All posts by Ralph Straumann

Topi Tjukanov: “In Finnish basemaps forest is white”

Topi Tjukanov
Topi Tjukanov
Topi Tjukanov lives approximately at 60°N & 25°E (Helsinki, Finland) with his wife. Topi works for the Finnish state in the Ministry of the Environment and does geospatial data visualization as a hobby and an occasional freelancing work. He graduated 2014 with a masters degree in geography from the University of Helsinki and since then has worked with GIS related projects. You can view Topi’s visualizations on his website at tjukanov.org and find him on Twitter under @tjukanov.

Topi was interviewed for GeoHipster by Ralph Straumann.

Q: Topi, your Twitter bio says you are into data visualization and maps (and football – or “soccer” for our US friends) and that you currently work in the Ympäristöministeriö of Finland, or more simply, @yministerio. What do you do for the Ympäristöministeriö?

A: Firstly, I’d like to highlight that my role in the GIS scene is somewhat schizophrenic: From 8 AM to 4 PM on weekdays I work for the Ministry of the Environment in Finland (Ympäristöministeriö in Finnish), so I work for the Finnish state. Also the work I do at the Ministry is somewhat related to GIS, but on a very different (non-visual, less technical) level. This “real work” is a part of a big national GIS project here in Finland.

Outside office hours, I do data visualization mainly for my own amusement, although it has accidentally also become a freelancing work for me. 99% of the stuff you see on Twitter is the data hobbyist version of me. I try to keep my two roles as far away from each other as possible so I won’t be limited in any way in what I do with the data visualization stuff.

Q: I see. Can you talk more about the Ministry of the Environment project(s)?

A: To describe it shortly, it’s related to standardizing land use planning GIS data. Not very geohip.

To describe in a bit more detail, it’s a part of a larger national GIS project. One very beloved word in the Finnish public sector is digitalization (not digitizing). I don’t know if it’s even used outside of Finland that widely, but here it’s a common word for all larger IT-related projects, which aim to change the way of working to a more efficient way with the help of IT. Whether it be bringing tablet computers to schools or drafting legislation for self-driving cars. So on a larger scale, I am working in a digitalization project.

I guess a common problem in many countries is that GIS data is sometimes a bit hard to find and you don’t have a lot of information about the quality of the data. This project aims to tackle that problem, but also to standardize the data and to change the way of working to be more API-focused rather than moving files from one place to another. Our part of the project, like I said, is focusing on data related to land use planning — city plans and other documents which tell what can you build where. Those documents are still widely non-digital and non-GIS-compatible. So I am working with various interest groups from the public and private sectors to make spatial planning more efficient and open.

Q: And what led you onto your particular path, visualization and maps?

A: I have studied geography in the University of Helsinki and after that worked in a large IT-company with GIS for a few years. As geeky as it may sound, I have always liked maps, long before I knew anything about GIS. I was into doing stuff with Photoshop and I think I got my first computer when I was about 4 years old. So all of this sounds more or less like a logical path to where I am now, right?

Q: True! Do you in fact remember when you first heard about GIS? And do you think as a term it still applies to our field?

A: I think I heard something about it already in high school, but wasn’t really interested in it until 2011 when I started my studies in the University of Helsinki.

GIS as a term sounds a bit outdated to me. I’m strongly with the “spatial is not special” people. I think GIS data is just data and I really hope that, in the future, the “GIS people” can learn more from the people analyzing and visualizing non-spatial data and vice versa. As my old colleague used to say: “GIS data? it’s just an additional column in a database.”

Q: … or two or three if your format supports multiple geometry types 😉 Besides geography, your ‘About me’ page also mentions a business degree?

A: Yes. After high school I did a BBA degree in international business and logistics. I didn’t become a businessman, but the best thing there was that the studies were in English and I got to know people from more than ten different countries. After graduating from there, I started to think what I would really like to do in life, and ended up studying geography. But also studying business has given me valuable insights to my current work.

Q: I see. Can you describe what you can apply to your current work? And does the business degree also help with your freelancing activities?

A: In my current work I’d say that the most beneficial is general understanding in how businesses and the society works. But of course also geography has brought me that kind of understanding. In my freelancing the business degree hasn’t proved useful. At least not so far.

Q: I also studied geography with a focus on GIS and I’m always intrigued to see how GIS is used differently in different parts of the world. For example, in Switzerland (my home country) being rather small and mountainous, precision agriculture seems much less of a field than for example in the US. However, for example, forests and natural hazards are important topics. What is GIS in Finland like, what are the main fields it is used for?

A: Finland has had traditionally very strong forest industry and so that has also shaped the GIS in Finland a bit. One fun fact is that in Finnish basemaps forest is still white, because there is so much of it, that it wasn’t originally marked there to save ink when printing.

However, nowadays GIS is used quite widely in different fields and the amount of open data is growing all the time. The whole Finnish road network, all building footprints, real-time train locations, placenames, and a wide variety of statistical data are just a few examples of what is available. Also some pretty weird open data, like real-time locations of snow plows or tortoise movement in the Helsinki zoo is out there to explore.

Finland as the home country of Nokia mobile phones has had a very strong IT-sector in the last 30 years and that can also be seen in GIS.

A: Nice bit of trivia on the Finnish forests! If I’m not mistaken, forests can also be white on some orienteering maps.

A: Oh… Orienteering. In Finland every second person working with GIS is doing orienteering!

Q: You mentioned your private visualization activities before and I think that is also linked to some of the examples of open data you just listed. What drives you to further pursue geo and visualization in your off-duty time?

A: I have been thinking myself what makes me visualize data just for fun. Don’t know for sure, but I guess it’s a combination of a lot of things. I like the technical side of it, as I am learning new things, like Python, while doing this stuff. Also it’s about making something visually interesting out of boring CSV files. Then thirdly, on a more idealistic level, if I manage to dig something meaningful out of the data and make someone act differently or even give a thought on their way of doing things, that’s awesome!

My visualizations have been featured on a few of the biggest news media in Finland — for example my latest work  visualizing how the Arctic ice is melting due to global warming. That really made me feel like I can do something useful with this stuff.

Q: How do you choose the appropriate visualization type?

A: Depends totally on the day. Mostly it’s trial and error, to be honest. When something looks interesting enough, I post it to Twitter or somewhere else. As the stuff I do isn’t really driven by customer orders, I enjoy every bit of freedom I have and try to take it to artsy levels whenever possible. If some of the stuff I do annoys someone, or someone thinks I did something “wrong” in my visualizations, I always find that super interesting!

Q: And where do you draw inspiration from? For example, how do you choose data to visualize and the information you want to highlight?

A: Inspiration can come from anywhere, but I have a few different approaches to how I end up doing things. Quite often Twitter is the source of inspiration, in one form or another.

Sometimes it’s data-driven, so I might see on Twitter that some organization has opened up an interesting dataset and I go and see what interesting [thing] could be done with it. This is how I did the animations about train and ship traffic.

Sometimes it’s tool-driven. So, for example, I might want to try out a piece of code someone has published, or just might want to try out an interesting new plugin in QGIS, and then I find suitable data for that. This is how I ended up playing with cartograms recently.

The third option is that I just come up with an idea about a topic that’s interesting to me and I go searching for ways to make it visually interesting also for other people. This is how I ended up doing visualizations about hurricane paths for example.

Q: Speaking of tools and technology, on your website you list your software stack as QGIS, PostGIS, Python, and others. It seems you’re solidly in FOSS4G?

A: As I do this stuff mainly as a hobby I have no one to pay the license fees. But seriously, it’s not only that I use FOSS4G because of that, but often it’s also the best option. I think I first tried QGIS maybe six years ago, and it has certainly come a long way since then, and hands down nowadays is far better desktop GIS software than ArcMap. Earlier in my work I have also used a lot of Esri products, FME, and a bit of Oracle Spatial, so I do also understand the value of non-FOSS. Especially FME is a great ETL tool. I used a lot of FME in my previous work, but now I have taught myself to use Python to do similar stuff.

But all in all I am really thankful for all the active developers working on the FOSS4G projects and hope that I can pay back and promote their work by doing something interesting with the tools. I personally don’t do software development and only write my sketchy Python scripts when it’s absolutely necessary. I’m more of a scripter than a developer.

Q: Since you said QGIS is “hands down far better”, I have to ask: Where do you think QGIS excels in comparison to competitors? And where would you like to see improvements in QGIS, and in the FOSS4G stack at large?

A: First two things I really liked when I started using QGIS were the freedom of projection and freedom from file formats. By freedom from projection I mean the style it reprojects data automatically to your project coordinate system. Sounds like a small thing, but was massive when coordinate systems were still very confusing. When I started with GIS in my studies, you had to have ArcMap to open shapefiles and MapInfo to open MapInfo files. QGIS changed that.

After using it for a while, I also noticed a much bigger advantage, as it’s far more stable than ArcGIS, especially with larger datasets. And I must also give credit to the great plugins QGIS has (TIme Manager, QGIS2web, QGIS2threejs, etc.) that can be used to make a lot of cool stuff easily and have made my life much easier.

Q: When you get commissioned as a freelancer, is that mostly visualization work or does it also involve e.g. consulting and data analysis?

A: So far it has been a few visualization projects, but I have had quite a lot of contacts coming in through my website. It has mostly been cases where someone has visited my website or seen the stuff on Twitter and then asked me if I would be interested in working together. I haven’t really tried to actively offer my freelancing services.

Q: Do you have any advice for our readers who might want to dive into freelance work?

A: Gosh. Do not ask me for freelancing advice. I have just accidentally become one. But I can try to give some hints on what to focus on.

Firstly, especially for me as some of the stuff I do is on the border of technical and creative work, it’s extremely hard to put a price tag on it. So have a clear pricing strategy. I don’t.

Secondly, be aware of your limitations. As I am doing this stuff in addition to my daily work, I am mostly limited by time. Also my boss is aware that I have this freelancing thing and I am very strict with myself that I don’t mix my real work with my freelancing stuff.

Q: Your work is very visible online – I often see it on Twitter where you share finished visualizations as well as work-in-progress. Where do you see value in social media?

A: I guess many people say this nowadays, but the power of social media has really taken me by surprise. I find it strange that more than 4,000 people find the stuff I do worth following on Twitter. Social media has enabled the whole freelancing thing for me and is taking me to speak at Visualizing Knowledge and OpenVisConf this spring.

Twitter is an awesome source for new ideas, feedback and technical support. I also sometimes post stuff to Reddit, but it’s a whole different scene. I haven’t really figured that out yet. I have been surprised how popular a platform Reddit is in the States.

Also, the value of social media lies in the geotagged tweets that can be visualized nicely 🙂

Q: Haha! And what do you do when you don’t work and come up with innovative visualizations? What hobbies do you enjoy – geohip or not?

A: The Finnish football season is starting this week and I have been eagerly waiting to go and see the matches again live. I also do cycling during the summer and go to the gym quite often.

Q: Looking at Atanas, cycling is definitely geohip! Can you offer a nice piece of advice, of wisdom to all geohipsters out there?

A: For extra hipster credit, I must also note that I have two bikes, and the other one is a fixed-gear!

Don’t know if it’s much wisdom, but I strongly encourage everyone to share their maps and scripts online whenever possible. The help and support you can get online can really help to take your work to the next level.

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!

 

Achim Tack & Patrick Stotz: “More and more nonsensical things are mapped just for the sake of mapping”

Achim Tack (top) and Patrick Stotz
Achim Tack (top) and Patrick Stotz
Besides other engagements, Achim and Patrick work as data journalists at Germany-based Spiegel Online, one of the most widely read German-speaking news sites. They're also the creative duo behind the information visualization blog mappable.info, where they share new tools and spare-time projects around their passion for maps and geospatial data. Here they speak about their background, their interests, and inspirations.

Q: Hi Achim and Patrick, where are you based and what do(es each of) you do?

A: Patrick: We both live and work in Hamburg, Germany and feel lucky to have jobs where we spend a fair amount of our time working with geospatial data and making maps. I’ve joined Spiegel Online (a major German news site) last year and work there as a data journalist. We’re still a very small team and my responsibility ranges from gathering, cleaning and analyzing data to making maps and other kinds of (mostly interactive) visualizations.

Achim: In my main job I work as an analyst for a consulting firm (GGR) that focuses on topics like accessibility of public services and communities’ adaptation to demographic change. Applying our models, we produce a lot of datasets and while looking for appealing ways to present them I got in touch with the local data-driven journalism (DDJ) community. Journos know a lot about storytelling that researchers and analysts often don’t. About a year ago, I was offered to join the Spiegel Online data journalism team besides my job at GGR.

Q: I see. How does your two-job situation work for you, Achim, I imagine it can be stressful?

A: Achim: Better than I’ve expected, to be quite honest. I work on a fixed four days GGR / one day Spiegel Online schedule. On the technical level, data journalism and urban analytics have a lot in common: both fields center on the generation, cleansing, and analysis of data. I am very grateful that both employers show some flexibility, but I also believe that they both benefit from the knowledge transfer between jobs.

Q: Of course, I also had a glance at your Twitter bios: Among other things, Achim’s says “a passion for #maps, #geodata and #ddj”, Patrick’s says “data journalism & dataviz” and “map nerd”. Is the spatial theme a unifying one for you, and if so, how come?

A: Patrick: Definitely, it’s our common interests that got the two of us in touch in the first place. We share a deep fascination for understanding the geography of places, as well as for the beauty of maps. At least that’s what led both of us to studying urban planning at university (not in the same city though) and later on to starting our blog mappable.info.

Achim and I got to know each other around four years ago. Back then, Achim already worked at GGR, and I was a research fellow at HafenCity University Hamburg. We were working together on a joint research project building a GIS-based tool for predicting the (fiscal, ecological, social…) consequences of urban planning projects. The final version was a set of custom-built ArcGIS Toolboxes programmed with Python (ArcPy) scripts. The whole approach of programmatically controlling a GIS, designing your own interfaces (within the given limitations) and working on a final product fit for usage in public administration was new to us and held a lot of challenges.

Achim: While working on the project, we quickly realized that we share the same passion and interest for maps and geospatial data. If I think about it now, starting mappable.info maybe was a counterreaction to working on often complicated tasks. It was our fun place to explore some new tools and simply publish small projects online without many restrictions.

Q: To what degree can each of you mix and match the skills that you acquire in your various activities?

A: Achim: Starting from a relatively similar university education, we both got different skillsets. I gained some experience in the fields of scraping and data handling, whereas Patrick deepened his knowledge in data visualization and front end design with D3.js, etc. But at least from my point of view, these days you can’t train for one job anymore but you have to broaden and adapt your skillset on a per-project basis. My urban analytics job benefits from skills learned in DDJ and vice versa. It’s getting more common to consult with universities or other research institutions when doing DDJ.

Patrick: I agree. I’d say that the lines between DDJ and cartography (and other disciplines) have become quite blurry recently. In my eyes some of the best cartography nowadays is done by the New York Times graphics department. At the same time bloggers, cartographers, and geohipsters (or however you want to call them) might analyze and visualize data and turn it into a story that’s far superior to a lot of the things we’re used to seeing in journalism.

Mappable -- Limited accessibility
Mappable — Limited accessibility

 

Q: What then is your take on the interplay between more recent developments in general like the open data movement and digital humanities on one hand and more traditional fields such as journalism and GIS on each other?

A: Achim: I’m excited to see the changes in both fields — traditional GIS and journalism — in recent years. Today open (geo)data is used in most of our projects. And I’m not only talking about “fun projects” or civic hacking, but serious consulting projects. Open data has not only the value of being free, but of being quickly and easily accessible.

On the software side, I think in the coming years we will see a trend toward more open software such as QGIS in public administration. Mostly because of budget reasons, but I believe the influx of younger employees could lead to them bringing their open source toolstack with them as well.

Q: What are some projects you’re excited about or working on right now (if this is not giving away too much)?

A: Achim: We have to differentiate between professional projects and private “afterwork projects”. At GGR for example, we just finished a multi-year federal research project about tradable land-use certificates. We developed a WebGIS platform to conduct a semi-automated fiscal impact analysis for close to a hundred clients.

Like every geo-nerd, I still have a few datasets sitting around that I always wanted to play with. One idea is a spatio-temporal analysis of business locations and the transfer of this data into a predictive model for urban retail areas… But I might need some more free weekends for that 😉

Patrick: Oh yes, that idea has been on our list for a long time. I have to admit though that after turning my hobby into my everyday job, I’ve become a bit reluctant towards ‘just for fun’ mapping projects. I’d definitely like to keep mappable.info as well as its little spin-off project travel score running as before, it’s just hard to find the time besides a full-time job and the other stuff I want to do in my spare time.

Patrick at the world's longest-named place
Patrick at the world’s longest-named place

Q: You’ve mentioned your shared website mappable.info a few times: is that URL an implicit mission statement (as in “map all the info!”)?

A: Patrick: No, that’s not quite it. We started the blog at the beginning of 2013. At least from our perspective, that was a time when publishing maps online got a lot easier. Mapbox and CartoDB skyrocketed, and we were thrilled about all the new possibilities that were coming up. Of course, there had been tons of great examples before, but for us, coming from an urban planning perspective and a rather narrow Esri ArcGIS-centered view and education, this was like a small revolution. Our first project was mapping all hotels, hostels, and airbnb apartments in Hamburg. We scraped the data from various sources. Putting them on a map and styling in CartoDB was super easy. That’s what mappable was about in the beginning. Trying out new tools, playing with the aesthetics of maps, and bringing data onto a map that you hadn’t seen mapped before.

Achim: I’d like to add one more point of view: Recent years have seen the generation of very large datasets, which have a direct or indirect spatial reference, and therefore are “mappable”. Previously, when thinking about spatial data, classic things like land-use-parcels or streets came to mind. But today it also means live tracking data of taxis, whales, or planes; retail sales of store locations, or the opening date of every Starbucks in the country. What’s new is that a number of those datasets – while clearly having a spatial component – were not generated to be spatially analyzed. I like to speak of recyclable datasets, since what we deal with are often residues from other processes, stored away in databases. Their spatial relevance becomes clear only on the second or third sight. Analyzing and mapping those datasets can lead to completely new insights.

Mappable car-sharing timelapse
Mappable car-sharing timelapse

Q: What do you make of such skeptics like Brian Timoney (and me) who keep surfacing things that maybe shouldn’t have been mapped? Do you have a good rule to go by that you could share when it comes to maps or other forms of information visualization?

A: Achim: Yea, we quickly found out that not everything should be mapped – openly available but legally protected car sharing data for example 😉 But seriously: I agree that there is a danger that more and more nonsensical things are mapped just for the sake of mapping. Currently, interactive maps in most cases guarantee quite high user interaction rates. From the journalism standpoint this poses a challenge: You always have to ask yourself if the nice and well-designed map you could roll out really adds to the story or is simply done to gain more page impressions.

That’s why I expect to see a lot of maps coming from PR departments in the next years. You could compare this situation to the field of infographics. They got a lot of attention in the past years so now it feels like more or less every advertising agency publishes 2-3 infographics per week. But at least from my personal view the effect wears off. I see a lot less infographics being shared in my social media feeds compared to maybe a year ago. I fear this will happen with maps, if too many nonsensical ones are published.

Patrick: Sure, just because making online maps nowadays is easier than ever, doesn’t mean that everything that’s mappable should be mapped. The first question we always ask if someone wants a map visualization is if the spatial component of the data set is actually the most important thing. Sounds pretty straightforward, but obviously isn’t understood by everyone. We actually put together a small checklist on making geodata visualizations when we first got invited to speak at a journalist conference about making maps. In our everyday work, we must admit though, that we don’t really work with a fixed set of rules. One thing we always try to achieve is to keep our visualizations as simple as possible. That’s probably the influence of reading some books by Edward Tufte.

Q: Speaking of Tufte, who else would you consider a source of inspiration for your work, and how did you learn about them?

A: Patrick: Difficult question, there are just so many. I think we both draw a lot of inspiration from our twitter feed and from quite a long list of blogs we follow. To name a few (and risking to forget a lot more who do awesome work in the process): Alberto Cairo, Nathan Yau, Gregor Aisch, Lynn Cherny, Andy Kirk, Mike Bostock, Maarten Lambrechts and John Burn-Murdoch when it comes to dataviz and Andy Woodruff, Lyzi Diamond, Hannes Kröger and Alan McConchie when it comes to mapping. It just amazes me again and again how much their openness and the openness of the whole mapping and the dataviz community helps in learning stuff and keeping up to date. It’s not like I don’t appreciate my university education, but it’s that openness that enabled me to learn new tools and points of view and finally to switch fields and get a job where I can do what I’m passionate about.

Q: And do you know already where the path will take the two of you? Will we see more maps by you?

A: Achim: Although it was very quiet on mappable in recent months, we still do create lots of maps of course. Unfortunately the ones I create for our customers at GGR are not open to the public in most cases. But on the other hand hundreds of thousands of Spiegel Online visitors have already viewed our maps – that’s a good compromise that makes me quite happy 🙂

Q: Finally, any words of advice for us geohipsters or the world at large out there?

A: Patrick: To the geohipsters: Read this blog post on the future(s) of OpenStreetMap by Alan McConchie and help OSM moving towards what he calls singularity. To the rest, and this might sound awkward considering I’m now a journalist myself: don’t let all the bad news cloud your world view. Check out the works of Hans Rosling and Max Roser and acknowledge the long-term positive trends, too.

Achim: I can only agree on this and would like to add just one thought: Given the fact that we see so many technical improvements to mapping like HD-satellite videos or high precision maps for autonomous driving, we sometimes should take a moment to appreciate the craftsmanship of mapping like the globes from Bellerby Globe Makers, or even pick up a pencil and a piece of paper and start doodling.

Vasile Cotovanu: “Better to publish a (not perfect) map than having a masterpiece … unpublished”

Vasile Cotovanu
Vasile Cotovanu
Vasile Cotovanu is the author of the “SwissTrains” railway map -- one of the first animated public transport maps on the web. He has worked as a software engineer on the mobile team of local.ch, one of the most used websites in Switzerland.

Q: Hi Vasile, I’ve looked up your Twitter bio: “Husband and father, neogeographer, hacker and hiker, mobile software engineer, curious, never stop exploring”. I understand you’re currently between jobs and indeed exploring. What is it that you did in your old job?

A: The Twitter bio is outdated, but at the same time current 🙂 About the exploration bit: I am always doing that, no matter whether I’m hiking the Swiss mountains or I’m playing with new technologies. With regard to the job, yes, I am taking a few months’ time off to explore some pet projects that I’ve never had time to work on 🙂 Before this, my previous position was software engineer in the mobile team of local.ch, one of the most used websites in Switzerland.

Q: You have an education as a geomatics engineer. How did you get interested in that specifically?

A: My passion for geography started in early childhood, when I was reading Jules Verne books side-by-side with the world atlas 🙂 Geomatics came in 1997, before graduating high school, when I had to make a choice about which university to attend. I stumbled upon a technology newspaper that had a GIS software article and presented a classic solution for finding a location for a new company branch (I think it was a bank) based on some criteria like target population, existing branch offices, easy access, etc.

So I wanted to find a university that was dealing with such problems and the closest I could find was to study Geodesy at Technical University of Civil Engineering in Bucharest, Romania. After graduation in 2002, I worked as a technical analyst dealing with surveying and photogrammetry projects with a strong focus on the GIS-related programming part. It was the time of learning and discovering Geomedia, ArcGIS and FME.

However, in 2005 with the online maps revolution that started with Google Maps I joined also this “train” and started to work as a freelancer and created various map mashups. Since then I didn’t work anymore in the classic field of geomatics but embarked on a rather different path: I was doing web-programming with a focus on geo-related projects – which I’m still doing today. Except that I ditched the “web-” prefix, because with time I got experienced in working in the whole production pipeline from raw geo data to presenting them on a map, no matter if on web or (more recently) on mobile.

Q: Did your work for your old employer also relate in any way to maps, geo data or GIS, or have these things been hobbies for you?

A: One of the goals of my former company was to provide the best local search experience in Switzerland. So you can imagine it was dealing with a lot of geodata! I joined them when they needed someone to help them migrate to a new online maps provider, and also to grab (read crawl) the Swiss public transport data for the local search directory.

My colleagues there called me “Mr. Geo”, as most of the geo-related questions were routed to me, but also because I had this passion, or obsession even, for geo-quizzes. So they were always testing me by showing me photos from their trips and asking me to guess the location 🙂

Over the last two years at local.ch I wasn’t exposed to maps and geo-related topics as much any more as I wanted, but more to mobile technologies. So this was a perfect opportunity for me to foster learning how to do native development on mobile platforms (iOS and Android) and apply my geo-related knowledge also there.

Q: You’re famous for your “SwissTrains” railway map. In my mind you were one of the first, if not the first, to build animated public transport maps on the web. When did you start this project, and why this fascination with trains? Are you actually what we call a ‘ferrophile’ in German, i.e. a train lover, rather than a geohipster?

A: Actually both! In the railway department, call me trainbuff, railfan, trainspotter, whatever fits 🙂 Yes, I love trains! As a little child I used to go to a friend and play with his model trains. Later I studied building tracks and railway models. And today I am still playing with trains, except that I am drawing and animating them on web and mobile platforms 🙂

I started the SwissTrains project in 2007 as a challenge to visualize the impressive network of Swiss Railways which consists of 13,000 trains on 5,000 km of tracks, generating 150,000 timetable stops across 1,800 stations. In the early years I did a lot of the heavy-lifting myself, because no vector data were available; so I manually digitized the whole Swiss rail network and mined the timetable data from the official providers.

After some really nice press coverage and a lot of feedback from not only train enthusiasts, I pushed the project to the next level: I open-sourced it, helped others to implement it for their regions, and from time to time I improved its codebase by updating the APIs or adding new tools to it.

Q: I imagine your railway maps have experienced quite some technological development over time. What technologies did you use, do you use, and why?

A: Back in 2007 I was still working on a Windows machine, and for my projects I used commercial GIS tools like GeoMedia (to digitize and analyse the network topology) and MySQL (to store and query the timetable data). The two “databases” were integrated with a pair of custom-made scripts and FME workspaces that didn’t always run smoothly. Thus, there was also a bit of manual work involved, which obviously wasn’t great. On the (web)client the things weren’t smoother: the old GMaps v2 wasn’t too fast and I was doing a lot of rendering, e.g. the network polylines were loaded via the client instead of deferring to a tile-service of some sort. I don’t even want to mention some aspects of the UX or performance in mobile browsers at the time 🙂

So as you can imagine I needed to do something to make SwissTrains scale and perform nicely. I cut all commercial software dependency and started relying on open source tools exclusively. For instance, for capturing and analysing network topology changes I started using a custom online editor based on the GMaps API and later the GeoAdmin API. For managing timetable information I started using SQLite and custom-made integration scripts written in Ruby or Python. On the client side, I took the benefit of GMaps v3 which had a mobile first approach, so it rendered nicely on small screens. Additionally, I delegated the load of extra layers to tools like Fusion Tables.

However, any time I revisit the project, I am tempted to refactor big parts of the code. But I try to keep this urge that every programmer has (right?) in check and focus on what is really broken. Or I add wholly new features like realtime imagery updates of the trains, because, remember, my ultimate goal is to play with model trains, but in the browser 🙂

Q: What are you currently working on? I think I’ve seen a tweet of yours where you were looking for beta testers recently?

A: SwissTrains, what else? Jokes aside, yes, I plan to release it on native mobile platforms like iOS and Android. As a matter of fact, I’m testing it in a beta phase for iOS, so anyone can enroll here via Testflight.

SwissTrains iOS v2
SwissTrains iOS v2

Besides that, as said in the beginning, I have some other pet-projects that are in the idea or alpha phase with focus on geo and mobile platforms. They will certainly keep me busy. Plus I have a 4 year old toddler that develops slowly but surely into a trainspotter like his dad 🙂

Vlad -- future trainspotter
Vlad — future trainspotter

Q: And do you know already where the path will take you? Will we see more web maps by you?

A: That’s not yet defined, but I know one thing: I want to work on more geo-related projects, ideally in a company that deals also with native mobile technologies. Therefore I’m currently fostering my iOS and Android experience and preparing myself for the next employer.

However, I will still have a soft spot for web and maps in general, so I will not stop publishing those completely. On the contrary, like in the past, I plan to continue rolling out maps on my personal website. Most of them are listed here: http://www.vasile.ch/work

Q: On closing, what words of advice would you like to give to all the geohipsters out there, or to the world in general?

A: I usually don’t give advice to strangers, but since you asked, here we go: Keep exploring and have fun with your map projects. If you get blocked by whatever reasons, let’s say technical, then you can park the idea for later but not for too late because better to publish a (not perfect) map than having a masterpiece … unpublished. And please, don’t call it MVP 🙂