Category Archives: Interviews

Topi Tjukanov: “In Finnish basemaps forest is white”

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

Topi was interviewed for GeoHipster by Ralph Straumann.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: How do you choose the appropriate visualization type?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What ISPs taketh away, the spatial community giveth back

By Amy Smith

The State Plane Coordinate System is comprised of 120+ geographic zones across the US. The system, developed in the 1930s by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, is a commonly used mapping standard for government agencies and those who work with them.

There’s a website that I’ve had bookmarked for as long as I can remember. It’s simply a list of State Plane zones and the US counties that fall within each. At the top of the page are state links that redirect further down on the site, but I rarely use those. I usually just cmd+f and search for the county I’m looking for. Even if I know the zone already, the site gives me a sense of security when I’m making a map that uses the US-based coordinate system – like the feeling one gets when going back to double check that the stove is off and the door is locked.

There are most certainly other ways to look up State Plane zones, but this one, hosted on a stranger’s personal website, is the one I like best. Maybe it’s the simplicity of the site, its Web 1.0 design, the fact that the person who made it picked tan for the background color. Maybe it’s the nostalgia of going back to something I’ve used time and time again, and always has what I want – like a well-loved t-shirt.

A while back, I went to the State Plane site only to find the site could no longer be reached. Russell Edward Taylor, III, experienced something similar, but instead of chalking it up as a mystery like I did, got in touch with the owner, Rick King, and asked about hosting the site on his own domain. Lucky for those of us who’ve relied on it as a useful reference, it continues to live on on Russell’s personal website. Russell also did some investigating and found nearly 400 links to the State Plane site from across the geospatial community, from universities to professionals to students. Inspired by his initiative, I decided to reach out to Russell, who put me in touch with Rick, to learn about the site’s story.

Rick King

Q: Rick, thank you for creating the State Plane site. Could you tell us a bit about yourself, and why you created the site?

A: I am currently retired having worked in GIS and Land Surveying since the 1980s. I was a Professional Land Surveyor licensed in Utah with most of my “experience” being while working in Indianapolis, Indiana, and ending after a 4-year stint working as a GIS Analyst in Los Alamos, New Mexico, documenting some hazardous waste remediation on a material disposal area that was used at the time of the Manhattan Project. I also helped with the development of an Acequia GIS for the Taos Soil and Water Conservation District in Taos, New Mexico.

My initial work in GIS was to allocate mapping resources to provide the base layers for large regional geographic information systems being developed primarily by the various utility companies. In the pre-internet days this work was accomplished by telephone inquiry starting at a state geological office or somewhere to see if there was any existing mapping available. GIS has evolved since then, but, just wanted to throw that in to let people know that GIS was existing before the world wide web.

I created the site as a reference for myself to help me at work. In the course of my work I received hundreds of datasets most all of which came without metadata and without any identification of the coordinate system on which they were based. The website I created in basic HTML would give me starting points to make the coordinate system identification. At the time of its creation, there really wasn’t anything else online to fulfill the need. I wanted to reference both the NAD 27 and NAD 83 systems, and found those references listed in the state statutes when I could find them online. The UTM references and the MS Excel spreadsheet were added later.

The state plane coordinate system page was part of a multi-part GIS reference page titled “GIS Landbase Information and Data Links”, which provided weblinks to the same.

The awful tan color of the background was carefully chosen for providing less eye-strain.

I hosted the site for many years as my contribution to the internet.

Q: Russell found almost 400 links to the State Plane page on other websites. Did you realize the site was being used by so many others in the geospatial community?

A: I did. It was Comcast’s decision to withdraw hosting personal web pages which is why it went down.

Q: When did you create the site? Looking at it now, is there anything you would change?

A: I created the site in 1999, and most of its creation is covered in the metadata I created for the page. Actually, I was one of the first people to quit using the page, so changes would have to be made by someone else.

Q: What was your reaction when Russell reached out about hosting the site. Were you surprised at all?

A: I was hoping that someone would step up and host the page as there were some educational institutions using it as a reference. A big thanks to Russell for stepping forward.

Q: Now being retired from a long career in land surveying, what do you do with your spare time? Do you have any hobbies?

A: I spend a good deal of time day trading on the stock markets. The goal is to grow my retirement funds specifically so that I can afford to build a new house. Yep, that’s the goal!

Q: A geohipster is someone who works anywhere along the broad spectrum of geospatial data and applications. Usually they’re described as being on the outskirts of mainstream GIS, thinking outside of the box, and doing something interesting with maps. Would you call yourself a geohipster? Why or why not.

A: No, I just never got involved with the analytics of GIS to get that excited about it. But…

Q: Rick, thank you for your contributions to the geospatial community, and for helping bring well-documented GIS resources online throughout your career. Any words of wisdom you’d like to leave with our global readership?

A:  The world has become so dynamic. Everything is changing. People and politics, the environment, business and trade, and world economies. GIS is the only science that is capable of accumulating all the data, visualizing the data, comprehending the data, and finally using the data to forecast future models that will benefit us all. Population management, food management, resource management will be extremely vital in the near future. There will be plenty of opportunities to resolve what most of us believe are foreseeable problems, especially having clean water and adequate food for everyone.

Russell Edward Taylor, III

Q: From your resume, I see that you’re a Senior GeoSpatial Analyst at CoreLogic. Could you tell us a bit about what you do there?

A: I’m part of a group that works on a suite of data products used by clients for location intelligence. It’s based on a standardized, nationwide parcel dataset derived from point and polygon data acquired in every data format, attribute layout, and projection under the sun. Taken together, our little team likely has more experience than anyone with the quirks of the many different ways parcel mapping is done. I’m on the more technical end these days, maintaining internal tools in Python, preparing custom data deliveries for clients, managing our metadata and documentation, plus a variety of internal process-improvement initiatives that have immersed me in the database world more than I ever imagined possible when I got into GIS in the late 90s.

Q: When did you realize the State Plane site was no longer live, and what inspired you to reach out to Rick?

A: It was in July 2015; a colleague brought it to my attention when they went looking for the state plane zone of a county they were working with. After I hurriedly cached a copy from the Internet Archive for use by my team and myself, it occured to me that there were probably others out there wrestling with similar data that would miss it too. I have a personal website, and since the State Plane site is just one simple page, I realized that it would be very easy for me to keep it available to the world. Over the years, I’ve benefited greatly from the community-mindedness of others, so it seemed like a good way to do my part.

Personally, I favor open software, data, and public licenses that make works more widely available for use, but I’m also aware that not everyone does. Rather than take the risk of running afoul of an unknown benefactor by re-hosting the site without permission, I decided to do it by the book. I thought it was especially important to do it that way for two reasons: first, it would be a full, verbatim copy, and not anything that might fall under fair use if I ever had to defend it; second, if I republished it without a notice at the original URL, those who had been using it might have a harder time finding their way to its new home. So, after gathering a bit of courage, I shot off a short message that happily found a friendly response.

Q: Have you received any notes from others who’ve found the state plane site on ret3.net?

A: I have, at a rate of a few each year. Most are simple thank yous from visitors glad to find it still alive somewhere. Most emails come from businesses domains, almost as many from .edu accounts. I’ve had a couple interesting ones that led to a little research about parts of the page I’d never used for myself, most memorably as to just what an ADSZONE is.

Q: Enlighten us?

A: Oddly, I received not one but two questions about this within a few months of each other in late 2016. As near as I can tell, ADSZONE stands for Automated Digitizing System Zone, named for the tool the Bureau of Land Management used to convert NAD 27 maps to NAD 83, along with other subsequent projects, and the regions used for that project. Now knowing more about Rick’s experience, the inclusion of this bit of information makes more sense! If you’re curious (or very, very bored, although there is some fine early 90s clipart to be seen therein) the manual is online here: https://archive.org/details/automateddigitiz00unit. I don’t believe this numbering system is used very widely anymore, although in the surveying business (the field of both of my interlocutors on this topic), encountering disused references is pretty common.

Q: When you’re not being a geospatial analyst, what do you like to do in your spare time? From your website I glean that beyond maps, you also like comics and bikes.

A: I got my start reading comics with my dad’s Silver Age DC collection, but fell out with constant reboots of the modern era, so these days I’m far more likely to pick up self-contained stories, or at least serials that aren’t under pressure to run forever. Of course, I’ve always had a weakness for maps in comics: the World of Kamandi, Krypton, Marvel’s New York City, Prison Island and other small-town memoir settings, even the dotted-line paths in Family Circus.

I’ve been a daily bike commuter for 8 years (and 110 pounds), following a 25-year hiatus from pedaling. I ride a modest 5 miles round trip on my commuter bike, plus weekend trailriding on my mountain bike and recently longer road bike events. Interestingly, all my bikes are folding models. Although it’s not closely related to my professional niche in geography, planning, land use, and transit issues have always fascinated me, more so since bike infrastructure became a rather personal concern!

I also enjoy Austin’s energetic music and craft brewing scenes, with friends in the former (go see Danger*Cakes, Bird Casino, and Oh Antonio & His Imaginary Friends!) and my neighborhood being taken over by the latter, which happens to combine well with cycling.

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

A: That’s hard to say; most of my work is not what would come to mind for that label — it’s pretty traditional and desktop-oriented, working with shapefiles in proprietary software, focused on fundamentals of data integrity for the end user. GeoNormcore, perhaps. The GeoJSON, FOSS4G, webmapped world is something I encounter mostly at conferences and in occasional at-home dabblings. That said, I am planning a Dymaxion tattoo, so perhaps I have a bit of geohipster in me after all.

Q: Any final words of wisdom you’d like to leave with us?

A: Although I always have to remind myself of it when the opportunity arises, folks are far more willing to help and collaborate than you’d think. Muster your gumption, screw up your courage, steel your nerves and ask nicely. I know it works on me.

Anonymaps: “use.real.addresses”

Anonymaps
Anonymaps
Anonymaps is a shadowy provider of Twitter geo snark, lurking on the fringes of the under-the-counter geocoding industry. Since 2013, Anonymaps has tweeted 1,001 times, comprising 80% proprietary mapping fails, 19% three.word.barbs, and 1% obscure OpenStreetMap in-jokes. Anonymaps is somewhere between 20 and 60 years old and works in the illegal OSM import trade.

Q: It is said that positive thinking causes neuroses and makes people dependent. You are not in any danger, are you?

A: No-one quite knows how Anonymaps’ embittered, caustic personality developed. Some hint at unspeakable deeds in the early days of Cloudmade. Others say that a once-kind nature was (gdal)warped by discovering the One ST_NRings To (Python) Bind Them All. Still others tell tales of an idealistic developer blinded by exposure to the Manifold source code. Personally I think it’s PTSD from the OSM license change.

Q: Your Twitter bio says “crowdsourced sarcasm”. Do you have multiple personalities?

A: Yes. Totally. Anonymaps is essentially a loosely shared Twitter password. I’m not even sure who everyone is but I know people from at least four countries have posted.

At a conference some years ago, late one night in the bar, I got talking to a Well Known Geo Personality. He leaned over and confided: “Actually, don’t tell anyone, but I’m Anonymaps.” I sounded doubtful. “No, really, I am. Look.” And he posted a tweet. So that was me told.

Q: What is the purpose of your Twitter presence?

A: Historical accident. We were originally @FakeSteveC but the joke got old. Other than that, we’re mostly black ops funded by an unnamed geo corp with the aim of discrediting What3Words.

Q: Well, whatever your goals are, you’re more complicated and nuanced than some random troll. And you’re no sea lion either. If we call you the “Archie Bunker of GIS”, will you call us “Meathead”?

A: Delighted. Archie was a great geo thinker. He once said “East is East and West is West, but none of us is gonna meet Mark Twain”. I’m not sure what the EPSG code is for that particular projection but I swear I saw a shapefile in it once.

Q: You’re our second interview (after @shapefiIe) where, honestly, we have no idea who you actually are. But you sound like you might be on Shapefile’s side in the “best geo format” debate. Might you be kindred spirits?

A: Honestly, have you ever tried to use GeoJSON? #shp4lyfe

Q: You’ve had compliments for Mapzen’s work in the past. Any words of encouragement to their team and/or users now that they’ve closed up shop?

A: Full of admiration for Mapzen. How Randy manages to repeatedly hoodwink massive companies into spending millions on OpenStreetMap development is a source of wonder to me.

Mapzen was a curious experiment in developing superb software entirely devoid of any commercial imperative. All that code is now sitting there, ready to be exploited by avaricious sales guys who perhaps spend more time reading Clayton Christensen than T.S. Eliot.

I’m not at all surprised that Mapbox swooped on Valhalla – what surprises me is that no-one bought up the Tangram/Tilezen stack and team. If I were Amazon or Foursquare I would do that in a heartbeat. Right now Mapbox owns the mobile location market and no one much is challenging them.

Q: So a while back you posted a poll (https://twitter.com/Anonymaps/status/944298450061086721) on what the OSMF should focus on and mapping won by double digits over diversity and being inclusive. That was a rather pointed poll you put out. So why run the poll?  

A: Sometimes you get the hot takes by throwing a flamethrower through a window and seeing who comes running out shouting.

So how diverse are TomTom’s surveyors, or HERE’s? How diverse are their specs, their algos, their cartographic choices? My sense is not very, certainly less diverse than OSM. But they won’t tell us so no one bothers asking. OSM is open so you can ask the question, but the answer is sometimes used as a stick with which to beat OSM and its existing contributors. Better to use it as a carrot for improving OSM.

It’s self-evident that more, diverse contributors mean a bigger, fuller map. Preppy Silicon Valley kids training ML models to trace buildings, and bearded Europeans surveying biergartens do not a full-featured map make. OSM needs more mappers with young families, mappers who live in backwoods areas. It shouldn’t just be the best map of SF and Berlin.

Is that focusing on mapping or diversity? You tell me.

Q: Multiple choice question: The Humanitarian OpenStreetmap Team is: A. the best thing to happen to OSM or B. the worst thing to happen to OSM. Explain your answer.

A: A for comedy reasons. Where would Worst Of OSM be without HOT?

Certainly HOT has transformed expectations of OSM. Compare the map of Mozambique to that of, say, Michigan. You wouldn’t expect good maps in a land of cultural impoverishment, potholed roads, miles of slums and gang warfare, and sure enough, Detroit’s pretty bad in OSM. Maputo meanwhile is immaculately mapped. As you’d expect from the name.

The harder question is whether remote mapping is essentially imposing Western values on communities who, left to their own devices, might evolve their own, quite different map. Erica Hagen wrote thoughtfully a couple of years ago that “it’s actually pretty easy to bypass the poor, the offline, the unmapped… in spite of attempts to include local mappers, needs are often focused on the external (usually large multilateral) agency.” Gwilym Eades was ruder: “remarkably self-centred, expert-driven, and dominated by non-local actors.” That’s going too far but the next challenge for HOT is to enable the local mapping that marks out OSM at its best, rather than just serving as unpaid Mechanical Turks.

Q: Do you consider yourself a geohipster? Why/why not?

A: We try and cultivate a detached, post-ironic air of mystery while leading life on the technological cutting edge (PostGIS nightly builds and Mapnik trunk, which leaves about one hour a day of free CPU time). But actually we live for that sweet retweet juice. Maybe it would be truer to call us a geohuckster.

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

A: use.real.addresses. Meathead.

Howard Butler: “Like a good song, open source software has the chance to be immortal”

Howard Butler
Howard Butler
Howard Butler attended Iowa State University and departed with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees after studying parts of Agronomy, Agricultural Technology, and Agricultural Engineering. He learned GIS software development during his thesis effort, where he needed to make ArcView 3.x do a complicated and completely unrealistic analysis. After failing to find a precision agriculture job because a GPS for a tractor cost $2,000 at the time, the Iowa State Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology took a chance on him to develop some GIS data collection and management software for the National Resources Inventory. Fifteen years later he’s helping to write open source software that's powering data management systems for autonomous vehicles.

Howard lives in Iowa City, Iowa with his wife Rhonda, his two boys Tommy and Jack, two dumb cats, and a squirrel or raccoon or something that takes residence in his attic every winter despite efforts otherwise. He has a neglected blog at https://howardbutler.com/, and he tweets less and less at https://twitter.com/howardbutler.

Howard was interviewed for GeoHipster by Randal Hale.

Q: Howard – where are you located and what do you do?

A: My three-person company called Hobu, Inc. is located in Iowa City, Iowa, and we write, manage, and enhance open source point cloud software and help our clients use that software to solve their challenging problems. We initially focused on LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging — think radar with lasers) with a project called libLAS, evolved that into PDAL (GDAL for point clouds), and then continued with streaming technology in the form of Greyhound and Entwine.

I started contributing to open source with MapServer and GDAL back in 2002 when I discovered it was the only software capable of building the systems my job demanded at the time. I came to enjoy the camaraderie and common purpose those good projects exuded, and I learned over the years how to contribute in a way that matched my skills. Among other things, that evolved into writing a number of geospatial Python bits (you can thank/hate me for plenty of ogr.py and gdal.py) and helping to author a bit of the GeoJSON specification (you can thank/hate me for coordinate systems there).

In 2007, I struck out on my own and promptly learned that I didn’t know how to run a business. My banker still doesn’t really understand how or why we give away our software, but people get it when I say our product is consulting with a software toolkit we incidentally give away. Over the years we’ve built up a stable client base that values what we do and how we do it, and I think that the software we’ve written will outlast my company or my career because it represents solutions to problems people hate to solve again and again.

Q: So how did you end up working with LiDAR? I’ve had the chance to use PDAL and see some of your presentations at FOSS4G and FOSS4GNA.

A: The Iowa Department of Natural Resources led Iowa to be one of the first states to do a statewide LiDAR collection, and they had a grad student semester of funding they wanted to use to be able to use Python for ASPRS LAS data management, verification, and inspection. There was no open source requirement, but since it was what I was doing otherwise, it seemed natural to build a library that anyone could use. Mateusz Loskot and I started working on what became libLAS to achieve it, and once it was clear it was viable, I was able to attract more funding to enhance and improve it.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found libLAS and wanted to do a lot more with it — supporting a bunch more formats, getting it speaking to databases, and enhancing it to do a bunch more algorithmically. We learned stacking all those desires on a library based on the LAS format wasn’t a great fit. We started PDAL (Point Data Abstraction Library — pronounce it the same way you do GDAL 🙂) after some fits and starts and it has matured into a general-purpose library for building geospatial point cloud applications.

PDAL takes GDAL’s VRT pipeline approach and puts it into the context of geospatial point clouds, but with JSON instead of XML. It works on Windows, OSX, and Linux, and it has a command line application like GDAL to drive processing. Its workflow is optimized to template data operations and batch them up over a pile of data with whatever batching/queuing/cloud tools you have. That might be GNU parallel if you want to melt your laptop locally or something like AWS SQS in a cloud situation.

Q: I saw your presentation on Gerald Evenden at FOSS4G in Boston. Did he know that the PROJ library…or software…was going to go as far as it did? Actually – what does PROJ do?

A: PROJ or PROJ.4 is a cartographic reprojection library that was written by Gerry Evenden at USGS in the 1980s and 90s. It contains the math to reproject coordinates from UTM to Plate Carrée, for example. Gerry originally intended for PROJ to be a cartographic projection library (pure math only!), but in the 90s, Frank Warmerdam came along and started adding convenience for geodetic transformation (datum shifting). This caused some creative differences, but that geodetic convenience enabled PROJ to be bootstrapped or ported into almost every open source geospatial software package in some form or another.

While attempting to dig up some old documentation, I discovered Gerry died in 2016. This saddened me because I’ve felt that Gerry didn’t get his due for the impact that PROJ has on the entire geospatial software ecosystem. It is truly everywhere — open source, commercial, and government software all depend upon PROJ. I submitted my FOSS4G 2017 talk in an attempt to tell his story and shine the spotlight on him even though he probably would have detested it.

I’m a fan of 60s and 70s rock n roll, and now that those guys are starting to die off, people are rediscovering a lot of back catalog. Plenty of it is still crap, but songs that shined then often sparkle today. Those songs were written for the audience of that time, but a good one can transport you there even if you weren’t a part of it. Like a good song, open source software has the chance to be immortal. It is optimized for solving today’s problem in today’s context, but a few programs and libraries end up lasting multiple generations. Unlike a hit song, open source software isn’t a static fount of royalties. It is a liability that must be maintained or it will crumble back into the ground. People need to cover it, make it their own, and feed it attention as Paul Ramsey wonderfully described in his FOSS4G 2017 keynote.

For PROJ, two longtime contributors have been covering the song and keeping the music alive. Thomas Knudsen and Kristian Evers from the Danish Agency for Data Supply and Efficiency (kind of like Denmark USGS) refactored PROJ to be a full service geodetics library and they have modernized its API in the process. Kristian has led this PROJ 5.0.0 release process, and everyone’s software is now going to be able to get a lot smarter about geodetic transformations. While the old APIs are still available so as to not break existing software, their improvements will make PROJ last for another couple of generations.

Q: Thoughts on Mapzen shutting down?

A: Anxious and hopeful. As someone with an organization and employees, the thought of having to tell them they’re now on their own is a front-of-mind fear. Organizations fail for many reasons despite the effort of the people pouring their sweat into them. To work so hard and have it be called a failure doesn’t seem fair, but I’m thankful for Mapzen’s postmortems, which have given everyone the chance to learn.

I’m hopeful due to the fact that I think Mapzen’s employment model demonstrated a successful one for the employees. Many Mapzen’ers worked out in the open on public projects, and in the process made themselves and the teams they belonged to more valuable for it. Developing open source software in public, as opposed to never going out beyond your own wall, is something that makes you a better software developer. You have to listen to rightful criticism about your software, and you have to temper your emotional response to people rationally not liking the precious thing you just made (ok, not always). To solve hard problems in public leaves you exposed, but in exchange for that vulnerability, you generate a professional currency that follows you the rest of your career.

An influential quote I saw early in my career came from Tim Peters of the Python language:

You write a great program, regardless of language, by redoing it over & over & over & over, until your fingers bleed and your soul is drained. But if you tell newbies that, they might decide to go off and do something sensible, like bomb defusing<wink>.  

The only thing you can do is make your software suck slightly less every day you touch it. My formative experience in geospatial open source was watching folks like Frank Warmerdam, Steve Lime, Martin Davis, and Markus Neteler do exactly that. They controlled the complexity in front of them, resisted the urge to overdesign a solution, and they treated everyone with respect even when they didn’t deserve it. I’ve tried to follow their approach with my projects, although I’d consider myself a worse developer than each of them by most measurements.

Q: You were there at the beginning for OSGeo back in 2006(?) I think. How has it changed or remained the same? How did you get pulled into the organization?

A: OSGeo’s reason to exist in 2006 was different than it is in 2018. In 2006, it was supposed to be a group of geospatial software projects with a common thread about open source. In 2018, it is a group of people with a shared interest in open source geospatial software. The former was frustrating for different reasons than the latter, but it has been an organization that achieved substantial things despite the messy way in which it is able to go about it. Many of its challenges relate to the fact that it is a volunteer organization throughout, and personalities with drive and determination can have short-run impact, but long-run sustainment is very difficult. Recently, it has slowed its precession about the axis of outreach, education, and conferences, which are topics that fit the current makeup of the organization very well.

I’ve had many roles in the organization over the years, including helping to set up some of the first project infrastructure and acting as a board member. In 2006, software project infrastructure was a real cost, but in 2018, access to repositories, mailing lists, continuous integration, and bug reporting can all be had in exchange for some spam tolerance. Recently my contributions have been presenting at conferences and being a strong supporter of the mid-winter OSGeo Code Sprint that has oscillated back and forth between the EU and North America. Sprints are a primary opportunity for developer camaraderie and collaboration, and they provide the high-bandwidth communication forum for projects to grow and enhance each other.

Q: I’m not a developer by any stretch – but I like going to talks by developers on their software. You’ve built PDAL to manipulate LIDAR Data – what’s the weirdest use case you’ve seen for PDAL so far?

A: Nothing too weird, but it is an everyday occurrence for users to use the tools in ways we didn’t foresee or intend. Every permutation of data size, composition, and fault gets hit eventually. For every success story using PDAL in a way we never thought of, there’s a corresponding failure story due to assumptions that don’t line up. Many times a great bug report is simply a challenge of those assumptions.

Q: What’s the Best Thing about Iowa? What’s the Worst Thing? I drove through it once and didn’t stop but long enough to eat a sandwich.

A: The Public Land Survey System in Iowa means I’m never lost. You probably weren’t ever concerned on your drive either. Also, the proximity to so much animal agriculture means that meat-as-a-condiment to more meat isn’t just a specialty no-carb lifestyle choice here. You would think with 90+ percent of the land in the state used for agriculture there would be more vegetables around.

It’s not the worst, but opportunities for Big Culture stuff like museums, art, and music shows are somewhat limited here, especially once you get out of the larger towns. Lack of diversity is a challenge too, although you find it in places in Iowa you wouldn’t expect. These are the same challenges for all rural states with aging, out-migrating populations.

Q: Can you tell us something people might not know about you?

A: I grew up on a corn and soy farm in Southern Minnesota, and I was convinced that maps and computers were interesting after some quality time on the Dinty Moore Beef Stew assembly line. I have a pilot’s license I haven’t used in more than a decade, and my car was once struck by lightning while driving down the freeway at 70 mph (I shouldn’t have bought it back from the insurance company). A long time ago, I won an Esri Conference award using AVPython and ArcView 3.x, and I could still sling VTables and FTables around in Avenue if I was cornered.

Q: Almost 4 years ago we defined the geohipster to be a person who lives on the outskirts of mainstream GIS. Would you describe yourself as a geohipster?

A: I guess. GIS™ as a name is an outdated view of how the intersection of geography, computers, and databases is to be constructed. Each of its areas has been dumped over at least a couple times since GIS™ as a fashionable term came to describe our industry. Many still GIS™ on desktop software with a 2D map frame and 🔍 zoom and ✋pan icons like twenty years ago, but geo+computers+databases is now oriented toward phones, sensors, and deriving locality from incidental data with cloud computing and pervasive networking. To call what’s going on with all of that GIS™ seems rather trite.

Q: I leave the last question to you – anything you want to tell the readers of GeoHipster?

A: Please make sure to buy a GeoHipster calendar or a t-shirt or something. We’re all just learning here, and sites like this one make the job much easier and need our support.

Euan Cameron: “I don’t like labels, it is your actions that count”

Euan Cameron
Euan Cameron
Euan Cameron is responsible for Developer Technology at Esri and views a well-designed API as valuable as any work of art. Euan has worked in the geospatial software industry for over 30 years and continues have fun innovating with aps and technology. Euan and his wife Julie are outdoor enthusiasts and can often be found in the Sierra Nevada Mountains climbing, skiing, or hiking.

Euan was interviewed for GeoHipster by Mike Dolbow.

Q: You’ve had an interesting career and it seems like you’ve got a pretty sweet gig right now. Tell us how it all started.

A: I grew up in Perth, Scotland and from an early age I was always fascinated by maps; they are able to convey so much information in an amazingly efficient way. The Ordnance Survey 1:50,000 series were and still are beautiful, and I used to pore over these maps sheets for the highlands of Scotland imagining what it must be like to be in the middle of somewhere with no roads, no buildings, no people for miles around – a sea of contours. The love of maps and particularly the maps of the highlands of Scotland got me into hiking, skiing and then climbing.  My favorite subjects at school were geography and mathematics and along with the love of the outdoors land surveying was an obvious career choice. I studied Survey and Mapping Sciences in London. Things don’t always turn out the way you plan them, and as it turned out, I was more interested in rock climbing than surveying. After climbing around Europe for a while the realization that money was in fact required for many things meant something had to change, and I ended up taking a job as a land surveyor.

I don’t like inefficiency, so I taught myself programming and C++ so that I could automate all the tedious calculations that surveyors perform. I was soon working more as a developer than a surveyor which led me down a road to GIS software development which is the perfect combination of my childhood curiosity to understand the landscape around us with the need to do it efficiently.

After finishing a degree that combined GIS and software engineering I started work with Laser Scan in Cambridge England. There I worked with some great people as we built cutting edge object-oriented spatial database technology and the GIS applications that consumed it. We (my wife Julie and I) moved to the US to join Esri 20 years ago. I joined in the early days of ArcGIS (called ARC/INFO 8 back then) and have been working on the project ever since.

Q: Were you in your current role when the ArcGIS Server REST API was released? If so, I’d like to know more about how that came to be. Was it a conscious choice to create such a developer-focused product?

A: My role at Esri has always been working on the developer technology, initially this was with ArcObjects technology, but it has evolved into my current role. The story of how our ArcGIS Server REST API came to be isn’t that different from other great things in software. A couple of developers having an idea. There wasn’t a master plan, just some hardworking developers with a vision and who, like many in the industry, thought there must be something better than SOAP-based services. Not everyone thought it was a great idea at the time, but it didn’t take long before it was obvious that it was the future.

Q: Although it was a bit ugly, ArcIMS was successful and widely adopted. In contrast, the first framework out of ArcGIS Server, the Web ADF, was pretty crummy out of the gate (in my opinion). But the REST API is/was awesome, and allowed all kinds of integrations that weren’t possible before its release. Did you know that you had “a hit” on your hands?

A: As I said before it didn’t take long before everyone understood what this meant for how we built the ArcGIS system and in turn how our developer community would be able to build on top of it.

Q: What are your thoughts on the debate over the REST API as an OGC standard? Was it worth going through that wringer?

A: Getting standards through the process is always challenging, we felt it was a good idea to offer it up as a standard. Standards are needed as we build out systems of increasing complexity and interdependency, personally I think if the REST API was a standard it would have made for a better world. The recent work by the OGC on their community standards is a good compromise for this sort of thing. It allows for industry leaders to develop innovative technologies but still do it in an open way where others can benefit.

Q: Do you think the REST API will ever be more popular than the shapefile? Both are foundational to a lot of open data efforts such as OpenAddresses, but the latter has its own Twitter account.

A: There is only one way to find that out and that would be to interview the REST API, I’m sure there would be a few choice quotes, and after all it isn’t fair to give shapefile all the limelight.

Q: The https://developers.arcgis.com/ website lists 10 different APIs and SDKs. Sometimes I can’t remember if I’m talking about the REST API or the Javascript API. Is there any danger that you’ve got too many?

A: Wouldn’t life be much simpler if we only had to think about one technology! The truth is having all these APIs is a huge investment, but it is something our developers require as they build out their solutions. Developers get to choose the best technology for the problem they are solving knowing there is an API that they can use when they work with ArcGIS. As an example, take the ArcGIS Runtime technology for building native applications. We have 6 APIs, 3 of which support cross-platform development running on 6 platforms. The APIs are used to build apps ranging in use from mission-critical to consumer games. Developers choose technology sometimes because it is their preferred environment, sometimes because the system they are integrating with, and sometimes because it’s cool. At Esri we try not to pick favorites.

Q: What is the future of desktop GIS? Do you think ArcGIS Pro leverages APIs effectively?

A: I think it does. ArcMap as you know is built using the ArcObjects API. The story 20 years ago was a great one – you use the same APIs to build on top of ArcMap that we use to build it.   Very powerful, but unfortunately also very restrictive as we evolved the architecture. Nothing could be dropped in case developers were relying on it, so we kept adding which kept the power but added complexity. The ArcGIS Pro API is different. The API is specifically designed for customizers and extenders. The internals of ArcGIS Pro are based on a new services-based architecture that decouples the UX from the underlying data tier, allowing for a responsive UX and powerful data processing. Time will tell.

Q: Like many of our other interviewees, you’re an “outdoor type”. When you’re hiking or skiing, do you bring your geo tools – or your geo mindset – along for the ride? Or do you need to take a break from work when you’re in the great outdoors?

A: It is great to get away from it all and there is no better place than the Sierra Nevada Mountains. In the mountains I like to keep the geo tools simple and only take the basics: a map and compass. In Scotland there were many days spent enveloped in cloud and without basic navigation skills you could get into real trouble, so it’s something I learned how to use early on.   

Q: We’re not quite sure if you’d call yourself a geohipster. On the one hand, you work for Esri (points deducted). On the other, you’ve taught yourself to code merely to reduce inefficiency (points added). Knowing that we’re sending you a t-shirt or mug either way, want to give us a ruling?

A: Honestly, I don’t like labels, titles, etc. they only help give people preconceived notions of who you are and what to expect. Over the years it’s obvious to me that it is your actions that count, your readers can decide.  

Q: Any final words of wisdom for our readers?

A: Be true to yourself, work hard and make a difference, because the world needs people like you who understand how to make the world a better place.

Alasdair Rae: “I think the best maps are simple ones”

Alasdair Rae
Alasdair Rae
I grew up in Inverness in the Scottish Highlands and then went on to study geography in Glasgow at the University of Strathclyde, more of the same, with a good bit of GIS at The Ohio State University (Columbus, OH) and the University of Liverpool, where I did my PhD in urban and regional planning. I then worked at the University of Manchester before moving to the University of Sheffield in 2008, where I have been for the past decade. I've always been interested in maps and places, so I suppose it's only natural that I ended up being a professor of urban studies and planning and doing a maps and stats type blog. 

I live in the Hillsborough area of Sheffield with my wife Bethan and my two boys, Finlay (11) and Isaac (4). I've realised that an important part of being a modern parent is providing instant, on-the-spot IT support and ensuring maximum wifi speeds at all times! This is often much harder than my day job.

Blog: www.statsmapsnpix.com and @undertheraedar on Twitter.

Alasdair was interviewed for GeoHipster by Ralph Straumann.

Q: Alasdair, you are a professor at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning of the University of Sheffield in the UK. What is that you do there?

A: Yes, that’s right – I am indeed. For the next three years I have a research fellowship, which means I’m not officially teaching – though I always keep my hand in by doing guest lectures for people here and elsewhere.

Most of the time I’m doing research, travelling and a good bit of admin and management. The last two in particular are even less exciting than they sound. But I really can’t complain because the upside is that I generally get to follow my interests and do cool stuff.

For example, for the best part of this year one of the projects I’m running is looking at a spatial database of a million or so neighbourhood reports on things like graffitti, road defects and so on, and analysing it in relation to lots of other interesting datasets, like income, deprivation, health and so on. I’m also doing some work on trying to understand the impacts of Airbnb in Edinburgh, doing a project on housing market search behaviours and trying to understand travel to work patterns – and disconnections – in poor neighbourhoods across Great Britain.

I also try to write a lot, across many different platforms. I have a few academic journals articles on the go (more US Megaregions!), three book projects, plus writing for a variety of other outlets like The Conversation. And of course I like to blog and keep in touch with people on Twitter.

Q: Your Twitter bio mentions “stats, maps, cities, housing, transport”. Do you combine these themes into an overarching research topic or do you like to look at each of them separately?

A: Some of the stuff I do in my day-to-day job doesn’t make it in to the public domain – perhaps because it’s not ready yet, or because the data aren’t open, but lots of it does and what I think unites my work is a mission to create a bridge between data and knowledge. Data alone isn’t very useful so I try to help shed light on it in a way that helps bring it to life.

Because I’m interested in places, this means my work often focuses on cities, which are full of housing, which are all connected by transport. If I can take available data, do something to it, and then present it in a way which helps people understand things – or just take an interest in them – then I think that is worthwhile.

Q: How do GIS and maps fit into this mix?

A: GIS and maps are great tools. I also like the technical side of things, playing around with data and trying to make it do cool things, and I like communicating with the written word but sometimes you just can’t beat a good map. I think the best maps are simple ones and I’m learning all the time about how to make maps so I suppose my blog and Twitter feed are a reflection of this.

Q: I think you coined the term #geogiffery? Can you shed some light and also explain the concept around it to us?

A: I like making gifs, and sometimes it’s for a good reason – like when I’m looking at election results data – we’ve had a lot of these in the UK recently. Other times, I’m just experimenting, like in this blog post about the famous ‘coastline paradox’. Since it’s a gif and it’s also geo, I started to call them ‘geogifs’ – perhaps others already did but either way it became a bit of an obsession so I just called it ‘geogiffery’ and now Topi Tjukanov has taken it into new dimensions with his shipping geogifs and so much more! I do think geogifs have a role to play in dataviz and storytelling more widely. It’s a great format.

A geogif of US states’ population numbers by Alasdair

Q: I enjoy following your work, because you have interesting ideas and follow through on them in, I think, often particularly original ways. Where do you draw inspiration from?

A: I’m just interested in the world and how it works, or doesn’t work. But there is so much data out there today, and we are overwhelmed with information, so it’s hard to make sense of it all. I don’t think data and maps have all the answers of course, but they’re often a good starting point. So some of what I do is my attempt to understand the world better, and some of it is just me experimenting with ways to do this. For inspiration, it’s a mix of old stuff and newer stuff. For example, the graphics and dataviz teams at the New York Times, Washington Post and the Financial Times all produce great work and are a fantastic example of what can be done with new data and methods. But equally people like Waldo Tobler and Jean Gottmann are a good reminder that not much today is really new – it’s mostly just easier to produce.

One great source of older material that I like to look at is the National Library of Scotland map collection. It’s amazing stuff, and not just about Scotland, though a lot of it is. It shows you what is possible when you don’t think like a modern-day GIS or programming language and aren’t bound by its rules and parameters. One of my favourite collections here is the Bathymetrical Survey of the Fresh-Water Lochs of Scotland, 1897-1909, which in addition to being beautiful is also very informative. You can impress your friends, for example with the knowledge that Loch Ness has a mean depth of 132 metres, or 433 feet. Though only if you have the wrong kind of friends. And I can personally testify, from real world experience, that the water these maps depict is very cold indeed!

Loch Morar – the deepest in Scotland (and the UK) at 310 metres. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland (CC-BY-NC-SA).

Truly great work takes a lot of time and experience, and a lot of what I put on my blog is more like cuttings from the workshop floor, as it were, but I think that kind of knowledge sharing is always useful because a) it’s a good way to share ideas, and b) you never know what other people might find interesting and useful. A good example is my recent attempt to map, in a simple way, population density across Europe using a 1km grid dataset. I just ran off a set of simple maps showing the most densely populated grids square in each country and it’s been my most popular blog post to date, with tens of thousands of views.

The most densely populated 1km grid square in Spain, and Europe, according to Alasdair’s analysis

Q: Amazing! It goes to show, while your Twitter handle is @undertheraedar, your work is hardly under the radar: You tweet regularly, publish on your blog Stats, Maps n Pix and occasionally you and your work appear in traditional media as well. What motivates you to be so active?

A: About 10 years ago I decided to give my blog a silly name (Under the Raedar, hence my Twitter handle) and started it because I wanted a place to put my work that would either just sit in my hard drive or be hidden from the world in an academic journal. I also thought it would be good to share ideas and maps and stuff. I’ve continued blogging for the last decade and my Stats, Maps n Pix blog is the latest iteration of that. I try to publish things I think are interesting, and a lot of it relates to work I do in my day job but mostly it’s a kind of hobby I suppose.

A geogif of the 2017 US total solar eclipse

The reason I end up doing media stuff is that people have seen my blog and Twitter and over the years because of this I’ve got to know some well connected media people. I’m often asked to write stuff, or occasionally appear in TV things, and I generally think to myself ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’.

Why do all this stuff? The answer is that I’m interested in people and places and knowing more about the world. Maps and stats are one way of doing this.

Q: I’ve also learnt that you’re the editor of an open-access journal called Regional Studies, Regional Science (RSRS). Can you tell us more about this?

A: The Regional Studies Association is an international learned society, based in the UK, that I’ve been involved with for years. About 5 years ago I was involved in setting up a new Open Access academic journal – and this is how RSRS came into being. Myself and Prof Alex Singleton of the University of Liverpool were the founding editors and we took the project on because we believe in open publishing, open data, and open science.

We publish papers from academics at all career stages, provide mentoring for early career scholars, and publish papers quickly. To date, our papers have had over 200,000 downloads, which might not sound like a lot but for an academic journal that is no mean feat – though our authors and publisher (Taylor and Francis) can take the credit for this.

Q: In your Twitter bio you further mention “QGIS stuff”: Is QGIS your main tool for doing spatial analyses and producing visualizations? What other software do you use, more or less regularly?

A: Yes, I occasionally blog about QGIS stuff, true. I love QGIS, what it does, and what it stands for and I’ve been able to donate to the project as well, because I believe this is important with open source software projects – particularly ones that people really benefit from.

But in general I’m a pragmatist and use whatever I need to get the job done. If that means spatial stats in GeoDa I’ll use it, or it could be Excel, or perhaps I need to run a big geoprocessing job so I’ll turn to ArcGIS. Maybe I need to do some visual stuff so I’ll turn to GIMP. One tool I’ve used a LOT over the past decade and more is IrfanView – for batch image processing, renaming, resizing and lots more.

For a project I completed recently, I used QGIS, GIMP, Excel, and IrfanView. This is fairly typical. One really useful tool I used for editing massive text files is EmEditor because it can handle files up to 248GB and is super quick and I need this when working with datasets that have many millions of rows. Finally, I must confess that I still love the geoprocessing tools in the ET GeoWizards plugin for ArcGIS.

But most of my GIS stuff these days I do in QGIS and I’m really looking forward to getting to grips with QGIS 3.0 when it comes out.

Q: Ha! ET GeoWizards is a true classic, it has also saved me occasionally! I don’t think there are too many GIS specialists whose software stack encompasses both ET and QGIS. Speaking of (old and new) workhorses: Shapefile or Geopackage, do you have a preference or are you impartial in this arena, too?

A: My heart says Shapefile but my head says Geopackage. I think it’s okay to have a bit of both. I see no need for conflict between heads and hearts. Shapefile has better Twitter game though.

Q: Finally, can you tell us something people might not know about you?

A: I used to be a basketball player and played for the Scotland men’s team back in the early 2000s before I went to the US to do a Masters degree at Ohio State. Before that, I competed in the world 3v3 junior basketball championships in Frankfurt in about 1994 and was even in the dunk contest. I’m not sure if I can dunk a basketball anymore but I can still shoot almost 90% from the free throw line, based on ‘data’ collected during visit to my old home court in the Highlands last summer (i.e. taking 100 free throws). These days, I’ve discovered that indoor rowing suits me best and in the last year I’ve racked up about 1.4 million metres. I think I enjoy the monotony of it. Coincidentally, my only actual experience of rowing on the water is on the very same Scottish lochs I mentioned above.

Q: Wow! I like your empirical/statistical approach to re-discovering basketball. Too bad your impressive rowing activity doesn’t (yet?) yield GPS data that you could map. It was nice to learn more about you, Alasdair!

A: Thanks for having me.

Q: Thank you!

 

Nyall Dawson: “QGIS 3.0…it’s the magic unicorn fairy land of open source GIS™!”

Nyall Dawson
Nyall Dawson
Nyall has been a core developer with the QGIS project since 2013. During this time he has contributed over 5,000 commits to the project, and today is one of the most active developers on the project. Nyall’s contributions to QGIS cover a wide range of areas – from improvements to the map rendering and symbology engines, enhancements to labeling and print layout functionality, right through to optimisations of the underlying spatial processing algorithms utilised by QGIS.

Nyall is the proprietor and lead developer at North Road Consulting, an Australian spatial development consultancy which predominantly utilises international co-funding and crowd-funding campaigns to finance development into open source GIS applications.

You can follow Nyall’s work at https://github.com/nyalldawson and https://twitter.com/nyalldawson

Nyall was interviewed for GeoHipster by Kurt Menke.

Q: Nyall Dawson, where are you located and what do you do?

A: I’m a geospatial developer, analyst, and (I’d like to think) a cartographer, and the director of North Road. I’m heavily involved in the QGIS project and am one of its current core developers, however, in practice my time is generally split about 60/40 between making software and making actual maps (i.e. being a GIS “user”). I also teach crime mapping and spatial analysis at Charles Sturt University. Geographically, I’m based on the Sunshine Coast in Eastern Australia (and yes, the name does describe it perfectly!). It’s as close as Australia gets to perfection – people  only leave here if work forces them to.

Q: You seem to be equally talented in programming and graphic design. What’s your background?

A: I’ve bounced between these two disciplines since high school, and it turns out that spatial analysis is a great mix of the two. While I originally studied mathematics at university, my first job after graduating was as a designer in the marketing department for an IT wholesaler. I was a horrible fit. This pushed me back towards the IT side of things, and I spent a number of years working on corporate networks. I stuck it out long enough to realise that while I enjoy working with software, I wanted to use it to actually make something  (instead of just making it work for someone else).

At the time my wife Maryanne and I decided that we needed a change, so we sold up everything we had, quit our jobs and spent 12 months backpacking around Latin America and Europe. I started collecting maps of places we’d visited, obsessively geotagging every photo we took, and filling in gaps in OpenStreetMap so that I could accurately track where we’d been. It was while hanging out in a bar in Argentina called “The Map Room” that Maryanne suggested I should look into studying maps when we got back to Australia. It’s a perfect profession for me – map making strikes a great balance between that desire to create something useful and pretty, while still being driven by mathematical algorithms and code.

Q: Maryanne is wise! Connect the dots for us. After returning from that year long adventure how did you learn about GIS and cartography, and when did you discover open source GIS and QGIS specifically?

A: So, back in Australia, I enrolled in a masters in “Geomatics”, which was a bit of a mix between every spatial discipline. A couple of early pracs involving surveying sites using steel tapes(!) quickly lead to me dropping every subject that wasn’t pure GIS or cartography. Towards the end of my masters I started working for Victoria Police, as a spatial analyst in their intelligence division. I loved the work – it involved a great variety of tricky spatial and statistical problems with the occasional need to make a pretty map. This is how I got started with QGIS — the commercial GIS package they used just had no capacity for making pretty maps, no matter what tricks you tried. I got sick of creating maps that I was embarrassed to show off so went hunting for alternatives which we could use (in other words… free alternatives. They had no software budget at all). This hunt lead to QGIS, and it wasn’t long before I was totally converted.

I’ve always been a bit of an open-source zealot anyway, so QGIS was a natural fit for me. To me open source just makes sense. I hate the feeling of being at the mercy of some distant software vendor to fix bugs and improve my daily workflow, so I’d much rather just have the ability to dig in and fix things myself. It’s a great model all round – even end users with no coding knowledge can still directly influence an open source project through sponsored features or fixes, and in the end everyone benefits from this.

Q: When I first met you, you were working for the Victoria Police. Why did you decide to launch North Road?

A: Well, as I started using QGIS at Victoria Police more and more, I started hacking away in my spare time to add improvements and fix any little bugs I’d hit during my day job. Doing this for an open-source project was one of the best learning experiences I’ve had. There’s always motivation to improve your work and make sure it’s in top form before opening up a pull request and knowing that it’s going to be visible to everyone and reviewed in public! Plus, you can always watch the changes which are flowing in from other developers and learning from their experience too. Luckily I had some great mentors early on (including fellow Australian geohipster Nathan Woodrow!) who always made themselves available for my constant questions and to refine my rough ideas. Over time the contributions I made became more ambitious as my confidence (and skills) grew, and I started getting queries from users who’d benefited from these contributions. I remember receiving my first email from a user asking “I saw you made this change recently to QGIS, how much would it cost to extend it a bit further and make it cover my requirements too?” – I had no idea what people would usually charge for work on open source, or indeed whether it was even considered “bad form” to charge for working on an open source project (Hint for all open source contributors: it’s not! Your time is valuable and you have no obligation to work for anyone for free!).

Things grew from there until I hit a critical point (when we had our second child), where I had to either make a decision to make this a full-time thing and quit the police work, or scale back the after hours work. I opted for the self-employment option since it meant I could wear teeshirts instead of a suit, listen to any music I wanted to all day, and stay up all night wondering if I’d made a terrible decision and would be broke and homeless in a month. And so North Road was launched.

Q: Walk us through a typical day being a QGIS developer and committer?

A: Well, right now we’re leading up to the launch of the next major version, QGIS 3.0. It’s going to be huge – there’s tons of new features and optimisations, and we’ve totally ripped out and rebuilt some of the older code areas and replaced them with brand new backends (composer, server, and processing). It also brings the change to Python 3 and Qt 5. So currently most of my daily development time is focused on getting 3.0 into top shape and squashing regressions before the final release. It’s a little stressful! Fortunately, the QGIS project enjoys the backing of numerous generous sponsors, which allows the QGIS organisation to directly employ developers to work on the trickier bugs in the lead up to a release. This allows me (among others) to focus our time on these fixes, and as a direct result the final release will be much more stable. (Hint for QGIS users – if you’ve ever wanted to see stabler releases, this is one way you can directly influence the quality of the final release… those sponsorship dollars and donations have a direct effect on the stability of QGIS!).

Following the release I’ll switch back to focusing on feature development – which means my days are filled with fundraising, writing proposals, and, when I’m lucky, coding new features.

Q: What are your favorite new features of QGIS 3?

A: That’s a huge question! The thing to keep in mind here is that QGIS 3.0 has been actively developed in parallel to the stable QGIS 2 releases for the last 2 years. So while the changelogs for the last couple of releases were substantial on their own, those were just for releases with the normal 4 month release cycle. You can start to extrapolate here and get an idea how long the changelog for 3.0 will be! I don’t think there’s any part of the code or interface which hasn’t been refined and improved in some way.

But in short, the features which make it difficult for me to go back to QGIS 2.18 are:

  • The improved label tools which allow you to just pick up and modify any label in your project, without needing to alter your layers in any way.
  • The reworked processing analysis framework and all the new and improved algorithms available in 3.0
  • and surprisingly, all the refinements to Geopackage handling which make them easy and convenient to work with. It’s actually enough to convert me from team shapefile!

 

Q: What is a QGIS feature you’d love to have time to work on but haven’t gotten to yet? What’s your wishlist?

A: Great question! My wishlist is HUGE, and grows every time I make a map. There’s two items which I’d say are top of my personal cartographic hit list right now:

  • Adding “distribute spacing” tools to the print layout designer. 3.0 adds a bunch of new “distribute item” actions which allow items themselves to be evenly spaced within a layout, but I want to be able to distribute the gaps between items instead. It’s a common functionality in desktop publishing and illustration applications which hasn’t yet found its way to QGIS.
  • Adding more automatic label placement options and refining the logic we already have. It’s good, but there’s always more we could do and finding ways to improve the automated placement benefits everyone – even if all you use QGIS for is visualising a bunch of shapefiles.

Fortunately, the QGIS user community has adopted a great attitude toward crowd-funding of features, and there’s been many funding campaigns which have allowed tweaks like these to happen in the past. I’ve already got a few campaigns lined up and ready to go for similar improvements following the release of 3.0!

Q: You mentioned that your time is generally split about 60/40 between making software and making actual maps. What types of projects do you work on when you’re not developing?

A: It’s a mix – these days it’s a whole range of analytical maps showing various statistical outputs right through to “simple” maps of various reference layers for government reports. Fortunately at the moment I’ve got a number of clients for whom high-quality visualisations are essential, so I get to spend time polishing maps and making outputs which I’m proud of. Surprisingly, they’re also almost exclusively print and static maps too. (On a slightly different topic, I personally suspect we’re going to see a swing back toward valuing static, non-interactive maps and data visualisations sometime. Everybody’s just so busy that maps and visualisations which can effectively and instantly communicate their message to a reader, without any data exploration, are likely to see a resurgence for projects where interactivity isn’t a key requirement!).

Q: I know you are a tabletop gamer. What are your favorite games these days? What else do you do for fun?

A: I’m all for co-operative, story-based games at the moment. The Arkham Horror Living Card Game is getting a lot of play (and accordingly, inspired the “Exploring the Depths of Madness Through QGIS symbology” talk I gave at the recent QGIS Australia meetup). TIME Stories and the Pandemic Legacy series are recent favorites too!

Incidentally, I love seeing board games with great cartography. There’s been quite a few games which have inspired me to try different mapping techniques. One personal favorite is the map for the GMT “Liberty or Death” game… that’s a beautiful map, which perfectly balances cartographic attention to detail with usability as a game set piece. It’s gorgeous (and incidentally, inspired a few QGIS symbology tweaks!), and I love that I can learn better map making just from gaming.

Apart from gaming, something I’ve recently rediscovered is how relaxing it is to just put on headphones and listen to an album without doing ANYTHING else. No dual-screening, no checking emails, no fixing QGIS bugs — just tuning out and listening!

Q: Do you consider yourself a geohipster? Why or why not?

A: Well, for a long time I was a holdout flag-carrying member of team shapefile, yet I’ve recently been won over by GeoPackage. I’m not sure if that makes me a geohipster or the opposite! (Shapefiles are retro-cool now, aren’t they?)

I *did* just move out to the country and to a place with our own vegetables and chickens, a farmer’s market next door, and an old avocado farm I can raid if I jump the back fence. I guess that makes me either a hipster or a hippy.

Q: Any words of wisdom or final thoughts you’d like to share with the GeoHipster community?

A: If I’m speaking philosophically, I think it’s crucial these days to have something “unique” you can bring to the profession. I don’t believe it’s enough to just be a “GIS specialist who knows XXX desktop GIS platform”. You’ve got to have something extra which differentiates you and helps you stand out from all the other GIS professionals. For example, you want to be “the GIS specialist who is a statistical wiz” or “the GIS specialist who can code and automate all those boring processes” or “the GIS specialist who can craft effective story-telling maps and visualisations”.

But if I’m speaking as a QGIS developer I’d say: mark down February 23rd in your diary,  download QGIS 3.0 and enjoy. It’s the magic unicorn fairy land of open source GIS™!

Anna Riddell on monitoring relative sea level change, accounting for the wiggle of the centre of the Earth

Anna Riddell
Anna Riddell
Anna works for Geoscience Australia as a Geodesist, but is currently doing a PhD at the University of Tasmania. Her research is focused on using Global Positioning System (GPS) data from Australian sites to derive a spatially-comprehensive vertical velocity field for the continent.

Anna was interviewed for GeoHipster by Alex Leith.

Q: You’re a Geodesist-hipster, right? So what is hip in the world of geodesy currently?

A: Geodesist-hipster doesn’t roll off the tongue as nicely as Geo-hipster, but we’ll stick with it for now.

There are so many exciting projects and new things popping up in geodesy, so these are just a few of them that I am excited for.

In Australia, it is predicted that by 2020 there will be in excess of 30 GNSS satellites visible at any one time. With the regular launch of new satellites, the major GNSS constellations are soon to reach maturity, creating a whole new world of multi-frequency, multi-constellation applications.

Other Earth observation missions are also being launched in the near future, one of which is the GRACE follow-on, which will enable the monitoring of changes in ice sheets and glaciers, the amount of water in large lakes and rivers and changes in sea level by observing changes in gravity.

In the realm of relativistic geodesy, there is some excitement around using optical lattice clocks for measuring elevation changes as well as the possibility to use the new clocks to redefine the SI unit of time and frequency (the second), effectively re-defining time… A bit closer to home we have the National Positioning Infrastructure capability and the Satellite Based Augmentation System trial, which is testing next-generation SBAS, a world first, in Australia.

Q: Australia has a new datum (GDA2020) that has just been released, and one day it might be dynamic. Do you think we can actually have one, considering the software challenges?

A: ‘Dynamic datums’ sound scary, but aren’t as daunting as they sound. The International Terrestrial Reference Frame (ITRF) could be considered as a datum that is continuously updated, where a new frame is realised every 4 years or so as new data becomes available and realignment is required. The new time-dependent Australian Terrestrial Reference Frame (ATRF), to be implemented in 2020, will be similar with periodic updates and realignment with the global frame. I wouldn’t say that it will be a major challenge for software, as the tools and resources needed are available and will be updated with each release. Noting that GDA2020 (current release) will still be available for users who do not need a time-dependent reference frame.

Q: Precession or nutation: which is your favourite?

A: Nutation! It’s more of a short term wiggle of the Earth’s spin axis due to the effect of the moon’s orbit, and more interesting to look at over short time spans (months to years).

Q: You studied at the University of Tasmania (same as me!); who was your favourite lecturer?! (You don’t have to answer this…)

A: Picking favourites is always dangerous (considering that I work with some of my lecturers now).

Christopher Watson (while teaching us least squares via first principles), for his entertaining idiosyncrasy of starting nearly every written sentence (on the white board) with ‘So,…’. I think the maximum count during one lecture was ~35 ‘So,…’ sentences.

Volker Janssen gets an honourable mention for the infiltration of AC/DC flavoured questions in some of our assessments.

Q: And after graduation, you joined Geoscience Australia, the largest geo-organisation in Australia, as part of their grad program, how was it?

A: The graduate program was an exciting year allowing me to experience the diverse range of earth-science related research undertaken to provide advice to the Australian Government. It was a fast-track introduction to the whole agency where we were encouraged to ‘step outside our comfort zone’ and explore areas that were not within our speciality/focus of our uni degrees. My 3 projects during the 12-month grad program were focused on:

  • Assessing the vulnerability of buildings to earthquake damage in Papua New Guinea;
  • Understanding the operation of Geoscience Australia’s geodetic networks, including the construction and installation of CORS and conducting a levelling survey from the Majuro tide gauge to the GNSS site in the Marshall Islands;
  • Classifying islands in the south Pacific on their vulnerability to climate change, specifically for groundwater storage and availability.

Q: GA are sponsoring your PhD, what is your elevator pitch for your thesis?

A: My PhD research is focused on looking at the vertical motion of the Australian tectonic plate, using permanent GPS sites all over the continent to track surface deformation. Part of my research is looking at reducing the error sources in precise GPS analysis, such as accounting for the wiggle of the centre of the Earth which presents as noise in the reference frame (ITRF2014). Having more accurate and precise estimates of vertical land motion in Australia will also enable more reliable observations of sea level change at tide gauge sites around the Australian coastline. Observations of sea level from tide gauges are made relative to the land that the tide gauge is attached to. Without knowledge of the vertical motion of the land (most commonly from GPS), our observations of sea level change can be biased. Relative sea level measurements are important for understanding local effects such as flooding and inundation, but the combination of sea level estimates from satellite altimetry and tide gauges requires knowledge of vertical land motion.

Q: What’s a surprising fact about plate tectonics that we don’t know yet?

A: There are around twelve tectonic plates that make up the surface of the Earth, but one plate (the Pacific plate) accounts for about 90% of all earthquakes, aka the ring of fire! This video is a great visualisation of earthquakes over a 15 year period. Plate tectonics (from the Late Latin tectonicus, from the Greek: τεκτονικός “pertaining to building”) a.k.a Earth’s lego blocks?!

Q: You grew up in a small town, Wynyard, Tasmania, and then lived in our nation’s capital, Canberra. What’s different and what’s the same?

A: Although Canberra is our nation’s capital, it could still be considered as a rural city (not big and bustling like Sydney). My moving progression has been steady with a moderate change from rural Wynyard to Hobart and then a smaller change from Hobart to Canberra. I am not a big city person, so Canberra suits me well. It is hard to compare what it was like living in Wynyard to living in Canberra as they were such different stages of my life. When I was in Wynyard, I was living with my family and growing up (still doing that now too…). The move to, and then working in Canberra was the first step into the working world, and so the comparisons are hard to draw.

The biggest difference for me would be not being near the beach and seeing open water. Living on the NW coast of Tas meant that you were nearly always in sight of water (river, dam, ocean), or driving along the coast with the salty tang of the sea. In Canberra, Lake Burley Griffin doesn’t quite compare with its brown colouring and periodic blue-green algal blooms.

Canberra also has a much larger temperature differential than Wynyard with hot highs (> 35 degrees celcius) and freezing winter mornings (sub-zero). I do prefer the crisp, clear and sunny winter days of Canberra in comparison to the (mostly) dreary and grey Tassie winter!

Q: I found another interview with you that says you used to ride horses, do you still ride?

A: Moving to Hobart was the end of my competitive horse riding era, which mostly focused on Show Jumping and Eventing. During my undergrad I worked at a racing stable, which was a great way to keep riding and get my horsey fix without having a horse of my own. I still occasionally ride for pleasure, but no longer competitively. My horse, Flynn, is now retired and enjoying the good life in a paddock full of lush grass out the back of Sheffield.

Q: And what else do you do in your free time that isn’t GeoRelated?

A: I enjoy team sports, with football (soccer) taking up most of my Sundays during the season. We are just about to start our Summer Cup games as a pre-season warm-up before getting into the football season, running from March to September.

While in Tasmania I have a list of walks/experiences and adventures to undertake which I am slowly accomplishing on weekends that don’t involve football. (e.g. Tahune airwalk, Russell Falls, Cape Pillar, Cape Hauy, Maria Island, sampling all the wine and cheese…).

Tim Wallace to GeoHipster: “Try to get the whole picture before you criticize”

Tim Wallace
Tim Wallace
Tim Wallace is a Graphics Editor and geographer for The New York Times, where he makes visual stories with information gathered from from land, sky and space. He has a Ph.D. in Geography from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Q: How did you get into mapping?

A: I’ve always been into maps and geography. I grew up outside of Boston in a family that took one kind of vacation—road trips to go camping. We drove everywhere we could in the Northeast: Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, of course, but also New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and even Newfoundland (my favorite). For me, as an elementary school kid and middle schooler, it was pretty spectacular seeing all those beautiful landscapes in person, as well as discovering how they all were connected thanks to the maps we collected along the way.

While my first job (at the age of 8) was in journalism (I was a paperboy for the Boston Globe, of course!), the realization that I could have a career in journalism came much later, after a few years as an aspiring maritime archaeologist. I’d gotten both my undergraduate and masters degrees in archaeology, but after realizing the thrill of diving on a wreck was an opportunity I’d only experience rarely, I found myself drawn to the kinds of storytelling and visual explanation that are crucial to the preservation of cultural heritage. I was already doing a lot of cartography as an archaeologist, but without a great deal of formal training, I felt like I was winging it more than I wanted to be. So I decided to go for a PhD in geography.

Q: The title of your thesis is “Cartographic Journalism: Situating Modern News Mapping in a History of Map-User Interaction”. It was published in 2016, but you’ve been at the New York Times since 2012… so you completed a PhD while working at the NYT? That sounds impossible – how did you manage to pull it off?

A: Oh, boy. Short answer: writing retreats and sticking to a strict schedule. Long answer: It wasn’t easy, and I didn’t do it alone. Once I’d started at The Times, many people asked me why I would bother finishing. And as time passed, doubt crept in that I was even capable of it. In fact, I don’t think I would have finished if I hadn’t had the support of my wife, Kelly, and family, who understood on a deeply personal level what finishing might mean to me. I don’t talk about it much (because really there’s no point), but I struggled with dyslexia and short term memory issues as a kid—so much that one teacher told my folks that I would never be able to go to college. So, if I’m being honest, a good percentage of my drive to finish was thanks to family support—and also the desire to stick it to those long-since-gone teachers and prove to myself that I’m every bit as capable as the next geographic nerdlinger. Take that, Mrs. Baldwin! Hahaaa!

Q: You started off as an intern for the New York Times, but now you work as a graphics editor. What’s that like? Can you walk us through a typical day?

A: One of the greatest things about my job is that when I wake up in the morning, I often have no clue what I’ll be working on that day. Breaking news, fresh assignments or successful pitches often turn any expectations of how a day (or even a week) might go, upside down. Having said that, there are a handful of things that I often do (even if I don’t know when I’ll be doing them). I make maps, solo or along with a handful of other geographers in the department, and those same geographers and I assist other colleagues with mapmaking. I work with satellite imagery quite a lot, and increasingly, various types of drone imagery. Sometimes that drone imagery comes from flights that I or my colleagues have piloted. Occasionally I find myself working alone, but our department, and the newsroom as a whole, is extremely collaborative. So it’s pretty rare that the work I do isn’t done in support of a team effort.

Q: You work with a wide range of data types, from satellite imagery to spatially referenced data, and not so spatially referenced data. Can you tell us about the tools that you use?

A: Our department has a handful of internally-built tools (some of which have been opened to the public, like ai2html!), but everyone works with their own little hodgepodge of tools that suit their pace and type of work. For short deadlines (sometimes only minutes), we keep it simple (often only using illustrator and/or photoshop); for enterprise stuff we often have time to get a little experimental and try new tools and techniques. Geospatial tools I use include GDAL (my bash profile is a mess with functions for common tasks, like cleaning up gross shapefiles or pansharpening Landsat imagery), Mapshaper (made by my colleague, Matthew Bloch!), Arc/Q GIS (am I allowed to list them interchangeably like that?), GeographicImager, MAPublisher—but I’ll dabble in ENVI or Pix4D if I have time! Because of our often-frantic work pace, our spatial database management is borderline atrocious though. So, please don’t ask me about that. 🙁

Q: How often do you get to experiment, try out a new tool or a different approach to a problem?

A: Every story is at least little different from any other, so some level of experimentation is a part of the job. Dedicated whacky experimentation time usually only happens when we know a story is coming that we want to cover very differently. But I work with a group of creative people who are always pushing to do better work with new and surprising techniques, so some days feel almost like I’m in a little R&D graphics lab.

Q: This past October, you worked on the New York Times’ story How California’s Most Destructive Wildfire Spread, Hour by Hour. For just two hundred words and one map, it communicates a wealth of information. How did you achieve the brief yet comprehensive final product?

A: The Tubbs fire was unique for several reasons, but chief among them was the unusual rate at which it moved down a hill and into a populated area. We felt pretty strongly that this needed to be explained visually to give our readers the best sense of what happened. Projects like this are big team efforts. Derek Watkins was reporting from California for the first part of the production of the graphic. Others of us back in New York were helping delineate the fire’s perimeter using the latest data from the state, images from the European Space Agency, Landsat and DigitalGlobe. We were also using the DigitalGlobe imagery to determine which buildings were destroyed. If we weren’t sure about a building and Derek had access, he would go take a look and we would update our map with what he found. The locations of deaths were mapped with old-fashioned reporting. The timeline was put together using VIIRS, MODIS and GOES-16 data and we tried our best not to imply any more precision than we had. You may notice the lines aren’t sharp, for example. Their gradient is meant to visually display the fuzziness of the precision of our timeline based on our amalgam of sources.

Q: Is it normal for news publications to employ top notch geographers, or is that something unique to the New York Times?

A: What it means to be a Geographer in a newsroom and what we do has changed over time, but we’ve always been around. Maps have appeared in newsprint for centuries and many reporters do geography all the time! The type of work we’re doing now though feels special, like we’ve hit an inflection point where institutions are leaning on Geographers not just for maps or square mile calculations, but also for their perspective on news events as they happen across cultures and landscapes.

Q: Many people I’ve talked to who make maps professionally often make maps in their spare time for fun. Do you have any fun mapping projects in the works?

A: I’ve made a habit of putting myself to sleep at night with satellite imagery instead of a long read. I sometimes tinker with ideas too, but I’ve found that it’s pretty important to step back a little from my work during certain hours so that I don’t burn out!  

Q: You also run a website called  Bostonography with Andy Woodruff. For those who might not know, what is Bostonography? How did it come about?

A: Andy approached me about it at NACIS in St. Petersburg in 2010. He’d just moved to Boston and I’d just left. So, with his fresh eyes and my perspective as a recent Bostonian, it made good sense to team up. And it has been a lot of fun pretending to be the modern day Kevin Lynches of Boston. I just wish we had more time for it!

Side note: Amy’s favorite on the site is Whoops: Dunkin’s are Closer, which is a correction of an earlier Bostonography map showing distances to the nearest Dunkin’ Donuts across Boston. The farthest place in Boston from a Dunkin’ Donuts appears to be a cemetery, which you point out is ironic, because there’s another great Bostography map showing distance to cemeteries.

Q: What do you do for fun? Any hobbies? Your website has a lovely photo of your writing coach, who looks like a lot of fun…

A: I really don’t think I could enjoy spending time with Kelly, my son and my dog, Lucy, any more than I do. We cherish the weekends when we can stretch out our walks in the park, build worlds out of train tracks, hit up the zoo or go for a swim. I love taking photos and experimenting with photography too. I bake and cook a lot. Oh, and I might make a map here or there for fun (like this housewarming gift for my parents).

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

A: Why, sure! I’m a geographer living in Brooklyn, I make my own pickles and babka, and I collect old maps. I should at least be geohipster-adjacent with these qualifications, right?

Q: Any words of wisdom you’d like to leave with the geohipster community?

A: Be friendly, share your knowledge and try to get the whole picture before you criticize. We all work differently and have a lot to learn from one another.

Ian Dees to GeoHipster: “It’s important to produce something that affects others in a positive way.”

Ian Dees
Ian Dees
Ian Dees is making it easier for people to find and use all sorts of geodata. He is a member of the OpenStreetMap US board, founder of OpenAddresses and All The Places, and is always looking for new data to explore and share.

 

Ian was interviewed for GeoHipster by Mike Dolbow, about a month before the announcement that Mapzen is shutting down operations. We at GeoHipster wish everyone from the Mapzen team the best of luck in finding their next adventures. –Ed

Q: You’re part of a team at Mapzen. Tell us how you got started with them.

I joined Mapzen because I was excited to focus on maps and map data as part of my day job. I was also excited to work with the team at Mapzen, who have built some great services based on the data that I’ve enjoyed building for the last decade of my life. I ended up on the Tiles team working on the map data that makes up the Tilezen service but I also spent time working on other data systems like Terrain Tiles, All the Places, and OpenAddresses.

Q: What are some cool projects you’ve been working on lately?

I’ve been working with Seth Fitzsimmons on updating Mapzen’s Terrain Tiles dataset for the last few months and we finally got it out the door earlier this month. I enjoyed updating the Terrain Tiles using newer AWS products like Batch that allowed me to spin up tens of thousands of CPUs to regenerate every tile in the world using newer and higher resolution elevation data. It was quite a thrill playing around with that setup!

I’ve also been working on adding data to Mapzen Places through a web scraping project called All the Places. Mapzen Places is a dataset with hundreds of millions of “venues” or points of interest from around the world and a system to link them into a hierarchy of administrative boundaries. All the Places will scrape location data from websites and output GeoJSON that will then be matched with existing Mapzen Places entries to add details like phone number, opening hours, improved location, and more.

Q: You’re the founder of Open Addresses, correct? What’s the story behind how that effort began?

OpenAddresses began when I finished importing the buildings and addresses in Chicago. I was looking around for more data to import into OpenStreetMap while also dealing with the recently-formed Data Working Group’s import guidelines. I decided that taking the time to go through the import process for the hundreds of datasets I was finding wasn’t a good use of my time so I collected the sources into a spreadsheet so others could import them if they wanted.

At some point Nick Ingalls from Mapbox came along and helped me move this spreadsheet into GitHub along with a system to download and merge the data together. After lots of help by hundreds of contributors (like yourself – thanks!) we have over 500 million address points collected and the data is used by Mapzen and Mapbox’s geocoders to provide extremely accurate and up to date search results.

Q: I have to admit, Open Addresses is one of the Github repos I contribute the most to. I think of it kind of like a treasure hunt, finding county data sources for addresses, particularly in my home state. Did you ever think it would grow to over 100 contributors?

Absolutely not! It was a thrill to see the community grow so rapidly. I think the thing that really kicked it into gear was Mike Migurski’s addition of continuous integration builds that generated preview of changed sources in a pull request. It made it clear to the contributor what was getting added and what the data looked like. The instant gratification that those maps provided really made people excited to spend a bit more time looking for more data to add.

Q: I have to admit that is a really cool feature – almost like earning badges in an app or something. But also, I’ve done enough painstaking geocoding that if I’m helping someone, somewhere have an easier time at that, it seems a noble cause. Are there any other contributors expressing that kind of desire? Or, conversely, has there been any backlash from a source that didn’t know its data was being used?

I think there are two types of contributors: one like you who can see where this data ends up being used and is excited for where their contribution ends up downstream. The other is a “casual contributor” that somehow finds the repository and is able to quickly and easily add a data source. This doesn’t happen as much anymore because we cover so many places already, but they get quick confirmation that their contribution is helpful and we can more easily offer fixes if something is wrong.

We have received one or two requests to stop using a data source because we misinterpreted the licensing information, but the vast majority of requests we get are to point to a better source of data or to offer newer or more complete information directly to us. To help with both of these situations we’re working with Portland’s TriMet team to build a tool for data providers to submit data directly to us.

Q: You also were on the team behind CensusReporter. Census data – and interpreting it – has long been the bane of the digital geographer’s existence. I can’t believe it took the geo community that long to have something dedicated to making it easier to use. I refer people to the site all the time. What was the most challenging obstacle to overcome for that team?

It was a blast working with the small team of Ryan Pitts, Sara Schnadt, and Joe Germuska on Census Reporter. Joe had built similar systems before and wanted to make them better, so it was great to build on top of his vision and work with Sara and Ryan to build innovative interfaces on top of the data that I pulled together. The most challenging part of that project was building something that handled the depth of the data that Census Bureau provides while also making it approachable and searchable for reporters who didn’t have the time to completely understand how Census had organized the data. I think one of the most successful parts of Census Reporter is that it’s simple enough to use and update that it only takes a few hours every time Census releases new data twice a year to maintain. Otherwise it runs itself!

Q: You’re also on the Board for OpenStreetMap US. Other than, uh…spraying an occasional fire extinguisher on the mailing list, what are your duties there?

I’ve been the treasurer on the OpenStreetMap US board of directors for several years. That involves making sure bills get paid, taxes get filed, and coordinating sponsorships for State of the Map US. One of the trickiest parts of being active with OpenStreetMap US is figuring out how to spend our money in a responsible way that improves the community of mappers in the United States. We’re constantly looking for ways to do that and if anyone out there has suggestions, please let us know.

Q: Does any of this work compare to being on Obama Election 2012 campaign?

I built some of the strongest relationships I’ve ever had in the 8 months or so I was on the Obama 2012 campaign. Going through that experience made me re-organize my career priorities entirely: before 2012 I was concerned about how I would be able to move up the ladder into a challenging position while not transitioning into management. After 2012 I realized that an extremely important part of having a job is being emotionally happy and producing something that affected others in a positive way. Working with and learning from amazingly talented people also became very important to me, and I think both of these things had a huge effect on what I chose to do in my career afterwards.

Q: You recently moved back to Minnesota after several years away. What brought you back?

My wife and I grew up in the midwest, and went to college in the midwest, so when we spent 3 years in Virginia at her teaching job we felt out of our element. We definitely wanted to get back to the midwest as soon as possible and a job in Minneapolis opened up at the perfect time. She took it and we moved as soon as we could. It feels great to be back in our element now!

Q: You describe yourself as a “Map Nerd” on various social media outlets. Does that equate to being a geohipster?

When I think of a “nerd” I think of someone who enjoys obsessively figuring out a problem or topic. I call myself a map nerd because I enjoy all aspects of maps: everything from understanding where you are while wandering outside to finding the right command line incantation to reproject a shapefile. I’ve always spent way too much time on a computer and focusing on maps, map data, and the systems around it gives me somewhere to focus when I want to learn new things. I suppose focusing on these geo topics makes me a geohipster 🙂 .