All posts by Ralph Straumann

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 🙂