Tag Archives: hipster

Will Skora: “I scraped an electronic list of pantries and set up a website”

Will Skora
Will Skora

Will Skora (Twitter, blog) likes to make and read maps and do geospatial analysis to help others understand the world. During the day, he manages food pantries for a Cleveland non-profit; he’s a member of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team; co-organizes Cleveland’s Maptime chapter Open Geo Cleveland, and Cleveland’s Code For America Brigade, Open Cleveland.

Will was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.

Q: On a scale of Clojure to Leaflet how hipster are you?

A:  I’ve used Esri products for about 10 minutes of my life.

Q: How (and why) did you get into GIS?

A: I was a recent college grad, still uncertain with my career direction, and looking for a map of Cleveland’s neighborhoods to hang on my bedroom wall. I couldn’t find one, so I decided to make my own. Growing up in Cleveland (the actual city, not a suburb), I’ve always been fascinated with cities. I never had taken any geography or GIS classes, so I wasn’t sure where to start. In my free time, I found OpenStreetMap, began editing my neighborhood, and used Osmarender to make my first map. Soon after, I found Tilemill, became addicted to editing OpenStreetMap and making web maps in Tilemill. I’ve participated remotely and in the field with the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team. I’ve fallen in love with maps, geography, and facilitating the use and creation of open data to help people understand things in ways they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to.

Q: You work as food pantry manager in Cleveland, Ohio. Tell us about your job, and how GIS helps you and the food pantry clients.

A: I directly oversee a pantry and am a liaison at 3 others. I spend my time picking up and coordinating food purchases and donations, managing volunteers, answering policy questions and technical support from volunteers; anything that needs to be done so that the 400+ households who need food receive it with dignity. Unfortunately, geo (GIS) is only 5% of my job, although I would love to spend more time on it. I geocode to find out locations of our clients, I do some routing, and I work on the Marillac Hot Meal/Pantry Finder.

Q: I found out about your Marillac project (presumably named after Saint Louise de Marillac) from your blog. This is very unique. How did it start? Was it your initiative?

A: A couple times a week people call me as a pantry manager and ask where they can get food that day. Or clients will ask where else they could go to receive food when they are at the pantry. There was a paper list of locations sorted by zip code that pantries used to skim through and try to find places that would sound close to the client. This process was slow, not always efficient, paper lists would become outdated, and some clients don’t know their zip codes. There had to be a better way than this.

I scraped an electronic list of pantries and hot meals from the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, geocoded them, and using bootleaf, set up a website. Now you can just put in a person’s address, the map will zoom in to the person’s location, and help the user visually see the closest places for clients.

I worked on it quietly on my own initiative until I had a working prototype to show its value. The reaction from my volunteers was mostly positive. They have a wide range of technical literacy and comfortability, so there’s a few who continue to use the paper list. The Food Bank, they’re excited about it. It’s an upgrade from the paper list for them, and they’ll eventually integrate it into their website for other pantries to use. My boss was also impressed.

Q: Open source: Why?

A: I was likely sick of Windows and its lack of customization, and started using Mandrake in high school.

Coming from an outside background, the innovation that I saw happening in the geospatial/GIS communities was from companies and individuals that embraced open-source software (Mapbox and Leaflet; CartoDB) and crowd-sourced/liberally licensed geo data (OpenStreetMap). They enabled me to do things like the neighborhood map that I’m not sure I could have done with closed-source software and proprietary geo data.

Open-source gives people the ability (at least to those who can program) to customize software for their needs. I wouldn’t be where I am right now if I could not have accessed free (as in money) open-source tools when I first started. I would have likely given up (making that map) after a few weeks of trying to run a pirated ArcGIS in Wine. I contribute back by writing tutorials and documentation, some code examples, answering questions on IRC and stackexchange.

Q: Few know that you penned the @geohipster Twitter “bio”, and that you originally registered the account and later let us use it (THANK YOU!!!). You proudly identify yourself as a geohipster. Tell us what the term means to you.

A: A geohipster has a strong sense of curiosity. You’re always very open to trying new software, technologies, ideas, opportunities, and techniques to accomplish your work, and not being afraid to go outside of your comfort zone to do so. You love to learn. I’ve seen these qualities in a lot of fellow interviewees.

Q: Not until I got involved with GeoHipster did I realize (to my surprise) that the word “hipster” — a benign label in my mind — rubs many people the wrong way. Why do you think that is? Do you think Einstein was a hipster? Edison? Tesla?

A: People referred to as hipsters — whether rooted in myth, reality, or both — have been described as judgmental to those who have less dedication, curiosity, or the circumstances (access to resources, time, money) to learn as much about certain interests (particularly music and film) as they do. They also have the reputation of being snobbish to those who don’t already have that knowledge, and those who don’t become aware of something until it becomes widely adopted or increases in popularity.

I’m relieved and happy that the geo community doesn’t fit that stereotype: Maptime intentionally aims to be a very welcoming environment for learning about maps. In the past couple years open-source carto/gis/geospatial tools have become more accessible to users through improved documentation.

With my definition — curious, open to trying new things to accomplish their dreams — all three of them were hipsters.

Q: Any parting words for the GeoHipster readers?

A: I want to thank everyone in the community along the way who has helped me and others learn — through sharing their knowledge, writing tutorials and documentation, given encouragement, and being welcoming. I attended my first FOSS4G-NA recently. Although I was atypically timid there, I really enjoyed it.

Lyzi Diamond: “Make things. Put them on the internet.”

Lyzi_DiamondLyzi Diamond is a 2014 Code for America Fellow with the city of Lexington, KY. She has spent much of her career in government GIS, but is now tinkering in the land of open source geospatial technologies. She spends her free time organizing geo meetups, writing tutorials, making silly web maps, riding bikes, and playing handbells. She lives in Oakland, California.

Lyzi was interviewed for Geohipster by Atanas Entchev.

Q: How old are you?

A: Twenty-four, although I’ll be turning twenty-five in April. April Fools’ Day, actually. So I might just be messing with you.

Q: How did you get into maps/GIS?

A: I kind of fell backwards into GIS in college through my original degree program, and I loved it so much that I added a geography major and stayed for another year. While in school, I worked at the University of Oregon InfoGraphics Lab as a Student GIS Technician and interned with the GIS group at the City of Eugene Planning and Development Department.

Not too long after, I got a GIS Technician job at the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries in Portland. This is when I started pursuing extracurricular activities in the geospatial tech world, through attending my friend Michelle’s Women’s Python Workshop and attending the 2012 State of the Map conference. I became lonely without other folks to hack on map stuff with me, which is how MaptimePDX came to be.

Q: Your website runs on GitHub Pages and uses Jekyll. This is some serious geek cred. Do you consider yourself a mapper, a coder, a geek, or something else? Do such classifications even make sense?

A: Why should we limit ourselves with a one-word definition? We all do so many things! I would say I’m a map geek, but I think that is just because I have a hefty interest in maps. I’m also a college football geek and a government geek. We’re all geeks about something! But as far as “mapper” or “coder” are concerned, not so much. I’m just a lady who enjoys doing a bunch of different things.

Impostor syndrome is a real thing in the tech community. There are a lot of people in tech who have learned and are learning through a variety of online resources strung together in their free time. There’s no graduation, no certification, no person affirming that you’ve achieved a certain status. I know many developers who would never call themselves a developer. I don’t even consider myself to be a developer. But the truth is, if you write any code, you are a developer. We have so much anxiety around these terms, but in truth, they don’t mean anything. Doing things is the most important part. Everything else is secondary.

As far as the Jekyll/GitHub Pages thing, I started reading about Jekyll one day and it seemed pretty cool, so I tried it. The documentation isn’t great; it was kind of hard to pick up. But like anything else, if you chip away at it enough, it works out pretty well. And I get to have complete control over my site, which is a nice added bonus.

Q: I know (of) you from Twitter, where your blog posts and presentations on open source tools get a lot of traction. Your posts are very well written, and you manage to bring clarity to complex concepts. (Your blog post about GitHub prompted me to create a GitHub account.) Have you considered a career in education?

A: Aw, thanks. And yes, I have been toying with the education idea for a long time. I have some thoughts on tech education, and my friends know I can get really ranty about this stuff, so I’ll try to keep it short.

Basically, effective education (at least in tech with adults who want to learn) is about a combination of accessibility and empowerment. The problem with many resources out there is that they’re written by folks who are very well versed in their field. It is great to have knowledgeable people passing that knowledge forward, but most of them haven’t been beginners in a long time. This can make it harder to remember what it was like before they knew anything about the field, which means they don’t know how to write in a way that beginners will understand.

This is important. If you’re a beginner, and you’re looking at a tool that is marketed to you, and there’s a term in the first sentence that you’ve never heard before and don’t understand, you’re not very likely to continue. You’re going to give up. The only environment in which we can get people excited about learning is one where we meet them where they’re at, provide resources that they can understand, and do as much as we can to make them feel good about where they are in the process.

Q: You are a Code for America Fellow, which is awesome. What are you working on there? What are you getting out of it?

A: I’m a fellow this year with the city of Lexington, KY, where I’m living until the end of February (after which point we’ll head back to the Bay Area). There are 30 fellows, with teams of three working in ten different local governments (mostly cities, but one state and one territory), and our goal is to work with the local government and citizens to identify some challenges the city is facing and work to implement new solutions using technology. We are currently in the research phase of the project, actually living in Lexington, having meetings with government officials and journalists and neighborhood associations and really anyone who wants to talk to us. We want to learn as much as we can about Lexington in order to build something that’s actually going to be useful, and then we will compile our research and start building when we get back to SF in March.

Q: There is a certain quirkiness to open source geo geeks. You play handbells, which is definitely quirky. Do you think geo/open source begets quirkiness, or vice versa?

A: Geographic pursuits on their own require the ability to simultaneously exercise the highly technical and highly creative parts of your brain. Open source only compounds this, because there are so many different people working on a project that are thinking about it in so many different ways. You have to be able to work creatively inside the confines of the rules, which can be difficult. There are not a ton of activities in the world that fit this mold, but handbells are certainly one of them.

For those who don’t know, handbells are typically rung in a choir of 10-15 individuals who each are responsible for somewhere between two and four notes of a five-octave set. Unlike other types of ensembles, where everyone is playing a different instrument and has the full chromatic scale at their disposal, handbells require you to work as a team to play a piece without any notes missing. In addition to just playing the right notes at the right time, there are a ton of different sounds you can get from a bell depending on how you move it. (This piece is a really nice example of all the different things you can do with a bell.)

There are lots of complications and moving parts. You have to adapt to what other people are doing. You have to remember the physics of what you’re doing and the constraints you have, while thinking creatively about how to make it work. Maps are just like that. And I think the people who are really great in this field are involved in other “quirky” activities that exercise those same mental processes.

Q: We define hipsters as people who think outside the box and often shun the mainstream (see visitor poll with 1106 responses). Would you consider yourself a hipster? How do you feel about the term hipster?

A: If I’m going to be really real, I don’t think I’m particularly hip. To be honest, I haven’t heard the word “hipster” used in a really long time, except to make fun of something. I’m not sure I know what it means, but if we’re going with the poll results: the fact that we are interested in the nuances and technical elements of maps and geography makes us inherent outside-the-box thinkers inherently. Most people don’t care about this stuff. They don’t consider it. When you tell someone that a Mercator map isn’t an “accurate” world map, and indeed there’s no such thing as an accurate map, they’re most likely surprised, but ultimately don’t care very much. The fact that we care so much about the way maps are constructed and the science behind them puts us outside the mainstream, I guess. I don’t know if that really answered the question.

Q: Is there a mainstream of geospatial data handling/representation? Who/what is part of it?

A: I don’t know about a “mainstream” per se, but I definitely divide the geo world into two camps in my head: the folks who came to it through a traditional geography/GIS curriculum, probably through a university or an Esri training program through work, and those who came to it through the developer/programming world. The ways these two groups think about geospatial technology are very different. The first group are largely desktop mappers, or at least learned about geospatial using the term “GIS,” and worked inside a desktop application doing spatial analysis and cartography. They tend to use proprietary software (ArcGIS or MapInfo, typically). The second group are largely web mappers and developers, don’t really use the term “GIS” very often, and work on the web trying to display information adequately. There are some who are doing so through the Esri ecosystem, but more often than not they’re using Google products or open-source products.

These two groups tend to… argue. A lot. About a lot of things. And I think it can be damaging to beginners, because they aren’t coming to geo from anywhere. They just want to learn. And walking into a fight about what should be taught when can be strange and alienating to people who are new to the field. They don’t know what’s going on, they don’t know where to start, and it sucks.

So why are these groups arguing? What can we do about it? I think the fact that the trajectory of learning is so different underscores a lot of the issue. A nice example of this is the value of teaching about projections. In desktop GIS, projections are very important. You learn them first because in the analysis and static map visualization world, a projection will make or break your project. In the web mapping world, everything is in the Pseudo (Web) Mercator projection (unless you’re using D3). Any projection issues that come up have to do with massaging projected data to get it back to an unprojected state, which you don’t really need to know how to do when you’re first learning. Knowledge of projections can come later when you’re learning through the web mapping lens.

Both routes are valuable. Both skills are valuable. The developer side is certainly newer, but the ubiquity of mapping applications and the fact that most people think of geography in terms of Google Maps leads me to believe that the “mainstream” sits in that camp. I think most people would disagree with me there. But it doesn’t matter, because the landscape of geospatial technology needs both sides, regardless of which one is in the “mainstream.”

Q: You call yourself an “an ambitious perfectionist”. According to David Foster Wallace, “Perfectionism is very dangerous because if your fidelity to perfectionism is too high you never do anything.” How do you find the right balance between fidelity to perfectionism and getting stuff done?

A: Short answer: I haven’t yet. When I write something and put it on the internet, it’s because for some reason I got a spurt of focus and banged it out without taking any breaks. That or I’m working under the gun. It really is a massive struggle. I think for those who are like me, who hold themselves to impossibly high standards and get frustrated when they don’t meet them, it can be really hard to step back and recognize the fact that they’re actually doing something worthwhile.

But therein lies the answer. The truth is, there aren’t a lot of people out there who are taking the time to do things they care about. I tend to remind myself of this when I’m dissatisfied with something I’ve done, and that helps me just put it out there. The nice thing about the internet, too, is that if I messed something up or it’s not to my liking, I can always go back and change it. 🙂

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share with the Geohipster readers?

A: I get a lot of emails from folks who just graduated from school with a GIS degree or certificate and are having trouble getting jobs. My advice is always the same, and I’d like to write it here as well:

1. Make things.

2. Put those things on the internet.

3. Make more things.

4. Write about those things and how you made them.

5. Put that on the internet.

6. Write about something you want to make.

7. Put that on the internet.

8. Make another thing.

9. Put it on the internet.

… I think you can see where this is going. Put your stuff out there! Even if it’s not groundbreaking, even if you don’t even think it’s that cool, even if you messed up and it doesn’t work correctly. Write about that. Write about what was hard for you and what you learned. Get yourself out there. That’s the #1 way to make a name for yourself.

And just to prove I practice what I preach, here is a Leaflet map of places to buy cupcakes in Portland. It is not that cool. But it is a web map that I made, and I am proud of it. Put stuff on the internet! I promise it’ll yield at least some positive result, even if that result is simply you feeling accomplished.

Also, one of the links above goes to a Youtube video of my handbell choir performing in Portland this past December. See if you can pick me out. 😉

Interview with Tom MacWright: “If you want to make anything new, you have to ignore some of the rules”

Tom MacWrightTom MacWright is a guitarist in Teen Mom and keyboardist at Mapbox.

Tom was interviewed for Geohipster by Atanas Entchev.

Q: How did you get into maps/GIS?

A long time ago I made the Swem Signal, which basically made my college’s library a little more navigable. Then I started at Development Seed and helped make a lot of data-driven websites, until the maps on the websites sort of took over and we entered into this three-year vision quest that is Mapbox.

I like making stuff. I wasn’t into maps as a kid and I get lost all the time. But geo is fun because it’s connected to everything else, just like everything else.

Q: What does your typical day at MapBox look like?

Most of the time I wear my Programmer Hat, which means that my day might have a meeting or two, but it’s mostly hanging out in our garage/office with a full-screen text editor and headphones on, listening to, currently, Darwin Deez. But it can be the opposite of that too – we’re almost at fifty people but there aren’t real job descriptions yet, so I also might handle helping people on support or writing for the blog. I’m playing it cool but it’s actually the most incredible job in the world.

Q: According to your Twitter bio you are first a guitarist and then a keyboardist (coder). I am jealous (I put down the guitar many years ago). How do you reconcile the two? Or do they complement each other?

There’s definitely something to the combination, since it’s so common in this field. Just at Mapbox, Jeff & Ian did sound engineering, Ryan & Vladimir are in bands (Collapser & Obiymy Doschu), and Tristen went to school for jazz performance. Just the other week, we played with these cool folks The Can’t Tells and one of them is also a coder who works for a Brooklyn food startup. It might be something about the sort of creativity required for coding, but also: demographics.

It isn’t too hard to reconcile the two, as long as your band doesn’t make the big time – work from 9 to 7, band practice from 7 to 9:30, shows a few times a month. There isn’t too much technology involved in the kind of music we make, so besides making our website, there’s isn’t too much “synergy.” I mean, we released an actual vinyl record. I don’t even have a record player.

I have been able to slip my music into a few Mapbox videos, though.

Q: We define hipsters as people who think outside the box and often shun the mainstream (see visitor poll with 1106 responses). Would you consider yourself a hipster? How do you feel about the term hipster?

It’s probably better to address ‘hipster’ and ‘geohipster’ separately:

Hipster’s meaning expired in 2009. Most of style’s emblems have smeared into the mainstream of upper-middle-class young white existence. Everyone wears nerd glasses. Non-skinny jeans are a distant memory. Indie folk never really made it, but it emerged from chemical waste with a four-on-the-floor beat and overwrought costumes and is really a hit now.

Or at least I don’t hear it much anymore: the last time was a hackathon where I brought up the idea of a PBR price index and it sparked an hour-long rant about the ‘hipster invasion’ so I zoned out and made some things instead of talking.

As far as thinking outside the box: I don’t think the world, or most work, encourages creativity. It’s a total privilege to be at a place where you can try new things and have fun. When you have that privilege, it’s your responsibility to use it.

Shunning the mainstream? In the narrow world of geo, absolutely: the practice of GIS, only 50 years young, has more norm-enforcement, standards, critiques, best practices and unwritten rules than we could ever need. If you want to make anything new, you have to ignore some of the rules.

Q: What do you think about some Geohipster readers’ concerns that “geohipsterism” (and hipsterism in general) implies exclusivity and elitism and engenders division?

I agree with David Foster Wallace that attitudes generate words much more than words generate attitudes.

You don’t have to read between the lines to see exclusivity, elitism, and division. But a lot of it is just misunderstanding.

Take the Spherical Mercator projection for example: it introduces wild levels of distortion. It isn’t good-looking at a worldwide level. The reason why it’s still so popular in software is technical. It’s not rocket science, but it is hard to explain without some coding background and knowledge of caches and tiles and layered maps. Since few traditional cartographers understand that stuff, they criticize the decision as if it were arbitrary: why would anyone ignore their centuries of effort and whiff it so bad?

Likewise, through the eyes of someone who likes simplicity and writes code, the ‘datum’ system of geographers seems absurd. Why would we actively resist a global standard system? It’s like the world of text encodings before UTF8, except nobody sees it as a problem. But if you look deeper, there’s something to it – datums are a real attempt to be future-proof in a world of continental plates. WGS84 doesn’t just ‘fix’ that problem, and there are more cultural facets than first appear. What about people who know UTM by heart?

That is to say, with the embrace of tech in geo, the landscape changed. Some people know tech, some people know geo, some know a bit of each. Everyone has a lot to learn, it’s better to be helpful than judgmental.

Q: Is there a mainstream of geospatial data handling/representation? Who/what is part of it?

The majority of geospatial data is Microsoft Excel 97 spreadsheets with lists of street addresses slated for junk mail delivery.

No, but seriously, people who consider themselves to be GIS people definitely trend more towards defense, environment, and government, and they all use software that comes on a DVD in shrink wrap.

Q: Will MapBox ever enter the mainstream? Will you be happy or sad if that happens? Would that be like Arcade Fire winning a Grammy?

What we’re making is the infrastructure that shiny and famous things will be built upon. So yeah, we’ll win a Grammy, but it’ll be for best Producer.

Q: What is new with Teen Mom? Did you find a new bassist yet?

We’re still trying to fill the spot, so I’m playing bass for the interim. We’re recording a new single this month, and then working on our first LP as a follow-up to Gilly. We’re also doing a solo album each, just to keep thing interesting.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share with the Geohipster readers?

This quote:

when you don’t create things, you become defined by your tastes rather than ability. your tastes only narrow & exclude people. so create.

_why the lucky stiff