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!

 

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