Monthly Archives: March 2015

Mano Marks: “The map is just a piece of what’s going on”

Mano Marks
Mano Marks

Mano Marks is a Staff Developer Advocate on the Google Developer Platform team. He works to help developers implement Google’s APIs in their applications. He has a Masters in History, and another in Information Management and Systems. His career has taken him from database management at non-profits, to keynote addresses at Google Developer Days around the world. Mano has been with Google for 8.5 years, and was the founding member of the Maps Developer Relations team, working back then with KML and then the Maps API. Now he works across the Google Developer Platform. You can find him on Google+, Twitter, and Github.

Interviewer’s note: In 2013 CalGIS had the privilege of getting Mano Marks (@ManoMarks) to speak at our conference. Since then, I’ve found out how much more of a geohipster he was than I realized at the time. Thanks, Mano, for spending some time answering questions for the GeoHipster readers!

Mano was interviewed for GeoHipster by Christina Boggs.

Q: You have degrees in history as well as in information management and systems. How did you get into the geospatial universe?

A: Of course I’ve always loved maps. Who doesn’t? When I was a kid, I had a subscription to National Geographic, and I pored over the maps trying to understand them. I was really into games, role playing games and board war games, which were really map-related. Match that with my Masters in History, where I focused on Eastern Europe, where the map was constantly changing, and I was set up to try to crave knowledge of the world from a spatial point of view. I just never considered it from a career point of view.

I got my Masters from the School of Information at UC Berkeley in 2006. At the time, XML was the major data interchange format and I spent a lot of time understanding the XML universe and document construction. So when I started at Google on what became the Developer Relations Team, they had me work on KML. So I backed into it, but as soon I was there, I started learning everything I could.

Q: One of the neat things about the geohipster community is how diverse we are. You’ve been with Google for more than eight years now, what do you do with them?

A: I work on the developer relations team, helping developers learn how to use Google’s developer platform in their applications. This resulted in spending a lot of time on the road for a few years, talking to tens of thousands of developers around the world. One trip in 2011, I literally flew around the world over the course of a month, from San Francisco to China to Australia, Tel Aviv, several stops in Europe, and then home to San Francisco.

Recently, I’ve worked more internally, helping out other members of the team and working on code samples. I helped out on this project, which shows developers how to create sites using JSON-LD, Web Components, and markup. Of course there’s a strong mapping component to it.

Q: In times past you have functioned as a liaison between developers and geofolk. If you could give advice on how these two groups could better interact together, what would you say?

A: Honestly, I’d say to geofolk it’s time to learn how to code. There will always be a place for people who are GIS specialists. And, more and more GIS-only folks are getting left behind by focusing on just using complex applications to create a map that is divorced from everything around it. The map is important — it’s a star in whatever platform you’re using. But it’s just a piece of what’s going on. Location, identity, interaction, and more are where people are spending their time. The vast majority of developers using maps don’t want to know how the maps technology works, they want to know that it’ll be stable, and provide their users with what they need.

Q: Google Maps just turned 10! I was just reading an article from Directions Magazine where Diana S. Sinton said:

“Over the last decade, what Google has done to build up the public understanding and awareness of maps and mapping, particularly through the web, has been priceless for GIS. They made the inaccessible accessible, and produced a common point of reference to be able to communicate about GIS. “It’s a little like Google Earth” may be one of the most effective GIS conversation starters ever. Whatever may happen to that technology in the future, it will have left an indelible cultural impact.”

She’s right, it was a change in our culture. What do you think is going to be the next thing imprinted on our culture? Any upcoming developments that you’d like to leak on GeoHipster first?

A: Ha ha, yeah…unfortunately I can’t leak anything. And I can say that the core technologies that our platforms are built on are evolving at a rapid pace. We carry around these super computers in our pockets. I’m using a Nexus 6 right now, which is akin to having a small laptop in your pocket, both in power and size. People have talked for years about “location-based apps” but that time has come.

And what’s amazing to me is how much people just expect it. It’s a little like the early days of Google Earth, when people would say to me “My Google Earth is broken. I left my car in the driveway but it doesn’t show up when I zoom in on my house.” People now get confused when there’s a new business that hasn’t shown up yet in their app. I think we’re going to see a lot more of, well, I wouldn’t say “real-time” data in maps, but more up-to-date data.

Q: You put Mountain View on the GeoHipster map. I think of Mountain View for Shoreline Amphitheatre but I drive by Google every time I’m going into the parking lot there. Silicon Valley has been the driver for tech and geo trends and now I might even extend the sphere to the entire Bay Area (San Francisco Bay Area). Do you think your region is going to continue to drive tech and geo trends into the future?

A: I absolutely think that it’ll be a big driver of world tech. Fortunately for Google there are smart people who like to work everywhere. I just spent a year in the Zurich office and loved it. I think you’ll increasingly see developers in countries like Mexico, Brazil, Kenya, and other countries contributing to driving tech.

Q: Speaking of trends and developments … HTML5, JavaScript, turf.js, dat, do you think these are the next game-changers, or are these passing fads? As folks make technology choices, how much do you think the sexy/cool/hip factor drives those choices?

A: Hmmm…I definitely think that there is a coolness/hipness factor to many new technologies. I don’t think that means they are not important or really good at what they do, but remember when XML was the big thing? Sure, it’s still used a lot, but it’s not growing dramatically. Or PHP? There’s a language whose time in the sun is gone. What I wonder about instead is what is the next HTML? That was the most important game changer, it made creating a presentation easy, super easy. KML did that for geospatial data, to an extent. I’ve seen a lot of people who were not developers create KML files and really get into it. But what’s the next thing that someone who doesn’t really understand programming can get into? What can they use to create something that communicates with millions? That’s the real game changer.

Q: I’ve seen you post cool pictures and photo spheres from your travels. Many of the most hip of the geohipsters have passion projects that they’re able to either incorporate into their work or they work on outside of work. What are you working on right now?

A: You know, the last thing I worked on was the semantic markup plus web components project. I wrote a small reference Node.js app to take arbitrary data from a MySQL database and return it as a JSON-LD feed in markup. Yes, Node.js is very hipsterish right now :-). I think the question of transforming data to semantic markup in non-XML format is not well settled. There aren’t great libraries for it — in part because JS developers have so many frameworks already, I think they’re afraid of something complex and potentially slow. Especially if it smacks of XML.

That question interests me, but that specific project is wrapping up, at least on my end. So I’m not sure. I am really interested in photography, games, and old maps. One thing I wish someone would do is develop a really good way to OCR old maps to capture location data that we don’t have any more. I’m not sure that’s me, but if anyone has any ideas that would be great.

Q: Last question, while you’ve got the ear of the geohipster community — do you have anything you’d like to share?

A: Pity the poor developer. Remember that creating a new data format doesn’t solve all your problems. Chances are it just creates more.

Most geohipster types I know code, but if you don’t code, start. And spread the word.

Will Skora: “I scraped an electronic list of pantries and set up a website”

Will Skora
Will Skora

Will Skora (Twitter, blog) likes to make and read maps and do geospatial analysis to help others understand the world. During the day, he manages food pantries for a Cleveland non-profit; he’s a member of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team; co-organizes Cleveland’s Maptime chapter Open Geo Cleveland, and Cleveland’s Code For America Brigade, Open Cleveland.

Will was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.

Q: On a scale of Clojure to Leaflet how hipster are you?

A:  I’ve used Esri products for about 10 minutes of my life.

Q: How (and why) did you get into GIS?

A: I was a recent college grad, still uncertain with my career direction, and looking for a map of Cleveland’s neighborhoods to hang on my bedroom wall. I couldn’t find one, so I decided to make my own. Growing up in Cleveland (the actual city, not a suburb), I’ve always been fascinated with cities. I never had taken any geography or GIS classes, so I wasn’t sure where to start. In my free time, I found OpenStreetMap, began editing my neighborhood, and used Osmarender to make my first map. Soon after, I found Tilemill, became addicted to editing OpenStreetMap and making web maps in Tilemill. I’ve participated remotely and in the field with the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team. I’ve fallen in love with maps, geography, and facilitating the use and creation of open data to help people understand things in ways they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to.

Q: You work as food pantry manager in Cleveland, Ohio. Tell us about your job, and how GIS helps you and the food pantry clients.

A: I directly oversee a pantry and am a liaison at 3 others. I spend my time picking up and coordinating food purchases and donations, managing volunteers, answering policy questions and technical support from volunteers; anything that needs to be done so that the 400+ households who need food receive it with dignity. Unfortunately, geo (GIS) is only 5% of my job, although I would love to spend more time on it. I geocode to find out locations of our clients, I do some routing, and I work on the Marillac Hot Meal/Pantry Finder.

Q: I found out about your Marillac project (presumably named after Saint Louise de Marillac) from your blog. This is very unique. How did it start? Was it your initiative?

A: A couple times a week people call me as a pantry manager and ask where they can get food that day. Or clients will ask where else they could go to receive food when they are at the pantry. There was a paper list of locations sorted by zip code that pantries used to skim through and try to find places that would sound close to the client. This process was slow, not always efficient, paper lists would become outdated, and some clients don’t know their zip codes. There had to be a better way than this.

I scraped an electronic list of pantries and hot meals from the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, geocoded them, and using bootleaf, set up a website. Now you can just put in a person’s address, the map will zoom in to the person’s location, and help the user visually see the closest places for clients.

I worked on it quietly on my own initiative until I had a working prototype to show its value. The reaction from my volunteers was mostly positive. They have a wide range of technical literacy and comfortability, so there’s a few who continue to use the paper list. The Food Bank, they’re excited about it. It’s an upgrade from the paper list for them, and they’ll eventually integrate it into their website for other pantries to use. My boss was also impressed.

Q: Open source: Why?

A: I was likely sick of Windows and its lack of customization, and started using Mandrake in high school.

Coming from an outside background, the innovation that I saw happening in the geospatial/GIS communities was from companies and individuals that embraced open-source software (Mapbox and Leaflet; CartoDB) and crowd-sourced/liberally licensed geo data (OpenStreetMap). They enabled me to do things like the neighborhood map that I’m not sure I could have done with closed-source software and proprietary geo data.

Open-source gives people the ability (at least to those who can program) to customize software for their needs. I wouldn’t be where I am right now if I could not have accessed free (as in money) open-source tools when I first started. I would have likely given up (making that map) after a few weeks of trying to run a pirated ArcGIS in Wine. I contribute back by writing tutorials and documentation, some code examples, answering questions on IRC and stackexchange.

Q: Few know that you penned the @geohipster Twitter “bio”, and that you originally registered the account and later let us use it (THANK YOU!!!). You proudly identify yourself as a geohipster. Tell us what the term means to you.

A: A geohipster has a strong sense of curiosity. You’re always very open to trying new software, technologies, ideas, opportunities, and techniques to accomplish your work, and not being afraid to go outside of your comfort zone to do so. You love to learn. I’ve seen these qualities in a lot of fellow interviewees.

Q: Not until I got involved with GeoHipster did I realize (to my surprise) that the word “hipster” — a benign label in my mind — rubs many people the wrong way. Why do you think that is? Do you think Einstein was a hipster? Edison? Tesla?

A: People referred to as hipsters — whether rooted in myth, reality, or both — have been described as judgmental to those who have less dedication, curiosity, or the circumstances (access to resources, time, money) to learn as much about certain interests (particularly music and film) as they do. They also have the reputation of being snobbish to those who don’t already have that knowledge, and those who don’t become aware of something until it becomes widely adopted or increases in popularity.

I’m relieved and happy that the geo community doesn’t fit that stereotype: Maptime intentionally aims to be a very welcoming environment for learning about maps. In the past couple years open-source carto/gis/geospatial tools have become more accessible to users through improved documentation.

With my definition — curious, open to trying new things to accomplish their dreams — all three of them were hipsters.

Q: Any parting words for the GeoHipster readers?

A: I want to thank everyone in the community along the way who has helped me and others learn — through sharing their knowledge, writing tutorials and documentation, given encouragement, and being welcoming. I attended my first FOSS4G-NA recently. Although I was atypically timid there, I really enjoyed it.

Frank Jacobs: “I’m in the vinyl section of the shop, listening to some old Mercators”

Frank Jacobs
Frank Jacobs

Frank Jacobs (@FrankJacobs) is a journalist, blogger and author. Originally from Belgium, he currently lives in Denmark with his girlfriend Hanne. He thought his map obsession was a rare affliction until 2006, when he started blogging about Strange Maps. Seventeen million hits and one book later, he’s still looking for next week’s strangest map.

Frank was interviewed for GeoHipster by Ed Freyfogle.

Q: What makes a map strange? Would you say you have an innate sense of geohipsterism that allows you to declare a map strange at a glance?

A: I could tell you. But then I’d have to kill you. Seriously, though: Strange Maps is my attempt to stay in touch with the sense of wonder that cartography instilled in me back when I was ten years old and got my first atlas. Maps are not just about other places, they’re a place unto themselves: a playground where the world and your imagination can meet.

That playground-like quality is what I look for in maps, at least when I’m looking for maps to post on the blog. There has to be a eureka moment. Looking for a new one is exciting, because I never can tell exactly what gives a map that extra dimension. Perhaps it’s the historical anecdote it illustrates. It could be the painstaking detail — or the lack of it.

I never know where the next map will come from. That element of chance makes hunting for strange maps fun, even eight years into the blog. Nevertheless, I do know that the next strange map will fit at least three criteria: it will have a compelling backstory, it will look nice, and it will be too strange for my old school atlas.

Q: Many of your maps delve into the realm of alternative histories. Others cover historic anomalies. Some just have crazy designs. Tell us a bit about the different maps and how you find them.

A: Put a few alternative history buffs in a room — a chatroom, most likely — and soon you’ll be inundated with maps. No other community produces as many potential candidates for Strange Maps as the alt-history crowd. Many are beautifully made. Yet I generally steer clear of them, because the historical hypotheticals they’re built upon are generally too fanciful or too obscure to interest me. There have been a few exceptions, unsurprisingly often involving Nazis, as recently with that map of The Man in the High Castle, the TV series based on Philip K. Dick’s eponymous ‘What If’ classic.

I’m happy for Strange Maps to just be a grab bag of maps from as many different backgrounds as possible. There’s lots of great examples of maps used as art, for example, some of which I’ve featured on the blog: Kim Dingle’s sublimely simple United Shapes of America — a canvas filled with the shape of the U.S. as drawn from memory by a high school class. Or Grayson Perry’s Map of an Englishman, obsessively detailing his obsessions over Englishness. On the other end of the spectrum, there are statistical maps, like Joseph Minard’s stunning chart of the deadly carnage that was Napoleon’s Russia campaign. Or the Inglehart-Welzel map, which plots out countries according to the secularity and self-expressiveness of their society on a map that is cultural rather than geographic. In between are fantasy maps like Tolkien’s, adventure story maps like Treasure Island, maps made for propaganda or satire. As long as I can mix it all up, I’m happy.

Q: You’re from Belgium, a cartographer’s delight of a country with three official languages, a rich history of border changes, and of course the famous Baarle-Hertog exclave. Do you think this caused your interest in strange maps?

A: Growing up where I did was a bit surreal for a map-lover: travel south for 30 kilometres, and you’re in a different culture, but still in the same country. Go east for as far, and you’re in the same language area, but in a different country. It certainly reinforced my fascination with those man-made lines that traversed the maps in my atlas. Baarle might be Belgium’s best-known border anomaly, but there are other, equally fascinating ones. Like the Esperanto micronation of Amikejo, set up in a neutral zone that transformed Belgium’s border tripoint with the Netherlands and Germany into one of the world’s rare international quadripoints. Or the five German exclaves, separated from the Heimat by a railway track that was placed under Belgian sovereignty after the First World War.

Some say Belgium itself is an experiment in surrealism: an accident of history, a collision of cultures, and the frequent object of mockery by our more important neighbours. Belgians have a hard time convincing themselves they live in a ‘proper’ country. No wonder Magritte — he of Ceci n’est pas une pipe — is our ‘national’ painter. So yes, growing up in that anomaly of a country definitely shaped my interest in surreal cartography.

Q: Relatedly, has any specific culture, region, or time period produced more strange maps than others?

A: Yes — although it’s a bit unfair to hold it against them: the cartographers of the Age of Exploration produced a mass of maps of new lands, many of them drawn up on little more than hearsay. Take the history of California’s depiction as an island, which occurred on and off well into the 1700s. Or all those phantom islands dotting the North Atlantic, products of tall tales, wishful thinking or just an attempt by failed explorers to get enough funding to have another go at glory.

Q: What makes for a good border dispute? Do your maps ever lead to flame wars?

A: If you value your free time, steer well clear of Balkan irredentism. Once — fortunately, a long time ago by now — I posted a map of Greater Albania, which included not only Kosovo, but also parts of Montenegro, Macedonia and Serbia proper. It didn’t take very long before commenters from all countries involved were insulting each other, and each other’s mothers in the comments section.

Another example of maps ruffling feathers was that faulty Google Map of the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Both countries came quite close to fighting over the disputed border as a result.

Q: As more and more people use maps all the time via their phone, it seems maps are increasingly moving out of the realm of the cartonerds and into the mainstream. What’s your take on this trend? Are maps a fad or is this the new norm?

A: Humans made maps before they could write. I think that’s why they appeal so directly to us: they’re humanity’s primeval common language, in a way. As technology embeds maps in ever more aspects of our daily life, I suspect we’re going towards a schism in cartography, separating the merely utilitarian from the purely beautiful. It’s pretty clear which side I am on. I’m in the vinyl section of the shop, listening to some old Mercators, scratches and all, while the kids figure out how to upload their jogging route to the interweb.

Q: Does the burden of having to decide what is strange ever weigh on you?

A: No, it’s a joy, and that’s why I’m still doing it. Also, I get so many great ideas and maps sent in by readers of the blog that it would be a shame to stop before I’ve gone through all of them.

In case you’ve sent one in back in 2010 and are still waiting: there’s about 5,000 suggestions waiting for an answer. That does weigh on me. How much does a secretary cost?

Q: What’s your personal favourite map?

A: It’s like with your own children: it varies. And sometimes I hate them all. But honestly, I get asked that question a lot, and I usually have a different answer. So I guess I don’t have a favourite map. I do have a few favourite mapmakers. How much I wouldn’t give for a nice long talk with Heinrich Bünting, who made the Whole World in a Cloverleaf map back in the 16th century. And while I’m at it, I’m also inviting Richard Edes Harrison, whose brilliant map perspectives arrived just in time to give people a sense of the global scale of World War Two. And how about all those British generals who drew half of the world’s borders? To misquote Jaws: I think we need a bigger map room.

Chris Bupp: “My favorite maps are less mappy, but still retain a map essence”

Chris Bupp
Chris Bupp

Chris Bupp is a Senior Geospatial Developer at GISi Indoors. He likes developing with new technologies and cooking with less new technologies. He made more maps working/volunteering in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina than he has since then. He’s created a Leap Motion interactive web map and when bored he tinkers with genetic algorithms.

Chris was interviewed for GeoHipster by Jonah Adkins (@jonahadkins) (Interviewer disclosure: Chris and I work for the same company, but we don’t work together.)

Q: Hey Chris. Tell us about your experiences with geo and what you’re working on now.

A: To start, I first fell in love with programming back in high school. I could make something new from nothing; it was exciting! Many developers have a hard time sharing what excites them; it can be hard for your friends to high five you when you’re talking about database indices. When I first started working with geo-enabled technologies, I was able to immediately share my excitement with others; it was energizing.

I got my start in geo during college. One of my very first projects was a Windows application that allowed you to share photos and journal entries on a map with your friends and family; in hindsight if it was a website instead of a Windows application, it would have been worth something! (Ed.: Indeed! This is what Flickr founder Caterina Fake’s third startup Findery does, which she launched in 2012.)

My most recent project, GeoMetri, is a suite of applications that work to solve problems in the indoor space. We’ve developed a WiFi tracking solution that allows store owners and event throwers to answer questions like: Did this banner or sign cause more people to stop by? Does having more on-floor staff increase (or decrease) visitor dwell times? We’ve also developed mobile indoor navigation apps to help visitors explore and navigate around large buildings or campuses.

Q: Indoor mapping seems to be an increasingly crowded space. Tell us about what you’re currently doing, and what sets your work apart from other companies.

A: It is! I guess that means it’s a good idea. When we first started getting into the indoor space two years ago, we did our research (and continue to research) the constantly growing techniques and tools available. Our goal has always been to provide tools that offer the best solution to a customer’s needs, which means we don’t always use a home-grown tool. There are a ton of smart folks in the indoors industry, we’ve positioned ourselves with several partners to allow us to meet more than just a specific type of solution.

It’s also important to realize that the indoor space [market] is very large, and there is no clear leader in the industry. Every week a few companies may start, and several others have been acquired. You just need to remain agile and ready to implement a solution with several choices of backing technology.

Q: You’ve worked with lots of technologies. I think the first time we met, you were talking about how awesome FORTRAN was compared to Python, or something like that. As a developer, what blossoming technologies do you have your eye on?

A: Wow. You have a good memory. At the time I was working a lot in FORTRAN on a real impressive software suite that created probabilistic danger zones for shooting ranges using Monte Carlo modeling of the projectiles. FORTRAN is above and beyond faster and a better choice for math-heavy applications (if you’re willing to undertake the extra effort of actually writing in FORTRAN).

Right now a lot of exciting things are happening with iBeacons (and several other beacon flavors), drones, and open source. These areas are going to get a lot more chaotic before the dust settles, but that doesn’t mean you have to wait for all the standards to be defined before building new things!

Q: Does that say “tinkers with genetic algorithms” in your bio? WAT?

A: You know how it is when you get bored: some people try to solve prime numbers; some people like to solve problems with genetic algorithms. Genetic algorithms have promised to solve np complex problems (when a “good enough” answer is better than the best answer in 500 years).

For instance, with a friend, we spent a few hours attempting to solve a traveling salesman problem where you had several salespeople instead of just one.

Q: You and I have spent some free time working on some open source projects like ALF. What part of open source, as a developer, is most rewarding to you?

A: I enjoy the social aspect of open source. In business, developers are constantly told to hide what they make. Open source allows me to share my creations with more than just my co-workers.

Another important aspect is realizing that all of the projects I create commercially or privately rely on at least one other open source project. So sharing back with the community makes me feel good, and when someone actually uses my projects, I feel great! If you ever need something from me and see that I’m in a sour mood, fork one of my repos.

Q: Cartographer to developer — your favorite map(s)?

A: My favorite maps are less mappy, but still retain a map essence — where the data is more important than its exact location. Examples of this are Minard’s map and more recently the Prison Map. Both of these maps demonstrate a map-like quality, but the data is what is powerfully shown. We see US maps all the time that struggle to showcase their data (and its meaning) because states are different sizes.

Q: You’ll be diving in head-first at FOSS4G this week, and you’ll no doubt interact with future and current GeoHipster alumni. What’s the term geohipster mean to you? What part of FOSS4G are you most looking forward to, and who are you looking to interact with?

A: To me, the term geohipster refers to an individual willing to explore, build, and perfect things outside of the normal geo universe. Geohipsters are fixers. A lot of times they’re the ones willing to do the work to build a solution (and sure, maybe their duct tape has little mustaches printed on it).

Like most of my adventures, I look forward to learning. I’m very new to FOSS4G and I have a lot to learn. As a hobbyist, I’m looking forward to the latest developments in FOSS4G (and super excited about all the drone sessions). As a representative for my company, I’m looking forward to see what types of businesses attend FOSS4G, and I’m interested in their business models, as well as their business goals.

One subset of FOSS4G participants I’m looking forward to meeting is other maptime-ers. I’ve only been to the first of the Atlanta chapter meetings, so it’ll be weird flying across the country to meet up with them, but fun nonetheless!

I’m also looking forward to meeting and interacting with anyone willing to share their experiences with FOSS4G. So, if you’re at FOSS4G and see someone with brown curly hair and a deer-in-the-headlights look, it’s probably me and I’d love to talk!

Abdishakur Hassan: “The sound of hammer replaced the sound of bullets in Somalia”

Abdishakur Hassan
Abdishakur Hassan

Abdishakur Hassan is GIS Officer at UN-Habitat Somalia Programme in Mogadishu. He returned back to his home country to work and take part in rebuilding the nation. He is a survivor of Black Hawk Down as a child.

Interviewer’s note: I did not have a personal connection with Shakur prior to this interview. I noticed a new Twitter follower from Somalia a few months ago, as well as corresponding hits on my blog from Mogadishu. I decided I wanted to know more and contacted Shakur about doing an interview. I’m glad to have gotten to know him and learn more about his work on behalf of the homeland he so clearly loves.

Abdishakur was interviewed for GeoHipster by Bill Dollins.

Q: Would you mind sharing a little bit of information about your background, including your education, and any past professional experience?

A: I am from Somalia. I studied Geoinformation Science and Earth observation from ITC, Twente University in the Netherlands. My Geo experience spans over the last four years working with UN-Habitat Somalia Programme as GIS officer. On weekends, I am part time lecturer at Mogadishu University. Before joining UN-Habitat, I briefly worked with NGO consortium based in Mogadishu.

Q: What first attracted you to the geospatial field in general and GIS in particular?

A: I came across GIS while attending Makerere university in Uganda. Later on, scholarship from Erasmus Mundus to study Geoinformation was my stepping stone into the GIS world. It has not been smooth transition from undergraduate degree in Business administration to GIS and remote sensing graduate classes, but ever since, I am in love with GIS and what we can do with it.

Q: Please tell us a little bit about your current work.

A: Well, in general our work involves in Urban planning and Development. We strive in building a better urban future for cities in Somalia. Our GIS projects include Mapping Internal Displaced People (IDPs) camps, Site planning for relocation purposes, Public space mapping, and GIS database creation for property taxation.

Q: Somalia has faced many challenges in recent times. GeoHipster has interviewed others who are active in relief and development activities, but you may be the first we’ve interviewed who is doing so in his own homeland. Please describe what it is like to bring your skills home and apply them to such significant issues.

A: Yes, you are right, Somalia faces many challenges, but we often associate the word Somalia with a lot of negativity. Somalia is getting better each and every day. The economy is recovering and the security is getting better. Over the last four years, the sound of hammer replaced the sound of bullets as new constructions and rebuilding the bullet-ridden homes became widespread.

Thousands of Somali Diaspora have returned home to take part in rebuilding the country. Some have come back with investing millions in the country and creating employment opportunities. Others have returned to contribute to the country with their experience and education by serving the country as ministers, civil servants, educators, and other professional services needed in this country.

Unfortunately, GIS skills are very rare among both Somali diaspora and locals, and I am glad to at least  fill that void and spread the Geo skills.

Q: Please describe your typical work day. What tools and datasets do you use most often? What challenges do you face as a GIS practitioner where you are? What are some things that you currently lack that would make your work more effective?

A: A typical day for my job as GIS officer requires on-the-job training to municipal staff,  designing Geodatabases and data collection forms, spatial data collection and entry supervision, and managing the whole project from planning to monitoring. And of course staying up-to-date and learning new techniques in the GIS field. Python, Mapbox, QGIS and leaflet are my priority list in this year.

Currently we run ArcGIS Desktop concurrent licences on our server. As the number of licences available are limited, we also make use of QGIS at times in spatial data manipulation processes.

The adoption of GIS in Somalia is at its nascent stages. The UN and INGOs are in the driver’s seat to promote GIS and Remote sensing. UNFPA recently finished Population estimation exercises with the help of GIS. FAO SWALIM collects land and water information across the country. It is worth mentioning also how HOT OSM helped Somalia fight against the 2011 famine by mapping remote areas.

However, in East Africa Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda are applying GIS. It looks promising, especially with the recent increases in mobile usage. Ushahidi is a great example.

Q: What are your personal interests outside of your professional activities?

A: I am passionate of all soccer. I play soccer at my free time.

Q: What position do you prefer to play? What teams do you follow?

A: I prefer playing as midfielder. I am Liverpool fan and ‘You Will Never Walk Alone’ as Liverpool supporter.

Q: What would a first-time visitor to Mogadishu find most surprising? What would challenge their expectations or pre-conceived notions?

A: As Mogadishu has been dubbed as “The most dangerous place”, you might find it surprising that this part of the world is not that much different than your typical city. For Somalis, peaceful weekends in Liido Beach at the heart of Indian ocean and the afternoon stroll around the old parts of the city with its stunning architecture are part of their peaceful life. It might not be that far to open our borders for tourists, but meanwhile ordinary citizens of this city enjoy their lives fully.

Q: The standard GeoHipster interview question: What does the phrase mean to you and are you a geohipster?

A: It is a matter of defining geohipster. If we are talking about functions (mapping out the world, doing cool GIS Analysis and Visualization, following the new GIS trends) not the style, then I am in.