Michael came to the Geo-field accidentally, burned brightly across the early GIS skies, relished being a small fish in a small pond, fought hard to keep the mystic arts secret from the unwashed masses, was an unapologetic ESRIalite, and then experienced a conversion to the “GIS is just a tool” doctrine, and now looks at any single-solution disciple with disdain...or at least a heavy dose of skepticism.
Michael’s only dedicated online presence is an embarrassingly sporadic blog...about climbing, and other pedestrian adventures.
A: Completely by mistake. Two years of pursuing Civil Engineering was abandoned, in a fit of frustration…while suffering through Differential Equations with Linear Algebra (DiffEQ for short), for the more “squishy” liberal arts degree in Geography. It appealed to my love of history, culture, and…of course, maps. I figured I would end up teaching. But, in my senior year at University of New Hampshire, I joined my housemates (all geography/geology students) in an on-campus work-study opportunity. We were all using workstation (I believe it was 5.0) ArcInfo to digitize South American deforestation. I blame two years of squinting at black and white LandSAT photos through a digitizing puck crosshair for my currently degraded eyesight.
Q: You and I worked together over 20 years ago. Do you miss GIS in the 1990s? ArcView, shapefiles, coverages…
A: 20 years ago? Those were good times. Yes…and no. I don’t necessarily miss the technology. I actually loathed ArcView when it first appeared on the scene. And…ArcCAD? PC ArcInfo? Ugh! What I do miss was the “newness” of the field at that time. We were kinda rockstars….at least in our own nerdy minds.
Q: Do you miss New Jersey?
A: Again…yes and no. I don’t miss the Garden State as much as I miss friends and family that still reside there. When I moved to Oregon in 2011, my new boss nicknamed me “Jersey.” After a while, I stopped fighting it, and just embraced the moniker.
Q: Your name is on the 1999 Digital Parcel Mapping Handbook published by URISA and the NJ State Mapping Advisory Committee. Are you still involved with digital parcel mapping? Has the methodology changed in the last 20 years?
A: That thing is still around?!?!? Maybe that’s a sign that parcel mapping HASN’T changed as much as I would have thought. I’m not involved in parcel mapping anymore. I did work for a while at Oregon Department of Revenue, in their Property Tax Mapping section. Similar work, but a lot more concerned with utilizing property survey source data to construct the tax parcels. I would hazard a guess that the basic premise is still the same, just a lot more snazzy tools available to the practitioner.
Q: Tell us about your current job. What do you do at work?
A: Five months ago I accepted a position with Oregon Department of Transportation. For the first time in over 20 years, I am doing something that is not directly connected to GIS. I am a “hybrid” Project Manager and System Analyst with Transportation Application Development (TAD). Our particular team supports the Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) business within ODOT. It was a huge leap for me to leave my GIS comfort zone, but I believe it was time for me to grow, expand, and be challenged.
Q: I know you use QGIS. Exclusively or not? What other tools do you use on a daily basis?
A: Now that I don’t have access to ArcGIS at work…yes, I’m striving to learn the ins-and-outs of QGIS. It’s purely for personal use. I have a pretty extensive collection of local hiking trail data that I’ve collected with GPS, and am undertaking to port that data from the personal geodatabase that it’s stored in to something more useable with QGIS.
Q: How does QGIS fit in within the mission of your organization?
A: Within ODOT? It doesn’t. ODOT’s GIS shop falls squarely in the Esri camp.
Q: Where do you stand in the data formats wars? Team Shapefile or Team Geopackage?
A: I always disliked shapefiles. They never felt “stable” or precise enough for my tastes. My desire for data integrity was more satisfied by the geodatabase…ESPECIALLY when it came to enforcing topology rules. As a QGIS novice, I felt like I was having to take a step back, and settle for shapefiles. So, when I “discovered” the geopackage option, I was an immediate convert. Time will tell if I actually chose the “BetaMax” (or not) of GIS data formats.
Q: You commute on an antique store bike. This is super hip. Geared or fixie? Tell us all about that.
A: I would dispute the antique label. My current bike (a 1996 Univega Rover 304) is neither “belonging to ancient times” nor is it “of high value because of its considerable age.” I picked it up for $35. Because of its LACK of monetary value, I am much less fearful of it getting stolen and I’m much less hesitant to experiment with performing repairs on it myself. It’s geared. I’ll tell you a secret, but you have to promise not to tell anyone. I don’t even KNOW what a fixie is. Single speed? That doesn’t make sense to me. Maybe I should look into it someday.
Q: Do you have any other hipster attributes we should know about?
A: Portland is where all the hipsters reside. I don’t have the time to compete with that scene. Salem has some occasional glimmers of hipster, but my theory is that Salemites maintain a perverse sense of pride in not buying into the pressure of competing with the Portland scene. Salem’s response to “Keep Portland Weird” is “Keep Salem Lame”. Not to get overly philosophical about it, but I think if you are TRYING to be a hipster…you’re doomed to failure. Reminds me of the late 80s when a lot of my brother’s friends thought “being punk” consisted solely of spiking their hair and wearing a lot of studded leather. Hipster or punk. It’s an individual state of mind, not a fashion statement. Here ends the lesson.
Q: What do you do for fun?
A: 2009 through 2012 was a particularly turbulent time in my life. Moving cross-country away from friends, family (especially my kids) was the hardest decision I ever had to make. The only thing that kept me sane and grounded was getting out into the wilderness to hike, backpack…and eventually climb. Check out my sporadic personal blog for an essay regarding “Why I Climb” (https://mikestracks.wordpress.com/2013/11/26/why-i-climb/) if you are so inclined (no pun intended). Coincidentally, the essay had its genesis in an innocent comment by this blog’s very own founder (thanks AE). My life has much less personal drama now, but the love of the outdoors remains. It is still a healing and rejuvenating activity for me. I’ve seen and done things that I previously thought weren’t possible for “normal people” like me. Besides this new-found adventurous side of me, I can totally “geek-out” with a group of friends playing tabletop board games or role-playing games. I have a lazy indulgent side also. On a warm, dry, summer Oregon day, nothing beats sitting on a winery’s veranda, overlooking the vineyards, sharing a bottle (or two) of local wine with someone special.
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our global readership?
A: “The place where you lose the trail is not necessarily the place where it ends.” –Tom Brown, Jr.
Courtney is a product manager at the Canadian Digital Service. Before joining the public service, she worked at Esri building products to connect local governments and their communities using open data. She has a BA in Urban Systems and GIS from McGill University. She lives in Ottawa and is moderately active on Twitter.
A: Growing up I was enamoured with big cities (living in the suburbs where they’re just out of reach will do that) and was glued to the computer (see: suburbs). I took an elective geography class in high school because it had an urban geo unit, and that’s where I learned about GIS. We used ArcView 3. I remember creating shapefiles of the neighbouring plaza’s building footprints and mapping the GPS points of garbage. I loved the mix of art and science that GIS brought — the data collection, analysis, and communicating information in a clear and appealing way. It was a way I got to flex whatever creativity or eye for design I had while being rooted in science, which was typically more of my strong suit. I also got to be on the computer, so, bonus! My first GIS map is still kicking around in my dad’s basement somewhere. It’s not The Garbage Map, but it is definitely a garbage map.
I was amped to learn more in university and dive deeper into urban applications of GIS. I wanted to be a transportation planner but got wooed by the open government data movement that was taking off, and that set my course.
Q: You currently work for the Canadian Digital Service. What is the mission of the Service, and what do you personally do there?
A: The Canadian Digital Service uses digital skills and knowledge to make it easier for people to access and use government services. We partner with other federal departments and work to improve the services they provide Canadians, and while doing so we’re sharing with our colleagues a different way of working in government – a way that’s open, interdisciplinary, and puts the user first. We’re trying to make everyone’s day a little bit easier.
I’m a product manager, so I work on a delivery team of designers, researchers, and developers, and engage with partners across government to make sure the right thing gets built at the right time. It’s a lot of different hats.
A: Yeah! The team really is fantastic. I think it’s incredibly important that we stay humble in the kind of work we do, especially when we’re the new kids in town and we’re working with public servants that have been doing this hard work for years. We’re not sweeping into departments and shaking them up, but aiming to empower folks who have been moving to work in a more modern way all along. I feel incredibly supported as an individual working at CDS, but I don’t feel like it’s really about us in the end. I’d encourage anyone who wants to tackle some big issues for the greater good to apply–we’re looking for roles across the organisation and you don’t need to be Canadian.
Q: Prior to your current position you worked at Esri DC, where you focused on ArcGIS Open Data. Was that big / open geodata, or just data?
A: It was just data. ArcGIS Hub (née Open Data) supports both spatial and non-spatial data, though of course the majority of datasets people published were spatial — raster or vector. I think that’s mostly of a function of it being Esri but also that the majority of data out there has a spatial component.
Q: Is spatial still special?
A: I’m not sure spatial is inherently special, but local gov GIS teams are incredibly well equipped to spearhead a city’s open data strategy and open data services. They hold a ton of data, and we’ve seen more GIS folk use their data to tell stories and share information rather than simply sharing shapefiles — they’ve moved beyond reaching only the civic hacker or data journalist. Your average person on the street doesn’t care what a shapefile is. Lots of people just want to know if they’re buying a home in a safe area and to make sure their kid can walk to school without a high chance of getting run over. Having those kinds of geo-infomediaries that put insights beside data empowers more users to make decisions and insights of their own.
Over my four years at Esri we saw incredible information resources emerge from what started as simple open data sites. Some of Esri’s users went from being GIS analysts at their local government to being the city’s Chief Data Officer, others have developed partnerships with Waze, others are engaging with schools and showing students the value of open data. GIS shops can really open the door to greater public uses and applications of information beyond just sharing data.
Q: Tell us about life after Esri.
A: Life after Esri was tough at first. Leaving Esri was tough. It took a long time to feel comfortable and productive at my first long-term job out of university, which I imagine a lot of young women in tech can relate to. I had established relationships, a community of practice, and a reputation, and then I took a leap and moved to a new city to start a new job in a new field where I didn’t have any of that. So it was a bit of a lonely reset. The first few months were challenging and scary and uncomfortable, but I need to feel challenged and scared and uncomfortable in order to grow, and I don’t regret it. Plus my rent is cheaper.
I miss geography, GIS, and DC’s incredible geo community. Twitter provides me an endless stream of geo FOMO.
Q: What drove you to come work in the US? What drove you to return to Canada?
A: Both times were for jobs; I’m very lucky I could pick up and move like that. I attended the 2014 OpenStreetMap conference in DC and met people from Esri which led to the move south of the border. It was the best thing I could have done at the time and I didn’t think twice about it.
During my time in DC I was introduced to 18F and the United States Digital Service, and then gradually followed Canada’s growth into digital government — Code for Canada forming, the province of Ontario hiring a Chief Digital Officer and creating the Ontario Digital Service, and then the Canadian Digital Service being born. I wanted a closer look at how government works and it’s an exciting time to work in digital government in Canada. It’s also great to be back closer to my family and to have real winters again.
Q: PBR features regularly in your Instagram feed. Also bikes. Any other hipster attributes we should know about?
A: Ha! Damn, outed. In my defense, PBR is a fine dock beer and we recently got out of dock season here in Ontario. Back in DC my pal Max hosts an annual hipster triathlon: swim 20 laps of a public pool, run around a track for a while, then bike to a brewery wearing funny clothes. I loved it. Other than that, I don’t think about what it means to be a hipster or what hipster attributes are. Maybe that makes me one. Whatever.
Q: Canadians are nice and generous. What else are they?
A: I struggle a bit with defining Canadian identity because It’s filled with so many different types of people from different geographies. I think Canadians have a witty, satirical, sometimes dark sense of humour. We are incredibly diplomatic and while polite, our politeness is often just a way to mitigate our fear of confrontation, and sometimes that turns into passive aggression. We have great musicians that we’re fiercely defensive of. We get excited when anything Canadian appears in American pop culture and we take the jokes in stride. We have parental leave!
We also have our fair share of hate crimes and racist harassment, a version of Breitbart, a history of Indigenous genocide that still carries through to today, and a white nationalist running for mayor of the largest city in Canada. That’s harsh, but I feel Canada is frequently cast in this utopian light where the only news is a deer strolling in a Tim Hortons drive-thru. It’s a mix of good and bad. It’s like any place.
I often pass this book in the window of a local bookstore, and I think it sums it up:
Q: Are you a geohipster? Why / why not?
A: I’ll hang onto whatever variation of geographer identity I can get nowadays.
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our readers?
A: If you’re wavering about moving to a new place where you don’t know anyone, just go for it, especially if you’re young. As my new coworker Lyn says, what’s the better story when you’re eighty?
Also, here is my favourite song that features map projections:
*The irony of this video not working in Canada is not lost on me.
True to the hipster theme, Adam is a consultant-at-large on open source spatial systems and problem solving. He’s a real doctor in the academic sense, and has a truly multidisciplinary outlook on geospatial and web technology, as seen through the lens of developing human capacity to evolve and create a better world as we work out our existence in the one we have.With a CV covering field research on sea ice, infrastructure-scale data services, professional bicycle repair, and cat herding on wilderness walking trips, he’s a stander-upon-the-shoulders-of-giants, and definitely thinks way too hard about society, human evolution, infrastructure-scale technology, geospatial magicking, and penguins.
Adam was interviewed for GeoHipster by Alex Leith.
Q: First off the bat, you recently attended FOSS4G in Dar es Salaam. What did you think?
A: I’ve been sitting on a blog post about it for a month. It’s been super hard to wrap up because it’s Africa + FOSS4G rolled into one. This FOSS4G really impressed on me more than anything how open source geospatial software, open data, and the communities around it can make real, on-ground change in the world. I’d never been to Africa before, and really was swept away by the experience. I made a point of travelling by foot as much as possible, trying to see the rhythm of the city, and how it works – what happens outside the western tourist cocoon (as much as that is possible). I drank a bunch of coconuts, and wished I could speak Swahili. I saw a lot of excellent technical talks. Some I didn’t expect to see, some on my ‘must-see list’. There was also a huge amount of discussion on the human and community aspects of our geospatial world. I listened to many stories, and came home with a soul full of hope about the future. However, to realise that future I’ll quote Mark Iliffe: “It’ll take all our resources, and all our privilege”. That’s an undisguised call – especially to people like me who really have very few barriers to overcome – to listen, reflect, and act. See the barriers other people face, and use our privilege to help tear them down. What sticks in my mind most from this iteration of FOSS4G was a real focus on overcoming challenges. Getting over 100 people to a conference via travel grants. Wow! Running a 1,000 person event in Africa. Wow! Walking the streets of Dar Es Salaam every day for a week. Wow!
Q: How was Zanzibar?
A: Personally, I’d intended Zanzibar to be a full switch off. Maybe at most walking to a beach every day or something. Instead, I offered space in an AirBnB I’d booked to some of the OpenDroneMap team, and ended up in a whirlwind. Still, it was inspirational. Having just finished a big conference, I did have some time to absorb and reflect on the conference in the context of Africa. One thing which struck me was the extreme inequality of life there. Literally next door to each other were 5 star tourist resorts and locals in basic homes cooking over fire. Another was how well society appears to function in chaos. Australia seems really rigid and afraid by comparison. I also appreciated the ‘on ground’ experience of the OpenDroneMap team, in particular Stephen Mather (a Zanzibar regular). It inspired an idea about how the geospatial community can be similar. We’re all trying to make progress, but like Zanzibar, there can be myriad and strange labyrinths to navigate. A friendly guide can go a long way.
Q: You live and work in our nation’s capital Canberra, what’s that like?
A: It’s awful, don’t come here. It’s seriously unaffordable. …actually it’s one of two cities in Australia I’d live in, the other being Hobart. Canberra’s most famous attribute is that it’s two hours from everything – the sea, the snow… and actually about 45 minutes from splitter cracks and heinous slabs on chunky granite if that’s your thing. It’s sometimes my thing. Its secret attribute is that in most suburbs, you can be in relatively uncurated bushland in about ten minutes on foot. As a full time cycle commuter, I also like that I can pick a bunch of routes through forests and parks, instead of battling cars. Unfortunately, like many places, Canberra is losing its urban wilderness in favour of cookie cutter housing estates.
Q: Your job involves doing a lot of work with PDAL. Do you like it?
A: Yes – PDAL is a fantastic toolkit. I really only explore a tiny part of it at the moment; there’s as much I don’t know what to do with it as I do know. It’s a real case of standing on the shoulders of giants. It has its limitations. One of the best things is that Howard Butler and team are very much cognisant of those up front – and provide as many means as possible for others to add new tools in ways which suit them. It’s an honest toolkit, one that doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is. One of things that it is, however, is being really useful!.
Q: What’s something interesting we don’t know about LiDAR?
A: All LiDAR instruments quite literally capture a point cloud – a little fuzz around whatever surface is being measured. I did a lot of work tracking down noise in LiDAR measurements, ending with hanging a LiDAR scanner in a lab and scanning a concrete floor for a few hours. Did we get a flat scan? No. We could fit a flat regression line to the data with high confidence, but the points themselves sat inside a neat biconcave envelope described by a function of range, scan angle and angular encoder uncertainty. The shape of this envelope is different for different instrument styles – line scanners, circular/ellipse pattern scanners, solid-state beams – but the fuzz is common to all LiDAR instruments and measurements.
Q: Does working with point clouds make you look down on the 2.5-D nature of regular GIS?
A: Not at all. In fact I barely understand a lot of ‘regular GIS’ things. My geo-training started with a lot of concern about minutiae – getting data right for an incredibly specific task (sea ice research); so in ‘standard GIS’ domains I’m still almost completely lost. I get there, with a lot of help from friends. And so much can still be done with good old 2D/2.5D analysis! I still like to push toward a 4, or 5D world – we can capture reality in 3D; capture time plus space, then time plus space plus insight – what we glean from analysing the world in space and time. We humans do this all the time, in fact, you’re doing it right now reading this – we really exist in at least 5D…
Q: Shapefile or GeoPackage?
A: GeoPackage! Although to be honest, I’d be hard pressed to have a proper discussion about why. Although – I can store a neat little SQLite database in there with points, or data boundaries… plus metadata… and it’s nicely self contained.
Q: You did an undergraduate in Neurobiology, Honours in Antarctic studies, and a PhD in Surveying. Why?!
A: The glib answer is why not? The true story is this (grab a beverage and a seat..): I actually applied to art school as a fresh out of high school kiddo – and didn’t get in. I hated school and did the bare minimum to pass. So my creative work really wasn’t up to scratch. Finding jobs was hard in the early 1990s, but I did OK at science and based on that, found employment as an assistant in a neurophysiology research lab. Mixing chemicals, making electrodes, anaesthetising sheep, slicing up brains and mounting slides. A couple years in, I figured it was university time – and naturally started a brand new degree program on cognitive science. This morphed into psychology/neurophysiology because I failed uni level maths (little did I know… I ended up doing two more years of solid stats… same same). A final year elective in Medical Anthropology made me question everything. So I quit, went to work as a teaching aide in a technical college, then picked up a job as a web developer based on a side job I’d had making websites back in the late 1990s. Fast forward a few years – career change time again. I applied for an honours year (4th undergrad year/masters year) multidisciplinary program in Antarctic science, got in, moved to Hobart, and went through an intense ‘in the deep end’ education in Antarctic physical and ecological systems, logistics and international law. Plus a research thesis on estimating ice floe sizes from airborne imagery.
I went straight to work (a few days after I dumped in the thesis) guiding people on Tasmania’s Overland track for a couple of summers, and being a semi-homeless outdoorsy drifter. In 2007 I was offered a job as a tech officer to support a sea ice research voyage – and abandoned my plans to move to New Zealand and become a mountain guide. I went south three years running – operating an aerial photography program and field validation measurements, progressing to LiDAR flight operations and running a bunch of GPS units until, in 2009, a PhD project was devised. I was awarded a scholarship and I went for it! The project was all about measuring sea ice elevation using airborne LIDAR, then estimating ice thickness based on some empirical modelling from that. I also needed to know the uncertainty of every single point in the point cloud – so a lot of maths (that thing I suck at) ensued. And geodesy. And three years discovering that most of the data we had so far are terrible and designing an experiment to fix that. Finally, in 2012, the plan came to life and we got what we needed to finish the job. In summary, we surveyed moving objects. I deployed the first ever robotic total survey on East Antarctic sea ice, using it to set up a coordinate system that drifted with the ice. And then, used the data to link airborne, on-ice and under-ice observations and create a PhD thesis. I got to ski around sea ice with a surveying prism; and also drilled a lot of holes in the ice. Oddly enough, my best topic at high school was geography – so the circle completes eventually…
A: Oh man. This is absolutely terrifying! And the momentum is huge! So late in 2017 there was a bit of noise in a Slack channel about organising a conference. And fast forward to now it seems to have just happened organically, and hugely. As the sponsorship coordinator my life has been really easy — the sponsors come to us! It’s been great to work with the committee, we disagree quite a lot and I have some really crazy ideas – some of which made it (yay!) – and others which really needed some moderation/re-appraisal. Whatever happens, we always manage to get something done – we all seem really good at compromise where it’s appropriate – and importantly in directions which aim to make a positive change. Which is always the grease that gets stuff moving, right? I’ve learned an awful lot from everyone in the process. We haven’t met all our goals – we wanted a perfect gender balance, we wanted to have much greater representation from indigenous communities, we wanted … the universe on a plate. What we *have* done is tapped into a rich vein – and exceeded our expectations about community interest. We have a fantastic program, and can do our best to make some audacious moves in shaping how this community can evolve as we steam ahead. I’m really looking forward to turning up – and all the buzz that happens to get the final wrinkles ironed out. I really hope we can keep this momentum going, and engage even more of the open geospatial community in our region next year!
A: It’s a call back to my psychology days – we discussed a lot how our environment shapes how we are able to perceive the world. One trip to Antarctica I was watching penguins cross fast ice for a while, and had a lightbulb moment that made me giggle – the parallel between conformist work environments and penguins is obvious. The hilarious part was how penguins solved these seemingly simple problems – and this dawning realisation that humans can fall into those same patterns.
At the end of the day I hope it’s a way to encourage reflection on the rules we make up for ourselves, and have some fun.
Q: Favourite craft beer?
A: Right now, when I order a bespoke beer, I’ll grab a Bent Spoke crankshaft IPA. Or a Velvet Cream Stout from the Wig n Pen. Canberra has a couple of awesome microbreweries, all within cycling distance of course!
Q: What’s #1 on your bucket list?
A: That’s a tough one. To pick on one thing – getting to South America, the last continent I’ve never visited. With my skis and climbing gear. And banging out perfect telemark turns down huge mountains. I’ve only been in airports in Asia, come to think of it.. So there’s #2.
Q: And finally, what about you makes you a geohipster?
A: To tick off some boxes? I telemark ski in the backcountry, ride bikes, climb rocks, have a beard, and have a collection of obscure paper maps… January Makamba, the introductory speaker at FOSS4G 2018 summed it up well: we are a socially conscious community. We want to help create and maintain amazing tools that are well crafted, functional, accessible, and contribute to a world we want to keep living in. The core hipster ethos of care about what we do, and how it impacts our world, definitely resonates with me strongly. Add some geo, and there we are…
A self-confessed ‘cartonerd’ with a personal and professional passion for mapping, Ken gained his BSc in Cartography at Oxford Polytechnic and PhD in GIS at Leicester University and fell into academia. He spent 20 years in key positions in UK universities before moving to sunny California to join Esri in 2011. He has presented and published an awful lot. He blogs, tweets (@kennethfield), is past Editor of The Cartographic Journal (2005–2014), and Chair of the ICA Map Design Commission (2011–2019). He co-founded the Journal of Maps, is on the advisory board of the International Journal of Cartography, is a Fellow of both the British Cartographic Society and Royal Geographic Society, is a Chartered Geographer (GIS), and only the second Honorary Member of the New Zealand Cartographic Society.
Q. Ok, I guess we have to start by clearly laying out your geohipster qualifications. Let’s get into #geocheese, which you revealed at the recent (Sept 2018) #geomob event in London. Tell us about this project.
Oh my, geohipster qualifications eh? I guess I was wearing chunky framed glasses (and the occasional beard) way back before geohipsters even knew that it was a thing. Does that count? I’ve been in the mapping game for around 30 years, longer if you count drawing odd fantasy maps, usually of sci-fi planets, as a kid. I’ve increasingly sought to take mapping beyond the defaults whether that’s in the digital realm or, sometimes, through drawing maps by hand. I got really into the hand-drawn process when I picked up my pencils after a long hiatus during the aftermath of the Trump Presidency victory. I drew a satirical map called Trump’s Ties and found it to be a really cathartic process. There’s much to be said for sketching and ‘doing’ as opposed to just pushing digital data around a screen which is, I think, the modern cartographic coalface for most of us.
So the cheese idea (and I like #geocheese btw) was one of those where I had a eureka moment and decided to make a map of the distribution of British cheese. We have such a strong history of cheese production in the UK and, since moving to California, I reflect on the taste and quality often because it’s so difficult to get good cheese in the USA. The idea came from a map of another British obsession – the humble biscuit mapped by Chris Wesson in 2017. It was a great poster, explaining where the jammy dodger and digestive were from, among a range of other tasty morsels. So why not a map of cheese? You can find a few artsy maps online but I wanted to make the map out of cheese, not just make a map of cheese.
There’s a load of detail over at my blog but I firstly had to design and make a cheese board in the shape of the United Kingdom. This required the design of a map of ceremonial counties and then the use of an exported svg file to drive a CNC router and laser engraver. A lot of craft went into making the board and I couldn’t have done it without the expertise of artisan woodworker Andrew Abbott who helped bring it to life. I’m big on collaboration and if you don’t have the necessary chops then find someone who does. I’m always trying to get map-makers to do the same; to team with cartographers to improve the map; so I followed my own advice and probably prevented personal injury from a variety of dangerous tools as a result.
The cheese to go on the board was whittled down from a large list to around 30 pieces, covering the geography, range of styles, classics and rarities of UK cheese production. I sourced it from half a dozen suppliers and that was that. A bit of logistics to get all the pieces together for the #geomob event (and, by the way, thanks for entertaining my daft idea!) and it was good to go. I was delighted that the cheese was devoured. It was a fun project and creating a real-life, time-limited edible cheese map exhibit is definitely something I’m glad I did. Maps can be fun. They can also be downright tasty. I’ve had a few people ask about a craft beer map or a whiskey map…hmm. This could become a thing
Q. But dairy products are far from your only geohip media. Earlier this summer you unleashed a wave of envy with your Lego globe.
Ahh yes, the Lego globe. I’m a bit of a Lego freak. It’s one of those things that I loved playing with as a kid, just building stuff from those wonderful small plastic bricks. I had a lot of Lego when I was young but it was mostly random pieces, rather than sets. I guess adulthood eventually brings the financial muscle required to actually buy the kits and, so, it’s as much an adult plaything. At least that’s my excuse. But there’s never been a Lego globe set to my knowledge. You occasionally see them if you go to one of the Legoland parks but how do you go about building one? Again, it became a bit of a challenge and I like a mapping challenge.
While I like the kits I can buy and I can easily follow instructions I’m no master builder so I was delighted when I eventually found a German guy called Dirk who had not only designed a globe (and a flat world map as it happens) but, he also sells the plans at a very modest price. Once you’ve got the plans you set about buying the bricks from second hand online brick markets. Fascinating to even learn that there are thousands of people who have online stores trading in Lego bricks. I sourced the bricks from over 60 different sellers from around 10 different countries. The postie did wonder what all the packages were (that rattled). I had some explaining to do. There’s over 3,800 pieces and it then took about 30 hours to build. It’s not glued so it’s a pretty technical build in that it can easily cave in on itself because it’s a sphere. It’s mostly hollow but for a few solid layers top and bottom. There’s a large central vertical column between the poles, and four struts coming off that at the equator so there’s some structure but it’s pretty fragile.
My colleague John Nelson and I were involved in putting together a ‘creative cartography’ display for our User Conference in San Diego in July 2018 and I offered to display the globe near the exhibit. So we were able to do a Lego-themed exhibit (while not actually mentioning the name Lego of course – too much lawyer work involved in that one!). It was a real draw and selfies of people with the globe were popping up everywhere – what’s not to like about a globe made of Lego at a conference for map geeks!? I also took it on tour to the UK Mapping Festival where it was also exhibited behind a London bus. I have a large packing case for it now so am happy to take it to various places if people want it on display. It’s just a bit of fun and huge thanks to Dirk for his original work. I pretty much just bought his kit and built a copy. It’s certainly geohip and was quite an effort to source and build but Dirk’s is the only globe I’ve found with pretty accurate cartography and map colours and that was, of course, pretty important to me. Just please don’t ask how much it cost.
Q. On top of all that you list yourself on LinkedIn as a “Professional cartonerd”. What sorts of reactions does that get?
Well it’s better than the reaction I get to my official job title of ‘Senior Cartographic Product Engineer’. I have long discussions about that at work. We all have fairly generic job titles which is fine, but not on a business card which tends to leave a quizzical frown on people’s faces. In fact, I don’t even bother with business cards and the like because it kicks off a pointless conversation. But bizarrely, I’ve never had a job where I’ve been called a cartographer. Much of what I do is part of a cartographer’s job but I write, teach, blog, make maps, do research, design stuff, comment and critique, etc. The point is that people perceive ‘cartographer’ in fairly stereotypical and narrowly defined terms. It’s often regarded as old school. You know, people hunched over light tables with pens and rulers. I once actually did that as a job for a few months work experience and vowed never to become a cartographer. To date, I’ve kept that promise to myself even though I ‘do’ cartography. Dataviz expert, data scientist, data architect, coder, etc all resonate more favourably so I tend not to pigeonhole myself as ‘cartographer’. I wrote this up as suffering a condition called Cartographic Identity Disorder a few years ago.
I was given the name ‘marauding cartonerd’ after an infamous online ‘debate’ I had many years ago with someone who had made a wholly inaccurate map that I took exception to. It had gone viral but there were some serious flaws in the map and, therefore, the argument that was presented. Of course, no-one particularly cared and the maker of the map just got a little frustrated at what he saw was a pedantic cartographer pouring cold water on his otherwise great idea. Critique is something we get taught in cartography (if you studied it, which I did). Yet I have a sense that receiving critique isn’t something many are particularly open to which is a shame because ultimately it improves your work. Anyway, the moniker stuck, I started my blog with that name as a place to offer critique in a hopefully humorous style (though British humour and sarcasm is not to everyone’s taste as I have found numerous times). And I guess adding the ‘Professional’ bit to the front gives it a bit of tongue-in-cheek self aggrandising value. I actually tried to get it on my business card at work. It was rejected outright. But it’s really just a bit of fun, not to be taken too seriously, and provokes far more interesting discussions with people I meet for the first time.
I’m glad you think the book is a bit more serious. I guess it is, but I had immense fun writing and making it too. The ‘why’ is pretty simple – I just kept being told by those closest to me that I should put my thoughts, experience and opinions down in a place that can be easily shared. I’ve amassed a whole heap of experience from some brilliant people over the years and why not make it into a book to give others a shortcut to that experience. Given there really aren’t any good comprehensive books on the subject then maybe it was time I stepped up to do the job and give back to the discipline that has given me so much. And my background of a couple of decades teaching students about cartography always left me wanting that perfect missing text to support them in their studies. Sure, there’s a few good texts but never the one I really wanted and those that I used way back in the late eighties in my degree studies have long been consigned to the history of cartography pile…though I still have many of them. Concepts rarely die. Technology simply finds a new way to harness them.
I get asked the ‘who is the book for’ question all the time because people want to naturally work out if it fits their specific needs. The get-out answer is ‘everyone and anyone who wants to make a map’ but that doesn’t sit squarely with trying to place it neatly into a traditional context. But it’s not a traditional book. It doesn’t conform to what a traditional textbook looks like yet I hope it has enough content to support its adoption as a class text or a reference. It’s not a coffee-table book either because it goes further than simply delighting the eye with map-porn. Though it is lavishly illustrated with a mix of original (2/3rd) and third-party (1/3rd) maps and illustrations – some familiar, some perhaps not so. Some obvious, some perhaps a little tangential but all brought together to show the breadth of cartographic practice and excellence in design. I think of it as a desk companion. The title has a full stop (period) after it because there’s an intent that it is set up to be THE modern text on cartography. There’s a little bit of arrogance in there but I felt I was only ever going to get one shot at writing this book and I was going to give it my absolute everything. Many books I have on my shelf are either outdated or just dry academic texts and who wants those any more? We get our information from so many sources that if you’re going to write a book then it has to be attractive in structure, content, and appearance. It has to appeal to a readership who find it tough to pull themselves away from Wikipedia as their go-to sage. Or who might even question why anyone would part with hard cash for a paper-based information product. But this was always designed to be a book. I think there’s a lot of value in having a physical product that you can flick through. There’s a certain permanence about a good book and we’ve gone way beyond a traditional design ethos to make it something both instructional but which visually delights and makes you actually want to turn the page. We thought of every spread as a separate poster that you’d want to put on your wall. Every time you turn the page you see something different and interesting.
After many many alternative straplines (including the working title of “the dog’s b*llocks of map-making” – a title that was very much loved during its authoring but which, for obvious reasons, was never going to be allowed in print) I settled on ‘a compendium of design-thinking for map-makers’. The wording is deliberate. It’s a collection of ideas, concepts and practical information. It gives people a grounding but also enough detail that they can put ideas into practice. It covers the subject broadly but with just enough depth to be useful and without getting too ‘academic’. You could probably find an entire book that covers each of the individual topics which says much about cartography more generally as it’s a vast subject. I also wanted to infuse traditional cartographic ideas and thinking with material from the wider design-world. All too often we retreat to our standard cartographic education and background and I feel this has become a division. Designers make maps. So do data scientists and newspaper graphics people. In fact, everyone makes maps yet they’re not necessarily keen on exploring cartography. The inverse is true – too often cartographers fail to acknowledge that their specialism is part of a wider world of design. So, trying to marry the two, bridge the divide and attract people from those two sides might help them learn something about the wider world of map-making. And I used the term ‘map-makers’ rather than ‘cartographers’ in the strapline because I didn’t want it to be seen as something solely for those old school cartographers. It should help relative newcomers better understand the ins and outs of cartographic concept and practice. It should also act as a guide and refresher for those of us with more experience and, perhaps, a background in cartography. Sort of a reference for those little bits of map-making that perhaps you’ve never attempted.
All in all I’ve tried not to pigeon-hole it. I know that makes it difficult to define a target audience but if I were writing an academic textbook, or a coffee-table book, or a manual that supported making maps using Esri software etc then it’d be a different beast altogether. The fact Esri have allowed me to make a book that is blatantly not advocating Esri products is a major win and I sincerely thank them for taking a leap of faith with this book. It was a tough sell internally for a long while but people are beginning to think that we should be doing more of this sort of stuff – general reference detailed guides about domains. Of course, all of the original maps in the book were made using Esri software but it’s implicit. It’s a tangential demonstration of the design capability of the software but, of course, my main motivation is to support map-makers in their endeavors whatever tools of choice they use. Better mapping all round is the aim. I was also able to persuade Esri Press to publish it in Oxford English. It just wouldn’t have sounded like me if it was written in American English but for an American publisher that was a really huge concession. Again, kudos to many people who went with my idea!
The reaction has been hugely positive. Sales have been pleasantly surprising. Quite a few were sceptical of the potential to get a good return on the huge investment that Esri Press made in supporting this project but it’s doing really well. There’s been lots of really nice reviews and comments, many from luminaries in the world of mapping. I mean, when you start your day with complimentary emails from the likes of Mark Monmonier you get a buzz that your work has found a home among many other great map books and revered authors. I was really fortunate to work with a few dozen fantastic people who contributed to the book too. I wanted different voices and experts to describe maps and ideas, so it’s not just me and my views and ideas. I think this has really helped generate interest. My favourite quote, though, was from one of my young nieces, who upon seeing a copy just before it went to the printers shrugged and simply said ‘who’s going to buy that?’. Family can always be assured to keep you grounded. It’s important. But, professionally, people do seem to like it. I walk around at work and there’s copies in offices and posters on walls and I’m hopeful that some of the content will rub off in a positive way. I’ve met people in eastern Africa who were desperate for a copy and I see tweets from all over the world of people unboxing it and posting their thoughts. I am genuinely humbled and thrilled that it’s been so warmly received. I couldn’t have done it without dozens of people though, and they all have a piece of ownership of the book. There’s a few more details about the book here and, hey, it’ll soon be Christmas. Order early. Order often 😉
Q. Life’s not all geohip projects though, even a geohipster must eat. Tell us a bit about your day job. What are you getting up to?
You mean life as a ‘Senior Cartographic Product Engineer’? Well, yes, the job pays the mortgage and buys the cheese but it’s a great job and I love working at Esri in sunny California. For a kid that wanted to be a NASA astronaut or a California Highway Patrol Officer (too much time spent watching CHiPs as a kid) then working in cartography and GIS in Cali is a dream come true. I arrived here mid-career after 20+ years as an academic in the UK. I’m colloquially referred to as the ‘resident cartographer’ in that I’m seen and used as an internal expert. I work on the development team for ArcGIS Pro but get to work in other areas (like content, ArcGIS Online etc) as needed. Day to day I help the team with ideas for making the software better or more useful for making maps. We have some really bright software engineers and developers so my role is to help shape how map authoring tools are designed based on what I know and what I learn from those that want better or new tools.
Thankfully no-one lets me anywhere near the codebase as my coding skills lapsed many many years ago. But it’s fulfilling in that I know that tens of thousands of people use the software to support their own cartographic work and I see ideas and design influences appear every year at our User Conference map gallery which I also help judge. A lot of the maps I make are done predominantly for internal purposes. Testing of the software is ongoing but a lot of tests are done using relatively small datasets. So I try and make ‘real’ maps with large-ish data sets. Often I’m trying to test the tools and software to destruction to find those naughty little bugs that you only really ever find when you try and do ‘real’ work. I also push the software to try and use it in ways it was perhaps never designed for, to derive new workflows or show people how to go beyond the defaults. To that end, I get to make maps on topics and datasets that I find interesting, and write about my maps and publish them as examples of what can be done with the software. Blogs help bring ideas to the world that people can go and experiment with. And, of course, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery so it always brings a smile to my face when I see an idea permeate across geo and turn up being used in other ways by people using different software. It’s all good as far as I’m concerned. So I also get to write, and teach workshops, research stuff, present at conferences and generally act as a spokesperson for high quality cartography. A couple of years ago my better half, the astoundingly talented Dr Linda Beale and I built a toolbox of terrain tools – just scripts that we built to allow people to create different ways of representing terrain than the usual default hillshades. It’s been downloaded nearly 20,000 times and we see evidence of their use all over the place. It’s a small example of being given the flexibility to just ‘do good work’ and share it. I’m convinced if you build decent tools, maps, and interesting cartographic styles and workflows then people will experiment and take them further. That’s definitely a really key part of the job for me – to see how others make use of the things you build. I’m currently building a set of cartogram tools too with the help of a number of people. These are the sort of things that might otherwise take ages to get into core software but which can be relatively easily built for those that want to get to work with them.
As well as Linda, I have the immense privilege of working alongside some seriously talented cartographers too. Having the likes of John Nelson, Wes Jones, Edie Punt, Bojan Savric and Nathan Shephard (and many others!) around drives us all to be innovative and find new or better ways of doing things. It also helps having experts along the hallway when you get stuck! That’s also why we developed our MOOC on Cartography, to share some of that expertise. At the time of writing we’re into our second offering and have so far got nearly 70,000 people registered. Imagine that – 70,000 people all wanting to learn a little bit about cartography. We had great fun making the videos and designing the exercises and, of course, it’s free so it’s nice to be able to do something that we can genuinely give back to the community. It’s also really pleasing that the company as a whole is happy to support ideas that, perhaps, aren’t at the absolute core of building GIS software and services. It’s a real privilege to be able to work in this way and support our general work through bringing new and different ideas to the table..
Q. Many of the (often quite lengthy) posts on your blog analyse map design. Occasionally you praise good design, but you’re also often liberal in dishing out the criticism. What’s the motivation for the blog and what sort of feedback do you get?
Yeah – I’m not very good at being brief. Sorry. As I mentioned earlier, that blog (my personal cartonerd blog) is deliberately designed to be a place for somewhat humorous takes on bad maps of all types. And there’s a lot of them about. I try and explain why certain designs, data manipulation, symbology or projections simply don’t work to support the job that the map and the map-makers claim to be doing. Really, it’s a taste test for the quality of the map because map readers in the general population are more than likely not attuned to knowing about such things. Why should they? They are busy being experts in their own sphere yet the map, as a document, is often considered to be fact. They can just as easily be fake through deliberate action or through a little slackness on the part of the map-maker, often simply through them not fully understanding their actions either. Much of this is not deliberate. So the blog simply tries to point this out, to mediate the message of a poorly designed map so people can better appreciate the ways it might be lying to them. I get far more grumpy responses than praise for pointing stuff out but that’s to be expected. No-one likes being told their map isn’t particularly good. I get critique on my work all the time but you kinda have to be able to disassociate comments about the map from a personal attack, which is never the intention. It’s always about the work. The map and its message, which I am simply pointing out is flawed as designed. So it’s intent is educational. Often, cutting out some relatively simple but commonly made mistakes would make a far better product.
So I often get seen as this grumpy, curmudgeonly middle-aged guy who just hates on maps. That’s not strictly true but that’s the focus of that particular blog and if that’s all you see of my work then I understand that impression. I am forthright. I do tell it as it is. I know that’s not always an approach that people find comfortable but I’d rather be up front and totally honest. But if people care to look a little wider they would see balance in what I do. I am also Chair of the International Cartographic Association Map Design Commission and that gives me more scope to look at the positives in maps. A couple of years ago I blogged a map a day for a year, writing up a few words on why it exhibits excellence in design and those are still online for people to explore. It’s almost the inverse of the cartonerd blog but, together, they balance each other nicely. And, of course, there’s plenty of other blogs, presentations and suchlike where I focus on what’s good in maps. I guess people like to gravitate to me poking a little fun at a bad map though. That’s ok. I’ll happily engage in debates on maps.
Q. It seems you’re not just hunched over the keyboard though, you get out on the conference circuit. Which also has its pros and cons, as you recently documented. What makes for a good geo conference in the modern age?
I am privileged in my job that part of what I do is to get out and about around the world. But you’re right, I think most conferences are getting a little tired and that’s driven by several factors. They often fall back on historical delivery models. They are often organised by people who you rarely see elsewhere so they default to what they know. There’s simply too many geo conferences! If I get handed a tote bag with flyers from vendors and sponsors I know I’m in for a pretty tedious few days. That junk usually gets dumped straight into the hotel bin though I try and simply not pick it up anymore. Conferences are historically places to meet people, network, learn, find out new stuff, and share your ideas. But all too often it’s the same people who go to the same conferences. I liken them to clubs. A certain group of like-minded people who already know they enjoy each other’s company goes to club A, and another group goes to club B, and they are very unlikely to meet each other. And in geo in particular, you have many people entering the realm from a variety of different backgrounds. Once it was only people working in hardcore mapping agencies, then the wider world of GIS brought others to the table (and new clubs emerged), now students of computer science are finding work and excitement with data that happens to have coordinates (and new clubs, often referred to as meetups, have emerged). Yet the question is, do they want to belong to these other clubs? I sense not and the evidence is they usually shun older clubs and form their own new club to be seen as fresh and relevant. And rather than these older clubs trying to find ways to get them to join in, they should be looking to change the model in ways that meets modern needs and which encourages a bit of intermingling.
It’s a little like cartography more generally. Every few years new technology comes along and disrupts practice. You can either be one of those mapping people who bemoans having to constantly re-tool, or you simply take a deep breath and learn new stuff. If I’d been the former then my career would have come to a rapid end decades ago. You have to move with the times and keep up, keep learning, not be afraid to ditch old habits and practices, or be that force of change that helps drive innovation. Too many geo conferences are stuck so far in the past that it makes taking days out of your schedule and money out of your budget a questionable activity. We meet in so many different ways now. Only this morning I had a conversation via Twitter’s DM with someone who, only a few years ago, I might only have met at a conference once a year. So the shrinking world means we have to rethink these meetings. They have to become something that people want to go to, not feel an obligation to support. It’s not impossible. I like the #geomob model of more frequent, less formal meetups. I think a lot of people gravitate to that sort of gettogether. But even at the recent UK Mapping Festival it was fascinating how few people who attended the conference during the day went to the #geomob event in the same city in the evening. Bar a few, almost completely different sets of people but which would really benefit from sharing ideas and experiences between their de facto groupings. It’s just a case of developing events at which both groups can feel comfortable and where they see value. Otherwise the groups become self-selecting and self-organising rather than offering proper outreach and events that drives mutually inclusive rather than mutually exclusive activities.
There are too many geo societies and groups in the UK though. It’s fragmented and, so, that drives the divisions through different club mentalities and events. I have no magic solution but I do suggest people look at models that are used elsewhere for inspiration. I’m a big fan of the North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS) conference. It’s annual. It travels to different US cities, often second tier cities like Boulder CO, or Norfolk VA to avoid the costs associated with the major cities. And they have a programme that attracts a really diverse crowd. You have the GISers mixing with the Adobe fans. You have decade old cartographers mixing with artists, designers and coders. You have the Esri crowd mixing with those from Mapbox, CARTO and others. You have map publishers like National Geographic in attendance alongside those that work for the New York Times and the Washington Post for instance. People from totally different backgrounds and with different workflows and needs. The key connecting factor is the map. Everyone is there because they are interested in maps. No angst. No tribal tendencies. Just a shared passion and good conversations. But when I go to FOSS4G I still sense some tribal BS. When I attend the more traditional mapping conferences in the UK I still see out-moded organisation and people wondering why new folks aren’t there. It can be different and the NACIS model somehow manages to stay ahead of the curve.
I’d like to see modern geo-events be fewer and more inclusive. Different tracks and content that attracts a diverse range of people who are interested in, work in, or simply have a fascination for maps, geo, GIS, however they frame it. Such an event shouldn’t be directly linked to a particular society or club mentality. It needs to bring together different communities and be marketed at those communities in ways that gives them a real reason to attend. And that might be through different strategies for different communities. I’m not saying for one minute that this is easy. If it were, I’m quite convinced people would already be working towards it. But, instead of tinkering with models that we’ve relied on for years, perhaps ripping up the template and trying to find something fresh is what’s needed. After all, the entire purpose of a conference is to get together, share and learn. That contact between people during a talk or in the bar in the evening is often so fruitful. New relationships emerge and new ideas form. I’ve relied on conferences throughout my career to support my own lifelong learning. They help keep my work relevant and they have led to so many wonderful experiences and the development of a terrific network of colleagues, many of whom I now count as some of my closest friends. It’d be a shame if future geo-people don’t have an opportunity to do these things just because they feel that events aren’t relevant any more. We have to drive to make them relevant.
Take the #geocheese as a perfect example. If I hadn’t seen Chris’ biscuit map hanging on the wall at a conference last year I may never had got the spark for a map of cheese. And because of the map of cheese, I was invited to answer some questions for this GeoHipster blog. These opportunities sometimes happen by design but, more often than not, they’re serendipitous. You learn stuff, hone an new idea, execute it, and new opportunities emerge as a result. Take the Cartography book as another example. Because it’s doing well I’ve been able to pitch another book idea and get support. Nothing quite as grandiose this time but a useful book nevertheless. I’m looking forward to really getting going on this in the latter part of this year and early 2019.
Q: What closing advice do you have for all the geohipsters out there?
I’m probably the last person to be giving advice to budding geohipsters. Just do what you love doing. Find a way to make your voice heard and own your work by putting your name to it. It builds respect and, eventually, authority. Don’t get too caught up in any hyperbole that might come with your work and take critique in a positive fashion, never personally. Learn from the past and what people have found is best practice from decades of learning and figuring it out – but don’t be afraid to bend a few rules once you’ve learnt how they can be bent meaningfully. Understand that very little is actually new any more so build on what’s gone before rather than always trying to reinvent. Cite your sources and inspirations. Be humble in your work but find ways to enjoy what you do. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. We live a geo-lifestyle. It’s hard to detach the profession from personal interest. Also, look beyond your own sphere. I found so much out during the process of writing my book. I mean, who ever imagined they’d read a quote from Bruce Lee in a book on Cartography but once I’d seen it it had to go in. I think it’s a perfect way of capturing the essence of being in geo, whether you’re a middle-aged geo-hippy-hipster like me or someone a little newer to the mapping game: “Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.” Enjoy Lego if that takes your fancy. If not, eat some cheese!
A: I am an architect and urban planner by training, and GISer by circumstance since 1991. I founded ENTCHEV GIS in 2005 and GeoHipster in 2013. Currently (since 2015) I am the GIS specialist for Franklin Township, NJ. Read more about me in my GeoHipster interview.
Q: Tell us the story behind your map (what inspired you to make it, what did you learn while making it, or any other aspects of the map or its creation you would like people to know).
A: This map is one in a series offering visual representation of all reported animal-vehicle crashes in Franklin Township over the course of several years. The map series informs environmental policy decisions in the town, particularly with regard to hunting regulations. I felt that discrete representation of point events was not communicating well the story behind the data, being that many animal crashes locations were concentrated in tight clusters — hence my choice of heat mapping for the series. I learned that deer population moves over time, which is probably obvious, but I never thought about it before.
Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.
A: The map uses data from police reports. The project started in a MapInfo derivative, moved to QGIS, then ArcMap, then Paint.net. Data was originally created in MapInfo TAB, moved to SHP (hi, @shapefile! 🙂 ), then to GeoTIFF, to PNG, to PDN, to PNG, ultimately to PDF (of course!).
I’ve been making maps professionally for over 10 years now. But when I’m not doing that, I could be cooking, messing around in VR (how exactly do you ingest geojson into Unity, anyway?), or running about as fast as the world’s fastest 90 year old. Seriously, I looked it up; his name is Frederico Fischer. My sprinting pace is terrible, but it keeps my legs thicc at least.
Q: Tell us the story behind your map (what inspired you to make it, what did you learn while making it, or any other aspects of the map or its creation you would like people to know).
Oh hey, speaking of running – my boss had the idea for this map while he was training for his first marathon. He came into work on Monday and explained how cool it would be if we could produce a map that showed the bounding boxes of every map our business had ever made. I agreed that it would indeed be cool. Then I promptly forgot about it.
Working on something completely unrelated a couple of months later, which required me to programmatically extract the coordinates at the corners of some map documents, I was reminded of his idea. A bit of Python frankenscripting later – with StackExchange acting as Igor – and I was able to unleash this on our entire corporate directory of map files. Turns out, in ten years of using our current GIS, we’ve collectively authored over eighty thousand maps.
Zooming in to Melbourne (which accounted for 30,000+ maps on its own), I started to play around with layered transparencies to visualise the data. This eventually evolved into a nice glowy blue colour scheme, which reminded me of deep space images of clusters of stars and galaxies, connected by glowing filaments.
This map has no practical use. I’m fine with that. There’s still something really satisfying about it, how it just hints at the tens of thousands of hours of work that went in to making all of those maps, which are reduced down to their most basic representation. It looks nice too (I think). If you got a GeoHipster calendar, I hope you think so too, because you’re stuck with it for this month.
Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.
To scrape the data: A simple, custom Python script, run over a big and messy nested directory structure, full of .mxd files. It extracted the x/y min/max coordinates of every map document, and reconstituted them into a shapefile full of rectangles.
To visualise the data: A mixture of ArcGIS Pro (I love the feature-level transparency), InkScape, and Paint.net.
Jim is a geodeveloper advocate at Esri in NYC. Before that, he worked in Redlands running the developer network program, and previous to that, running Esri’s tech support operations. Catch him on twitter @JimBarry.
The statements and opinions below are Jim’s and not the opinions or official positions of his current or previous employers.
Jim was interviewed for GeoHipster by Bill Dollins and Atanas Entchev.
Q: How did you get into GIS?
A: I guess it started with an obsession with maps when I was a kid.
Going way back though, back seat of the car on family trips, I was completely absorbed by road atlases. My mom was the original mapgeek and navigator in the family; still is. So I got the maps thing from her — total map nerd. Not to mention my other assorted quirks, like staring at the ground from the window seat of a plane. It’s like a big map, yo!
Maps just kept coming back to me over and over as I grew up. Orienteering in scouts and beyond. As an infantry officer in the army, maps were key. Grab a lensatic compass, a 1:50,000 topo in a waterproof case, a grease pencil, and let’s go. I really took to land navigation, on foot or on vehicles, any weather, any terrain, swamps, woods, or desert, mostly at night. It’s more than just dead-reckoning to point B; it’s route selection, contingency planning, speed and manner of movement, under stress, wet, cold, hot, miserable, dealing with obstacles, leading soldiers keeping them motivated, pressed for time, pushing thru it, learning and adjusting along the way until you reach the objective. Maybe a little philosophical, but sort of a microcosm of life itself, no?
As for GIS itself, grad school, studying urban planning, we had PC ArcInfo and ArcView v1. I taught a couple semesters of freshman level Geography, and spent a year running the mapping lab, keeping the hardware working and software updated, helping students working on their projects, and learning the concepts of working with and analyzing spatial data.
During grad school, but on the side, my first year I took an overnight job doing mapping at an electric utility. I got a real sense of the importance of this kind of high-impact production mapping—a lot of editing, complete and accurate information, and a high level of quality control when electrical service for customers, and the safety of the maintenance crews were at stake.
Then in my second year of grad school I got hired by a small town outside of Hartford to research and build their 10-year master plan of development. I used PC ArcInfo, ArcCAD, and ArcView for that. They had only been using AutoCAD. I was able to do some spatial analysis using whatever data I could find, convert, digitize, or otherwise collect, to provide support for some recommendations for development, preservation, transportation, and other aspects of the town’s growth and progress.
I really liked working with the tools, so figured I’d try to work at Esri for a few years, learn as much as I can, then take back to municipal planning. Well, a few years turned into 24 and running.
Q: You have been at Esri for over two decades. How would you describe life at Esri to an outsider?
A: Always challenging. First couple of years I was a desktop GIS tech support analyst. To me, there’s no better place to learn how to be productive with this technology, than in tech support. Not only do you learn how things work best, but also the wide variety of ways things break, and how to quickly find the cause, work up a solution, alone or in groups, sometimes code up alternatives, workarounds, and communicate that to the user trying to get their work done, often under pressure themselves. Fun stuff. Even after moving up into running tech support ops, I’d grab calls myself from time to time to keep the problem-solving and tech skills sharp as I could. The tech moves and grows fast. It’s quick and easy to lose your grip on it, if you don’t keep chopping.
But overall, the ability to do important, impactful work, surrounded by and learning from some of the smartest people I’ve ever met. But more importantly, everyone here buys into the idealism that Jack projects. He’s a true believer in what technology, in general, and of course GIS in particular provides to improve our co-existence with our world, in a data-driven way.
I saw this quote once. I think it was meant to stoke one’s entrepreneurial spirit by saying “If you don’t work to realize your own ideas, you’ll end up working to realize someone else’s”. Being that I’m a fairly UNcreative person, that quote motivated me too, but probably in a direction 180° from its intent. Meaning, I consider my value more about building and delivering tangible, useful things from the ideas envisioned by creative people, freeing them up to continue being creative. That’s the main reason why I’ve always felt a good fit at Esri. Jack’s visionary thought leadership over the past several decades, and his commitment to build and constantly improve (and occasionally completely reinvent) has been an honor and a great experience to be part of.
Q: You have been working in developer evangelism for over a decade now. During that time, Esri’s platforms have changed and grown significantly. How has working with developers shaped your view of the evolution of Esri’s platforms and what role has the developer community played in that evolution?
A: Understanding the evolution of developers, and of developing software apps and systems, starts by understanding the evolution of users and their expectations.
Back in the 90s when I first started building custom mapping apps, this might sound really odd now, but usability wasn’t exactly our primary concern, generally. You designed and built the app, and then you deployed it with documentation and training. As your end-user climbed the learning curve, their productivity would increase. Back then, “powerfully useful” was more important than “intuitively usable”. But it was still mainly up to the user to commit effort learning how to use it.
Of course, nowadays, in most cases, that approach is absolutely insane. (Well, it was insane then too, but who knew?) Today, when you put an app in the hands of an end-user, it better be designed to be intuitive for them, and productively useful for them right away, for what they need it to do. Apps you build need to free your users up, so they can put almost all their mental effort into their work and put as little effort as possible into figuring out how the app works.
That expectation bounces right back to the developers who build and use APIs, and the designers of the apps being used. It’s no longer enough that the API be powerful, fine grained, and comprehensive (hi ArcObjects). Now, its granularity also needs to be variable, doc accessible, learning ramp shallow, samples numerous, best practices proven, and user community robust, interactive, and supportive enough so that we meet these high expectations. It takes a lot of work to make things easy. Also, the shelf life of things developers build is also shortening. Developers often need to deploy something good enough now, then iterate to continue improving it.
Q: You wrote about smart cities recently. Is “smart cities” the new buzzword de jour, or is it GIS trying to reinvent itself, or is it an entire new industry being born?
A: A new industry? No, it’s broader than that. It’s a way for cities to keep up with fully using technology to make itself run better. Of course, GIS is a key part of it—here’s how. A smart city is one that uses technology to continually sense its state and respond in efficient, optimized ways. Human intervention is removed whenever practical, to gain speed and scale. Combined with the hardware and software technology itself, it also includes a digitized articulation of the rules on which decisions can be made, and actions triggered. Then, on a separate thread, patterns can be sensed, stored, analyzed in order to continue improving efficiency in future iterations.
Given that a city is a spatial system, spatial analysis has got to be a key part of these rules, decisions, and actions. Along with many other technologies, GIS fuels the decisions behind visualizing where things are and optimizing how, why, when, and where things move and interact. A GIS platform also provides cross-agency collaboration tools and the ability to perform modeling and predictive data analytics.
The data management, data analysis, data visualization tools that are a part of GIS and geospatial technology have a role to play in a “smart city”, from strategy down to the nuts and bolts. I can’t imagine how they wouldn’t.
Ok, so to me, yeah, in a way, “smart cities” can be seen as a buzzword, but it’s an important one, a motivating one. Meaning, it’s a simple term that helps everyone quickly focus in on what cities are trying to do to evolve. It’s easier for all of us to grab the handles and pull the wagon in the same direction if we’re not stuck struggling to understand what the term means. 50 years from now, a city’s “smartness” in this context will be so common, the concept itself is going to melt into the background and we’ll probably forget that the term “smart city” used to be a “thing”. Like the idea of an electric city was 100+ years ago versus today. But for now, we need the term, because it’s going to take a lot of domains working together to make cities smarter.
Q: Esri recently pledged $30,000.00 to the GDAL barn raising. Esri has famously used GDAL libraries under the hood of ArcGIS for many years now, so the pledge makes sense. How would you characterize Esri’s relationship with open-source and the open source community, particularly in geospatial? What steps do you anticipate Esri taking to help that relationship evolve?
A: Ask 10 people what “open” means, you’ll get 12 different answers. So, for me, I keep it practical, and I try to stay focused on how the level of openness helps or hinders productive work in any particular context.
As for open source software, I’ve seen some choose it based simply on principle. Some choose it when it’s free, or when its initial barrier to use is lower than other options. I mean, I get it. Open source provides a perception (sometimes an illusion) of control, and a perception (sometimes an illusion) of low cost.
But, over the past several years at least, I’ve seen a growth of users and developers who are trying to get their work done best, or build things that are more useful, whose technology selection has more to do with its capabilities, than whether or not they can contribute to the code base. On the surface, the terms open and closed imply a binary, but when it comes to technology it’s obviously a lot more complex and nuanced than that.
In our increasingly connected world, for a technology to be useful, it needs to be openly interoperable with other tech. It also needs to support open standards with regards to format (hi Shapefile), workflow, protocols, and interface (both UI and API).
And then there’s open data. It benefits all of us to support open data, particularly in government, in order to promote freedom and transparency, optimize operations, encourage collaboration, but also to engage the people who live there. In NYC there is a vast ecosystem of non-profits, startups, students, motivated citizens, and more, ready to pitch in, and they do amazing work. It’s a force multiplier to ensure that accurate, complete, timely data is pushed into the open, into the hands of everyone, fueling great ideas. Doing so continues to improve the lives of New Yorkers every day.
Back to open source though…
Where a particular technology, any technology, open source or not, is better, more useful, more cost effective, it will be used. A few years ago, Chris Wanstrath was the keynote speaker at the Esri Developer Summit. He was a founder, and at the time CTO of GitHub. He noted that while GitHub has played a huge role in the support, usefulness, and growth of open source software, GitHub itself is not open source. He found that open source makes sense, when openly inclusive collaboration is the best approach to building something, and it doesn’t make sense when you want to build something that supports your core business model, and for as long as you want to maintain full creative control. When it comes down to it, the relationship between the two is more productive when it’s symbiotic rather than adversarial. The way I see it is this: our work contains a lot of constraints we have limited control over; it makes no sense to purposefully add more constraints by limiting our own options.
Q: You are from New Jersey — home of The Sopranos, Bridgegate, and Silent Bob. I hear you have a special connection to one of those. Tell us about it.
A: The shore area of New Jersey, yes, born and raised in that magical state where the government still believes pumping gas is a task best left to paid professionals.
So yeah, after a couple decades in Redlands, I recently moved back to my hometown of Leonardo, NJ. Most of my family still live in the area, and it’s great to be back. Silent Bob, right, well, Leonardo is the town the movie Clerks was filmed in. The Quick Stop is still there, the dive bar of convenience stores. Anyway, when I was 14, I had a newspaper route and that store was the halfway point. I would go in and grab a soda for the return trip. One day, the guy who worked in there said I could have the coke for free if I’d go in the back and load the dairy case with milk, eggs, cheese, and stuff, that had been delivered, which at the time could only be loaded from the back of the store. Otherwise he’d have to lock up, stock the case, then reopen (“I assure you we’re open”). I think I was only hauling in $15 a week at that point with the paper route, so I’m like, cool. For a while, this turned into an almost daily thing. I hadn’t seen the movie til many years later, but it was weird to see our little hole in the wall store be a central character of a big movie. “Bunch of savages in this town”, indeed.
Q: Finish this sentence: If I could only keep one of my sports jerseys, it would be…
A: I’ve got a bunch, but this Hartford Whalers jersey I have, well, I normally resist wearing third party gear to games, but this one seems to be an exception. Wore it to a Rangers game last winter and it’s obvious that hockey fans get it. Plus, it’s a pretty cool logo.
Q: Do you consider yourself a geohipster? Why / why not?
A: Not at all. While I respect and am inspired by the innovation that comes from the unconventional thinking of all you hipsters, for the most part, my strengths (and weaknesses) seem to stem from being a straight up conformist. But then in a way, without us conformists, being a hipster lacks the frame of reference from which to diverge — there’s no contrast. So to all you real geohipsters out there… you’re welcome.
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our readers?
A: If you have an idea — a solid idea that has a vision and a purpose, and you really believe in it — you’re ready to sink or swim in it — don’t wait, don’t check, don’t ask — just do it. Probably intuitively obvious to many; wasn’t obvious to me for a long time.
Meaning, what I’ve found that often doesn’t work, is trying to sell others on your idea when it’s still nothing more than an idea. All this does is open the door for it to be crushed under the weight of opinions. And at that point, your great idea becomes just another deleted slide deck. So. Don’t ask for permission. Believe in it? Then just build it. When you need others’ collaboration on bits of it, keep it focused, and limited to trusted resources.
Here’s the point though. Believing in it of course means you’re ready to own the consequences, whether it works, or whether it lawn darts into the ground. Best case scenario, it works, and at that point you’ve improved things a notch or two for your users, added value to your product, helped move the ball forward for your organization. Not to mention you learned a lot along the way. But most importantly, those who earlier might have crushed your idea — they vanish. No one argues with success. No one debates whether something will work or not, after it’s already working.
The founder of GeoHipster, Atanas Entchev, learned BASIC in 1984 on a made-in-Bulgaria Apple ][ clone, and has been working with computers ever since. These days he splits his time between slinging shapefiles and searching for the perfect saddle for his Cannondale. Find him on Twitter, Instagram, and on his personal blog Mostly Subjective.
Atanas was interviewed for GeoHipster by Board Member Bill Dollins and CEO Mike Dolbow.
Q: For any readers who don’t know, tell us about yourself and how you got into geospatial.
A: My road to geospatial was long and circuitous. I graduated with a Master’s in architecture in my native Sofia, Bulgaria. Upon graduation I was assigned a job as an urban planner. In 1991 I came to Rutgers University in New Jersey to complete a Master’s in urban planning, where I was indoctrinated into the Arc world on PC ARC/INFO on DOS. While still in grad school and looking for a “real” job as a planner, I took a GIS internship position at the NJDEP, digitizing parcels in ArcInfo on a SUN Sparc workstation. Temporarily. As it turned out, there is nothing more permanent than the temporary. I have been “doing GIS” ever since.
Q: Between early pieces in Directions, to your own blog(s), to your activity on various social media platforms, you have been a visible face and an early adopter of social platforms in the geospatial community for almost two decades. What effect have those platforms had on the landscape of geospatial technology? How have those platforms changed? What would the ideal social platform look like to you, today?
A: The biggest effect social media platforms have had on the landscape of geospatial technology is that blogs and social media have all but eliminated the need to go to conferences. This is probably an unpopular opinion, and easily challenged by the fact that geoconferences seem to be multiplying. But you don’t need to go to a conference anymore to find out what’s happening in the industry. The blogs and social media deliver high-quality, high-signal-to-noise-ratio content, right to your screen, better than any keynote. Heck, you can “attend” multiple conferences simultaneously and be billable at the same time.
Obviously, there are other things that happen at conferences — geobeers, geoteas, geohookups — so conferences aren’t going away. But the reasons for going to conferences have shifted. Get out of work, anyone? Travel to a new city/country? On your employer’s dime? Sign me up!
Three things drive people to social networks: FOMO, interestingness, and utility — probably in that order. Early Twitter was interesting. Less so these days, but I stay because of utility. Instagram is interesting, but has no utility. Facebook has neither.
How have platforms changed? They become less interesting as they grow and mature. The ideal social platform must stay interesting, and combine interestingness with utility.
Q: Wow, I can’t believe that this December will mark the five year anniversary of the geohipster.com launch with a tongue-in-cheek industry poll. Looking back on that moment and what has happened since, were there any surprises?
A: The biggest surprise was that it took off the way it did. I registered the domain name on a lark, I thought some kind of website would be good for a few chuckles at most. Five years later GeoHipster is running strong, bigger than I ever thought it would be.
Q: Walk us through a typical day for you – not just for your day job, but also for your “side hustles”.
A: My day job as the GIS specialist in Franklin Township, New Jersey, includes multiple various GIS-related duties, so it’s never boring. I maintain several PostgreSQL/PostGIS databases; I dabble in SQL and Python. I make maps to print (PDF FTW); I help township staff with various geo-related tasks; I create shapefiles; I export databases to shapefiles to share with other organizations; I add new township streets to Open Street Map.
I use a mixed bag of tools: ArcGIS Desktop, QGIS, ArcGIS Pro, ArcGIS Online, CARTO.
My latest side hustle is designing, promoting, and selling the “I♥️SHP” merchandise. My plan is to grow it to a point where I can quit my job and retire. My other side hustle is GIS consulting — mostly training, teaching GIS novices how to use shapefiles (no joke; shapefile haters leave a lot of money on the table), and some GIS and web development. And, of course, I help run GeoHipster as Editor-in-chief.
After work and on weekends I ride my bike, sometimes with my daughter. Or tackle a side hustle task. Or go to the beach with my wife. Or we go to concerts (Buddy Guy, Jonny Lang, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Gov’t Mule this summer).
Q: The “I♥️SHP” merchandise seems to be really taking off. Any plans to expand it for the “sidecar files”?
A: As soon as Taylor Swift agrees to wear a “PRJ” shirt for the promo campaign. I have my people talking to her people. Seriously, though, I consider “SHP” a pars pro toto moniker, thus including all sidecars. The shapefile agrees.
Q: If the shapefile disappears tomorrow as though it never existed, to which format would you switch?
A: To whichever format has critical mass. For the record, I don’t use shapefiles exclusively — I use PostGIS on PostgreSQL and file geodatabases in equal measure. But when I need to create a quick disposable layer for a quick map, shapefile it is. And when it comes to spatial data exchange, the shapefile is the undisputed king. In my job I share spatial data with a large number of users, mostly external. Every single one of them asks for shapefiles. So I give them shapefiles. I’m not gonna fight them. If they start asking for geopackage, I will give them geopackage. Nobody has asked as of yet.
I wrote about my position in the shapefile debate on my personal blog. To quote myself: “To call for the abolition of the shapefile is akin to calling for the abolition of the .xls(x) format on the grounds that millions of people erroneously use it in lieu of “legitimate” databases.”
There is currently a shapefile vendetta raging on the twitters. I think it’s silly. If and when it is no longer needed, the shapefile will fade away.
Q: GeoHipster readers, and many others, have followed the ordeal of your family and your son, Eni, closely. Would you provide an update?
A: For those who may not know, last December my son was deported to Bulgaria — a country he does not remember and whose language he does not speak, but where he is “from”. We are working on bringing Eni back home. We are pursuing all possible avenues. This will be a long and complicated process. Meanwhile he has settled in Sofia, has found a job that he likes, and is making friends. He is in good spirits. We communicate via social media and chat almost daily. My son is making the most of this bizarre and unfortunate situation, and has made me proud with his ability to handle adversity.
I want to thank the hundreds of people, most of whom I have never met, for their outpouring of support for my family’s plight, and for reaffirming my faith in humanity.
Q: Sounds like you’ve been riding your bike more and more lately. Do you and Bill have some kind of exercise competition going?
A: I post more bike pics lately — or, rather, I post less other stuff than I used to — which makes it look like cycling is all I do. But I have indeed been riding more and more lately. I rode my first metric century (100+ km) in May, and I aspire to ride my first full century (100+ miles) next year. I love cycling — it is a great sport, great exercise, and with the right equipment you can cycle year-round.
Above all else, cycling for me is meditation on wheels. It helps me clear out my head. When I am on the bike, I think about nothing. It feels great.
Bill and I do not have a competition, but maybe we should. What would be the metrics, though? Bill? (We’ll let Bill answer this question on Twitter. –Ed)
Q: What is your grammatical pet peeve that would most surprise GeoHipster readers?
A: What would probably be most surprising to those who know me is that while I used to be a grammar nazi, I am working on kicking the habit, and I have made significant strides in this effort. I remember when, in the early 1990s, I wrote a letter — on paper — to TIME magazine, to complain about a grammatical error. I composed a letter, printed it in the computer lab, put it in an envelope, put a stamp on it, walked it to a mailbox… TIME wrote back, by the way, acknowledged the error, and apologized. Today I look back on this episode and cringe with embarrassment. There are far more important things to spend one’s time and energy on than correcting other people’s grammar. (or style, e.g.: Oxford comma, double space after a period, etc. 😉 ). I try to remember what The Duchess said to Alice: “Take care of the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves.”
Q: You’re the “OG” – Original GeoHipster – so I don’t think we really need to ask you that question. Instead, do you have any favorite answers to that question from the last five years?
Brian Timoney: The hippest thing I’ve ever done was switch from pleated khakis to flat-front khakis.
Guido Stein: The only hipster attribute I wish I had that I lack is the hipster gene that makes them all slender and buff.
Alex Leith: I knit maps, then scan them at 10 µm before faxing them to myself.
Q: Tell us the story behind your map (what inspired you to make it, what did you learn while making it, or any other aspects of the map or its creation you would like people to know).
A: I originally saw the Roads to Rome project from moovel Lab and was really inspired by that. I wanted to recreate that with my own tools. I had already done a few similar maps before this, but this one was custom made for the GeoHipster calendar submissions! While making the map I learned a lot more about Python. Basically before venturing into this, my Python skills were almost non-existent, but this was a great way to learn as I had a clear goal in mind. Writing the simple script for the API calls was a small step for mankind, but a big step for me. I wanted to keep the style really simple and clean so I didn’t want to add anything else than the routes and graticules on the final map.
Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.
A: The data is from OpenStreetMap. Routing is done with the great GraphHopper open source routing engine. GPX routes were then stored into a single PostGIS table and visualized with QGIS. Graticules are from Natural Earth.
Maggie Cawley is the Founder of Boomerang Geospatial, a geospatial consulting company specializing in education and dabbling in other map-related endeavors. Current Boomerang efforts include developing curriculum around open source GIS and leading educational and wildlife trips in southern Africa. She volunteers with TeachOSM to integrate geography back into classrooms through open mapping, and supports OpenStreetMap US as a board member. She recently helped start Diadia Craft Collective with a Sān Bushmen community in Botswana and African Connection with musicians in Ghana to support sustainable economic development and cultural collaboration (and also, for fun!).
So Maggie Cawley – where are you in the world currently and what do you do?
Way to start with the tough ones 😉 At the moment I am splitting my time mostly between Denmark and the US. This week I am in Baltimore, in my first leased apartment in 5 years. I can count on one hand the weeks I’ve been here since I moved in, but it is a welcome change after sleeping in 40+ beds over the last year. My front porch is a sanctuary!
What do I do? I am a freelance open source mapping consultant through my company Boomerang Geospatial, which equates to a smattering of jobs. I love training new mappers as much as I love diving into a dataset and surfacing with a beautiful map. I volunteer on the steering committee for the TeachOSM project, and we provide educational support for OpenStreetMap and work to get OpenStreetMap and open mapping into classrooms around the world. One of my goals is to develop a knowledge management system for the project – a giant library of every OSM-related educational nugget ever created. I also volunteer as a board member for OpenStreetMap US, which includes weekly board meetings, State of the Map US planning meetings, and hiring committee meetings as we are looking to hire the organization’s first Executive Director.
When wearing my other hats, I facilitate and lead safaris and educational trips to southern Africa, recently became the representative for Diadia, a small jewelry making collective in the Kalahari, and in a few months I will be playing keyboard in Denmark with my band African Connection.
Are there more people wanting to know about OpenStreetMap?
I like to think there are millions of people just waiting to find out! In my experience, once people hear a little about OpenStreetMap they are curious to know more. In a classroom or training situation that is especially true. If a few complaints surface about other online map sources having incorrect or missing information, you definitely have a starting point.
I see that you taught an OSM workshop in St Lucia with Steven Johnson a few years ago. How difficult is OSM to teach to people unfamiliar with the idea of a crowd sourced map?
I have had the privilege of teaching workshops with Steven Johnson in a few wonderful places, including St Lucia, over the past few years; places that aren’t always adequately mapped, where errors are commonplace, and where people are excited to learn new technology. The initial conveyance of the concept of an editable world map is not always easy, and there is always the, “Isn’t everything already mapped? What about Google?” to get through – but once people sign up and start editing in their neighborhood, the comprehension begins. I find it important to take the process & understanding outside, and workshops incorporate a field mapping exercise whenever possible. Bringing new mappers outside to map using a GPS unit, Field Papers, Mapillary, OSMAnd, Maps.Me or other mobile mapping tools brings geography into a 1:1 scale, and creates a concrete relationship to what is on the ground and what is on The Map. After this portion of the workshop, mapping in the classroom is brought to a new level and the understanding deepens.
We’ve run into each other at FOSS4GNA Conferences through the years – in 2016 you did a presentation on some work you did in Africa. How did you get from Baltimore to staring at Elephants in Africa?
This is a long story, but I will try to provide the abridged version! Back in 2013, I quit a full time job as an environmental planner to start a business and travel. I was ready for a change. My idea was to travel as long as I could, looking for opportunities to map along the way. The first stop was Sodwana Bay, South Africa where I couchsurfed with a man who takes people on overland trips in southern Africa in his Land Rover through his company Winterdodger Expeditions. When I arrived, he was about to do 3 months through 23 national parks and at least 6 countries. He had an extra tent and room in the Landy, so I jumped in. Two months into that trip, we stopped in western Botswana, at a place in the Kalahari Desert called Dqae Qare – a game reserve run by the San Bushmen. I saw they did not have an accurate map of the reserve, and offered my services in exchange for a few cold Windhoek lagers and a few nights in a real bed. Over the next week, our team of three travelers navigated the entire farm (more than 150 km) and mapped every road, pan, campsite, water tap, view point and amenity we could find – and I realized just how special a place we had found. I was hooked. The map now lives on their reception wall.
Photo: January 2018, in front of the map in Dqae with GWU professors Joseph Dymond and Richard Hinton.
After that trip, I continued to travel on my own, but my mind continued to return to southern Africa. Fast forward to early 2015 when I received a message from a friend in South Africa who needed someone with mapping knowledge, equipment, and teaching experience to lead a group of students from a French University in a conservation project to support Lake Sibaya – South Africa’s largest freshwater lake. Fortunately, I was teaching in Mauritius at the time, and the trip to SA was not too far. After that month mapping wildlife and teaching in Sibaya, I partnered with his company Winterdodger to do more trips in the region. Save Sibaya is now an ongoing project, and visitors continually add to the wildlife census database.
Photo: Lake Sibaya, 2015 – a drone demo for the French students to collect imagery of the changing lake.
Most recently, I led my first study abroad group from George Washington University on a trip to Botswana through Boomerang. We returned to Dqae Qare, and even spent some time contributing to OpenStreetMap in the local San village where we were volunteering. As far as elephants, I don’t think I will ever tire of staring, and can’t wait to share that experience with the next car full of interested people! GeoHipster safari anyone?
Photos: The GWU students on a walking safari in the Okavango Delta, Botswana.
So you’re out mapping in a game preserve – how does that work? On foot? What were your tools?
Roads are mostly done by car (usually a Land Rover) with a handheld or car GPS. I have also hooked a Garmin watch to the dashboard and just let it do its thing. For smaller paths and points of interest, I use a solid pair of boots and a basic Garmin GPS unit. In some cases an aerial view is nice to have so I’ll use a drone. At a national park in Malawi we were trying to spot some klipspringer, so I flew a Phantom drone – it was the first version and I just hooked my watch to the base for a GPS backup for the path. In Botswana we had some students helping to do mammal tracking with a specific interest in cheetah. We went out with two Bushmen tracking guides and marked the different footprints and skat we could find, again with basic GPS. I know there are more fancy tools out there, but all of these projects have been done on a shoestring budget so we keep it simple.
What do you do with the data? Maps? Does it live on a computer somewhere?
Mostly map it. In Botswana, the cheetah data was given to the managing trust, or made into maps for them. The data that doesn’t immediately become a map lives on one of my portable hard drives just waiting for the chance to make its mapping debut.
Was there a fear of becoming lunch?
There is always that sense of ‘what the hell am I doing out here?’ But, it’s exciting. And beautiful. In Malawi, that national park was known for having some aggressive elephant herds that you do not want to face on foot. We had the opportunity to scramble around on one of the only rock outcrops looking for signs of these tiny antelope, with a view of an incredible, vast landscape below – those moments make it all worth it. And you can stare at the elephant from afar!
In Botswana we knew there were no lions or elephants, but the snakes and hyenas in the Kalahari are enough to keep me on my toes. Ostrich can also pack a punch as well, especially if you unknowingly wander towards one of their nests. Tread lightly!
Photo: The cheetah tracking group in Dqae Qare Game Reserve.
How hard is it leading a group of college students who haven’t been in that environment before?
It can be challenging at times, and very worrying at others. But seeing anyone lay eyes upon the wildlife for the first time makes it all worthwhile. Unless it’s a bull elephant 4 meters away and they all scream “AN ELEPHANT!” and gesticulate wildly, not noticing the elephants accelerated advance… then, all bets are off! Mostly though, students are respectful of the people and animals we meet, and just want to know more. On my last trip I also had the privilege of traveling with two wonderful GWU professors that were a great help. Many are also very afraid of becoming lunch!
I want to break new ground on this interview – Jewelry making collective in the Kalahari? We’ve never talked about jewelry on any GeoHipster interview.
Hard to believe there’s never been any geo-jewelry talk! I am honored to be the first. In January when I was in Botswana with the GW students, a local village artisan taught a workshop on how to make beads out of ostrich egg shells. I had seen the jewelry many times during visits to the area – at lodges, at the airport, etc – and came to find out that sales by a larger organization were not helping the local village artisans. After a week in the village, the director of the village trust asked me if I would help to sell the jewelry. The San are a very marginalized population, and there are very few opportunities for employment in the area. Making sure the artisans knew I had no previous experience in the field, I agreed – but only if they would organize into a collective so that I could just be the sales rep. In March, a friend delivered a package containing 20lbs of ostrich egg jewelry to Denmark, and in April the Diadia Craft Collective was formed. Right now it is seven women from different families within the village. It is a new endeavor for me, and it’s a bit more complicated than scrambling up that rock outcropping looking for klipspringer – but I’m so excited to give it a try. I have designed a website, and I will have my first market table this weekend in Baltimore. Hopefully by my next trip to Botswana I’ll be needing to pick up a second package of inventory. It would be wonderful to create a profitable livelihood in a village that would sustain the families and also the ancient bead making tradition.
Do you feel like a geohipster?
Ha. I tried that role once. The tire of my rented foldable bike got caught in a train track on my way to a FOSS4G PDX event a few years ago, and I showed up with torn pants and a bloody knee. Hipster move? I think not. 🙂 But if a geohipster lives “on the outskirts of mainstream GIS”? Yeah, I probably fit that description.
OK – before I do the last question – Band?
I blame this one on fate. And again, I’ll try to keep it short! Two years ago I was taking a group of students with Winterdodger through Botswana. Along the way I met a Danish musician with whom I shared some of my wildlife photographs. He immediately invited me to join his band on tour in Ghana a month later as their tour photographer. It took some juggling and a leap of faith, but one month later I was in Ghana, in a van with 8 Danish & Ghanaian musicians. Half way through the tour, things went south with the lead Ghanaian musician. Instead of breaking up, the remaining musicians came together to make some new music. I picked up a cowbell and joined in the fun. By the end of the trip, we recorded two songs, wrote a few more, and the band African Connection was formed. I love the cowbell, but I now play keyboard for the band (with an occasional cowbell interlude), and still handle most of the photography and press. Our first album, Queens & Kings, was recorded last year in Denmark and released in March. We will go on our first tour this October in Denmark and Germany, and hopefully return to Ghana with the music in early 2019. It is a challenge working from 3 continents, but it makes it that much more special when we can all get together. I feel really lucky to be a part of the project and have the opportunity to try something completely different. We are on Spotify if you’d like to check us out!
Photo: Music For All festival performance in Cape Coast, Ghana – January 2017.
The last question is yours. This is your chance to yell at the world and tell it something it needs to know.
You won’t know unless you go! When I quit my job to freelance and travel, I thought I knew where it would take me. I was way off. Frustrated at first, I then realized that I had leapt into a raging river, and the only way to stay afloat was to trust it, even if I kept hitting sharp rocks along the way. It was hard to ignore a society that wanted to bully me into the things I was ‘supposed’ to be doing – confidence can start to waiver when you have no work or are spewing your guts & belly crawling across a salt pan in the middle of the night – but what else can we do but keep going? I often have to remind myself to just show up. Some days it is difficult to get up in the morning, but if you are already in the river, sometimes all you really need to do is hold your head up and have a little faith. And I must add – I am grateful for the amazing and supportive people I’ve met in the FOSS4G and OpenStreetMap communities. We help keep each other afloat, and that is a beautiful thing. I hope we can maintain that spirit – welcome a new person into the geo community or talk to someone you don’t know at the next meet up – collaboration and support are key, especially now.