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.

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