Category Archives: Interviews

Mark Iliffe: “Maps show us where to direct our resources and improve the lives of people”

Mark Iliffe
Mark Iliffe
Mark Iliffe (@markiliffe) is a geographer/map geek working on mapping projects around the world. He leads Ramani Huria for the World Bank, is Neodemographic Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham after completing his PhD at the Horizon Institute, and a mentor for Geeks Without Bounds.

Q: Suitably for a geohipster, your OpenStreetMap profile says “I own a motorbike and have a liking to randomly spend weekends finding out ‘what is over there’”. What have you found?

A: I think I wrote that around a decade ago while getting into OSM, while on a foreign exchange trip in Nancy, France! I found out a lot of things, from that time trying to take a 125cc Yamaha (a hideously small and underpowered motorcycle — think Chimpanzee riding a tricycle) around Europe was slow and cold to new friendships. Also, a career path in maps and a love of all things geospatial, via counting flamingos in Kenya…

Q: Everyone has to start somewhere, and for you I believe that was mapping toilets (or places toilets should be). Indeed I think we first met when you presented your sanitation hack project Taarifa at #geomob by squatting on the table to demonstrate proper squat toilet technique. Tell us about Taarifa.

A: Taarifa is/was a platform for improving public service delivery in emerging countries. It came out of the London Water Hackathon in 2011, basically as an idea that we could do more with the data that is being generated by the many humanitarian mapping projects that had been enabled by OSM at the time, such as Map Kibera, Ramani Tandale and Haiti Earthquake mapping. As a community open-source project, it showed the potential of how feedback loops between citizens and service providers could be used to fix water points or toilets. We used Ushahidi as a base, adding workflow for reports; we tried to push these back to their community, but the core developers had other objectives — fair enough. We as the Taarifa community though we had something special regardless, but it was a hack, it wasn’t planned to be deployed anywhere.

In January 2012 I was in a meeting with a colleague at the World Bank who’d head that Taarifa had been suggested to fill a need on monitoring the construction of schools in Uganda. He arranged a meeting with the project manager for me, went along, and a week later I was coding on the plane to Uganda to pilot Taarifa across 4 districts around the country. Ultimately, it ended up being scaled to all 111 districts at the request of the Ugandan Ministry of Local Government.

From this the Taarifa community started to grow, expanding the small core of developers. In 2013 we won the Sanitation Hackathon Challenge, then received $100K World Bank innovation award to set up Taarifa in the Iringa Region of Tanzania. Taarifa and collaborators on that project, SNV, Geeks Without Bounds and ITC Twente then went on to win a DFID Human Development Innovation Fund award of £400,000. Since then it’s gone in a different direction, away from a technical community focus to one that concentrates on building the local social fabric that is wholly embedded and ran locally in Tanzania.

I feel that this was Taarifa’s most important contribution — not one of technology, but one which convenes development agencies and coders to innovate a little. Now, the main developers of the code haven’t worked on the main codebase for over a year, but Taarifa’s ideas of creating feedback loops in emerging countries still move on, in its grants, but also have been absorbed into other projects too.

Q: Actually I think I’m wrong, even before Taarifa you were an intern at Cloudmade, the first company to try to make money using OpenStreetMap. Founded by Steve Coast (and others), the VC-funded business hired many of the “famous” names of early OSM, before eventually fizzling out and moving into a different field. What was it like? Any especially interesting memories? What sort of impression did that experience leave on you? Also, what’s your take on modern VC-funded OpenStreetMap companies like Mapbox?

A: Cloudmade was fantastic, learned a lot from each of the OSMers that worked there — from Steve Coast, Andy Allen, Nick Black, Matt Amos, and Shaun McDonald. At Cloudmad, I wrote a routing engine for OSM — now common tools like PgRouting weren’t really around — I tried to build pgRouting from source, wasted three days, so started from scratch. In hindsight, I should have persevered with pgRouting, got involved in developing the existing tool instead of starting from scratch.

As it was my first tech company to work at, they were based in Central London and I was broke. I had to stay with my uncle in Slough about 30 miles away. I used to work quite late and slept in the office floor a few times. Once Nick was in early and caught me stuffing my sleeping bag back into the bottom drawer of my desk. The advice was to probably go home a bit more — advice that I’ve used selectively since, but I don’t sleep on my office floor anymore!

The VC situation is always going to be complex. I wasn’t too surprised when Cloudmade eventually pivoted, and their ideas and creations such as the “Map Style Editor” and Leaflet.js live on regardless of the company. At SoTM in Girona I made the comment that OSM was going through puberty. On reflection, I think it was a crude but accurate way to describe our project at that time. We didn’t know what OSM would or could become. OSM didn’t know how to deal with companies like Cloudmade, and neither did the companies know how to deal with OSM; to a certain extent I think we’re still learning, but getting better. Though at the time, like teenagers having to deal with new hormones, emotions ran riot. This all without realising that in the same way OSM has changed the world, OSM also is changed by it — and this is a good thing. Gary Gale has also mused extensively on this.

Now with the generation of companies after — CartoDB, Mapbox etc. — I think that they are much more perceptive to supporting and evolving the OSM ecosystem. Mapbox Humanitarian is one of them, but also their support for developing the ID Editor. In turn, the OSM community is growing as well, especially in the humanitarian space, with Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) supporting numerous projects around the world and acting as a useful interface to OSM for global institutions.

Q: Did you ever think back then that OSM would get as big and as global as it has?

A: TL;DR: Yes.

Recently, I had a discussion with a friend in a very British National Mapping Agency about the nature of exploration. Explorers of old would crisscross the world charting new things, sometimes for their own pleasure, but mostly for economic gain. These people then formed the mapping agencies that data from OSM ‘competes’ with today.

By working with the numerous army of volunteers, OSM embodies the same exploratory spirit — whether mapping their communities, or supporting disaster relief efforts. But instead of the privileged few, it’s the many. Now OSM is making tools and gaining access to data that make it easier than ever before to contribute, whether map data or any other contribution to the community.

Q: Despite those humble beginnings I believe you are now Doctor Mark Iliffe, having very recently defended your PhD thesis in Geography at the University of Nottingham. Congrats! Nevertheless though, doesn’t fancy book lernin’ like that reduce your geohipster credibility? In the just-fucking-do-it neogeo age is a formal background in geography still relevant? Is it something you’d recommend to kids starting their geo careers?

A: Thanks! Doing a PhD was by far the worst thing I’ve ever done, and will ever probably do — to myself, friends, and family. But it wasn’t through book learning, I did it in the field. Most of the thesis itself was written at 36,000ft via Qatar/British Airways and not the library (nb. This was/is a stupid idea, do it in the library).

Hopefully the geohipster cred should still be strong, but I wouldn’t recommend a PhD to kids starting their careers. Bed in for a few years, work out what you want to do, get comfortable, and then see if a PhD is for you. When I started my PhD, I’d done a small amount of work with Map Kibera and other places, and knew I wanted to work in the humanitarian mapping space but full time jobs didn’t exist. Doing a PhD gave the space (and a bit of money) to do that. Now these jobs, organisations, and career paths exist. Five years ago they didn’t.

Q: Though you live in the UK, for the last few years you’ve been working a lot in Tanzania, most recently with the World Bank. A lot of the work has been about helping build the local community to map unmapped (but nevertheless heavily populated) areas like Tandale. Indeed this work was also the basis for your PhD thesis. Give us the details on what you’ve been working on, who you’ve been working with, and most of all what makes it hip?

A: Ramani Huria takes up a lot of my time… It’s a community mapping project, with the Government of Tanzania, universities, and civil society organisations, supported by the World Bank and Red Cross. Ramani Huria has mapped over 25 communities in Dar es Salaam, covering around 1.3 million people. Dar es Salaam suffers from quite severe flooding, partly due as Dar es Salaam is the fastest growing city in Africa with a population of over 5.5 million.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lz75aHQpmf8

Ramani Huria is powered by a cadre of volunteers, pulling together 160+ university students, 100s community members to collect data on roads, water points, hospitals, and schools, among other attributes. One of the key maps are of the extent of flooding, this is being done by residents of flood prone communities sketching on maps. Now that these maps exist, flood mitigation strategies can be put in place by community leaders — this could either be through building new drains, or ensuring existing infrastructure is maintained. That’s the hip part of Ramani Huria, the local community is leading the mapping, with ourselves as the international community in support.

Ramani Huria -- a community mapping project
Ramani Huria — a community mapping project

Q: Over the last years there has been a big push by HOT and Missing Maps to get volunteers remote mapping in less developed areas like Tanzania. Some OSMers view this as a bad thing, as they perceive that it can inhibit the growth of a local community. As someone who’s been “in the field”, what’s your take? Is remote mapping helpful or harmful?

A: The only accurate map of the world is the world itself. With the objective of mapping the world, let’s work on doing that as fast as possible. Then we can focus on using that map to improve our world. Remote mapping is critical for that — but how can we be smarter at doing it?

To make a map of flood extents, so much time and effort goes into its creation. But a lot of it is basic, for example digitising roads and buildings. This is time-consuming — it doesn’t matter who does it, but it has to be done. But the knowledge of flooding is only held by those communities, nowhere else. The faster you can do this, the faster these challenges can be mitigated. Remote mapping gives a valuable head-start.

In Ramani Huria, we run “Maptime” events for the emerging local OSM community at the Buni Innovation Hub — these events grow the local community. Personally, I think we should move towards optimising our mapping as much as possible — whether that’s through remote mapping or image recognition — but that may be a step too far for the time being. I’d love to see interfaces to digitise Mapillary street view data, it’s something we’ve collected a lot of over the past year. Can we start to digitise drains from Mapillary imagery in the same way Missing Maps uses satellite imagery?

Q: You’ve recently been in Dunkirk in the refugee camps with Mapfugees, what was it like?

A: Mapfugees is a project to help map the La Linière refugee camp around Dunkirk, France. Jorieke Vyncke and I met up in Dunkirk to discuss with the refugee’s council — made up of the refugees themselves — and the camp administrators to see how maps could help. The refugees themselves wished to have maps of the local area for safe passage in/out of the camp. The camp itself is surrounded by a motorway and a railway, making passage in and out quite dangerous. Other ‘Mapfugees’ volunteers worked with mapping the surrounding areas with the refugees, leading local amenities and safe routes were identified.

At the same time, the camp itself was mapped, providing an understanding of camp amenities, so services to the camp can be improved. This is very similar to my experience of community mapping elsewhere — the map is a good way of discussing what needs to be done and can empower people to make changes.

Q: As you no doubt know, here at GeoHipster we’re not scared to ask the real questions. So let’s get into it. On Twitter you’re not infrequently part of a raging debate — which is better: #geobeers or #geosambuca? How will we ever settle this?

A: #Geobeer now has my vote. I’m way too old for #geobuccas as the hangovers are getting worse!

Q: So what’s next Mark? I mean both for you personally now that you’ve crossed the PhD off the list and also for OSM in places like Africa and in organizations like the World Bank.

A: For me, in a few months I’m going to take a long holiday and work out what’s next. I’m open to suggestions on a postcard!

Looking back, OSM is just past a decade old and is still changing the world for the better. In OSM, projects like Ramani Huria, but also mapping projects in Indonesia and others are at the forefront of this, but more can be done. I believe that organisations like the UN and World Bank need to move away from projects to supporting a global geospatial ecosystem. This isn’t a technical problem, but a societal and policy based concern.

This doesn’t sound sexy and isn’t. But at the moment, there are over a billion people that live in extreme poverty. Maps show us where to direct our resources and improve the lives of people, the human and financial resources required to map our world will be immense, moving well past the hundreds of thousands of dollars and spent on mapping cities like Dar es Salaam and Jakarta. To build this, we need to work at a high policy level to really embed geo and maps at the core of the Global Development Agenda with the Sustainable Development Goals. Projects like UN GGIM are moving in that direction, but will need support from geohipsters to make it happen.

Maps and geo are crucial to resolve the problems our world faces, to solve this problem we should use our natural geohipster instincts… JFDI.

Q: Any closing thoughts for all the geohipsters out there?

A: Get out there — you never know where you’ll go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mappable -- Limited accessibility
Mappable — Limited accessibility

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mappable car-sharing timelapse
Mappable car-sharing timelapse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SwissTrains iOS v2
SwissTrains iOS v2

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

Vlad -- future trainspotter
Vlad — future trainspotter

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

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

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

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

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

What does a GeoHipster listen to? — Everything!

Music & Maps : A GeoHipster Mixtape

On most days, we listen to the soundtrack of work:  phones, email notifications, office chatter, or the sound of the city. For some of us, our daily soundtrack is a carefully curated playlist of our favorite tunes. Being in the latter group, music can provide the white noise needed push through an hour of getting the labels “just right”, or the inspiration that sparks the fix for that problem with your code.

I was curious about what others are listening to during the day – What does a GeoHipster listen to?

As you might expect, asking anyone who likes music to pick a few songs can be a near futile task. A desert island playlist would be drastically different from a top side one, track ones playlist. Making a mixtape is subtle art, there are many rules – like making a map. I recently talked to several of our interesting colleagues in geo to see what tunes get them through the day. I asked the impossible: pick  3 tracks they love to share for a mixtape.

A GeoHipster mixtape. 

For your listening and reading  pleasure we have hand-crafted a carefully curated playlist from the GeoHipsters below, complete with liner notes of the cool work they do while listening to the tracks they picked.

Ps. i couldn’t help but add a few selections of my own.
Sorry/Not Sorry
jonah



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Joey Lee @leejoeyk // Open Science Fellow at the Mozilla Science Lab

A font made from satellite imagery. WAT. Joey is one of the minds behind  Aerial Bold  – a kickstarter funded project that finds letters in buildings, ponds, trees, and everything else  in satellite imagery.

Generationals – “Reading Signs”
Banoffee – “With her”
Kings of Convenience – “I’d rather dance with you”


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Vicky Johnson @hurricanevicky // GIS Specialist at USAID via Macfadden

A self-admitting geogrump, Vicky regularly talks about maps, all things Buffalo, and nostradamus-style death predictions. Her writings on maps, like “The Maps We Wandered Into As Kids”  are some of best out there. Seriously. Read her stuff.

Ludovico Einaudi – Night
Michael Daugherty – Lex
Grimes –  Kill v Maim


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Jereme Monteau  @jerememonteau  // CoFounder & CTO @ Trailhead Labs

Jereme works on making trail data accesible and open. Through the smooth OuterSpatial platform he’s working on, organizations can provide beautiful maps of their trails, like the Napa County Regional Park & Open Space District

Jereme provided some DJ set links with the caveat:
“……Basically, for any kind of work, especially geo/maps. I’m into DJ sets, which is also kind of the only time I’m into DJ sets. :-)……”

https://soundcloud.com/atish/atish-038-september-2013-anti …
https://soundcloud.com/odesza/no-sleep-mix-04 …
https://soundcloud.com/robot-heart/eric-volta-robot-heart-burning-man-2014 …


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Amy Lee Walton @amyleew // Designer @Mapbox

Amy Lee’s recent map stylings like “Vintage” and “Blueprint” have wow’d us all and she continues to produce amazing examples of modern cartographic design.

The Beatles – I Want You (She’s So Heavy)
Fetty Wap ft. Drake – My Way
Drake – Hotline Bling


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Jim McAndrew @jimmyrocks // Developer, CSU Research Associate at the National Park Service

Among many of the cool OpenStreetMap related work at NPS, Jim is working on synchronizing ArcGIS Online Services with the OpenStreetMap API via Places-Sync

Kraftwerk —Computer World
Boban I Marko Markovic Orkestar — Devla (Khelipe Cheasa)
Mad Caddies — Down and Out


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Lauren Ancona @laurenancona // Sr Data Scientist at City of Philadelphia

When she’s not sciencing the shit out of data, she’s learning all the things by making projects like Parkadelphia – a project that let’s everyone from Von Hayes to the pope view when and where they can park in Philly.

Farrah Fawcett Hair / Capital Cities
Genghis Khan / Miike Snow
Light Up / Mutemath


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Chris Pollard @CRVanPollard // Manager, Geospatial Application Development Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC – Philadelphia’s MPO)

When Chris isn’t fracturing bones from shredding rails, he’s spinning up apps like RideScore & CyclePhilly and for the greater Philadelphia region’s planning authority.

Beach Slang – “Ride the Wild Haze”
Interpol – Heinrich Manuever
Band of Horses – Laredo


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Mamata Akella @mamataakella // Senior Cartographer, CartoDB

Mamata’s cartography as inspired so many of us over the last few years. She cooks up fancy visualizations at CartoDB, and is giving us a special sneak peek at a current project – only to be described as….seismic!

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Ant Banks/ Mac Mall / Too Short / Rappin4Tay / E-40 – Players Holiday
Whitey Morgan and the 78s – I’m On Fire
Phoebe Ryan – Mine (The Jane Doze Remix)


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Will Skora @skorasaurus // Operations Manager at SVDP Cleveland

Way back in March of 2015, we interviewed Will for GeoHipster where he talked about his awesome project Marilliac , a hot meal finder app for Cleveland. More recently, he’s been working on transit data and isochrones with OpenCleveland’s RTA project.

BT – Dynamic Symmetry
Tim Hecker – Virgins (Virginal I or II)
The Future Sound of London – Lifeforms (Life Forms End)


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Atanas Entchev @atanas // O.G.

Our very own OG, Original GeoHipster , resident cross bike, definitely not fixie, driver and all around shaman of neo-modernist-post-classic-pre-retro map enthusiasts to the realm of geographic hipsterism.

The Alan Parsons Project – Turn of a Friendly Card
Marina and The Diamonds – Froot
Ryan Adams – Style


Got an idea for a topic (any topic) you want us to talk to GeoHipsters to? Let us know!

Andy Woodruff: “Seriously, buy an actual textbook!”

Andy Woodruff
Andy Woodruff
Andy Woodruff works to design and build custom interactive maps with Axis Maps, a small company that grew out of the cartography program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2006. He is currently one of the Directors at Large of the North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS). Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he’s also a co-organizer of Maptime Boston, and a semi-active mapper of all things Boston for Bostonography.

Q: How did you get involved in geography and maps?

A: I’m a lifetime geographer, that kid who stared at maps in the back seat during family car trips. A map is a wonderful canvas for imagining what the world looks like, and there was always a little thrill in finding myself on the map and seeing imagined places become real. That kind of fascination followed up through my undergraduate and graduate studies in geography and cartography, and on into the start of my career.

Q: How did you learn how to code?

A: The first code I ever wrote was probably BASIC programs on the TI-86 calculator in high school. I have no formal coding background but started learning in earnest in grad school at the University of Wisconsin, in a course on animated and interactive maps. We used Flash, and I became captivated by what ActionScript could do for mapping, so I got really into it and went from there. Flash may be dead to many of us now, but learning it was not at all a waste of time. Those skills transferred well.

Q: How did you meet your company partners?

A: My two partners, Dave Heyman and Ben Sheesley, were the first two people I met when I visited Madison in 2005 to tour the UW Department of Geography, where they were already in the grad program. They started Axis Maps along with a third partner while working on their degrees (the company turns 10 in May!), and then I joined them after finishing my master’s. The roster has varied a bit over the years, and we now also have Josh Ryan working with us, but the three of us have been there for quite a while.

Q: You all work remotely, what tools do you use to keep in touch and organize projects?

A: The usual suspects, probably: Slack for real-time communication, GitHub for code collaboration and issue tracking, Dropbox for other file sharing, Basecamp for project management, Skype for some calls.

Q: What is your company’s typical stack?

A: I never like the word “stack” because it evokes a more rigid workflow or set of tools than I think we have as a company that specializes in custom maps. That said, there are common elements. At the end is most often D3 or Leaflet, and flat geodata files like GeoJSON or CSV. But the road to get there can vary quite a bit. Some things that often enter the mix are QGIS, mapshaper, TileMill (yep, old school TileMill), PostGIS, GDAL, and probably more that I’m forgetting.

Q: You worked with Cindy Brewer on http://colorbrewer2.org/. How many iterations did you go through? What were your goals for the project?

A: ColorBrewer was sort of inherited by Axis Maps for maintenance. Mark Harrower had worked with Cindy to build the original version based on her color research. Around 2009, when Mark was with Axis Maps, he proposed refreshing it, mostly in terms of UI, and we worked with Cindy on that. That was still in Flash though, and a few years ago I started the conversion to HTML and JavaScript to keep up with the times. So it’s really on version 3. The goal is simply to maintain Cindy’s (and Mark’s) original purpose; what we’ve brought to it is relatively minor UI and usability updates, and a few features better suited to the modern cartographer or web developer.

Q: What are some of you favorite examples of work you have conducted?

A: It’s most fun to get to work on something that real, ordinary people will use and enjoy. One favorite from my day job is the Napa Valley map and trip planner we made a year or two ago, which is used by tourists in the area. A favorite side project is the neighborhood mapping project for Bostonography because discussions with people about that have taught me a lot about what neighborhoods mean to people, and about some real-life neighborhood issues in Boston. One other longstanding favorite is typographic city maps, which started as a fun idea and went on to be good for business!

Q: What interesting facts have you learned about the Boston area while working on maps?

A: Too many! It’s a geographically fascinating city. Can’t say that all of these were news to me, but a few interesting things, facts or otherwise:

  • The actual landform of Boston has changed drastically over time. Quite a lot of the city was water 400 years ago.
  • The street layout can be learned but is still really hard to explain. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve failed to give people directions despite knowing the route perfectly. (“Go straight, but it’s not really straight, then turn at the place where seven roads converge, then…”)
  • Everything is closer than it seems; many of us would probably overestimate distance on a map. It’s a compact place and the concepts of “near” and “far” here are a lot smaller than what I grew up with in the Midwest.
  • Nobody can agree on neighborhood boundaries. That’s the subject of an ongoing project.

Q: Which startup/tool/platform do you see paving the future in the geospatial industry?

A: In the world I know best, which is public-facing web maps, I’m excited by what CartoDB does and what they might inspire. They’re doing a great job in the “fast mapping” world that appeals to journalists and others, while also being a gateway to learning more advanced technology, i.e. PostGIS. I think that approach will be good for the future of maps in general.

Q: You are quite involved in the mapping community through Maptime and NACIS.  Where do you think the mapping community is heading? What skills do you see as being important to becoming geographical/map-fluent?

A: When I joined NACIS ten years ago, a transition was starting in cartography from a concentrated few experts to a vast “democratized” array of mappers. Just judging by NACIS membership and conference content over the last decade, there’s a good trend in the mapping community. Where once there was a backlash against so-called amateurs, now they’re mostly embraced and everyone wants to exchange knowledge. The steady attendance of our Maptime chapter in Boston has been good evidence of that! So I think we’re headed in a direction where we all help ourselves get better. Setting aside technical skills, I think important ground to be gained is in cartographic skills and concepts, which have not always spread very far from academic settings. Ideally, academic expertise would be as approachable as Maptime is for technical expertise. We can’t just tell everyone to go back to school, although I’m currently developing a mapping workshop that includes this bit of advice: “seriously, buy an actual textbook!”

Q: Lastly, who inspires you?

A: Inspiration comes from all over the place, but to name a few people on the mind lately:

John Nelson and his consistently breathtaking aesthetics; Eric Fischer for his mapping and finding meaning in “big data”; Mamata Akella and the creative map symbology experiments she’s been doing; Tim Wallace (my partner in crime for Boston maps) for his collaboration and the amazing ideas he shares, and of course his clear and subtly beautiful map design!

Q: And for old times’ sake… which would you choose?

  • Cambridge versus Boston  – They’d chuck me in the Charles if I didn’t say Cambridge.
  • D3 versus R – D3! But I’ve never even used R.
  • WebGL versus vector tiles – they kind of go hand in hand, don’t they?
  • Leaflet versus OpenLayers – Leaflet. Haven’t actually tried OpenLayers since an older version years ago.
  • CartoDB versus Mapbox 😉 – Oh boy, don’t want to make any enemies!
  • Front end versus back end – Front end is a lot more fun.

Michael Terner: “Choice is back”

Michael Terner
Michael Terner
Michael Terner has been working in the geo/GIS industry since 1985, initially in state government where he was the first manager of MassGIS. In 1991 he co-founded Applied Geographics/AppGeo, where he remains a partner and Executive Vice President.

Questions from Randal, Mike, and Atanas

Q (Randal): So Michael, you are Executive VP at AppGeo. AppGeo has been around for around 25 years. You’re one of the founding partners, correct? What’s the history of AppGeo? ArcINFO was still command line at that point, and I’m pretty sure Windows NT hadn’t made a strong appearance in the market place. Plus I still had hair.

A: Yeah, I hate to admit it but I’m increasingly feeling like one of the “old guys” in this industry. I got my start in GIS in 1985, straight out of college when I got an internship with the Massachusetts state government in a small environmental agency. My task was to see what this new “GIS technology” was all about and see if it might help Mass with hazardous waste treatment facility siting. Long story short, that internship led to 7 years in state government where I had the privilege of helping to get MassGIS started, and was the first Manager from 1988-1991. In that time I took my ARC/INFO (correct spelling of the day) training on a Prime 9950 mini computer and ARC/INFO 3.2. Our first disk quota was 600MB, and the system administrator said “you’ll never fill that up.” We did in 3 months. I also helped Massachusetts buy its first copy of ARC/INFO to run on a new VAX computer at version 4.0. I have no nostalgia for the bad old days of command line, 9-track tapes, and needing to start projects by table-digitizing the data that you needed. I do miss AML a little bit.

I left state government to co-found AppGeo with two partners in 1991. My partner for 24 years, David Weaver, retired late last year. Our president Rich Grady joined us in 1994, and we’ve built a strong, internal management team. In hindsight, the one thing I think we’ve done best these past 25 years is anticipate and willingly change as technology evolves. We started AppGeo with one UNIX workstation that ran ARC/INFO for 3 people using terminal emulation on PCs connected to the workstation. We ran ArcInfo on Windows NT, and we’ve evolved through ArcView, ArcView IMS, ArcIMS and ArcGIS Server and ArcGIS for this and that. We’ve seen a lot of technology and devices come and go, and beginning in 2008 we began pivoting from Esri as the sole solution for all problems. Initially with open source, and now increasingly with newer web platforms from Google Maps to CartoDB alongside open source. Again, I have no nostalgia and have never had more fun in this industry than now. Choice is back, and innovation is flourishing. Everywhere. I still have some hair, but as my daughters remind me, my forehead has grown considerably since then.

Q (Randal): So what does AppGeo do?

A: We’re geospatial consultants, plain and simple. We help customers solve geospatial problems and we help them plan and implement geo. We both spec and create data. And we build a lot of applications. Nowadays, almost always on the web, and increasingly what we build is optimized for mobile device access. Sometimes our customers want our ideas; other times they need extra capacity, and sometimes they need special skills such as programming or project design. We really believe in “dogfooding” and “eating what you cook.” As such doing things like creating data and maps as well as applications helps us be more confident in the kinds of recommendations we put forth in our strategic plans. Now we also resell some technology, and we have our own software as a service (SaaS) offerings that we serve out of the cloud to many dozens of customers. Pretty much everything we do has geospatial in it, but as geospatial — or location — has gotten more mainstream, increasingly our work involves integrating with non-geospatial business systems or tying geospatial technology into traditional IT infrastructures. Which is good. As our development team will say: “spatial is not special, it’s just another column in the database.” It’s a bit of an exaggeration, but with SQL extended for spatial operations, not by much.

Q (Randal): One of the things I’ve noticed about AppGeo is that you have several business partnerships. Two of the most interesting were Esri and Google. One of the two decided they didn’t want to partner with you in the GIS realm anymore. Which one ran?

A: As a small business, we have always been open-minded to partnerships. In addition to geospatial supplier partnerships, we have partnered with a wide variety of other consultants on projects. From big engineering firms to well known IT consulting firms to firms that are highly specialized in a particular market such as airports. We add the geo/location expertise.

And we’ve always been very open to partnering with the geospatial software providers. In addition to the two you mention — Esri and Google — at various times (and to this day) we’ve been partners with Intergraph, Bentley, FME, and CartoDB. Our loyalty is to our customers, and we want the expertise needed to help them solve their problems, and we need to understand the tools that are out there very well to provide that expertise. Partnerships help us to do that.

So to your question: Esri kicked us out of their partner program after almost 20 years in the program. I blogged on that topic in 2014 and provided a good amount of detail on what we think happened, and what it means. Many, many people read the piece, and as I’ve traveled around, several other people have sought me out to tell me “their story.” We’re certainly not the only ones who have met this fate, but not many have talked about it openly. As I wrote, it was not a healthy partnership, and in the end it was good that it happened. We have never been stronger, and there are many other firms — including Google — that have welcomed us as a partner, and respected our non-denominational outlook on partnership. We still use a ton of Esri and feel very comfortable as a customer of theirs. As our clients know, our expertise in Esri didn’t disappear with our partner status. We greatly respect the company and Jack Dangermond as a strong and tough businessman. And, in our “best of breed” outlook on the geospatial landscape, Esri is the best at many things. But, in our opinion, not all. And that’s probably why we parted company.

Q (Mike): Any regrets about publicly airing all of those details? Do you think AppGeo would be different today if you had been able to stay in the program?

A: No regrets whatsoever. In fact, we have been a bit surprised at how many people were interested in the story. In the end, we had heard that Esri was telling the story to some of our mutual customers in “their terms”, and we felt it was important for people to have the ability to also hear that story directly from us. Quite honestly, I don’t think things would be much different for us if we had stayed in the Esri partner program. Business remains good, and we would still be using a variety of technologies, and we would still have our primary loyalty to our customers. Really, the biggest difference is in the posture of our relationship with Esri. Now we’re an Esri customer and user instead of a partner. And thus the kinds of conversations we have with Esri are somewhat different.

Q (Atanas): How is partnering with Google different than with Esri?

A: As you might expect, it’s an enormous difference. Google’s program is certainly not perfect, but Google is very clear with their partners on the role of the partner channel and Google’s expectations. It took some getting used to, but we have hit our stride and the partnership is very productive for us. Here are a few of the biggest differences:

  • Google has many, many fewer partners than Esri, and the partners are selected/recruited based on their qualifications. And there is not an annual fee to be in their partner program.
  • Google’s program is re-selling oriented. We do a lot of related services (e.g., application development), but that is between us and the customer; we work very closely with Google on providing the right subscription-based products. Unlike Esri, Google allows their partners to sell any of their geo products, not just the lower-end subset of products.
  • Google has other, non-geo product lines (e.g., Gmail/Google for Work; Google Cloud Platform; Search; etc.) and many of Google’s geo partners sell, or even specialize in these other product lines. Google’s partner conference (which I just attended in March) mixes all of these different partners, and it’s a really interesting and diverse ecosystem. There’s a specialized track for each product line (we followed the geo track), but you also get to see the whole cloud-based vision of the larger company and interact with, and learn from the non-geo partners.
  • Probably the biggest difference for us is that there is a very active exchange of leads and joint selling. We got more leads from Google in our first month in the program than we did in the entire life of our Esri partnership which spanned almost 20 years. Fundamentally, Google and their partners work together on sales which was not the case for us with Esri.

Q (Mike): While we’re drawing comparisons, you’ve been working with customers around the country. Are you noticing any regional differences in the way GIS or mapping technologies are approached?

A: Honestly, I don’t see fundamental “technological approach” differences across the country. Pretty much everywhere I go Esri remains the dominant player, but also I see people’s eyes and minds being ever more open to new approaches like open source (e.g., QGIS) or cloud-based platforms (e.g., CartoDB, Fulcrum). There may be slight regional differences in the rate of uptake of new technology, but everywhere people are more curious than I’ve ever seen. People are also increasingly interested in open data across the country, and even in Canada, which does not have the same public records laws and open records history as the USA.

The biggest regional differences are in governmental organization and the priority of particular issues. The things that vary on a regional basis are more like, “Do you work with more counties vs. cities/towns?” Or, “Is the drought, or agriculture, or public lands a big issue?”

Q (Mike): I’ll ask you what I asked you in Duluth last fall — can the open source community band together to make sure the Yankees never win another World Series?

A: Wish it were so. But as a fellow Red Sox fan I feel good about where we stand relative to the Yankees in the 21st Century, i.e., 3 titles Red Sox to 1 for the Yankees.

Q (Atanas): Hippest commute mode: ferry, train, or bike?

A: I’m a big public transit fan, mostly because the downtown Boston driving commute is terrible. Usually I’m on the commuter rail. But during the window from mid-May through the end of October there’s a commuter ferry from Salem (the neighboring city to my hometown of Beverly) into downtown Boston. So my favorite, and by association hippest, commute is the 1-2 days/week during the summer I get to bike the ~3 miles from home to Salem for a wonderful high speed ferry ride into Boston (and then back). This is the morning “entering Boston” view:

'Entering Boston' by Michael Terner
‘Entering Boston’ by Michael Terner

Q (Randal): So with all these questions behind us … do you feel geohipsterish? We did a poll way back in the beginning days of GeoHipster to define a geohipster, and the best we could come up with are they shun the mainstream, have a wicked sense of humor, and do things differently. Do you feel like one?

A: Yes, I hope so. I’m not sure I “shun” the mainstream, but I don’t believe there is a mainstream that lasts very long in technology. If you stand pat, you die. We’ve lasted 25 years so at a minimum we’ve bobbed in and out of the ever-changing tech mainstream fairly effectively. In 1985 when I started in this business, Esri was not mainstream. I appreciate humor (especially Randy’s) greatly, and I hope I’m occasionally funny (even if my family might disagree). Yes, I think we often approach things differently, and aren’t afraid to “try different”, and that’s been a great asset.

Q (Randal): I usually leave the last question up to you to say whatever you want to say to the world, and I’m going to do just that … BUT with a twist. Something big is coming to Boston in 2017, and you and the Geo community did a tremendous amount of work to make this happen. So what is coming to Boston in 2017?

A: Yes, the Global FOSS4G Conference is coming to Boston in August of 2017 as the three-continent rotation returns to North America after a successful stop in Seoul, Korea in 2015, and the upcoming conference in Bonn Germany in 2016.  See our nascent web-site to mark your calendars. The Boston geo community rallied, and I am extremely proud to have led our awesome Boston Location Organizing Committee (the BLOC) in generating the winning proposal to host that conference. We had incredibly tough competition with really strong proposals coming from both Ottawa and Philadelphia, and we are committed to putting on an awesome conference and rewarding the faith OSGeo has put in us. We are also excited to support the upcoming FOSS4G North America that will be held in Raleigh, NC in just 4 weeks. Please show your support for FOSS4G and learn lots and have fun with us in Raleigh.

Will Cadell: “People talk about ‘thinking outside the box’; I don’t think there is a box anymore”

Will Cadell
Will Cadell
Will Cadell is the founder and CEO of Sparkgeo.com, a Prince George-based business which builds geospatial technology for some of the biggest companies on Earth. Since starting Sparkgeo, he has been helping startups, large enterprises, and non-profits across North America make the most of location and geospatial technology.

Leading a team of highly specialized, deeply skilled geospatial web engineers, Will has built products, won patents, and generally broken the rules. Holding a degree in Electronic and Electrical Engineering and a Masters in Environmental Remote Sensing, Will has worked in academia, government, and in the private sector on two different continents, making things better with technology. He is on the board of Innovation Central Society, a non-profit society committed to growing and supporting technology entrepreneurs in North Central BC.

Q: Sparkgeo. What does your company do exactly? Do you have any competitors in the custom geospatial consulting field?

A: At Sparkgeo we put maps on the internet.

I try to keep this description as simple as possible. It goes back to the question of what a GIS person does, which is actually really hard to explain and terribly boring at dinner parties. Instead, I stick to maps and the internet, both of which are critical features of what Sparkgeo does. The other leg of our stool is people. Really, we work in places where maps meet people on the internet.

We find ourselves doing lots of interesting things. Things like building data pipelines, building geospatial compute engines, building UIs, undertaking broad data acquisition and analysis projects. We have found ourselves in the enviable position of only doing interesting things.

With that in mind we end up touching the “full stack”. A web mapping project is actually a full stack effort; you must consider every piece of the data flow to build a great map. The web map is the tip of the spear, but the data supporting that map is really the shaft, it’s the weight of the effort. Understanding the linkages between data and its delivery, and being somewhat flexible about how to sculpt those linkages is why Sparkgeo is useful.

I am sure we have competitors, but there is simply so much important geospatial work to do in the technology sector presently, I don’t feel pressured by it. Really the most competition is for talent. Indeed, that talent gap is to a large extent why we exist.

In the last year or so we have been spending our spare time on maptiks.com, which is like Google Analytics for a web map. Our thinking here is that although lots of organisations spend time on mapping technology, few seem to iterate back over their maps to make them incrementally better, and fewer still inform that process with actual data.

Q: What libraries and tools does your company use? Can you provide some examples of your favorite projects?

A: These are some of our favorite things:

  • Mapnik
  • Python
    • GDAL & OGR
    • GEOS
    • Shapely
    • Fiona
    • Django
    • CherryPy
    • Pillow (PIL)
  • Javascript
    • Mapping APIs:
      • LeafletJS (inc cartodb.js & mapbox.js)
      • Openlayers
      • Google Maps
      • ESRI JavaScript API
      • Cesium.js
    • Turf.js
    • AngularJS
    • ReactJS
  • Amazon Web Services
    • All the things

However, it’s not about the tools or the library; it should be about the question and how best to answer it. Sometimes the best answer is “don’t do this thing”, sometimes the answer is “buy a bigger boat”, and sometimes the answer is “we’ll help you build a thing”. We are in the enviable position of not having to sell licenses for anyone so we can actually be objective (and opinionated) about technology choices.

Q: Tell us about your work with Nextdoor. What technology stack did you use? What lessons did you learn?  

A: Of course I can’t tell you too much about how Nextdoor works. What I can say is that we have helped them achieve a number of their business goals through the development of a custom geospatial datastore accessed through a custom python API. In essence though, we just added some focused geospatial expertise to their already talented engineering team.

We have used this model a great deal in helping technology companies achieve their geospatial business goals. By attending stand ups and taking on the “geo” tickets we can add the capacity necessary to give a typical web engineering team the geo-confidence they need to keep their velocity up. Often these kind of engagements become much longer term relationships.

Although ultimately we are a “professional services” organisation, we have become a lot more about people and relationships than we are about projects and requirements. That way we get to work with some of the biggest tech companies, hottest startups, and most interesting non-profits on Earth.

Q: You are the CEO of your company. Describe the tasks you do in a typical week.  

A: I talk to a lot of people. I write a lot of emails. I pitch ridiculous ideas. I write reports. I do a bunch of administration. I solve problems. I remove barriers. I remind clients about our invoices. I go and buy snacks for the team. I manage payroll. I ponder our future. I talk to our accountant about tax management. I go buy more sticky notes for the office. I stress about project pipelines. In fact I stress about a lot of things 🙂

…and occasionally I get to write some code or make a map. It’s actually the best job I’ve ever had. I’m always having to learn new things and solve new problems. I tell everyone, including our team, if they stop learning they should leave. That’s true across the board, there are too many interesting things to do to waste time being bored.

Q: You recently wrote an article about remote working (http://buff.ly/1OEEWte). What does the breakdown of your company look like? How many are remote and how many work from the office? How do you bring together everyone? How do you promote company culture with remote workers? Explain how you manage/check in with employees that are working remote. What are the strengths/weaknesses in the current setup?

A: I first heard the term “remote first” in terms of the workplace mid last year and I realised it fits us well. We have an office in Prince George, BC (well North of the wall). But on any given day a member of the the team could be anywhere and it’s not a big problem. We typically have a check-in meeting, our version of a stand up — except people are on different projects — at 8:30am Pacific. It lasts for 15 minutes max, plus any necessary bonus rounds. People attend it from where they happen to be. It’s “early” for the Pacific timezone because we have some people on Eastern time. Even a remote company has to figure out timezones 🙂

Remote first means that we communicate first using tools like Hangouts and Slack, it means that people are kept in the loop by default, and things don’t get decided “without the remote guy”. If a team is meeting, then everyone on that team is invited, and that meeting will happen on a common set of tools used by people in or out of the office.

This remote culture is critical for us. The first employee I brought on (@gridcell) was remote, and now 40% of our company is remote. The really important bit, however, is how we interact with our clients. Being based up in the frozen wastes of the North and working for organisations in the tech sector means we must be really good at “being remote” because we are always remote to our clients. So independent of whether Sparkgeoers are in the office or not, we are still operating in a remote manner. This must be true for our clients too; they need to be ok with our periodic on-site presence, and our very present nature on IM or videoconferencing. It’s worth noting that with some clients being remote is not a great fit, and that’s fine. I am happy to say that we do have some great clients whom I have never actually met. Likewise, I also know that sometimes I have to hop on a plane and travel 2000 miles to shake a hand. Remote doesn’t mean not having a personal relationship and remote doesn’t mean distant.

Q: How does your company advertise? SEO? Content? Starting up Slack groups…?

A: Sometimes we do little ads in places across the interwebz (for instance on the GeoHipster website), seeing what sticks. Relevant content, however is the most valuable piece of advertising on the web. Good content has a long tail and brings people back and back.

More recently, our Maptiks growth guy (@julienjacques) suggested starting a Slack group. We did that, and now it’s grown to 900 users. The funny thing is it has turned into a real community, and as such we don’t really advertise on it because that would defeat the purpose that has evolved around it. If we (or others) were to advertise crassly on it, then it wouldn’t actually be a useful community 🙂

Q: You follow mapping trends and new technologies in depth. Are there any particular tech companies and/or startups that you follow? Any of them going to be the next big-bang disruptors?

A: I follow all the usual suspects (CartoDB, Mapbox, Esri, Stamen, Google, Boundless…) and do my best to catch up with contacts in each of them on my travels.

I am especially interested in the satellite space (hahaha) right now. The idea of Imagery As A Service seems to be booming. Planet Labs, Digital Globe, Astro Digital, UrtheCast, SkyBox, Spire all being players to some extent. Then there are companies like Orbital Insight who are taking remote sensing and magic-ing it into actionable broad data products. I think the days where someone would go to a website and purchase an image from a marginally navigable image library, then download an enormous file.zip via FTP are numbered… thankfully.

But there are the big players, too. Apple is very interesting right now; Google has always been in the geo sand box. But with the consumerization of geo I think more players will emerge here. Amazon has a location platform and drones…? UPS…?

Then there is the sharing economy: Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, Nextdoor. The quantified & wearable self: Fitbit, Under Armor (who bought MapMyFitness), Strava, RunKeeper. The nature of our industry and the ubiquity of smartphones & wearables is such that good, hard geospatial questions pop up everywhere. As a result of this phenomenon we’ve worked in the tech space, in hospitality, in finance, in conservation, with satellite companies, in hardware, in software, with government. The point isn’t to consider the tools or be confined to a vertical, the point is the pursuit of interesting questions and how we can use geography and technology to answer them. People talk about “thinking outside the box”, I don’t think there is a box anymore, I wonder if there ever was.

Q: Which industry do you see as needing more mapping technologies? Are there one or two fields that seem to be pretty behind the times?

A: Automotive will be the next industrial geospatial leapfrog.

Consider: A driverless car needs to know a great deal of information about its surroundings and virtually every piece of fixed knowledge (i.e., data not detected by vehicle in transit) will be geospatial in nature. Every major automotive vendor will need a data provider, and that data will be constantly updated. In this scenario the 80/20 rule will not suffice. If that vehicle cannot reach its destination because it doesn’t know the way, then the entire vehicle has failed. That failure might simply be a new subdivision not being present, but nevertheless the lack of a street or a misnamed building will result in the vehicle not being able to drive itself, thus failure. A driverless vehicle needs to have a complete and constantly updating map of navigable routes.

Automotive will drive (hahaha) efforts in open data, in data pipelines, in ETL, in base map production, in data storage, in connectivity, in routing. For the driverless future to happen geospatial needs to be a lot better.

Q: What is your current method for skiing on a mountain you do not know well? Do you use the paper maps that they provide, or a new app (Have you heard of fatmap.com?)

A: I ski a DPS Wailer 99. I love the backcountry, but with a young family I find myself on a ski hill more often these days. That said, my 7- & 9-year-olds are on double diamonds now, so we’ll be hitting some family backcountry soon. We are also lucky enough to have many kilometers of groomed & floodlit XC skiing within city limits (Prince George, BC) so that is a common after-work activity.

The interesting thing about backcountry skiing around central British Columbia is the lack of documentation; every trip is a little bit exploratory. That, combined with relatively poor and out-of-date maps (Canada is big and largely empty) leaves me doing a lot of navigation by feel. It can get pretty cold, too; devices and batteries tend to become less reliable below -20.

I do, of course, appreciate the irony in the mapping guy navigating largely by instinct.  

Q: It must be fascinating to compare the world you grew up in with the one that your daughters are growing up in. Do you mind sharing a little insight you have as a parent and geographer/technologists. Can they read maps? What routing technology do they use to get to a new place?

A: My girls love maps. They have been completely brainwashed by me; they know exactly how important good maps are. Their navigational abilities are somewhat untested, but they do have a good sense of direction; we test that on the trails a lot. Their use of technology is interesting; we keep screen time to a minimum, but the way they interact with touch interfaces is fearless. I think we will see great advances in industrial design as interface designers embrace touch and haptic technologies. We are also trying to expose our girls to what it means to write code; their lives will take them in many different directions, but having some exposure to the discipline of code is valuable.

Which do you prefer when it comes to maps?
Data or design - Both
Functionality or beauty - Again, both. But wait, “functionality” doesn’t mean lots of buttons -- it means fit for purpose. As a community we need to de-couple features from functionality.
Historical or futuristic - Neither; it’s the story that compels 
Markers or pins - These are the same thing 🙂
Clusters or heatmaps - Clusters (unless it’s a weather map) 
Markdown or Handlebars  - Markdown
And other things…?
Black and local coffee or pour-over with butter - Black Americano, no pollution, and lots of it
Fitbit or Strava - Fitbit & MapMyFitness (Fitbit have an interesting geo conundrum presently - Strides or GPS for distance https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/your-device-can-too-smart-will-cadell ). Strava has done an amazing job of socializing athletic pursuit; I started using MMF first though, and most of my data now gets piped into Fitbit.
Twitter or Facebook - Twitter
Commuter or road bike - Both & MTB too
Nordic, alpine, or telemark skiing - Mountain Touring, Skate Skiing, Classic Skiing. Tele is cool but you have to be really talented to ski anything big, and I’m not 🙂

Q: Any closing comments for the GeoHipster readers?

A: Thanks for the opportunity to tell you a little about Sparkgeo. Also, thanks to the geohipster community for keeping things sufficiently geo-weird.

 

Jan Erik Solem: “Only start something if you are willing to spend at least five years of your life on it”

 

Jan Erik Solem
Jan Erik Solem
Jan Erik Solem is the CEO of Mapillary and is passionate about all things computer vision-related. Prior to co-founding Mapillary in 2013, he founded Polar Rose -- a face recognition software for mobile and web, which Apple bought in 2010. Solem has published over 15 patents and applications, and is the author of a best-selling computer vision book called Programming Computer Vision with Python. Solem resides in Sweden, and is an associate professor at Lund University.

Q: Each city has its own “flavor” of geo-scene, what is the geo-scene like in Copenhagen / Malmö?

A: It is a mix of community groups, GIS companies, and location services startups. There are regular meetups for GIS geeks in a forum called SamGIS, and more-entrepreneurial events like the LocationDay conference. Wayfinder was an important node in Malmö before Vodafone shut that down. If I were to add a “flavor”, I’d say that it is mobile-focused. Traditionally, a lot has revolved around mobile because of the strong presence of Sony Mobile (formerly Ericsson, then Sony-Ericsson, now Sony).

Q: Your background is in applied mathematics, and you built a company around facial recognition. What brought you to geo?

A: I’m a computer vision person. My work from undergrad to PhD all revolved around reconstructing scenes and recognizing objects from images. I started a face recognition company during my PhD days and worked on that for about 6 years, then at Apple for a few years.

Since my PhD days I have always been interested in building a system for collaboratively reconstructing places from photos, and over the years I saw the connection between that and geo grow in importance. Me and the team at Mapillary are all fairly new to geo and are constantly learning. We’re approaching things from a computer vision angle and have no past technology choices or biases in geo.

Q: Describe your “A-HA” moment when you conceptualized Mapillary?

A: I built a prototype iOS app and persuaded two friends to bring their phones and map a newly-built area in the Malmö harbor. We spent one hour on a cold Sunday morning collecting data. When I looked at the results, that was the real a-ha moment. Things became very concrete once I saw that data from phones would be good enough. One of the friends who helped me that Sunday morning was my PhD student Yubin who also became a co-founder of Mapillary.

Q: What do you see as Mapillary’s biggest challenge in the geospatial business space?

A: Delivering a great experience worldwide. We’re a global company, anyone can contribute anywhere, and our community is in over 170 countries. What we’re seeing is that in developing countries devices are just catching up now, and making the app run well is a challenge sometimes. Also connectivity is poor in many areas where we have a challenge in effectively serving and collecting content. This goes for both our community and for our customers.

Q: The niche that Mapillary is filling is exciting and is applicable in a number of areas. Describe for our readers some of the swank things your users have done with your technology?

A:

Q: Judging from your Twitter feed and blog, all you do is work. What do you do when you aren’t grinding on a keyboard?

A: Honestly, it is mostly work. I have three young children. Besides work and family there is little room for other activities. I don’t watch TV, play games, follow sports, or other “normal” everyday activities. I ride bikes when I have the time, and I love to do longer rides and races.

Q: Where do you see Mapillary in 10 years?

A: We’re aiming to be the best solution for visualizing places and for exploring and visiting places through photos. As a side effect, if successful in that, we are also a great provider of data for mapping, navigation, and automotive. We want to build an independent entity that can be integrated anywhere — in apps, in mapping platforms, websites etc.

Q: As the founder of two successful startups, what advice do you have for the geohipsters out there?

A:

  • Only start something if you are willing to spend at least five years of your life on it. Building something great takes time and commitment. Even fast-growing companies take years to develop.
  • You are not your education. Most skills can be learned. The engineer can learn basic business skills, the business graduate can learn to code, etc. Pick up what skills you need to do the necessary work and continue learning, always.
  • Small teams can do amazing things. It is entirely doable to have the best solution without having a large organization.
  • There is no shortcut to hard work. The “work smarter” advocates have it all wrong, the hours you put in are crucial.

Q: Lastly, do you consider yourself a geohipster?

A: Um, probably not 😉 .

John Reiser: “The best work often occurs once you move outside of your comfort zone”

John Reiser
John Reiser
John Reiser is a Business Intelligence Analyst at Rowan University. He previously worked in state government and in a private planning firm. John is active in several professional organizations and also serves as a consultant on GIS, cartography, and data analysis projects. John lives in New Jersey.

Q: Where do you work and what do you do there?

A: I am a business intelligence analyst at Rowan University. I work primarily with University Advancement, dealing with fundraising recordkeeping and prospect research. We use technology to better connect with and support our alumni, as well as help find individuals who have both the capacity and the inclination to give philanthropically to Rowan. I also consult and work on projects in my spare time.

Q: You hold a graduate degree in urban planning. What attracted you to GIS?

A: The first time I can recall really getting excited about GIS was during my undergraduate program in Geography. The program at the time focused on raster-based analysis and did very little with vector data. This was 2004 and there was no easy access to large datasets like county-wide parcels. Thankfully, I was able to get copies of Burlington and Gloucester Counties’ parcel data, driving to their respective offices and picking up CDs, merging the data together and then using it to project ridership potential for a planned light rail in Gloucester County, comparing it to the recently-opened RiverLine in Burlington County. I continued research into access to transportation while pursuing my masters at Rutgers. Even though I initially wanted to pursue physical and transportation planning, I would get involved with projects that required GIS, and continued to build my knowledge on the software and myriad types of data available.

Q: Do you miss planning? How much of what you learned in planning school do you apply in the job you hold today?

A: I do miss working as a planner and I miss working with GIS on a regular basis, but I make up for it by working on side projects. My current project is NJ Parcels, an easy-to-use statewide listing of property assessment and sales information for New Jersey. I get to wear many hats as I work on the site, from system administrator, database administrator, software developer, UI/UX designer, and project manager. So far, I feel like I am successful in juggling the different roles and responsibilities to keep the site running smoothly. Over 2015, NJ Parcels served up 9.7 million pageviews to approximately 3 million users. I also develop and manage Florida Parcels, which is an attempt to do the same for the Sunshine State.

I do want to use the data I’ve collected to build the site for planning projects in New Jersey. I have assisted NJ Future to overcome difficulties matching the spatial data to the assessment records, namely where there are multiple lots but only one assessment record that contains the additional lots in a free-form text field. I am currently working on a project looking at distributed ownership in New Jersey — people who purchase property a distance from their listed owner address. This can help understand a variety of planning issues, from absentee landlords, transitional neighborhoods, market speculation, and the effects of out-of-state investment in places like the Jersey Shore. I am planning on releasing my findings in the spring of this year.

Two things I learned from planning school still weigh heavily in my mind: the need to build consensus, and having patience. Projects, both software development and large redevelopments plans, benefit greatly from consensus-building efforts. That extra work at the beginning trying to get buy-in from stakeholders and from the community might be seen as side friction, but it ultimately makes the project go smoothly. Patience is also critical. It takes patience to build a plan and see it through fruition. Not everything can get solved in a single meeting or a code sprint, and that’s okay.

Q: You have experienced GIS in state government, in academia, and in private consulting. Which environment is the most interesting? The most challenging?

A: State government can be frustrating because of the nature of the business. Interesting projects can spring up and die just as quickly as the whims of the politicians in charge change. I was told on occasion to simply stop working on a project because it was no longer supported by the Governor’s Office. Private consulting can be incredibly rewarding, but it has its own difficulties. The profit-driven nature of the private world shapes the outcome and the timeframe. Sometimes you just need to produce, even if it’s not the product you originally wanted to produce.

Academia allows for greater flexibility in exploring a project. Some truly amazing work has originated within academia. And if you’re fortunate to work with students, you’ll be constantly amazed what bright, passionate young minds can produce. However, the nature of the academic world can also be far more difficult to navigate than government or the private sector. Colleagues that block or stifle your work can do so simply because they can. Performance metrics are often ignored, and I have been amazed at the amount of “thinking with the gut” that is performed in higher ed. Unlike government, you’re not keeping your fingers crossed that the next election things will be better, instead you are stuck playing actuary and guessing if it is worth waiting around for retirements to occur. Academia can be an amazing place to work and be a contributor to some awesome projects, but it can also be immensely frustrating as Sayre’s law will demonstrate itself time and time again if you do not have the right people involved.

Q: You are equally well versed in Esri technology and in open source geospatial technology. Is mixing and matching geotools a necessity, a challenge, or a luxury?

A: To me, finding the right tool for the job is both a challenge and a necessity. I’ve seen fanatics on both sides — commercial and free software — produce projects that don’t meet their full potential because they’ve married themselves to a single software platform. Taking a step back and evaluating the options is important. Just because something happens to be your current favorite doesn’t necessarily make it the best choice for the task at hand. The best work often occurs once you move outside of your comfort zone.

Q: What are you working on now, and what technologies do you use?

A: At work I write SQL for Oracle on a daily basis and I use PostgreSQL for my side projects. It is amazing where the differences and similarities lie in the two DBMSs. I’m grateful that the one I find myself less frustrated with happens to be the free one.

I primarily use Python as my programming language of choice, but I have been looking into using Node.JS again after about two years of not using it to build an API to NJ Parcels. I also need to brush up on R and use that in my projects more often. I also use Tableau both at work and in my other projects. It’s a great tool for quick visualizations of complex data.

Q: Bike, beard, beer — you are in firm control of the ultimate hipster triad. Do people call you a hipster, and how do you feel about it if (when?) they do?

A: I don’t get called hipster often; I don’t think I dress well enough. I think I tend to come across more as a lumberjack with a desk job.

Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for the GeoHipster crowd?

A: When I was teaching GIS in higher ed, I stressed the importance of projects and building a portfolio. Recent grads looking for work often have little to show to potential employers, so having some tangibles that demonstrate your capabilities is crucially important. I would always encourage them to work on projects that aligned with their personal passions. It’s much easier to convince yourself to dedicate the extra time if it’s something you enjoy or strikes your interest. It’s also much easier to stick with the project after you’ve gotten the job. I’ve started countless projects over my 15 years in the workforce and most were abandoned or anything but successful, but I’ve learned a lot from each project. Take that experience and funnel it into your next project. I never would have thought that I’d be developing web sites around assessment data back when I was initially struggling with getting and using the same data a decade earlier. I don’t know what I’ll be doing ten years from now, but I know there will be a wide variety of options ahead of me because I continued to learn, adapt, and put my mix of talents to use. I’m likely preaching to the choir, but I feel it needs to be said: keep working towards the next big thing.

Shoreh Elhami: “GISCorps is nothing without its volunteers”

Shoreh Elhami
Shoreh Elhami
Shoreh Elhami is the founder of GISCorps, a URISA program that coordinates the deployment of volunteers to communities in need around the world. GISCorps was endorsed as a program by the URISA Board of Directors in October 2003 and since then has attracted over 4,000 volunteers from 98 countries worldwide. To date, over 950 GISCorps volunteers have served in 175 on-site or remote missions in 61 countries.

Email: shoreh.elhami@gmail.com

Q: So, Mrs. Elhami, where are you located and what do you do?

A: Shoreh will do!

Q: You are the boss, so it will be Shoreh!

A: I’ve lived in Central Ohio for 29 years; the first 11 years in the City of Columbus, and then moved to Powell — a small suburban city north of Columbus. I work for the City of Columbus Department of Technology; my title is Citywide GIS Manager.

Q: Shoreh, how did you get into GIS? You are / were an architect at one time, correct?

A: Yes, I studied architectural engineering in Iran (where I was born and raised) and practiced as an architect/ urban planner for a few years before we decided to leave the country. I was introduced to GIS at the Ohio State University where I ended up going to graduate school to study City and Regional Planning. I applied for a Research Assistantship position and was assigned to a project that used GIS for studying and analyzing the impact of urban sprawl on a protected watershed. Talk about luck as not only did I end up working on an interesting project, but also learned how to use GIS to conduct analysis. It meant no more drawing / overlaying polygons on mylar and calculating results by hand; I was in love!

I was then offered a job shortly before I graduated, and ended up working at a planning agency where I used my GIS skills for building models and conducting a variety of analytic models for a County Master Plan. This was in the early 90s when GIS was not used as often in a master planning process, so it was a unique and gratifying experience.

Q: What does a Citywide GIS Manager do in Columbus, Ohio? I’m not sure we’ve ever interviewed one. It sounds like something that can make you have fits upon occasion.

A: At the City of Columbus, GIS is used in almost every department, both on desktop as well as online. We have over 300 datasets,+/-100 data editors, and 30 or so GIS applications which are all supported by my team. We work very closely with GIS users and decision-makers on creating new datasets, maintaining the software, geodatabases, and designing applications. Our most recent project is our Open Data Portal. It’s a work in progress, but it is where anyone with interest in Columbus GIS data can visit and download data. In short, it’s an exciting and at times quite a challenging job!

Q: Sometime around 2001 you started this small thing called GISCorps. Why? What does it do?

A: Yes, it was in 2001 at the URISA conference in Long Beach when I started talking to a few colleagues about an idea which later on became GISCorps. The idea was and is quite simple as it’s about making one’s GIS skills available to entities that need GIS assistance but cannot afford to employ GIS professionals. Originally, I thought most of our projects would be on-site and involve teaching. However, we learned very quickly that our volunteers’ skills are very much needed after disasters. In fact, our first few major missions were launched shortly after the 2004 Asian tsunami that struck Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand, and then Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

We recently launched our 176th project, and over 950 volunteers have been deployed to those projects in 61 countries. The majority of these projects are conducted remotely (80%) and +/- 40% have been in response to disasters. We currently have over 4,000 registered volunteers from 98 countries. It’s worth to mention that for on-site projects, we always make sure that the travel expenses are covered by the organization that is requesting assistance. For remote projects there are no [travel] expenses, as volunteers work from their home / office, using their own equipment.

Q: When you started there weren’t a lot of volunteer organizations around. Now there’s HOT and Ushahidi. What makes GISCorps different? The same?

A: You’re right, we are the old kids on the block as far as GIS volunteering goes! Several new organizations were formed shortly after the Haiti earthquake in 2010, and we actually collaborate with several of them via a relatively new organization called Digital Humanitarian Network or DHN. I think what differentiates GISCorps from other organizations is our recruitment model. We take time to not only select candidates from our extensive database, but also for almost every project (except large crowd-sourcing ones) we get on the phone and interview volunteers to make sure they are the right person for the job. We take that quite seriously, as our volunteers’ work represents who we are. Another distinction is that a large percentage of our volunteers are hard-core GIS professionals and ready and equipped to perform all and any GIS-related tasks. Having said that, we also engage in projects that do not require a lot of GIS skills (mostly crowd-sourcing projects) and many of our volunteers enjoy those efforts as well.

Q: How many people do you have helping you run GISCorps? The organization is a non-profit, correct?

A: GISCorps’ business is run by a Core Committee, which at this time has seven members. We meet virtually once a month, and at least once a year face to face.

We are a program of URISA, and since URISA is a non-profit organization people who donate to GISCorps can benefit from our 501(c)(3) status.

Q: What was the best mission of GISCorps? Assuming you can pick the best one.

A: Please don’t ask me to do that, as I have many favorites; it’s as if they ask you which one of your children you love the most!

Q: So with all of that going on — there are more important things to discuss. What’s the best Persian meal you make?

A: Seriously? You’re asking me about my culinary skills?! Actually this may be surprising to some of your readers: I love cooking, and if I may say so — when I have time — I can deliver pretty nice dishes. My daughter loves my Tahchin the most, so I pick that one. You can check out a recipe (not mine but somewhat close to how I make it) here.

Q: We talk about people being geohipsters — our best definition is: doing things differently, or making a difference in the world of GIS. So are you a geohipster?

A: If getting joy and satisfaction from spending time on geo matters that helps others is doing things differently then I’m a geohipster! But I really want to be clear — and this is not self-deprecating — GISCorps is nothing without its volunteers; that’s who is making a difference. We, the Core Committee, are just instruments to help make that happen.

Q: The last question is yours — anything you wish to tell the world?

A: The world? That would be too audacious of me… All I know and believe in is that we are here on earth for a flicker of time, and we should focus on using our skills on doing good. That’s all that matters!