Alan McConchie: “I love it when a great map fits seamlessly into a larger message”

Alan McConchie
Alan McConchie
Alan McConchie is a Design Technologist at Stamen Design, working at the intersection of cartography, open source software, and data visualization. He is also a PhD candidate in Geography at the University of British Columbia, researching the social dynamics of crowdsourced mapmaking in OpenStreetMap. You can find him on twitter at @mappingmashups, where he hosts a monthly twitter discussion called #geowebchat. Along with Lyzi Diamond, Camille Teicheira, and founder Beth Schechter, he helped start Maptime, an international, open source educational community for learning about maps.

Alan was interviewed for GeoHipster by Jonah Adkins (@jonahadkins).

Q: You are coming up on two years with Stamen, and you’ve been a part of some great projects (Social Media & Open Spaces, Every Line Ever, etc.) there. Which project have you learned the most from so far, and what project are you looking forward to working on?

A: Working at Stamen has been a dream come true, and I feel like I learn so much on every project we do. The social media mapping project you mention has taught me a lot, and I’m excited about that one because it’s still ongoing: evolved into, and, we have more plans to keep building on it. And yet, through all those iterations, we still don’t quite know how to make maps of social media activity that will be meaningful to the public. There’s a lot of interesting geographic data processing happening under the hood, but if visualizing it doesn’t serve the needs of the overall product, then it doesn’t need to be part of the user-facing app (yet).

A lot of what I’ve learned at Stamen fits into that theme: how do you make amazing maps that are well integrated and appropriately supportive of the rest of your site / app / visualization / product / whatever? For example, the climate change maps we made for the Audubon Society are really fantastic on their own (and I learned a lot about hacking Tilemill in the process), but I’m also really proud of how they fit together with some non-geographic visualizations we did, and of course a beautiful site built by Mule Design. I’m a map guy, so I love a map that’s successful all on its own, but I love it even more when a great map fits seamlessly into a larger message.

There’s a couple of new projects that I’m really excited to get started on: One is an ambitious series of interactive maps of American history in collaboration with the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab. Unfortunately I have nothing public to show for that one yet. The other project is a Knight Foundation-funded reboot of Stamen’s basemap infrastructure, especially our aging Terrain style. We’re blogging our progress at if you want to follow along.

Q: You are a huge contributor to OpenStreetMap, and a lot of your doctoral research involves OSM data. What has been your favorite aspect of OSM?

A: I wouldn’t say I’m a huge contributor, and I never have the time to edit as much as I’d like. Although I am proud to have joined the project early enough to get my first name (Alan) as my OSM username!

As an academic, what fascinates me about OSM is that it’s like studying Geography as a discipline: it can be about so many different things. If you’re into politics, you can study Political Geography, if you’re interested in culture, there’s Cultural Geography, if you’re concerned about the environment, there’s Environmental Geography… you get the idea. OpenStreetMap is also like that. It’s kind of a microcosm. It’s about how we deal with the world, and how we deal with each other. So you can use OSM as an example to study so many different things: how people cooperate (or fail to cooperate), how information and knowledge are produced in the age of the internet, the emotional attachment people feel to place, even the differences in the way we all perceive the world. These are all issues that are very close to the heart of OpenStreetMap.

I’m the first to admit that OSM has serious problems (the digital divide between rich and poor areas, a deep lack of diversity, a persistent unfriendliness to newcomers), but I doubt I’ll ever give up on it. I’m optimistic that we all can keep making OSM better, and at minimum I expect it will only keep getting more and more interesting as it grows! Projects like the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team prove the difference that OSM can make in the world. It’s an important project that’s worth fighting for, to help it get better.

Q: Community engagement and education is obviously very important to you — either through your university instruction, presentations, or things like Maptime, OpenStreetMap, #geowebchat. First, where do you find the time? And second, what is the best lesson you could teach someone pursuing a geo career? What about someone involved or getting involved with the geo community?

A: Well, I’m lucky that Stamen strongly supports education and community engagement, so that helps me find some of the time to do all this. For me on a personal level, though, I know I’m extremely privileged and lucky to have learned the things I’ve learned, and to have the opportunity to work on so many interesting projects, both at Stamen and in graduate school. I feel an obligation to share that knowledge with other people, and to help create opportunities for them. This is especially true because I’ve learned so much from open source and open data, which depends a lot on the generosity of others. Teaching and sharing goes with the territory of open source, in my mind. We all find our own ways to contribute, and for me, teaching is my way of giving back to the community.

My advice for someone pursuing a geo career or getting into the community: Start a blog and document everything you learn, build a portfolio of projects, and share your progress. You’ll help other people who are also learning, you’ll build a support network, and you’ll raise your profile when applying for jobs. Be active on social media, but be smart about it. I’m on twitter a lot, but I try to think of it as research. If you’re not learning new things that are useful to your pursuits, then you’re following the wrong people and you’re just wasting your time. Also, use social media to cultivate contacts in real life. You never know where your next job offer might come from.

Q: How excited are you for the upcoming State of the Map US? Any talks planned? And there’s a Maptime summit too? WAT!?!?

A: I’m so excited for SOTM-US! I can’t wait to chat about OpenStreetMap all weekend in the freakin’ United Nations! I submitted a presentation about my dissertation research, wherein I hope to carefully wade into the debate about whether imports are good or bad for OSM.

And the Maptime Summit is going to be so great! We have a full day of events planned for the day after State of the Map, so please stick around in NYC for one more day and join us for that!

Maptime has really started to mature in the last year, and the Summit will be Maptime’s emergence from it’s awkward adolescent phase. There are so many passionate Maptime organizers around the world who are getting the hang of running their local chapters, and have tons of energy to help Maptime grow. I look forward to hearing all great lessons the organizers have to share with other organizers. Meanwhile at HQ, we’re figuring out some systems to help Maptime scale from our current 50 (or so) chapters to the next 500, so expect some announcements regarding that at the Summit. Now’s the time to keep learning from each other, to celebrate all the awesomeness that’s happened so far, and to figure out how to make Maptime even more awesome in the future.

Q: The Pop vs Soda project was a very popular survey (350K responses) showcasing the relation of geography and linguistics. What was the most important takeaway for you as a researcher?

A: When it comes to the Pop vs Soda Page, I’m only an amateur linguistic geographer! I had no idea what I was doing with that project, and it’s definitely not scientific. That was actually my first programming project (at least, the Perl scripts that run the site on the back end), and I had no idea it would become so popular. If I learned anything from that project, it’s that people get extremely riled up over the most trivial things. Who knew that passions would run so high when it comes to stupid carbonated beverages?

Q: Cartographer to cartographer: Your desert island favorite maps?

A: I was afraid this question was coming! Instead of sticking to stand-alone maps, I’m going to cheat a little bit by including a lot of atlases, too (both online and physical ones). Here are some of the touchstones that I keep coming back to for inspiration (but I’m sure I’m forgetting many more amazing ones):

Eric Fischer’s tourists and locals maps are one of my all-time favorites. Sure, the sheer volume of data shown on the map is impressive, but it’s that one insightful tweak (classifying users as tourists or locals based on how often they were active in one city versus other cities) that makes the maps endlessly fascinating. The maps show you so much about social activities, about the structure and landuse of cities, about the grit and noise present in the technological infrastructure of GPS and cell phone towers and so on, it’s just amazing. I could look at them for days.

I’m a big fan of Bill Rankin’s Radical Cartography site, which is a treasure trove of beautiful minimalist maps about all kinds of topics. I can’t pick just one! Along the same lines, I also love Dorothy Gambrell’s maps for Very Small Array. With both Rankin and Gambrell I love how prolific they are, how it seems like any topic of dinner conversation might spur them to go home and find a way to create an interesting map about that topic. They also do a great job of hiding the amount of research that goes into each of their maps. They make it look effortless.

Speaking of “radical cartography”, I’ve always been interested in the potential of maps for activism. Lize Mogel and Alexis Bhagat’s “An Atlas of Radical Cartography” (unrelated to Rankin’s work) is a great collection of creative, political maps on various topics, made by mapmakers who blur the lines between cartographer, artist, and activist.

Within academic Geography — although he eventually got kicked out of academia — “Wild” Bill Bunge is the patron saint of activist mapping. I’d have to pick his 1971 book/atlas “Fitzgerald” about race, economics, and geography in Detroit; the maps are certainly dated, but the topic is as relevant as ever, and the scope and ambition of the project is staggering. The Million Dollar Blocks project by Laura Kurgan and the Columbia University Spatial Information Design Lab is one of the modern day successors to the Fitzgerald atlas. (Interestingly, Adam Greenfield’s newsletter this week made a similar connection. Maybe Bunge’s making a comeback in the zeitgeist?)

And just to show that activist maps don’t have to be so dark and sober when dealing with a serious topic, Julian Busac’s map of Palestine as an archipelago borrows the aesthetics of traditional maps to vividly communicate how space is experienced on the ground by millions of Palestinians. It’s lovely and serious at the same time.

Q: What does the term geohipster mean to you, and as a doctoral candidate what would you prescribe an ailing geohipster?

A: I don’t really know what geohipster means! It’s probably like “hipster” IRL: everybody thinks they know what it means, but nobody can define it. Based on the previous geohipsters interviewed in the blog, it’s hard to find anything they have in common, other than awesomeness.

That said, am a sucker for new words, even ones I don’t fully understand! I’m happy to add “geohipster” to the list of neologisms I started collecting back in my early days of grad school. It includes neogeography, of course, but also neocartography, VGI, f-VGI, CCGI, AGI, web 2.0, GIS 2.0, Maps 2.0, GeoWeb 2.0, web mapping 2.0, new spatial media, WebGIS, GIS/2, alt.GIS, wiki-mapping, the wikification of GIS, map hacks, map mashups, geohacks, mapumentaries, autobiogeographies, geobrowsers, digital earths, virtual globes, cyberplace, digiplace, the cyberspatial web, cybercartography, telecartography, paracartography, social cartography, naive geography, egocarto, geomedia, geospatial media, ubiquitous cartography, ubiquitous mapping, ubiquitous computing, pervasive computing, ambient computing, hertzian space, hybrid space, mixed reality, augmented reality, augmented space, and that’s not even my complete list. I’ll leave the definitions to your imagination and as a test of your google skills.

So, what would I prescribe an ailing geohipster? Maybe revive one of those terms I just listed? Some of those trends are more than ten years old, and are totally ready for a comeback! Doesn’t “cyberspatial” have a catchy, nostalgic feel to it? Or maybe you should resurrect some retro technology like the original Google Maps API from 2005? That sounds like an appropriately artisanal programming project that some geohipster could do over a weekend.

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