All posts by Atanas Entchev

Randal Hale: “80% of hipsters have a spatial component”

Randal Hale
Randal Hale
Randal Hale runs North River Geographic Systems. He enjoys long walks on the beach, talking about your feelings, and spatial databases. You may find him at your local conference, possibly in a canoe, or on a bike -- but not all at once. 

Q: How and why did you get into GIS?

A: So way back in 1989 (it’s not that long ago, right?) young Randy started college. I ended up through some twists and turns as a Geology Major. About a year or so before graduation, it hit me that in order to use this degree for anything I was going to have to go to grad school and A) Work for an an oil company or B) Teach. Ugh.

My department received a phone call about that time from the Tennessee Valley Authority mapping department. Hence started my career in the Federal Gov’t — I went in and interviewed for the wrong job and was hired for a summer job that didn’t start until October. TVA has a long history in Mapping. They are probably the 2nd or 3rd oldest mapping organization in the nation. At the time they also had a store that sold aerial photography (9×9 prints) and topographic maps. The map folding and selling turned into a my first foray into GIS.

TVA had just started using this new software called ARC/INFO and they had a huge job that required a lot of digitizing of data from 7.5-minute quadrangle maps. So I would digitize streams and roads and then get the GIS IT guy to print out a map at a known scale. I would then take the map and measure all the roads and streams using a planimeter (that’s what they told me to do). One day the IT guy came back and asked what I was doing and when he finished yelling he sat down and taught me how to extract that information from the data I was producing. I received a day or so of instruction. He gave me a stack of manuals. I read those at lunch. I was hooked. That led to AML development, shell scripting, and the eventual loss of most of my hair (at least that’s what I blame it on). I was there for about 16 years and learned a lot on life, mapping work flows, and data standards.

Q: You have been running your own GIS consulting business for 10 years. If you could do it over again, would you take the same path? What would you do differently?

A: Oh — things I would have done differently. I think I might stay on the same path. With a few exceptions:

  • I would tell anyone that is starting a business — actually learn about running a business. I can do complicated things with maps — I didn’t understand taxes. If you assume my work week is 40 hours I’ll spend about 8 hours bookeeping, 8 hours advertising, and 40 hours working (that’s the joke). I still question if I’m “doing it right”. Friends would go “Oh running a business is easy”. HAH.
  • Say No to people. It took me forever to learn to tell clients no. It’s easy to lose money on a job. It’s really easy if you work for yourself. There were jobs I took on I should have walked away from — but it’s hard to say no. In 2016 I think I walked away from 3 jobs where I didn’t think I was the best fit. Best thing I’ve done.
  • Learn to take a break from work. I will sit and worry about business. I like worrying — I’m good at it. This year I actually learned to step away and find hobbies that don’t involve GIS.

Q: Tell us about some of the cool projects you are working on and the technology you use.

A: Cool Projects. Heh. I’m not sure how cool they are.

So my first project as a consultant was with a small forestry firm within driving distance of Chattanooga. It started out simple enough. Soon 4 shapefiles turned into 8. 8 turned into 100. It was painful. I couldn’t manage the data easily. We needed to upgrade to ArcEditor or ArcInfo. They couldn’t afford the price tag. So I migrated them to QGIS and PostGIS. We are running an enterprise database that churns out a lot of data on cheap computers. It’s not glorious or cool — but it’s functional and pain-free. I guess that makes it awesome. We’re on the verge of having a thing called a “web map”.

One job involves a water utility. I’m still working on that one. That project is migrating data out of an Esri file-based geodatabase into PostGIS. We are installing QGIS alongside ArcGIS. There’s a few things they need ArcGIS for — but all data maintenance will be QGIS/PostGIS. They also are using Fulcrum to help with data maintenance/collection. I actually had to open ArcGIS for this one and muck through domains and subtypes in the file-based geodatabase. Which really this is more about making the client comfortable with the transition. There’s no question on it working or not working — it’s all comfort level.

A volunteer job I’m working on — Caribbean SEA (http://www.caribbean-sea.org/). They are a 501(c)(3) that operates in Chattanooga. They work locally and in the Caribbean educating people on the benefits of clean water. So after helping do things like help run their website and make sure email works — we’re diving into GIS. They will have one of their projects in PostGIS/QGIS. They are also about to embark on a mobile app for people to report water quality problems. Every water quality report has a point. Every point goes on a map. It’s going to be a game changer for them and the people they help.  

Q: These days you are all about PostGIS and QGIS. How and why did you take that route? Do you use Esri software?

A: I think I’ve been an Esri software user for nearly 23 years. I started with ARC/INFO 6 and stayed current up until 10.2. One of my clients has 10.5 I think (we’ve not opened it so I’m not sure entirely). In 2009 I even went so far as to be an Esri Business Partner and Certified Trainer for a short span.

In early 2013 I worked on a job that took me to the Caribbean. I worked alongside AppGeo (www.appgeo.com) and Spatial Focus (www.spatialfocus.com/) on assigning addresses in the US Virgin Islands. When you’re standing on St. Thomas you can’t say “Take me to 123 Main Street”. Addresses are by parcel number. Many streets weren’t named. Your address might be “Az42” and that’s it. It’s hard to order a pizza and almost impossible to get an ambulance to your location. Addressing is complicated. It’s also a bit fun to figure out. We built an address repository from scratch. The addressing repository was to reside in PostGIS.

I was incredibly worried because I knew nothing on PostGIS except it didn’t “work” with ArcGIS. I had QGIS installed (1.7.x) and started learning how it all functions together. QGIS and PostGIS are flexible enough to run on anything. I went and bought a cheap laptop for $350 (4GB of RAM and a 300GB hard drive). I loaded Linux on it. I loaded PostGIS, QGIS, and a few other pieces of software. I took a copy of the address repository and off we went.

Over the course of 4 months I learned a lot. I had one co-worker there who was great at improvising — Zac. We would hit a problem and he would sit down and write a solution. I had one co-worker Carol who was excellent at designing processes. So by the end of the project we had built a process that combined commercial and open source software to churn out address information from the MAR (master address repository) for the good people of the US Virgin Islands. Up until that one point I always assumed you couldn’t mix commercial and open source software. We had strung together Fulcrum, ArcGIS, Google Docs, QGIS, Python, and PostGIS into possibly not the most elegant solution — but it worked and it worked well.Total software purchase for the job was about $300 US. All on a $350 laptop. Run your current commercial software on a laptop with those specs.

When consulting you run into a lot of clients that go “Look — we don’t have any money — but we’ve budgeted $30,000 to buy software to run our GIS”. When I came back from the Caribbean I started asking “Why is software the centerpiece of your GIS and not your data?”. It completely changed the way I look at geo. With my toolset of QGIS and PostGIS (and Fulcrum) I can do about anything that needs done. GIS is fun again. I don’t spend 4 hours listing out software a client has to buy — I spend 4 hours discussing data and what problems they need solved.

Q: Do you miss ARC/INFO on Solaris? Do you miss coverages? (I do, for which I get ridiculed occasionally.) Why / why not?

A: I do miss it. I used to do a lot of remote sensing. All of our landcover went into coverages — I mean everything at the time went into coverages — roads, streams, landcover, etc. It had polygons. The polygons were also standalone arcs. You had labels — those were also the centroids for the Polygons. You could attribute nodes if I remember correctly. The move away from coverages was painful. I swore for a long time file-based geodatabases were just less functional coverages.

My first dive into GIS was on Solaris. I enjoy Unix. So these days thanks to the flexibility of the tools — Linux is my operating system of choice. I have one laptop that is running Windows 10 and one Virtual Machine running Windows 7. About once a month I stop and go “Oh god — why am I running Linux” and then I remember I haven’t rebooted my workstation in 3 weeks and haven’t bought virus software in 5 years.

The other thing I miss about ARC/INFO Workstation: You actually had to know what you were doing to use it. That sounds mean. It’s true though. ARC/INFO was a time investment. You had to know the commands. You had to know what happened when you used those commands. For a while I taught a model builder class I had written for ArcGIS. Most taking the class didn’t know model builder existed or what half the ArcToolbox tools did. I feel like now it’s just push buttons until you don’t get an error. Make PDFs. Woot. Sigh.

It’s hard to explain — coverages are ancient history. Sometimes you need to see where you came from to appreciate where you are.

Now that I re-read this — I’ll go back to yelling at clouds and tie an onion to my belt.

Q: How long did it take you to become comfortable with PostGIS? How long will it take for an old phart? (Asking for a friend.)

A: A year before it started to make sense. I’m not a database person — most desktop GIS people (there are a lot of them out there) never think in terms of databases. Spatial SQL didn’t make sense for a while. I was used to a desktop GIS way of thinking. If you wanted a buffer you had to create a file. If you wanted to do some analysis — there was a lot of pre-processing that you might have to do before hand. Most people look at a desktop GIS and go “shapefiles!”. I’ve run into QGIS users and ArcGIS users who produce shapefiles all day every day. When you’re able to comprehend that PostGIS/PostgreSQL and QGIS give you an enterprise-level database — for free — it will change your life.

Eh — about 5 years ago — maybe 6 I was at a conference. I was exploring Free and Open Source at that point. I had a salesman with a commercial company start a conversation over support. He argued — FOSS4G has no support. I argued back “well you’ve got the internet.” Actually — I was a bit wrong — you’ve got email lists, commercial firms, conferences (unofficial plug — FOSS4G in Boston for 2017), books, etc. So I leverage all of those. You’ve got so much support — it may not be typical as in you have a 1-800 number to scream at someone — but I’ve not been compelled to yell ever in the last 4 years at developers in the FOSS4G world.

The really awesome part — it makes GIS fun again.

So Join a listserve. Buy a book. Participate in the discussion. I’ve emailed developers with suggestions and in a few cases I’ve felt like I’ve affected the software. I like filing bug reports.

Q: I enjoy reading your blog. I learn from the technical articles, but I enjoy the personal pieces even more. I like your folksy storytelling style. Will we see more of this?

A: Everyone (including yourself upon occasion) has told me to write something and write more. Heh — I enjoy it. The work blog provides that outlet. So I use it to vent — I talk about technical and I talk about life.

I tend to get lost in work. Figuratively as I will sit here for hours wondering over some technical problem and literally I think at times I “lose me”. I will catch myself at times during the week going “Oh man I can’t go do that I need to work”. It’s hard to get up and walk off. Sometimes if I’m stuck I start typing. I’ll talk about finding a nifty tool in QGIS and Grass or accidentally eating squirrel. Writing helps me find my way out of work. It’s also a great mental health check. I’ve started a lot of blogs and halfway through I realize something was eating at me and I’ve vented enough to make it go away. Many of you are probably saying “Thank you” for me not finishing an article and hitting the trash button.

Not getting as lost has been easier as of late because I’ve taken a sabbatical from boards and other things. I’m going to do my best in 2017 to write 52 articles. I’m already a bit behind. Some may be “cheats” and just reposts of emails — BUT — 52 things. They will probably lean in to the technical but there will be more family and friends that get brought into the mix. I look around and my family has never been “this old” before. Aging parents, aging pets, and changing thoughts make for an interesting life.      

Q: You own a canoe and a bicycle. As far as I can tell, you spend more time in the canoe than on the bike. Why is that?

A: Well… Hah. Growing up my first taste of freedom was a bicycle. I would ride for a while after school. I would ride a bike to work. Bike riding has always been a thing I do — but the canoe…

So when I was around 14 or so my friend Danny called and said “Hey — I’ve saved up some cash and I’m gonna go buy a canoe”. We drove up to Ocoee TN and he bought a 17-foot Kennebec Old Town Canoe. We immediately drove to Parksville Lake and threw it in the water. 15 minutes later we had flipped it. I was hooked. We did a lot of trips to places I’d never have gotten to see had I not been in a canoe.

It’s relaxing. It’s fun. It’s a low maintenance hobby. I can throw my canoe in any body of water and just explore. No gasoline needed. No new tires required. Give me about 15 minutes and you’ll never know I was there. Being in a canoe opens up a whole new transportation network you never think about — lakes and streams and rivers. I have threatened to take up fishing again. My one problem with that — it adds a level of cursing back into my relaxing sport. It’s like ruining a perfectly good walk in a field with a golf club.

When I graduated college my gift to me was a canoe — a 15-foot, 8-inch Old Town Discovery. I’ve had it for 23 years now.

    This year I’ve got two plans:

  • Do an overnight trip because I haven’t done one of those in forever.
  • The second is to take my laptop and do something with QGIS while floating down a river.

Q: Not until I got involved with GeoHipster did I realize that in some parts of the US “hipster” is a dirty word. Is that the case in your home state of Tennessee? If yes, why do you think that is?

A: Nah — not a dirty word here. Of course it doesn’t stop me from poking at people and calling them hipsters and implying it’s bad.

Hipsters seem to push outside of the norm. Depending on what you are doing here in The South that can be a bonus or a detriment. I have one client that no doubt calls me a “hipster”. If I head down to the local organic market, I’m going “ugh hipsters”. Hipster might have an implication of being “not that useful” since you’re working outside the norm. So ultimately I don’t know why it’s bad — except people love giving labels to everyone. Plus people love getting offended over anything and everything.

Q: So, are you a geohipster?

A: Am I? I suppose in some circles yes and others no. Let’s figure it out. I don’t program in JavaScript (-1). I do sometimes touch GeoJSON (+1). I’ve never made a vector tile (-1). I hate GitHub 80% of the time (-1). I did build a Docker image the other day though (+1). I don’t run my website in GitHub (-1). I do have a cat — a lot of geohipsters have cats (+1). I didn’t renew my GISP so that should give me some street cred (+1). I own a business so that removes some street cred (-1). I don’t have skinny jeans (+2). I’m not a huge fan of coffee (-1). Wait – I HAVE A BEARD (+1) … but it’s not long or weird like some hipster beards (-1). Most bands I like everyone has heard of (-1). I like tacos (+11) which means nothing except I like tacos.

I’m going to go with probably. I may be 80% geohipster. That’s how the saying goes, right — 80% of hipsters have a spatial component?

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

A: Words of Wisdom. I can finally read my manifesto to the world.

People of the world — turn off your snapbook, your facegram, your tweetchat, and go outside. Find your nearest neighbor. Talk to them. I enjoy social media — but we’re missing a lot by not talking to people. Find someone you wouldn’t normally talk to and engage them in conversation.

GIS people of the world — if you’ve only ever used one type of Geographic Information System — try a different one. You may be going “OK you want me to use QGIS!”. Try them all — gvSIG, OpenJUMP, ArcGIS, etc. Of course — if you’ve ever been worried about trying QGIS and other open source alternatives to you commercial software — give them a shot, it will change your life. QGIS is coming up on a major release soon — help them out. It’s a great community of people.

Finally — go find a cause and volunteer. Want to help animals? People? Take a few hours a week and make it happen. It doesn’t take much to make a difference.

Don Meltz: “I was a geodesigner before it became a thing”

Don Meltz
Don Meltz
I’m an AICP-certified planner working as a consultant to small towns and rural communities in upstate New York. I provide planning and GIS services for municipalities, not-for-profit organizations, and other planning consultants that require extra capacity or specialized geospatial analysis they cannot perform in house. I started my business, Don Meltz Planning and GIS, in 2002 (www.donmeltz.com) and work out of my home office in Stockport, Columbia County, NY.

I’ve recently started working as an Adjunct Professor at Marist College teaching a fall semester Intro to GIS course and a spring semester Advanced GIS course.

I’m the Chairperson of my town’s Planning Board, a member of the American Planning Association NY Upstate Chapter, the New York Planning Federation, and the New York State GIS Association. For the NYS GIS Association I participate in the UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) Professional Affiliation Group and the Communications Committee.

Personal Twitter - @DonMeltz

Business Twitter - @Don_Meltz

Q: You have a Master’s in Regional Planning. How and why did you go into GIS?

A: It was a long and winding road, but I’ll try to concentrate on the main points.

I’ve always been a map person. I was the designated navigator on every trip we went on as a kid. I’d pore over the road map in the back seat, calling out turn-by-turn directions. I have a vivid memory as a pre-teen, the moment I realized those little grey numbers along the roads on the map represented miles. That’s when I became the back-seat GPS, reading the map, looking at the speedometer, and calculating how long it would be before reaching the next turn, or our destination.

The rest of the flow chart looks something like this:

  1. An interest in sciences in high school leads to a Bachelor’s degree in Biology.
  2. As an undergrad, taking a computer language class and a philosophy logic class in the same semester was an eye-opening experience.
  3. Reagan gets elected during my junior year in college, which leads to downsizing and defunding many science-related agencies.
  4. A biologist with a new degree and zero experience enters the family construction business.
  5. A land use controversy with a neighbor, plus the frustrating limitations of working in a family business, added to the realization my body would not last in the construction field forever, leads to a life changing decision — grad school.
  6. A Planning degree from U Albany with a personal interest in all things computer-related leads to working with GIS.

It took me a while to discover how planning lets me accommodate both my interest in protecting the environment, and my desire to build things. I like to tinker with things, figure out how they work, and how they fit into the rest of the world. Planning is the career that lets me satisfy nearly every curiosity I have about the world. And GIS is the tool that helps me do that.

Q: Your company, Don Meltz Planning and GIS, offers planning and GIS services. Which do you do more of — planning or GIS? Why do you think the breakdown is what it is?

A: I am a planner, and I’m a geospatial analyst. In my mind these job titles are one and the same. I truly make no distinction between my planning work and my GIS work. GIS is a tool I use as a planner to help me advise my clients on how to make knowledgeable land use decisions. There are times when I’m called in purely as a GIS consultant to help some town or village set up their own system. But the majority of my work is as an analyst, using GIS to identify and prioritize natural resources, or to model the impacts of a proposed land use.

I was a geodesigner before it became a thing.

Q: What are some cool GIS projects that you are currently working on? What GIS technology does your consulting company use?

A: Truth be told, most of my work is pretty mundane. I work on a lot of comprehensive plans and zoning laws for small towns, and agriculture protection plans for counties. I use primarily Esri ArcGIS with a smattering of QGIS. However, whenever I work for a town that wants to set up their own GIS, I always steer them in the open source direction — QGIS. I also keep an eye on what Boundless is doing. I’m really excited about how they’re integrating QGIS, GeoServer, and their new OpenLayers-based WebApp builder. I’ve been using all these tools for a few years now. And every iteration of the Boundless stack gets better and better.

My proximity to the Catskills, and their being the source for NY City drinking water has led to a few interesting projects. I worked on a very complex erosion model for a town in the NYC drinking water watershed using some of NOAA’s geospatial tools, including N-SPECT, which they’ve now turned into an open source tool.

There is a project coming up that involves a national non-profit and Marist College. I can’t go into too much detail, as the paperwork hasn’t been finalized. But, it includes analysis of a significant portion of the Hudson River ecosystem using historic data going back to the 1980s, and students acquiring new data based on what we discover through that analysis.

Another area I’m moving into is Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS). I recently purchased a Phantom 4 Pro, and I’m now studying for my FAA Part 107 Remote Pilot’s Certificate so I can do some commercial work. I’d like to provide services for other planners and landscape architects doing site design work and 3D modelling. The technology surrounding these little aerial robots is amazing. They’re going to totally transform how we collect spatial data and how we incorporate it into GIS. This, and self-driving cars, will leave the world unrecognizable 50 years from now.

Q: You teach GIS at Marist College. What technology do you use in the GIS classroom? Why?

A: I came into the environmental science program at Marist on short notice. All of the previous professors had used and taught Esri products exclusively. I’m quickly moving them into a mixed environment. I added the FulcrumApp to a few assignments my first semester. Next semester I’m adding QGIS and some online mapping platforms. If I can convince the IT folks to let me set up a GeoServer instance, I’d like to be able to use that, too.

One thing I try to drill into my students’ heads is, if they want to become proficient at GIS, and stay ahead of the constant changes in the technology, they should use GIS every day. One of the problems I see with teaching pure Esri is, unless the student gets a job immediately after graduation, they won’t have access to the software. It’s usually too expensive for them to keep using on their own after they graduate. Another problem is it doesn’t work on a Mac, which probably applies to over 60% of the students in my class. If the software isn’t convenient to use, they aren’t going to use it every day. QGIS and open source tools in general overcome both of these hurdles.

Q: Suppose a student of yours tells you they are considering starting a GIS consulting business and asks for your advice. What would you tell them? Is there money in GIS consulting?

A: There is. But it’s not like the late 1990s, when if you knew what the letters GIS meant, you’d be hired on the spot. I teach my students to take a broader view of what GIS is. GIS is diffusing, spreading out into every industry you can think of. There will probably be opportunities for pure GIS consultants for quite a while. But most of the growth I see is in all the related fields. Environmental planners with GIS skills will always be in higher demand than those without. The same goes for engineers, surveyors, software programmers, system administrators, and even website designers. Anyone with some knowledge of how GIS fits into any of these fields will have an advantage.

Q: Open source is cool. “Open” is also the buzzword du jour. But can one make a decent living in open? A career? Or does it come down to a choice between coolness and moneymaking, romantic vs. practical?

A: When I started my business, one of the first questions a client would ask is “Do you have ArcView?” And nine times out of ten, answering yes was enough to get the job. But it’s probably been close to ten years since I’ve been asked what kind of software I use. The only thing my clients want to see is results. They don’t care if I made a map using ArcGIS or QGIS or a 20-year-old beta version of MapInfo (which I do have sitting on my bookshelf BTW, just in case). I still use ArcGIS mainly because that’s what I cut my teeth on. I’m familiar with it and I feel more productive using it. It also comes in handy when a client wants to share an MXD or a map package with me. I use QGIS when I run into something ArcGIS can’t handle, or when I want to try something new. Having open source tools at my disposal allows me to try new things on my own, at my own pace, without relying on a review by a third party to decide how a particular piece of software might fit into my workflow. Open source is a very practical solution for me.

Q: “The dogs bark, but the caravan goes on” — so goes an ancient proverb. Does this apply to the current GIS ecosystem? Are there too many mapping platforms?

A: I like to keep up on what’s going on in the GIS world. I follow a bunch of GeoNerds on Twitter and I read the blogs. But there comes a point where keeping up with the latest shiny gadget takes up more time than it’s worth. I have to make a living. And that means billable hours. I’d never say there are too many mapping platforms. But there are too many for me to check out on my own. This is where my Twitter feed comes in handy. I scan it continuously during the day. If something new pops up, I’ll check it out if I have time. But I concentrate on those tools that are mentioned the most. I’ve settled on ArcGIS Desktop, QGIS, GeoServer, FulcrumApp, and the Boundless stack as the tools I focus most of my attention on.

Q: What do you think about Arcade, the new programming language from Esri? Is launching a new proprietary programming language that only works within the Esri ecosystem arrogant, oblivious, or brilliant?

A: It’s an interesting development. From the few articles I’ve read, it appears to be an attempt to bridge the gap between Esri’s desktop software, which relies on Python for scripting, and ArcGIS Online, which relies on JavaScript for customizing. But so far, I believe it’s limited to customizing how layers are rendered in a map without making changes to the underlying data. That’s not enough for me to put much effort into learning more about it right now. If it morphs into something more wide-ranging, like what Avenue used to be, I’d be more interested. I spent a lot of time in my early GIS days searching through the Esri Avenue script sharing site. I learned a lot there, about what GIS can do, and how it works. There was a sense of community there. I miss those days.

Q: You collect antique and classic cars and trucks. How did you get into this? Do you also work on and maintain the engines? Do you mess with the carburettor, valves, timing belt?

A: My father has always been a car guy. His family raced stock cars in the 40s and 50s. He started collecting in the early 70s, bringing me to every car show and swap meet he went to. He currently has eight classic vehicles on the road, including a Concours-restored 1959 Impala, a 1927 Gardner that was once part of the Harrah collection, and a fully restored 1932 Ford Roadster.

I’ve helped my father restore a dozen or more vehicles. I’ve done everything from sandblasting Model T frames to applying finish to the wood-spoked wheels of a 1920s Federal truck. The biggest restoration job I worked on was a 1931 chain drive AC Mack Dump Truck that we brought back from the grave, so to speak.

I’ve completely disassembled and rebuilt a 289 engine and C4 transmission from a 1968 Mustang Fastback I owned during my college days. Right now I have a lightly modified 1960 Ford F100 pickup that’s on the road, and a 100% original 1966 Ford Bronco that needs a lot of work.

I like to build things and figure out how they work.

Q: You camp, hike, run. I admire your vast portfolio of extracurriculars. Where do you find the time for everything you do?

A: All things in moderation. And don’t try to multitask. This is also where running my own one-person business comes in handy. I have complete flexibility with my schedule. As long as I meet my clients’ deadlines, I’m good. It doesn’t matter when I do the work, as long as it gets done. It also means I spend way too many days working until 2 or 3 AM.

My extracurriculars also seem to happen in spurts. There was a time when I was bagging Catskill Mountain peaks every weekend. I spent a few years spending a lot of time (and money) on photography. I still enjoy these activities, but I don’t participate in them as much as I once did. It’s the same with my classic car and truck hobby. It all but stopped when I got married and had children. But now that the kids are grown, and my father needs more help moving things around, I’ve started getting back into it.

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

A: I believe one of the defining features of geo-hipsterism is eschewing labels. The moment a geo-hipster becomes self-aware, or proclaims to be one, they cease being a geo-hipster.

No, I am not a geo-hipster.

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

A: Wow. This is the most difficult question of them all. I mulled over a few answers in my head, but they all seemed a little too pompous to me. Do I really have any special insight into how the world works? Some tidbit of knowledge that I could impart on others that they don’t already know?

No. I don’t.

But I do try to live by a few simple rules which I’ve actually never written down until now. So I’ll leave you with them. I’m not saying everyone should follow them. But they work for me.

  • Think logically.
  • Learn continuously.
  • Analyze everything.
  • Work diligently.
  • Practice humility.
  • Act accordingly.
  • Enjoy life.
  • Have faith.

 

Andrea Sward: “Don’t let ‘playing it safe’ stop you from doing something you really want to do”

Andrea Sward
Andrea Sward
I am a geospatial analyst with nearly three years of professional GIS experience. Originally from Canada, the search for adventure brought me to Wellington, New Zealand a little over a year ago. Things have worked out well, as I managed to quickly find meaningful GIS employment that aligns with my passion for nature, conservation, and the environment. I have been very fortunate to be able to explore many of New Zealand’s beautiful places in my spare time. My partner and I are currently planning to move to Melbourne, Australia in the new year, but we hope to come back and travel to some of the areas we missed!

More about my professional background can be found on my LinkedIn account.

Q: You are geohipster on Instagram. This is awesome. What prompted you to pick that handle?

A: It can be quite difficult to pick an instagram handle! The name geohipster emerged because while I consider myself a geography geek (geogeek), I’d like to think I also have a few cool/quirky hobbies and interests that make me less of the stereotypical “geek” and more of a “hipster”. GIS does seem to work its way into my hobbies though. For example, I’ve started getting into brewing beer and making metal jewelry and inspiration is often drawn from geography, nature, and GIS.

Q: How did you get into GIS?

A: I was a geography major at the University of Toronto and discovered GIS towards the end of my degree. Starting off in GIS can be quite intense, there is a lot to know! My first introductory course was challenging but opened my eyes to a whole new discipline. After graduating, I took a postgraduate program in GIS at Algonquin College in Ottawa. This was a great program and allowed me to really immerse myself into all things geospatial. It provided a good foundation to start into my career. A lot of the time I am learning things on the job. GIS is a changing and growing industry, there is always more to know!

Q: You are a Canadian who lives in New Zealand, about to move to Melbourne, Australia. What inspired you to move down under?

A: I’ve had the idea in the back of my mind to travel to New Zealand and Australia for several years but struggled to find the right timing. After finishing school, paying off my student loans, and gaining some work experience, I had a bit of a crossroads moment of deciding whether to settle where I am, or try something new. So I wrapped up my last contract at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. I packed a bag, sold my furniture, and bought a one way ticket to New Zealand. I thought, worst case scenario, I don’t find any work and just have a really nice holiday. After a week of being in Wellington, I had a contract to work at the Department of Conservation. I have now been working there almost 15 months.

It was just one of those moments that anyone could have. I decided I wanted to do something, and I gave it a go.

Soon after moving to New Zealand, I met my partner. He has a job opportunity in Melbourne starting in the new year and we’ve decided to make the move. I will miss Wellington and my colleagues and friends, but I must admit, the same sense of adventure that brought me to New Zealand is starting to bubble up again as I get ready for the next move. I have been told wonderful things about Melbourne and the GIS community there. I’m really looking forward to getting involved and meeting new geogeeks and geohipsters!

Q: Was it easy to find a GIS job in New Zealand? What is the GIS scene like there?

A: There is a really strong community of geospatial professionals in Wellington and around New Zealand. For me, it was easy to find a job but perhaps I got a bit lucky being at the right place at the right time. I’ve enjoyed being part of two networks in Wellington — the Emerging Geospatial Professionals group, and the Women in Spatial group. These groups meet up every so often for a guest presentation along with drinks, nibbles, and general chatting. This is a great way to meet people outside of your organization and there is often discussions around current job vacancies. People are often very passionate about their work and I find that inspiring.

I’ve found the geospatial industry in New Zealand to be quite progressive. There is a lot more openness to collaboration between organizations and a strong desire to get things done. An example of a strong collaboration can be seen in New Zealand’s earthquake preparations. We are sitting on a lot of active faultlines that cause a lot of earthquakes. Often these are just little wobbles, but there have been a few major shakes recently. There was a lot learned from the devastating Christchurch earthquake in 2011, and again more recently in Kaikoura in November. There is a need for a strong geospatial plan for national emergencies such as these. Up-to-date national datasets must be readily available offline, as well as a GIS action plan for possible future earthquakes.

Q: Tell us about your current job — what you do, what technologies you use, what cool projects you work on.

A: I am a geospatial analyst at the Department of Conservation (DOC). The department has a GIS team of around 30 people spread across the country that provide geospatial support to the rest of the organization and its partners. There is a variety of work we do, which can keep things interesting! A lot of my work is generally for published projects, such as information panels, brochures, wall maps, and public reports such as the Conservation Management Strategies. I have a love for cartography and take great pride putting together a polished map.

New Zealand has a big problem with invasive species like possums, stoats, and rats preying on the native bird population. There are also a lot of species of weeds sprawling over the landscape. Much of DOC’s work is focused on pest eradication and we provide geospatial support for this. With the recent announcement by the government to have New Zealand predator-free by 2050, we have a new spring in our steps to keep track of eradication activities around the country.

In terms of technology and software, we primarily use Esri software for our work, Skype for team chatting (it’s very helpful to have team support at your fingertips), and Garmin GPS units out in the field.

Q: What’s a hip thing to do in New Zealand? Cycling? Skiing? Deconstructed coffee?

A: There is so much to do and see in New Zealand! Skiing and cycling are certainly popular, as well as going on a tramp (hike). I’m personally a big fan of some of the geothermal areas in New Zealand, that means soaking in hot springs! There are also quite a few white water rafting spots around the country that can be a lot of fun.

Wearing shorts in any weather is also the hip thing to do, as well as walking around barefoot! People here are just doing their own thing, and I really respect that. I think the culture in New Zealand is pretty relaxed and has also helped me to relax a little too. And I must say, the coffee here is out of this world, I’m not sure I can go back to drinking the North American stuff…

Q: Are you insulted by maps that omit New Zealand? Why / why not?

A: Ha ha, oh dear, poor New Zealand! I wouldn’t say it’s insulting but I would perhaps question the quality of the map. Sometimes New Zealand appears twice on a map, so maybe it all evens out.

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

A: I can only compare my experience in New Zealand to the one I had in Canada, but I must say how impressed I am with the geospatial industry here. I think there is a lot of good stuff going on and other organizations in other countries could perhaps look to New Zealand as a model.

In terms of any personal “wisdom”, I would just encourage people to branch out a little and not be afraid to try new things! Don’t let ‘playing it safe’ stop you from taking a risk and doing something you really want to do.

Maps and mappers of the 2016 calendar: Rosemary Wardley

In our series “Maps and mappers of the 2016 calendar” we will present throughout 2016 the mapmakers who submitted their creations for inclusion in the 2016 GeoHipster calendar.

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Rosemary Wardley

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: I am a GIS Cartographer at National Geographic where I get to combine my love of geospatial data and creating beautiful visualizations. I am usually found working on our cartographic databases or improving our editorial workflow. I am also a founding member of the MaptimeDC chapter and really enjoy spreading the gospel of geography and cartography to the masses!

Q: Tell us the story behind your map (what inspired you to make it, what did you learn while making it, or any other aspects of the map or its creation you would like people to know).

A: This map was originally produced as part of the 2014 NACIS MapQuilt of Pittsburgh, PA, where each cartographer is given a quadrant of the city to map in a style of their choice. The design was inspired by one of my favorite artists, Roy Lichtenstein, and his pop-art style. I also took inspiration from Pittsburgh native and fellow pop-artist, Andy Warhol, whose museum is conveniently located on this portion of the map. There have been quite a few pop-art inspired maps produced over the past year, so I am happy that my piece is a part of that canon!

Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.

A: All of the data was gathered from the City of Pittsburgh GIS warehouse and the map was created using Adobe Illustrator with the MAPublisher plugin. I also used Adobe PhotoShop to produce the relief.

'Pittsburgh Quilt' by Rosemary Wardley
‘Pittsburgh Quilt’ by Rosemary Wardley

Maps and mappers of the 2016 calendar: Katie Kowalsky

In our series “Maps and mappers of the 2016 calendar” we will present throughout 2016 the mapmakers who submitted their creations for inclusion in the 2016 GeoHipster calendar.

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Katie Kowalsky

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: katie_hi I’m Katie, a cartographer, hot sauce enthusiast, and recent San Francisco transplant. I work at Mapzen where I focus on building tutorials, writing documentation, and supporting our users through improving the usability of our products. This means in a given week I can be running user research testing, answering support questions or talking at a lot of events.

Q: Tell us the story behind your map (what inspired you to make it, what did you learn while making it, or any other aspects of the map or its creation you would like people to know).

A: I come from a family of artists and since I was little, art museums always feel like home to me. Some of my favorite pieces at the Milwaukee Art Museum (my hometown!) are by Roy Lichtenstein, including Crying Girl and Water Lily Pond Reflections. These two pieces have always been examples of his great use of primary colors and Ben-day dots. This color and texture palette has always stayed in the back of my mind. When I started learning about Tilemill and basemap design, I was inspired by how creative and unique the designers from Stamen and Mapbox were. While working at the Cartography Lab at UW-Madison, I had a chance to rebuild curriculum teaching basemap design and was inspired by my love of pop art to bring that into a basemap design to use as an example for the lab tutorial.

Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.

A: This was built entirely in Mapbox Studio (now known as Classic), using Mapbox-Streets and their vector terrain source for the data. I built this interactive basemap (view it here) from zoom 1 to 22 using the glorious CartoCSS interface!

'Roy Lichtenstein-inspired map of DC' by Katie Kowalsky
‘Roy Lichtenstein-inspired map of DC’ by Katie Kowalsky
'Crying Girl' by Roy Lichtenstein
‘Crying Girl’ by Roy Lichtenstein
'Water Lily Pond Reflections' by Roy Lichtenstein
‘Water Lily Pond Reflections’ by Roy Lichtenstein

Maps and mappers of the 2016 calendar: Gretchen Peterson

In our series “Maps and mappers of the 2016 calendar” we will present throughout 2016 the mapmakers who submitted their creations for inclusion in the 2016 GeoHipster calendar.

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Gretchen Peterson

Gretchen Peterson’s most recent books are City Maps: A Coloring Book for Adults and QGIS Map Design. Peterson resides in Colorado and actively tweets via @petersongis on cartography.

A Cornell graduate in the natural resources field, Peterson can still be found spending part of the workweek absorbed in data analysis and mapping for the greater environmental good while reserving the rest of the workweek for broader mapping endeavors, which includes keeping up on the multitude of innovative map styles coming from all corners of the profession.

Peterson speaks frequently on the topic of modern cartographic design, and it was in one of these talks that the Ye Olde Pubs of London’s Square Mile map was not only shown off but also created on-the-spot as a live demo of the cartographic capabilities of the QGIS software. The FOSS4GNA 2015 conference talk went through the process of loading and styling data and then creating a print composer map layout.

Some highlights of the demo included the custom pub data repository created just for this map, the demonstration of the relatively new shapeburst capabilities of QGIS, and the technique for modifying image file (SVG) code in order to allow icon colors to be changed within the QGIS interface.

The map was also the focus of a QGIS cartography workshop held in Boulder, Colorado. The students at that workshop followed the instructions posted on github to create the map. It’s a great two-hour project for introducing the software and a few of the principles of cartographic design, and readers are encouraged to give it a try and supply any feedback you may have.

'Historic Pubs of London' by Gretchen Peterson
‘Historic Pubs of London’ by Gretchen Peterson

Maps and mappers of the 2016 calendar: Asger Sigurd Skovbo Petersen

In our series “Maps and mappers of the 2016 calendar” we will present throughout 2016 the mapmakers who submitted their creations for inclusion in the 2016 GeoHipster calendar.

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Asger Sigurd Skovbo Petersen

Q: Tell us about yourself

A: I work at a small Danish company called Septima which I also cofounded back in early 2013. I have been in the geo business since 2004 when I received my masters degree (MScE) from the Technical University of Denmark.

I do development, consulting, and data analysis. One of my primary interests is to find new ways of utilizing existing data. This interest really took off when I worked as the sole R&D engineer at a data acquisition company which had a massive collection of data just sitting there and waiting to be upcycled. At this job I got a lot of experience working with quite big LiDAR, raster, and vector datasets, and developing algorithms to process them effectively.

Q: Tell us the story behind your map (what inspired you to make it, what did you learn while making it, or any other aspects of the map or its creation you would like people to know).

A: When processing the second Danish LiDAR-based elevation model, the producing agency released some temporary point cloud data at a very early stage.

My curiousity was too big to leave these data alone, and with a LASmoons license of Martin Isenburg’s LAStools, it was easy to process the 400km^2 las files into 40cm DTM and DSM. And then the usual open source stack helped publishing a hillshaded version as an easy to use web map.

This web map was widely used and cited, as it was the only visible example of the coming national DEM for quite a while. The old model was 1.6m resolution, and with a new resolution of 0.4m a lot of details were revealed, which were not visible in the old model. In the following months we actually received quite a few notes from archaeologists, who had discovered exciting and previously unknown historic stuff just by browsing our map.

Hillshades are the go-to visualisation of DEMs. Probably because they can be easily processed by almost any raster-capable software, and because they are very easily interpreted. However they can also hide even very big structures depending on the general direction of the structure.

This made me want to find a better way to visualise the data so our archaeological friends could get even more information from the new data.

I then read a heap of papers on the subject and decided to try out a visualisation based on Sky View Factor. At the time I didn’t find any implementation that I was able to use, so I ended up implementing my own. (I later discovered that SAGA had a perfectly good implementation, so I could have just used QGIS. But hey, then I wouldn’t have had the fun implementing my own 🙂 )

I did a lot of tests using the Sky View Factor on the new DTM, but I couldn’t make it work as well as I had hoped. By coincidence I ran it on the DSM in an urban area, which gave a very interesting result. This effect is basically what makes the GeoHipster map look different from most other shaded DSMs.

Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.

A: The map consists of several layers: a standard hillshade, a Sky View Factor, building footprints, and water bodies.

The Sky View Factor layer was made using a custom algorithm implemented in Python using rasterio and optimized for speed using Cython. As mentioned this could probably just as well have been processed using SAGA, for instance, through QGIS. The hillshade layer was made using GDAL and the vector layers did not require any special processing.

QGIS was used to symbolize and combine the layers using gradients, transparency and layer blending.

Data used are the national Danish DEM and the national Danish topological map called GeoDanmark. Both datasets are open and can be freely downloaded from Kortforsyningen. Sadly most of these sites are in Danish only – maybe some clever hidden trade barrier.

Here is an online version of my map. For the online version I had to change the symbolization a bit as producing tiles from QGIS Server doesn’t work very well with gradients.

After submitting the map to the GeoHipster 2016 calendar I have been working on coloring the vegetation to get a green component also. There are no datasets for vegetation which include single trees, bushes etc, so I made a python script to extract and filter this information from the classified LiDAR point cloud.

This new map can be seen here in a preliminary version.

'Copenhagen Illuminated' by Asger Sigurd Skovbo Petersen
‘Copenhagen Illuminated’ by Asger Sigurd Skovbo Petersen

Maps and mappers of the 2016 calendar: Stephen Smith

In our series “Maps and mappers of the 2016 calendar” we will present throughout 2016 the mapmakers who submitted their creations for inclusion in the 2016 GeoHipster calendar.

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Stephen Smith

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: I’m a cartographer by night and a GIS Project Supervisor by day. I work for the Vermont Agency of Transportation where I help our rail section use GIS to manage state-owned rail assets and property. Most of the time my work entails empowering users to more easily access and use their GIS data. I’ve used Esri tools on a daily basis since 2008, but recently I’ve been playing with new tools whenever I get the chance. I attended SOTMUS 2014 in DC (my first non-Esri conference) and was really excited about everything happening around the open source geo community. I got some help installing “Tilemill 2” from GitHub and I haven’t looked back. Since then the majority of the maps I’ve made have been using open source tools and data. Lately I’ve been heavily involved in The Spatial Community, a Slack community of 800+ GIS professionals who collaborate to solve each other’s problems and share GIFs. I’m also starting a “mastermind” for GIS professionals who want to work together and help one another take their careers to the next level.

Q: Tell us the story behind your map (what inspired you to make it, what did you learn while making it, or any other aspects of the map or its creation you would like people to know).

A: This map was a gift for my cousin who is part Native American and works in DC as an attorney for the National Indian Gaming Commission. His wife told me that he really liked my Natural Resources map and she wanted me to make him something similar to the US Census American Indian maps but in a “retro” style. I took the opportunity to explore the cartographic capabilities of QGIS and was very impressed.

Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.

A: I’ve done a full writeup of the creation of the map including the data, style inspirations, fonts, challenges, and specific QGIS settings used on my website. You can also download a high resolution version perfect for a desktop wallpaper.

'Native American Lands' by Stephen Smith
‘Native American Lands’ by Stephen Smith

Maps and mappers of the 2016 calendar: Andrew Zolnai

In our series “Maps and mappers of the 2016 calendar” we will present throughout 2016 the mapmakers who submitted their creations for inclusion in the 2016 GeoHipster calendar.

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Andrew Zolnai

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: I’m a geologist who turned to computer mapping 30 years ago and GIS 20 yrs ago – high school Latin helped me transition to coding just short of programming – and I now started my third business and assisted two others. I’m taking a ‘business process first’ approach, using mind mapping as a ‘talking point’ to help firms help themselves, which will determine workflows in resources planning that may invoke web maps. My Volunteered Geographic Information also helps individuals and academics put themselves on the map.

Q: Tell us the story behind your map (what inspired you to make it, what did you learn while making it, or any other aspects of the map or its creation you would like people to know).

A: Ken Field’s hexagon maps featured on the BBC during UK elections this spring inspired me to do the same in the US Gulf of Mexico: 50K oil wells taxed arcgis.com, so binning the data points allowed to show progressively more detail at large scales as you zoom in. It clearly shows for example the march of wells further offshore with time, in a way that speaks to stakeholders and public as well as engineers and mappers.

Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.

A: Esri ArcGIS for Desktop Standard and Model Builder, scripts adapted from Esri’s Ken Field for US Gulf of Mexico wells, posted on ArcGIS Online.

'Hexagon binning, US Gulf of Mexico oilwells' by Andrew Zolnai
‘Hexagon binning, US Gulf of Mexico oilwells’ by Andrew Zolnai

Maps and mappers of the 2016 calendar: Terence Stigers

In our series “Maps and mappers of the 2016 calendar” we will present throughout 2016 the mapmakers who submitted their creations for inclusion in the 2016 GeoHipster calendar.

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Terence Stigers

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: I never formally studied GIS so I’m tempted to say I ‘fell into’ it, but that would imply there was something accidental about the process. I am a historian and archaeologist, and whilst studying these disciplines I heard about this new-fangled thing called GIS that ostensibly used computers to model and study spatial relationships. Immediately recognizing how useful such a thing could be for archaeology, I happily invaded the geosciences department of the university I was attending. At the time the only remotely related offering they had was a class titled ‘Computer Mapping’. I enrolled and ended up walking away with a copy of MapInfo 5.0 (still got it, too). Having exhausted the university’s offerings, I did some digging and learned that Esri (at the time, at least) offered substantial discounts to enrolled students. A series of phone calls and emails later had secured me a shiny new copy of ArcView 3.2a for a tenth of the retail price. I spent the summer teaching myself how to use it, and the rest is GIS (with a little bit of history and archaeology thrown in for good measure). So I didn’t actually fall into GIS but rather actively and doggedly hunted it down. But GIS isn’t my job. I do it for fun.

Q: Tell us the story behind your map (what inspired you to make it, what did you learn while making it, or any other aspects of the map or its creation you would like people to know).

A: I made this map to explore some techniques I intend to employ for an upcoming project. My friend Drew asked me to produce some maps for a new book he’s writing, so I decided to get a jump on things. It’s an academic book (but not a textbook), so I’ll be dealing with substantial size constraints and will be limited to greyscale. So the trick is figuring out how to convey enough information with the least amount of clutter. Whenever possible I try to produce maps devoid of legends. I feel every entry on a legend represents a failure on the part of the cartographer. An ideal map should need only a scalebar, a north arrow and maybe some labels. I try my best to attain this ideal. I usually turn to old maps for inspiration for these endeavors, and on this map you can see the results in the larger rivers and bodies of water. I also used Tanaka-style illuminated contours for this map, a technique I have long been fond of but only recently became able to leverage (I first encountered the idea of Tanaka contours using GIS software in an ArcUser magazine about a decade ago. It was a spirited effort, but was more a terraced DEM than anything else). It is a very effective tool for conveying a lot of elevation information at a glance. And doing so without a color ramp or the clutter of hillshading.

Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.

A: The only tool I needed for this map was QGIS (2.8.1, I think). The hydro symbology I achieved through the simple expedient of a series of semi-transparent layered negative buffers with varying dash arrays for outline symbology. I did the illuminated contours using a technique developed by Anita Graser (QGIS superstar extraordinaire) that she obligingly outlined in a post on her blog (http://anitagraser.com/2015/05/24/how-to-create-illuminated-contours-tanaka-style/). I had to tweak it just a little bit (mentioned in the comments, if you’re interested). All the data used came from MassGIS, OpenStreetMap, and myself. The town depicted is Greenfield, Massachusetts, and is the town in which I reside. Over the course of some years I have amassed, manipulated, and refined a sizeable amount of data pertaining to this town. Because of this, I have an intimate knowledge of these datasets, so they are my go-to datasets whenever I experiment with cartographic techniques (unless I need something they can’t provide. A volcano, for instance).

'Greenfield, Massachusetts' by Terence Stigers
‘Greenfield, Massachusetts’ by Terence Stigers

Link to full-size map