A: I am the owner of a small geo consultancy Bird’s Eye View based out of Albuquerque, New Mexico. My biggest focus areas are conservation, public health and training, but my clientele have become more and more diverse in recent years. I am an avid open source proponent and have authored two books on QGIS: Mastering QGIS and Discover QGIS. In the small amount of spare time I seem to have, I like working out, getting out into big wild spaces/mountains, playing board games while spinning some vinyl, raising chickens, and good coffee. I also love having the time to be creative and put together a nice map.
Q: Tell us the story behind your map (what inspired you to make it, what did you learn while making it, or any other aspects of the map or its creation you would like people to know).
A: This map was produced for a coalition working to protect the San Gabriel Mountains called San Gabriel Mountains Forever. The target audience was U.S. Congresswoman Judy Chu’s staff and the general public. It shows a series of proposed protections: expansion of the existing San Gabriel National Monument, a new National Recreation Area, expansion of several existing wilderness areas along with 6 new wilderness proposals, and several new wild and scenic rivers. The goal was to create a map highlighting these proposals with a clean modern look.
Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.
A: This was created with the QGIS nightlies, which last fall was version 2.99. This gave me a chance to check out some of the new emerging features coming with version 3. The proposal data was digitized using QGIS. The Stamen Terrain basemap is being seen through a similarly colored State boundary layer employing some transparency and the multiply blending mode. Existing wilderness and proposals also employ the multiply blending mode. Wilderness areas were obtained from Wilderness.net and highways were sourced from CalTrans. Highways were styled as white lines so that they would fall to the background. They look better digitally than in print form…is a map ever done? Cities were shown simply as labels.
Nyall has been a core developer with the QGIS project since 2013. During this time he has contributed over 5,000 commits to the project, and today is one of the most active developers on the project. Nyall’s contributions to QGIS cover a wide range of areas – from improvements to the map rendering and symbology engines, enhancements to labeling and print layout functionality, right through to optimisations of the underlying spatial processing algorithms utilised by QGIS.
Nyall is the proprietor and lead developer at North Road Consulting, an Australian spatial development consultancy which predominantly utilises international co-funding and crowd-funding campaigns to finance development into open source GIS applications.You can follow Nyall’s work at https://github.com/nyalldawson and https://twitter.com/nyalldawson
Nyall was interviewed for GeoHipster by Kurt Menke.
Q: Nyall Dawson, where are you located and what do you do?
A: I’m a geospatial developer, analyst, and (I’d like to think) a cartographer, and the director of North Road. I’m heavily involved in the QGIS project and am one of its current core developers, however, in practice my time is generally split about 60/40 between making software and making actual maps (i.e. being a GIS “user”). I also teach crime mapping and spatial analysis at Charles Sturt University. Geographically, I’m based on the Sunshine Coast in Eastern Australia (and yes, the name does describe it perfectly!). It’s as close as Australia gets to perfection – people only leave here if work forces them to.
Q: You seem to be equally talented in programming and graphic design. What’s your background?
A: I’ve bounced between these two disciplines since high school, and it turns out that spatial analysis is a great mix of the two. While I originally studied mathematics at university, my first job after graduating was as a designer in the marketing department for an IT wholesaler. I was a horrible fit. This pushed me back towards the IT side of things, and I spent a number of years working on corporate networks. I stuck it out long enough to realise that while I enjoy working with software, I wanted to use it to actually make something (instead of just making it work for someone else).
At the time my wife Maryanne and I decided that we needed a change, so we sold up everything we had, quit our jobs and spent 12 months backpacking around Latin America and Europe. I started collecting maps of places we’d visited, obsessively geotagging every photo we took, and filling in gaps in OpenStreetMap so that I could accurately track where we’d been. It was while hanging out in a bar in Argentina called “The Map Room” that Maryanne suggested I should look into studying maps when we got back to Australia. It’s a perfect profession for me – map making strikes a great balance between that desire to create something useful and pretty, while still being driven by mathematical algorithms and code.
Q: Maryanne is wise! Connect the dots for us. After returning from that year long adventure how did you learn about GIS and cartography, and when did you discover open source GIS and QGIS specifically?
A: So, back in Australia, I enrolled in a masters in “Geomatics”, which was a bit of a mix between every spatial discipline. A couple of early pracs involving surveying sites using steel tapes(!) quickly lead to me dropping every subject that wasn’t pure GIS or cartography. Towards the end of my masters I started working for Victoria Police, as a spatial analyst in their intelligence division. I loved the work – it involved a great variety of tricky spatial and statistical problems with the occasional need to make a pretty map. This is how I got started with QGIS — the commercial GIS package they used just had no capacity for making pretty maps, no matter what tricks you tried. I got sick of creating maps that I was embarrassed to show off so went hunting for alternatives which we could use (in other words… free alternatives. They had no software budget at all). This hunt lead to QGIS, and it wasn’t long before I was totally converted.
I’ve always been a bit of an open-source zealot anyway, so QGIS was a natural fit for me. To me open source just makes sense. I hate the feeling of being at the mercy of some distant software vendor to fix bugs and improve my daily workflow, so I’d much rather just have the ability to dig in and fix things myself. It’s a great model all round – even end users with no coding knowledge can still directly influence an open source project through sponsored features or fixes, and in the end everyone benefits from this.
Q: When I first met you, you were working for the Victoria Police. Why did you decide to launch North Road?
A: Well, as I started using QGIS at Victoria Police more and more, I started hacking away in my spare time to add improvements and fix any little bugs I’d hit during my day job. Doing this for an open-source project was one of the best learning experiences I’ve had. There’s always motivation to improve your work and make sure it’s in top form before opening up a pull request and knowing that it’s going to be visible to everyone and reviewed in public! Plus, you can always watch the changes which are flowing in from other developers and learning from their experience too. Luckily I had some great mentors early on (including fellow Australian geohipster Nathan Woodrow!) who always made themselves available for my constant questions and to refine my rough ideas. Over time the contributions I made became more ambitious as my confidence (and skills) grew, and I started getting queries from users who’d benefited from these contributions. I remember receiving my first email from a user asking “I saw you made this change recently to QGIS, how much would it cost to extend it a bit further and make it cover my requirements too?” – I had no idea what people would usually charge for work on open source, or indeed whether it was even considered “bad form” to charge for working on an open source project (Hint for all open source contributors: it’s not! Your time is valuable and you have no obligation to work for anyone for free!).
Things grew from there until I hit a critical point (when we had our second child), where I had to either make a decision to make this a full-time thing and quit the police work, or scale back the after hours work. I opted for the self-employment option since it meant I could wear teeshirts instead of a suit, listen to any music I wanted to all day, and stay up all night wondering if I’d made a terrible decision and would be broke and homeless in a month. And so North Road was launched.
Q: Walk us through a typical day being a QGIS developer and committer?
A: Well, right now we’re leading up to the launch of the next major version, QGIS 3.0. It’s going to be huge – there’s tons of new features and optimisations, and we’ve totally ripped out and rebuilt some of the older code areas and replaced them with brand new backends (composer, server, and processing). It also brings the change to Python 3 and Qt 5. So currently most of my daily development time is focused on getting 3.0 into top shape and squashing regressions before the final release. It’s a little stressful! Fortunately, the QGIS project enjoys the backing of numerous generous sponsors, which allows the QGIS organisation to directly employ developers to work on the trickier bugs in the lead up to a release. This allows me (among others) to focus our time on these fixes, and as a direct result the final release will be much more stable. (Hint for QGIS users – if you’ve ever wanted to see stabler releases, this is one way you can directly influence the quality of the final release… those sponsorship dollars and donations have a direct effect on the stability of QGIS!).
Following the release I’ll switch back to focusing on feature development – which means my days are filled with fundraising, writing proposals, and, when I’m lucky, coding new features.
Q: What are your favorite new features of QGIS 3?
A: That’s a huge question! The thing to keep in mind here is that QGIS 3.0 has been actively developed in parallel to the stable QGIS 2 releases for the last 2 years. So while the changelogs for the lastcouple of releases were substantial on their own, those were just for releases with the normal 4 month release cycle. You can start to extrapolate here and get an idea how long the changelog for 3.0 will be! I don’t think there’s any part of the code or interface which hasn’t been refined and improved in some way.
But in short, the features which make it difficult for me to go back to QGIS 2.18 are:
The improved label tools which allow you to just pick up and modify any label in your project, without needing to alter your layers in any way.
The reworked processing analysis framework and all the new and improved algorithms available in 3.0
and surprisingly, all the refinements to Geopackage handling which make them easy and convenient to work with. It’s actually enough to convert me from team shapefile!
Q: What is a QGIS feature you’d love to have time to work on but haven’t gotten to yet? What’s your wishlist?
A: Great question! My wishlist is HUGE, and grows every time I make a map. There’s two items which I’d say are top of my personal cartographic hit list right now:
Adding “distribute spacing” tools to the print layout designer. 3.0 adds a bunch of new “distribute item” actions which allow items themselves to be evenly spaced within a layout, but I want to be able to distribute the gaps between items instead. It’s a common functionality in desktop publishing and illustration applications which hasn’t yet found its way to QGIS.
Adding more automatic label placement options and refining the logic we already have. It’s good, but there’s always more we could do and finding ways to improve the automated placement benefits everyone – even if all you use QGIS for is visualising a bunch of shapefiles.
Fortunately, the QGIS user community has adopted a great attitude toward crowd-funding of features, and there’s been many funding campaigns which have allowed tweaks like these to happen in the past. I’ve already got a few campaigns lined up and ready to go for similar improvements following the release of 3.0!
Q: You mentioned that your time is generally split about 60/40 between making software and making actual maps. What types of projects do you work on when you’re not developing?
A: It’s a mix – these days it’s a whole range of analytical maps showing various statistical outputs right through to “simple” maps of various reference layers for government reports. Fortunately at the moment I’ve got a number of clients for whom high-quality visualisations are essential, so I get to spend time polishing maps and making outputs which I’m proud of. Surprisingly, they’re also almost exclusively print and static maps too. (On a slightly different topic, I personally suspect we’re going to see a swing back toward valuing static, non-interactive maps and data visualisations sometime. Everybody’s just so busy that maps and visualisations which can effectively and instantly communicate their message to a reader, without any data exploration, are likely to see a resurgence for projects where interactivity isn’t a key requirement!).
Q: I know you are a tabletop gamer. What are your favorite games these days? What else do you do for fun?
A: I’m all for co-operative, story-based games at the moment. The Arkham Horror Living Card Game is getting a lot of play (and accordingly, inspired the “Exploring the Depths of Madness Through QGIS symbology” talk I gave at the recent QGIS Australia meetup). TIME Stories and the Pandemic Legacy series are recent favorites too!
Incidentally, I love seeing board games with great cartography. There’s been quite a few games which have inspired me to try different mapping techniques. One personal favorite is the map for the GMT “Liberty or Death” game… that’s a beautiful map, which perfectly balances cartographic attention to detail with usability as a game set piece. It’s gorgeous (and incidentally, inspired a few QGIS symbology tweaks!), and I love that I can learn better map making just from gaming.
Apart from gaming, something I’ve recently rediscovered is how relaxing it is to just put on headphones and listen to an album without doing ANYTHING else. No dual-screening, no checking emails, no fixing QGIS bugs — just tuning out and listening!
Q: Do you consider yourself a geohipster? Why or why not?
A: Well, for a long time I was a holdout flag-carrying member of team shapefile, yet I’ve recently been won over by GeoPackage. I’m not sure if that makes me a geohipster or the opposite! (Shapefiles are retro-cool now, aren’t they?)
I *did* just move out to the country and to a place with our own vegetables and chickens, a farmer’s market next door, and an old avocado farm I can raid if I jump the back fence. I guess that makes me either a hipster or a hippy.
Q: Any words of wisdom or final thoughts you’d like to share with the GeoHipster community?
A: If I’m speaking philosophically, I think it’s crucial these days to have something “unique” you can bring to the profession. I don’t believe it’s enough to just be a “GIS specialist who knows XXX desktop GIS platform”. You’ve got to have something extra which differentiates you and helps you stand out from all the other GIS professionals. For example, you want to be “the GIS specialist who is a statistical wiz” or “the GIS specialist who can code and automate all those boring processes” or “the GIS specialist who can craft effective story-telling maps and visualisations”.
But if I’m speaking as a QGIS developer I’d say: mark down February 23rd in your diary, download QGIS 3.0 and enjoy. It’s the magic unicorn fairy land of open source GIS™!
A former archaeologist, Kurt Menke (@geomenke) runs Bird’s Eye View GIS and is based out of Albuquerque, New Mexico. He works mainly in ecological conservation, public health, and education. He has been an avid open source GIS proponent ever since he made the switch from ArcIMS to MapServer back in 2002. He recently authored the 2nd edition of “Mastering QGIS” for Packt Publishing, and “Discover QGIS” for Locate Press. He is also an OSGeo Charter Member. In his spare time he enjoys big wild spaces, mountains, vinyl records, and good coffee.
Q: Kurt Menke, where are you located and what do you do?
A: I live in Albuquerque, New Mexico which, contrary to what you often hear reported, is actually located in the United States. I run my own consulting business, Bird’s Eye View, and have worked at home since 2008. I consider myself a GIS generalist. I have been doing GIS for almost 20 years so “what I do” has changed over several times. I’ve built desktop and web mapping applications, developed data, conducted spatial analyses, and created maps. My mission is to help solve the world’s mounting ecological and social problems using GIS technology. Basically I want to use this technology to make the world a better place. My bread and butter is spatial analysis and cartography. Some of my favorite work involves modeling wildlife habitat and wildlife corridors. Many of my clients are non-profit conservation organizations in the western US.
I also do some work related to public health, and I’ve been involved in education and training for a while too. I’m a big fan of open source software and in 2010 I developed a full semester course called “Introduction to Open Source GIS and Web Mapping”. I usually teach it in the summer at my local community college. It’s now a required course there. I also was one of the major contributors to the GeoAcademy curriculum. That effort lead to me being an author. In the last two years I’ve authored “Discover QGIS” and co-authored two editions of “Mastering QGIS”. I’d like to get more involved in showing organizations how to migrate to FOSS4G.
Q: On LinkedIn you’re listed as a former archaeologist. What brought you into that field? How did you make your way from that into GIS?
A: I grew up in the suburbs of DC and started out at the University of Maryland where I picked Anthropology as my major. I eventually transferred to the University of New Mexico, partly because it had a great Anthropology program, but mostly to get away from home and have an adventure. I’ve been here ever since. After graduating I started working as a contract archaeologist. I did that for 8 years. It was a fun way to spend my 20s, but it’s hard work, and you end up collecting a lot of unemployment between gigs. It got to the point where I was ready to get a ‘real job’ instead of being a shovel bum. Some kind of synergy happened. I had a boss who was into remote sensing, which I’d never heard of, but it sounded cool. I’d always loved maps. I had a huge collection of paper USGS topo quads. He convinced me to enroll in the Geography Master’s program at UNM.
At the time I was completely computer illiterate. It sounds strange now, but it was still pretty common in the mid 90s. I ended up getting a job at the Earth Data Analysis Center at UNM, which is a GIS/Remote Sensing business that runs out of the university. It was there that I really cut my teeth on GIS. The first computer I used was a UNIX workstation through a terminal. We ran Arc/Info 7 and I loved it. It was all command line and I got really good at it. I ended up working at EDAC for 10 years. It was also there that I was first exposed to open source GIS. I did a lot of work developing web applications with MapServer, GRASS and PostGIS. Now I call myself a reformed archaeologist.
Q: What is a wildlife corridor and how hard are they to model? What tools do you use to do that?
A: Those are big questions. I’ll try to summarize. Wildlife have a home range or an area where they operate on the landscape. They also need to migrate occasionally. This might happen to find new food sources, better breeding grounds, or might be part of seasonal movements. A wildlife corridor is a route an animal uses to get from A to B. They also get called linkages or connectivity areas.
I think the ‘why they need to be modeled’ is important here. Wildlife habitats are becoming increasingly fragmented by human development, and habitat patches are becoming smaller. This has likely caused wildlife-vehicle collisions to increase. If a corridor can be accurately identified, people can work with transportation departments to build overpasses or underpasses for wildlife. It’s a win-win because it makes the road safer for people and removes barriers for wildlife movement.
There is also scientific consensus that the long-term survival of many species is dependent on protecting wildlife corridors. This is especially true for big animals with big home ranges, like mountain lions, elk, wolves, pronghorn antelope, etc. There’s the theory of island biogeography, which essentially states that the smaller an island, the fewer species it can support and vice versa. This is a universal ecological pattern found in the world. Fragmented habitat is like a small island.
They are hard to model, and this is just because the world is complicated and our understanding of how critters operate is incomplete. Corridors look very different from species to species. For example, a desert tortoise is not going to move like an elk. From a data perspective, you have to know a lot about the species, and you have to be able to represent things that are important to the species in a GIS. The first step is identifying where the habitat is. This usually involves a raster analysis, unless someone has already produced a good model for your area, but that just never seems to be the case. Variables usually include elevation, vegetation, hydrology and human impacts.
The next step is developing a resistance raster that represents ease of movement across the landscape. You can simply work off the idea that it is easier for a critter to move through good habitat than bad. So resistance is the inverse of habitat. Sometimes though people will develop a custom resistance surface if they know a lot about the animal. It likely includes a lot of the same variables in the habitat model but weighted differently.
From there it’s common to use some sort of least cost path tools. However, least cost paths are only one pixel wide which probably doesn’t represent reality so well. There is a nice tool in ArcGIS named Corridor that sums the cost and allows you to extract a swath of pixels as the corridor. Corridor Designer is one of the first tools I used. It was/is an ArcGIS toolbox with a suite of tools for modeling corridors using this approach. It probably doesn’t run so well on new versions of ArcGIS, but it was really handy. The coolest new tool is the open source Circuitscape. You essentially provide the habitat polygons and a resistance surface, and it outputs a connectivity raster for the entire study area. Of course this can all be scripted as well. I know there’s a package for R called Grainscape I’d like to check out.
Climate change is disrupting some of these patterns which throws a wrench into the works. People are now working on potential range shift models. Where will lynx habitat be in 2100 and where will the corridors be?
A: This is a project I’ve been working on for a while. Community Health maps is a project of the National Library of Medicine, an agency I’d never heard of until I got involved. The goal is to empower public health organizations, working with underserved and at risk populations, with mapping technology. So yeah, our target audience is not GIS professionals, but public health workers. For the most part they are not computer savvy, but really need some basic geospatial tech. I teach half-day workshops where they learn how to 1) use Fulcrum to map their communities with smartphones, 2) map that data with CARTO, and 3) go even further with QGIS. The most gratifying aspect of these workshops is seeing people shed their technological insecurities. It’s common for people to show up and admit they’re scared of the technology. To then see in a few short hours, they are getting it all to work, and actually getting excited about the possibilities, is a beautiful thing. I also moderate a blog and have produced some related lab exercises. Overall I don’t think the health field is benefitting from geospatial tech nearly as much as they could. There are big programs at agencies like the CDC, but that isn’t really helping the typical public health worker in their day-to-day work.
Q: I’ve interviewed a few authors — and you mentioned Discover QGIS and Mastering QGIS — how hard is it to keep books on QGIS up to date? The QGIS developers have a quick release schedule and I imagine it’s easy to get far behind.
A: It’s hard. First of all, if all goes as planned, it takes a good 6 months from the start of the publishing contract to the end of the editorial process. During that six months, QGIS will have undergone at least one version change and is halfway to the next. Once out, the book is ideally current with the latest LTR for a year. As an example, we planned on getting the second edition of “Mastering QGIS” out in March of 2016 to coincide with the release of QGIS LTR 2.14. All our copy was complete by then, but due to issues with the publisher it wasn’t published until September. In a normal cycle that’s halfway through the book’s relevancy. I’m now considering updating “Discover QGIS” for the release of QGIS v 3.0. That book has over 700 screenshots, most of which will need to be updated. Then there’s accounting for all the great new features. It’s a daunting prospect. I want it done, but don’t want to do it.
Q: For me work/life balance is hard. What do you do for fun? I’ve seen on a year-end blog post you lift weights? You hike?
A: It is for me too, but it’s getting better. I really try to quit work at 5pm. Since I work at home, that routine is important to my overall sanity. As I was getting ready to leave the university and start my business, I spent a few years essentially working two jobs. It took a toll. The body really wasn’t meant to sit 50-60 hours a week. I started gaining weight and having problems with my elbows and wrists. Eventually I got an adjustable height desk which has helped.
I do lift weights. A few years ago my wife and I started really cleaning up our diet and working out with a trainer. He’s got his own little private gym. It’s just us and a few others. Now we lift weights 3 nights a week and do some sort of cardio on the weekend. It’s a blast, plus most of the aches and pains associated with being a desk jockey have gone. Workouts are also usually in the evenings so they get me to stop work on time. It’s my favorite part of the week. We’ve both gotten pretty fit. This winter I set two weightlifting PRs. I was most proud of back-squatting 315!
I also love hiking. I spend a lot of time up in the Sandia Wilderness outside of Albuquerque. One of my hobbies is climbing 14-ers (peaks over 14,000’). I’ve climbed 23 of the 54 in Colorado, and another 3 in California. I like backpacking too. A while back I hiked across Oregon on the Pacific Crest Trail. My buddy and I covered 500 miles in 40 days. It was an amazing experience. I can’t imagine being able to take that much time off now.
During the week, after work and working out, I can usually be found on the couch watching any one of the great TV shows out these days. I also love vintage film noir. The movies relax me. I listen to a ton of podcasts too. Lately I’m into S-Town, Criminal, Monday Morning Podcast (Bill Burr), Crime Writers On…, I Brew My Own Coffee, WTF with Marc Maron, and recently Hangouts with James Fee.
Q: How bad is the coffee addiction? It seems like it may be a problem.
A: Ha! It’s pretty bad, but what do they say? Admitting it is the first step. I’ve always loved coffee. A few years ago I started getting bummed that what I brewed at home wasn’t anywhere near as good as what the local coffee joints were serving. So I did some research and invested in a decent burr grinder, a scale, and a Chemex. Give Chemex a goog if you don’t know what one is. It was a game changer. I threw out my drip machine.
With the Community Health Maps project I’ve been travelling a lot. So I’ve started checking out the best coffee shops wherever I go to see what they have going on. That lead to getting into all the single origin coffees coming out. From there I started buying other brewers like an AeroPress, Kalita Wave, siphon, Moka pot, V60 etc. They’re all really affordable. Then I found a vintage Swiss espresso machine in my father in law’s garage. He didn’t want it, so I sent it out to be refurbished. That was expensive.
Anyway now I pretty much have a state of the art coffee shop in my kitchen. I’ve turned into a total coffee geek and I’m ok with it. I even bring an AeroPress and a portable hand grinder with me on trips to places without good local coffee. I can brew up great coffee in my hotel room.
Q: Almost 4 years ago we defined the geohipster to be a person who lives on the outskirts of mainstream GIS. So I’m reading back through this and we’ve got the makings of a geohipster. Do you feel like one?
A: What is it The Stranger says, “that’s a name no one would self-apply where I come from.” That’s where I am with it. I think in some respects I operate on the outskirts of mainstream GIS (ahem I meant the geospatial industry) and in others probably not. I’d love to be considered a geohipster, who wouldn’t, but I’ll leave that to others to decide.
Q: I leave the last question up to you: Anything you wish to tell the GeoHipster readers.
A: GIS and geo are simply ever-evolving tools for turning data into information. For me the application and the data are more important than the actual tools used. Mainly because every 5 or 10 years the tools completely change. Don’t get me wrong, that’s part of what keeps the job interesting day to day, learning new tools, but it’s the applications that can have a lasting impact.