Monthly Archives: January 2018

Tim Wallace to GeoHipster: “Try to get the whole picture before you criticize”

Tim Wallace
Tim Wallace
Tim Wallace is a Graphics Editor and geographer for The New York Times, where he makes visual stories with information gathered from from land, sky and space. He has a Ph.D. in Geography from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Q: How did you get into mapping?

A: I’ve always been into maps and geography. I grew up outside of Boston in a family that took one kind of vacation—road trips to go camping. We drove everywhere we could in the Northeast: Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, of course, but also New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and even Newfoundland (my favorite). For me, as an elementary school kid and middle schooler, it was pretty spectacular seeing all those beautiful landscapes in person, as well as discovering how they all were connected thanks to the maps we collected along the way.

While my first job (at the age of 8) was in journalism (I was a paperboy for the Boston Globe, of course!), the realization that I could have a career in journalism came much later, after a few years as an aspiring maritime archaeologist. I’d gotten both my undergraduate and masters degrees in archaeology, but after realizing the thrill of diving on a wreck was an opportunity I’d only experience rarely, I found myself drawn to the kinds of storytelling and visual explanation that are crucial to the preservation of cultural heritage. I was already doing a lot of cartography as an archaeologist, but without a great deal of formal training, I felt like I was winging it more than I wanted to be. So I decided to go for a PhD in geography.

Q: The title of your thesis is “Cartographic Journalism: Situating Modern News Mapping in a History of Map-User Interaction”. It was published in 2016, but you’ve been at the New York Times since 2012… so you completed a PhD while working at the NYT? That sounds impossible – how did you manage to pull it off?

A: Oh, boy. Short answer: writing retreats and sticking to a strict schedule. Long answer: It wasn’t easy, and I didn’t do it alone. Once I’d started at The Times, many people asked me why I would bother finishing. And as time passed, doubt crept in that I was even capable of it. In fact, I don’t think I would have finished if I hadn’t had the support of my wife, Kelly, and family, who understood on a deeply personal level what finishing might mean to me. I don’t talk about it much (because really there’s no point), but I struggled with dyslexia and short term memory issues as a kid—so much that one teacher told my folks that I would never be able to go to college. So, if I’m being honest, a good percentage of my drive to finish was thanks to family support—and also the desire to stick it to those long-since-gone teachers and prove to myself that I’m every bit as capable as the next geographic nerdlinger. Take that, Mrs. Baldwin! Hahaaa!

Q: You started off as an intern for the New York Times, but now you work as a graphics editor. What’s that like? Can you walk us through a typical day?

A: One of the greatest things about my job is that when I wake up in the morning, I often have no clue what I’ll be working on that day. Breaking news, fresh assignments or successful pitches often turn any expectations of how a day (or even a week) might go, upside down. Having said that, there are a handful of things that I often do (even if I don’t know when I’ll be doing them). I make maps, solo or along with a handful of other geographers in the department, and those same geographers and I assist other colleagues with mapmaking. I work with satellite imagery quite a lot, and increasingly, various types of drone imagery. Sometimes that drone imagery comes from flights that I or my colleagues have piloted. Occasionally I find myself working alone, but our department, and the newsroom as a whole, is extremely collaborative. So it’s pretty rare that the work I do isn’t done in support of a team effort.

Q: You work with a wide range of data types, from satellite imagery to spatially referenced data, and not so spatially referenced data. Can you tell us about the tools that you use?

A: Our department has a handful of internally-built tools (some of which have been opened to the public, like ai2html!), but everyone works with their own little hodgepodge of tools that suit their pace and type of work. For short deadlines (sometimes only minutes), we keep it simple (often only using illustrator and/or photoshop); for enterprise stuff we often have time to get a little experimental and try new tools and techniques. Geospatial tools I use include GDAL (my bash profile is a mess with functions for common tasks, like cleaning up gross shapefiles or pansharpening Landsat imagery), Mapshaper (made by my colleague, Matthew Bloch!), Arc/Q GIS (am I allowed to list them interchangeably like that?), GeographicImager, MAPublisher—but I’ll dabble in ENVI or Pix4D if I have time! Because of our often-frantic work pace, our spatial database management is borderline atrocious though. So, please don’t ask me about that. 🙁

Q: How often do you get to experiment, try out a new tool or a different approach to a problem?

A: Every story is at least little different from any other, so some level of experimentation is a part of the job. Dedicated whacky experimentation time usually only happens when we know a story is coming that we want to cover very differently. But I work with a group of creative people who are always pushing to do better work with new and surprising techniques, so some days feel almost like I’m in a little R&D graphics lab.

Q: This past October, you worked on the New York Times’ story How California’s Most Destructive Wildfire Spread, Hour by Hour. For just two hundred words and one map, it communicates a wealth of information. How did you achieve the brief yet comprehensive final product?

A: The Tubbs fire was unique for several reasons, but chief among them was the unusual rate at which it moved down a hill and into a populated area. We felt pretty strongly that this needed to be explained visually to give our readers the best sense of what happened. Projects like this are big team efforts. Derek Watkins was reporting from California for the first part of the production of the graphic. Others of us back in New York were helping delineate the fire’s perimeter using the latest data from the state, images from the European Space Agency, Landsat and DigitalGlobe. We were also using the DigitalGlobe imagery to determine which buildings were destroyed. If we weren’t sure about a building and Derek had access, he would go take a look and we would update our map with what he found. The locations of deaths were mapped with old-fashioned reporting. The timeline was put together using VIIRS, MODIS and GOES-16 data and we tried our best not to imply any more precision than we had. You may notice the lines aren’t sharp, for example. Their gradient is meant to visually display the fuzziness of the precision of our timeline based on our amalgam of sources.

Q: Is it normal for news publications to employ top notch geographers, or is that something unique to the New York Times?

A: What it means to be a Geographer in a newsroom and what we do has changed over time, but we’ve always been around. Maps have appeared in newsprint for centuries and many reporters do geography all the time! The type of work we’re doing now though feels special, like we’ve hit an inflection point where institutions are leaning on Geographers not just for maps or square mile calculations, but also for their perspective on news events as they happen across cultures and landscapes.

Q: Many people I’ve talked to who make maps professionally often make maps in their spare time for fun. Do you have any fun mapping projects in the works?

A: I’ve made a habit of putting myself to sleep at night with satellite imagery instead of a long read. I sometimes tinker with ideas too, but I’ve found that it’s pretty important to step back a little from my work during certain hours so that I don’t burn out!  

Q: You also run a website called  Bostonography with Andy Woodruff. For those who might not know, what is Bostonography? How did it come about?

A: Andy approached me about it at NACIS in St. Petersburg in 2010. He’d just moved to Boston and I’d just left. So, with his fresh eyes and my perspective as a recent Bostonian, it made good sense to team up. And it has been a lot of fun pretending to be the modern day Kevin Lynches of Boston. I just wish we had more time for it!

Side note: Amy’s favorite on the site is Whoops: Dunkin’s are Closer, which is a correction of an earlier Bostonography map showing distances to the nearest Dunkin’ Donuts across Boston. The farthest place in Boston from a Dunkin’ Donuts appears to be a cemetery, which you point out is ironic, because there’s another great Bostography map showing distance to cemeteries.

Q: What do you do for fun? Any hobbies? Your website has a lovely photo of your writing coach, who looks like a lot of fun…

A: I really don’t think I could enjoy spending time with Kelly, my son and my dog, Lucy, any more than I do. We cherish the weekends when we can stretch out our walks in the park, build worlds out of train tracks, hit up the zoo or go for a swim. I love taking photos and experimenting with photography too. I bake and cook a lot. Oh, and I might make a map here or there for fun (like this housewarming gift for my parents).

Q: Are you a geohipster? Why or why not?

A: Why, sure! I’m a geographer living in Brooklyn, I make my own pickles and babka, and I collect old maps. I should at least be geohipster-adjacent with these qualifications, right?

Q: Any words of wisdom you’d like to leave with the geohipster community?

A: Be friendly, share your knowledge and try to get the whole picture before you criticize. We all work differently and have a lot to learn from one another.

Ian Dees to GeoHipster: “It’s important to produce something that affects others in a positive way.”

Ian Dees
Ian Dees
Ian Dees is making it easier for people to find and use all sorts of geodata. He is a member of the OpenStreetMap US board, founder of OpenAddresses and All The Places, and is always looking for new data to explore and share.

 

Ian was interviewed for GeoHipster by Mike Dolbow, about a month before the announcement that Mapzen is shutting down operations. We at GeoHipster wish everyone from the Mapzen team the best of luck in finding their next adventures. –Ed

Q: You’re part of a team at Mapzen. Tell us how you got started with them.

I joined Mapzen because I was excited to focus on maps and map data as part of my day job. I was also excited to work with the team at Mapzen, who have built some great services based on the data that I’ve enjoyed building for the last decade of my life. I ended up on the Tiles team working on the map data that makes up the Tilezen service but I also spent time working on other data systems like Terrain Tiles, All the Places, and OpenAddresses.

Q: What are some cool projects you’ve been working on lately?

I’ve been working with Seth Fitzsimmons on updating Mapzen’s Terrain Tiles dataset for the last few months and we finally got it out the door earlier this month. I enjoyed updating the Terrain Tiles using newer AWS products like Batch that allowed me to spin up tens of thousands of CPUs to regenerate every tile in the world using newer and higher resolution elevation data. It was quite a thrill playing around with that setup!

I’ve also been working on adding data to Mapzen Places through a web scraping project called All the Places. Mapzen Places is a dataset with hundreds of millions of “venues” or points of interest from around the world and a system to link them into a hierarchy of administrative boundaries. All the Places will scrape location data from websites and output GeoJSON that will then be matched with existing Mapzen Places entries to add details like phone number, opening hours, improved location, and more.

Q: You’re the founder of Open Addresses, correct? What’s the story behind how that effort began?

OpenAddresses began when I finished importing the buildings and addresses in Chicago. I was looking around for more data to import into OpenStreetMap while also dealing with the recently-formed Data Working Group’s import guidelines. I decided that taking the time to go through the import process for the hundreds of datasets I was finding wasn’t a good use of my time so I collected the sources into a spreadsheet so others could import them if they wanted.

At some point Nick Ingalls from Mapbox came along and helped me move this spreadsheet into GitHub along with a system to download and merge the data together. After lots of help by hundreds of contributors (like yourself – thanks!) we have over 500 million address points collected and the data is used by Mapzen and Mapbox’s geocoders to provide extremely accurate and up to date search results.

Q: I have to admit, Open Addresses is one of the Github repos I contribute the most to. I think of it kind of like a treasure hunt, finding county data sources for addresses, particularly in my home state. Did you ever think it would grow to over 100 contributors?

Absolutely not! It was a thrill to see the community grow so rapidly. I think the thing that really kicked it into gear was Mike Migurski’s addition of continuous integration builds that generated preview of changed sources in a pull request. It made it clear to the contributor what was getting added and what the data looked like. The instant gratification that those maps provided really made people excited to spend a bit more time looking for more data to add.

Q: I have to admit that is a really cool feature – almost like earning badges in an app or something. But also, I’ve done enough painstaking geocoding that if I’m helping someone, somewhere have an easier time at that, it seems a noble cause. Are there any other contributors expressing that kind of desire? Or, conversely, has there been any backlash from a source that didn’t know its data was being used?

I think there are two types of contributors: one like you who can see where this data ends up being used and is excited for where their contribution ends up downstream. The other is a “casual contributor” that somehow finds the repository and is able to quickly and easily add a data source. This doesn’t happen as much anymore because we cover so many places already, but they get quick confirmation that their contribution is helpful and we can more easily offer fixes if something is wrong.

We have received one or two requests to stop using a data source because we misinterpreted the licensing information, but the vast majority of requests we get are to point to a better source of data or to offer newer or more complete information directly to us. To help with both of these situations we’re working with Portland’s TriMet team to build a tool for data providers to submit data directly to us.

Q: You also were on the team behind CensusReporter. Census data – and interpreting it – has long been the bane of the digital geographer’s existence. I can’t believe it took the geo community that long to have something dedicated to making it easier to use. I refer people to the site all the time. What was the most challenging obstacle to overcome for that team?

It was a blast working with the small team of Ryan Pitts, Sara Schnadt, and Joe Germuska on Census Reporter. Joe had built similar systems before and wanted to make them better, so it was great to build on top of his vision and work with Sara and Ryan to build innovative interfaces on top of the data that I pulled together. The most challenging part of that project was building something that handled the depth of the data that Census Bureau provides while also making it approachable and searchable for reporters who didn’t have the time to completely understand how Census had organized the data. I think one of the most successful parts of Census Reporter is that it’s simple enough to use and update that it only takes a few hours every time Census releases new data twice a year to maintain. Otherwise it runs itself!

Q: You’re also on the Board for OpenStreetMap US. Other than, uh…spraying an occasional fire extinguisher on the mailing list, what are your duties there?

I’ve been the treasurer on the OpenStreetMap US board of directors for several years. That involves making sure bills get paid, taxes get filed, and coordinating sponsorships for State of the Map US. One of the trickiest parts of being active with OpenStreetMap US is figuring out how to spend our money in a responsible way that improves the community of mappers in the United States. We’re constantly looking for ways to do that and if anyone out there has suggestions, please let us know.

Q: Does any of this work compare to being on Obama Election 2012 campaign?

I built some of the strongest relationships I’ve ever had in the 8 months or so I was on the Obama 2012 campaign. Going through that experience made me re-organize my career priorities entirely: before 2012 I was concerned about how I would be able to move up the ladder into a challenging position while not transitioning into management. After 2012 I realized that an extremely important part of having a job is being emotionally happy and producing something that affected others in a positive way. Working with and learning from amazingly talented people also became very important to me, and I think both of these things had a huge effect on what I chose to do in my career afterwards.

Q: You recently moved back to Minnesota after several years away. What brought you back?

My wife and I grew up in the midwest, and went to college in the midwest, so when we spent 3 years in Virginia at her teaching job we felt out of our element. We definitely wanted to get back to the midwest as soon as possible and a job in Minneapolis opened up at the perfect time. She took it and we moved as soon as we could. It feels great to be back in our element now!

Q: You describe yourself as a “Map Nerd” on various social media outlets. Does that equate to being a geohipster?

When I think of a “nerd” I think of someone who enjoys obsessively figuring out a problem or topic. I call myself a map nerd because I enjoy all aspects of maps: everything from understanding where you are while wandering outside to finding the right command line incantation to reproject a shapefile. I’ve always spent way too much time on a computer and focusing on maps, map data, and the systems around it gives me somewhere to focus when I want to learn new things. I suppose focusing on these geo topics makes me a geohipster 🙂 .

 

Kumiko Yamazaki: “Do your part and keep the community going”

Kumiko Yamazaki
Kumiko Yamazaki
Kumiko Yamazaki* is a tech manager at MapQuest, Inc. in Denver, Colorado. She has spent her entire career in the geospatial industry as a cartographer, GIS analyst, and software engineer. You can follow her on Twitter at @kyamazaki.

Q: How did you get into GIS?

A: I was always into maps. When I was a kid, I could point out every state/province/prefecture in the U.S., Canada, and Japan, and name all its capitals. Then came naming every country and all of its capitals, major rivers, mountain ranges, and other geographical features. When I went to college, it just felt natural to take a few geography courses and these few courses ended up turning into an entire degree in the field. My cartography and GIS classes were my favorite and I was ready for a career in the mapping industry!

Q: You work for MapQuest (or is it “mapquest”?). Tell us what you do there.

A: I work on the MapQuest developer brand as a part of Verizon Location Services. I’m currently the tech manager for the Developer Services engineering team and we are primarily responsible for all of the API documentation, the provisioning and management of API keys, and our self-serve platform that allows customers to pay for additional usage of our services. All of this can be found at https://developer.mapquest.com.

In general, we’re a very fast-paced team and we jump from one project to another at incredible speed. Some days I feel we’re THE mapping team, but that could just be me forcing my way into tackling more map-related projects.

Prior to this role, however, I’ve also had several other positions at MapQuest which includes being a cartographer, technical writer, and software engineer. There are a few special individuals here who have helped me along the way and I owe everything to them… at least a few beers, anyway.

Q: Tell us about some of the technologies you use at work. Are they mostly open source, or mostly proprietary?

A: Lately I’ve been using QGIS on a daily basis to analyze TomTom and OSM data and I admit I’m a bit rusty with this. I understand GIS concepts and know what I want, but I simply can’t find the one icon out of the 50 million icons on multiple toolbars that are shown.

Aside from QGIS, most of what we do is programming so lots of JavaScript-ing and PostgreSQL/MySQL.

Q: You are from New Jersey (which is my adopted home state). Why is New Jersey the butt of so many jokes?

A: Well these days, you can probably blame Chris Christie! Also maybe spillover from Filthadelphia? I don’t know, I really love New Jersey (Exit 16E before anyone asks, “what exit??”). You grow up with a certain toughness living there, especially in the densely populated areas, that prepares you for the rest of your life.

Q: You now live in Colorado. What do you miss most about New Jersey?

A: The shore, the cultural diversity, and Bruce Springsteen. I love that NJ has an identity unlike, for example… Delaware! It never leaves you, it defines you, and you make sure everyone knows you are from Jersey.

Q: What do you like most about Colorado? How is the geo scene there? How about the geohipster scene?

A: That’s an easy one – hiking in the Rocky Mountains. The geo scene is quite good, although I haven’t been as good at attending many meetups here. It seems most major companies are opening offices in the Denver area so it’ll be interesting to see what mapping divisions and even potential startups will make it here.

Q: What do you do for fun?

A: It’s difficult to get away from coding and mapping even when I’m not “working” because this is what I enjoy doing. My next side project is to create some artwork using OSM data that I can put up on all my empty walls. No details yet as the idea is still forming in my head!

If I’m not at my computer though, I enjoy hiking, craft beer, oxford commas, and playing modern board games.

Q: Do you consider yourself a (geo)hipster? Why / why not?

A: I love maps and I ride bicycles. Does that qualify me as a geohipster?

Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our global readership?

A: Take care of each other. Be kind, be courteous, be professional. This was the first community I “joined” on Twitter, not fully understanding the purpose of Twitter or what I was supposed to be doing. But you know, you make some friends along the way, maybe even lifelong friends – all because you had a common interest in maps. So do your part and keep the community going, and someday, it may even lead to an interview with the GeoHipster team 🙂

*The above interview represents Kumiko’s views. Not those of MapQuest or Verizon.