Nate Smith is technical project manager for the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team. He leads out the OpenAerialMap project and dives into all things technical across HOT’s operations. Originally from Nebraska, he is now based in Lisbon, Portugal, slowly learning Portuguese and attempting to learn to surf.
Q: We met at State of the Map Asia in Manila! What was it that brought you to the conference?
A: I came to State of the Map Asia through my role in two projects with the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team: OpenAerialMap and a new project called Healthsites. I had the chance to give short presentations about the projects, plus I wanted to connect with the OpenStreetMap community in Asia about the projects to get feedback and input on the direction of the projects.
Q: Tell us about the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) and how you got involved.
A: I’ve been involved in HOT in one way or another since 2011. At the time I had just joined Development Seed in Washington DC. I began to get involved in any way I could with HOT, most of it started with trainings about Mapbox tools or collaborating on projects. Most of it initially revolved around helping identify data that could be helpful in an activation or joining in tracing. Over the years, I gradually got more involved in working groups which is the best place to get involved beyond contributing time to mapping. I’ve since joined HOT as a technical project manager to help build and manage projects around some of our core tools like OpenAerialMap or OSM Analytics.
Q: For those who may not be familiar with HOT, “activation” is kind of like bringing people together to participate in disaster mapping or a similarly geographically-focused humanitarian mapping effort, did I get that right?
A: Right, a HOT activation in the traditional sense is exactly that. It is an official declaration that the community is coming together to aggressively map an area for a disaster response. The Activation Working Group is one of several working groups where anyone can get involved, and they define the protocols, monitor situations, and are in contact with many OSM communities and humanitarian partners around the world.
Disaster mapping is a core part of the work HOT does. Not everything but still a big part. If you’re interested in helping think about activation protocols or want to help organize during an activation, come join and volunteer your time to support the work.
Q: What are some interesting projects you’re working on?
A: I’ve been actively working on two interesting projects: OpenAerialMap, and for lack of a better name at the moment, the Field Campaigner app. OpenAerialMap launched two years ago and we’ve been slowly rolling out new features and working with partners on integrating new data since. What’s interesting is the work we’re doing this summer — we’re rolling out user accounts, provider pages, and better data management tools. This is exciting as it lowers the barrier to start collecting imagery and contributing to the commons.
The second project is our new Field Campaigner app. It has a generic name at the moment but it’s part of a move for us to have better tools to manage data collection in the field. A majority of the work the global HOT community does is remote mapping. While this is super critical work and extremely helpful for people on the ground, there is a gap in how work is organized on the ground. This work looks to help improve the way data collection is organized and coordinated on the ground — we want to see field mapping in OpenStreetMap to be distributed and organized well. This work also crosses over some similar work that is happening across the board in this area — Mapbox is working on analyzing changesets for vandalism and a team from Development Seed and Digital Democracy through a World Bank project are working on an improved mobile OSM data collection app.
Q: How easy/hard is it to build these tools? Once they’re out in the world, what are some ways that people find and learn how to use them?
A: It’s not easy building tools to meet a lot of needs. A core thing for success many times is dogfooding your own work. We’re building tools that serve a wider audience but at the core we’re testing and helping spread the word about the tool because we use it.
But just because it’s not easy doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be trying. The more we experiment building tools to do better and faster mapping, whether it is remote or in the field, the more information we will have to improve and address the challenges many communities face.
Q: It looks like your job is fairly technical, but also involves outreach. Is there a particular aspect of your work that you enjoy the most?
A: I think the mix of technical and outreach is what I love most. Spending part of my day diving into some code while the other part talking or strategizing with organizations is what I’ve had the chance to do over the last six years through working with Development Seed and now HOT. I enjoy trying to be that translation person — connecting tools or ways of using data to solve real-world problems. I think one of the things I enjoy the most is the chance to help build products or use data with real world impact. Being able to support MSF staff responding to an Ebola outbreak at the same time working with world-class designers and developers is pretty great.
Q: Looking at your Twitter feed, you seem to travel a lot. What’s your favorite / least favorite thing about traveling? Favorite place you’ve been? Any pro travel tips?
A: I traveled a bit while living in DC but now that I’m living in Lisbon, Portugal I’ve had the chance to do some more personal travel throughout Europe which has been great. This past year I’ve had a chance to travel through Asia a bit more through HOT-related projects. My favorite part of traveling is the chance to meet people and experience new cultures or places. There are some incredible geo and OSM communities around the world and it’s been awesome to meet and work with many of them. Least favorite — awkwardly long layovers – you can’t get out.
I think my favorite spots have been Bangkok and Jakarta. I find that I enjoy big cities that have great food options. As for tips, I would say pack light and do laundry when you’re traveling, and always make time for good local food.
Q: Would you consider yourself a geohipster? If so, why, and if not, why not?
A: Heh, that is a great question. I think I’ve become less geohipster moving to Portugal. I drink light European beer, I don’t bike because there are too many hills, and drink too much Nespresso. Although I’m still a Mapbox-junky, work at a cowork in my neighborhood, and love open source, so maybe I still lean geohipster. 🙂
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our global readership?
A: Get out and visit a new place in the world if you can. And while you’re at it, reach out to the OSM communities there and meet them in person. You’ll meet some incredible and passionate people.
Guido Stein is a Geospatial Data Alchemist who has been working for Applied Geographics for the last 10 years. He is also the founder of AvidGeo, a Boston area meetup group that hosts events for the geospatially inclined, and he is the Co-Chair of FOSS4G Boston 2017. Having lived in Somerville, MA for over a decade, he has truly absorbed some hipster characteristics including growing a beard “ironically” and riding to work on a bike with his little dog Beau.
Q: You are the Conference Co-Chair for the 2017 FOSS4G conference in Boston. Isn’t that like a lot of work? Why do you do it?
A: It is a lot of work. I have been working and organizing community events in the Boston area for over a decade. I do this work because I want to attend these events and the only way these events happen is if someone is willing to do the work. I am not afraid to be that someone. I really enjoy being involved in community work. I like to learn about what cool things everyone else is up to. I also like sharing in the victories and commiserating around failures specific to our community. If these events didn’t exist, who would share a beer with me over the limitations of using shapefiles?
Q: Tell us about the conference. How did you get involved?
A: I think that it was my boss, Michael Terner, who first approached me about it. I have been a big fan of the Open Source Geospatial (OSGeo) community for a long time. Sadly, other than participating as a user, I did not have much interaction with the community. Michael had participated in a few FOSS4G conferences and was ready to get more involved. He approached me to put together a bid knowing that I would jump at the chance to build a stronger tie between OSGeo and Boston.
The reason I want to see FOSS4G in Boston is that I think that there are many groups locally that would benefit from exposure to the OSGeo community and from getting a chance to show off what they are up to. I have been trying to unite people in the Boston area around geospatial for over a decade, and there is such a great and exciting group here doing things in business, government, academia, as well as in the startup tech world.
Q: You and I first met in Boston in 2011 in the offices of Applied Geographics. You are still there, so you must like it. What do you do for AppGeo?
A: I recently celebrated my 10th anniversary at Applied Geographics. When I started I worked on parcel edits, parcel generation using scanned plans and COGO input, utility system development all working with many Esri tools. Since then, I have been really happy to explore many different tools from FME to QGIS to PostGIS for editing, collaborating on, and analyzing data.
My mantra these days is “Spatial, not special”. My work these days focuses on how to use spatial knowledge to solve data problems. I am very happy becoming a more powerful user of all the tools I use, but I feel super powerful when I figure out complex SQL queries to solve problems. I love working on the database solutions.
Q: How did you get into GIS? Why?
A: My father introduced me to GIS in high school. He was a city planner (since retired), and knew that I would really enjoy this use of technology. I have always liked playing and working with computers.
I attended Clark University. Initially I was interested in the psychology department, but found coursework in geography to be very fulfilling and soon started to work with the Clark Labs. I was very fortunate to work closely with the staff and Ron Eastman. They were very supportive of my thirst for knowledge.
Q: Tell us about some of the cool tech you use these days. Describe a cool project that you currently work on.
Cool tech, well… the thing I think is coolest right now is my $10 Raspberry Pi Zero W. It is so exciting to have such a cheap computer with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth built in. It is a powerful tool for building IoT projects and also gives me a chance to improve my Linux chops. I really want to buy a bunch of these and create some simple navigation tools around them.
The last year has had me working on projects using Python, FME, PostGIS, CARTO, SQL Server, Oracle, and many other tools. My co-worker Calvin Metcalf has been trying to get me to switch from Python to Node. I really like the work CARTO has done to make mapping and PostGIS available online, it’s really quite powerful.
Q: Do you like open source for pragmatic or ideological reasons? Explain.
A: Both. I like tools that work and I want tools that I can contribute to. I think libre software is the ideal, but I think there is a lot of useful and good grey area in the open source community that is far superior to proprietary solutions.
Q: You knit, which is amazing. I did try it, but didn’t have the patience. Tell us how you got into knitting, and whether you see parallels between knitting and coding.
A: I started knitting when my wife took it up many years ago now. I really love making something with my hands and I also enjoy spending time with people in knitting circles; it’s like the ticket to enter a reality TV show of some very interesting and creative folks. I highly recommend it to everyone.
There is a wonderful tie between raster-based geospatial and knitting; they are both based on basic data principles. Both have rows and columns. Someday I really want to knit some NIR imagery into a hat.
Q: You ride a bike, which — along with knitting and the beard — puts you in the running for the perfect hipster. Is there a hipster attribute that you wish you had but lack?
A: Wait, there are so many more hipster attributes:
I live in a hipster community
I prefer artisanal chocolate and farm-to-table dining
The only hipster attribute I wish I had that I lack is the hipster gene that makes them all slender and buff. I am now getting ready for a 9K in July and this non-skinny-jean-wearing butt is just not as easy to move around as I would like it to be.
Q: Are you a geohipster? Why / why not?
A: I am a poser. I am a pretender. I am an imposter.
I am not good at defining myself as any particular thing. I love to learn and I love to listen. This makes me less a specific type of person as much as it makes me a person who enjoys being in the presence of others who are specific about who they are.
I have been running a hipster web site for years trying to figure out what being a hipster means and as far as I can tell, no one really knows. Hipster is used as both a positive and negative, so I don’t know if I am or am not.
But let’s do the checklist once more:
Lives in hipster community, check
Rides his bike to work, check
Has a beard, check
Goes to farmers markets, check
Can tell you about local beer, chocolate, and cheese makers, check
Has skinny jeans, nope
Can describe a bespoke projection, nope
Q: On closing, any parting words of wisdom for our global readership?
A: Get out of your silo. Spatial, not special.
Spatial is now a first-class citizen in most databases, so we should use databases and other data tools and not be totally reliant on vendor to solve our spatial needs.
Dave Smith is with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Office of Environmental Information in Washington D.C. Dave has a background of over 25 years of experience in working with geospatial technologies in applications ranging from emergency response and field data collection to modeling, analysis, and web mapping. Dave is also a licensed civil engineer and professional land surveyor, where he also worked on writing code and practical applications of using computers to automate data analysis and design. He is currently working with EPA's Chief Data Scientist Robin Thottungal on building out a big data analytics cluster to improve EPA's analytical capabilities.Outside of the office, Dave has done a lot of volunteer work with various organizations, having been a top contributor to OpenStreetMap, aiding rescue and rebuilding efforts after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, as well as supporting organizations like Red Cross, U.S. State Department, and Team Rubicon in humanitarian and disaster relief mapping. Prior to that, Dave also volunteered his engineering and geospatial knowledge to support Engineers Without Borders on potable water and sanitation infrastructure for communities in Cameroon, Honduras, Rwanda and other communities in need.You can find Dave on Twitter at @DruidSmith and on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/davidgsmith
Q: How did you get into GIS?
A: Maybe I was born to map. As a kid I grew up reading books such as Lord of the Rings and loved Tolkien’s hand-drawn maps. I started emulating his maps, creating my own maps of the locales in the fantasy and sci-fi books that I would read. You could say mapping was ingrained in me even as a pre-teen and then continued to weave its way through my life.
As a kid we lived in Germany for 10 years, and I was into scouting — I participated in both the German Pfadfinderschaft and a U.S. military-based Boy Scout troop in Germany where we would do orienteering, hiking, camping, and other activities with these wonderfully detailed, large-scale German topographic maps. These maps were essentially their version of our USGS topo quads, which had the funny-sounding name of “Messtischblatt”, as they were originally created with an alidade and plane table (“Messtisch” meaning “measuring table”) and compiled into a published map sheet (the “Blatt”).
Those scouting activities introduced me to more robust concepts like map scale and symbology, for example: differing symbols for hardwood versus pine forests, or contours and hachures to represent terrain. I started incorporating some of those concepts into the maps I would create for the fantasy realms I was reading about in my favorite books at the time. I first got into digital mapping while surveying in high school, with my first exposure to what we think of as GIS today being ARC/INFO in college.
Q: You are a licensed land surveyor and professional engineer. Do you feel that the career move to GIS was a step up from engineering and surveying? Why / why not?
A: Wow, picking between careers feels like asking a mom which is her favorite child. On the other hand, did I really ever leave one discipline for the other? In my case, the various disciplines I’ve been involved in seem to have merged and morphed, with various threads from academic and work pursuits becoming interwoven. I’ve tried steering myself toward the Venn diagram of intersecting circles of “things you enjoy” versus “things you are good at” and “things you can make a living at” to find the sweet spot where they intersect. Over time, I’ve found myself in that sweet spot.
When we moved back to the U.S. I was a teenager. One year in high school I managed to get a summer job with a land surveying firm. That job was great: getting to go out into the woods with the crew, recording a bunch of measurements, and bringing that data back into the office, reducing the notes and using the calcs to create maps. Plus, it was better money and less messy than washing dishes, landscaping, painting houses, or other summer jobs I had been doing. So, I was already a “professional mapper” when I was still in high school. It helped with school too, as I was taught about the techniques and how to do the math, which turned me into a trigonometry ninja. And, later on it helped with some of my college expenses too.
When I first started working in surveying, the company was a small mom-and-pop outfit founded in 1959. They were old school, hand-drafting maps and using transits and programmable HP calculators. Since I had taken drafting in high school they let me test my chops at drawing maps. I found myself already taking shape as a young geohipster, occasionally exercising my artistic side with artisanal hand-drawn north arrows and other creative design elements. A bit later we were in a building boom and needed to modernize to keep up. We hired additional field crews and got electronic total stations and data collectors for the field as well as computers, a plotter, and software for the office. That’s how I learned things like AutoCAD, coordinate geometry software, and digital elevation modeling. To support some of the subdivision and land development work, I also learned about stormwater runoff modeling, storm drainage, roadway design, and other civil engineering basics.
I really enjoyed working with the computers, and I taught myself how to do some automation for some of the repetitive tasks, such as LISP programming to support the CAD work, and writing code to help with many of the design calculations. At home I had a TRS-80 computer that I had saved up for and bought when I was 13. Later, in high school, I saved up and built my first homebrew PC-compatible computer from components, and was endlessly hacking around with it.
When it was time to go off to college, I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with myself. I started out in computer science, but became frustrated as the initial coursework seemed like a step backwards when I had already been writing code for several years. As someone interested in such a huge variety of things, whether archaeology, astronomy, or history, I changed majors several times. But I kept working summers and holidays at the surveying firm, and took surveying and civil engineering courses as those seemed a viable and responsible path for my otherwise unfocused youthful exuberance.
But one day I happily stumbled across my university’s Geography department and its GIS program, and I changed majors one final time. Here, the coursework gave me new inspirations, adding new concepts like remote sensing and satellite imagery, human geography, and interesting methodologies for analysis and spatial statistics. One of my favorite professors was Peter Gould, who taught complex statistical methods, analysis of variance, kriging, and other things; no textbook, his class was reinforced via real-world challenges and computer analyses. I recall getting something like a 43% on my first exam. Dejected, I wondered if I would make it through his class. Professor Gould walked over, patted me on the shoulder and said “great job, you got one of the top grades.” I ended up with my degree in Geography — with a specialization in Cartography, Remote Sensing, and GIS. As a student, I also got to work on some interesting projects, like working with the City of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on developing their GIS concept and framework.
The challenge of getting into GIS almost 30 years ago, however, was that GIS jobs were pretty scarce. I continued working in surveying and then various civil engineering firms, including working for some of the top engineering firms in the country. As things progressed, I gained enough experience to sit for the exams to become a Land Surveyor, and then for a Professional Engineer. In that engineering journey I ended up being appointed by Governor Rendell to the Pennsylvania Engineering Board overseeing licensure in the surveying, engineering, and geology fields. I chaired that Board for two years, and was heavily involved with NCEES and other organizations on examinations and other aspects of licensure.
In my engineering pursuits I found that civil engineering and GIS are interwoven. Engineering design depends on maps and data, and I was often called on to help out with urban and regional planning. In the early 1990s I was involved in one of the largest land use analyses east of the Mississippi. It required assembling huge amounts of data across paper maps, disparate files, and databases. This project required a lot of digitization, data optimization and management, data reprojection, and data transformation before we could even get to analysis and mapping. Nowadays the GIS kids just push a button; we old timers had to do it uphill, both ways, in 4 feet of snow – and remind me to tell you about the couple of weeks I spent surveying up on the Canadian border, waist deep in snow. At any rate, I ended up writing a bunch of homebrew GIS code to augment and extend the commercial tools we had. In the engineering world I also did a lot of work with hydrology and modeling, HEC-2 water surface profiles, transportation networks, even 3D modeling and rendering, and the worlds of engineering, GIS and code became more and more blurred over the years.
To this day I still rely on engineering principles, like solving complex technical challenges by deconstructing them into their constituent parts, trying to understand the interconnections and dependencies, and figuring out an architecture — whether hydrologic networks, transportation systems, or IT architectures, there are a lot of engineering principles and techniques for approaching them.
Q: How and why did you end up at the EPA?
A: I like to challenge myself and try new things. So, around 12 years ago, I took a big step and started a consulting at an engineering and GIS firm. Eventually, I teamed up with a guy who was also doing environmental and GIS consulting. As my partner was a disabled veteran, we structured as a Service-Connected Disabled Veteran Owned Small Business (SDVOSB), and we approached some larger government contractors about providing geospatial capabilities as a subcontractor. We quickly ended up working as a niche geospatial consultant with companies like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and CGI Federal on a variety of interesting projects for the military and other agencies. But because both of us were more interested in environmental protection, we put our main focus on EPA. We provided EPA with GIS support for Hurricane Katrina, and worked on many of EPA’s public-facing web mapping capabilities. While the company grew, I started to tire from the challenges of running a small business; the feast and famine cycles, writing endless proposals, and bouncing from customer to customer, when I really wanted to focus most on supporting a mission around using GIS to understand our environment and help protect it.
During the course of our EPA contracting, I learned that an EPA colleague was retiring. He had been managing EPA’s Facility Registry Service, which integrates and conflates geospatial data from many systems for millions of facilities and sites, and which serves as a geospatial underpinning for a lot of what EPA does. I knew the system well, and when the job announcement came out, I applied and got an offer.
Since then, I’ve been innovating with EPA. Here, I work with groups like the Homeland Infrastructure Foundation Level Data Workgroup (HIFLD) to provide new datasets to support emergency response. I cut costs through automation, improve match logic, and develop web services, including a reusable widget for reporting applications. The widget retrieves and prepopulates information, it validates, standardizes, and geocodes locations. It also allows users to fine-tune the location via a web map. It has since been deployed to a half dozen reporting systems, improved data quality at the source, and helped reduce burden significantly (140,000 hours of annual burden in one program).
Q: What do you do for the EPA? What kind of role does GIS play in supporting EPA in its mission?
A: At EPA we recently created a data analytics division, and hired a Chief Data Scientist. I now work for the Chief Data Scientist, Robin Thottungal, pursuing not only geospatial tech but also big data, machine learning, and other types of analytics. Currently I’m building cloud-based infrastructure to support distributed computing using Apache Spark and other technologies. We’re interested in offloading some of our geoprocessing and analysis to the cloud, along with better leveraging external data sources and emergent technologies for analysis. I’m also looking at how we can handle sensor data more robustly, and how to apply remote sensing for a variety of applications such as detection of Harmful Algal Blooms.
EPA’s mission is to protect human health and the environment. That covers broad territory, whether Emergency Support Function 10 and responding to oil or hazardous materials releases after a disaster, remediating a contaminated former industrial site, or assessing water quality. Environment is all about place, and so much of what we do has that spatial component. GIS is a core piece of support infrastructure at EPA, we have great GIS people across the agency. We’ve had a robust GIS workgroup for well over 20 years, and have had a Geospatial Information Officer for over 10 years. Our people are improving how we collect GIS data in the field, conducting advanced modeling and analysis, and expanding the use of mapping across the agency. We also train with the intent of democratizing technology across the agency, making it easier for non-technical users to map and visualize their data.
Q: What kind of technology do you use at work?
But we’re also looking at how to handle streaming data, big data, and distributed computing clusters — so I’ve started to experiment with an Apache Spark cluster on Mesos, along with Elasticsearch and other technologies that can bring us scale. As we look at deploying in the cloud, I’ve been delving into Docker as a means of containerizing, deploying, and managing our infrastructure in a replicable, maintainable, and cloud-agnostic way. We are working in a test environment in Amazon Web Services (AWS) with our eye on production, one of the big pieces being putting together the Authorization to Operate (ATO) documentation for the AWS environment. I also deployed JupyterHub in our test environment in AWS, which allows a user to create notebooks containing executable code (Python, R, Julia and others) along with annotation, embedded graphics, and other capabilities, with an eye toward supporting some of our scientific computing needs for more technical users in a self-service way. Esri recently rolled out their Python API that enables Jupyter-based approaches. Our little team is also digging into machine learning and analysis in the test Jupyter environment.
Q: Tell us about some of the cool projects you are working on.
A: Aside from building out some cool new infrastructure in the cloud, I get to tinker with a pretty wide variety of projects. For example, I recently built a tool to visualize streaming water sensor data, using Open Geospatial Consortium sensor standards. The tool allows users to slice and dice the data temporally; almost immediately we detected a recurrent anomaly in the data that the sensor operator hadn’t previously detected. Additionally, it provides dynamic, interactive ways to look at relationships between different sensor parameters, such as suspended solids, nitrates, and e. coli concentrations. I’d love to be able to set that up so that it can traverse upstream or downstream, pulling in other related sensor data from the stream network, since the devices are now all spatially indexed to the National Hydrology Dataset (NHD). I’ve also been building out tools that provide better insight on environmental impacts affecting tribes and American Indian country, using a combination of spatial queries and other approaches.
Q: You ride a bike and like craft brews — two mandatory geohipster attributes. Do you have any other?
A: For the male geohipsters, I possess an epic beard, however I’ll pass on the waxed handlebar mustache. And for the foodie geohipsters, I’ve brewed my own beers, I make things like pickled daikon, homemade mustard, gochujang chicken and Thai curry, and while I have been known to eat hipster foods like kale and quinoa, you won’t find me washing it down with a can of PBR. And I definitely have hipsterishly eclectic music tastes, ranging from funk to punk, blues to ska, a lot of artists not well known in the mainstream. I do actually own vinyl discs and a turntable, but I confess: most of what I listen to is digital.
But to get serious, I’ve noticed that the real geohipster attribute is to be innovators, makers, creators with broad interests and backgrounds. I came from a creative and resourceful “maker” family. When my parents settled in Pennsylvania, I was a nerdy city kid – born in Massachusetts, spent most of my childhood in Germany, then to El Paso, Texas. As I grew up, I became a country kid on a hundred-acre farm in the wooded Pocono mountains of Pennsylvania. There we raised goats, sheep, chickens, and other animals. We had a huge garden and did a lot of canning. We would hunt and fish, and were pretty self-sufficient. My mom and stepdad make a great team. She is a very talented sculptor and painter, and he is incredible at woodworking. She spins and weaves with their sheep’s wool, and he researches and rebuilds damaged antique spinning wheels using his lathe. My mom, with her undergrad in Chemistry and grad work in Germanic languages does things like reading Old Norse sagas in the original tongue to pick out tidbits on ancient Viking wool dyeing, spinning, and weaving.
So, I grew up in a very resourceful and creative “maker”-oriented environment: I did pen and ink drawing and sculpture; I learned to work on cars, solder electronics, and hang sheet rock; I learned how to build and make things. And that creativity and tenacity to figure out how to make things still influences how I approach many things, even if these days it involves a multidimensional dataset, or a homebrew sensor built with a Raspberry Pi.
Q: Do you consider yourself a geohipster? Why / why not?
A: We grizzled geohipster silverbacks might be tempted to say something hipsterish like “I was geo before geo went mainstream,” but one look at me and you’d probably think more geohippie than geohipster. I don’t possess any colorful skinny jeans (not that I’d fit into skinny jeans), I don’t wear Vans or ironic t-shirts under a blazer. My natural state is more likely to involve hiking boots and a tie-dye. But hipster jokes aside, it’s actually what’s on the inside that makes one a geohipster. It’s about out-of-the box thinking, being creative, passionate and innovative, and weaving together a lot of different knowledge and experience into your work.
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our global readership?
A: For one thing, remember that Venn diagram of things you enjoy / things you are good at / things you can get paid for. I’ve found that many of the most satisfied, creative and talented folks I’ve met in geo were multidisciplinarians. Some came into geo from another field, some were folks who started in geo but who then did a deep dive into another field. I also think that shows that we need to mix it up, keep thinking outside of the box and looking across the sciences.
Don’t get too hung up on specific tools and technologies or stay in your comfort zone. Instead, get comfortable being uncomfortable, get outside of your comfort zone, and stay curious. Keep learning. Focus on outcomes, keep adding new techniques and approaches to your toolbox, and apply your knowledge to a wider variety of problems.
And, get involved in your local geo and tech community. Here in the nation’s capital we are particularly blessed to have a number of great geo and techie Meetup groups like Geo DC, always bringing new presentations and insights and great networking over beer – but even if you don’t have a strong local geo and tech community, there’s a strong and vibrant online geo community on twitter and social media.
Darren Mottolini is a Business Development and Research Manager -- WA (Western Australia) at CRCSI (Cooperative Research Council for Spatial Information)Darren has worked in the spatial information sector for over 16 years – working within the private sector, government, and now academia, identifying and enabling businesses to use data and information to meet specific needs, and consulting on the best use of spatial data and tools in the on-line service delivery space.He comes recently from Western Australia’s Landgate (Land Agency) as the manager of the Shared Location Information Platform (SLIP) Program – the State's core infrastructure for location information. Within the spatial community, Darren has chaired committees for the Surveying and Spatial Sciences Institute and the Intergovernmental Committee for Surveying and Mapping. He has open data and start-up community experience, he is a past recipient of the of the Young Spatial Professional of the Year Award (WA), and currently heads up Research Management focussing on collaborative research opportunities.
Q: How did you end up in geospatial?
A: Quite by accident. I graduated in the IT systems field picking up programming and network design jobs. I took a job at a company called ER Mapper as one of their technical analyst, which was my first foray into geo. From there I quickly transferred from behind the computer to in front of it branching out into solutions design and picking up up my geo skills from workshops, single units and conferences. Haven’t looked back since.
Q: You are ‘Sir Darren of Rabble’ on Twitter, is there a story there?
A: No story really. In Australia under a certain Prime Minister, he re-introduced Dames and Knights, and so a bunch of us changed our handles to Sir and Dame so and so. Rabble comes from my involvement in Perth coordinating GeoRabble events. Since then the moniker has grown on me so it has stuck.
Q: How’s the GeoCommunity in Perth?
A: Perth is a strange place. One, we are very isolated, with the closest main city four hours’ flight away. Two, everyone knows everyone so getting together is easy and organising events (such as a Georabble) picks up on everyone’s network. WA/Perth is still quite mining-focused, yet if you look across the state there are significant challenges. Biodiversity in the State’s agriculture and mining areas poses challenges, not only to understand the ecosystems but also to manage it. Also, due to the vast size of WA (which is 33% of Australia equalling about 4x the size of Texas, or covering more area than Western Europe) mapping and adding knowledge is a continual challenge for a population which is roughly around 2.5 million statewide.
Q: You used to work in the Western Australian state government, what was the technology stack like there and were there benefits in being forced to rebuild twice?! (After Google end-of-lifed Google Earth Engine…)
A: What I learnt from working in government (8 years) is that the stigma of government workers is nowhere to be seen. There is so much that happens behind the scenes that the public at large and private sector simply don’t see. Most of the stigma is due to spending public funds and the accountability that has to go with it yet if you understand the system, you can make it work. Managing a technology stack for the state’s Shared Location Information Platform (SLIP — the State Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI)) had its challenges, yet the reward of making a difference, from concept to execution, rather than simply selling software or consulting on short projects, is what really kept me in government. Depending on the government agency, there is a lot of legacy systems which are used to manage the fundamental data within the state. Due to this, simply pulling a new dataset together, its impact on live systems etc. requires testing and creative design in order to respond to the industry need. Yet, all in all, managing SLIP, rebuilding it under Google Maps Engine, the demise of GME proved tiring for me and lacked new learning hence why I jumped at the chance to join a user-focused research organisation which really aligns to my take of technology that the consumers and suppliers needs are first, the technology is second.
Q: You are currently working at CRCSI, can you explain what the CRCSI is and what you do there?
A: The CRC (Cooperative Research Centre) for Spatial Information is a collaborative research body delving into the challenges facing both Australia and New Zealand. The research that the CRCSI conducts is user-driven, that is, our partners lead and sponsor the projects and we coordinate the research for them. It was this fact that attracted me to the CRCSI, being that it is not research for the sake of research, that it had a need founded in our users that could not be solved through traditional and pre-existing means. My role is to coordinate and ensure that our partners benefit from the research (i.e., they can use it) as well as brokering new research projects.
Q: CRCSI’s government funding ends soon, how’s it looking for the future?
A: It is looking good. One of the strengths of the CRCSI is that our partners are engaged and that our research is delivering benefits. As our government (federal) funding only accounts for a portion of our operation budget, we have already generated new partnerships and projects that will ensure Australia and New Zealand have a peak Spatial Information research body that is also an advocate for increasing the wealth of the industry by exploring emerging sectors and their needs for spatial knowledge.
Q: What can you tell me about the 2026 Agenda project?
A: The 2026Agenda (https://2026agenda.com/) is a joint initiative between the CRCSI and the Spatial Industries Business Association (SIBA) to put in place measurable and accountable actions that will drive towards greater awareness of spatial methods, data, and tech with new and emerging industries. As an industry we always say that ~80% of all data is spatial, but what does this really mean? The roadmap being generated will seek to ensure that the spatial sector is recognised as a proactive underpinning element to the Australian digital economy.
Q: What about some of the other projects CRCSI is working on?
A: How long have you got? As I remain partner-focused, it allows me to delve into all the projects the CRCSI is working on. My background is in SDIs, so the research we are conducting here is to explore how spatial processes can be delivered through the semantic technology area (Web 3.0). By doing this, achieving true automation — that is easily repeatable, shareable workflows that are facilitated through machine to machine understanding — aims to generate new tech that recognises spatial as a commodity anyone can plug into. For me it means that is a real opportunity for spatial to play its role in leading analytics processes that derive knowledge to assist decision making — not just creating pretty maps that still require interpretation.
Another area that piques my interest is the adaptation of spatial in the health sector. Taking 3D stereophotogrammetry to mapping faces for example has the potential to assist practitioners in detecting facial anomalies which could be signs of genetic diseases. The same principles are being applied to burns management for the debriding process.
In the agriculture space, assisting land managers with spatial data and query tools that draw on a massive historical earth observation imagery archive means that for the first time people can manage change over time by understanding the impacts of change.
Finally, the positioning research: ubiquitous 2cm accuracy is near-real-time from multi GNSS — it sounds easy yet the maths behind this level of research and its potential benefits to all those who want high accuracy data that is placed in its correct location when overlapped has massive potential. We are starting to see the benefits of this positioning research with the move to GDA2020 (Australia’s new datum), real time precision agriculture through remote controlled farm tractors, and the move to dynamic datums in the future.
Q: On your LinkedIn profile you mention Edward de Bono. What’s he got to do with anything?!
A: HA! I’m a strategist, it’s what I enjoy. Facilitation, consultancy and strategy development requires a person to think in different mindsets and assist others to think differently so that you can develop a rounded strategy. Edward de Bono developed a suite of ‘thinking tools’ that are well utilised globally. The ‘six thinking hats’ are an example of one of this developed tools. (see: http://www.debonothinkingsystems.com/tools/6hats.htm ). I use these constantly to help me engage, facilitate thought leadership sessions, and develop strategies that work to the needs of the target user groups. Would never leave home without them. 🙂
Q: I assume that means you like lateral thinking, do you have a favourite riddle or, failing that, favourite dad joke?
A: Ask my kids, I am not a joke teller, not even dad jokes. Riddle me this though, when you get asked a question, how best do you question the questioner back? If you ask any of my staff (when I had staff), I always get them to learn through seeing if they can answer their own question. It is a lateral thinking exercise that I feel builds the best staff, increases their confidence and success, means you work yourself out of a job.
Q: What do you do in your free time that is not geo-related?
A: Isn’t everything geo-related? Camping, cycling, running are my favourite things to do. Of course, I track my cycling and running tracks, look for camping spots, and everything you can do around them. Having a geo focus to these activities usually sees me always looking towards a map.
Q: And finally, what do you do in your free time that makes you a geohipster?
A: Coffee! Maybe it’s my Italian heritage, yet it is the first machine I turn on in the morning, it is how I generally conduct my meetings, it is what gets me through the day. That, and a desire to care for the environment, a love of local music, and generally the wearing of Chuck Taylor shoes with no care to how my hair looks. 🙂
Kristen Grady is a GIS Specialist at NYC Emergency Management and has over ten years of experience working in GIS. Prior to working at NYCEM she spent about six years working in academia trying really hard - but eventually failing - to avoid working a 9-5 office job. (Although saving the city from the apocalypse turned out to be a pretty cool job, so it’s OK). She’s loved airplanes even longer than geography and hopes to combine her two passions into an actual paying job someday. But for now, she makes maps and writes python code by day and stares at her airplane emergency card collection by night, which currently stands at an impressive 139. (And yes, they all very clearly read “PLEASE DO NOT REMOVE FROM AIRCRAFT.” She says she’s sorry!) Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.
Q: How did you get into GIS?
A: I think it happened about six or seven miles up, somewhere near where the troposphere meets the stratosphere. I was flying from New York to California in June 2006 — my first time flying jetBlue — and I had never seen a live flight-tracker map before. I was enthralled! It was a perfectly clear day all the way across the country, and my 8 megapixel camera was pointed out the window for the entire six-hour flight. I’d take a picture of something neat on the ground and then immediately snap a photo of the map. When I got back to New York a few days later I sat with these photos and Google Earth, which I had just downloaded for the very first time, and spent hours trying to figure out what was in my photos…
A few months later, my Weather and Climate instructor was giving a lecture on remote sensing. He was going through slides of satellite images and having us guess what they were of. I knew them all! At the time I was a philosophy major, but I immediately went and switched my major to geography. The next semester, while taking the required geo-technologies course for the geography major I finallygot to play with desktop GIS software and made some (pretty terrible) maps. But I knew that this was what I wanted to do. Someone in the geography department back then had made a comment that geography was a perfect discipline for “someone with ADD” because the variety of projects and aspects of GIS that you could focus on were truly infinite. That sealed the deal for me.
Geography and mapmaking were always passions of mine. I had my face buried in atlases and had been making pretty intricate maps since I was a kid, like this one that I made at age eleven. But I took a *very* circuitous route through college, losing myself about a hundred times, before finally taking that life-changing jetBlue flight that reminded that, at my core, I was born to be a geographer. So after seven long years in undergrad, I finally got that geography degree, and found GIS, and I’m so glad I did!
Q: You have a Master of Science degree in Geographic Information Science. What is the one most important (or most valuable) thing you got out of your course of study?
A: I graduated with a B.A. in 2008, probably the worst year in recent history to start looking for a “real” job. So I ended up mashing together some part-time GIS research jobs and continued taking graduate-level GIS and cartography courses for fun. This eventually led me into a PhD program, which I was in for two and a half years before deciding to call it quits with a Masters. (A story for another time!)
So unlike in an undergrad program, where you’re essentially just learning how to use tools (at least in my experience), in a graduate program you are also being taught how to think critically about those tools, as well as how to think critically about the disciplines of GIS and geography themselves. You have to think about the consequences of your analyses, the ethics of your maps, the ethics of your tools. You have to think about things like the effects of aggregation, the cultural implications of using a certain color on a map…
Then there’s learning about different geographic “paradigms” and critical geographies, such as feminist geography or Marxist geography… I had no idea while I was in undergrad that there was such a rich philosophy of geography. I feel lucky to have been exposed to that. Having that experience at the graduate level has definitely made me a better, more critical map-maker.
Q: You work for NYC Emergency Management. Is your job stressful? Last week Amazon S3 went down because of a typo. If *you* make a typo lives are at stake. Do you ever think about that? Does it stress you?
A: Oh totally. I put a lot of pressure on myself because I am a perfectionist. But the paradox of working in emergency management, where your maps and your data really ought to be showing the most correct information, is that when sh*t hits the fan, there is rarely any time to go over everything in painstaking detail. It is not my nature to work this way *at all* so it’s been an interesting challenge for me.
There is always a struggle between balancing the quality of your work and being efficient. This is why I try to automate things using Python and by using map templates that I created a while back. This way we can spend more time on making sure the map and data are accurate and less time on things like creating a layout from scratch, or worse, creating an Esri scale bar from scratch (it’s the worst!). I have actually written a Python script that automates that process for us. Hooray!
Q: I interned for Manhattan Borough President’s Office in 1992. We used MapInfo then. Have things changed in NYC? What technology do you use these days?
As for the rest of the city, I think it varies. My sense is that it is largely Esri-based. But I am familiar with a few agencies that are moving toward open source technologies, like DoITT, who I believe is using QGIS for their desktop mapping. A colleague of mine at DOHMH uses R, D3, Leaflet, and PostGIS for her mapping projects, and DCP’s new Capital Planning Division has just used all open source technology to create their Facilities Explorer, which I love and was just released to the public.
Q: Tell us about a cool project you work on right now.
A: As I’ve said, things happen really fast in emergency management. A typical work day for me is pretty calm and laid back… until of course, something happens. One of the big ideas last year in the Public Safety Data Development Center (the group I work in within NYCEM GIS) was to create a dataset that answers the question, “What is there?” Meaning, if there is a sudden event, such as a building collapse or an explosion, we immediately want to know all of the facilities that exist in the affected location. Is there a hospital there? A nursing home? A restaurant? A school? We used to do this by adding a bunch of datasets one by one — that we had to think of off the top of our head — to an ArcMap document. But that is both inefficient and prone to oversight (like forgetting a dataset, for example).
Answering this question sounds easy enough (“Why not just use Google?!”) but what is so challenging is bringing all of these disparate datasets, most from different sources and with very different schemas, together into one dataset. The City of New York cannot simply rely on Google’s databases alone for its spatial awareness. We cannot verify the accuracy of their data.
Many of us worked on this project, but my job was to write an ETL in Python that would extract as many datasets as we could (currently 23, but eventually 50 or more) from our database, transform them — perform selections, map the fields, etc. — and then load them into one singular dataset. We still have a long way to go, but at least now, we can pull in this one dataset, which we call “Facilities Master,” select all the points that fall inside a building or within a given radius, and know an awful lot about the facilities in an area, with just a few mouse clicks. And this way you don’t have to think too much, which is always my goal. Plan and prepare when times are calm (think!), and then respond quickly when things get hectic (do!).
Q: You are a Pythonista. What advice will you give to someone who is just getting started with Python in GIS?
A: Wow. What a great word, Pythonista. Can I use that on my resume?!
Learning to code can follow a totally different path for everyone and really depends on your learning style. Some people can start copy/pasting other people’s code right away and fairly quickly manage to build something new that actually works. This approach didn’t work for me. I wasn’t easily able to break through the wall that stood between me wanting to learn to code and unshackling code from abstraction, and so I was a little paralyzed at first. But now I know that in order to learn code, you have to just start writing it and stop pussyfooting. You have to have faith that all those neural connections that you’re creating in your brain will eventually result in some pretty spectacular “eureka!” moments.
As for the more practical aspect of learning to code, you need simply to start out by learning the basics (variables, lists, conditional statements, loops, etc.), and then start playing. If you aren’t able to take a class, there are a million online code-learning sites, most of which are free. Once you know some really basic stuff and have learned what a module is, play around with the Python turtle module, which was originally created to help kids learn to code. It’s a great way to make really cool things happen pretty quickly, and it’s included in the Python Standard Library.
If you want to write scripts and create tools for ArcGIS, you’ll need to learn ArcPy, the Python site package that lets you interact with ArcGIS. Esri has pretty good documentation on how to use arcpy, and GIS Stack Exchange is also a great arcpy resource.
Here are a few rules I think the budding Python coder should follow:
Know that coding requires incredible self initiative and self learning. Learn how to ask the right questions and become a master Googler. GIS Stack Exchange is indispensable, but users and moderators will publicly shame you if you haven’t done your homework before posting a question. I love that.
Errors are learning tools, you’ll never stop getting them, and they will only get more complicated over time. Accept them. When you’re comfortable, learn about debugging and error handling.
Pleeeeease comment your code. You willforget what you have written if you haven’t looked at your script in two weeks. More importantly, if someone else has to read it, explanations in a human language are key. Don’t be lazy. Don’t write sloppy code. Include script headers.
Q: Enough about work. What do you do for fun? Being a Brooklynite, whatever it is surely must be hipster, no?
A: Brooklyn is a pretty special place to live. It is also very hipster. One of my favorite things to do, and fortunately for my budget and my liver I don’t do this too often, is try to find really good craft cocktails. There are some amazing ones to be found in this borough, but obviously also in Manhattan. I have not yet ventured to the other three boroughs in search of craft cocktails, but I should! One of my favs in Manhattan is Amor Y Amargo. They are the standard to which I hold all other craft cocktail bars. A place I love to go to in Brooklyn is Blueprint. They also have incredible bar snacks. Yum!
When I’m not consuming spirits, I am doing much healthier things like snowboarding, taking pictures, hanging with any number of my enormously huge family, including my two little nephews whom I adore, seeking out some top-of-the-line self-serve froyo with my other half, or geeking out hardon airplanes…
Q: You also like airplanes. How did you develop that passion (for it is a passion, right)? Tell us more about it.
A: I could spend hours answering this question! There are so many amazing spatial things going on with airplanes. But to be honest with you, I’m not really sure why I became enamored with them as a kid. I’d give anything to go back to early 1991 and ask that 8-year old girl, who just found out that she was going to be flying Continental Airlines from Newark, New Jersey to Orlando, Florida, why she instantly became so obsessed with them (and with the airline itself).
I think there are a few things going on. For one, I just think the airplane is a beautiful machine. But it’s also a symbol of escape, adventure, and change, and I have always liked all of those things. Also, the airplane affords anyone lucky enough to sit in a window seat an incredible and rare view of the surface of the Earth, which is a pretty spectacular experience for anyone who loves geography, although I didn’t have that particular experience until I was a bit older. My initial obsession mainly involved planespotting, which is at its most basic simply identifying aircraft types and airline liveries.
As I’ve gotten older and as technology has allowed for easy access to all kinds of flight-related goodies, the passion has evolved into an actual hobby. An #avgeek session for me might include using multiple flight-tracking apps (Flightaware, PlaneFinder, Flightradar24) and live ATC feeds to track a single flight or multiple flights that satisfy certain criteria. Sometimes I like to freak people out by “planestalking” them. (I actually coined the term Planestalker in the Urban Dictionary, and as of the time of this writing, it has 4 likes! ha!) Recently, I was planestalking my cousin’s flight from EWR to DEN, and it made a go-around in DEN. They were only feet off the ground before they aborted their landing due to wind and flew around to land on another runway. Nowadays you can go to Flightaware and just download a KML file of your flight. I sent him a picture of his go-around, and he thought it was hysterical (but also pretty cool!).
Some of my favorite airplane “games” or challenges are trying to catch and then follow my pilot talking to ATC from one feed to the next (e.g. from Ground to Tower or from Departure to ARTCC), or predicting where an airplane overhead is coming from or going to and which runway it either took off from or is about to land on (which I am a total expert at predicting, btw!). I had a lot of fun making an animated map of some “Flights over Queens!” a few years ago, but unfortunately it got a little (irreparably) messed up when Carto switched from Editor to Builder.
Even more recently, I’ve developed an affection for aviation-related maps, like VFR sectional charts,arrival and departure procedures, and IFR Enroute High Altitude charts. I mean, talk about not being able to make a mistake! And having to think critically about the implications of your cartographic choices! Who makes these wonderful maps?! I am convinced that they are made by sweet little garden gnomes, working tirelessly in the night, running their maps from tree to tree… There is just so much magic, and a bit of mystery, in flying… it’s fun to uncover it all.
Q: Do you consider yourself a geohipster? Why / why not?
A: You know, at first I didn’t think I was at all, but then I realized that maybe I was a little bit when I was completely unable to answer the first question in the interview — which is a pretty simple and straightforward question: “How did you get into GIS?” — without launching myself into a paralyzing debate on my feelings on the word “GIS.” Did I want to be associated with such a contentious word, what seems now to be a target for people who don’t want to be boxed in and who instead feel that they are part of something bigger than GIS, something geospatial? Just the fact that I was freaking out about the connotation of a word, in a very academic way… that must be somewhat geohipster, no? (Fortunately for the geohipster readership, I decided to scrap the eight-page essay that accompanied that manic thought spiral and instead tell you all a nice little story about flying… hee)
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our global readership?
A: I wish I could take credit for this perfectly succinct and beautiful advice that I’m about to give, but I can’t, as it was offered as a suggestion to me by my partner when I read this question to him out loud…
“If you’re on the ground, look up, and if you’re in the sky, look down.”
It’s exactly what would have taken me multiple paragraphs to articulate, but he did it in just one sentence. He knows me so well. I think I’ll just leave it at that.
Q: You’re currently on the GeoTeam at Apple. What’s it like working for one of the best-known tech companies in the world, and what are you doing there?
A: Working in tech is something I really wanted to do, but it isn’t for everyone. Instead of cleaning and exploring data in small batches, choosing my map type, and tweaking my visualizations until they are just right, I work on one big reference map in the cloud, with a lot of other people. While I love the size and scope of the projects I work on now, there are things I miss about having my own personal cartography and data analysis projects that I could use to hone and practice the craft.
A: Any great data visualization takes great data and a ton of time. That map was a breakthrough for me. Tilemill was pretty new; I’d been playing with it for a while, using it to make simple slippy maps of data for the San Francisco Bay Area. I had to hack it hard to get it to render the output of my little geospatial analysis, but it did a beautiful job. People said it was useful at the time, but I’m not really convinced. Using Empirical Bayesian Kriging to model one bedroom rental prices? I’m not sure what that even tells you. I still think it’s pretty though. Ultimately what that project was really about was finally feeling like I’d broken out of my government job analyzing data and making maps for internal consumption to something that could reach a larger audience.
Q: At State of the Map 2014, you co-presented on ‘Teaching Mapping To Geographers’, specifically the disconnect between OSM and geography students. In your opinion, is the divide between GIS professionals and OSM greater, and what do you think can happen to bridge that gap?
A: I mean, I love OSM; it is an audacious experiment that worked and continues to work, but on the whole GIS professionals don’t want to digitize features and tag them with categories as an extracurricular, and I’m not entirely sure the core OSMers want them to participate otherwise. I really admire what the Red Cross and HOT OSM have been able to do to use OSM as a vehicle for citizen mapping. Those are really the folks that hold the key to bridging the gap between OSM and GIS professionals. As for geographers, I think we are more interested in OSM phenomenologically and for the data. In addition to all the great projects people are doing as part of OSM or on behalf of OSM, people ask great questions on the OSM talk-us mailing list and have really great ontological discussions about map features, and I find following those discussions fascinating.
Q: In reference to teaching geography and cartography: You’d be wildly rich if you had a nickel for every time you’ve said…
A: WGS84 is a datum, not a projection. Choropleth not chloropleth. If you don’t know what your map is supposed to be telling us, neither do we. You should have spent more time on this. I hate heatmaps.
Q: Cartographer to cartographer: Your favorite map(s)?
A: There are so many talented cartographers out there, and for anyone reading this who doesn’t know, you Jonah Adkins are a prime example. The pop art map tiles you designed recently. Woohoo! Rosemary Wardley did a similarly awesome pop art thing that I really loved, a map tile for the map “quilt” at NACIS (errata: I tagged her wrong on Twitter). In general, among my most favorites, I love colors and I love information design done beautifully and unconventionally. I admire the work Eric Fischer and Miguel Rios have each done independently to make a beautiful image from a gazillion data points. I love “Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River” (Fisk, 1944), and the Willamette River Map by Daniel Coe. I’m doing a thing with pairs here! The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map has stood out in my mind for years as something beautiful and complex with so much data behind it. But my favorite maps of all time are antiques from the 17th and 18th Century. The old cadastral maps from France, the earliest maps of the U.S. Census, and Minard’s Port and River Tonnage map — less famous and more beautiful than his map of Napoleon’s march. Those are my favorites, I think because they convey to me a certain obsessive something that you get to only by giving yourself all the time in the world and a little freedom to play. But also, every day I am pleased and humbled by scores of maps that embody the principles of good, practical cartography: keep it simple, less is more, make it a composition by harmonizing and arranging your elements, and remember you are telling the story.
Q: The standard #GeoHipster interview question: What does the phrase mean to you, and are you a #geohipster?
A: I think #geohipster resonates for a few reasons. First, it is startling when people think you are cool just because you make maps. Most of us, me included, were not always quite so objectively cool. Second, because the geoweb is pleasingly small once you break out of GIS professionalism or whatever other standard paradigms there are, which is a great ferment for ironic inside jokes. There are so many warm, genuine, supportive people who make maps and map-making tools, and will share the best parts of themselves and what they are learning from this crazy ride we’re on right now in a world that is just starting to think about the implications of relating through location. Am I a #geohipster? Without question, yes I am, whatever that means.
After a number of years working with internationally-recognised organisations (Navteq, 1Spatial, OGC, and Ordnance Survey (OS)), Steven is now working for what3words, based in London; they’re helping to simply and precisely communicate location using only words. He also consults for OS, the World Bank, and is a Visiting Professor at the Institute for Future Cities at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland. He is a fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), and of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS).
Q: You’ve had a long and diverse geo career that’s taken you around the world. Briefly take us through your experiences. What makes you a geohipster?
A: Less of the long please! I’m still ONLY in my 40s. I started thinking about geo in my first job in container shipping, so I’m probably more of a geoshipster than geohipster :d)
I wanted to track container shipping in the early 90s, something akin to DHL Smart Sentry today, but the tech just wasn’t there. Then I moved to the marine survey and offshore services arena and was thrown in at the deep end (no pun intended) having to learn the basics of dredging, rig positioning, cable lay surveys, and seismic surveying. Spent considerable time in Aberdeen, Great Yarmouth and IJmuiden in the Netherlands. With the word GPS in my CV, a headhunter contacted me for a job with Navteq (now Nokia HERE) and I was the first market development manager for what was called the Wireless and Internet division. I had a blast dealing with Mapquest, Ericsson, Nokia, Telcontar, Vodafone, and all the other LBS players in the early days, and used to attend GSM in Cannes before it became MWC in Barcelona. I also lost a small fortune when I left Navteq (prior to the Nokia acquisition) and gave up my stock options — a lesson that cost me but also taught me well.
I joined Laser-Scan in 2001 (and helped rename it to 1Spatial) as Product Manager for some spatial tools that operated in databases, essentially server-side topology management in Oracle9i. I stayed there 9 years and was part of the Management Buyout team in 2003, which again taught me a lot but also challenged me considerably. In 2004 my son, Thomas, was born and unfortunately later that year my wife, Nina, was diagnosed with cancer. She’s much better now but I owe a great deal to my colleagues at 1Spatial for their support. In 2010 several people, whom I would call mentors, highlighted a vacancy for an Exec Director position at the OGC – Geoff Zeiss, Maurits van der Vlugt, and Peter Woodsford. So I dropped a note to Mark Reichardt and after a Skype interview with half a dozen people in the US I took on the marketing and communications role. I focussed the comms round ‘location’ reusing an existing strapline (c/o Sam Bacharach): Making location count. I also changed the website (for better or worse) to reflect domains and communities of interest. The biggest topic for me in international geospatial standards is business value and after 4.5 years as the initiator and chair (with some interims) I’ve just stood down from the business value committee. Publishing a paper on standards and INSPIRE, as well as a joint paper on international geospatial standards with INEGI, Mexico for UN-GGIM are some of the small achievements in this area.
Latterly I was invited by Vanessa Lawrence CB (former DG and Chief Exec of OS) to join Ordnance Survey to head up their international activities. I REALLY didn’t want to leave Norway where I had been living near a mountain with a fjord at my back door, but the opportunity was too good to miss and I really admired all the directors and hoped I could learn from them. So for just over two years I ran Ordnance Survey International, building a very competent team of industry experts. The opportunity for OSI to highlight the major investments, lessons learned, and their capabilities around national mapping are massive and a large number of countries can learn from them. Due to health issues I took 3 months off international travel for the first time in 20 years and during that time a number of opportunities arose, which meant I would have to step down from my position as Managing Director. That’s when I joined what3words as a director. I’ve not seen anything this new in geo since Google Earth, at least from the perspective that it can truly have a global impact if adoption happens.
So lots and lots of geo, but I prefer to focus on the policy, strategy and business elements. There’s enough tech experts now today like Scott Morehouse, James Fee, Paul Ramsey, Chris Holmes, Carsten Roensdorf, Joanne Cook, Seb Lessware, Rob Atkinson, Sophia Parafina, Bill Dollins, Anne Kemp, Brian Timoney, Katherine Prebble, Simon Greener, Albert Godfrind, Jo Walsh, Gretchen Peterson, etc.
Q: The geo industry uses software to describe the world. And yet many participants in the industry focus very much on tasks in a single market. National mapping agencies are typically exactly that: national. It’s rare to meet industry insiders considering the global picture. What are the megatrends you see happening globally?
A: Back in 2006 I supported something called ePSIplus, which is now quite fashionable and important around open data and public sector information reuse. I’d like to think that in 8 years’ time what3words will be as important. Addressing is a topic that is being tackled by the UN in Africa, CRCSI in Australia, it’s a topic for debate around OpenStreetMap etc. To me this is more of a policy debate than a technological one. The same for sensors or drones or UAVs and other obvious trends around open data, open source and open standards. I see considerable support and investment coming through collective or community activities, such as CitiSense for the World Bank or UN-GGIM.
As I travelled the world with the OGC and OS, I often saw different flavours of the same problem: how to access, share and benefit from geospatial information resources (also how to fund them nationally). I also see many individuals and organisations jumping on the IoT, smart/future/connected cities, big data etc. bandwagon, and actually not enough attention being paid to data quality and access/sharing issues; all the technology in the world is not particularly helpful if the fundamentals are not there. Fitness for purpose is therefore one of my favourite terms.
Q: You were executive director of the Open Geospatial Consortium, a global body with many governmental organisations around the world developing open geospatial standards. But one of the biggest innovations in geo in the last decade has been the rise of crowdsourcing, most notably OpenStreetMap, which has no real defined standards, no one specifically “in charge”, and, by design, only a very rudimentary structure. Many attribute OSM’s success precisely to its simplicity. So which is it? Is the future top-down standards or bottom-up innovation?
A: The OGC, OSGeo, OSM and all the other open initiatives function based on communities and volunteer support, but communities need leaders. Not dictators or people with a personal, vested interest, but those with vision and tough skin. I watched Steve Coast from afar and thought he did a fabulous job, but he obviously decided to move on. It may need some more similar energy and enthusiasm to reinvigorate the community. The smart money is probably on Kate Chapman and the teams working on Humanitarian OpenStreetMap and Missing Maps. I’ve been fortunate that some of the leading open mapping and crowdsourcing people in the UK are friends, Muki Haklay, Peter Ter Haar and the #geohippy Steven Feldman, better to ask their views, they’re better qualified on this topic.
But to answer your question explicitly, I think it’s a balance of government policy driving procurement language for existing, proven geospatial standards and therefore vendor software compliance with those standards. Then bottom-up technological advances that move faster than government policy and where the crowd determines the usefulness and value of the solution.
Q: You recently left one of the oldest, most traditional geo brands in the world, the UK’s Ordnance Survey, to join the geo start-up what3words. Explain your reasons, beyond the obvious hipster points of being able to say you work at a start-up.
A: As mentioned earlier, I still support Ordnance Survey (in my spare time) through my consulting firm, advising them on geospatial standards and smart cities. When I met Chris Sheldrick, the cofounder and CEO of what3words, I completely understood his passion for simply and precisely communicating location, and I was impressed that he came from running a music events company! Chris won’t mind me saying, but he wasn’t really aware of organisations such as Esri or Pitney Bowes, and he certainly hadn’t had much exposure to geocoding prior to setting up what3words. Kevin Pomfret introduced Denise Mckenzie to Chris, and Denise then introduced me. I’m sort of the geo industry veteran in the team, and so I have seen and done some of the things we want to try, and so hopefully I add value. After 20 years working in the location sector, I also have a fairly decent international network that we are connecting with daily.
It’s not really about making it trendy for me (any more). My mother was nominated as Scottish person of the year 2006 and she was awarded an MBE for her services to the community, so I’ve got major aspirations to try and do something similar to what my parents achieved in Scotland. Since geo is where it’s at, I’m hoping I can make a difference through what3words.
Q: One complaint leveled against What3Words is that it is not open. Is it possible to be hip and closed?
A: Twitter. Facebook. iTunes. At least one of these apps is used by us, our friends, or family daily. I think this shows that it is possible. However, for a number of people it is not necessarily a simple case of open or closed — what concerns them is how they will be charged in the future and to that end we come up with a model that doesn’t charge citizens or end users in the event of humanitarian assistance or international development activities.
Q: You’re a guest lecturer at Southampton University. What’s the advice you’d give to the geohipsters out there at the start of their geo careers. Should they be trying to land a job at a “big name”? Should they be joining (or founding) a geo-focused start-up?
A: Interestingly enough I was a guest lecturer at the Business School, not the Geography Department, presenting to MSc students on global entrepreneurship, strategy and innovation. I’ve obviously done both and I think it does pay to gain experience in different-sized organisations, different industry footprints, and different visions and missions. If you can put up with trying to navigate through large organisations and cope with the bureaucracy and communication challenges, you certainly learn a lot and have more resources available. But nothing beats doing it firsthand where you understand innately cash flow and customer service — the basis for any business.
Q: Any closing thoughts for all the geohipsters out there?
A: There are some fabulous people in the geospatial community, and that’s what makes doing our jobs fun. My global network is not all geohipsters, and that’s good because we need different kinds of people to challenge us to keep us awake and relevant. Also many of my network have become friends over the years and that means places to stay! A large number of people have done the groundwork for future geohipsters, and so it’s a great time to build on all that work and take it to the next level.
Finally, a shameless plug. Think about the 135 countries out there that have poor or no addressing and how what3words could help support economic growth, international development, financial inclusion and other areas.
Disclosure: Ed Freyfogle is a co-founder of Lokku Ltd, which is a seed investor in What3Words.
Gretchen Peterson is a cartography explorer who is constantly on the lookout for new techniques, tricks, and solutions that collectively elevate the status of maps. Peterson shares these adventures in her cartography books, blog, and twitter stream, and also, sometimes, cracks extremely funny nerd jokes. As a Data Scientist at Boundless, Peterson designs basemaps with open source technology, and recently wrote a blog series on QGIS.
Q: You’re pretty much renowned the world over for your cartography publications (Cartographer’s Toolkit, GIS Cartography: A Guide to Effective Map Design First Edition and Second Edition). Tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to be an author.
A: Thanks Jonah, but I’m definitely not renowned the world over. In fact, before I took a position at Boundless last year, one of my siblings was counting unemployed people in our family and included me in the tally. It was obvious that not even my own siblings knew what I was doing all day, even though at that time I was running a successful geo consultancy. That said, I do occasionally run into people who know me, which is a pretty neat thing, although it can be embarrassing when you’re recognized taking a selfie with your own book at the Esri User Conference bookstore.
My background is in natural resources. I’ve been a life-long advocate for environmental stewardship, and GIS, as a means of cataloging, understanding, and anticipating Earth’s processes, was a subject that a professor urged me to study and was the subject of my second most important internship. (The first was censusing common terns, which involved less time on a computer and more time getting pooped on.)
My first non-internship job was at a technology firm in which I was asked to not only do GIS but to also make maps of the results. This is that moment when you realize how important proper results visualization is for your own career’s sake as well as for the success of the projects that you’re working on. If an analysis points out where the county should purchase land to protect an important species, you’d better be able to map it adequately.
There was a significant dearth of practical cartography books at that time: the early 2000s. With some training in design — I was a landscape architecture major in college my first year — I decided that if no adequate books on the subject materialized in the coming decade, I’d figure out good map design principles myself and then write about it for others. And that’s exactly what happened. The first book I wrote is more of a comprehensive textbook on cartography while the second is full of practical tools like color palettes and typefaces. It turns out that both books have been embraced by college professors and career professionals alike.
Q: You recently made the jump from being a private consultant to working for Boundless as a Data Scientist. Has that been an easy transition?
A: Working at Boundless has been just as exciting as I had hoped it would be. Some of the brightest geo minds work there, and they have a sense of pride in helping do good things for the geo community. I think that in most professional positions one ultimately is happiest when making important contributions, whatever they may be, and I have plenty of opportunities for that in this position.
Q: You give regular cartography tips on your blog. If you could give only one piece of advice to someone what would that be?
A: This is not a fair question! I’ve been giving advice on my blog for close to 5 years, and there’s still so much I haven’t covered! But seriously, if I had to say only one thing it’d be to study existing maps, both old and new, and begin to compile a list of map patterns that can come in handy for future mapping projects. The patterns part of map patterns is a term I’ve borrowed from software engineering where it’s been shown to be a good idea to thoroughly understand how problems are commonly and most efficiently solved. They say that all innovation is derivative, and that extends to cartography as well.
Q: I think we got started in GIS around the same time (late nineties) — we’ve seen a lot. What do you think is the greatest accomplishment in cartography in the last 5 years?
A: The greatest change has been the movement from cartography as a medium that only specialists could use to cartography as a medium that everyone can use. This new ease-of-use has resulted in an influx of design-oriented, rather than science-oriented mappers to join the field. As a results, the aesthetic level of all maps has increased dramatically and thereby engaged the public to such an extent that they’ve become demanding users of maps rather than blasé bystanders by virtue of the maps’ enhanced readability, interactivity, and beauty. This is all good.
Q: We had a conversation once about emotional cartography/ers and the need for affirmation (#mapaffirm). Are you an emotional cartographer, and why is affirmation in design work important?
A: Ah yes, this is an important subject, especially for those new to the profession. It’s a “haters gonna hate” kind of situation with the map critics out there. And some mappers get down about how their maps are received.
I’m not an emotional cartographer, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be sympathetic to those who are. Gordon MacKenzie, who wrote Orbiting the Giant Hairball, talks about his position at Hallmark as one of shoring up employees’ egos. If a designer came to him with an idea, he invariably responded that it was a good idea, whether or not it truly was. His reasoning was that if it wasn’t a good idea, the designer would eventually realize that and halt production. Perhaps along the way the designer, with the confidence of being backed by a design director like MacKenzie, would come up with a superior product idea.
We also have to remember that rarely does anyone appreciate creative endeavours, especially those that push boundaries, as much as they should when the object is first released. Only time can prove the utility and lastingness of a great map. Just as Mark Twain had to stand up for himself after an editor tried to suggest changes to one of Twain’s introductions, so we can too, for the maps we make today, whether or not they win awards this year or meet with critical favor at the time they are first released. (It did not end well for the editor. Twain not only refused to edit the piece, but also rescinded the piece altogether.)
So, even if you feel like you need to attend a meeting of Emotional Cartographer’s Anonymous, you must have a certain courage when it comes to publishing maps. And if a map that you made was indeed a terribly misinformed piece of drivel, then just remember what @mysadcat said, in its infinite wisdom: https://twitter.com/MYSADCAT/status/468835053863452674/photo/1.
Q: What are your desert-island, all-time-top-5-favorite maps?
A: First and foremost would be Google Maps. It’s likely the most extensively and most frequently used map, with the most factual coverage, and with the biggest team behind it, that the world has ever seen. By a long shot. It’s Lewis Carroll’s life-sized scale map concept at heart, in that it contains so much spatial information at such large scales that it comes close to being intellectually life-sized but has none of the cumbersome problems that Carroll’s 1:1 scale map would have.
“It has never been spread out, yet,” said Mein Herr: “the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.” –Lewis Carroll, The Complete Illustrated Works, Sylvie and Bruno Concluded
The second choice would be any thematic map that illustrates the power of zoom-level mapping, where one can discern patterns at many scales, and thus draw from it a multitude of important conclusions. Dot maps are particularly well suited for this, such as the Ethnical Dot Map by the University of Virginia Demographics Research Group.
My third choice would be the Dymaxion map of world wood-density, which is made of wood and foldable. It has all my favorite components: a cool projection, a very meta media vs. content message, and it’s tactilly interactive! The creativity that went into this is inspiring.
My fourth choice would be the North American Bird Flight Range Shifts series for the intuitive animations of ranges over time, the small-multiples aspect, and the underlying mission to better understand our natural resources through superb visualizations. Plus, the Stamen Design blog post on the subject includes a gif of an owl being bopped on the head by a much smaller bird.
And lastly, I would bring along a kusudama made from the pages of an old map book. This work of art was created especially for me by a good friend. Personal maps should always be kept close to the heart.
Q: The standard #GeoHipster interview question: What does the phrase mean to you and are you a #geohipster?
A: My guess is that a geohipster would be a person who is receptive to new techniques and new technologies inasmuch as they make a better world through geo. A geohipster would also be a person who is able to reach into the past for anything that can be adapted and put to good use in the present.
In this sense of the term geohipster I would hope that I could be included. I don’t fear new technology but I also don’t want to dwell on it to the exclusion of other ideas that could be useful, since cartography is fundamentally about where things are, not about the technology that displays them. Just as we don’t need parchment anymore for maps, so too we may not need computers in the future. As long as I’m massaging spatial information into wisdom or into tools that make wise decisions possible, I’m happy.
I do have to confess to never having GPSd my biking trips. If that’s one of the criteria, then I’m not a geohipster.
Q: What’s next for you? Any new books planned?
A: No new books are in the works at this time, but I’m looking forward to discussing cartography and QGIS at the upcoming Denver Geospatial Amateurs gathering and FOSS4GNA.
Q: Last week was the 10th anniversary of Open Street Map, which you founded. Congratulations! OSM and you personally got a lot of press, all of it good. Will that further the cause or OSM?
A: It’s a key part of the PR effort. At least it used to be. I’m not sure it has the same importance today, because there are so many people doing the same thing, but it’s part of that.
Q: My wife is my one-person focus group who has been remarkably accurate on most things Internet. She doesn’t use OSM. How will you convince her to start using it?
A: Open Street Map itself is not particularly designed to be used as a consumer product. It’s other people that make stuff on top of Open Street Map that package it in such a way that it’s usable by anybody. An example in the United States and now in the rest of the world would be Scout — a navigation client that Telenav makes. So we take Open Street Map and we spend a lot of time making it usable, so consumers can use it for turn-by-turn navigation. But today the focus of Open Street Map itself is about getting people to contribute data, not necessarily to use it. So it’s perfectly fine if your wife or anyone else wants to use another product, that makes a lot of sense.
Q: You currently work for Telenav, whose mission is to make people’s lives less stressful. Does your job make your life less stressful? What do you do for Telenav?
A: Historically I have been working on making sure that Scout works for consumers. Making sure the navigation information is there, making sure the addressing works, making sure the consumer experience is great behind Open Street Map. So I work with a team of a large number of people, 120 now we are up to, to make it all work. My official title is Head of OSM.
Q: In your most recent video you talk about why “Open Street Map is going to win”. What do you mean “to win”? Win what?
A: I mean having the best map in the world. Not necessarily the best consumer experience but the best map data. It’s already the best display map, right? So the next question is can it also be the best addressable map and the best navigable map. Those are the next two things to go after.
Q: What is the future of OSM? Gamification? Monetization?
A: Lots of people have monetized Open Street Map, including Telenav. The gamification, personally I love that, but OSM today is a lot of communities and lots of people, and you have to make a case for those people that it should be gamified. And in fact people do make apps on the side to try and gamify things like the collection of data on mobile devices, but getting changes and integration into the main site is hard because it affects a lot of people. But that doesn’t stop you from making your own app on the side to do these things.
Q: Is there a future in which the majority of contributions to OSM will be from passive sensing of location?
A: Again, with Telenav we’ve purchased a lot of GPS traces to get the navigable information into the map itself. So people already do that. OSM itself started with GPS traces, before we had aerial imagery. So I guess you can say we started with passive stuff and we just got better at it over time.
Q: What do you think of CC BY-SA?
A: I think Creative Commons is great. It’s fantastic. It works very well for creative works like books and photos. Unfortunately it didn’t work super well for data, like we have in OSM. Which is why we spent a lot of time on the Open Database License. Which is designed to be actually very similar to Creative Commons, just different enough that it covers the data use cases.
Q: Some have asked “Why not just release the data in the public domain?”, but isn’t the issue that in some countries in Europe (not in the US), you just can’t release your work into the public domain? You must release it under some kind of license?
A: That exists. In some countries it’s called the moral right. You can’t give up the copyright in the same way you can’t sell yourself into slavery. Do I particularly care? No, as long as I don’t live in one of those countries, and you can always sign a waiver that effectively does the same thing.
Q: Does OSM have a moral imperative? Is OSM out there to do good? Should the GUI be developed to maximize the diversity of participants? Enhance democracy? Is there such goal?
A: I think that it’s good that there are people involved in the project that do want to do that, and they are interested in OSM from a different perspective. That enhances what we get done, because of the diversity of opinion. Me personally, I was just out to create a map. Those other things are good things, it just wasn’t my focus, but it’s good that there are people on OSM who are focused on that.
Q: Little is known about Steve Coast, the person. Tell us more about yourself — any hipstery hobbies? I hope you ride a unicycle or grow your own hops. Do you?
A: I go hang gliding. I am completing my private pilot’s license. I ride bicycles. I think that’s it.
Q: What is going on with Map Club?
A: I shut it down. Everyone in OSM is a volunteer, and the question was could we create some sort of membership organization that could be self-supporting and go do things. Whether those things are building tools, or collecting more data. We have two choices: either everyone’s a volunteer or everyone works for a company. The companies tend to have overlapping interests with OSM but they are not the same interests. We can work together, and it can be beneficial, but it’s not like you have directly identical goals. So the question is could you do something in-between? A membership organization came to be the one way to go. Unfortunately wasn’t convincing enough so it didn’t work out. But it was worth a try.
Q: What is the takeaway from this experience? What’s the lesson learned? That people don’t want to pay for mapping?
A: I don’t think it is that people don’t want to pay. It’s two things. One: The amount of money required was a bit more than I’d hoped. You could pick $100/year but then you’d need a lot of people, but if it could be $50/month — which is what people are paying for their cell phone — then you can get a lot more done. The actual model could work if it was slightly different. I was undercharging. Second: What is the value that you are offering. And there wasn’t a clear value proposition. It was an experiment. What can we achieve? And it was difficult to find out what we could go do because we didn’t have any money. It was very chicken-and-egg.
Q: This from a GeoHipster contributor: You are so playful and fun… After being in the industry so long, how do you keep a smile?
A: Ha ha ha. That’s a really good question… I just don’t take this stuff seriously I guess. On one level I take it very seriously because obviously finishing the project and getting the data out there is important, but on another level, I think, the simple answer is being very aware that you’re going to die one day. So it’s hard to get upset and angry about stuff when you realize that. It’s more important to go build things and show people and just be happy that 90% of the stuff that you’re gonna do is going to fail, like Map Club, for example. Most people never try to do anything at all. So you try stuff and 90% of it’s gonna fail, and you should be happy with that.
Lyzi 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.
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. 😉