Tag Archives: interviews

Atanas Entchev to GeoHipster: “Nobody’s asked me for a geopackage yet”

Atanas Entchev
Atanas Entchev
The founder of GeoHipster, Atanas Entchev, learned BASIC in 1984 on a made-in-Bulgaria Apple ][ clone, and has been working with computers ever since. These days he splits his time between slinging shapefiles and searching for the perfect saddle for his Cannondale. Find him on Twitter, Instagram, and on his personal blog Mostly Subjective.

Atanas was interviewed for GeoHipster by Board Member Bill Dollins and CEO Mike Dolbow.

Q: For any readers who don’t know, tell us about yourself and how you got into geospatial.

A: My road to geospatial was long and circuitous. I graduated with a Master’s in architecture in my native Sofia, Bulgaria. Upon graduation I was assigned a job as an urban planner. In 1991 I came to Rutgers University in New Jersey to complete a Master’s in urban planning, where I was indoctrinated into the Arc world on PC ARC/INFO on DOS. While still in grad school and looking for a “real” job as a planner, I took a GIS internship position at the NJDEP, digitizing parcels in ArcInfo on a SUN Sparc workstation. Temporarily. As it turned out, there is nothing more permanent than the temporary. I have been “doing GIS” ever since.

Q: Between early pieces in Directions, to your own blog(s), to your activity on various social media platforms, you have been a visible face and an early adopter of social platforms in the geospatial community for almost two decades. What effect have those platforms had on the landscape of geospatial technology? How have those platforms changed? What would the ideal social platform look like to you, today?

A: The biggest effect social media platforms have had on the landscape of geospatial technology is that blogs and social media have all but eliminated the need to go to conferences. This is probably an unpopular opinion, and easily challenged by the fact that geoconferences seem to be multiplying. But you don’t need to go to a conference anymore to find out what’s happening in the industry. The blogs and social media deliver high-quality, high-signal-to-noise-ratio content, right to your screen, better than any keynote. Heck, you can “attend” multiple conferences simultaneously and be billable at the same time.

Obviously, there are other things that happen at conferences — geobeers, geoteas, geohookups — so conferences aren’t going away. But the reasons for going to conferences have shifted. Get out of work, anyone? Travel to a new city/country? On your employer’s dime? Sign me up!

Three things drive people to social networks: FOMO, interestingness, and utility — probably in that order. Early Twitter was interesting. Less so these days, but I stay because of utility. Instagram is interesting, but has no utility. Facebook has neither.

How have platforms changed? They become less interesting as they grow and mature. The ideal social platform must stay interesting, and combine interestingness with utility.

Q: Wow, I can’t believe that this December will mark the five year anniversary of the geohipster.com launch with a tongue-in-cheek industry poll. Looking back on that moment and what has happened since, were there any surprises?

A: The biggest surprise was that it took off the way it did. I registered the domain name on a lark, I thought some kind of website would be good for a few chuckles at most. Five years later GeoHipster is running strong, bigger than I ever thought it would be.

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge Glenn Letham and Renee Sieber, two early advisors who offered ideas and encouragement in the very beginning. Mike Dolbow became the first guest interviewer, then the advisory board took shape, then Mike and Jonah and Amy stepped up to share with me the many duties that go into putting out a web publication. Were it not for these people, GeoHipster would not exist today.

Q: Walk us through a typical day for you – not just for your day job, but also for your “side hustles”.

A: My day job as the GIS specialist in Franklin Township, New Jersey, includes multiple various GIS-related duties, so it’s never boring. I maintain several PostgreSQL/PostGIS databases; I dabble in SQL and Python. I make maps to print (PDF FTW); I help township staff with various geo-related tasks; I create shapefiles; I export databases to shapefiles to share with other organizations; I add new township streets to Open Street Map.

I use a mixed bag of tools: ArcGIS Desktop, QGIS, ArcGIS Pro, ArcGIS Online, CARTO.

My latest side hustle is designing, promoting, and selling the “I♥️SHP” merchandise. My plan is to grow it to a point where I can quit my job and retire. My other side hustle is GIS consulting — mostly training, teaching GIS novices how to use shapefiles (no joke; shapefile haters leave a lot of money on the table), and some GIS and web development. And, of course, I help run GeoHipster as Editor-in-chief.

After work and on weekends I ride my bike, sometimes with my daughter. Or tackle a side hustle task. Or go to the beach with my wife. Or we go to concerts (Buddy Guy, Jonny Lang, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Gov’t Mule this summer).

Q: The “I♥️SHP” merchandise seems to be really taking off. Any plans to expand it for the “sidecar files”?

A: As soon as Taylor Swift agrees to wear a “PRJ” shirt for the promo campaign. I have my people talking to her people. Seriously, though, I consider “SHP” a pars pro toto moniker, thus including all sidecars. The shapefile agrees.

Q: If the shapefile disappears tomorrow as though it never existed, to which format would you switch?

A: To whichever format has critical mass. For the record, I don’t use shapefiles exclusively — I use PostGIS on PostgreSQL and file geodatabases in equal measure. But when I need to create a quick disposable layer for a quick map, shapefile it is. And when it comes to spatial data exchange, the shapefile is the undisputed king. In my job I share spatial data with a large number of users, mostly external. Every single one of them asks for shapefiles. So I give them shapefiles. I’m not gonna fight them. If they start asking for geopackage, I will give them geopackage. Nobody has asked as of yet.

I wrote about my position in the shapefile debate on my personal blog. To quote myself: “To call for the abolition of the shapefile is akin to calling for the abolition of the .xls(x) format on the grounds that millions of people erroneously use it in lieu of “legitimate” databases.”

There is currently a shapefile vendetta raging on the twitters. I think it’s silly. If and when it is no longer needed, the shapefile will fade away.

Q: GeoHipster readers, and many others, have followed the ordeal of your family and your son, Eni, closely. Would you provide an update?

A: For those who may not know, last December my son was deported to Bulgaria — a country he does not remember and whose language he does not speak, but where he is “from”. We are working on bringing Eni back home. We are pursuing all possible avenues. This will be a long and complicated process. Meanwhile he has settled in Sofia, has found a job that he likes, and is making friends. He is in good spirits. We communicate via social media and chat almost daily. My son is making the most of this bizarre and unfortunate situation, and has made me proud with his ability to handle adversity.

I want to thank the hundreds of people, most of whom I have never met, for their outpouring of support for my family’s plight, and for reaffirming my faith in humanity.

Q: Sounds like you’ve been riding your bike more and more lately. Do you and Bill have some kind of exercise competition going?

A: I post more bike pics lately — or, rather, I post less other stuff than I used to — which makes it look like cycling is all I do. But I have indeed been riding more and more lately. I rode my first metric century (100+ km) in May, and I aspire to ride my first full century (100+ miles) next year. I love cycling — it is a great sport, great exercise, and with the right equipment you can cycle year-round.

Above all else, cycling for me is meditation on wheels. It helps me clear out my head. When I am on the bike, I think about nothing. It feels great.

Bill and I do not have a competition, but maybe we should. What would be the metrics, though? Bill? (We’ll let Bill answer this question on Twitter. –Ed)

Q: What is your grammatical pet peeve that would most surprise GeoHipster readers?

A: What would probably be most surprising to those who know me is that while I used to be a grammar nazi, I am working on kicking the habit, and I have made significant strides in this effort. I remember when, in the early 1990s, I wrote a letter — on paper — to TIME magazine, to complain about a grammatical error. I composed a letter, printed it in the computer lab, put it in an envelope, put a stamp on it, walked it to a mailbox… TIME wrote back, by the way, acknowledged the error, and apologized. Today I look back on this episode and cringe with embarrassment. There are far more important things to spend one’s time and energy on than correcting other people’s grammar. (or style, e.g.: Oxford comma, double space after a period, etc. 😉 ). I try to remember what The Duchess said to Alice: “Take care of the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves.”

Q: You’re the “OG” – Original GeoHipster – so I don’t think we really need to ask you that question. Instead, do you have any favorite answers to that question from the last five years?

Brian Timoney: The hippest thing I’ve ever done was switch from pleated khakis to flat-front khakis.

Guido Stein: The only hipster attribute I wish I had that I lack is the hipster gene that makes them all slender and buff.

Alex Leith: I knit maps, then scan them at 10 µm before faxing them to myself.

 

Tina Cormier: “Impostor syndrome will get you nowhere”

Tina Cormier
Tina Cormier
Tina is a remote sensing scientist with over 10 years of experience working at the crossroads of spatial analysis and machine learning. She is an active member of the FOSS4G community and an OSGeo charter member. At TellusLabs, a Boston startup, she is responsible for turning raw images into agricultural and environmental insights that help answer critical questions facing our society. In her previous position at the Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC), she linked field measurements with remotely sensed optical, LiDAR, and radar products to model ecosystem responses to changes in the environment. Tina earned an M.S. in Natural Resources from the University of New Hampshire and an Honors B.A. in Environmental Science from Saint Anselm College.

Tina was interviewed for GeoHipster by Randal Hale.

Q: Tina Cormier, where are you located and what do you do?

A: I live in Brunswick, Maine. As far as what I do, my answer is “way too many things”! But at work, I am a remote sensing scientist on the data science team at Telluslabs, a Boston startup. Like most startups, it’s a very fast-paced environment. We are a small (but growing) team, and I’m constantly amazed at how much we accomplish in a short period of time.

We use machine learning to combine decades of remote sensing images with in situ reference data. Every single day we incorporate new images and ground data into our system. Why? We want to leverage the information locked inside of this unprecedented historic record of the earth to answer critical questions that we care about — questions about the environment and questions that affect our economy. Right now, we are primarily focused on agriculture and building a living map of the world’s food supply, but our tech stack is structured to allow us to quickly branch into other important sectors as the team grows and as we hire the resources to do so.

My specific role involves converting raw satellite imagery into “insights”, or features that are meaningful for our modeling team. For example, millions of raw satellite reflectance values may not be very meaningful, but when we can turn them into a Crop Health Index, now we’re talking. Even more valuable insights begin to coalesce when we can compare today’s crop health index value to a long term average, or when we can turn on a rapid detection and alerting system for extreme anomalies in the growing regions that we monitor. Then we can start to answer questions about the status of the world’s food supply on any given day or season.

I also work on creating raster visualizations (typically developed in QGIS) for our web app, Kernel. Day to day, I spend a lot of time writing code, primarily in R — though I’m determined to get a better handle on Python and become fluent in PostgreSQL/PostGIS — right now, I’d say I’m conversational at best!

I’m something of a compulsive FOSS4G user and evangelist, which is why I recently became a charter member of OSGeo (that just means I get to vote on things — mostly new board and charter members). In the last couple of years, I’ve worked hard to bring R into the light for geospatial data science folks via social media and presenting at conferences. Last year, I presented three talks and a workshop at FOSS4G, which was tons of fun!

Q: How do you get to be a charter member of OSGeo?

A: To become a charter member of OSGeo, you must be nominated by an existing charter member (thanks, Alex Mandel!) and demonstrate a number of positive attributes with regard to the open source community. My nomination was based largely on my role as a geospatial R evangelist — a role I didn’t necessarily want, but the mix of a large gap in representation with oppressive guilt made me do it! In particular, my almost excessive participation at last year’s FOSS4G conference in Boston was largely responsible for my eventual nomination/election to the group.

Q: How did you get into the Geospatial Field? Was it an end goal of college?

A: So, no. Geospatial was not an end goal or even on my radar. I got my undergraduate degree in Environmental Science from Saint Anselm College. There, I worked on a project where we radio-tagged turtles and tracked them over the course of a year — turns out, they travel surprising distances through all sorts of habitats — I mean, they are turtles, so who knew? We used triangulation to figure out where we were each day and put our turtle sightings on a map — no GPS! I’m laughing to myself about this now. But really, I loved that project so much. That said, I had no idea that I was doing GIS or even what it was.

Fast forward through a few confused and frustrating years post-graduation where I did everything from coaching soccer and teaching high school (something I hope to go back to at some point later in my career) to working for a pharmaceutical company as a clinical data manager, checking to make sure drug trial protocols were followed. One day I woke up and said to myself, “Ok, I need to make a move here, I’m going to grad school.” And so it was. I knew I wanted to stay in the environmental field and sort of assumed I’d go the PhD/professor route.

The following fall, I started a Natural Resources/Remote Sensing Masters degree at the University of New Hampshire. I still had no idea what GIS or remote sensing was, but I got a teaching assistantship that paid my way and it all sounded quite interesting, so I decided to dive in. I had to get up to speed pretty quickly, though, as I was charged with teaching GIS and remote sensing classes that I had never taken before! My Master’s thesis was an exciting (to me) combination of remote sensing, GIS, and machine learning — I built a model that predicts vernal pool locations based on image and GIS-based predictors. My journey can pretty accurately be described as a fortunate series of chances, risks, and leaps of faith that somehow worked in my favor and landed me in a career that I enjoy. And the rest, as they say, is history!

Q: You mentioned R and you did a workshop at FOSS4G in Boston on R which was pretty well received (I tried to sneak in and couldn’t). What is R and why do you like — possibly love — R? I don’t know enough about it but I’m trying.

A: R is an open source software project and programming language. It is held in pretty high regard by academics and data scientists, and is becoming more mainstream among spatial analysts as well. For those who want to automate their work through coding, R is essentially a fully functional command line GIS. The most important reason that I use R (or any programming language) is because it offers repeatability, automation, and documentation of my work — YUP, I just did that…RAD!

I will admit that I didn’t always love it. I had a hard time learning it, and that process involved a lot of foul language. Fortunately, I had some great mentors to pull me through, including an amazing group of former colleagues from the Woods Hole Research Center.

What I like (love?) about R is that I can script my entire workflow — from data cleanup/wrangling (for which R is exceptional), to spatial and statistical analysis, to publication of beautiful figures to tell my story — all in one environment. And once I’ve coded my workstream, I have a complete record of what I did, including which files I used and how I processed them. Working with terabytes (maybe petabytes?) of data — many thousands of images and files — there is no option about programming; it is a necessity to automate my work. R does have some drawbacks though — the biggest of which is that it does everything in memory. Advances in technology have provided a lot of ways to work around the memory limitation though, including better hardware as well as easier ways to chunk up the data and distribute processing. As a spatial data scientist, R is the complete package, with possibly the exception of cartography. While I’ve seen folks do some neat things with maps in R, my go-to for a single, really nice map is still QGIS.

Q: So when you’re at college you meet this dashing young man whom you eventually married — correct?

A: Yes, sir! We met in graduate school. I had been there for about 6 months and kept hearing about this other student, Jesse, who was doing field work in New Zealand. One day around Christmas he showed up in the lab (to my delight). He ended up being my TA for one of the remote sensing classes. Hope there is a statute of limitations for that sort of impropriety, but we are married now, if that helps his case.

Q: Two married people in the GIS field — do you both sit around and talk about spatial things?

A: Sometimes, but over the years we have developed a code of conduct regarding work talk. Jesse and I have worked together for a long time, including 2.5 years at the Southern Nevada Water Authority in Las Vegas and 6 years at the Woods Hole Research Center. Early on, we agreed that we would only talk about work during our commute. At home, work is off-limits. And today, even though we don’t work together anymore, the same pretty much holds true. We’ll talk about each other’s days over dinner, and we may discuss a programming puzzle now and then, but for the most part, we keep work at work. It’s a nice separation that keeps us mostly sane.

Q: OK — You’re working at Tellus. You’ve worked at Woods Hole Research Center. What is the most exciting thing you’ve done up till now in the industry?

A: That’s a tough question, as I’ve had the good fortune of doing a lot of fun things during various jobs, including field work in all sorts of environments, from the tropics to the desert (not always fun, but always interesting). Some of my most wonderful work memories come from teaching technical workshops in various parts of the world. During my time at WHRC I taught workshops here in the US, but I also frequently traveled to South America — Colombia, Peru, Bolivia — thank you, undergraduate minor in Spanish! My farthest trip was to Nepal, which was just amazing. The workshops were designed to build capacity in remote sensing, programming, and forestry within indigenous groups, government agencies, and non-profit organizations in developing countries. I made some lifelong friends who were gracious enough to share their culture with me, teach me to salsa, and even introduce me to their families and friends. I’m forever grateful for the opportunity to share my experience while seeing some incredible places and meeting equally incredible people.

Q: Which is better: A horse or bicycle? Why?

A: I suppose there are pros and cons to each. To my knowledge, bicycles are not spooked by plastic bags, motorcycles, mailboxes, or any other brand of vicious predator you may happen upon in the course of a ride. A bicycle is not typically going to buck you off, though I feel like I may have been bucked off by a bike in the past. It won’t walk away when you try to get on, demand carrots and apples (and frisk your pockets looking for them if you don’t deliver), ask for a scratch in just the right spot (the belly on my guy), knicker when you arrive, look longingly after you when you leave, play with you, choose to be your partner, and it won’t love you back. A bicycle does not have a mind of its own, with memories of positive and negative experiences. It doesn’t have good days and bad days, and it cannot learn, grow, bond, and communicate with you. So, while horses can be dangerous for many of the above reasons, those are also the reasons why horses will always be better than bicycles, in my opinion.

Q: Anything you want to tell the world?

A: I guess having worked in tech/geospatial for “several” years now, I could offer some advice.

  1. Don’t be afraid to try something new, and don’t be afraid to fail and break things. If you never fail, you aren’t pushing yourself hard enough!
  2. Learn to code (see #1).
  3. Impostor syndrome will get you nowhere. Focus on your strengths and what you bring to a situation, and don’t lament not knowing what everyone else seems to know. They don’t.
  4. Help people. You didn’t get wherever you are on your own — pay it forward when you can.
  5. Take time off. It never feels like a good time, but you need to do it, so just do it.
  6. Adopt an animal (unrelated, but still important!).

I’m still working on all of these… except #6… I’ve probably done enough of #6 for the moment.

 

Rachel Stevenson: “I love being early to geo-centric technologies”

Rachel Stevenson
Rachel Stevenson
Rachel Stevenson is a recent graduate from the University of Colorado Denver and an active member in #GISTribe. Rachel currently works for the United States Geological Survey as a Pathways Intern, where she works on The National Map Corps, a citizen science program that collects structure types for the USGS National Map. Rachel is currently working on developing Interactive web maps for the National Map Corps and hopes to build her skills in development.

Rachel was interviewed for GeoHipster by Todd Barr.

Q: Why Geographic Information Systems?

A: In 2012 I was completing my undergraduate degree in Criminal Justice and I took a course entitled Crime Analysis, and it was this class where I learned about ArcGIS and databases and it was also during that class where I learned that I was good at creating maps and working with data. However it wasn’t until 2014 when I moved to Colorado that I decided to take an Intro to GIS Course to see if I was indeed good at it and more importantly, if I liked it. It turns out, I am good at it and I love it!

Q: You’re really active on social media. How do you think social media, specifically Twitter, has influenced you on your path?

A: I don’t quite recall how I found #gistribe on Twitter, but when I did, I found this whole community of very smart and intelligent people who wanted to share their knowledge and their passion for geospatial science. In finding this awesome community, I was able to learn and grow in so many ways both academically and personally. By starting with #gistribe I’ve been able to network and become friends with various different geo types and learn from them. It has been such a benefit to hear about new technology and to get feedback from people I look up to and idolize.

Q: You were recently elected to URISA’s Vanguard Cabinet (congratulations). What prompted you to run for this?

A: Aly Ollivierre, a colleague of mine from Maptime and the larger geospatial community, suggested that I apply for it. I’ve known about URISA and the Vanguard Cabinet for a while and was familiar with their work, so I applied because I think I’ve seen a lot of growth in myself over the last 3 years and am now in a place to be able to give back to the next generation of geospatial students, and that is an exciting opportunity.

Q: I work with a bunch of students, but you’re one of the few who are active in the FOSS4G community. What do you attribute this to?

A: I attribute this to the #gistribe. Anything that I’ve wanted to do but was unsure about, the tribe has always been super supportive of. Seeing other members of the #gistribe give presentations and workshops about an interesting topic has really inspired me to give presentations and to try and work hard in order to grow in this field.

Q: Since you’re just starting out in the big wide world of Spatial, where do you see yourself in 10 years?

A: I would like to build my developer skills in Python, R and SQL as well as increase my understanding of databases in order to become a lead data scientist for NASA. When I first started out in geospatial science I was amazed at how vast and wide this industry is. Geospatial science and location data are applicable to everything. This includes NASA; I think a lot of people, when they hear the word “NASA” they think space exploration and science. But NASA does so much more than that, they also explore and answer questions related to problems we are having here on Earth. Their work is far reaching and I’d like to be a part of that.

Q: You’re active in the Unitarian Church, how do you think GIS could help solve a problem that Church faces?

A: I think Geospatial Science could be used to show Unitarian Universalists what impact they are having in conducting social justice work throughout their communities. The Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations has a data science component, and one thing I think they could benefit from is adding a geospatial aspect to understanding where Unitarian Universalist are located throughout the US.

Q: Favorite projection and why?

A: When I first got started in geo, a friend of mine gave me a book entitled “Spaceship Manual for Planet Earth” by Buckminster Fuller, who designed the Fuller or Dymaxion projection. So my favorite projection is the Fuller Projection because it was the first projection I was introduced to as a geography student. I have never used it in any of my projects, either professional or personal, but maybe one day I’ll find a need for it.

Q: What is the one technology you wish you could master overnight?

A: I wish I could master JavaScript, I think I have learned python, R, SQL, HTML/CSS with ease. JavaScript is difficult but important so if it was possible to learn a programming language overnight that would be the one I’d do.

Q: Do you consider yourself a geohipster?

A: YES! I love being early to geo-centric technologies and related things happening in the community while also being able to share these same technologies with the students I work with.

Josh Stevens to GeoHipster: “It was Michelangelo, not chisel brand X, who made David”

Joshua Stevens
Joshua Stevens
Josh is the lead data visualizer and cartographer at NASA's Earth Observatory. Prior to coming to NASA, he was working on a PhD in geography at Penn State while on an NSF IGERT fellowship in Big Data Social Science. One time he made an eclipse map.

More about Josh and his work can be read on his personal website.

Q: How did you get into GIS?

A: My undergrad studies started out all over the place, and I had no idea what GIS even was until I was almost through with college. As a freshman I studied graphic design, following a lifelong interest in all things visual. But after the first year I got interested in photography, but shortly thereafter I switched majors again, this time to computer science. I briefly considered what graduate school in comp sci might be like before being a little “homesick”  from more artistic work; design, ultimately, was where my heart was.

During my junior year I stumbled upon a thing called Geographic Information Science in the list of majors at Michigan State University. Analysis and design, with a side of engineering? I changed my major that semester and have been hooked ever since.

While I bounced around between those majors, the bits and pieces I picked up were like little drops of experience that coalesced into the perfect preparation for a career in cartography and visualization. I didn’t know it at the time, but I couldn’t have planned it better if I tried.

Q: What do you do for NASA? Please describe your typical day on the job.

A: I sort of wear two hats. To tell a new visual story every day, I have to quickly analyze data, create maps and charts, and help our editorial team craft articles to communicate Earth science, primarily from or related to NASA missions. I am always scrambling to get or find data and then visualize it the best I can in a very short amount of time.

Over the longer term and in-between the daily articles, I lead the development of our style guide that establishes the overall look and feel of Earth Observatory visuals. This involves defining typographic styles, color palettes, base maps, and workflows. The workflows could be anything from a set of scripts to tutorials that enable us to go from raw data to public-ready graphics in an intuitive and consistent way.

Our bread-and-butter publication is the Image of The Day, which we put out 7 days a week, 365 days a year. So my typical day usually involves creating one or more visualizations to ensure that keeps happening, while carving out time to refine our style, identify new data sources, learn new technologies, or develop tools to help our team quickly publish press-ready visuals.

Q: Your PhD thesis is titled “Cues and Affordances in Cartographic Interaction”. Could you tell us about your research, and what spurred you to focus on this particular topic? Does what you learned feed into your work at NASA?

A: This research was a lot of fun! I was primarily interested in how to communicate varying “layers” of interactivity within maps. Sometimes a map symbol might only reveal a tooltip, while other features allow analytical functions, queries, or other capabilities. Some symbology has no interactivity at all. That’s information that should be clear to the user, and the visual design of map symbols can help clue users in to whether or not (or how much) a symbol is interactive.

I started my PhD before the major UI shift toward flat design, which was a good time to have a front-row seat to the backlash that followed that trend becoming commonplace. Early popular skeuomorphic designs were a bit heavy-handed with aesthetic ornamentation. As a response, designers sort of swung (too far) in the opposite direction: many interfaces became so flat that buttons were not distinguished from other design elements. This sort of design philosophy gives people chicken hands: they are constantly pecking, trying to discover which elements on screen can be clicked.

I wanted to humanize that experience, enabling users to do more thinking and less pecking.

My research was predicated on the belief that there’s a sweet spot in the middle: many, many interfaces could benefit from subtle cues that make interactive UI components a bit more obvious.

This research helped me think more clearly about hierarchies and designing with a purpose. Every map or visualization is a layering of information, and even if there’s no interactivity in a graphic, there’s still a competition for your attention and focus. Careful design ensures the viewer is drawn to the important bits, without totally removing less important elements. I like maps that communicate a key point quickly, then draw you in, revealing more insight as you study them.

Even if your fingers aren’t pecking a screen in different spots, your eyes might be. Good design settles things down and enables readers to focus on—or be guided to—the important information.

Q: There’s a lot of kids out there who want to work for NASA someday (including my own), although most of them are probably dreaming about space shuttles. If NASA has data visualization and cartography jobs, how wide does the variety get?

A: The variety is out of this world! (That was lame, wasn’t it? But it’s true!) You’ll find people working as everything from biologists to seamstresses at NASA.

I work in the Earth Science Division, and while the exact job title of “cartographer” is not a thing as far as I know — I don’t even have it — there’s an enormous amount of geospatial analysis and mapping going on. A lot of colleagues of mine have backgrounds in other fields — oceanography, geology, etc. — but we all make maps with the same data (perhaps with different software; the geologists really love GMT). But if it happens on Earth, NASA probably has an instrument that measures it, and handfuls of people with diverse expertise analyzing it and mapping it.

Q: What kind of technology do you use on the job? Mostly open source, or mostly proprietary, or an even mix?

A: It’s a mix. I’m a bit of a generalist: I use what gets the job done. That said, it is with some privilege that I am able to make those sorts of decisions. If there’s software out there, paid or otherwise, I probably have access to it.

That said, my go-tos by and large tend to be open source. GDAL is the real MVP of my workflow, and I use QGIS daily.

My top 5 most-used tools include QGIS/GDAL, Photoshop, After Effects, Python (with matplotlib, pandas, and NumPy), and Bash.

Q: Which systems are the most common sources of satellite imagery for your work?

A: We like to show things in true color when we can; readers really enjoy seeing satellite imagery that is as easy to understand as a photograph. That places a lot of emphasis on MODIS, VIIRS, and Landsat imagery.

Q: How often is it that a new system or source of imagery becomes available?

A: All the time! While the instrument construction projects and big launches make the news a few times a year, there are thousands of scientists around the globe developing new data from all the satellites already in orbit. Algorithms are improved, data sources are combined, and new applications emerge almost around the clock.

Q: Your website has dozens of examples of beautiful and informative maps. I’m guessing it takes quite a bit of work to pull the data together into a publishable product. Can you give us an example of a workflow, going from raw satellite data to polished map?

A: Thanks! I appreciate that.

One thing I have to admit being most proud of is that these projects are done super quickly. We publish daily, so I often only have a few hours, maybe 12 hours for larger stories, to get all the data that goes into something, process it, analyze it and find the story, and then design a map (or other visuals). In the last three years, there’s only one project that I worked on for longer than a week, which was the 2012 and 2016 updates to NASA’s Black Marble maps of nighttime lights.

The biggest effort has gone into developing the styles and workflows that make it possible to publish these visualizations so quickly.

I recently tweeted an example of a map coming together. The final map ended up as part of a piece on the Channeled Scablands. The basic steps for producing the imagery for this story were to:

  1. Generate a best-pixel mosaic of the area using five years of Landsat data in Google Earth Engine. While that was running:
  2. Download SRTM data for the area and merge the tiles with gdal_merge.py
  3. Hillshade the elevation data in QGIS (or GDAL)
  4. Color-correct and reproject the finished Landsat mosaic
  5. Blend the Landsat data with the hillshade
  6. Finish the map up with boundaries, water bodies, and labels, export for the web

To get even more out of the data, I also used the Landsat mosaic and elevation data to render a true color view at an oblique angle. The whole story finishes with a recent, individual Landsat scene. (You can read about how to color-correct and pan-sharpen Landsat scenes in tutorials from me and Rob Simmon.)

That all came together in about four hours. There’s always so much more I wish I could do with imagery, but our tight deadlines force us to be quick and lean.

Q: You’re a moderator for the esteemed Reddit community Data Is Beautiful. Last time I logged in there were 12+ million subscribers. How long have you been moderating, and what exactly does moderating entail?

A:  I’ve been moderating Data Is Beautiful since early 2014. Geeze, thinking back, it is hard to believe I am the second longest running mod in the subreddit. Back then we had about 50,000 subscribers and we were not a default shown to all visitors. We’d see maybe one popular post a week. It has grown quite a bit, and that has been awesome to witness over the years. We now have subscribers posting insanely well-done work that makes the front page of the entire site almost daily.

Each mod contributes to keeping things organized and spam-free, but most take on a labor of love depending on their interests. Early on I established the CSS design for the subreddit and our visual flair system to separate different types of posts. Other mods organize AMAs, run contests, or code up sweet bots that quantify the number of original content (OC) pieces a user has posted.

These days I am not super active as a mod; we’ve brought on a bunch of fantastic mods that really keep the sub running and growing.

Q: What do you do for fun? Any hipster traits we should know about?

A: I spend a lot of time playing with my kid (4). We’re really into Lego right now (see that, Ken? No ‘s’). My wife made the mistake of giving me Monster Hunter: World as a gift, and I haven’t been able to put it down.

I am looking forward to getting back into fishing this spring and summer. That’s a hobby I’ve neglected recently and I can’t wait to get back into it.

If a beard, a love of craft beer, and a fixed-gear bike are the criteria, I might be a hipster on paper. But in real life, I’m less like The Decemberists and more like Dexter (the awkward part, not all the other stuff…)

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

A:. Even though I use a lot of tools that might not be mainstream, I don’t see that as a goal or accomplishment that sets me apart. These are things that just help me do the job I need to do. So I wouldn’t say so, but maybe others might.

I’m also a bit wary (and weary) of an over-emphasis on the tools used by cartographers and the GIS community. How those tools are used, and the goals they achieve, is much more important. There’s a bit of a ‘library name drop culture’ on social media, where a long list of tech and libraries will be highlighted, and then it’s like “oh, and by the way this app ensured the four-pronged butterfly did not go extinct.”

That’s wrong, and we as a community should strive to fix that. There are social media accounts devoted to bashing this file format or that software. Why? That’s as useful as posting instagram photos of food you plan not to eat.

It was Michelangelo, not chisel brand X, who made David.

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

A: “[You] absolutely have to have dark in order to have light. Gotta have opposites, dark and light, light and dark, continually in painting. If you have light on light, you have nothing. If you have dark on dark, you basically have nothing. It’s like in life: you gotta have a little sadness once in a while so you know when the good times come.” –Bob Ross

Tim Waters: “Psychogeography is the cross-over of geography, psychology, and art”

Tim Waters
Tim Waters
Tim is a British geospatial developer, based in the north of England. Active within the OpenStreetMap community where he is known as “chippy”, Tim also has an interest in historical geography. Graduating with a degree in Environmental Science and later with a GIS Masters, he has worked for a number of organisations, including GeoIQ (of Geocommons and Esri acquisition fame) and Topomancy LLC developing historical mapping services for the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress. Tim currently works for himself and is available for hire. You might be familiar with his work on Mapwarper.net https://mapwarper.net/ ,-- the open source, free to use, collaborative georectification tool.

Blog: https://thinkwhere.wordpress.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/tim_waters

Tim was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.

Q: You have somewhat of an enigmatic online persona. Care to lift the veil and tell us more about yourself?

A: “Hello, nice to meet you. My name is Tim, I live in England, and work with maps on the internet!” Um, technology-wise, I work with Ruby, Python and Javascript. I do cartography, backend and front end stuff too. I suppose that makes me a full stack developer? I like open source geo software and crowdsourced approaches to working with maps.

You are not the first to say that I have an obscure online presence, but each time I’m a little bit surprised as it implies that others have a more public online life. Perhaps I’m European and we have different ideas and feelings about one’s private life? I’m also a bit older than most digital natives — perhaps that’s it? Also, given the current Facebook news event, one could understand why people might not want to share personal stuff online so much, but I wouldn’t say online privacy drives my activities. I also tend to dislike self promotion and blowing my own trumpet, so if you want advice on how to not share too much online, hire me as I’m a globally-recognised world-class thought leader in enigmatic social media practices!

Q: We met IRL in NYC at the 2015 SOTMUS conference, but we “met” on Twitter years prior, where you have been sharing witty commentary since early 2007. What brought you to Twitter in the first place, and what keeps you there?

A: I joined Twitter during one of the first WhereCamps in the Bay Area about a decade ago. A WhereCamp is a geo unconference. Free to attend and mostly self organised, WhereCamps were the fun after-party/conference usually straight after the O’Reilly Where 2.0 Conference. Anyhow, Twitter and geo at that time was quite similar. Early adopters, outlook and usage was quite similar. More optimism, smaller community, and more experimentation. The era of LBS was just around the corner! “Neogeography” was coined. There were no celebrities using Twitter, and it was never talked about by the chattering classes or your parents. Back then, people communicated mostly via desktop-based instant messenger clients, where you could set your away status to let your contacts know what you were up to if you were offline. Because of that “tweets” were called “statuses” for years. It’s quite different now of course and I mainly use it to read jokes, industry news, and alerts for various projects; it’s also good for direct messaging. I periodically delete all my tweets, except my likes and tweets that have certain words (e.g. “psychogeography” see below) in there. Thinking about this question and my own relationship with Twitter I’m forced to agree with Stephen Fry’s assertion that Twitter has become like a swimming pool that someone has done a poo in. My mute list contains most current political keywords that make up a little bit of the fecal matter. For several years I was accused of being both FakeSteveC (now Anonymaps) and FakeEdParsons, which I completely refute, but I was flattered of course, and I do enjoy Anonymaps greatly! In previous years, as further proof of my global thought leader status in social media frivolity, I achieved media coverage for starting the first truly global-wide meme on Twitter (https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/sometimes-i-just-want-to-_n_696318) and for creating a tool for making funny London Tube signs. An image created using an instance of that open source tool (not associated or managed by me) was shared virally via Twitter and made it into the UK Parliament with our Prime Minister herself commenting on it! (https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/media/2017/03/man-who-created-fake-tube-sign-explains-why-he-did-it)

The veil truly gets lifted!

Q: You are clearly passionate about OSM. Tell us more about your involvement with OSM — what and why.

A: OpenStreetMap started in the UK. And the reason why it started there was because we proto-geo-hipsters were starting to do cool stuff online with maps but we didn’t have any free data to play with. I was working for a city council at the time and I had nice data in the office but I couldn’t put it online for people to play with. The Americans had Tiger at least and a number of other datasets, but all the Brits had was blurry Landsat and hand-scanned out-of-copyright maps. So OSM was a solution to that itch. It was also a fun activity mapping from scratch, and got a fair bit of interest from the wider grassroots computing communities in Europe — Linux user groups in particular it seemed. Early on I hacked on a plugin for JOSM to read in WMS map images, and actually started Mapwarper as a way for people to easily get scanned out-of-copyright paper maps and balloon / kite imagery into a format for tracing over into OSM. I am also involved with Ben Dalton from the RCA on mapping the physical infrastructure of the internet within OSM: The New Cloud Atlas. http://newcloudatlas.org The things we map are data centres, cell towers, undersea cables etc. These days I’m also interested in OpenHistoricalMap http://www.openhistoricalmap.org which uses a separate OSM stack to make a map of literally everything that has ever existed in history and time! I think it’s a very modest mapping project.

I’m a supporter of the OSM Community, and worry when the community as a whole gets targeted for the behaviour of a small number of people. Those who seem to me to complain most about the community are also those who appear to work for companies that would benefit most from changes to OSM. Of course the problem of how to deal with a small number of troublesome people still remains and should be addressed. However, I’m quite the optimist and know that the wider OSM community is pretty healthy on the whole. It’s also worth saying that OSM, the organising entity, wouldn’t have been successful if it was bigger. It’s amazing, awesome, and crucial that the OSM Foundation remains small and focused, and that because of this leanness the ecosystem of tools, applications and services has been able to grow around it and flourish.

Q: You blog about Psychogeography. Tell us what that is, and what got you interested in the subject.

A: Psychogeography means many things. I’m very inclusive on what it means, many other people with definitions are more exclusive. So apologies for any long-winded explanation!
So, what does it mean? There’s a number of definitions. It’s the cross-over of geography, psychology, and art. It can cover games, sound, locative art, walking art, architecture, urban planning, cartography, literature, blockchain, and even Virtual Reality. The famous geographer / cartographer Denis Wood can be said to do it, and New Yorkers might remember the Conflux Festival as having a number of psychogeographic-like events. I like this definition best: Psychogeography is exploring space where you can learn three things: You can learn about a particular place (local), you can learn how places and space works (geography), and you can learn about yourself (your own perceptions, interpretations). Psychogeography is often classically done through something called the Derive (French for drift) and that  mainly comes from the boozy French group The Situationists, led by a fella called Debord. Debord came up with the idea of the Society of the Spectacle — which essentially is our consumerist culture of where it’s only the look that counts, where appearances matter more. A hipster is actually the perfect citizen within the Spectacle. They consume, but they consume because it looks authentic. They want the appearance of authenticity. A smaller number of hipsters create, and they create to appear authentic, handmade and artisan. Non-hipsters know it’s all fake, that’s why they mock hipsters. Ever notice how hipsters seem oblivious to this mockery? Because deep within themselves, hipsters know it too. But this feeling of fakeness is actually the crucial central thing! This fakeness drives the search for authenticity within hipsters, leading to the strengthening of the Spectacle. All this was predicted by Debord in the 50s. Hipsterism might be the perfect form of the human in the Spectacle, but we all have a greater or lesser participation in it, according to Debord. (I’m about 50% hipster.) Hipsters politically have been described as neo-liberal — they will support changes that appear progressive rather than those that might be more concretely beneficial or more socially minded. Hipsters will happily work in Silicon Valley venture capital-funded firms while thinking themselves as socialist. In the urban environment, hipsters get the blame for gentrification.

A geohipster would create tools to appear to be bespoke and artisan. Other geo hipsters will use them to support this. It’s not the technology that makes the hipster — it’s the way this is communicated, how it’s consumed. Twitter, blogs, and GitHub are the main way tech-hipsters communicate their images of what they are to one another. You also don’t seem to get shy hipsters online, do you?

Anyhow, the Drift, according to the Situationists, is an unstructured walk though varied environments. It’s a walk, or a way of using space that the space doesn’t prescribe. Think about travelling to the shops or to the pub. Now think about moving through that space at random, or by alternating a left or right turn. No one else would have used that space in that way before. By doing a drift you can uncover how the spectacle works. By doing things in non-prescriptive ways you see how they really work. It’s essentially a hacking activity.

Debord said that the Derive is the way to smash the Spectacle, or at least expose it, and capitalism. I don’t really believe that theory at all. But it would show you how things work, and I prefer the three types of learning theory as given above. It’s changed a bunch over the years anyhow, and I’m not sure what the current form is — we will find out what is happening now when it’s over. At FOSS4G conference a few years ago I did a talk about Psychogeography and its relevance to geographers, map makers, etc. — the key idea is that it’s a perception awareness activity — how can we make maps of a place if we don’t really know the place? I’m running the World Congress of Psychogeography this year in September, http://4wcop.org/. You should come too! Last year Irish national broadcaster RTE ran a radio show about the conference and psychogeography in general, so I’d suggest giving this a listen https://soundcloud.com/insideculture/s2-28 .

Q: I found this YouTube video where you explain dowsing as related to mapping. Is this the original map story technique? Tell us more about dowsing.

A:  Dowsing, or divining, is a technique to find things. The classic dowsing is using rods to find water. Most of the water companies in the UK employ dowsers to find leaks, even against the ire of scientists and newspapers. The companies say “it works, why stop it?”.

We had both pendulums and copper dowsing rods during the event in the video. The event was during the festival of Terminalia, the roman god of Terminus, the god of boundaries and landmarks. If ever there was a deity for geographers, it would be Terminus. We found locations on the map by hanging pendulums over them, and slowly moving them around the map. If the pendulum starts moving differently, then we mark down that on the map.

There are three theories on how dowsing works: the ideomotor effect — your body moves the thing subconsciously based on some kind of stimulus or thought, so perhaps your body might pick up water or electric fields and you let your hands move the instrument on their own. In our example, the pendulums would move when your brain picks out a suitable place over the map subconsciously. The second way, and least believable, is that some external force moves the instrument, this occult interpretation in our example would be Terminus moving the pendulum instead of us. The third way is that we move the instrument manually! I mean, no one else can tell that you are not moving the pendulum consciously, after all. In our example one would look at the map, think “I want to go there”, and manually move the pendulum over that area.

In my event, participants identified areas, new boundary markers to go to and then we went to those locations. Then, those who chose that point would explain why they chose it. It was a fun event!

Gregory Marler, a prolific OSM mapper and a very funny chap made that video.

Q: I love your humor, but I’m guessing it’s not everybody’s cup of tea. How do you react when people don’t get your jokes? (Asking for a friend.)

A: I like this question. Does it say more about me — humour that is hard to get, what to do when someone doesn’t get a joke — or does it say more about your friend? Hah! I suppose the main thing is that I’m British. We like banter, absurdism, irony, self deprecation, mockery and lists of cliched stereotypes. I suppose I don’t aim to be funny, nor do I think I’m that funny as a person either.  

How should one behave if someone doesn’t get a joke? Tell another one until they laugh?

Does it say more about your friend? Maybe!

Q: Any (geo)hipstery traits we should know about?

A: For my previous words about hipsters and geo hipsters, I do actually look up to geo hipsters, they are the cool kids on the block. And cool stuff is often good. Artisan coffee is actually pretty tasty after all. I want to be like them, and I crave their approval. New technology often starts on the edges and this is where the geo hipster performs their work. So we all benefit from geohipsters. Personally I like the tried and tested stuff. Some people like working with new technologies, it makes it interesting for them. I’m rather more interested in the end result, or doing a good job of it. If a new tool appears and it’s going to give a better result, then I will be more likely to use it. I can imagine that in some jobs where the end result might be not that exciting, one can put one’s enthusiasm in the technology. A privilege of working for yourself is that one can choose what to work on, that’s a freedom something the majority of technologists don’t have. So I understand that making and using new technology does not make you a geohipster.

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

A: The main interest for me and geospatial is democratizing access to these wonderful tools we play with. The open source software side complements this nicely. We get to work with great services and techniques, and wouldn’t it be great if everyone could get the same level of usage and productivity and joy as we do, without needing a Masters in GIS!

 

Topi Tjukanov: “In Finnish basemaps forest is white”

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

Topi was interviewed for GeoHipster by Ralph Straumann.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: How do you choose the appropriate visualization type?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What ISPs taketh away, the spatial community giveth back

By Amy Smith

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

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

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

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

Rick King

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russell Edward Taylor, III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: Enlighten us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anonymaps: “use.real.addresses”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: What is the purpose of your Twitter presence?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A: use.real.addresses. Meathead.

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

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

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

Howard was interviewed for GeoHipster by Randal Hale.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: Thoughts on Mapzen shutting down?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alasdair was interviewed for GeoHipster by Ralph Straumann.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A geogif of US states’ population numbers by Alasdair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A geogif of the 2017 US total solar eclipse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A: Thanks for having me.

Q: Thank you!