Denise is an Aussie who lives in England in the historic town of Winchester. She joined OGC in 2012 and spends her time managing the Communication and Outreach program globally for the consortium. The program handles the planning and execution of marketing, communication and education to raise awareness and increase implementation of open geospatial and location standards by technology providers and users worldwide. Part of Denise's role is to oversee OGC Alliance Partnerships including representation at the United Nations Global Geographic Information Management (UNGGIM) committee. She is a member of the Board of the Association for Geographic Information in the UK and the Global Advisory Board for the Location Based Marketing Association. Prior to her role with OGC, she worked for over 12 years with the Victorian Government (Australia) in areas of geospatial strategic policy, collaboration and innovation.
Denise was interviewed for GeoHipster by Alex Leithand Michael Terner.
Q: Tell us about how you came to work for OGC.
A: It’s a serendipitous story, like most of my career, to be honest. I had been back working for the Department of Sustainability and Environment in Victoria, Australia for just over a year after maternity leave from my second child. Apart from the huge challenge of the VicMap API project, one of the other activities I had been leading was to set up the first OGC Australia and New Zealand Forum. As anyone who tries to work from Australia with people in other parts of the world will know – this included a lot of late night calls. It was during one of these calls that I was chatting with the CEO of OGC and he asked me if I had seen that the position for Executive Director for Marketing and Communications was being advertised. I said yes, and simply asked how their search was going. The response I got was “actually I was wondering if you had considered applying?” I think it would be fair to say that my face somewhat resembled that of a guppy fish (jaw on the floor and no words coming out – was so grateful that I did not have video for that moment). In my daze I asked a few more questions, finished the call and wandered into the kitchen where I then asked my husband what he thought of the idea of moving to a different country for work? He said sure… so I applied and rest is history.
Q: You travel a lot. What’s the best and worst thing about this?
A: Most days I really think I have one of the best jobs you can have in our industry. I love meeting new people, seeing new places and in the 6 years of working in OGC I realised how much I love seeing and learning about the amazing things people use location data for and how that changes the world for the better in so many ways. I feel really privileged to be able to represent the OGC membership throughout the world and to be able to tell their stories and to share the benefits that open geospatial standards can achieve.
It may sound cliche but the worst thing about travel is the time it takes me away from my family at home. Though my kids would say that it is not all bad because mum brings back presents! My rule is that they only get presents if the travel has been to a country I have never been to before and I always look for something that has a cultural connection to where I have been. It does make for some funny stories though. My son when he first started school explained to his teacher that “mum was away on the space station.” He had been confused when I said I was going to the European Space Agency (Frascati, Italy).
Q: You’ve been living in the UK for six years, do you miss Australia?
A: Of course! I will be an Aussie till my last day, but I do love my new country and am pretty lucky to be able to enjoy both places. The coffee scene is slowly improving (Winchester Coffee Roasters has been a life saver – though I did laugh when I discovered the owner learnt how to make coffee in Sydney).
But things I miss most include:
Beaches where the sand stretches for miles
Flake & potato cakes from the fish and chip shop
Sydney rock oysters
Rust orange sunsets – the ones in the UK are more pink in color
The smell of lemon-scented gums after it rains
The sound of magpies carolling in the mornings.
Q: Where does spatialred come from? Is it the blue hair?!
A: Hmm, there are only 5 other people who were involved in the creation of that twitter handle and how it came about is now a bit of an urban legend 😉 All I can say is that it was during a conference in New Zealand. I did have red hair at the time, but no that is not what inspired it. However seems to have stuck over the years and to be fair I do wear red pretty often.
Q: While standards are undeniably important, they are also boring. Can you convince us that they are hip?
A: Oh I love this question! Because I honestly believe they are anything but boring. They are one of the most powerful tools for sharing information and knowledge that we have. They bring people together around common problems and give them a pathway to solving them. Standards cross boundaries and borders in ways that enable us the greatest global insights into our planet that we have ever been able to access. One of my current favorite examples of this is the Arctic SDI,where 8 nations are now sharing data across international borders using OGC’s open standards.
At the end of the day it will be the standards we all agree on and the data that will flow through them that will help the world’s leaders make better decisions.
Location standards in particular help us to share data for all kinds of purposes, like understanding climate change, managing city infrastructure, getting planes safely to their destination and so many other world-changing benefits.
In short standards are the infrastructure that enable us to enjoy access to the incredibly rich information resources the web now provides. You can have the best data in the world, but if you can’t share it with anyone then of what benefit is it? Open location standards are one of the most powerful tools for data sharing around and that is why I think they are hip!
Q: What’s your take on the organically emergent standards, like shapefile, or GeoJSON that did not come out of standards setting organizations? Are they better or worse than OGC standards?
A: The truth is that most of the OGC standards start life in some way outside of the formal standards creation process. New standards are driven by innovation. Yes, you did read that correctly – standards happen because of innovation, not after the innovation has happened as I think many believe sometimes. No set of standards that operate in the web exist without interaction with other standards. We need to all work together to ensure the ecosystem works and the data flows and is visualized where it needs to be. Innovation will always help to create new and better ways of doing things and that is why you get communities developing standards like GeoJSON – though remember this standard is now part of a formal standards body at IETF.
A standard that is created outside OGC is no better or worse than an OGC standard – the most important thing is that the standard meets the needs of the users. I think one of the best developments in OGC in the past 5 years has been the creation of the Community Standard process. This now allows standards that are developed outside of that formal process but are mature, stable and being regularly used to be proposed as an OGC standard and come into the organisation with minimal change.
Q: How, and why did KML (originally a de facto standard) become an OGC standard?
A: In some ways, KML was really our first community standard (though we didn’t have formal process for it in those days). It was before my time in OGC, but from what I understand there was a recognition in Google that the standard would enable more data to be made available in this format if it was an international open standard than to remain a proprietary format in Google. Perhaps a good question to pose to Ed Parsons ;-).
Q: Can you talk about the difference in the process involved in WFS 3.0 and the ‘old’ way of developing standards? Also, are the other WxS services being reviewed?
A: This is my new favorite topic and one that excitingly you will see a lot of progress on in the next twelve months. I have watched a lot of change in the way we make standards in OGC. Word docs have given way to GitHub, PDF has given way to HTML, the range of market domains in OGC have increased, and hackathons have been introduced to complement our technical meeting process. It is important to note that our web service standards are not going away any time soon, but with the innovation in use of APIs it is time we developed some new standards to help ensure we can keep sharing geospatial data. The way we have started to describe what is happening is the following analogy.
Picture a brick house with great sturdy foundations that has been improved and matured over a long time and is currently being very well lived in and serves much of the world’s geospatial data. This is our OGC web services house and inside is WMS, WFS, WPS, WCS, WMTS and OWS Common. But we now have new building materials and methods of creating a house so we need some new standards to help us continue to share our geospatial data in an innovating world. This new house will be called the OGC API. In this house you will find OGC API – Features (formerly known as WFS 3.0), OGC API – Common, OGC API – Maps, OGC API – Processes, OGC API – Tiles and so on. The idea is that both these two houses will continue to co-exist for a long while yet, they will draw from the same data lakes and we will be building bridges to help developers move from one house to the next. Hopefully without too much trouble.
There is a hackathon that will push the development and testing of new specs for a number of these new standards in June this year just prior to our Technical Meetings in Belgium. Keep an eye out for more details and how to get involved. These need industry-wide support, review and participation to make them a great new generation of OGC standards.
Q: Ok, big question: Is spatial special?
A: No and yes. Sorry, fence sitting answer I know. In the big wide world of data – it is just another data type. But it has some unique and important elements about it that mean if you handle spatial data incorrectly you will get really bad outcomes. So I think that there is still an important role for spatial professionals in helping ensure that we use spatial data the right way and ensure we support good evidence-based decisions.
Maybe the question isn’t whether spatial is special or not, but why there still seems to be so much of the world that does not harness the power of spatial data or understand what it can do. Perhaps it is more a question of whether we as a community of practice think we are too special and are yet to really reach outside of our community to the broader world of data users to ensure that the goodness that spatial data can bring is shared globally.
And for what it is worth, I like the words location and place over geospatial or spatial (maybe our language is part of the problem?).
Q: Among your work experience on LinkedIn you list ‘mother’, which is awesome! Can you talk about this a bit?
A: Oh man, do not get me talking about my kids or we will be here for pages more 😉…but you have touched on something that is increasingly becoming an important topic for me and that is diversity. Not just gender diversity, but diversity in all areas – age, culture, language, experience, skills. I am sure it would be unsurprising to many of the readers here when I say that I am commonly either the only or one of a few women in many work situations I find myself in (unless of course it is International Women’s Day). Whilst I will say it is improving, it does not seem to be fast enough.
This year I ran an International Women’s Day event in London titled Women in Geospatial. I invited 3 women who are midway through their working careers to talk about their experience in the geospatial industry and how they got there, but the speakers on the day that had the most impact for me were the 4 women on our early careers panel. Whilst saying that they loved working in the industry, they all still had stories of intimidating all-male interview panels, some but not enough female role models in senior leadership positions and comments on their university degrees not having enough of the practical skills that they need now for their current jobs.
Another pivotal event was during FOSS4G last year in Tanzania when Rebecca Firth (from the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team) and I ran a Diversity in Geo session and had close to 40 people turn up at 4pm on the second day of the conference. This helped to realise just how important it is to be a good role model and that when you are in a visible international role such as mine that we have an obligation and responsibility to help drive and be part of the necessary change.
So yes, I list “mother” as a job and I am very proud to do so, as the balance between work and family is paramount for me. To be honest I have learned so much by having this role in life and it enables me to bring many diverse perspectives to what I do, particularly now that my kids have reached an age where they are explaining the latest tech to me! #DiversityInGeo#WomenInGeospatial
Lastly a shout out to the lovely ladies that have started the WomenInGeospatial network recently, which I highly recommend getting in touch with if you are looking to network with other women in the industry.
Q: What’s #1 on your bucket list?
A: Hmm, I think (and I am sure my mum would laugh in agreement with this) I have always wanted to do something that would help change the world for the better. I definitely have been able to do a lot in my time both at DSE in Australia and now in OGC that has helped, but we have so much more that we can do and I am really excited to be part of the OGC journey and working with our new leadership. I definitely can’t say that I have totally completed this bucket list item yet, but I am on my way and guess we will need to wait another 25 years or so of my career before I will know if I really achieved it or not ;-).
Q: And finally, what about you makes you a geohipster?
A: I simply love what geospatial can do and I love evangelizing about it. It is such a good news story and really has the power to change the world for the better. Oh and I love the challenge of making open geo standards hip.
Courtney is a product manager at the Canadian Digital Service. Before joining the public service, she worked at Esri building products to connect local governments and their communities using open data. She has a BA in Urban Systems and GIS from McGill University. She lives in Ottawa and is moderately active on Twitter.
A: Growing up I was enamoured with big cities (living in the suburbs where they’re just out of reach will do that) and was glued to the computer (see: suburbs). I took an elective geography class in high school because it had an urban geo unit, and that’s where I learned about GIS. We used ArcView 3. I remember creating shapefiles of the neighbouring plaza’s building footprints and mapping the GPS points of garbage. I loved the mix of art and science that GIS brought — the data collection, analysis, and communicating information in a clear and appealing way. It was a way I got to flex whatever creativity or eye for design I had while being rooted in science, which was typically more of my strong suit. I also got to be on the computer, so, bonus! My first GIS map is still kicking around in my dad’s basement somewhere. It’s not The Garbage Map, but it is definitely a garbage map.
I was amped to learn more in university and dive deeper into urban applications of GIS. I wanted to be a transportation planner but got wooed by the open government data movement that was taking off, and that set my course.
Q: You currently work for the Canadian Digital Service. What is the mission of the Service, and what do you personally do there?
A: The Canadian Digital Service uses digital skills and knowledge to make it easier for people to access and use government services. We partner with other federal departments and work to improve the services they provide Canadians, and while doing so we’re sharing with our colleagues a different way of working in government – a way that’s open, interdisciplinary, and puts the user first. We’re trying to make everyone’s day a little bit easier.
I’m a product manager, so I work on a delivery team of designers, researchers, and developers, and engage with partners across government to make sure the right thing gets built at the right time. It’s a lot of different hats.
A: Yeah! The team really is fantastic. I think it’s incredibly important that we stay humble in the kind of work we do, especially when we’re the new kids in town and we’re working with public servants that have been doing this hard work for years. We’re not sweeping into departments and shaking them up, but aiming to empower folks who have been moving to work in a more modern way all along. I feel incredibly supported as an individual working at CDS, but I don’t feel like it’s really about us in the end. I’d encourage anyone who wants to tackle some big issues for the greater good to apply–we’re looking for roles across the organisation and you don’t need to be Canadian.
Q: Prior to your current position you worked at Esri DC, where you focused on ArcGIS Open Data. Was that big / open geodata, or just data?
A: It was just data. ArcGIS Hub (née Open Data) supports both spatial and non-spatial data, though of course the majority of datasets people published were spatial — raster or vector. I think that’s mostly of a function of it being Esri but also that the majority of data out there has a spatial component.
Q: Is spatial still special?
A: I’m not sure spatial is inherently special, but local gov GIS teams are incredibly well equipped to spearhead a city’s open data strategy and open data services. They hold a ton of data, and we’ve seen more GIS folk use their data to tell stories and share information rather than simply sharing shapefiles — they’ve moved beyond reaching only the civic hacker or data journalist. Your average person on the street doesn’t care what a shapefile is. Lots of people just want to know if they’re buying a home in a safe area and to make sure their kid can walk to school without a high chance of getting run over. Having those kinds of geo-infomediaries that put insights beside data empowers more users to make decisions and insights of their own.
Over my four years at Esri we saw incredible information resources emerge from what started as simple open data sites. Some of Esri’s users went from being GIS analysts at their local government to being the city’s Chief Data Officer, others have developed partnerships with Waze, others are engaging with schools and showing students the value of open data. GIS shops can really open the door to greater public uses and applications of information beyond just sharing data.
Q: Tell us about life after Esri.
A: Life after Esri was tough at first. Leaving Esri was tough. It took a long time to feel comfortable and productive at my first long-term job out of university, which I imagine a lot of young women in tech can relate to. I had established relationships, a community of practice, and a reputation, and then I took a leap and moved to a new city to start a new job in a new field where I didn’t have any of that. So it was a bit of a lonely reset. The first few months were challenging and scary and uncomfortable, but I need to feel challenged and scared and uncomfortable in order to grow, and I don’t regret it. Plus my rent is cheaper.
I miss geography, GIS, and DC’s incredible geo community. Twitter provides me an endless stream of geo FOMO.
Q: What drove you to come work in the US? What drove you to return to Canada?
A: Both times were for jobs; I’m very lucky I could pick up and move like that. I attended the 2014 OpenStreetMap conference in DC and met people from Esri which led to the move south of the border. It was the best thing I could have done at the time and I didn’t think twice about it.
During my time in DC I was introduced to 18F and the United States Digital Service, and then gradually followed Canada’s growth into digital government — Code for Canada forming, the province of Ontario hiring a Chief Digital Officer and creating the Ontario Digital Service, and then the Canadian Digital Service being born. I wanted a closer look at how government works and it’s an exciting time to work in digital government in Canada. It’s also great to be back closer to my family and to have real winters again.
Q: PBR features regularly in your Instagram feed. Also bikes. Any other hipster attributes we should know about?
A: Ha! Damn, outed. In my defense, PBR is a fine dock beer and we recently got out of dock season here in Ontario. Back in DC my pal Max hosts an annual hipster triathlon: swim 20 laps of a public pool, run around a track for a while, then bike to a brewery wearing funny clothes. I loved it. Other than that, I don’t think about what it means to be a hipster or what hipster attributes are. Maybe that makes me one. Whatever.
Q: Canadians are nice and generous. What else are they?
A: I struggle a bit with defining Canadian identity because It’s filled with so many different types of people from different geographies. I think Canadians have a witty, satirical, sometimes dark sense of humour. We are incredibly diplomatic and while polite, our politeness is often just a way to mitigate our fear of confrontation, and sometimes that turns into passive aggression. We have great musicians that we’re fiercely defensive of. We get excited when anything Canadian appears in American pop culture and we take the jokes in stride. We have parental leave!
We also have our fair share of hate crimes and racist harassment, a version of Breitbart, a history of Indigenous genocide that still carries through to today, and a white nationalist running for mayor of the largest city in Canada. That’s harsh, but I feel Canada is frequently cast in this utopian light where the only news is a deer strolling in a Tim Hortons drive-thru. It’s a mix of good and bad. It’s like any place.
I often pass this book in the window of a local bookstore, and I think it sums it up:
Q: Are you a geohipster? Why / why not?
A: I’ll hang onto whatever variation of geographer identity I can get nowadays.
Q: On closing, any words of wisdom for our readers?
A: If you’re wavering about moving to a new place where you don’t know anyone, just go for it, especially if you’re young. As my new coworker Lyn says, what’s the better story when you’re eighty?
Also, here is my favourite song that features map projections:
*The irony of this video not working in Canada is not lost on me.
True to the hipster theme, Adam is a consultant-at-large on open source spatial systems and problem solving. He’s a real doctor in the academic sense, and has a truly multidisciplinary outlook on geospatial and web technology, as seen through the lens of developing human capacity to evolve and create a better world as we work out our existence in the one we have.With a CV covering field research on sea ice, infrastructure-scale data services, professional bicycle repair, and cat herding on wilderness walking trips, he’s a stander-upon-the-shoulders-of-giants, and definitely thinks way too hard about society, human evolution, infrastructure-scale technology, geospatial magicking, and penguins.
Adam was interviewed for GeoHipster by Alex Leith.
Q: First off the bat, you recently attended FOSS4G in Dar es Salaam. What did you think?
A: I’ve been sitting on a blog post about it for a month. It’s been super hard to wrap up because it’s Africa + FOSS4G rolled into one. This FOSS4G really impressed on me more than anything how open source geospatial software, open data, and the communities around it can make real, on-ground change in the world. I’d never been to Africa before, and really was swept away by the experience. I made a point of travelling by foot as much as possible, trying to see the rhythm of the city, and how it works – what happens outside the western tourist cocoon (as much as that is possible). I drank a bunch of coconuts, and wished I could speak Swahili. I saw a lot of excellent technical talks. Some I didn’t expect to see, some on my ‘must-see list’. There was also a huge amount of discussion on the human and community aspects of our geospatial world. I listened to many stories, and came home with a soul full of hope about the future. However, to realise that future I’ll quote Mark Iliffe: “It’ll take all our resources, and all our privilege”. That’s an undisguised call – especially to people like me who really have very few barriers to overcome – to listen, reflect, and act. See the barriers other people face, and use our privilege to help tear them down. What sticks in my mind most from this iteration of FOSS4G was a real focus on overcoming challenges. Getting over 100 people to a conference via travel grants. Wow! Running a 1,000 person event in Africa. Wow! Walking the streets of Dar Es Salaam every day for a week. Wow!
Q: How was Zanzibar?
A: Personally, I’d intended Zanzibar to be a full switch off. Maybe at most walking to a beach every day or something. Instead, I offered space in an AirBnB I’d booked to some of the OpenDroneMap team, and ended up in a whirlwind. Still, it was inspirational. Having just finished a big conference, I did have some time to absorb and reflect on the conference in the context of Africa. One thing which struck me was the extreme inequality of life there. Literally next door to each other were 5 star tourist resorts and locals in basic homes cooking over fire. Another was how well society appears to function in chaos. Australia seems really rigid and afraid by comparison. I also appreciated the ‘on ground’ experience of the OpenDroneMap team, in particular Stephen Mather (a Zanzibar regular). It inspired an idea about how the geospatial community can be similar. We’re all trying to make progress, but like Zanzibar, there can be myriad and strange labyrinths to navigate. A friendly guide can go a long way.
Q: You live and work in our nation’s capital Canberra, what’s that like?
A: It’s awful, don’t come here. It’s seriously unaffordable. …actually it’s one of two cities in Australia I’d live in, the other being Hobart. Canberra’s most famous attribute is that it’s two hours from everything – the sea, the snow… and actually about 45 minutes from splitter cracks and heinous slabs on chunky granite if that’s your thing. It’s sometimes my thing. Its secret attribute is that in most suburbs, you can be in relatively uncurated bushland in about ten minutes on foot. As a full time cycle commuter, I also like that I can pick a bunch of routes through forests and parks, instead of battling cars. Unfortunately, like many places, Canberra is losing its urban wilderness in favour of cookie cutter housing estates.
Q: Your job involves doing a lot of work with PDAL. Do you like it?
A: Yes – PDAL is a fantastic toolkit. I really only explore a tiny part of it at the moment; there’s as much I don’t know what to do with it as I do know. It’s a real case of standing on the shoulders of giants. It has its limitations. One of the best things is that Howard Butler and team are very much cognisant of those up front – and provide as many means as possible for others to add new tools in ways which suit them. It’s an honest toolkit, one that doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is. One of things that it is, however, is being really useful!.
Q: What’s something interesting we don’t know about LiDAR?
A: All LiDAR instruments quite literally capture a point cloud – a little fuzz around whatever surface is being measured. I did a lot of work tracking down noise in LiDAR measurements, ending with hanging a LiDAR scanner in a lab and scanning a concrete floor for a few hours. Did we get a flat scan? No. We could fit a flat regression line to the data with high confidence, but the points themselves sat inside a neat biconcave envelope described by a function of range, scan angle and angular encoder uncertainty. The shape of this envelope is different for different instrument styles – line scanners, circular/ellipse pattern scanners, solid-state beams – but the fuzz is common to all LiDAR instruments and measurements.
Q: Does working with point clouds make you look down on the 2.5-D nature of regular GIS?
A: Not at all. In fact I barely understand a lot of ‘regular GIS’ things. My geo-training started with a lot of concern about minutiae – getting data right for an incredibly specific task (sea ice research); so in ‘standard GIS’ domains I’m still almost completely lost. I get there, with a lot of help from friends. And so much can still be done with good old 2D/2.5D analysis! I still like to push toward a 4, or 5D world – we can capture reality in 3D; capture time plus space, then time plus space plus insight – what we glean from analysing the world in space and time. We humans do this all the time, in fact, you’re doing it right now reading this – we really exist in at least 5D…
Q: Shapefile or GeoPackage?
A: GeoPackage! Although to be honest, I’d be hard pressed to have a proper discussion about why. Although – I can store a neat little SQLite database in there with points, or data boundaries… plus metadata… and it’s nicely self contained.
Q: You did an undergraduate in Neurobiology, Honours in Antarctic studies, and a PhD in Surveying. Why?!
A: The glib answer is why not? The true story is this (grab a beverage and a seat..): I actually applied to art school as a fresh out of high school kiddo – and didn’t get in. I hated school and did the bare minimum to pass. So my creative work really wasn’t up to scratch. Finding jobs was hard in the early 1990s, but I did OK at science and based on that, found employment as an assistant in a neurophysiology research lab. Mixing chemicals, making electrodes, anaesthetising sheep, slicing up brains and mounting slides. A couple years in, I figured it was university time – and naturally started a brand new degree program on cognitive science. This morphed into psychology/neurophysiology because I failed uni level maths (little did I know… I ended up doing two more years of solid stats… same same). A final year elective in Medical Anthropology made me question everything. So I quit, went to work as a teaching aide in a technical college, then picked up a job as a web developer based on a side job I’d had making websites back in the late 1990s. Fast forward a few years – career change time again. I applied for an honours year (4th undergrad year/masters year) multidisciplinary program in Antarctic science, got in, moved to Hobart, and went through an intense ‘in the deep end’ education in Antarctic physical and ecological systems, logistics and international law. Plus a research thesis on estimating ice floe sizes from airborne imagery.
I went straight to work (a few days after I dumped in the thesis) guiding people on Tasmania’s Overland track for a couple of summers, and being a semi-homeless outdoorsy drifter. In 2007 I was offered a job as a tech officer to support a sea ice research voyage – and abandoned my plans to move to New Zealand and become a mountain guide. I went south three years running – operating an aerial photography program and field validation measurements, progressing to LiDAR flight operations and running a bunch of GPS units until, in 2009, a PhD project was devised. I was awarded a scholarship and I went for it! The project was all about measuring sea ice elevation using airborne LIDAR, then estimating ice thickness based on some empirical modelling from that. I also needed to know the uncertainty of every single point in the point cloud – so a lot of maths (that thing I suck at) ensued. And geodesy. And three years discovering that most of the data we had so far are terrible and designing an experiment to fix that. Finally, in 2012, the plan came to life and we got what we needed to finish the job. In summary, we surveyed moving objects. I deployed the first ever robotic total survey on East Antarctic sea ice, using it to set up a coordinate system that drifted with the ice. And then, used the data to link airborne, on-ice and under-ice observations and create a PhD thesis. I got to ski around sea ice with a surveying prism; and also drilled a lot of holes in the ice. Oddly enough, my best topic at high school was geography – so the circle completes eventually…
A: Oh man. This is absolutely terrifying! And the momentum is huge! So late in 2017 there was a bit of noise in a Slack channel about organising a conference. And fast forward to now it seems to have just happened organically, and hugely. As the sponsorship coordinator my life has been really easy — the sponsors come to us! It’s been great to work with the committee, we disagree quite a lot and I have some really crazy ideas – some of which made it (yay!) – and others which really needed some moderation/re-appraisal. Whatever happens, we always manage to get something done – we all seem really good at compromise where it’s appropriate – and importantly in directions which aim to make a positive change. Which is always the grease that gets stuff moving, right? I’ve learned an awful lot from everyone in the process. We haven’t met all our goals – we wanted a perfect gender balance, we wanted to have much greater representation from indigenous communities, we wanted … the universe on a plate. What we *have* done is tapped into a rich vein – and exceeded our expectations about community interest. We have a fantastic program, and can do our best to make some audacious moves in shaping how this community can evolve as we steam ahead. I’m really looking forward to turning up – and all the buzz that happens to get the final wrinkles ironed out. I really hope we can keep this momentum going, and engage even more of the open geospatial community in our region next year!
A: It’s a call back to my psychology days – we discussed a lot how our environment shapes how we are able to perceive the world. One trip to Antarctica I was watching penguins cross fast ice for a while, and had a lightbulb moment that made me giggle – the parallel between conformist work environments and penguins is obvious. The hilarious part was how penguins solved these seemingly simple problems – and this dawning realisation that humans can fall into those same patterns.
At the end of the day I hope it’s a way to encourage reflection on the rules we make up for ourselves, and have some fun.
Q: Favourite craft beer?
A: Right now, when I order a bespoke beer, I’ll grab a Bent Spoke crankshaft IPA. Or a Velvet Cream Stout from the Wig n Pen. Canberra has a couple of awesome microbreweries, all within cycling distance of course!
Q: What’s #1 on your bucket list?
A: That’s a tough one. To pick on one thing – getting to South America, the last continent I’ve never visited. With my skis and climbing gear. And banging out perfect telemark turns down huge mountains. I’ve only been in airports in Asia, come to think of it.. So there’s #2.
Q: And finally, what about you makes you a geohipster?
A: To tick off some boxes? I telemark ski in the backcountry, ride bikes, climb rocks, have a beard, and have a collection of obscure paper maps… January Makamba, the introductory speaker at FOSS4G 2018 summed it up well: we are a socially conscious community. We want to help create and maintain amazing tools that are well crafted, functional, accessible, and contribute to a world we want to keep living in. The core hipster ethos of care about what we do, and how it impacts our world, definitely resonates with me strongly. Add some geo, and there we are…
A self-confessed ‘cartonerd’ with a personal and professional passion for mapping, Ken gained his BSc in Cartography at Oxford Polytechnic and PhD in GIS at Leicester University and fell into academia. He spent 20 years in key positions in UK universities before moving to sunny California to join Esri in 2011. He has presented and published an awful lot. He blogs, tweets (@kennethfield), is past Editor of The Cartographic Journal (2005–2014), and Chair of the ICA Map Design Commission (2011–2019). He co-founded the Journal of Maps, is on the advisory board of the International Journal of Cartography, is a Fellow of both the British Cartographic Society and Royal Geographic Society, is a Chartered Geographer (GIS), and only the second Honorary Member of the New Zealand Cartographic Society.
Q. Ok, I guess we have to start by clearly laying out your geohipster qualifications. Let’s get into #geocheese, which you revealed at the recent (Sept 2018) #geomob event in London. Tell us about this project.
Oh my, geohipster qualifications eh? I guess I was wearing chunky framed glasses (and the occasional beard) way back before geohipsters even knew that it was a thing. Does that count? I’ve been in the mapping game for around 30 years, longer if you count drawing odd fantasy maps, usually of sci-fi planets, as a kid. I’ve increasingly sought to take mapping beyond the defaults whether that’s in the digital realm or, sometimes, through drawing maps by hand. I got really into the hand-drawn process when I picked up my pencils after a long hiatus during the aftermath of the Trump Presidency victory. I drew a satirical map called Trump’s Ties and found it to be a really cathartic process. There’s much to be said for sketching and ‘doing’ as opposed to just pushing digital data around a screen which is, I think, the modern cartographic coalface for most of us.
So the cheese idea (and I like #geocheese btw) was one of those where I had a eureka moment and decided to make a map of the distribution of British cheese. We have such a strong history of cheese production in the UK and, since moving to California, I reflect on the taste and quality often because it’s so difficult to get good cheese in the USA. The idea came from a map of another British obsession – the humble biscuit mapped by Chris Wesson in 2017. It was a great poster, explaining where the jammy dodger and digestive were from, among a range of other tasty morsels. So why not a map of cheese? You can find a few artsy maps online but I wanted to make the map out of cheese, not just make a map of cheese.
There’s a load of detail over at my blog but I firstly had to design and make a cheese board in the shape of the United Kingdom. This required the design of a map of ceremonial counties and then the use of an exported svg file to drive a CNC router and laser engraver. A lot of craft went into making the board and I couldn’t have done it without the expertise of artisan woodworker Andrew Abbott who helped bring it to life. I’m big on collaboration and if you don’t have the necessary chops then find someone who does. I’m always trying to get map-makers to do the same; to team with cartographers to improve the map; so I followed my own advice and probably prevented personal injury from a variety of dangerous tools as a result.
The cheese to go on the board was whittled down from a large list to around 30 pieces, covering the geography, range of styles, classics and rarities of UK cheese production. I sourced it from half a dozen suppliers and that was that. A bit of logistics to get all the pieces together for the #geomob event (and, by the way, thanks for entertaining my daft idea!) and it was good to go. I was delighted that the cheese was devoured. It was a fun project and creating a real-life, time-limited edible cheese map exhibit is definitely something I’m glad I did. Maps can be fun. They can also be downright tasty. I’ve had a few people ask about a craft beer map or a whiskey map…hmm. This could become a thing
Q. But dairy products are far from your only geohip media. Earlier this summer you unleashed a wave of envy with your Lego globe.
Ahh yes, the Lego globe. I’m a bit of a Lego freak. It’s one of those things that I loved playing with as a kid, just building stuff from those wonderful small plastic bricks. I had a lot of Lego when I was young but it was mostly random pieces, rather than sets. I guess adulthood eventually brings the financial muscle required to actually buy the kits and, so, it’s as much an adult plaything. At least that’s my excuse. But there’s never been a Lego globe set to my knowledge. You occasionally see them if you go to one of the Legoland parks but how do you go about building one? Again, it became a bit of a challenge and I like a mapping challenge.
While I like the kits I can buy and I can easily follow instructions I’m no master builder so I was delighted when I eventually found a German guy called Dirk who had not only designed a globe (and a flat world map as it happens) but, he also sells the plans at a very modest price. Once you’ve got the plans you set about buying the bricks from second hand online brick markets. Fascinating to even learn that there are thousands of people who have online stores trading in Lego bricks. I sourced the bricks from over 60 different sellers from around 10 different countries. The postie did wonder what all the packages were (that rattled). I had some explaining to do. There’s over 3,800 pieces and it then took about 30 hours to build. It’s not glued so it’s a pretty technical build in that it can easily cave in on itself because it’s a sphere. It’s mostly hollow but for a few solid layers top and bottom. There’s a large central vertical column between the poles, and four struts coming off that at the equator so there’s some structure but it’s pretty fragile.
My colleague John Nelson and I were involved in putting together a ‘creative cartography’ display for our User Conference in San Diego in July 2018 and I offered to display the globe near the exhibit. So we were able to do a Lego-themed exhibit (while not actually mentioning the name Lego of course – too much lawyer work involved in that one!). It was a real draw and selfies of people with the globe were popping up everywhere – what’s not to like about a globe made of Lego at a conference for map geeks!? I also took it on tour to the UK Mapping Festival where it was also exhibited behind a London bus. I have a large packing case for it now so am happy to take it to various places if people want it on display. It’s just a bit of fun and huge thanks to Dirk for his original work. I pretty much just bought his kit and built a copy. It’s certainly geohip and was quite an effort to source and build but Dirk’s is the only globe I’ve found with pretty accurate cartography and map colours and that was, of course, pretty important to me. Just please don’t ask how much it cost.
Q. On top of all that you list yourself on LinkedIn as a “Professional cartonerd”. What sorts of reactions does that get?
Well it’s better than the reaction I get to my official job title of ‘Senior Cartographic Product Engineer’. I have long discussions about that at work. We all have fairly generic job titles which is fine, but not on a business card which tends to leave a quizzical frown on people’s faces. In fact, I don’t even bother with business cards and the like because it kicks off a pointless conversation. But bizarrely, I’ve never had a job where I’ve been called a cartographer. Much of what I do is part of a cartographer’s job but I write, teach, blog, make maps, do research, design stuff, comment and critique, etc. The point is that people perceive ‘cartographer’ in fairly stereotypical and narrowly defined terms. It’s often regarded as old school. You know, people hunched over light tables with pens and rulers. I once actually did that as a job for a few months work experience and vowed never to become a cartographer. To date, I’ve kept that promise to myself even though I ‘do’ cartography. Dataviz expert, data scientist, data architect, coder, etc all resonate more favourably so I tend not to pigeonhole myself as ‘cartographer’. I wrote this up as suffering a condition called Cartographic Identity Disorder a few years ago.
I was given the name ‘marauding cartonerd’ after an infamous online ‘debate’ I had many years ago with someone who had made a wholly inaccurate map that I took exception to. It had gone viral but there were some serious flaws in the map and, therefore, the argument that was presented. Of course, no-one particularly cared and the maker of the map just got a little frustrated at what he saw was a pedantic cartographer pouring cold water on his otherwise great idea. Critique is something we get taught in cartography (if you studied it, which I did). Yet I have a sense that receiving critique isn’t something many are particularly open to which is a shame because ultimately it improves your work. Anyway, the moniker stuck, I started my blog with that name as a place to offer critique in a hopefully humorous style (though British humour and sarcasm is not to everyone’s taste as I have found numerous times). And I guess adding the ‘Professional’ bit to the front gives it a bit of tongue-in-cheek self aggrandising value. I actually tried to get it on my business card at work. It was rejected outright. But it’s really just a bit of fun, not to be taken too seriously, and provokes far more interesting discussions with people I meet for the first time.
I’m glad you think the book is a bit more serious. I guess it is, but I had immense fun writing and making it too. The ‘why’ is pretty simple – I just kept being told by those closest to me that I should put my thoughts, experience and opinions down in a place that can be easily shared. I’ve amassed a whole heap of experience from some brilliant people over the years and why not make it into a book to give others a shortcut to that experience. Given there really aren’t any good comprehensive books on the subject then maybe it was time I stepped up to do the job and give back to the discipline that has given me so much. And my background of a couple of decades teaching students about cartography always left me wanting that perfect missing text to support them in their studies. Sure, there’s a few good texts but never the one I really wanted and those that I used way back in the late eighties in my degree studies have long been consigned to the history of cartography pile…though I still have many of them. Concepts rarely die. Technology simply finds a new way to harness them.
I get asked the ‘who is the book for’ question all the time because people want to naturally work out if it fits their specific needs. The get-out answer is ‘everyone and anyone who wants to make a map’ but that doesn’t sit squarely with trying to place it neatly into a traditional context. But it’s not a traditional book. It doesn’t conform to what a traditional textbook looks like yet I hope it has enough content to support its adoption as a class text or a reference. It’s not a coffee-table book either because it goes further than simply delighting the eye with map-porn. Though it is lavishly illustrated with a mix of original (2/3rd) and third-party (1/3rd) maps and illustrations – some familiar, some perhaps not so. Some obvious, some perhaps a little tangential but all brought together to show the breadth of cartographic practice and excellence in design. I think of it as a desk companion. The title has a full stop (period) after it because there’s an intent that it is set up to be THE modern text on cartography. There’s a little bit of arrogance in there but I felt I was only ever going to get one shot at writing this book and I was going to give it my absolute everything. Many books I have on my shelf are either outdated or just dry academic texts and who wants those any more? We get our information from so many sources that if you’re going to write a book then it has to be attractive in structure, content, and appearance. It has to appeal to a readership who find it tough to pull themselves away from Wikipedia as their go-to sage. Or who might even question why anyone would part with hard cash for a paper-based information product. But this was always designed to be a book. I think there’s a lot of value in having a physical product that you can flick through. There’s a certain permanence about a good book and we’ve gone way beyond a traditional design ethos to make it something both instructional but which visually delights and makes you actually want to turn the page. We thought of every spread as a separate poster that you’d want to put on your wall. Every time you turn the page you see something different and interesting.
After many many alternative straplines (including the working title of “the dog’s b*llocks of map-making” – a title that was very much loved during its authoring but which, for obvious reasons, was never going to be allowed in print) I settled on ‘a compendium of design-thinking for map-makers’. The wording is deliberate. It’s a collection of ideas, concepts and practical information. It gives people a grounding but also enough detail that they can put ideas into practice. It covers the subject broadly but with just enough depth to be useful and without getting too ‘academic’. You could probably find an entire book that covers each of the individual topics which says much about cartography more generally as it’s a vast subject. I also wanted to infuse traditional cartographic ideas and thinking with material from the wider design-world. All too often we retreat to our standard cartographic education and background and I feel this has become a division. Designers make maps. So do data scientists and newspaper graphics people. In fact, everyone makes maps yet they’re not necessarily keen on exploring cartography. The inverse is true – too often cartographers fail to acknowledge that their specialism is part of a wider world of design. So, trying to marry the two, bridge the divide and attract people from those two sides might help them learn something about the wider world of map-making. And I used the term ‘map-makers’ rather than ‘cartographers’ in the strapline because I didn’t want it to be seen as something solely for those old school cartographers. It should help relative newcomers better understand the ins and outs of cartographic concept and practice. It should also act as a guide and refresher for those of us with more experience and, perhaps, a background in cartography. Sort of a reference for those little bits of map-making that perhaps you’ve never attempted.
All in all I’ve tried not to pigeon-hole it. I know that makes it difficult to define a target audience but if I were writing an academic textbook, or a coffee-table book, or a manual that supported making maps using Esri software etc then it’d be a different beast altogether. The fact Esri have allowed me to make a book that is blatantly not advocating Esri products is a major win and I sincerely thank them for taking a leap of faith with this book. It was a tough sell internally for a long while but people are beginning to think that we should be doing more of this sort of stuff – general reference detailed guides about domains. Of course, all of the original maps in the book were made using Esri software but it’s implicit. It’s a tangential demonstration of the design capability of the software but, of course, my main motivation is to support map-makers in their endeavors whatever tools of choice they use. Better mapping all round is the aim. I was also able to persuade Esri Press to publish it in Oxford English. It just wouldn’t have sounded like me if it was written in American English but for an American publisher that was a really huge concession. Again, kudos to many people who went with my idea!
The reaction has been hugely positive. Sales have been pleasantly surprising. Quite a few were sceptical of the potential to get a good return on the huge investment that Esri Press made in supporting this project but it’s doing really well. There’s been lots of really nice reviews and comments, many from luminaries in the world of mapping. I mean, when you start your day with complimentary emails from the likes of Mark Monmonier you get a buzz that your work has found a home among many other great map books and revered authors. I was really fortunate to work with a few dozen fantastic people who contributed to the book too. I wanted different voices and experts to describe maps and ideas, so it’s not just me and my views and ideas. I think this has really helped generate interest. My favourite quote, though, was from one of my young nieces, who upon seeing a copy just before it went to the printers shrugged and simply said ‘who’s going to buy that?’. Family can always be assured to keep you grounded. It’s important. But, professionally, people do seem to like it. I walk around at work and there’s copies in offices and posters on walls and I’m hopeful that some of the content will rub off in a positive way. I’ve met people in eastern Africa who were desperate for a copy and I see tweets from all over the world of people unboxing it and posting their thoughts. I am genuinely humbled and thrilled that it’s been so warmly received. I couldn’t have done it without dozens of people though, and they all have a piece of ownership of the book. There’s a few more details about the book here and, hey, it’ll soon be Christmas. Order early. Order often 😉
Q. Life’s not all geohip projects though, even a geohipster must eat. Tell us a bit about your day job. What are you getting up to?
You mean life as a ‘Senior Cartographic Product Engineer’? Well, yes, the job pays the mortgage and buys the cheese but it’s a great job and I love working at Esri in sunny California. For a kid that wanted to be a NASA astronaut or a California Highway Patrol Officer (too much time spent watching CHiPs as a kid) then working in cartography and GIS in Cali is a dream come true. I arrived here mid-career after 20+ years as an academic in the UK. I’m colloquially referred to as the ‘resident cartographer’ in that I’m seen and used as an internal expert. I work on the development team for ArcGIS Pro but get to work in other areas (like content, ArcGIS Online etc) as needed. Day to day I help the team with ideas for making the software better or more useful for making maps. We have some really bright software engineers and developers so my role is to help shape how map authoring tools are designed based on what I know and what I learn from those that want better or new tools.
Thankfully no-one lets me anywhere near the codebase as my coding skills lapsed many many years ago. But it’s fulfilling in that I know that tens of thousands of people use the software to support their own cartographic work and I see ideas and design influences appear every year at our User Conference map gallery which I also help judge. A lot of the maps I make are done predominantly for internal purposes. Testing of the software is ongoing but a lot of tests are done using relatively small datasets. So I try and make ‘real’ maps with large-ish data sets. Often I’m trying to test the tools and software to destruction to find those naughty little bugs that you only really ever find when you try and do ‘real’ work. I also push the software to try and use it in ways it was perhaps never designed for, to derive new workflows or show people how to go beyond the defaults. To that end, I get to make maps on topics and datasets that I find interesting, and write about my maps and publish them as examples of what can be done with the software. Blogs help bring ideas to the world that people can go and experiment with. And, of course, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery so it always brings a smile to my face when I see an idea permeate across geo and turn up being used in other ways by people using different software. It’s all good as far as I’m concerned. So I also get to write, and teach workshops, research stuff, present at conferences and generally act as a spokesperson for high quality cartography. A couple of years ago my better half, the astoundingly talented Dr Linda Beale and I built a toolbox of terrain tools – just scripts that we built to allow people to create different ways of representing terrain than the usual default hillshades. It’s been downloaded nearly 20,000 times and we see evidence of their use all over the place. It’s a small example of being given the flexibility to just ‘do good work’ and share it. I’m convinced if you build decent tools, maps, and interesting cartographic styles and workflows then people will experiment and take them further. That’s definitely a really key part of the job for me – to see how others make use of the things you build. I’m currently building a set of cartogram tools too with the help of a number of people. These are the sort of things that might otherwise take ages to get into core software but which can be relatively easily built for those that want to get to work with them.
As well as Linda, I have the immense privilege of working alongside some seriously talented cartographers too. Having the likes of John Nelson, Wes Jones, Edie Punt, Bojan Savric and Nathan Shephard (and many others!) around drives us all to be innovative and find new or better ways of doing things. It also helps having experts along the hallway when you get stuck! That’s also why we developed our MOOC on Cartography, to share some of that expertise. At the time of writing we’re into our second offering and have so far got nearly 70,000 people registered. Imagine that – 70,000 people all wanting to learn a little bit about cartography. We had great fun making the videos and designing the exercises and, of course, it’s free so it’s nice to be able to do something that we can genuinely give back to the community. It’s also really pleasing that the company as a whole is happy to support ideas that, perhaps, aren’t at the absolute core of building GIS software and services. It’s a real privilege to be able to work in this way and support our general work through bringing new and different ideas to the table..
Q. Many of the (often quite lengthy) posts on your blog analyse map design. Occasionally you praise good design, but you’re also often liberal in dishing out the criticism. What’s the motivation for the blog and what sort of feedback do you get?
Yeah – I’m not very good at being brief. Sorry. As I mentioned earlier, that blog (my personal cartonerd blog) is deliberately designed to be a place for somewhat humorous takes on bad maps of all types. And there’s a lot of them about. I try and explain why certain designs, data manipulation, symbology or projections simply don’t work to support the job that the map and the map-makers claim to be doing. Really, it’s a taste test for the quality of the map because map readers in the general population are more than likely not attuned to knowing about such things. Why should they? They are busy being experts in their own sphere yet the map, as a document, is often considered to be fact. They can just as easily be fake through deliberate action or through a little slackness on the part of the map-maker, often simply through them not fully understanding their actions either. Much of this is not deliberate. So the blog simply tries to point this out, to mediate the message of a poorly designed map so people can better appreciate the ways it might be lying to them. I get far more grumpy responses than praise for pointing stuff out but that’s to be expected. No-one likes being told their map isn’t particularly good. I get critique on my work all the time but you kinda have to be able to disassociate comments about the map from a personal attack, which is never the intention. It’s always about the work. The map and its message, which I am simply pointing out is flawed as designed. So it’s intent is educational. Often, cutting out some relatively simple but commonly made mistakes would make a far better product.
So I often get seen as this grumpy, curmudgeonly middle-aged guy who just hates on maps. That’s not strictly true but that’s the focus of that particular blog and if that’s all you see of my work then I understand that impression. I am forthright. I do tell it as it is. I know that’s not always an approach that people find comfortable but I’d rather be up front and totally honest. But if people care to look a little wider they would see balance in what I do. I am also Chair of the International Cartographic Association Map Design Commission and that gives me more scope to look at the positives in maps. A couple of years ago I blogged a map a day for a year, writing up a few words on why it exhibits excellence in design and those are still online for people to explore. It’s almost the inverse of the cartonerd blog but, together, they balance each other nicely. And, of course, there’s plenty of other blogs, presentations and suchlike where I focus on what’s good in maps. I guess people like to gravitate to me poking a little fun at a bad map though. That’s ok. I’ll happily engage in debates on maps.
Q. It seems you’re not just hunched over the keyboard though, you get out on the conference circuit. Which also has its pros and cons, as you recently documented. What makes for a good geo conference in the modern age?
I am privileged in my job that part of what I do is to get out and about around the world. But you’re right, I think most conferences are getting a little tired and that’s driven by several factors. They often fall back on historical delivery models. They are often organised by people who you rarely see elsewhere so they default to what they know. There’s simply too many geo conferences! If I get handed a tote bag with flyers from vendors and sponsors I know I’m in for a pretty tedious few days. That junk usually gets dumped straight into the hotel bin though I try and simply not pick it up anymore. Conferences are historically places to meet people, network, learn, find out new stuff, and share your ideas. But all too often it’s the same people who go to the same conferences. I liken them to clubs. A certain group of like-minded people who already know they enjoy each other’s company goes to club A, and another group goes to club B, and they are very unlikely to meet each other. And in geo in particular, you have many people entering the realm from a variety of different backgrounds. Once it was only people working in hardcore mapping agencies, then the wider world of GIS brought others to the table (and new clubs emerged), now students of computer science are finding work and excitement with data that happens to have coordinates (and new clubs, often referred to as meetups, have emerged). Yet the question is, do they want to belong to these other clubs? I sense not and the evidence is they usually shun older clubs and form their own new club to be seen as fresh and relevant. And rather than these older clubs trying to find ways to get them to join in, they should be looking to change the model in ways that meets modern needs and which encourages a bit of intermingling.
It’s a little like cartography more generally. Every few years new technology comes along and disrupts practice. You can either be one of those mapping people who bemoans having to constantly re-tool, or you simply take a deep breath and learn new stuff. If I’d been the former then my career would have come to a rapid end decades ago. You have to move with the times and keep up, keep learning, not be afraid to ditch old habits and practices, or be that force of change that helps drive innovation. Too many geo conferences are stuck so far in the past that it makes taking days out of your schedule and money out of your budget a questionable activity. We meet in so many different ways now. Only this morning I had a conversation via Twitter’s DM with someone who, only a few years ago, I might only have met at a conference once a year. So the shrinking world means we have to rethink these meetings. They have to become something that people want to go to, not feel an obligation to support. It’s not impossible. I like the #geomob model of more frequent, less formal meetups. I think a lot of people gravitate to that sort of gettogether. But even at the recent UK Mapping Festival it was fascinating how few people who attended the conference during the day went to the #geomob event in the same city in the evening. Bar a few, almost completely different sets of people but which would really benefit from sharing ideas and experiences between their de facto groupings. It’s just a case of developing events at which both groups can feel comfortable and where they see value. Otherwise the groups become self-selecting and self-organising rather than offering proper outreach and events that drives mutually inclusive rather than mutually exclusive activities.
There are too many geo societies and groups in the UK though. It’s fragmented and, so, that drives the divisions through different club mentalities and events. I have no magic solution but I do suggest people look at models that are used elsewhere for inspiration. I’m a big fan of the North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS) conference. It’s annual. It travels to different US cities, often second tier cities like Boulder CO, or Norfolk VA to avoid the costs associated with the major cities. And they have a programme that attracts a really diverse crowd. You have the GISers mixing with the Adobe fans. You have decade old cartographers mixing with artists, designers and coders. You have the Esri crowd mixing with those from Mapbox, CARTO and others. You have map publishers like National Geographic in attendance alongside those that work for the New York Times and the Washington Post for instance. People from totally different backgrounds and with different workflows and needs. The key connecting factor is the map. Everyone is there because they are interested in maps. No angst. No tribal tendencies. Just a shared passion and good conversations. But when I go to FOSS4G I still sense some tribal BS. When I attend the more traditional mapping conferences in the UK I still see out-moded organisation and people wondering why new folks aren’t there. It can be different and the NACIS model somehow manages to stay ahead of the curve.
I’d like to see modern geo-events be fewer and more inclusive. Different tracks and content that attracts a diverse range of people who are interested in, work in, or simply have a fascination for maps, geo, GIS, however they frame it. Such an event shouldn’t be directly linked to a particular society or club mentality. It needs to bring together different communities and be marketed at those communities in ways that gives them a real reason to attend. And that might be through different strategies for different communities. I’m not saying for one minute that this is easy. If it were, I’m quite convinced people would already be working towards it. But, instead of tinkering with models that we’ve relied on for years, perhaps ripping up the template and trying to find something fresh is what’s needed. After all, the entire purpose of a conference is to get together, share and learn. That contact between people during a talk or in the bar in the evening is often so fruitful. New relationships emerge and new ideas form. I’ve relied on conferences throughout my career to support my own lifelong learning. They help keep my work relevant and they have led to so many wonderful experiences and the development of a terrific network of colleagues, many of whom I now count as some of my closest friends. It’d be a shame if future geo-people don’t have an opportunity to do these things just because they feel that events aren’t relevant any more. We have to drive to make them relevant.
Take the #geocheese as a perfect example. If I hadn’t seen Chris’ biscuit map hanging on the wall at a conference last year I may never had got the spark for a map of cheese. And because of the map of cheese, I was invited to answer some questions for this GeoHipster blog. These opportunities sometimes happen by design but, more often than not, they’re serendipitous. You learn stuff, hone an new idea, execute it, and new opportunities emerge as a result. Take the Cartography book as another example. Because it’s doing well I’ve been able to pitch another book idea and get support. Nothing quite as grandiose this time but a useful book nevertheless. I’m looking forward to really getting going on this in the latter part of this year and early 2019.
Q: What closing advice do you have for all the geohipsters out there?
I’m probably the last person to be giving advice to budding geohipsters. Just do what you love doing. Find a way to make your voice heard and own your work by putting your name to it. It builds respect and, eventually, authority. Don’t get too caught up in any hyperbole that might come with your work and take critique in a positive fashion, never personally. Learn from the past and what people have found is best practice from decades of learning and figuring it out – but don’t be afraid to bend a few rules once you’ve learnt how they can be bent meaningfully. Understand that very little is actually new any more so build on what’s gone before rather than always trying to reinvent. Cite your sources and inspirations. Be humble in your work but find ways to enjoy what you do. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. We live a geo-lifestyle. It’s hard to detach the profession from personal interest. Also, look beyond your own sphere. I found so much out during the process of writing my book. I mean, who ever imagined they’d read a quote from Bruce Lee in a book on Cartography but once I’d seen it it had to go in. I think it’s a perfect way of capturing the essence of being in geo, whether you’re a middle-aged geo-hippy-hipster like me or someone a little newer to the mapping game: “Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.” Enjoy Lego if that takes your fancy. If not, eat some cheese!
The founder of GeoHipster, Atanas Entchev, learned BASIC in 1984 on a made-in-Bulgaria Apple ][ clone, and has been working with computers ever since. These days he splits his time between slinging shapefiles and searching for the perfect saddle for his Cannondale. Find him on Twitter, Instagram, and on his personal blog Mostly Subjective.
Atanas was interviewed for GeoHipster by Board Member Bill Dollins and CEO Mike Dolbow.
Q: For any readers who don’t know, tell us about yourself and how you got into geospatial.
A: My road to geospatial was long and circuitous. I graduated with a Master’s in architecture in my native Sofia, Bulgaria. Upon graduation I was assigned a job as an urban planner. In 1991 I came to Rutgers University in New Jersey to complete a Master’s in urban planning, where I was indoctrinated into the Arc world on PC ARC/INFO on DOS. While still in grad school and looking for a “real” job as a planner, I took a GIS internship position at the NJDEP, digitizing parcels in ArcInfo on a SUN Sparc workstation. Temporarily. As it turned out, there is nothing more permanent than the temporary. I have been “doing GIS” ever since.
Q: Between early pieces in Directions, to your own blog(s), to your activity on various social media platforms, you have been a visible face and an early adopter of social platforms in the geospatial community for almost two decades. What effect have those platforms had on the landscape of geospatial technology? How have those platforms changed? What would the ideal social platform look like to you, today?
A: The biggest effect social media platforms have had on the landscape of geospatial technology is that blogs and social media have all but eliminated the need to go to conferences. This is probably an unpopular opinion, and easily challenged by the fact that geoconferences seem to be multiplying. But you don’t need to go to a conference anymore to find out what’s happening in the industry. The blogs and social media deliver high-quality, high-signal-to-noise-ratio content, right to your screen, better than any keynote. Heck, you can “attend” multiple conferences simultaneously and be billable at the same time.
Obviously, there are other things that happen at conferences — geobeers, geoteas, geohookups — so conferences aren’t going away. But the reasons for going to conferences have shifted. Get out of work, anyone? Travel to a new city/country? On your employer’s dime? Sign me up!
Three things drive people to social networks: FOMO, interestingness, and utility — probably in that order. Early Twitter was interesting. Less so these days, but I stay because of utility. Instagram is interesting, but has no utility. Facebook has neither.
How have platforms changed? They become less interesting as they grow and mature. The ideal social platform must stay interesting, and combine interestingness with utility.
Q: Wow, I can’t believe that this December will mark the five year anniversary of the geohipster.com launch with a tongue-in-cheek industry poll. Looking back on that moment and what has happened since, were there any surprises?
A: The biggest surprise was that it took off the way it did. I registered the domain name on a lark, I thought some kind of website would be good for a few chuckles at most. Five years later GeoHipster is running strong, bigger than I ever thought it would be.
Q: Walk us through a typical day for you – not just for your day job, but also for your “side hustles”.
A: My day job as the GIS specialist in Franklin Township, New Jersey, includes multiple various GIS-related duties, so it’s never boring. I maintain several PostgreSQL/PostGIS databases; I dabble in SQL and Python. I make maps to print (PDF FTW); I help township staff with various geo-related tasks; I create shapefiles; I export databases to shapefiles to share with other organizations; I add new township streets to Open Street Map.
I use a mixed bag of tools: ArcGIS Desktop, QGIS, ArcGIS Pro, ArcGIS Online, CARTO.
My latest side hustle is designing, promoting, and selling the “I♥️SHP” merchandise. My plan is to grow it to a point where I can quit my job and retire. My other side hustle is GIS consulting — mostly training, teaching GIS novices how to use shapefiles (no joke; shapefile haters leave a lot of money on the table), and some GIS and web development. And, of course, I help run GeoHipster as Editor-in-chief.
After work and on weekends I ride my bike, sometimes with my daughter. Or tackle a side hustle task. Or go to the beach with my wife. Or we go to concerts (Buddy Guy, Jonny Lang, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Gov’t Mule this summer).
Q: The “I♥️SHP” merchandise seems to be really taking off. Any plans to expand it for the “sidecar files”?
A: As soon as Taylor Swift agrees to wear a “PRJ” shirt for the promo campaign. I have my people talking to her people. Seriously, though, I consider “SHP” a pars pro toto moniker, thus including all sidecars. The shapefile agrees.
Q: If the shapefile disappears tomorrow as though it never existed, to which format would you switch?
A: To whichever format has critical mass. For the record, I don’t use shapefiles exclusively — I use PostGIS on PostgreSQL and file geodatabases in equal measure. But when I need to create a quick disposable layer for a quick map, shapefile it is. And when it comes to spatial data exchange, the shapefile is the undisputed king. In my job I share spatial data with a large number of users, mostly external. Every single one of them asks for shapefiles. So I give them shapefiles. I’m not gonna fight them. If they start asking for geopackage, I will give them geopackage. Nobody has asked as of yet.
I wrote about my position in the shapefile debate on my personal blog. To quote myself: “To call for the abolition of the shapefile is akin to calling for the abolition of the .xls(x) format on the grounds that millions of people erroneously use it in lieu of “legitimate” databases.”
There is currently a shapefile vendetta raging on the twitters. I think it’s silly. If and when it is no longer needed, the shapefile will fade away.
Q: GeoHipster readers, and many others, have followed the ordeal of your family and your son, Eni, closely. Would you provide an update?
A: For those who may not know, last December my son was deported to Bulgaria — a country he does not remember and whose language he does not speak, but where he is “from”. We are working on bringing Eni back home. We are pursuing all possible avenues. This will be a long and complicated process. Meanwhile he has settled in Sofia, has found a job that he likes, and is making friends. He is in good spirits. We communicate via social media and chat almost daily. My son is making the most of this bizarre and unfortunate situation, and has made me proud with his ability to handle adversity.
I want to thank the hundreds of people, most of whom I have never met, for their outpouring of support for my family’s plight, and for reaffirming my faith in humanity.
Q: Sounds like you’ve been riding your bike more and more lately. Do you and Bill have some kind of exercise competition going?
A: I post more bike pics lately — or, rather, I post less other stuff than I used to — which makes it look like cycling is all I do. But I have indeed been riding more and more lately. I rode my first metric century (100+ km) in May, and I aspire to ride my first full century (100+ miles) next year. I love cycling — it is a great sport, great exercise, and with the right equipment you can cycle year-round.
Above all else, cycling for me is meditation on wheels. It helps me clear out my head. When I am on the bike, I think about nothing. It feels great.
Bill and I do not have a competition, but maybe we should. What would be the metrics, though? Bill? (We’ll let Bill answer this question on Twitter. –Ed)
Q: What is your grammatical pet peeve that would most surprise GeoHipster readers?
A: What would probably be most surprising to those who know me is that while I used to be a grammar nazi, I am working on kicking the habit, and I have made significant strides in this effort. I remember when, in the early 1990s, I wrote a letter — on paper — to TIME magazine, to complain about a grammatical error. I composed a letter, printed it in the computer lab, put it in an envelope, put a stamp on it, walked it to a mailbox… TIME wrote back, by the way, acknowledged the error, and apologized. Today I look back on this episode and cringe with embarrassment. There are far more important things to spend one’s time and energy on than correcting other people’s grammar. (or style, e.g.: Oxford comma, double space after a period, etc. 😉 ). I try to remember what The Duchess said to Alice: “Take care of the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves.”
Q: You’re the “OG” – Original GeoHipster – so I don’t think we really need to ask you that question. Instead, do you have any favorite answers to that question from the last five years?
Brian Timoney: The hippest thing I’ve ever done was switch from pleated khakis to flat-front khakis.
Guido Stein: The only hipster attribute I wish I had that I lack is the hipster gene that makes them all slender and buff.
Alex Leith: I knit maps, then scan them at 10 µm before faxing them to myself.
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.
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.
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!
Learn to code (see #1).
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.
Help people. You didn’t get wherever you are on your own — pay it forward when you can.
Take time off. It never feels like a good time, but you need to do it, so just do it.
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 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?
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.
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:
Generate a best-pixel mosaic of the area using five years of Landsat data in Google Earth Engine. While that was running:
Download SRTM data for the area and merge the tiles with gdal_merge.py
Hillshade the elevation data in QGIS (or GDAL)
Color-correct and reproject the finished Landsat mosaic
Blend the Landsat data with the hillshade
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 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.
Q: You have somewhat of an enigmatic online persona. Care to lift the veil and tell us more about yourself?
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 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.
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.
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.