Category Archives: Geohipsters

Chris Whong to GeoHipster: “How we build is as important as what we build.”

Chris Whong is an NYC-based civic hacker, urbanist, mapmaker, and data junkie. He most recently worked as the founder and director of NYC Planning Labs, promoting the use of agile methods, human-centered design, and open technology to build impactful tools at the NYC Department of City Planning. He’s perpetually tinkering with open source geospatial technology, open data, and web projects, sharing his work via tweets, blog posts and speaking events. He teaches graduate level technology courses for Urban Planners at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service, promoting the use of open source tools for mapping, data analysis, and visualization.

Chris was interviewed for GeoHipster by Mike Dolbow.

Q: Whong’s law states that “Every government agency, everywhere is working on a ‘new system’; It will solve all of their data problems and will be ready to use in 18-24 months.” My 20+ years in government have taught me that you’re 100% right on this, and I can’t believe I didn’t think of it myself. Please tell me this will be the subject of your first TED talk.

A: I actually came up with this a few years ago when I was in sales, and was speaking to different state and local governments several times a week. There was always a huge amount of faith everyone had that the “new system” would solve all of their data woes in the near future, but it never seemed to actually arrive. I’d love to do more research on this front, as every government technologist I’ve encountered has some version of this story for “new systems” large and small.

Q: Even after all the gigantic government IT failures, I still can’t believe how many ginormous contracts I see being awarded. (Despite their past success, I’m still looking at this $26 million award with side eye.) But they can’t all be failures, right? Maybe just the billion dollar ones?

A: I think the ones you hear about are the BIG ones… there are probably hundreds of little ones that are just as bad but not big enough to show up on anyone’s radar. There has been some reporting recently in NYC about ballooning construction costs for what should be simple projects like park restrooms. I think you’ll find a lot of the same incentives and poor practices at play in both construction and IT projects. My hunch is that it’s the bigness of NYC that allows for these kinds of things to slip through the cracks. A $14M bathroom is peanuts in a $11B capital budget… and you can’t really inspect that budget unless you’re willing to slog through hundreds of pages of screen printouts published as a PDF.

Q: You recently left your post at NYC Planning Labs. What was your favorite project to work on in that job?

A: That would be ZAP Search. It’s a frontend search tool for looking up information on land use applications in NYC. Basically, anyone who wants to change zoning (including the city) has to go through a governmental process, and there’s an information system that tracks each action. I love this project because we were able to seamlessly integrate spatial data into a non-spatial database. You and I know it’s just a simple join to add geometries to a row in a table, but this has eluded everyone and been a huge excuse for years. In government, spatial is still the realm of “GIS people”, who tend to not be the same thing as app developers.

When you’re dealing with a city that’s the size of New York, the map becomes a critical part of the search UI for making individual projects discoverable. Adding geometries and displaying them on a map goes a long way towards making the data instantly relatable to people. Nobody knows obscure project names or even addresses of things being built near them, but everyone knows where they live and can relate to things happening nearby.

I should add that the GeoSearch API comes in at a close second. (GeoSearch is the autocomplete geocoder API that powers address search in all of our apps) We didn’t even build it, the heavy lift for us was transforming the city’s official address database into a format that would work with the Open Source Pelias geocoder built at Mapzen. It’s a wonderful open source story, and I like to think a contract to build a highly-available autocomplete geocoder in government would have taken years and millions of dollars. We did it in a few weeks, basically for free, by leveraging open source.  We also made it publicly available and wrote a nice little documentation site to help people get started using it.

Q: Can you tell us what’s coming next for you? And whether or not you’ll need to add a corollary to Whong’s law?

A: I’m planning to write a book about my 3-year stint in local government (but I know I’ll just get consumed with side projects during my time off!) I want it to be a relatable easy read full of anecdotes and things I’ve learned being a solo open source developer and building a small (but highly effective) digital team. I’ve accepted a position at Qri (qri.io), an open source startup building technology for distributed data collaboration, discovery, and version control. It touches on a lot of the pain points I’ve experienced working with, publishing, and sharing data over the years. I’ll be exploring use cases, building tooling around the core platform, and trying to grow the Qri user community.

Q: Do you think every government organization needs “an 18F” to show the way towards better IT, better user experiences, better designs in government apps?

A: Yes, and it’s important to remember that the culture change is the most important thing these teams bring. The tech tooling is just a fraction of the overall environment. Openness, collaboration, good design practices, continuous learning, introspection/retrospection, sharing, focusing on the user, iterating and shipping code continuously, etc. are what lead to better products. These things require culture change way beyond just saying “use open source software”.

I’ve also described all of the above characteristics as values that are at odds with the way government is usually structured when it comes to tech delivery.

It’s important to think about the long-term sustainability of these progressive values. How do you get them out of the 18F-style team and into the regular standing operating procedure of an agency? How to you make the myriad controls and requirements codified into tech policy support this new way of working? These are things I didn’t stick around NYC Planning Labs long enough to tackle, but they remain issues that my former colleagues are faced with every day.

Q: Have you always been a New Yorker? What do you like – or dislike – about the city?

A: I came here in 2011 to study Urban Planning at NYU. Someone once told me that it takes 7 years to finally call yourself a New Yorker, so I guess I’ve passed that milestone. I always say that once I started getting involved in civic tech, I began bumping into the same people at meetups and events all over the city, and found “my scene”. After that, the big, busy, hectic city got a lot smaller and really felt more like home.

I love that there is so much opportunity here. Whatever you’re interested in, the best and brightest people on the planet who do that thing are either already here or will be passing through regularly. There’s always a meetup or conference, there’s always someone who wants to grab a coffee or a drink, and there’s always someone who knows someone who wants to chat about their bold idea or passion project.

Q: I’m an old school jQuery guy. But I know you’re more impressed with the modern frameworks. What’s your preference and why?

A: My lead developer and I had a healthy React vs Ember debate when I first stood up Planning Labs, and he won because he had better arguments for why Ember was a better fit for a small scrappy team. It’s opinionated, but it brings everything you need for building single-page apps so you can prototype quickly and not have to worry about the myriad parts of the app architecture you would if you were assembling things from scratch. I am still a fan of React, if only because I don’t have to have 3 files open to manage the same component, and I actually like JSX (don’t hate, congratulate!). I was able to squeeze a little React into our portfolio via gatsby.js, the static site generator that powers planninglabs.nyc. Everything else is made with Ember, which we’ve built some powerful mapping integrations with and has served us well.

Q: As a former Carto employee, your GeoHipster cred is already well established, as far as I’m concerned. Now’s your chance to embrace the label, or provide evidence to the contrary.

A: I’m proud of the progressive spatial stack we put together at Planning Labs. We were pulling vector tiles out of the carto maps API before they were officially released (you know, “before it was cool”), and figured out how to consume them with MapboxGL. We even got to play with the new PostGIS ST_AsMVT() function to produce vector tile protobufs right from the database. We pioneered print-friendly web map layouts using paper.css, and even got to automate print map creation for New York Land Use Applications, effectively building GIS on the web with automated data and a custom UI. So yeah, I’m a geohipster and proud! I’m bummed to miss JSGeo this year 🙁

Q: As a geographer, does it bug you that so many “New York” teams actually play in New Jersey?

A: I care so little about professional sports that I didn’t even know New York teams play in New Jersey. I didn’t care before and I still don’t care.

Q: What are the merits of a saltwater reef aquarium, and do you provide treasure maps to the inhabitants?

A: A reef tank was something I really wanted to do back in 2010, but I was about to move to NYC and it wasn’t a good time to start the hobby. My wife finally gave permission last year and I’ve been obsessive over starting up the tank. We’ve got a nice 34-gallon reef set up in our apartment with a few fish, some corals, a shrimp, and a crab. It’s high-maintenance, and requires a lot of water production, saltwater mixing, water chemistry testing, cleaning, etc. The payout is worth it, my kid loves to help with feeding and water changes, and the critters all have their own little habits and personalities. The tank is a big stress-reliever, and it’s just fun to nurture a little ecosystem and look to the community for advice and support. I have not integrated mapping or open source technology or into my fish tank yet.

Q: I’m sure our readers in between jobs, or considering a change, would appreciate any final words of wisdom.

A: We were successful at Planning Labs because I refused to compromise on the really important things. I always said “how we build is as important as what we build”, and that meant not doing things the way government IT is comfortable doing them. We still had lots of government cruft in our way over the years, but the basics of modern technology-building were not up for debate, and that made all the difference. By the way, sharing is a BIG part of what I consider to be part of the basics, and is probably our most progressive trait. Half the fun of working on something is sharing the achievements and lessons learned (and the finished product) with others in your community. In my experience, talking openly about what you are working on in government is either discouraged or flat out forbidden.

In summary, figure out what your values are, and apply them to every decision, every project, etc. If your personal values don’t align with your organization’s you will need to fight, defend, and evangelize them at every turn (or go find another organization whose values match yours). The former is preferable if you’re in public service.

Maps and Mappers of the 2019 GeoHipster calendar — Gretchen Peterson, May

Peterson is a geo expert working in the realm of GIS analysis and cartography. Peterson is the author of several cartography how-to books and the co-author of the recently-published QGIS Map Design, 2nd Edition along with Anita Graser of the Austrian Institute of Technology. Peterson’s consulting work has included the creation of numerous map styles for world-wide OpenStreetMap and Natural Earth based vector tiles using Mapbox GL JS including nautical, topographic, humanitarian, and specialty styles for clients such as Digital Globe and Microsoft. Peterson’s work also includes all manner of GIS data management, analyses, cartography, and tools for salmon and shellfish management in the Pacific Northwest.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition map was created for potential inclusion in a future book, which Peterson would like to produce but has not found the time to create as of yet.

The expedition route line was obtained from the Esri Schools and Libraries Program. Basemap data is from Natural Earth. US Historic Territories and States is from the Newberry Library and processed for the date of the expedition (yes, the current states of Maine and Massachusetts both fell under the name “Massachusetts” in 1804) with different colors for states, territories, and unorganized territory. The Missouri river was offset from the route line even though they physically overlap on much of the route. This was done for visualization purposes. A texture was obtained for the background. The Gabriola font is employed throughout. The elevation graph, which shows the extreme elevation changes encountered by the expedition group, was computed with the QGIS profile tool plugin and then exported and re-styled. QGIS and Inkscape were used to further process and finish the map.

Maps and Mappers of the 2019 GeoHipster calendar — Team Bright Rain, April

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: I was surprised that we were the only collaboration to submit an entry, we are a team of two strong here at Team Bright Rain:

David Puckett

Bright Rain Solutions’ owner, operator, geospatial developer, data wrangler and self professed Grand Poobah. I’ve been part of the Geo Community for over twenty years and still get fantastically excited about all things geo. I’ve been known to run a workshop or two and have taught a class on web mapping. I consider myself a ‘bridger’ between the proprietary and open source worlds. And some of my best friends are “proprietarians”.

Andrew Lindley

Bright Rain’s Dynamic Technologist with an earnest mission to change the way you put boots and hats on maps. Drew has been with Bright Rain for two years and earned a degree in Geography from the University of British Columbia. He was also the star student in my GIS programming class, from which I promptly drafted him.

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 it hit me, I literally jumped out of my chair and hollered, “Hexes in Texas!,” with a rousing “Yes! Divorce Rates in Texas!” and All My Hexes Live in Texas was born. It could have been the boots… I happened to be wearing cowboy boots that day… It could have been the H3 hexagon project we had going. But it was definitely cosmic inspiration.

The map is honest to goodness tongue-in-cheek grit but it also brought several interests together for us and that’s why we were excited (and committed enough) to create and submit it. It’s funny yet not so silly that we couldn’t actually wrangle some real data and present it in, dare I say, a (geo)hip way. We love the slight clash between the slick, modern feel of the web map and the old timey western feel of the title text, hat and boot.

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

A: We are web (map) developers so our toolset in making this map definitely embodies that. The map was created as a web map and later exported and enhanced in Adobe Illustrator to create the final image output. Mapbox GL was used to display and extrude counties as hexagons based on the divorce rate within the county. The hexagons themselves were generated using Uber Engineering’s H3 Hexagonal Hierarchical Spatial Index (Javascript) library (at scale level 5).

DATA

Data was gathered from the state of Texas (population per county and divorces per county) and the US Census Bureau (us states: Tennessee).

Texas 2012 Population Estimates by County

https://www.dshs.texas.gov/chs/popdat/ST2012e.shtm

Texas 2012 Marriage and Divorce by County

http://www.dshs.state.tx.us/chs/vstat/vs12/t39.shtm

Texas County Boundaries (shapefile, SHAPEFILE!)

http://gis-txdot.opendata.arcgis.com/datasets/9b2eb7d232584572ad53bad41c76b04d_0

ANALYSIS

Analysis was conducted in QGIS where the divorce rate per thousand was calculated and the hexagons were assigned a value for extrusion (based on divorce rate calculation). The resulting hexagons with divorce rates assigned were exported as geojson for direct use in the web application.

AND

An interactive, web map version is here:

http://dev.brightrain.com/hexes-in-texas/

Denise McKenzie: “I love the challenge of making open geo standards hip”

Denise McKenzie
Denise McKenzie
Denise is an Aussie who lives in England in the historic town of Winchester. She joined OGC in 2012 and spends her time managing the Communication and Outreach program globally for the consortium. The program handles the planning and execution of marketing, communication and education to raise awareness and increase implementation of open geospatial and location standards by technology providers and users worldwide. Part of Denise's role is to oversee OGC Alliance Partnerships including representation at the United Nations Global Geographic Information Management (UNGGIM) committee. She is a member of the Board of the Association for Geographic Information in the UK and the Global Advisory Board for the Location Based Marketing Association. Prior to her role with OGC, she worked for over 12 years with the Victorian Government (Australia) in areas of geospatial strategic policy, collaboration and innovation.

Denise was interviewed for GeoHipster by Alex Leith and Michael Terner.

Q: Tell us about how you came to work for OGC.

A: It’s a serendipitous story, like most of my career, to be honest. I had been back working for the Department of Sustainability and Environment in Victoria, Australia for just over a year after maternity leave from my second child. Apart from the huge challenge of the VicMap API project, one of the other activities I had been leading was to set up the first OGC Australia and New Zealand Forum. As anyone who tries to work from Australia with people in other parts of the world will know – this included a lot of late night calls. It was during one of these calls that I was chatting with the CEO of OGC and he asked me if I had seen that the position for Executive Director for Marketing and Communications was being advertised. I said yes, and simply asked how their search was going. The response I got was “actually I was wondering if you had considered applying?” I think it would be fair to say that my face somewhat resembled that of a guppy fish (jaw on the floor and no words coming out – was so grateful that I did not have video for that moment). In my daze I asked a few more questions, finished the call and wandered into the kitchen where I then asked my husband what he thought of the idea of moving to a different country for work? He said sure… so I applied and rest is history.

Q: You travel a lot. What’s the best and worst thing about this?

A: Most days I really think I have one of the best jobs you can have in our industry. I love meeting new people, seeing new places and in the 6 years of working in OGC I realised how much I love seeing and learning about the amazing things people use location data for and how that changes the world for the better in so many ways. I feel really privileged to be able to represent the OGC membership throughout the world and to be able to tell their stories and to share the benefits that open geospatial standards can achieve.

It may sound cliche but the worst thing about travel is the time it takes me away from my family at home. Though my kids would say that it is not all bad because mum brings back presents! My rule is that they only get presents if the travel has been to a country I have never been to before and I always look for something that has a cultural connection to where I have been. It does make for some funny stories though. My son when he first started school explained to his teacher that “mum was away on the space station.” He had been confused when I said I was going to the European Space Agency (Frascati, Italy).

Q: You’ve been living in the UK for six years, do you miss Australia?

A: Of course! I will be an Aussie till my last day, but I do love my new country and am pretty lucky to be able to enjoy both places. The coffee scene is slowly improving (Winchester Coffee Roasters has been a life saver – though I did laugh when I discovered the owner learnt how to make coffee in Sydney).

But things I miss most include:

  • Beaches where the sand stretches for miles
  • Flake & potato cakes from the fish and chip shop
  • Sydney rock oysters
  • Rust orange sunsets – the ones in the UK are more pink in color
  • The smell of lemon-scented gums after it rains
  • The sound of magpies carolling in the mornings.

Q: Where does spatialred come from? Is it the blue hair?!

A: Hmm, there are only 5 other people who were involved in the creation of that twitter handle and how it came about is now a bit of an urban legend 😉 All I can say is that it was during a conference in New Zealand. I did have red hair at the time, but no that is not what inspired it. However seems to have stuck over the years and to be fair I do wear red pretty often.

Q: While standards are undeniably important, they are also boring. Can you convince us that they are hip?

A: Oh I love this question! Because I honestly believe they are anything but boring. They are one of the most powerful tools for sharing information and knowledge that we have. They bring people together around common problems and give them a pathway to solving them. Standards cross boundaries and borders in ways that enable us the greatest global insights into our planet that we have ever been able to access. One of my current favorite examples of this is the Arctic SDI, where 8 nations are now sharing data across international borders using OGC’s open standards.

At the end of the day it will be the standards we all agree on and the data that will flow through them that will help the world’s leaders make better decisions.

Location standards in particular help us to share data for all kinds of purposes, like understanding climate change, managing city infrastructure, getting planes safely to their destination and so many other world-changing benefits.

In short standards are the infrastructure that enable us to enjoy access to the incredibly rich information resources the web now provides. You can have the best data in the world, but if you can’t share it with anyone then of what benefit is it? Open location standards are one of the most powerful tools for data sharing around and that is why I think they are hip!

Q: What’s your take on the organically emergent standards, like shapefile, or GeoJSON that did not come out of standards setting organizations? Are they better or worse than OGC standards?

A: The truth is that most of the OGC standards start life in some way outside of the formal standards creation process. New standards are driven by innovation. Yes, you did read that correctly – standards happen because of innovation, not after the innovation has happened as I think many believe sometimes. No set of standards that operate in the web exist without interaction with other standards. We need to all work together to ensure the ecosystem works and the data flows and is visualized where it needs to be. Innovation will always help to create new and better ways of doing things and that is why you get communities developing standards like GeoJSON – though remember this standard is now part of a formal standards body at IETF.

A standard that is created outside OGC is no better or worse than an OGC standard – the most important thing is that the standard meets the needs of the users. I think one of the best developments in OGC in the past 5 years has been the creation of the Community Standard process. This now allows standards that are developed outside of that formal process but are mature, stable and being regularly used to be proposed as an OGC standard and come into the organisation with minimal change.

Q: How, and why did KML (originally a de facto standard) become an OGC standard?

A: In some ways, KML was really our first community standard (though we didn’t have formal process for it in those days). It was before my time in OGC, but from what I understand there was a recognition in Google that the standard would enable more data to be made available in this format if it was an international open standard than to remain a proprietary format in Google. Perhaps a good question to pose to Ed Parsons  ;-).

Q: Can you talk about the difference in the process involved in WFS 3.0 and the ‘old’ way of developing standards? Also, are the other WxS services being reviewed?

A: This is my new favorite topic and one that excitingly you will see a lot of progress on in the next twelve months. I have watched a lot of change in the way we make standards in OGC. Word docs have given way to GitHub, PDF has given way to HTML, the range of market domains in OGC have increased, and hackathons have been introduced to complement our technical meeting process. It is important to note that our web service standards are not going away any time soon, but with the innovation in use of APIs it is time we developed some new standards to help ensure we can keep sharing geospatial data. The way we have started to describe what is happening is the following analogy.

Picture a brick house with great sturdy foundations that has been improved and matured over a long time and is currently being very well lived in and serves much of the world’s geospatial data. This is our OGC web services house and inside is WMS, WFS, WPS, WCS, WMTS and OWS Common. But we now have new building materials and methods of creating a house so we need some new standards to help us continue to share our geospatial data in an innovating world. This new house will be called the OGC API. In this house you will find OGC API – Features (formerly known as WFS 3.0), OGC API – Common, OGC API – Maps, OGC API – Processes, OGC API – Tiles and so on. The idea is that both these two houses will continue to co-exist for a long while yet, they will draw from the same data lakes and we will be building bridges to help developers move from one house to the next. Hopefully without too much trouble.

There is a hackathon that will push the development and testing of new specs for a number of these new standards in June this year just prior to our Technical Meetings in Belgium. Keep an eye out for more details and how to get involved. These need industry-wide support, review and participation to make them a great new generation of OGC standards.

Q: Ok, big question: Is spatial special?

A: No and yes. Sorry, fence sitting answer I know. In the big wide world of data – it is just another data type. But it has some unique and important elements about it that mean if you handle spatial data incorrectly you will get really bad outcomes. So I think that there is still an important role for spatial professionals in helping ensure that we use spatial data the right way and ensure we support good evidence-based decisions.

Maybe the question isn’t whether spatial is special or not, but why there still seems to be so much of the world that does not harness the power of spatial data or understand what it can do. Perhaps it is more a question of whether we as a community of practice think we are too special and are yet to really reach outside of our community to the broader world of data users to ensure that the goodness that spatial data can bring is shared globally.

And for what it is worth, I like the words location and place over geospatial or spatial (maybe our language is part of the problem?).

Q: Among your work experience on LinkedIn you list ‘mother’, which is awesome! Can you talk about this a bit?

A: Oh man, do not get me talking about my kids or we will be here for pages more 😉…but you have touched on something that is increasingly becoming an important topic for me and that is diversity. Not just gender diversity, but diversity in all areas – age, culture, language, experience, skills. I am sure it would be unsurprising to many of the readers here when I say that I am commonly either the only or one of a few women in many work situations I find myself in (unless of course it is International Women’s Day). Whilst I will say it is improving, it does not seem to be fast enough.

This year I ran an International Women’s Day event in London titled Women in Geospatial. I invited 3 women who are midway through their working careers to talk about their experience in the geospatial industry and how they got there, but the speakers on the day that had the most impact for me were the 4 women on our early careers panel. Whilst saying that they loved working in the industry, they all still had stories of intimidating all-male interview panels, some but not enough female role models in senior leadership positions and comments on their university degrees not having enough of the practical skills that they need now for their current jobs.

Another pivotal event was during FOSS4G last year in Tanzania when Rebecca Firth (from the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team) and I ran a Diversity in Geo session and had close to 40 people turn up at 4pm on the second day of the conference. This helped to realise just how important it is to be a good role model and that when you are in a visible international role such as mine that we have an obligation and responsibility to help drive and be part of the necessary change.

So yes, I list “mother” as a job and I am very proud to do so, as the balance between work and family is paramount for me. To be honest I have learned so much by having this role in life and it enables me to bring many diverse perspectives to what I do, particularly now that my kids have reached an age where they are explaining the latest tech to me! #DiversityInGeo #WomenInGeospatial

Lastly a shout out to the lovely ladies that have started the WomenInGeospatial network recently, which I highly recommend getting in touch with if you are looking to network with other women in the industry.

Q: What’s #1 on your bucket list?

A: Hmm, I think (and I am sure my mum would laugh in agreement with this) I have always wanted to do something that would help change the world for the better. I definitely have been able to do a lot in my time both at DSE in Australia and now in OGC that has helped, but we have so much more that we can do and I am really excited to be part of the OGC journey and working with our new leadership. I definitely can’t say that I have totally completed this bucket list item yet, but I am on my way and guess we will need to wait another 25 years or so of my career before I will know if I really achieved it or not ;-).

Q: And finally, what about you makes you a geohipster?

A: I simply love what geospatial can do and I love evangelizing about it. It is such a good news story and really has the power to change the world for the better. Oh and I love the challenge of making open geo standards hip.

Tobin Bradley: “The open source community and ethos feels like home to me”

Tobin Bradley
Tobin Bradley is an indoor enthusiast. His hobbies include staring at screens (computers), staring at screens (books), staring at screens (movies), and staring at screens (video games). He wrangles code at Mecklenburg County Government in North Carolina and occasionally writes about it on his blog. 

Tobin was interviewed for GeoHipster by Mike Dolbow.

Q: Good gracious, you’ve been blogging over at Fuzzy Tolerance since 2005! When you started, did you ever think it would last over 14 years? What does that first post make you think of?

A: Something Jeff Atwood of Stack Overflow fame said that stuck with me is the worst code he’d ever seen was the code he wrote six months ago, and that that was always the case. Looking at my first blog post from 14 years ago on Loading .NET User Controls at Run Time, complete with poorly formatted code from one of my 47 blog engine migrations, makes me contemplate the sturdiness of the window across from me and the elevation of this floor.

But it also makes me realize why I’ve never gone back and edited those old blog posts, even the ones that make me cringe. It’s me, or at least the part of me I choose to share. Fuzzy Tolerance started even earlier as (oh it pains me to write this) The Programming Consultant Newsletter, a PDF I’d share with our staff and other local GIS folks every month. I’m an introvert and slightly autistic, the kind of person you’d see at a conference pretending to be part of a wall while eyeing the exits. Writing has always been the way I can help people and express myself. So it doesn’t surprise me that I’ve been doing it for so long, and in the event of a civilization-ending zombie apocalypse, I’d probably still write blog posts with spray cans on the sides of abandoned grain silos.

Plus it’s a good way to archive my aging brain. Recently somebody thanked me for a bit of complicated PostGIS-related SQL I shared that I had no recollection of whatsoever. I was pretty sure I was being confused with a smart person until I found the blog post.

Q: All right, let’s back up a little for our readers here. How did you get into GIS…or geospatial…or whatever we’re calling it these days?

A: Accidentally.

I was always headed for something related to problem solving and technology. My parents bought me a Commodore VIC-20 in my formative years, a 5KB of RAM powerhouse (if you had the Commodore 64, (a) congratulations and (b) I hate you). It marked the point in my life when I became an indoor enthusiast. The things I managed to do with BASIC are probably still illegal in most states.

Naturally I went to college expecting to become a programmer. Two classes later and I was disabused of that notion. I could do the work, but I didn’t enjoy it. This is a failing on my part; I have an awful time learning things if I don’t have an immediate practical application for them. I realized I didn’t like programming per se, I just liked solving complex and interesting problems. If I weren’t an indoor enthusiast with an aversion to dirt I’d be perfectly happy being an auto mechanic.

During that existential crisis I happened to take Geography 101 as an elective with an amazing professor, Dr. Tyrel Moore. I went in thinking I’d memorize the state capitals, which was what I thought geography was at the time. Boy was I wrong. I was fascinated by the breadth and scope of the subject matter, but I’ve often thought if my first geography professor wasn’t an amazing teacher, I could have gone in an entirely different direction. Thanks, Dr. Moore.

I had no idea GIS was a thing when I became a geography major. With my programming background, it was a natural fit, and the rest is a succession of lucky breaks and happy accidents. We still call it GIS in Mecklenburg County, but once Data Science becomes a hackneyed term nobody uses anymore, I’m sure local government will switch to it.

Q: Your second Fuzzy Tolerance post was on Open Source Software. Even though the first FOSS4G conference (under that moniker) was only a year away, that still seems awfully prescient to me, especially considering that you work in public sector IT. Did you have a crystal ball hidden somewhere? And did you feel like a lonely voice back then?

A: A nice thing about local government is the antiquated technology actively encourages one to experiment with other things. Combine that with my natural nerd inclinations and I was playing around with things like Linux and MySQL and PHP very early on. At that point I had a loose understanding of what open source was; my interest in open source software was born out of practical rather than idealistic considerations.

The big turning point for our GIS group was when we launched an important website using new internet mapping software from our proprietary GIS vendor with much public fanfare, only to have it explode in a furious ball of nothing. We were battling “server unavailable” messages around the clock. We threw more hardware at it. It crashed faster. We brought the vendor in, who gave us a very expensive shrug. It was black-box proprietary software, so we couldn’t fix it. We couldn’t even tell what was wrong.

Fortunately that wasn’t one of my apps, but I had some apps coming down the pipe, and there was no way I was building them around that software. Some people looked cool and important with a pager strapped to their waist; I was not one of those people.

So I tried UMN’s MapServer, not overly optimistic about it because I thought web mapping was too niche for open source software. MapServer was better than our proprietary product in every imaginable way. It was faster. It was stable. It scaled better. And from a programming perspective it was much easier to work with. I released a couple of apps using it, and we had zero problems. It was…awesome.

That opened our eyes. We’re still a mixed proprietary and open source shop, but it’s exceedingly rare that we create something that doesn’t use open source software, and many of our projects are built entirely with open source software. We also release a lot of our software under an open source license. While I love the ethos and spirit of open source software, our use of open source is still entirely for practical reasons. For many problems, it’s the best tool for the job.

Personally, I’ve been rocking Linux at home (currently Manjaro KDE) exclusively for 15+ years. The open source community and ethos feels like home to me.

Q: You’ve been working for Mecklenburg County for a long time. Is there anything special about this organization that keeps you interested and invested?

A: Oh, not really. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great place to work, but it has the perks and pitfalls of most local governments. If our GIS group can be said to have accomplishments, I don’t think they’re accomplishments other local governments couldn’t achieve.

I’ve been very lucky in two ways. First, I’ve managed to have great bosses. One bad boss and I would have fallen back on my rock guitar god/professional video gamer career. Second, our GIS group does work with all of our government agencies, making for a wide variety of interesting and ever-changing problems to solve. Even after 20+ years (!), I still look forward to coming to work.

Q: I think I first caught on to your blog around when you started writing about customizing Google Maps, which inspired me to do the same for the organization I was supporting. Back then, they were one of the few choices for a slippy map API, but now there’s probably a dozen, depending on how you count. How do you keep up with technology changes, and how do you decide what to recommend/implement at work?

A: Without the constant technology changes, I’d have left GIS at some point. It’s the constant learning that makes this job so interesting.

At the start of every month I write out the things I want to learn more about. It’s my job to investigate these things, but in all honestly I’d do it even if it wasn’t, and I think it’s something everybody should do. It’s very easy to turn on autopilot and keep doing the same thing the same way over and over, but if you aren’t learning, you aren’t growing, and if you aren’t growing, you’re shrinking. Literally. You’ll shrink.

I try not to steer the ship by recommending or advocating a particular technology direction unless I’m directly asked or I see an iceberg ahead. I tried that early in my career with limited success. I’ve found it’s much more effective to drop guideposts and let people come to them on their own. When people notice my apps are always up, or that an app does a particular thing they’ve been struggling with, they move in that direction naturally. Otherwise it’s whip-cracking and cat-herding, and I have no talent for those things.

Q: You’ve got a lot of code on Github, like your Bootstrap and Leaflet template. Does your organization actively support you open sourcing your apps, or do you just ask for forgiveness later?

A: Ug, that’s an old one. I should probably redirect that repo to Bryan McBride’s Bootleaf, which is much better. Mine was first (ha!), but as with most things, if Bryan McBride and I both did it, you should go with Bryan’s version.

I wouldn’t say my organization actively supports open sourcing apps (I don’t know of anybody else in the organization that has), but it isn’t opposed to the idea. In the early days it was something I did and waited patiently to see if I was going to be flogged, but these days even crusty old mainframe programmers know what GitHub is. Most people I talk to don’t share their code because they think it’s terrible, which is true. What they don’t understand is everybody’s code is terrible. No matter how terrible your code is, there are people it can help, and there are people that will help you make your code better.

My county has a park locator app. So do all 100 other counties in North Carolina. So does every county in the United States, and probably every local government around the world. The wasted effort and money in government because we aren’t sharing code with each other should be an outrage. I’m not big into leadership by fiat, but making all publicly funded code open source is a law I would wholeheartedly support.

You’ve also open sourced your current GeoPortal, which when I use it, strikes me as the “anti-portal”. This app is so simple, I can use it and browse it even though I live over 1,000 miles away. I have to believe there will be other local governments using this somewhere. Are you aware of any?

A: GeoPortal is a fun project. It’s one we initiated within our group, which is different — most of our projects are initiated by our customers, aka other county agencies. That gives us leeway in terms of design and functionality that we often don’t have on our projects (read: when you see one of our apps with 37 buttons, know that a battle was lost). It’s also very fun modern tech: vector tiles, reactive UI components, progressive web app, etc. It’s good to have one project your group completely owns that can be used to try new things and blaze trails for future apps.

I know places that are using our projects like GeoPortal and the Quality of Life project and our Dirt Simple PostGIS HTTP API, and if they want to give us a hat tip for that, that’s very nice. I don’t like to call them out myself though. Taking something we wrote like GeoPortal and customizing it for their own jurisdiction is a herculean effort (I’ve seen my code), and I don’t want a smidgen of credit redirected from somebody that worked really hard on their app to us. But I’ll say this to others that may be functionally autistic/dead inside like myself: knowing that something you shared is helping other people will touch and affect you in ways you won’t expect. When people thank me for a project I’ve shared, I hide in my office for an hour.

Speaking of hat tips, GeoPortal needs to give a giant one to Brian Timoney. His blog posts on how people actually interact with web sites was a real eye opener, and it got me started on a path of learning more about UI and UX, to the point where the map on GeoPortal is now an optional click (gasp!). For my money, good design is still the most glaring problem in government websites today, and unfortunately it’s an area governments rarely invest in.

Q: Judging by your Twitter bio picture, you’re both a musician and a dad, like me. I personally find that lessons I learn in those two roles can be applied in GIS, in IT, and in public sector work. Have you found the same thing, and if so, are some experiences more influential than others?

A: To call me a musician is stretching the term a bit. 23andme has officially confirmed the dad part though.

My first lesson as a father was that I owe my parents an apology. Beyond that, it’s hard to pick out individual things, as I am a fundamentally different person since my son was born. I have a lot more patience. I understand that people have their own motivations and histories, and if I want to connect with and motivate people I need to understand those things and not judge them. A number of children’s cartoons no longer piss me off. It’s a really strange experience going from not understanding people at all to having a wife and son that I’d step in front of a bus for without a second thought, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Being a musician, aside from the expense of new gear and the noise complaints, is a total quality of life improvement. It builds focus, tenacity, patience, confidence, and peace of mind, all of which translate to your life in positive ways. I did not pick up the guitar at 16 for any of those reasons. I picked it up because I thought it would help me woo women in ways that my personality and stick-like figure did not. Turns out an autistic stick-figure kid carrying a guitar around everywhere is mostly just weird.

Q: Tube amps or solid state? Seriously.

A: If your gear inspires you to play and create music, it’s the right gear. If it doesn’t inspire you to play and create music, it’s the wrong gear. If a Squier Strat plugged in to a Peavey Bandit is what inspires you, make your music and tell all of the gear snobs to stuff it.

But the correct answer is tube amps.

Q: OK, the evidence is building. But I’m starting to feel like I don’t have to ask EVERY interviewee if they’re a geohipster. Would you be OK if I skipped it this time?

A: I have never owned a non-functional scarf, which I think rules out the hipster part. I have also never intentionally achieved “cool”, though after many years of work I have “non-threatening” down pat. It mostly involves smiling a lot without showing teeth. I do own a tie that plays Christmas carols. Do with that what you will.

Q: Any words of wisdom or parting shots for our readers?

A: For my fellow local government tribe, I try to encourage people to be present and thoughtful about everything they do. The most common answer to why a local government does something the way it does is because that’s the way it did it yesterday. This is always a bad answer.

But for everybody, my biggest wish is that people would realize how amazing they are, how important they are to other people in ways they don’t understand, how smart they are and the ways they can and do contribute. Imposter syndrome isn’t a new thing, but it seems to hit the tech field pretty hard. The next time your inner voice is giving you an itemized list of your failures, ask yourself if that inner voice was an actual person, how long would you listen to it before you punched it in the mouth. If the answer is not very long, feel free to ignore that voice and go do awesome things with whatever time you have on this planet. And share some code along the way.

Glenn Letham: “On social media stay away from politics, guns, and map projection discussions”

Glenn is a Geographer (B.Sc Geog 93’) and has worked in the GIS industry since 1990 when he first worked as an intern on CAD & GIS mapping for the natural gas pipeline in Victoria, BC. Since then he has been a GIS analyst for both public and private sectors and is known mostly as the founder of GISuser.com, a popular GIS industry news outlet. Most recently, Glenn was the marketing manager (contractor) for GEO Jobe, an Esri business partner, while just this month Glenn has now turned to focus full time on his Tech marketing venture, gletham Communications (www.gletham.com) to focus on evangelism and marketing for GIS companies and geotech startups. Oh… Glenn also has become known for conducting video interviews in his car through the GeoGeeksinCars video series (http://bit.ly/geogeeksincars1). He’s been on Twitter for 12 years as @gletham and spends his time in Victoria, BC, Canada and also in Fort Collins, Colorado (that’s a long story).

Q: Everyone knows Glenn Letham The GIS User. But there is much more to what you do than GISUser.com, correct? Tell us about your other endeavors.

A: GISuser has been a fantastic journey for me and it has been really fun and interesting to manage for the past 15 years. About 3 years ago I got an itch to do more and join up with a “real GIS company” again so that was when I hooked up with GEO Jobe and took up a role in marketing and content creation for them. Recently that came to an end and that has enabled me to now focus on growing my consulting business, gletham Communications (gletham.com)  to provide technical marketing, strategy, and communication services specifically for the GIS/Geotech industry. Oh, and I’m also going to double-down and start re-focusing on GISuser and our GIS Career resource, geojobs.biz, along with my business associate Allen Cheves — he’s also the founder and publisher of American Surveyor Magazine and the very awesome LiDAR Magazine – if LiDAR is of interest you gotta check it out! I still maintain and manage the online mobile tech news sites that I founded back in 2004, LBSzone.com & SymbianOne.com. I really enjoy DevMeetups and similar geeky events and have a real itch to organize one again sometime, perhaps an Ignite or DevMeet that coincides with a conference (In the past I’ve helped plan a few of them, including a GeoDevMeetup in Fort Collins with about 200 people – they were awesome!)

Q: What is the secret to a successful social media presence? A narrow, specialized, highly technical content, or broad content including technical content but also cultural commentary and the occasional political jab?

A: Social media really is a different creature for everyone I think. By that I mean, there really is no right or wrong way to do it and “success” is pretty subjective. I’ve definitely been a long time, early adopter of most of the original, big platforms but I’ve also had periodic moments of burn-out which I see happening to many others as well. I guess I’ve been somewhat successful at building a community of followers, the biggest challenge likely has been combining personal and business content into the mix. That can be a real challenge and can also be risky, causing followers to bail out and resort to blocking. I’ve always been a bit of an open book, posting some personal commentary and lots of photos and video. This means that my network doesn’t just view me as a GeoGeek or marketing guy, many also view me as a dog lover, baseball fan, and guy who appears to travel quite a bit, strangely living in Victoria or Fort Collins, CO! For me, this has been useful in building credibility and enabling people to get to know me as if we’ve met IRL. I’m lucky in that I have a fantastic network in the GIS and mobile tech community. This means that I receive lots of great tips, tricks, advanced news announcements and sneak peeks into the future. I think this has really helped to provide me with plenty of great technical content to share over the years. My goal is simply to try and build a reputation as someone who is open, honest, trustworthy, funny, and caring. I’ll admit that I have periodic Twitter “rants” where I’ll slip up and drop a political topic, but you have to admit, it’s tough at times these days to have complete restraint but I’m trying to chill with that! I’m working on trying to be more careful about those topics though as it really doesn’t do any good and simply contributes to division and conflict. I find LinkedIn to be increasingly useful and interesting (although the engineers messing with the platform tend to drive me crazy!) but that’s also where I am 100% business and try to focus solely on technology and business. If I had to describe my “success” I’d have to say it’s come from connecting with awesome people to build a vibrant network, trying to engage and assist/answer questions when possible, and just being myself. If your readers would like to connect with me they can find me on facebook (https://www.facebook.com/glethamComm/) and LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/company/glethamcomm/)

Q: GeoGeeks in Cars. Other than the obvious Seinfeld influence, can you tell us what inspired you to start this?

A: I’ve always enjoyed doing the “selfie video” thing, I believe the first time I tried that was in 2010 when I took a summer drive in my Mustang convertible on a little trip to the Apple store in Boulder, CO (https://youtu.be/Ude0D3uiShs). Fast-forward a few years and I decided that I wanted a more fun, visual way to interview GeoGeeks. I’ve been a tech journalist since 1999 but honestly, doing interviews has never really been my favorite thing to do in that role so I felt that mixing things up with video would be a great idea (note, one of my favorite episodes to date was this one with the entire Esri startup program team https://youtu.be/aGAZGxTQXZw). Apparently, it worked quite well as I frequently have geeks come up to me at events and say “hey, you do those geek in cars videos!” I believe my first true GeoGeeksincars episode was in Victoria, BC with my friend Karl Swannie, CEO at Echosec. The drive was fun, although a bit bumpy but I really found that both of us were at ease and just having a friendly, light conversation. We actually did go for coffee and it clicked to me that this could be something fun that people would enjoy. Overall, I’ve found it to be a fun way to discuss a topic, particularly as I’m not really interested in creating a podcast. Initially, I started out filming these with a smartphone but I’ve since updated the technology and the quality and continued to get better I think. The next thing I’d like to add is a second or third camera angle so people can see the scenery. Most recently, I rolled a few at DevSummit in Palm Springs, including this solo drive where I chatted about my new adventure (https://youtu.be/RoCILVzqz2Y)

Q: You were just at the Esri Developer Summit. Tell us something you learned there that you don’t think you would have heard about otherwise.

A: I think, overall, I was most struck by how the products are [finally] coming into alignment and offering a similar experience for the user. I’m far from an ArcGIS Pro “guru”, however, curiosity always does get the best of me so I really do like to dabble, test, and try to break new technologies as they come out. I’m also fortunate in that I’ve had access to the software courtesy of Esri and some of the companies I’ve worked for — Esri also does make available software for non-commercial use to developers as well, so this is a great way to access the tools. But back to where I started, I was impressed with what’s coming from the Story Map technology, Web AppBuilder and Survey123. Esri has evolved these solutions using a new architecture and is providing the same, familiar experience which is also very simple to use and can also be very useful to those of us (like me) who don’t code. I really like what I’ve seen recently and I think the users will as well. As an example, I chatted with a Survey123 staffer at the show and he walked me through creating a form and publishing out as a mobile app and feature service. The scenario was a tree inspection app and it took us about 10 minutes in total to create — I was pretty impressed!

Q: More importantly, how did you do in the dodgeball tournament?

A: I’ll be honest, I sat front row and enjoyed a couple of IPAs while the event took place. It really is a blast to watch and is a great team-building activity. Last year I joined a team that was short a player and sadly we were knocked out immediately so my dodgeball career was very short-lived!

Q: When you met Kenneth Field, did he have any cheese on him?

A: No such luck there but that would have been totally awesome! We do know that he likes his cheese and the cheese board map and others that he’s created are truly awesome!! See his blog on creating the cheese board map — our meetup in Palm Springs was pretty cool though. Ken was doing a lightning talk in the DevMeet “Speed Geeking” event so I got Ken for 5 minutes all to myself. His quick talk was very impressive and entertaining — and I did indeed learn a ton about cartography, a real treat! Funny thing, he gave me a signed copy of the amazing “Cartography.” book and the following day he mentioned he was disappointed I didn’t connect with him to roll a geogeeksincars drive. That was my bad as I assumed he was so busy, then he told me he was really looking forward to doing one. Talk about a missed opportunity.

Q: Team Shapefile or Team Geopackage?

A: Haha, I know that many of your followers will groan a bit but yup, I’m a bit old-school still and likely best described as being on team Shapefile — oh, and I do have some of the highly sought after “I heart SHP” buttons!

Q: Team ArcGIS or Team QGIS?

A: Well, I have a couple of ArcGIS Online accounts and am still a big fan of Story Map technology and web app builder so its team ArcGIS.

Q: Team Vancouver or Team Fort Collins (and which has better beer)?

A: Bazinga!! Actually, technically it’s Victoria (the BC Capital on Vancouver Island) and that’s a tough call. FOCO is my home-away-from-home for now, however, it may become home in the near future. The sunshine in Fort Collins is totally awesome but overall, the weather and scenery is likely better in Victoria (particularly in summer) and I definitely am at home close to the ocean — I still get nosebleeds when I hit Colorado even after all these years! On the upside though, the people in Colorado are really amazing and the tech scene kicks butt too. As for the beer, Fort Collins has sooo many options and many breweries, plus you can use the patios all year round (except for when a blizzard blows in for a day). The quality and selection of brews in FOCO is better for sure, however, Victoria is up there and you’d be surprised to know that the cost of craft beer in Victoria is much less than in the US and best of all, the Canadian pint is a whopping “proper” 20 ounces — a huge win!

Q: Not too many people know that you were an early GeoHipster advisor. The Poll that launched the site in 2013 was your idea. Having said that, do you consider yourself a geohipster? Why or why not?

A: That’s funny and I had forgotten about that. I recall that and was impressed by how you ran with the idea — I think at that time I was simply too saddled with work and life, in general, to take on something else. Am I a hipster? Hmmm, I suppose I am (maybe Hipster-Lite). I do dabble with a number of open source solutions and am a huge proponent of open data. I’m a meetup, devmeet, hackathon junkie and attend whenever I can make it happen so these attributes might help group me in with the crowd. Oh, and I do ride my bike frequently (when the rainy season ends) and I sport a beard 3 months of the year! Interesting side-note, I was instrumental in organizing the first Ignite Spatial events and Esri DevMeetup which took place in Fort Collins, CO – pretty hip eh?

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

A: Hmmm, well, if you blend personal and professional personas on social media try to stay away from politics, guns, and map projection discussions… you’ll likely get into a war of words! Build a focused online network of connections because you never know when you’ll need them. While doing this, be sure to listen, contribute and help others — that will go a long way. Finally, if you share news/PR with journalists, please don’t do it with a PDF!! Shameless self-promo, and if you need some tips, advice, or assistance, feel free to hit me up @gletham

Britta Ricker: “Think about who the data is representing, and who is missing”

Britta Ricker, PhD (@bricker) is an Assistant Professor at Utrecht University in the Copernicus institute for Sustainable Development. Her research interests focus on accessible spatial technologies, particularly open data and the use of mobile devices. Dr. Ricker co-founded the Masters in Geospatial Technologies at the University Washington Tacoma. She has also provided GIS and cartographic services for the United States Federal Emergency Management Agency, MapQuest, and the Commission for Environmental Cooperation. 

Dr. Ricker was interviewed for GeoHipster by Natasha Pirani.

Q: Hey Britta (Dr. Ricker?)! Tell me about your start and your education/career path in GIS, and as an academic. Did you always aspire to be a professor?

A: No, I did not always aspire to be a professor. Not at all. I wanted to have a career in International Development. I grew up in rural western Maryland and I played outside a lot. I liked to follow the water flow downhill, and I would daydream about what was over the next hill. My dad was a preacher and my mother was a high school librarian, they were always helping others and I wanted to do that too. My favorite aunt worked for the United Nations and had/has a glamourous international life in NYC. I always wanted to be her! I thought I would study international politics to get there.

I quickly found that the Geography Department at my university (Frostburg State University) at that time (2002-2005) was particularly strong and the professors were really inspiring. I did not want anything to do with GIS and programming, and I avoided it until one day, Dr. Fritz Kessler, a fantastic cartography professor sat me down, and asked me directly “What are your career goals?” I told him, and he explained to me how cartography and GIS can be used for international development. I changed my major the next day.

There have been so many conferences, events, social media, whatever, where people (men) ask, how can we get more women in the field? Take the Fritz Kessler approach. Don’t tell women or anyone how you think of GIS or how they should think of GIS; bring GIS into their value system, into their frame of reference, their interest. It is a fun challenge.

Q: Have you experienced particular triumphs or challenges as a woman in GIS, academia, and hipsterhood?

A: During my PhD (and I think others would agree) we are told the job market is tough, and it really is. When I got my first tenure track position out of my PhD, after being a single mom for 2 years, I was over the moon thrilled. During my PhD, I taught myself a lot of programming. I learned javascript and made maps with Leaflet, I made an iPad app for my daughter, I had a blast. I was doing these things because they were fun and to advance my cartography chops. This really set me apart on the job market, and in the moment was pretty shocked to get job offers so quickly at the end of my PhD because of all of the discouraging things people say about academia and the academic job market. Their comments made it feel like it is nearly impossible to find a tenure track job. If you are open to living anywhere, there are jobs available.

Q: You relocated last year to the Netherlands! How has the transition been? Do you ride your bike everywhere?

A: I do love it here. I am still getting used to it. The Dutch labor law and academic expectations don’t always match, which is fun to learn and navigate. Work/life balance is so important, and in the Netherlands it is the law. I was an exchange student to the Netherlands in high school which is a big reason I am here now. I do really miss the mountains in the Pacific Northwest, the region I had lived for the past 8 years. I like riding my bike everywhere, although I am still learning the “rules of the road” and the nuanced social etiquette of urban biking in the Netherlands. I joke and say my bike is my car. It is John Deere tractor green with a big basket on the front to carry my groceries and makes me smile everytime I see it. I am proud hearing my daughter learn Dutch so quickly, she regularly corrects my pronunciation. I am struggling with Dutch, especially since everyone speaks English so well. Mappy Dutch Fun Fact, a bell tower in Amersfoort is 0,0 for the Dutch datum. There is an awesome multimedia, projection map exhibit about the exact place. Forget Amsterdam, visit Amersfoort!

Q: Our earlier conversations have meandered into topics related to critical and feminist cartography and data visualization. What do those concepts mean to you, and how do they intersect with your research interests and your current work?

A: Wow, okay, this is a big question. Critical and feminist cartography and data visualization are two different fields that so obviously overlap but are incredibly difficult to publish together in academic peer reviewed journal articles. Feminism is really a lightning rod term, particularly in Europe I am noticing. Those who react especially negatively to it, I ask them to define feminism and they often say something like women before men. That is not feminism, feminism is about equality, that is it.

Theories are hard to apply, and my experience is that theorists don’t like it when you try, so it is sometimes better to decouple the two in academic writing at least. Feminist cartography is deeply rooted in my epistemology, my way of knowing, and I like to think it informs all that I do professionally. The research I pay attention to and further is informed by my understandings of feminist cartography and GIS and how I hope it can be extended. I have been enjoying working with Meghan Kelly in this type of research and thinking. In terms of research, feminist cartography acknowledges that there are multiple ways of knowing, seeing, and understanding space. Traditional cartography is not the only way. (But I also don’t think we should villainize cartography!) My way of knowing is not the only form of feminist cartography, or feminist ways of knowing. This is what makes incorporating feminist practice into cartography so very difficult; well, one of the things.

I am interested in developing research questions, to measure and evaluate learning outcomes based on specific communication goals, testing different map interfaces. I aim to investigate the use of new forms of technology such as 360 cameras and new, exciting interfaces that are becoming more widely accessible, such as virtual reality and comparing them with traditional 2D maps. What are the strengths and weaknesses of different visualization methods, in terms of what is learned from them — are they simply fun, or are they useful to communicating something specific like the spatial distribution of a phenomenon necessary for resource allocation or other decision making? The research questions are endless, really.  Results will change as the technology evolves and the social uptake thereof evolve. I don’t really know how to do this, I could use that wayfinding app that you ask for below…I regularly read and re-read the work of Agnieszka Leszczynski, Nadine Schuurman, Sarah Elwood, Renee Sieber, and each time I read their papers, I get different morsels of inspiration and understand them differently.

Q: You’ve said that you “aim to illuminate techniques to make visualization tools associated with GIS more accessible to diverse audiences.” Tell me more about these techniques and some overlooked or invisible challenges of GIS accessibility.

A: Two come to mind: First, the most obvious invisible challenge is missing data. Missing data is also not sexy because it can’t be mapped, easily. Feminist geography talks a lot about missing data; missing historical records don’t mean that women did not make significant contributions, it just means those contributions were not documented. That holds true today. We make a lot of assumptions, and map things based on social media platforms dominated by specific demographic groups. We have interpolation methods for physical geography — could similar interpolation methods be generated for social geography too?

Second, right now, arguably we all have access to the tools required to make maps in our back pockets. It is just not always obvious how to make them, or why we should make them. Maybe more people would be interested in using another accessible form of technology if it were more clear how they could be useful for communication purposes.  

Q: You’ve also explored the potential of drones to be used in participatory action research and citizen science, which sounds super cool. What did you find?

A: Drones are a great example of how increasingly accessible technologies can be used for good, but in ways that are not immediately obvious. Let’s say you take an aerial image of your property every day for one year. Suddenly, the foundation of your house is being eroded away by a new stream that has formed on your property after a heavy rain. You could use a drone to fly during a non-flood event and a flood event to show the difference. If you did this at regular intervals, patterns may emerge. This could be used for legal purposes, or it could be used to learn about your property, or to communicate to a neighbor that they caused this problem because when you looked upstream, you might find land use changes on their property caused flooding in your yard…and that sparks privacy concerns.

I found that the use of drones raises a lot of red flags from a number of different directions. First, legal constraints. Drones are so new — the laws about flying change all the time, and vary between places. Doing research and writing and teaching take a lot of time and energy and to add to that, navigating the legal system was too much. Additionally, I was trying to show how drones could be used for participatory mapping. I got a lot of pushback saying that drones are evil surveillance war machines, and can’t be used for good. GPS was funded, developed and launched by the military, and now we use it to find the closest restaurant or hospital — is that evil?

I am inspired and encouraged by the success of Laura Grace Chipley’s work with the use of participatory use of drones with the Appalachian Mountaintop Patrol (http://lauragracechipley.com/amp). I hope to prove how drones can be used for counter-mapping and advocacy efforts rather than for hegemonic purposes they are known for.

I once had a great conversation with a communications professor about how a simple camera angle pivot on a drone can completely shift the mood of that image. When the camera angle of nadir is 90 degrees – straight down, the aerial photo looks militaristic and utilitarian, whereas with an aerial camera at an angle of 50-60 degrees, it more likely evoke an emotional response of wonderment, beauty and splendor. This technique is used in cinematography.  An aerial video to convey the landscape of the environment in which a story takes place is called a phantom ride.

Q: Do you identify as a geohipster? A geosister? Why or why not — and should it even be a binary distinction?

A: You know, I had a traditional GIS analyst job out of undergrad which makes me identify with #GISTribe (also I have been using ArcGIS Pro a lot lately) and then taught myself tools that might be considered part of the geohipster toolbelt. I think the binary is not helpful. A tool or solution should be made to answer a specific question or to meet a communication goal — how it is made is important in terms of meeting the goal, not to adhere to a certain tribe’s constraints. Solutions are often based on what is in the toolbelt.

Q: What’s your favourite mom joke?

A: What does a baby computer call her father? Answer: Data

From the movie HER, such a great movie.

Q: Do you have a favourite map?

A: Wow, this is hard, I do love historic maps. I also really love the hand-painted watercolor maps by @turnofthecenturies (on instagram) wooden laser cut maps. I particularly like the 3D bathymetry maps (http://www.3dwoodmaps.com/). Of course, I love NYTimes maps.

Q: Is there, like, an open source GPS tracker and wayfinding app for lost students to position themselves in their research and find an ideal route through school? Or to find a job afterwards? Or do you have any words of wisdom to share with them (me)?

A: Relax and enjoy the process. I continually reflect on feeling this way during my masters degree, particularly when working with masters students I am mentoring. I was really uncomfortable with this feeling of uncertainty about how to navigate through a masters degree, and then the PhD thereafter. There is no one way to make a map, there is no one way to complete a research project. You just have to document the process and justify your decisions. No one can do it for you, you just have to trust your academic advisors, and if you don’t trust them, trust your gut and get a new advisor. During your masters degree, you learn the research process, which is always messy and though the end is not always in sight, you just have to keep moving forward. A masters degree is like a 10k race while a PhD is a marathon in mountainous terrain.

Q: Any other thoughts to share with the rest of the hipster- and sisterhood?

A: More of a note to self: Be careful to not villainize men. Do not mimic them either. Let’s just all try to be confident without being dicks. What do our maps communicate? Think about who the data is representing, and who is missing.

Maps and Mappers of the 2019 calendar: Chris Van Pollard

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: What’s up! I’m Chris, and I’ve been making maps and tinkering with GIS for over 19 years in the GIS Department at a Regional Planning Commission in the City of Brotherly Love (Philly, Philly!). I spend most of my days focusing on all aspects of geospatial technology, cartography, spatial thinking, and hacking away at web maps. I’m a huge ice hockey and coffee enthusiast, which helps fuel that passion to learn and improve my cartography and web mapping skills. Since 2012, I’ve been an adjunct professor at Rowan University, in Southern New Jersey, teaching young minds about GIS, the mystifying transformations of map projections, and cartographic design.

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 allowed me to combine my passion and love for ice hockey with that of cartography. I was inspired by the amazing work, map design, and GIS tools that carto-wizards John Nelson, Ken Fields, and Johan Adkins have been sharing with us lately. John’s series on Air Mile Index  gave me the initial idea that I wanted to map how far each NHL team travels throughout the season. I wanted to determine if there was a correlation between performance (wins) and how much travel affects the players throughout the season. I was able to find the 2017-2018 NHL Travel Super Schedule in a user-friendly spreadsheet listing all the games for the season. Next, I added the Latitudes and Longitudes for all of the “Home” game teams, and included a sequence/order so that I could generate an Origin/Destination pairing between games. Once I had the data prepared, I utilized ArcMap’s XY-to-Line Tool to generate the paths. I wanted to learn more about the layout tools and capabilities in ArcGIS Pro, so I decided that I would make this map within that platform. Before diving into this project, my ArcGIS Pro skills were limited, but through this process I was able to learn, fail, try again, and have fun while doing it.

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

A: Shapefiles, Shapefiles, and more Shapefiles. This map was made using ArcGIS Pro with a little data creation assistance from ArcMap. The symbology and transparency tools in ArcGIS Pro are incredibly exciting to work with, making map creation fun. I used Adobe Illustrator to create the Old School hockey mask to add that extra flair. Initially I needed to create a point shapefile, then I used the hockey mask as a marker symbol layer in Pro to allow me to adjust its transparency so that it faded into the basemap.

 

Maps and mappers of the 2019 calendar: Tom Chadwin

Q: Tell us about yourself

A: I live in deepest rural Northumberland, close to the England-Scotland border. I studied Middle Irish at university (coincidentally becoming friends there with Richard Fairhurst of OpenStreetMap fame), and then started work as a printer (not a successful one). I worked as a web designer in the days of version 3 of both Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator, and then a web developer in the days of classic ASP, before .NET was invented. I’ve been in the public sector for over fifteen years now, most of them at Northumberland National Park, working on networking and open-source telephony, among many other things. We made the switch from MapInfo to QGIS many years ago now, and have never looked back.

I got involved with QGIS when I started to help out with the plugin qgis2leaf by Riccardo Klinger. Since then, I created qgis2web, which I still develop and maintain. I try to help out with QGIS and OSGeo events in the UK, and co-chaired FOSS4GUK 2018 with James Milner. Please come along to FOSS4GUK 2019 in Edinburgh this autumn!


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: In 2018, our local council proposed the closure of our local first school. Our daughter was in her last year at this amazing place, so we resisted. I thought that some striking maps might help our case, so I made one map of the proposed increase in journey-to-school time (below), and a second map of the signatories to the petition to save the school. The signatories map is the February 2019 GeoHipster map:

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

A: The map was built almost entirely in QGIS. I used GIMP to add the tilt-shift blur, and because of this blur, I had to use GIMP for the text as well. The data was scant to the point of naivety, being simply the postcodes of around 400 petition signatories.

The idea behind the map was to try to use this scant data in an emotive way, in what was an emotive argument. Visual appeal was of greater importance than spatial analysis, which is just as well, since I’m no spatial analyst. The scant data and the intent to grab attention led to my using the height of the styled points to denote not number of signatories, but proximity to the school. My hope was that this visualized how highly localized the support for the school was, a fact not immediately apparent from the raw data.

Technically, the overriding technique and principle behind the map is the separation of data from style. No processing at all was done on the data, which was a necessity because I was designing the map while the petition was still gathering signatures, so the data was changing all the time. All the heavy lifting is done by QGIS geometry generators, creating squares around the points, rotating and skewing them into faux perspective, and then extruding them into 2.5D symbols.

I had a huge amount of help from the Twitter carto community, without which I simply could not have built the map. I wrote about both maps in much greater detail on my website: tom.chadw.in/wrote/MappingEmotion.

The school was saved from closure, but further unwanted changes to our rural schools are ongoing, and the fight continues. Who knows whether this map had any effect on the Council, but it did result in a very old friend describing it as the “worst game of Risk ever”.

Harel Dan: “There’s no reason not to share your work and ideas with the geo community”

Harel Dan
Harel Dan

Harel Dan is a GIS and Remote Sensing analyst based in Israel, and the GIS Coordinator at HaMaarag - Israel's National Nature Assessment Program. Twitter / Website

 

Q: You’re the GIS Coordinator at HaMaarag, Israel’s National Nature Assessment Program. What is HaMaarag, and how does GIS factor into the program?

A: HaMaarag is a consortium of organizations that manage open landscapes, that was set up to provide evidence-based knowledge to managers and decision makers. We run several long-term projects that take place all over the country, in varying biomes and their ecotones, from evergreen Sclerophyllous woodlands to hyper-arid shrubs, monitoring several classes like Mammals, Birds, Reptiles, as well as vegetation. As such, the entire process of planning out, sampling and analysing the data is dependent on locations. Be it precise measurement of monitoring plot corner pegs with GPS, or creating spatially-balanced sampling methods. My job also entails collecting and processing spatial data from other organizations, with their peculiarities and errors.

Q: You do a mix of technical work, coordination with other agencies, and field work. That sounds like an interesting mix – could you describe a typical day in the life?

A: 6:00 AM, Phone rings, ornithologist on the line, asks me to explain to him how to load the background layer to the Fulcrum monitoring app. 8:30 AM, Log on computer, answer email from chief scientist of the nature and parks authority. 10:00 AM, Run the script that scrapes data from that website. 11:45 AM, Finish that map and send it to graphic design. 13:37 PM, Coffee. 14:03 PM, Back in office after wandering around the labs in the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, where our offices are. 15:00 PM, Finish a call with the Open Landscapes head at ministry of environmental protection. 16:00 PM, Send drone orthos segmentation results to the botanist for assessment. 17:30 PM, Put kids to sleep. 19:00 PM, Goof around on whatever personal project distracts me these days.

Q: Based on your Twitter account and website, it seems you also take on a good amount of personal projects. What do you look for in a personal project? Any favorites you’d be willing to share?

A: My personal projects are a mix of disciplines and topics that on the one hand interest me, and on the other can be used as an excuse or reason to delve into something new; a concept, a programming language, a tool, etc. Furthermore, as a Geographer, I think I can bridge the gap between the analytical aspect and the human story it tells. For instance, over the summer I’ve made and published a constantly-updated map of fire damage in the south. I saw that there was a lack of connection between news reports and the scale of the damage that was creating misconceptions and lack of understanding. So telling this story was a chance to try out new internet tools to help streamline the work and be easy to read and comprehend for the general public.

Q: What inspired you to publish your analysis of SAR data to identify military radars? Were you nervous at all about the sensitivity of the subject matter?

A: I was intrigued by a peculiar image artifact when I was trying to incorporate Sentinel-1 data in my landcover classification mapping, which happened to appear mostly over broad-leaves and coniferous forests. After tweaking a Google Earth Engine script I’ve noticed that these artifacts converged over a single constant source, so I’ve figured out what these were. After a year or so of hesitance, asking around what should be the preferred action, and actually getting in touch with the Army, I had a job interview for a company that does SAR analysis, so I knew this would be a perfect time to publish the story. So with a tongue-in-cheek image alluding to some issues publicising the location of the radars in my country (It was a PNG image I made in MS Paint that read [REDACTED], you won’t believe how many people over-analysed this), I posted my findings on social media.

I got the job btw, but declined to take it as the conditions weren’t manageable from my perspective.

Q: You’ve successfully had your work featured in multiple publications. What advice do you have for other geohipsters out there looking to get more exposure?

A: Hustle. Made something interesting? Think you’re onto something? Post it on social media. If your career is not dependent on the number of publications in peer-reviewed journals, there’s no reason not to share your work and ideas with the geo community, no matter how half-baked they are.

Q: What do you do in your spare time? Any hobbies?

A: I have a garden with some fruit trees that I tend to when it’s not too hot, but other than that, I’m wholly immersed in being a full time parent to two small kids. Whatever spare time I have, it’s used to wind down and relax with techie reading material, or go on twitter and see what others are up to and engage in the war on Shapefile and banter on that other GIS software.

Q: Are you a geohipster? Why or why not?

A: I tick about a dozen or so results in the GeoHipster poll tally, so I guess I’m on the geohipster spectrum, even though I never got into the laptop stickers and pin badges fad. Besides, the backside of my laptop screen has velcro strips which I use to firmly attach dongles, chargers and an external drive full of hoarded geodata to reduce desktop clutter, this way I have room to place old printed atlases, a working sextante, PostGIS cheatsheet… OY MY GOD I’ve just realised I’m a geohipster.

Q: Any final words of wisdom for our global readership?

A: Don’t use Twitter’s Bing-based translation tool, it’s horrendous.