Jonah Adkins: “Engaging with other like-minded geo people via Twitter provides a great unfiltered look at what’s working and what’s not”

Jonah Adkins
Jonah Adkins

Jonah Adkins (@jonahadkins) is a Sr. Geospatial Analyst with GISi out of his home office in Newport News, Virginia. He has been in GIS since 1999 working for local governments, federal agencies, and most recently as a consultant. Jonah is a published cartographer who enjoys time with his family, maps (duh), Disney, Pro-Wrestling, has a tattoo of Esri North Arrow 51 and was told by Pharrell Williams that he looked like Freddie Mercury.

Jonah was interviewed for GeoHipster by Christina Boggs.

Q: Hey Jonah, thanks for taking the time to sit down with me! I know you from Twitter but many of us know you from your incredible Lost Map or they fall in love with It’s A Small World all over again through your cartography. What do you do for your daytime job?

A: For the last few years I’ve worked as a Sr. Geospatial Analyst for GISi. The majority of my work entails cartography, graphic design, UI/UX for applications, and traditional GIS work for many of our clients. I’ve spent a good portion of last year doing some awesome things with the Navy Shore Energy Program.

Q: Your maps are beautiful, beyond just being a method to convey information; they’re art. Do you have a background in design or some other art media?

A: Nope. I was always a doodler growing up, but never took any classes. I wouldn’t call myself a designer or anything like that, but I think I can tell when something looks “good” — at least to my tastes.

Q: I stumbled upon a great video where you presented great cartographic design elements to keep in mind. Have you thought about teaching this to other GISers? Beyond the occasional conference talk?

A: It’s a funny thing. I’ve always thought that you can’t really teach “making a pretty map.” Books and the like can give you helpful info, but I feel it’s something that’s unique to the person creating the map. Your current emotions, likes and dislikes, all that stuff is in anything you create, for the most part. Then someone told me, “yeah that’s great and all but we want you to show us how to make a pretty map”. So I had to get my thoughts on paper and decided I could at least give some pointers on guiding the creative side to a desirable output.

Q: Gretchen Peterson wrote an incredible book on cartography, have you thought about writing?

A: Never. I have Gretchen’s awesome book “Cartographer’s Toolkit,” a signed first edition!!! It’s been my starting point on several projects where I’m struggling to find my inspiration and I need something to get me started. It’s very good because it’s a tool to guide you, it’s not, to me, an instruction manual. Water doesn’t have to be blue, it’ll be ok, and I’ll be damned if you use Comic Sans as your title font!

Christina: Haha I really did spend some time selecting what font to do this interview in.

Q: You have a robust github, tell us about some of your projects you’ve got going up there…

A: I really love maps, mapping tech and all that goes with it. Basically any of my free time, and some of my not so free time, I’m usually trying out something new or working on an idea. This usually happens with one or both of my daughters watching Saved By Bell in my lap. GitHub is great, it’s collaborative and social, which is something I tend to thrive on.

Weekend Update was one of my first github projects, it’s a riff on Project Linework, a not-so-standard basemap themed after Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update segment.

Amazing-er Maps is a cartographer’s plea to make online maps better — not that I know better, but with all the open/free map technology out there, certainly some of these “Amazing” maps on the web could be improved.

Custom Backgrounds In AGOL – Probably one of the more popular ones, is a guide to adding another provider’s maps in ArcGIS Online projects. I’m not the first to write about it, but I think it’s safe to say that people are ready, and want control over every aspect of online maps.

Q: Speaking of your daughters, we just had the 10th anniversary of OSM. Your daughter contributed to OSM with you, how did you do that? If you could give advice to other dads out there, how can you inspire your daughters to get involved with mappy stuff? What did she map?

A: My sweet Sophie 🙂 She really thinks what I do is cool, and after a few years of talking to her school classes about maps, she’s been bugging me to teach her something. What better way than through OpenStreetMap? She’s 10 and starting 5th grade, the iD editor was really easy for her to pick up. We talked about what she wanted to do, she decided on schools and parks, because “I think kids like me would like to know where playgrounds and schools are.” She loves the fact that everyone can see the work she has done. She wants to teach her friends at school once she goes back next week.

Q: So recently you started up a Hampton Roads, Virginia #maptime, how’s that going?

A: Like most I’d seen some ramblings of #maptime over the last several months on Twitter, and after hearing Lyzi Diamond talk about it (twice) at the Esri UC, I was really inspired to get one started. I like helping and sharing about maps, and have been struggling with a way to do that locally with more than the typical GIS crowd. I’d started attending the local Code For America Brigade meet-ups earlier this year and @maptimehrva is a great extension of that hack night concept. Come hang out, and let’s talk maps. Doesn’t matter what you know, you’re gonna learn something tonight.

Q: I find the cartography you do with ArcGIS Desktop breathtaking but honestly, I get excited when I toss in a drop shadow or I do a transparency mask to highlight my area of interest. If you were to put three pieces of low-hanging fruit out there for other Desktop users to implement in their maps, what would they be? (READ: a couple of cool “tricks” in Arc that have good cartographic payoffs?)

A: Regardless of what software you use, practical knowledge of concepts helps greatly, experience helps too! To me it’s fun to learn the ins and outs, push its limitations and figure out ways to do things it easily can’t. Something I tell people who ask for cartographic help: GIS people make GIS maps — which is a bad way of saying GIS people tend to make maps they can read and understand. A friend made a great analogy of that — people would rather read “SF Earthquake: 6.1” than be shown a seismograph.

My three tips would be:

  1. Use a color palette. Colors are better when they are not fighting with each other for paper space supremacy. But also be mindful of too much color. Nothing stands out when everything is on the same color ramp. Finding the right balance pays off in the end.
  2. Never accept the defaults. Things I’ve seen overused for the last 10 years: ArcMap Yellow (hex #fcfbab) in the legend or graphic background, Esri North Arrow 9, Layer_and_field_names_like_this_in_the_legend… Change something, change everything. You’ll gain experience just by exploring the options.
  3. The One “Thing” — before you start a map, determine what is the one “thing” the viewer should take away from the map. Is it the neato font? Keep going. Is it the pattern on the water? Keep going. Keep going until it’s the purpose of the map. All of those design elements should only help tell the story, they shouldn’t be the story.

Q: I love the term geohipster, I take it as a playful comment. How do you feel about the term, do you self-identify as a geohipster? What does it mean to you?

A: It’s a playful comment I can relate to. I get regular comments about my mustache, and I’m like, I’ve had this thing since sixth grade, and I’ve only been without it once. Then all these people started growing ‘staches out of novelty, or because it was the new cool thing, and I get lumped in with that crowd. Maps have been around. It’s only natural for those of us that have been around with them to say “yeah, but I’ve been mapping since before Google.”

Q: Five awards at ESRI UCs, first place at Virginia’s GIS Conference last year, Runner Up, Best Cartographic Design at last year’s FOSS4G, 2nd Place in this years GISCI-GISP Map Contest — do you have any award winning pieces in the works?

A: I try to do several personal projects a year. It helps me keep my skills sharp, and gives me a chance to just have fun mapping something for myself. All shrouded in secrecy of course, sorry.

Q: Some weeks I see you at #gistribe, here’s your opportunity for a #shamelessplug — do you have anything you would like to share with geohipster readers?

A: #gistribe, #geowebchat and others provide such a great social resource. My #shamelessplug would be to invest your time in social discussions like those. Company feeds are good for updates and examples, but only provide one view of the technology. Engaging with other like-minded geo people via twitter provides a great unfiltered look at what’s working and what’s not. It’s the biggest downer to me when I talk to someone in our field who’s never heard of OpenStreetMap, Github, Leaflet, Tilemill, etc. And it happens often. There’s so many great things happening in Geo that you’ll never know about unless you step outside of your bubble and explore.

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