Emily Garding to GeoHipster: “#gistribe is truly for the people, by the people”

Emily Garding is a cartographer and data-wrangler for Friends of the Verde River in northern Arizona. She has a background in using GIS as a tool for conservation and management of natural resources, particularly wildlife and their habitats. She is also the founder of #gistribe, a supportive global community of geogeeks and their minions, who meet regularly on Twitter to talk about all the latest developments in geotechnology, and how they can use them to take over the world.

Q: Tell us about yourself. How did you get into mapping and/or GIS?

A: Right after college I went to work on a field crew researching Grizzly Bears on the Kootenai National Forest in Montana. We had a big clunky GPS roughly the size of a small European car that we had to haul around the woods with us so that we could GPS a point at the sites we surveyed. I wasn’t really that excited about it at first. But once I started plotting those points on a map back in the office, the veil began to lift. I started to see the vaguest implications of how someone with the right skills could explore this kind of data. I realized that these dots on a map could tell us about individual bears: their movements, their home range size, their relationships with other, what habitats they were using and when. After that, I was hooked.

Q: What kind of interesting projects are you working on lately?

A: Lately I’ve been creating mobile data collection apps for field crews we have working in remote areas. The challenge I’ve had is to create an app that can be used offline that has all the data the crews need when they’re in the backcountry, that allows them to collect data super efficiently in all kinds of weather, and before the battery runs out. Of course I also want something that allows me to easily sync and manage copious amounts of data. My mantra is that technology should make our lives easier, so I try to figure out how to make things as easy as possible for everyone. So far I’ve been using Collector for ArcGIS to create custom apps and that seems to work pretty well. I think that Collector is more geared toward online data collection, but it does have offline capabilities. One of the challenges I’m always faced with is how to make GIS work in remote areas where you don’t have modern day amenities such as Wi-Fi or cell reception.

Q: Your Twitter handle is @wildlifegisgirl. How does wildlife intersect with your interests in mapping?

A: The intersection of wildlife and GIS came to life for me when I was leading a field crew researching mountain lions at Grand Canyon National Park, while at the same time taking classes in GIS online. I started applying my new skills in GIS on the job right away. A few years into the project, we started collaring mountain lions. I didn’t have any technical support to help with formatting and managing the thousands of GPS points that were rolling in from those collars, so I learned how to manage the data myself, making maps, and analyzing the data. That’s when I started to get really interested in the spatial ecology aspect of wildlife management. Since then I’ve worked on a number of projects modeling wildlife habitats and identifying important wildlife areas, such as corridors, for conservation planning projects across the western U.S.

Q: I’m pretty sure you invented the hashtag #gistribe. Now it’s a weekly hashtag hangout. (Is that what we call it?) What inspired you to come up with that concept? Are you glad that it’s taken on a life of it’s own?

A: It’s true, I started the weekly #gistribe chat on Twitter in 2014. At the time, I was working remotely from a little cabin in the woods, which was pretty awesome, but I didn’t have any GIS peeps to bounce ideas off of, or go to for ideas if I got stuck. I’d noticed that GIS people who were using Twitter were really responsive. From time to time I would throw a GIS question out into the Twitterverse, and people I didn’t even know would answer it for me, or point me to a great resource. I started to think, “Hey, how great would it be if some of us geogeeks on Twitter were to engage in conversations on a regular basis?” We could really learn a lot from each other and become that supportive network of people with varying degrees of geospatial knowledge and interests that I’d been craving, and maybe others had, too. So I hosted the first #gistribe chat on a Wednesday afternoon about 3 and a half years ago and it’s been going ever since.

I’m really glad that there are so many people engaged in #gistribe, and that it’s ‘taken a life of its own.’ Right from the start, people would approach me with ideas about things they thought I should do as the defacto leader of #gistribe, you know things like “We should have a map contest!,” “We should have a blog!”,  “We should host a google hangout!”, and more creative ideas about ways to bring the tribe together…and I would respond with, “Great idea! Would you want to take the lead on that?”

It has never been my intention to be ‘The Decider’ for #gistribe, I simply wanted to hold the space for it, to create the venue for people to connect, and I fully encourage them to take it wherever they want to from there. In the past year or so I’ve been pretty hands off. I still pop in on the chat from time to time, but I don’t plan the chats or shamelessly promote them the way I did initially. I like to think that my backing off has helped make #gistribe into more of a leaderless movement that is truly for the people, by the people.

Q: At a recent conference, I made the observation that people who are active on Twitter are good presenters. I noticed that you once lamented that two #gistribe members were presenting at the same time. Have you found the same thing?

A: Yes, I’ve found that people who are active in #gistribe are passionate about what they do, and that passion bleeds over into other areas of their lives — and into their presentations. In addition, #gistribe is a really supportive group. If you want to do something, and you mention it to #gistribe, they’ll support you in it however they can. They’ll review your portfolio, drink your koolaid, test your app, go to your talk, whatever they can do. So I was bummed that 2 #gistribe members were presenting at the same time at the same conference because it made it impossible for me to be there to support them both.

Q: I also noticed a lot of Minions in your Twitter feed. Any story there?

A: There is a definite Minion theme to #gistribe. I can’t take any credit for it. Brian Sullivan made a cute graphic with Minions trotting across the globe and called it “Mapions of #gistribe” (I’m pretty sure the ‘Mapion’ on the right is supposed to be Gretchen Peterson and the bad ass on the left is me, but that could just be wishful thinking).

Later when I was asked to give a lightning presentation about #gistribe to Maptime Boulder in 2015, I put Minions throughout the slides to add an air of playfulness and that may have helped cement the #gistribe-Minion link.  #gistribe is not about being serious. You can be serious at work, or in other areas of your life, if you have to. But #gistribe is about having fun, being creative, and doing things you love. I think the minion theme helps to project that vibe.

Q: Open source or proprietary – any preference?

A: You know, Esri is what I use most, though I’m always tinkering with other software, tools, and apps especially if they have some functionality that will help me get the job done more efficiently.

I think it’s unfortunate for our generation that we’re limited to the two-party system. Hopefully future generations will be able to create some kind of interspecies mashup miracle-app that will allow us to do our work as seamlessly as those high-tech data wizards you see on murder mystery dramas who use invisible touch screens in the air to link traffic surveillance tapes, cell-phone GPS locations, and mugshots to maps in real time in order to figure out where the bad guys are hiding. (Sources conflict on whether or not this is what Dale Lutz was doing in last week’s article. –Ed)

Q: Do shapefiles harm wildlife more than GeoJSON?

A:Hold on a sec, my phone is ringing….Okay I’m back. That was the 90s calling and they want their shapefiles back.

Seriously though, any data format can be used for good or otherwise, depending on the user’s intention. I don’t think it means that one format is inherently good, or inherently bad. Wildlife get hit by vehicles on roads every day, whether the planners initially mapped out those proposed alignments using shapefiles or GeoJSON. It is my hope that more and more people will use GIS to find solutions to problems, such as mapping out areas where we can build wildlife underpasses or overpasses, making roads safer for wild animals and drivers alike. I don’t have a preference regarding what data format they use to do that, I just want it to happen.

Q: What do you think, might you be a geohipster?

A: I do tend to gravitate toward counter-culture ideas, and admittedly I thoroughly enjoy both obscure music and cheap domestic beer, but for me, ‘geohipster’ isn’t necessarily a noun, it’s more of a state of mind. I just go with the flow.

Q: Any last words of wisdom for our readership?

A: I think your readership is pretty well-informed and clearly way too free-thinking to seek out wisdom from others, but my free and open source life hack is to follow your heart, your intuition, and your own guidance. And don’t forget to have fun.