Andy Woodruff: “Seriously, buy an actual textbook!”

Andy Woodruff
Andy Woodruff
Andy Woodruff works to design and build custom interactive maps with Axis Maps, a small company that grew out of the cartography program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2006. He is currently one of the Directors at Large of the North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS). Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he’s also a co-organizer of Maptime Boston, and a semi-active mapper of all things Boston for Bostonography.

Q: How did you get involved in geography and maps?

A: I’m a lifetime geographer, that kid who stared at maps in the back seat during family car trips. A map is a wonderful canvas for imagining what the world looks like, and there was always a little thrill in finding myself on the map and seeing imagined places become real. That kind of fascination followed up through my undergraduate and graduate studies in geography and cartography, and on into the start of my career.

Q: How did you learn how to code?

A: The first code I ever wrote was probably BASIC programs on the TI-86 calculator in high school. I have no formal coding background but started learning in earnest in grad school at the University of Wisconsin, in a course on animated and interactive maps. We used Flash, and I became captivated by what ActionScript could do for mapping, so I got really into it and went from there. Flash may be dead to many of us now, but learning it was not at all a waste of time. Those skills transferred well.

Q: How did you meet your company partners?

A: My two partners, Dave Heyman and Ben Sheesley, were the first two people I met when I visited Madison in 2005 to tour the UW Department of Geography, where they were already in the grad program. They started Axis Maps along with a third partner while working on their degrees (the company turns 10 in May!), and then I joined them after finishing my master’s. The roster has varied a bit over the years, and we now also have Josh Ryan working with us, but the three of us have been there for quite a while.

Q: You all work remotely, what tools do you use to keep in touch and organize projects?

A: The usual suspects, probably: Slack for real-time communication, GitHub for code collaboration and issue tracking, Dropbox for other file sharing, Basecamp for project management, Skype for some calls.

Q: What is your company’s typical stack?

A: I never like the word “stack” because it evokes a more rigid workflow or set of tools than I think we have as a company that specializes in custom maps. That said, there are common elements. At the end is most often D3 or Leaflet, and flat geodata files like GeoJSON or CSV. But the road to get there can vary quite a bit. Some things that often enter the mix are QGIS, mapshaper, TileMill (yep, old school TileMill), PostGIS, GDAL, and probably more that I’m forgetting.

Q: You worked with Cindy Brewer on http://colorbrewer2.org/. How many iterations did you go through? What were your goals for the project?

A: ColorBrewer was sort of inherited by Axis Maps for maintenance. Mark Harrower had worked with Cindy to build the original version based on her color research. Around 2009, when Mark was with Axis Maps, he proposed refreshing it, mostly in terms of UI, and we worked with Cindy on that. That was still in Flash though, and a few years ago I started the conversion to HTML and JavaScript to keep up with the times. So it’s really on version 3. The goal is simply to maintain Cindy’s (and Mark’s) original purpose; what we’ve brought to it is relatively minor UI and usability updates, and a few features better suited to the modern cartographer or web developer.

Q: What are some of you favorite examples of work you have conducted?

A: It’s most fun to get to work on something that real, ordinary people will use and enjoy. One favorite from my day job is the Napa Valley map and trip planner we made a year or two ago, which is used by tourists in the area. A favorite side project is the neighborhood mapping project for Bostonography because discussions with people about that have taught me a lot about what neighborhoods mean to people, and about some real-life neighborhood issues in Boston. One other longstanding favorite is typographic city maps, which started as a fun idea and went on to be good for business!

Q: What interesting facts have you learned about the Boston area while working on maps?

A: Too many! It’s a geographically fascinating city. Can’t say that all of these were news to me, but a few interesting things, facts or otherwise:

  • The actual landform of Boston has changed drastically over time. Quite a lot of the city was water 400 years ago.
  • The street layout can be learned but is still really hard to explain. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve failed to give people directions despite knowing the route perfectly. (“Go straight, but it’s not really straight, then turn at the place where seven roads converge, then…”)
  • Everything is closer than it seems; many of us would probably overestimate distance on a map. It’s a compact place and the concepts of “near” and “far” here are a lot smaller than what I grew up with in the Midwest.
  • Nobody can agree on neighborhood boundaries. That’s the subject of an ongoing project.

Q: Which startup/tool/platform do you see paving the future in the geospatial industry?

A: In the world I know best, which is public-facing web maps, I’m excited by what CartoDB does and what they might inspire. They’re doing a great job in the “fast mapping” world that appeals to journalists and others, while also being a gateway to learning more advanced technology, i.e. PostGIS. I think that approach will be good for the future of maps in general.

Q: You are quite involved in the mapping community through Maptime and NACIS.  Where do you think the mapping community is heading? What skills do you see as being important to becoming geographical/map-fluent?

A: When I joined NACIS ten years ago, a transition was starting in cartography from a concentrated few experts to a vast “democratized” array of mappers. Just judging by NACIS membership and conference content over the last decade, there’s a good trend in the mapping community. Where once there was a backlash against so-called amateurs, now they’re mostly embraced and everyone wants to exchange knowledge. The steady attendance of our Maptime chapter in Boston has been good evidence of that! So I think we’re headed in a direction where we all help ourselves get better. Setting aside technical skills, I think important ground to be gained is in cartographic skills and concepts, which have not always spread very far from academic settings. Ideally, academic expertise would be as approachable as Maptime is for technical expertise. We can’t just tell everyone to go back to school, although I’m currently developing a mapping workshop that includes this bit of advice: “seriously, buy an actual textbook!”

Q: Lastly, who inspires you?

A: Inspiration comes from all over the place, but to name a few people on the mind lately:

John Nelson and his consistently breathtaking aesthetics; Eric Fischer for his mapping and finding meaning in “big data”; Mamata Akella and the creative map symbology experiments she’s been doing; Tim Wallace (my partner in crime for Boston maps) for his collaboration and the amazing ideas he shares, and of course his clear and subtly beautiful map design!

Q: And for old times’ sake… which would you choose?

  • Cambridge versus Boston  – They’d chuck me in the Charles if I didn’t say Cambridge.
  • D3 versus R – D3! But I’ve never even used R.
  • WebGL versus vector tiles – they kind of go hand in hand, don’t they?
  • Leaflet versus OpenLayers – Leaflet. Haven’t actually tried OpenLayers since an older version years ago.
  • CartoDB versus Mapbox 😉 – Oh boy, don’t want to make any enemies!
  • Front end versus back end – Front end is a lot more fun.

One thought on “Andy Woodruff: “Seriously, buy an actual textbook!”

  1. Great interview! As a print cartographer who has never really moved into interactive web mapping, I really love the quote and title of this interview (“Seriously, buy an actual textbook!”). And thanks to Andy for consistently sharing his brilliant work and ideas with the world.

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