Terrain basemap is being seen through a similarly colored State boundary layer employing some transparency and the multiply blending mode. Existing wilderness and proposals also employ the multiply blending mode. Wilderness areas were obtained from Wilderness.net and highways were sourced from CalTrans. Highways were styled as white lines so that they would fall to the background. They look better digitally than in print form…is a map ever done? Cities were shown simply as labels.

Rachel Stevenson: “I love being early to geo-centric technologies”

Rachel Stevenson
Rachel Stevenson
Rachel Stevenson is a recent graduate from the University of Colorado Denver and an active member in #GISTribe. Rachel currently works for the United States Geological Survey as a Pathways Intern, where she works on The National Map Corps, a citizen science program that collects structure types for the USGS National Map. Rachel is currently working on developing Interactive web maps for the National Map Corps and hopes to build her skills in development.

Rachel was interviewed for GeoHipster by Todd Barr.

Q: Why Geographic Information Systems?

A: In 2012 I was completing my undergraduate degree in Criminal Justice and I took a course entitled Crime Analysis, and it was this class where I learned about ArcGIS and databases and it was also during that class where I learned that I was good at creating maps and working with data. However it wasn’t until 2014 when I moved to Colorado that I decided to take an Intro to GIS Course to see if I was indeed good at it and more importantly, if I liked it. It turns out, I am good at it and I love it!

Q: You’re really active on social media. How do you think social media, specifically Twitter, has influenced you on your path?

A: I don’t quite recall how I found #gistribe on Twitter, but when I did, I found this whole community of very smart and intelligent people who wanted to share their knowledge and their passion for geospatial science. In finding this awesome community, I was able to learn and grow in so many ways both academically and personally. By starting with #gistribe I’ve been able to network and become friends with various different geo types and learn from them. It has been such a benefit to hear about new technology and to get feedback from people I look up to and idolize.

Q: You were recently elected to URISA’s Vanguard Cabinet (congratulations). What prompted you to run for this?

A: Aly Ollivierre, a colleague of mine from Maptime and the larger geospatial community, suggested that I apply for it. I’ve known about URISA and the Vanguard Cabinet for a while and was familiar with their work, so I applied because I think I’ve seen a lot of growth in myself over the last 3 years and am now in a place to be able to give back to the next generation of geospatial students, and that is an exciting opportunity.

Q: I work with a bunch of students, but you’re one of the few who are active in the FOSS4G community. What do you attribute this to?

A: I attribute this to the #gistribe. Anything that I’ve wanted to do but was unsure about, the tribe has always been super supportive of. Seeing other members of the #gistribe give presentations and workshops about an interesting topic has really inspired me to give presentations and to try and work hard in order to grow in this field.

Q: Since you’re just starting out in the big wide world of Spatial, where do you see yourself in 10 years?

A: I would like to build my developer skills in Python, R and SQL as well as increase my understanding of databases in order to become a lead data scientist for NASA. When I first started out in geospatial science I was amazed at how vast and wide this industry is. Geospatial science and location data are applicable to everything. This includes NASA; I think a lot of people, when they hear the word “NASA” they think space exploration and science. But NASA does so much more than that, they also explore and answer questions related to problems we are having here on Earth. Their work is far reaching and I’d like to be a part of that.

Q: You’re active in the Unitarian Church, how do you think GIS could help solve a problem that Church faces?

A: I think Geospatial Science could be used to show Unitarian Universalists what impact they are having in conducting social justice work throughout their communities. The Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations has a data science component, and one thing I think they could benefit from is adding a geospatial aspect to understanding where Unitarian Universalist are located throughout the US.

Q: Favorite projection and why?

A: When I first got started in geo, a friend of mine gave me a book entitled “Spaceship Manual for Planet Earth” by Buckminster Fuller, who designed the Fuller or Dymaxion projection. So my favorite projection is the Fuller Projection because it was the first projection I was introduced to as a geography student. I have never used it in any of my projects, either professional or personal, but maybe one day I’ll find a need for it.

Q: What is the one technology you wish you could master overnight?

A: I wish I could master JavaScript, I think I have learned python, R, SQL, HTML/CSS with ease. JavaScript is difficult but important so if it was possible to learn a programming language overnight that would be the one I’d do.

Q: Do you consider yourself a geohipster?

A: YES! I love being early to geo-centric technologies and related things happening in the community while also being able to share these same technologies with the students I work with.

Josh Stevens to GeoHipster: “It was Michelangelo, not chisel brand X, who made David”

Joshua Stevens
Joshua Stevens
Josh is the lead data visualizer and cartographer at NASA's Earth Observatory. Prior to coming to NASA, he was working on a PhD in geography at Penn State while on an NSF IGERT fellowship in Big Data Social Science. One time he made an eclipse map.

More about Josh and his work can be read on his personal website.

Q: How did you get into GIS?

A: My undergrad studies started out all over the place, and I had no idea what GIS even was until I was almost through with college. As a freshman I studied graphic design, following a lifelong interest in all things visual. But after the first year I got interested in photography, but shortly thereafter I switched majors again, this time to computer science. I briefly considered what graduate school in comp sci might be like before being a little “homesick”  from more artistic work; design, ultimately, was where my heart was.

During my junior year I stumbled upon a thing called Geographic Information Science in the list of majors at Michigan State University. Analysis and design, with a side of engineering? I changed my major that semester and have been hooked ever since.

While I bounced around between those majors, the bits and pieces I picked up were like little drops of experience that coalesced into the perfect preparation for a career in cartography and visualization. I didn’t know it at the time, but I couldn’t have planned it better if I tried.

Q: What do you do for NASA? Please describe your typical day on the job.

A: I sort of wear two hats. To tell a new visual story every day, I have to quickly analyze data, create maps and charts, and help our editorial team craft articles to communicate Earth science, primarily from or related to NASA missions. I am always scrambling to get or find data and then visualize it the best I can in a very short amount of time.

Over the longer term and in-between the daily articles, I lead the development of our style guide that establishes the overall look and feel of Earth Observatory visuals. This involves defining typographic styles, color palettes, base maps, and workflows. The workflows could be anything from a set of scripts to tutorials that enable us to go from raw data to public-ready graphics in an intuitive and consistent way.

Our bread-and-butter publication is the Image of The Day, which we put out 7 days a week, 365 days a year. So my typical day usually involves creating one or more visualizations to ensure that keeps happening, while carving out time to refine our style, identify new data sources, learn new technologies, or develop tools to help our team quickly publish press-ready visuals.

Q: Your PhD thesis is titled “Cues and Affordances in Cartographic Interaction”. Could you tell us about your research, and what spurred you to focus on this particular topic? Does what you learned feed into your work at NASA?

A: This research was a lot of fun! I was primarily interested in how to communicate varying “layers” of interactivity within maps. Sometimes a map symbol might only reveal a tooltip, while other features allow analytical functions, queries, or other capabilities. Some symbology has no interactivity at all. That’s information that should be clear to the user, and the visual design of map symbols can help clue users in to whether or not (or how much) a symbol is interactive.

I started my PhD before the major UI shift toward flat design, which was a good time to have a front-row seat to the backlash that followed that trend becoming commonplace. Early popular skeuomorphic designs were a bit heavy-handed with aesthetic ornamentation. As a response, designers sort of swung (too far) in the opposite direction: many interfaces became so flat that buttons were not distinguished from other design elements. This sort of design philosophy gives people chicken hands: they are constantly pecking, trying to discover which elements on screen can be clicked.

I wanted to humanize that experience, enabling users to do more thinking and less pecking.

My research was predicated on the belief that there’s a sweet spot in the middle: many, many interfaces could benefit from subtle cues that make interactive UI components a bit more obvious.

This research helped me think more clearly about hierarchies and designing with a purpose. Every map or visualization is a layering of information, and even if there’s no interactivity in a graphic, there’s still a competition for your attention and focus. Careful design ensures the viewer is drawn to the important bits, without totally removing less important elements. I like maps that communicate a key point quickly, then draw you in, revealing more insight as you study them.

Even if your fingers aren’t pecking a screen in different spots, your eyes might be. Good design settles things down and enables readers to focus on—or be guided to—the important information.

Q: There’s a lot of kids out there who want to work for NASA someday (including my own), although most of them are probably dreaming about space shuttles. If NASA has data visualization and cartography jobs, how wide does the variety get?

A: The variety is out of this world! (That was lame, wasn’t it? But it’s true!) You’ll find people working as everything from biologists to seamstresses at NASA.

I work in the Earth Science Division, and while the exact job title of “cartographer” is not a thing as far as I know — I don’t even have it — there’s an enormous amount of geospatial analysis and mapping going on. A lot of colleagues of mine have backgrounds in other fields — oceanography, geology, etc. — but we all make maps with the same data (perhaps with different software; the geologists really love GMT). But if it happens on Earth, NASA probably has an instrument that measures it, and handfuls of people with diverse expertise analyzing it and mapping it.

Q: What kind of technology do you use on the job? Mostly open source, or mostly proprietary, or an even mix?

A: It’s a mix. I’m a bit of a generalist: I use what gets the job done. That said, it is with some privilege that I am able to make those sorts of decisions. If there’s software out there, paid or otherwise, I probably have access to it.

That said, my go-tos by and large tend to be open source. GDAL is the real MVP of my workflow, and I use QGIS daily.

My top 5 most-used tools include QGIS/GDAL, Photoshop, After Effects, Python (with matplotlib, pandas, and NumPy), and Bash.

Q: Which systems are the most common sources of satellite imagery for your work?

A: We like to show things in true color when we can; readers really enjoy seeing satellite imagery that is as easy to understand as a photograph. That places a lot of emphasis on MODIS, VIIRS, and Landsat imagery.

Q: How often is it that a new system or source of imagery becomes available?

A: All the time! While the instrument construction projects and big launches make the news a few times a year, there are thousands of scientists around the globe developing new data from all the satellites already in orbit. Algorithms are improved, data sources are combined, and new applications emerge almost around the clock.

Q: Your website has dozens of examples of beautiful and informative maps. I’m guessing it takes quite a bit of work to pull the data together into a publishable product. Can you give us an example of a workflow, going from raw satellite data to polished map?

A: Thanks! I appreciate that.

One thing I have to admit being most proud of is that these projects are done super quickly. We publish daily, so I often only have a few hours, maybe 12 hours for larger stories, to get all the data that goes into something, process it, analyze it and find the story, and then design a map (or other visuals). In the last three years, there’s only one project that I worked on for longer than a week, which was the 2012 and 2016 updates to NASA’s Black Marble maps of nighttime lights.

The biggest effort has gone into developing the styles and workflows that make it possible to publish these visualizations so quickly.

I recently tweeted an example of a map coming together. The final map ended up as part of a piece on the Channeled Scablands. The basic steps for producing the imagery for this story were to:

  1. Generate a best-pixel mosaic of the area using five years of Landsat data in Google Earth Engine. While that was running:
  2. Download SRTM data for the area and merge the tiles with gdal_merge.py
  3. Hillshade the elevation data in QGIS (or GDAL)
  4. Color-correct and reproject the finished Landsat mosaic
  5. Blend the Landsat data with the hillshade
  6. Finish the map up with boundaries, water bodies, and labels, export for the web

To get even more out of the data, I also used the Landsat mosaic and elevation data to render a true color view at an oblique angle. The whole story finishes with a recent, individual Landsat scene. (You can read about how to color-correct and pan-sharpen Landsat scenes in tutorials from me and Rob Simmon.)

That all came together in about four hours. There’s always so much more I wish I could do with imagery, but our tight deadlines force us to be quick and lean.

Q: You’re a moderator for the esteemed Reddit community Data Is Beautiful. Last time I logged in there were 12+ million subscribers. How long have you been moderating, and what exactly does moderating entail?

A:  I’ve been moderating Data Is Beautiful since early 2014. Geeze, thinking back, it is hard to believe I am the second longest running mod in the subreddit. Back then we had about 50,000 subscribers and we were not a default shown to all visitors. We’d see maybe one popular post a week. It has grown quite a bit, and that has been awesome to witness over the years. We now have subscribers posting insanely well-done work that makes the front page of the entire site almost daily.

Each mod contributes to keeping things organized and spam-free, but most take on a labor of love depending on their interests. Early on I established the CSS design for the subreddit and our visual flair system to separate different types of posts. Other mods organize AMAs, run contests, or code up sweet bots that quantify the number of original content (OC) pieces a user has posted.

These days I am not super active as a mod; we’ve brought on a bunch of fantastic mods that really keep the sub running and growing.

Q: What do you do for fun? Any hipster traits we should know about?

A: I spend a lot of time playing with my kid (4). We’re really into Lego right now (see that, Ken? No ‘s’). My wife made the mistake of giving me Monster Hunter: World as a gift, and I haven’t been able to put it down.

I am looking forward to getting back into fishing this spring and summer. That’s a hobby I’ve neglected recently and I can’t wait to get back into it.

If a beard, a love of craft beer, and a fixed-gear bike are the criteria, I might be a hipster on paper. But in real life, I’m less like The Decemberists and more like Dexter (the awkward part, not all the other stuff…)

Q: Would you consider yourself a geohipster? Why / why not?

A:. Even though I use a lot of tools that might not be mainstream, I don’t see that as a goal or accomplishment that sets me apart. These are things that just help me do the job I need to do. So I wouldn’t say so, but maybe others might.

I’m also a bit wary (and weary) of an over-emphasis on the tools used by cartographers and the GIS community. How those tools are used, and the goals they achieve, is much more important. There’s a bit of a ‘library name drop culture’ on social media, where a long list of tech and libraries will be highlighted, and then it’s like “oh, and by the way this app ensured the four-pronged butterfly did not go extinct.”

That’s wrong, and we as a community should strive to fix that. There are social media accounts devoted to bashing this file format or that software. Why? That’s as useful as posting instagram photos of food you plan not to eat.

It was Michelangelo, not chisel brand X, who made David.

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

A: “[You] absolutely have to have dark in order to have light. Gotta have opposites, dark and light, light and dark, continually in painting. If you have light on light, you have nothing. If you have dark on dark, you basically have nothing. It’s like in life: you gotta have a little sadness once in a while so you know when the good times come.” –Bob Ross

Maps and mappers of the 2018 calendar: Andrew Zolnai

Live WebScene

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: I’m a geologist by training and turned to computer mapping and GIS 30 years ago in Canada. Why? I took eight years high school Latin in France, and while I cannot write code I sure can fix it… Handy on Unix then Java scripts when you’re posted from Bako thru BK to Baku (that’s Bakersfield CA, Bangkok and Azerbaijan). So I’ve been in the petroleum service sector all my life, crossing over to remote sensing, geodata management and web services as GIS is apt to do. After hours, I do VGI (volunteered geographic information) to help academics and agencies find free data and publish (almost) free maps, and thus promote better citizen engagement.

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: Oil & gas has a fantastic array of 3D subsurface data currently locked up in expensive and bespoke software and services. Using Esri for Personal Use for VGI work in England, working with US and Norwegian business partners Eagle Info Mapping and Geodata, and pulling basic data from Esri and US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, helped conflate all the relevant data in one simple 3D stack in the US Gulf of Mexico. Posting on WebScene displays a vast array of data in an easily-accessible form, to help engage agencies, operators and the public around complex geo-science. This is critical in matters ranging from smart fields (like smart cities, only in oil & gas) thru emergency response to environmental protection and beyond.

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


– Esri ArcGIS Pro and Web Scene, and Geodata Seismic extension.

– Seafloor bathymetry: Esri data.

– Oilwell polylines, surface block and subsurface strata polygons, and salt dome multi-patch: US BOEM open data and courtesy Eagle Info Mapping.

– Seismic imagery not local and courtesy Geodata.

Tim Waters: “Psychogeography is the cross-over of geography, psychology, and art”

Tim Waters
Tim Waters
Tim is a British geospatial developer, based in the north of England. Active within the OpenStreetMap community where he is known as “chippy”, Tim also has an interest in historical geography. Graduating with a degree in Environmental Science and later with a GIS Masters, he has worked for a number of organisations, including GeoIQ (of Geocommons and Esri acquisition fame) and Topomancy LLC developing historical mapping services for the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress. Tim currently works for himself and is available for hire. You might be familiar with his work on Mapwarper.net https://mapwarper.net/ ,-- the open source, free to use, collaborative georectification tool.

Blog: https://thinkwhere.wordpress.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/tim_waters

Tim was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.

Q: You have somewhat of an enigmatic online persona. Care to lift the veil and tell us more about yourself?

A: “Hello, nice to meet you. My name is Tim, I live in England, and work with maps on the internet!” Um, technology-wise, I work with Ruby, Python and Javascript. I do cartography, backend and front end stuff too. I suppose that makes me a full stack developer? I like open source geo software and crowdsourced approaches to working with maps.

You are not the first to say that I have an obscure online presence, but each time I’m a little bit surprised as it implies that others have a more public online life. Perhaps I’m European and we have different ideas and feelings about one’s private life? I’m also a bit older than most digital natives — perhaps that’s it? Also, given the current Facebook news event, one could understand why people might not want to share personal stuff online so much, but I wouldn’t say online privacy drives my activities. I also tend to dislike self promotion and blowing my own trumpet, so if you want advice on how to not share too much online, hire me as I’m a globally-recognised world-class thought leader in enigmatic social media practices!

Q: We met IRL in NYC at the 2015 SOTMUS conference, but we “met” on Twitter years prior, where you have been sharing witty commentary since early 2007. What brought you to Twitter in the first place, and what keeps you there?

A: I joined Twitter during one of the first WhereCamps in the Bay Area about a decade ago. A WhereCamp is a geo unconference. Free to attend and mostly self organised, WhereCamps were the fun after-party/conference usually straight after the O’Reilly Where 2.0 Conference. Anyhow, Twitter and geo at that time was quite similar. Early adopters, outlook and usage was quite similar. More optimism, smaller community, and more experimentation. The era of LBS was just around the corner! “Neogeography” was coined. There were no celebrities using Twitter, and it was never talked about by the chattering classes or your parents. Back then, people communicated mostly via desktop-based instant messenger clients, where you could set your away status to let your contacts know what you were up to if you were offline. Because of that “tweets” were called “statuses” for years. It’s quite different now of course and I mainly use it to read jokes, industry news, and alerts for various projects; it’s also good for direct messaging. I periodically delete all my tweets, except my likes and tweets that have certain words (e.g. “psychogeography” see below) in there. Thinking about this question and my own relationship with Twitter I’m forced to agree with Stephen Fry’s assertion that Twitter has become like a swimming pool that someone has done a poo in. My mute list contains most current political keywords that make up a little bit of the fecal matter. For several years I was accused of being both FakeSteveC (now Anonymaps) and FakeEdParsons, which I completely refute, but I was flattered of course, and I do enjoy Anonymaps greatly! In previous years, as further proof of my global thought leader status in social media frivolity, I achieved media coverage for starting the first truly global-wide meme on Twitter (https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/sometimes-i-just-want-to-_n_696318) and for creating a tool for making funny London Tube signs. An image created using an instance of that open source tool (not associated or managed by me) was shared virally via Twitter and made it into the UK Parliament with our Prime Minister herself commenting on it! (https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/media/2017/03/man-who-created-fake-tube-sign-explains-why-he-did-it)

The veil truly gets lifted!

Q: You are clearly passionate about OSM. Tell us more about your involvement with OSM — what and why.

A: OpenStreetMap started in the UK. And the reason why it started there was because we proto-geo-hipsters were starting to do cool stuff online with maps but we didn’t have any free data to play with. I was working for a city council at the time and I had nice data in the office but I couldn’t put it online for people to play with. The Americans had Tiger at least and a number of other datasets, but all the Brits had was blurry Landsat and hand-scanned out-of-copyright maps. So OSM was a solution to that itch. It was also a fun activity mapping from scratch, and got a fair bit of interest from the wider grassroots computing communities in Europe — Linux user groups in particular it seemed. Early on I hacked on a plugin for JOSM to read in WMS map images, and actually started Mapwarper as a way for people to easily get scanned out-of-copyright paper maps and balloon / kite imagery into a format for tracing over into OSM. I am also involved with Ben Dalton from the RCA on mapping the physical infrastructure of the internet within OSM: The New Cloud Atlas. http://newcloudatlas.org The things we map are data centres, cell towers, undersea cables etc. These days I’m also interested in OpenHistoricalMap http://www.openhistoricalmap.org which uses a separate OSM stack to make a map of literally everything that has ever existed in history and time! I think it’s a very modest mapping project.

I’m a supporter of the OSM Community, and worry when the community as a whole gets targeted for the behaviour of a small number of people. Those who seem to me to complain most about the community are also those who appear to work for companies that would benefit most from changes to OSM. Of course the problem of how to deal with a small number of troublesome people still remains and should be addressed. However, I’m quite the optimist and know that the wider OSM community is pretty healthy on the whole. It’s also worth saying that OSM, the organising entity, wouldn’t have been successful if it was bigger. It’s amazing, awesome, and crucial that the OSM Foundation remains small and focused, and that because of this leanness the ecosystem of tools, applications and services has been able to grow around it and flourish.

Q: You blog about Psychogeography. Tell us what that is, and what got you interested in the subject.

A: Psychogeography means many things. I’m very inclusive on what it means, many other people with definitions are more exclusive. So apologies for any long-winded explanation!
So, what does it mean? There’s a number of definitions. It’s the cross-over of geography, psychology, and art. It can cover games, sound, locative art, walking art, architecture, urban planning, cartography, literature, blockchain, and even Virtual Reality. The famous geographer / cartographer Denis Wood can be said to do it, and New Yorkers might remember the Conflux Festival as having a number of psychogeographic-like events. I like this definition best: Psychogeography is exploring space where you can learn three things: You can learn about a particular place (local), you can learn how places and space works (geography), and you can learn about yourself (your own perceptions, interpretations). Psychogeography is often classically done through something called the Derive (French for drift) and that  mainly comes from the boozy French group The Situationists, led by a fella called Debord. Debord came up with the idea of the Society of the Spectacle — which essentially is our consumerist culture of where it’s only the look that counts, where appearances matter more. A hipster is actually the perfect citizen within the Spectacle. They consume, but they consume because it looks authentic. They want the appearance of authenticity. A smaller number of hipsters create, and they create to appear authentic, handmade and artisan. Non-hipsters know it’s all fake, that’s why they mock hipsters. Ever notice how hipsters seem oblivious to this mockery? Because deep within themselves, hipsters know it too. But this feeling of fakeness is actually the crucial central thing! This fakeness drives the search for authenticity within hipsters, leading to the strengthening of the Spectacle. All this was predicted by Debord in the 50s. Hipsterism might be the perfect form of the human in the Spectacle, but we all have a greater or lesser participation in it, according to Debord. (I’m about 50% hipster.) Hipsters politically have been described as neo-liberal — they will support changes that appear progressive rather than those that might be more concretely beneficial or more socially minded. Hipsters will happily work in Silicon Valley venture capital-funded firms while thinking themselves as socialist. In the urban environment, hipsters get the blame for gentrification.

A geohipster would create tools to appear to be bespoke and artisan. Other geo hipsters will use them to support this. It’s not the technology that makes the hipster — it’s the way this is communicated, how it’s consumed. Twitter, blogs, and GitHub are the main way tech-hipsters communicate their images of what they are to one another. You also don’t seem to get shy hipsters online, do you?

Anyhow, the Drift, according to the Situationists, is an unstructured walk though varied environments. It’s a walk, or a way of using space that the space doesn’t prescribe. Think about travelling to the shops or to the pub. Now think about moving through that space at random, or by alternating a left or right turn. No one else would have used that space in that way before. By doing a drift you can uncover how the spectacle works. By doing things in non-prescriptive ways you see how they really work. It’s essentially a hacking activity.

Debord said that the Derive is the way to smash the Spectacle, or at least expose it, and capitalism. I don’t really believe that theory at all. But it would show you how things work, and I prefer the three types of learning theory as given above. It’s changed a bunch over the years anyhow, and I’m not sure what the current form is — we will find out what is happening now when it’s over. At FOSS4G conference a few years ago I did a talk about Psychogeography and its relevance to geographers, map makers, etc. — the key idea is that it’s a perception awareness activity — how can we make maps of a place if we don’t really know the place? I’m running the World Congress of Psychogeography this year in September, http://4wcop.org/. You should come too! Last year Irish national broadcaster RTE ran a radio show about the conference and psychogeography in general, so I’d suggest giving this a listen https://soundcloud.com/insideculture/s2-28 .

Q: I found this YouTube video where you explain dowsing as related to mapping. Is this the original map story technique? Tell us more about dowsing.

A:  Dowsing, or divining, is a technique to find things. The classic dowsing is using rods to find water. Most of the water companies in the UK employ dowsers to find leaks, even against the ire of scientists and newspapers. The companies say “it works, why stop it?”.

We had both pendulums and copper dowsing rods during the event in the video. The event was during the festival of Terminalia, the roman god of Terminus, the god of boundaries and landmarks. If ever there was a deity for geographers, it would be Terminus. We found locations on the map by hanging pendulums over them, and slowly moving them around the map. If the pendulum starts moving differently, then we mark down that on the map.

There are three theories on how dowsing works: the ideomotor effect — your body moves the thing subconsciously based on some kind of stimulus or thought, so perhaps your body might pick up water or electric fields and you let your hands move the instrument on their own. In our example, the pendulums would move when your brain picks out a suitable place over the map subconsciously. The second way, and least believable, is that some external force moves the instrument, this occult interpretation in our example would be Terminus moving the pendulum instead of us. The third way is that we move the instrument manually! I mean, no one else can tell that you are not moving the pendulum consciously, after all. In our example one would look at the map, think “I want to go there”, and manually move the pendulum over that area.

In my event, participants identified areas, new boundary markers to go to and then we went to those locations. Then, those who chose that point would explain why they chose it. It was a fun event!

Gregory Marler, a prolific OSM mapper and a very funny chap made that video.

Q: I love your humor, but I’m guessing it’s not everybody’s cup of tea. How do you react when people don’t get your jokes? (Asking for a friend.)

A: I like this question. Does it say more about me — humour that is hard to get, what to do when someone doesn’t get a joke — or does it say more about your friend? Hah! I suppose the main thing is that I’m British. We like banter, absurdism, irony, self deprecation, mockery and lists of cliched stereotypes. I suppose I don’t aim to be funny, nor do I think I’m that funny as a person either.  

How should one behave if someone doesn’t get a joke? Tell another one until they laugh?

Does it say more about your friend? Maybe!

Q: Any (geo)hipstery traits we should know about?

A: For my previous words about hipsters and geo hipsters, I do actually look up to geo hipsters, they are the cool kids on the block. And cool stuff is often good. Artisan coffee is actually pretty tasty after all. I want to be like them, and I crave their approval. New technology often starts on the edges and this is where the geo hipster performs their work. So we all benefit from geohipsters. Personally I like the tried and tested stuff. Some people like working with new technologies, it makes it interesting for them. I’m rather more interested in the end result, or doing a good job of it. If a new tool appears and it’s going to give a better result, then I will be more likely to use it. I can imagine that in some jobs where the end result might be not that exciting, one can put one’s enthusiasm in the technology. A privilege of working for yourself is that one can choose what to work on, that’s a freedom something the majority of technologists don’t have. So I understand that making and using new technology does not make you a geohipster.

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

A: The main interest for me and geospatial is democratizing access to these wonderful tools we play with. The open source software side complements this nicely. We get to work with great services and techniques, and wouldn’t it be great if everyone could get the same level of usage and productivity and joy as we do, without needing a Masters in GIS!


Topi Tjukanov: “In Finnish basemaps forest is white”

Topi Tjukanov
Topi Tjukanov
Topi Tjukanov lives approximately at 60°N & 25°E (Helsinki, Finland) with his wife. Topi works for the Finnish state in the Ministry of the Environment and does geospatial data visualization as a hobby and an occasional freelancing work. He graduated 2014 with a masters degree in geography from the University of Helsinki and since then has worked with GIS related projects. You can view Topi’s visualizations on his website at tjukanov.org and find him on Twitter under @tjukanov.

Topi was interviewed for GeoHipster by Ralph Straumann.

Q: Topi, your Twitter bio says you are into data visualization and maps (and football – or “soccer” for our US friends) and that you currently work in the Ympäristöministeriö of Finland, or more simply, @yministerio. What do you do for the Ympäristöministeriö?

A: Firstly, I’d like to highlight that my role in the GIS scene is somewhat schizophrenic: From 8 AM to 4 PM on weekdays I work for the Ministry of the Environment in Finland (Ympäristöministeriö in Finnish), so I work for the Finnish state. Also the work I do at the Ministry is somewhat related to GIS, but on a very different (non-visual, less technical) level. This “real work” is a part of a big national GIS project here in Finland.

Outside office hours, I do data visualization mainly for my own amusement, although it has accidentally also become a freelancing work for me. 99% of the stuff you see on Twitter is the data hobbyist version of me. I try to keep my two roles as far away from each other as possible so I won’t be limited in any way in what I do with the data visualization stuff.

Q: I see. Can you talk more about the Ministry of the Environment project(s)?

A: To describe it shortly, it’s related to standardizing land use planning GIS data. Not very geohip.

To describe in a bit more detail, it’s a part of a larger national GIS project. One very beloved word in the Finnish public sector is digitalization (not digitizing). I don’t know if it’s even used outside of Finland that widely, but here it’s a common word for all larger IT-related projects, which aim to change the way of working to a more efficient way with the help of IT. Whether it be bringing tablet computers to schools or drafting legislation for self-driving cars. So on a larger scale, I am working in a digitalization project.

I guess a common problem in many countries is that GIS data is sometimes a bit hard to find and you don’t have a lot of information about the quality of the data. This project aims to tackle that problem, but also to standardize the data and to change the way of working to be more API-focused rather than moving files from one place to another. Our part of the project, like I said, is focusing on data related to land use planning — city plans and other documents which tell what can you build where. Those documents are still widely non-digital and non-GIS-compatible. So I am working with various interest groups from the public and private sectors to make spatial planning more efficient and open.

Q: And what led you onto your particular path, visualization and maps?

A: I have studied geography in the University of Helsinki and after that worked in a large IT-company with GIS for a few years. As geeky as it may sound, I have always liked maps, long before I knew anything about GIS. I was into doing stuff with Photoshop and I think I got my first computer when I was about 4 years old. So all of this sounds more or less like a logical path to where I am now, right?

Q: True! Do you in fact remember when you first heard about GIS? And do you think as a term it still applies to our field?

A: I think I heard something about it already in high school, but wasn’t really interested in it until 2011 when I started my studies in the University of Helsinki.

GIS as a term sounds a bit outdated to me. I’m strongly with the “spatial is not special” people. I think GIS data is just data and I really hope that, in the future, the “GIS people” can learn more from the people analyzing and visualizing non-spatial data and vice versa. As my old colleague used to say: “GIS data? it’s just an additional column in a database.”

Q: … or two or three if your format supports multiple geometry types 😉 Besides geography, your ‘About me’ page also mentions a business degree?

A: Yes. After high school I did a BBA degree in international business and logistics. I didn’t become a businessman, but the best thing there was that the studies were in English and I got to know people from more than ten different countries. After graduating from there, I started to think what I would really like to do in life, and ended up studying geography. But also studying business has given me valuable insights to my current work.

Q: I see. Can you describe what you can apply to your current work? And does the business degree also help with your freelancing activities?

A: In my current work I’d say that the most beneficial is general understanding in how businesses and the society works. But of course also geography has brought me that kind of understanding. In my freelancing the business degree hasn’t proved useful. At least not so far.

Q: I also studied geography with a focus on GIS and I’m always intrigued to see how GIS is used differently in different parts of the world. For example, in Switzerland (my home country) being rather small and mountainous, precision agriculture seems much less of a field than for example in the US. However, for example, forests and natural hazards are important topics. What is GIS in Finland like, what are the main fields it is used for?

A: Finland has had traditionally very strong forest industry and so that has also shaped the GIS in Finland a bit. One fun fact is that in Finnish basemaps forest is still white, because there is so much of it, that it wasn’t originally marked there to save ink when printing.

However, nowadays GIS is used quite widely in different fields and the amount of open data is growing all the time. The whole Finnish road network, all building footprints, real-time train locations, placenames, and a wide variety of statistical data are just a few examples of what is available. Also some pretty weird open data, like real-time locations of snow plows or tortoise movement in the Helsinki zoo is out there to explore.

Finland as the home country of Nokia mobile phones has had a very strong IT-sector in the last 30 years and that can also be seen in GIS.

A: Nice bit of trivia on the Finnish forests! If I’m not mistaken, forests can also be white on some orienteering maps.

A: Oh… Orienteering. In Finland every second person working with GIS is doing orienteering!

Q: You mentioned your private visualization activities before and I think that is also linked to some of the examples of open data you just listed. What drives you to further pursue geo and visualization in your off-duty time?

A: I have been thinking myself what makes me visualize data just for fun. Don’t know for sure, but I guess it’s a combination of a lot of things. I like the technical side of it, as I am learning new things, like Python, while doing this stuff. Also it’s about making something visually interesting out of boring CSV files. Then thirdly, on a more idealistic level, if I manage to dig something meaningful out of the data and make someone act differently or even give a thought on their way of doing things, that’s awesome!

My visualizations have been featured on a few of the biggest news media in Finland — for example my latest work  visualizing how the Arctic ice is melting due to global warming. That really made me feel like I can do something useful with this stuff.

Q: How do you choose the appropriate visualization type?

A: Depends totally on the day. Mostly it’s trial and error, to be honest. When something looks interesting enough, I post it to Twitter or somewhere else. As the stuff I do isn’t really driven by customer orders, I enjoy every bit of freedom I have and try to take it to artsy levels whenever possible. If some of the stuff I do annoys someone, or someone thinks I did something “wrong” in my visualizations, I always find that super interesting!

Q: And where do you draw inspiration from? For example, how do you choose data to visualize and the information you want to highlight?

A: Inspiration can come from anywhere, but I have a few different approaches to how I end up doing things. Quite often Twitter is the source of inspiration, in one form or another.

Sometimes it’s data-driven, so I might see on Twitter that some organization has opened up an interesting dataset and I go and see what interesting [thing] could be done with it. This is how I did the animations about train and ship traffic.

Sometimes it’s tool-driven. So, for example, I might want to try out a piece of code someone has published, or just might want to try out an interesting new plugin in QGIS, and then I find suitable data for that. This is how I ended up playing with cartograms recently.

The third option is that I just come up with an idea about a topic that’s interesting to me and I go searching for ways to make it visually interesting also for other people. This is how I ended up doing visualizations about hurricane paths for example.

Q: Speaking of tools and technology, on your website you list your software stack as QGIS, PostGIS, Python, and others. It seems you’re solidly in FOSS4G?

A: As I do this stuff mainly as a hobby I have no one to pay the license fees. But seriously, it’s not only that I use FOSS4G because of that, but often it’s also the best option. I think I first tried QGIS maybe six years ago, and it has certainly come a long way since then, and hands down nowadays is far better desktop GIS software than ArcMap. Earlier in my work I have also used a lot of Esri products, FME, and a bit of Oracle Spatial, so I do also understand the value of non-FOSS. Especially FME is a great ETL tool. I used a lot of FME in my previous work, but now I have taught myself to use Python to do similar stuff.

But all in all I am really thankful for all the active developers working on the FOSS4G projects and hope that I can pay back and promote their work by doing something interesting with the tools. I personally don’t do software development and only write my sketchy Python scripts when it’s absolutely necessary. I’m more of a scripter than a developer.

Q: Since you said QGIS is “hands down far better”, I have to ask: Where do you think QGIS excels in comparison to competitors? And where would you like to see improvements in QGIS, and in the FOSS4G stack at large?

A: First two things I really liked when I started using QGIS were the freedom of projection and freedom from file formats. By freedom from projection I mean the style it reprojects data automatically to your project coordinate system. Sounds like a small thing, but was massive when coordinate systems were still very confusing. When I started with GIS in my studies, you had to have ArcMap to open shapefiles and MapInfo to open MapInfo files. QGIS changed that.

After using it for a while, I also noticed a much bigger advantage, as it’s far more stable than ArcGIS, especially with larger datasets. And I must also give credit to the great plugins QGIS has (TIme Manager, QGIS2web, QGIS2threejs, etc.) that can be used to make a lot of cool stuff easily and have made my life much easier.

Q: When you get commissioned as a freelancer, is that mostly visualization work or does it also involve e.g. consulting and data analysis?

A: So far it has been a few visualization projects, but I have had quite a lot of contacts coming in through my website. It has mostly been cases where someone has visited my website or seen the stuff on Twitter and then asked me if I would be interested in working together. I haven’t really tried to actively offer my freelancing services.

Q: Do you have any advice for our readers who might want to dive into freelance work?

A: Gosh. Do not ask me for freelancing advice. I have just accidentally become one. But I can try to give some hints on what to focus on.

Firstly, especially for me as some of the stuff I do is on the border of technical and creative work, it’s extremely hard to put a price tag on it. So have a clear pricing strategy. I don’t.

Secondly, be aware of your limitations. As I am doing this stuff in addition to my daily work, I am mostly limited by time. Also my boss is aware that I have this freelancing thing and I am very strict with myself that I don’t mix my real work with my freelancing stuff.

Q: Your work is very visible online – I often see it on Twitter where you share finished visualizations as well as work-in-progress. Where do you see value in social media?

A: I guess many people say this nowadays, but the power of social media has really taken me by surprise. I find it strange that more than 4,000 people find the stuff I do worth following on Twitter. Social media has enabled the whole freelancing thing for me and is taking me to speak at Visualizing Knowledge and OpenVisConf this spring.

Twitter is an awesome source for new ideas, feedback and technical support. I also sometimes post stuff to Reddit, but it’s a whole different scene. I haven’t really figured that out yet. I have been surprised how popular a platform Reddit is in the States.

Also, the value of social media lies in the geotagged tweets that can be visualized nicely 🙂

Q: Haha! And what do you do when you don’t work and come up with innovative visualizations? What hobbies do you enjoy – geohip or not?

A: The Finnish football season is starting this week and I have been eagerly waiting to go and see the matches again live. I also do cycling during the summer and go to the gym quite often.

Q: Looking at Atanas, cycling is definitely geohip! Can you offer a nice piece of advice, of wisdom to all geohipsters out there?

A: For extra hipster credit, I must also note that I have two bikes, and the other one is a fixed-gear!

Don’t know if it’s much wisdom, but I strongly encourage everyone to share their maps and scripts online whenever possible. The help and support you can get online can really help to take your work to the next level.