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.