Monthly Archives: February 2018

Alasdair Rae: “I think the best maps are simple ones”

Alasdair Rae
Alasdair Rae
I grew up in Inverness in the Scottish Highlands and then went on to study geography in Glasgow at the University of Strathclyde, more of the same, with a good bit of GIS at The Ohio State University (Columbus, OH) and the University of Liverpool, where I did my PhD in urban and regional planning. I then worked at the University of Manchester before moving to the University of Sheffield in 2008, where I have been for the past decade. I've always been interested in maps and places, so I suppose it's only natural that I ended up being a professor of urban studies and planning and doing a maps and stats type blog. 

I live in the Hillsborough area of Sheffield with my wife Bethan and my two boys, Finlay (11) and Isaac (4). I've realised that an important part of being a modern parent is providing instant, on-the-spot IT support and ensuring maximum wifi speeds at all times! This is often much harder than my day job.

Blog: www.statsmapsnpix.com and @undertheraedar on Twitter.

Alasdair was interviewed for GeoHipster by Ralph Straumann.

Q: Alasdair, you are a professor at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning of the University of Sheffield in the UK. What is that you do there?

A: Yes, that’s right – I am indeed. For the next three years I have a research fellowship, which means I’m not officially teaching – though I always keep my hand in by doing guest lectures for people here and elsewhere.

Most of the time I’m doing research, travelling and a good bit of admin and management. The last two in particular are even less exciting than they sound. But I really can’t complain because the upside is that I generally get to follow my interests and do cool stuff.

For example, for the best part of this year one of the projects I’m running is looking at a spatial database of a million or so neighbourhood reports on things like graffitti, road defects and so on, and analysing it in relation to lots of other interesting datasets, like income, deprivation, health and so on. I’m also doing some work on trying to understand the impacts of Airbnb in Edinburgh, doing a project on housing market search behaviours and trying to understand travel to work patterns – and disconnections – in poor neighbourhoods across Great Britain.

I also try to write a lot, across many different platforms. I have a few academic journals articles on the go (more US Megaregions!), three book projects, plus writing for a variety of other outlets like The Conversation. And of course I like to blog and keep in touch with people on Twitter.

Q: Your Twitter bio mentions “stats, maps, cities, housing, transport”. Do you combine these themes into an overarching research topic or do you like to look at each of them separately?

A: Some of the stuff I do in my day-to-day job doesn’t make it in to the public domain – perhaps because it’s not ready yet, or because the data aren’t open, but lots of it does and what I think unites my work is a mission to create a bridge between data and knowledge. Data alone isn’t very useful so I try to help shed light on it in a way that helps bring it to life.

Because I’m interested in places, this means my work often focuses on cities, which are full of housing, which are all connected by transport. If I can take available data, do something to it, and then present it in a way which helps people understand things – or just take an interest in them – then I think that is worthwhile.

Q: How do GIS and maps fit into this mix?

A: GIS and maps are great tools. I also like the technical side of things, playing around with data and trying to make it do cool things, and I like communicating with the written word but sometimes you just can’t beat a good map. I think the best maps are simple ones and I’m learning all the time about how to make maps so I suppose my blog and Twitter feed are a reflection of this.

Q: I think you coined the term #geogiffery? Can you shed some light and also explain the concept around it to us?

A: I like making gifs, and sometimes it’s for a good reason – like when I’m looking at election results data – we’ve had a lot of these in the UK recently. Other times, I’m just experimenting, like in this blog post about the famous ‘coastline paradox’. Since it’s a gif and it’s also geo, I started to call them ‘geogifs’ – perhaps others already did but either way it became a bit of an obsession so I just called it ‘geogiffery’ and now Topi Tjukanov has taken it into new dimensions with his shipping geogifs and so much more! I do think geogifs have a role to play in dataviz and storytelling more widely. It’s a great format.

A geogif of US states’ population numbers by Alasdair

Q: I enjoy following your work, because you have interesting ideas and follow through on them in, I think, often particularly original ways. Where do you draw inspiration from?

A: I’m just interested in the world and how it works, or doesn’t work. But there is so much data out there today, and we are overwhelmed with information, so it’s hard to make sense of it all. I don’t think data and maps have all the answers of course, but they’re often a good starting point. So some of what I do is my attempt to understand the world better, and some of it is just me experimenting with ways to do this. For inspiration, it’s a mix of old stuff and newer stuff. For example, the graphics and dataviz teams at the New York Times, Washington Post and the Financial Times all produce great work and are a fantastic example of what can be done with new data and methods. But equally people like Waldo Tobler and Jean Gottmann are a good reminder that not much today is really new – it’s mostly just easier to produce.

One great source of older material that I like to look at is the National Library of Scotland map collection. It’s amazing stuff, and not just about Scotland, though a lot of it is. It shows you what is possible when you don’t think like a modern-day GIS or programming language and aren’t bound by its rules and parameters. One of my favourite collections here is the Bathymetrical Survey of the Fresh-Water Lochs of Scotland, 1897-1909, which in addition to being beautiful is also very informative. You can impress your friends, for example with the knowledge that Loch Ness has a mean depth of 132 metres, or 433 feet. Though only if you have the wrong kind of friends. And I can personally testify, from real world experience, that the water these maps depict is very cold indeed!

Loch Morar – the deepest in Scotland (and the UK) at 310 metres. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland (CC-BY-NC-SA).

Truly great work takes a lot of time and experience, and a lot of what I put on my blog is more like cuttings from the workshop floor, as it were, but I think that kind of knowledge sharing is always useful because a) it’s a good way to share ideas, and b) you never know what other people might find interesting and useful. A good example is my recent attempt to map, in a simple way, population density across Europe using a 1km grid dataset. I just ran off a set of simple maps showing the most densely populated grids square in each country and it’s been my most popular blog post to date, with tens of thousands of views.

The most densely populated 1km grid square in Spain, and Europe, according to Alasdair’s analysis

Q: Amazing! It goes to show, while your Twitter handle is @undertheraedar, your work is hardly under the radar: You tweet regularly, publish on your blog Stats, Maps n Pix and occasionally you and your work appear in traditional media as well. What motivates you to be so active?

A: About 10 years ago I decided to give my blog a silly name (Under the Raedar, hence my Twitter handle) and started it because I wanted a place to put my work that would either just sit in my hard drive or be hidden from the world in an academic journal. I also thought it would be good to share ideas and maps and stuff. I’ve continued blogging for the last decade and my Stats, Maps n Pix blog is the latest iteration of that. I try to publish things I think are interesting, and a lot of it relates to work I do in my day job but mostly it’s a kind of hobby I suppose.

A geogif of the 2017 US total solar eclipse

The reason I end up doing media stuff is that people have seen my blog and Twitter and over the years because of this I’ve got to know some well connected media people. I’m often asked to write stuff, or occasionally appear in TV things, and I generally think to myself ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’.

Why do all this stuff? The answer is that I’m interested in people and places and knowing more about the world. Maps and stats are one way of doing this.

Q: I’ve also learnt that you’re the editor of an open-access journal called Regional Studies, Regional Science (RSRS). Can you tell us more about this?

A: The Regional Studies Association is an international learned society, based in the UK, that I’ve been involved with for years. About 5 years ago I was involved in setting up a new Open Access academic journal – and this is how RSRS came into being. Myself and Prof Alex Singleton of the University of Liverpool were the founding editors and we took the project on because we believe in open publishing, open data, and open science.

We publish papers from academics at all career stages, provide mentoring for early career scholars, and publish papers quickly. To date, our papers have had over 200,000 downloads, which might not sound like a lot but for an academic journal that is no mean feat – though our authors and publisher (Taylor and Francis) can take the credit for this.

Q: In your Twitter bio you further mention “QGIS stuff”: Is QGIS your main tool for doing spatial analyses and producing visualizations? What other software do you use, more or less regularly?

A: Yes, I occasionally blog about QGIS stuff, true. I love QGIS, what it does, and what it stands for and I’ve been able to donate to the project as well, because I believe this is important with open source software projects – particularly ones that people really benefit from.

But in general I’m a pragmatist and use whatever I need to get the job done. If that means spatial stats in GeoDa I’ll use it, or it could be Excel, or perhaps I need to run a big geoprocessing job so I’ll turn to ArcGIS. Maybe I need to do some visual stuff so I’ll turn to GIMP. One tool I’ve used a LOT over the past decade and more is IrfanView – for batch image processing, renaming, resizing and lots more.

For a project I completed recently, I used QGIS, GIMP, Excel, and IrfanView. This is fairly typical. One really useful tool I used for editing massive text files is EmEditor because it can handle files up to 248GB and is super quick and I need this when working with datasets that have many millions of rows. Finally, I must confess that I still love the geoprocessing tools in the ET GeoWizards plugin for ArcGIS.

But most of my GIS stuff these days I do in QGIS and I’m really looking forward to getting to grips with QGIS 3.0 when it comes out.

Q: Ha! ET GeoWizards is a true classic, it has also saved me occasionally! I don’t think there are too many GIS specialists whose software stack encompasses both ET and QGIS. Speaking of (old and new) workhorses: Shapefile or Geopackage, do you have a preference or are you impartial in this arena, too?

A: My heart says Shapefile but my head says Geopackage. I think it’s okay to have a bit of both. I see no need for conflict between heads and hearts. Shapefile has better Twitter game though.

Q: Finally, can you tell us something people might not know about you?

A: I used to be a basketball player and played for the Scotland men’s team back in the early 2000s before I went to the US to do a Masters degree at Ohio State. Before that, I competed in the world 3v3 junior basketball championships in Frankfurt in about 1994 and was even in the dunk contest. I’m not sure if I can dunk a basketball anymore but I can still shoot almost 90% from the free throw line, based on ‘data’ collected during visit to my old home court in the Highlands last summer (i.e. taking 100 free throws). These days, I’ve discovered that indoor rowing suits me best and in the last year I’ve racked up about 1.4 million metres. I think I enjoy the monotony of it. Coincidentally, my only actual experience of rowing on the water is on the very same Scottish lochs I mentioned above.

Q: Wow! I like your empirical/statistical approach to re-discovering basketball. Too bad your impressive rowing activity doesn’t (yet?) yield GPS data that you could map. It was nice to learn more about you, Alasdair!

A: Thanks for having me.

Q: Thank you!

 

Nyall Dawson: “QGIS 3.0…it’s the magic unicorn fairy land of open source GIS™!”

Nyall Dawson
Nyall Dawson
Nyall has been a core developer with the QGIS project since 2013. During this time he has contributed over 5,000 commits to the project, and today is one of the most active developers on the project. Nyall’s contributions to QGIS cover a wide range of areas – from improvements to the map rendering and symbology engines, enhancements to labeling and print layout functionality, right through to optimisations of the underlying spatial processing algorithms utilised by QGIS.

Nyall is the proprietor and lead developer at North Road Consulting, an Australian spatial development consultancy which predominantly utilises international co-funding and crowd-funding campaigns to finance development into open source GIS applications.

You can follow Nyall’s work at https://github.com/nyalldawson and https://twitter.com/nyalldawson

Nyall was interviewed for GeoHipster by Kurt Menke.

Q: Nyall Dawson, where are you located and what do you do?

A: I’m a geospatial developer, analyst, and (I’d like to think) a cartographer, and the director of North Road. I’m heavily involved in the QGIS project and am one of its current core developers, however, in practice my time is generally split about 60/40 between making software and making actual maps (i.e. being a GIS “user”). I also teach crime mapping and spatial analysis at Charles Sturt University. Geographically, I’m based on the Sunshine Coast in Eastern Australia (and yes, the name does describe it perfectly!). It’s as close as Australia gets to perfection – people  only leave here if work forces them to.

Q: You seem to be equally talented in programming and graphic design. What’s your background?

A: I’ve bounced between these two disciplines since high school, and it turns out that spatial analysis is a great mix of the two. While I originally studied mathematics at university, my first job after graduating was as a designer in the marketing department for an IT wholesaler. I was a horrible fit. This pushed me back towards the IT side of things, and I spent a number of years working on corporate networks. I stuck it out long enough to realise that while I enjoy working with software, I wanted to use it to actually make something  (instead of just making it work for someone else).

At the time my wife Maryanne and I decided that we needed a change, so we sold up everything we had, quit our jobs and spent 12 months backpacking around Latin America and Europe. I started collecting maps of places we’d visited, obsessively geotagging every photo we took, and filling in gaps in OpenStreetMap so that I could accurately track where we’d been. It was while hanging out in a bar in Argentina called “The Map Room” that Maryanne suggested I should look into studying maps when we got back to Australia. It’s a perfect profession for me – map making strikes a great balance between that desire to create something useful and pretty, while still being driven by mathematical algorithms and code.

Q: Maryanne is wise! Connect the dots for us. After returning from that year long adventure how did you learn about GIS and cartography, and when did you discover open source GIS and QGIS specifically?

A: So, back in Australia, I enrolled in a masters in “Geomatics”, which was a bit of a mix between every spatial discipline. A couple of early pracs involving surveying sites using steel tapes(!) quickly lead to me dropping every subject that wasn’t pure GIS or cartography. Towards the end of my masters I started working for Victoria Police, as a spatial analyst in their intelligence division. I loved the work – it involved a great variety of tricky spatial and statistical problems with the occasional need to make a pretty map. This is how I got started with QGIS — the commercial GIS package they used just had no capacity for making pretty maps, no matter what tricks you tried. I got sick of creating maps that I was embarrassed to show off so went hunting for alternatives which we could use (in other words… free alternatives. They had no software budget at all). This hunt lead to QGIS, and it wasn’t long before I was totally converted.

I’ve always been a bit of an open-source zealot anyway, so QGIS was a natural fit for me. To me open source just makes sense. I hate the feeling of being at the mercy of some distant software vendor to fix bugs and improve my daily workflow, so I’d much rather just have the ability to dig in and fix things myself. It’s a great model all round – even end users with no coding knowledge can still directly influence an open source project through sponsored features or fixes, and in the end everyone benefits from this.

Q: When I first met you, you were working for the Victoria Police. Why did you decide to launch North Road?

A: Well, as I started using QGIS at Victoria Police more and more, I started hacking away in my spare time to add improvements and fix any little bugs I’d hit during my day job. Doing this for an open-source project was one of the best learning experiences I’ve had. There’s always motivation to improve your work and make sure it’s in top form before opening up a pull request and knowing that it’s going to be visible to everyone and reviewed in public! Plus, you can always watch the changes which are flowing in from other developers and learning from their experience too. Luckily I had some great mentors early on (including fellow Australian geohipster Nathan Woodrow!) who always made themselves available for my constant questions and to refine my rough ideas. Over time the contributions I made became more ambitious as my confidence (and skills) grew, and I started getting queries from users who’d benefited from these contributions. I remember receiving my first email from a user asking “I saw you made this change recently to QGIS, how much would it cost to extend it a bit further and make it cover my requirements too?” – I had no idea what people would usually charge for work on open source, or indeed whether it was even considered “bad form” to charge for working on an open source project (Hint for all open source contributors: it’s not! Your time is valuable and you have no obligation to work for anyone for free!).

Things grew from there until I hit a critical point (when we had our second child), where I had to either make a decision to make this a full-time thing and quit the police work, or scale back the after hours work. I opted for the self-employment option since it meant I could wear teeshirts instead of a suit, listen to any music I wanted to all day, and stay up all night wondering if I’d made a terrible decision and would be broke and homeless in a month. And so North Road was launched.

Q: Walk us through a typical day being a QGIS developer and committer?

A: Well, right now we’re leading up to the launch of the next major version, QGIS 3.0. It’s going to be huge – there’s tons of new features and optimisations, and we’ve totally ripped out and rebuilt some of the older code areas and replaced them with brand new backends (composer, server, and processing). It also brings the change to Python 3 and Qt 5. So currently most of my daily development time is focused on getting 3.0 into top shape and squashing regressions before the final release. It’s a little stressful! Fortunately, the QGIS project enjoys the backing of numerous generous sponsors, which allows the QGIS organisation to directly employ developers to work on the trickier bugs in the lead up to a release. This allows me (among others) to focus our time on these fixes, and as a direct result the final release will be much more stable. (Hint for QGIS users – if you’ve ever wanted to see stabler releases, this is one way you can directly influence the quality of the final release… those sponsorship dollars and donations have a direct effect on the stability of QGIS!).

Following the release I’ll switch back to focusing on feature development – which means my days are filled with fundraising, writing proposals, and, when I’m lucky, coding new features.

Q: What are your favorite new features of QGIS 3?

A: That’s a huge question! The thing to keep in mind here is that QGIS 3.0 has been actively developed in parallel to the stable QGIS 2 releases for the last 2 years. So while the changelogs for the last couple of releases were substantial on their own, those were just for releases with the normal 4 month release cycle. You can start to extrapolate here and get an idea how long the changelog for 3.0 will be! I don’t think there’s any part of the code or interface which hasn’t been refined and improved in some way.

But in short, the features which make it difficult for me to go back to QGIS 2.18 are:

  • The improved label tools which allow you to just pick up and modify any label in your project, without needing to alter your layers in any way.
  • The reworked processing analysis framework and all the new and improved algorithms available in 3.0
  • and surprisingly, all the refinements to Geopackage handling which make them easy and convenient to work with. It’s actually enough to convert me from team shapefile!

 

Q: What is a QGIS feature you’d love to have time to work on but haven’t gotten to yet? What’s your wishlist?

A: Great question! My wishlist is HUGE, and grows every time I make a map. There’s two items which I’d say are top of my personal cartographic hit list right now:

  • Adding “distribute spacing” tools to the print layout designer. 3.0 adds a bunch of new “distribute item” actions which allow items themselves to be evenly spaced within a layout, but I want to be able to distribute the gaps between items instead. It’s a common functionality in desktop publishing and illustration applications which hasn’t yet found its way to QGIS.
  • Adding more automatic label placement options and refining the logic we already have. It’s good, but there’s always more we could do and finding ways to improve the automated placement benefits everyone – even if all you use QGIS for is visualising a bunch of shapefiles.

Fortunately, the QGIS user community has adopted a great attitude toward crowd-funding of features, and there’s been many funding campaigns which have allowed tweaks like these to happen in the past. I’ve already got a few campaigns lined up and ready to go for similar improvements following the release of 3.0!

Q: You mentioned that your time is generally split about 60/40 between making software and making actual maps. What types of projects do you work on when you’re not developing?

A: It’s a mix – these days it’s a whole range of analytical maps showing various statistical outputs right through to “simple” maps of various reference layers for government reports. Fortunately at the moment I’ve got a number of clients for whom high-quality visualisations are essential, so I get to spend time polishing maps and making outputs which I’m proud of. Surprisingly, they’re also almost exclusively print and static maps too. (On a slightly different topic, I personally suspect we’re going to see a swing back toward valuing static, non-interactive maps and data visualisations sometime. Everybody’s just so busy that maps and visualisations which can effectively and instantly communicate their message to a reader, without any data exploration, are likely to see a resurgence for projects where interactivity isn’t a key requirement!).

Q: I know you are a tabletop gamer. What are your favorite games these days? What else do you do for fun?

A: I’m all for co-operative, story-based games at the moment. The Arkham Horror Living Card Game is getting a lot of play (and accordingly, inspired the “Exploring the Depths of Madness Through QGIS symbology” talk I gave at the recent QGIS Australia meetup). TIME Stories and the Pandemic Legacy series are recent favorites too!

Incidentally, I love seeing board games with great cartography. There’s been quite a few games which have inspired me to try different mapping techniques. One personal favorite is the map for the GMT “Liberty or Death” game… that’s a beautiful map, which perfectly balances cartographic attention to detail with usability as a game set piece. It’s gorgeous (and incidentally, inspired a few QGIS symbology tweaks!), and I love that I can learn better map making just from gaming.

Apart from gaming, something I’ve recently rediscovered is how relaxing it is to just put on headphones and listen to an album without doing ANYTHING else. No dual-screening, no checking emails, no fixing QGIS bugs — just tuning out and listening!

Q: Do you consider yourself a geohipster? Why or why not?

A: Well, for a long time I was a holdout flag-carrying member of team shapefile, yet I’ve recently been won over by GeoPackage. I’m not sure if that makes me a geohipster or the opposite! (Shapefiles are retro-cool now, aren’t they?)

I *did* just move out to the country and to a place with our own vegetables and chickens, a farmer’s market next door, and an old avocado farm I can raid if I jump the back fence. I guess that makes me either a hipster or a hippy.

Q: Any words of wisdom or final thoughts you’d like to share with the GeoHipster community?

A: If I’m speaking philosophically, I think it’s crucial these days to have something “unique” you can bring to the profession. I don’t believe it’s enough to just be a “GIS specialist who knows XXX desktop GIS platform”. You’ve got to have something extra which differentiates you and helps you stand out from all the other GIS professionals. For example, you want to be “the GIS specialist who is a statistical wiz” or “the GIS specialist who can code and automate all those boring processes” or “the GIS specialist who can craft effective story-telling maps and visualisations”.

But if I’m speaking as a QGIS developer I’d say: mark down February 23rd in your diary,  download QGIS 3.0 and enjoy. It’s the magic unicorn fairy land of open source GIS™!