Tag Archives: Maptime

Alan McConchie: “I love it when a great map fits seamlessly into a larger message”

Alan McConchie
Alan McConchie
Alan McConchie is a Design Technologist at Stamen Design, working at the intersection of cartography, open source software, and data visualization. He is also a PhD candidate in Geography at the University of British Columbia, researching the social dynamics of crowdsourced mapmaking in OpenStreetMap. You can find him on twitter at @mappingmashups, where he hosts a monthly twitter discussion called #geowebchat. Along with Lyzi Diamond, Camille Teicheira, and founder Beth Schechter, he helped start Maptime, an international, open source educational community for learning about maps.

Alan was interviewed for GeoHipster by Jonah Adkins (@jonahadkins).

Q: You are coming up on two years with Stamen, and you’ve been a part of some great projects (Social Media & Open Spaces, Every Line Ever, etc.) there. Which project have you learned the most from so far, and what project are you looking forward to working on?

A: Working at Stamen has been a dream come true, and I feel like I learn so much on every project we do. The social media mapping project you mention has taught me a lot, and I’m excited about that one because it’s still ongoing: parks.stamen.com evolved into caliparks.org, and, we have more plans to keep building on it. And yet, through all those iterations, we still don’t quite know how to make maps of social media activity that will be meaningful to the public. There’s a lot of interesting geographic data processing happening under the hood, but if visualizing it doesn’t serve the needs of the overall product, then it doesn’t need to be part of the user-facing app (yet).

A lot of what I’ve learned at Stamen fits into that theme: how do you make amazing maps that are well integrated and appropriately supportive of the rest of your site / app / visualization / product / whatever? For example, the climate change maps we made for the Audubon Society are really fantastic on their own (and I learned a lot about hacking Tilemill in the process), but I’m also really proud of how they fit together with some non-geographic visualizations we did, and of course a beautiful site built by Mule Design. I’m a map guy, so I love a map that’s successful all on its own, but I love it even more when a great map fits seamlessly into a larger message.

There’s a couple of new projects that I’m really excited to get started on: One is an ambitious series of interactive maps of American history in collaboration with the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab. Unfortunately I have nothing public to show for that one yet. The other project is a Knight Foundation-funded reboot of Stamen’s basemap infrastructure, especially our aging Terrain style. We’re blogging our progress at openterrain.tumblr.com if you want to follow along.

Q: You are a huge contributor to OpenStreetMap, and a lot of your doctoral research involves OSM data. What has been your favorite aspect of OSM?

A: I wouldn’t say I’m a huge contributor, and I never have the time to edit as much as I’d like. Although I am proud to have joined the project early enough to get my first name (Alan) as my OSM username!

As an academic, what fascinates me about OSM is that it’s like studying Geography as a discipline: it can be about so many different things. If you’re into politics, you can study Political Geography, if you’re interested in culture, there’s Cultural Geography, if you’re concerned about the environment, there’s Environmental Geography… you get the idea. OpenStreetMap is also like that. It’s kind of a microcosm. It’s about how we deal with the world, and how we deal with each other. So you can use OSM as an example to study so many different things: how people cooperate (or fail to cooperate), how information and knowledge are produced in the age of the internet, the emotional attachment people feel to place, even the differences in the way we all perceive the world. These are all issues that are very close to the heart of OpenStreetMap.

I’m the first to admit that OSM has serious problems (the digital divide between rich and poor areas, a deep lack of diversity, a persistent unfriendliness to newcomers), but I doubt I’ll ever give up on it. I’m optimistic that we all can keep making OSM better, and at minimum I expect it will only keep getting more and more interesting as it grows! Projects like the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team prove the difference that OSM can make in the world. It’s an important project that’s worth fighting for, to help it get better.

Q: Community engagement and education is obviously very important to you — either through your university instruction, presentations, or things like Maptime, OpenStreetMap, #geowebchat. First, where do you find the time? And second, what is the best lesson you could teach someone pursuing a geo career? What about someone involved or getting involved with the geo community?

A: Well, I’m lucky that Stamen strongly supports education and community engagement, so that helps me find some of the time to do all this. For me on a personal level, though, I know I’m extremely privileged and lucky to have learned the things I’ve learned, and to have the opportunity to work on so many interesting projects, both at Stamen and in graduate school. I feel an obligation to share that knowledge with other people, and to help create opportunities for them. This is especially true because I’ve learned so much from open source and open data, which depends a lot on the generosity of others. Teaching and sharing goes with the territory of open source, in my mind. We all find our own ways to contribute, and for me, teaching is my way of giving back to the community.

My advice for someone pursuing a geo career or getting into the community: Start a blog and document everything you learn, build a portfolio of projects, and share your progress. You’ll help other people who are also learning, you’ll build a support network, and you’ll raise your profile when applying for jobs. Be active on social media, but be smart about it. I’m on twitter a lot, but I try to think of it as research. If you’re not learning new things that are useful to your pursuits, then you’re following the wrong people and you’re just wasting your time. Also, use social media to cultivate contacts in real life. You never know where your next job offer might come from.

Q: How excited are you for the upcoming State of the Map US? Any talks planned? And there’s a Maptime summit too? WAT!?!?

A: I’m so excited for SOTM-US! I can’t wait to chat about OpenStreetMap all weekend in the freakin’ United Nations! I submitted a presentation about my dissertation research, wherein I hope to carefully wade into the debate about whether imports are good or bad for OSM.

And the Maptime Summit is going to be so great! We have a full day of events planned for the day after State of the Map, so please stick around in NYC for one more day and join us for that!

Maptime has really started to mature in the last year, and the Summit will be Maptime’s emergence from it’s awkward adolescent phase. There are so many passionate Maptime organizers around the world who are getting the hang of running their local chapters, and have tons of energy to help Maptime grow. I look forward to hearing all great lessons the organizers have to share with other organizers. Meanwhile at HQ, we’re figuring out some systems to help Maptime scale from our current 50 (or so) chapters to the next 500, so expect some announcements regarding that at the Summit. Now’s the time to keep learning from each other, to celebrate all the awesomeness that’s happened so far, and to figure out how to make Maptime even more awesome in the future.

Q: The Pop vs Soda project was a very popular survey (350K responses) showcasing the relation of geography and linguistics. What was the most important takeaway for you as a researcher?

A: When it comes to the Pop vs Soda Page, I’m only an amateur linguistic geographer! I had no idea what I was doing with that project, and it’s definitely not scientific. That was actually my first programming project (at least, the Perl scripts that run the site on the back end), and I had no idea it would become so popular. If I learned anything from that project, it’s that people get extremely riled up over the most trivial things. Who knew that passions would run so high when it comes to stupid carbonated beverages?

Q: Cartographer to cartographer: Your desert island favorite maps?

A: I was afraid this question was coming! Instead of sticking to stand-alone maps, I’m going to cheat a little bit by including a lot of atlases, too (both online and physical ones). Here are some of the touchstones that I keep coming back to for inspiration (but I’m sure I’m forgetting many more amazing ones):

Eric Fischer’s tourists and locals maps are one of my all-time favorites. Sure, the sheer volume of data shown on the map is impressive, but it’s that one insightful tweak (classifying users as tourists or locals based on how often they were active in one city versus other cities) that makes the maps endlessly fascinating. The maps show you so much about social activities, about the structure and landuse of cities, about the grit and noise present in the technological infrastructure of GPS and cell phone towers and so on, it’s just amazing. I could look at them for days.

I’m a big fan of Bill Rankin’s Radical Cartography site, which is a treasure trove of beautiful minimalist maps about all kinds of topics. I can’t pick just one! Along the same lines, I also love Dorothy Gambrell’s maps for Very Small Array. With both Rankin and Gambrell I love how prolific they are, how it seems like any topic of dinner conversation might spur them to go home and find a way to create an interesting map about that topic. They also do a great job of hiding the amount of research that goes into each of their maps. They make it look effortless.

Speaking of “radical cartography”, I’ve always been interested in the potential of maps for activism. Lize Mogel and Alexis Bhagat’s “An Atlas of Radical Cartography” (unrelated to Rankin’s work) is a great collection of creative, political maps on various topics, made by mapmakers who blur the lines between cartographer, artist, and activist.

Within academic Geography — although he eventually got kicked out of academia — “Wild” Bill Bunge is the patron saint of activist mapping. I’d have to pick his 1971 book/atlas “Fitzgerald” about race, economics, and geography in Detroit; the maps are certainly dated, but the topic is as relevant as ever, and the scope and ambition of the project is staggering. The Million Dollar Blocks project by Laura Kurgan and the Columbia University Spatial Information Design Lab is one of the modern day successors to the Fitzgerald atlas. (Interestingly, Adam Greenfield’s newsletter this week made a similar connection. Maybe Bunge’s making a comeback in the zeitgeist?)

And just to show that activist maps don’t have to be so dark and sober when dealing with a serious topic, Julian Busac’s map of Palestine as an archipelago borrows the aesthetics of traditional maps to vividly communicate how space is experienced on the ground by millions of Palestinians. It’s lovely and serious at the same time.

Q: What does the term geohipster mean to you, and as a doctoral candidate what would you prescribe an ailing geohipster?

A: I don’t really know what geohipster means! It’s probably like “hipster” IRL: everybody thinks they know what it means, but nobody can define it. Based on the previous geohipsters interviewed in the blog, it’s hard to find anything they have in common, other than awesomeness.

That said, am a sucker for new words, even ones I don’t fully understand! I’m happy to add “geohipster” to the list of neologisms I started collecting back in my early days of grad school. It includes neogeography, of course, but also neocartography, VGI, f-VGI, CCGI, AGI, web 2.0, GIS 2.0, Maps 2.0, GeoWeb 2.0, web mapping 2.0, new spatial media, WebGIS, GIS/2, alt.GIS, wiki-mapping, the wikification of GIS, map hacks, map mashups, geohacks, mapumentaries, autobiogeographies, geobrowsers, digital earths, virtual globes, cyberplace, digiplace, the cyberspatial web, cybercartography, telecartography, paracartography, social cartography, naive geography, egocarto, geomedia, geospatial media, ubiquitous cartography, ubiquitous mapping, ubiquitous computing, pervasive computing, ambient computing, hertzian space, hybrid space, mixed reality, augmented reality, augmented space, and that’s not even my complete list. I’ll leave the definitions to your imagination and as a test of your google skills.

So, what would I prescribe an ailing geohipster? Maybe revive one of those terms I just listed? Some of those trends are more than ten years old, and are totally ready for a comeback! Doesn’t “cyberspatial” have a catchy, nostalgic feel to it? Or maybe you should resurrect some retro technology like the original Google Maps API from 2005? That sounds like an appropriately artisanal programming project that some geohipster could do over a weekend.

Amy Smith: “One of the things I love about Maptime is that it’s open to all skill levels and backgrounds”

Amy Smith
Amy Smith

Amy Smith is a Geospatial Data and Technology Specialist with Fehr & Peers in San Francisco. She’s had some great opportunities working with geographic information systems in a variety of fields, including environmental studies, satellite imagery analysis, water resources, and transportation planning. Amy currently spends her days working with an amazing group of people focused on improving transportation in our communities. In her free time she enjoys exploring the hills of San Francisco.

Amy was interviewed for GeoHipster by Christina Boggs.

Q: A few years back we used to work together but I don’t actually remember how you got into GIS. You have a master’s in it right?

 A: I do! I have a Master’s in Geography and Regional Studies. I got into GIS through a chance encounter with a geography professor whom I passed in a hallway on campus. Somehow we started talking about geography. I was undeclared at the time. I was trying to decide between GIS and intro to computer science for a general requirement. He told me a bit about GIS and geography, and that really won me over. Who knows, I could have been a computer scientist if I hadn’t met him!

Q: You didn’t leave computers entirely though, you’re pretty slick with code… In fact, you’re a great promoter of Python. Which came first – GIS or coding?

A: My first programming/scripting language was Matlab. I learned it while I was working on my master’s studying space-based synthetic aperture radar data in the Florida Everglades. Through learning Matlab, I learned the basics of programming logic. When I started using desktop GIS every day for work, it got me thinking about ways I could be using programming for spatial analysis, which led me down the path to Python. Since then, I use it almost every day, and not just for spatial analysis.

Q: What other tasks do you use Python for?

A: Lately I’ve been using it to prepare transit data for travel demand models. Since many of the inputs of the models are text-based, Python lends itself well to these types of tasks. It can also come in handy for automating things you’d rather not do manually. For example, I had an Excel spreadsheet with multiple worksheets that needed to be saved as individual CSVs. Instead of exporting them one by one, I wrote a script to iterate through each worksheet and save it as a CSV. Kind of a mundane example, but it’s this type of thing that I think can save lots of time at the end of the day.

Q: Speaking of time, you did a transportation study and saved time by scripting some node-based analysis of road segments to bicycle accident occurrences. I saw your talk at the ESRI UC where you talked about becoming one of the points. Do you know if that study has been reviewed by any of the traffic safety folks out in your area, has it helped any?

A: That was one of the first projects where I got a chance to develop a custom script tool for ArcGIS. The tool uses a roadway network and collision data to pinpoint high incident collision areas that might need attention. The tool was applied most recently by Placer County here in California to run a collision analysis of their entire county-maintained roadway network, which used to be a manual review process. They used some of the results to apply for grants and received several grants funding highway safety projects. Another benefit of the tool is that the county can continue to use it with new data in their safety programs.

Q: You’ve taught workshops on Python and even done some online workshops. Do you have any more in the future, or are you branching out to something different?

A: I’m planning some internal Python training here at Fehr & Peers for our planners and engineers who’d like to learn more about it. I’m always happy to talk with others about Python, so I hope there are more opportunities out there for workshops. I’m still learning too, so I’m always on the lookout for workshops and meetups others are hosting. In terms of branching out, I’ve recently been diving into JavaScript. There’s a library I’ve been learning about called D3 that has some great spatial as well as non-spatial capabilities. I’m still in the “stumbling through it” phase, but luckily there’s a great user community online and here in the Bay area that’s eager to share knowledge.

Q: A few months back you attended my first #maptimeSF with me; now that you’ve moved out to San Francisco I see you get to go to #maptimeSF more often. For someone who is thinking about attending their first Maptime, how do you think it helped you as an advanced GISer?

A: Maptime is a meetup that’s happening in many cities around the world where folks can get together, learn about maps, make maps, talk about maps, or maybe just hang out with friends. One of the things I love about Maptime is that it’s open to all skill levels and backgrounds. People are encouraged to ask questions and learn from each other. It’s a very welcoming environment. I’ve learned a lot about how others outside of my industry are using geospatial data and technologies. It’s also encouraging to see a thriving interest and enthusiasm for maps.

Q: Hearing about your work in transportation is really interesting. The water side still misses you. What are you up to at Fehr & Peers? Any interesting projects you can share with us?

A: I have so many great memories from my time with the Department of Water Resources in West Sacramento — it’s where I really started to get my feet wet (pun intended) with Python! It’s also where I learned to drive a boat. I definitely miss the field work collecting bathymetry data in the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta (picture below for proof), and of course the people too!

Amy Smith collecting bathymetry data in the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta
Amy Smith collecting bathymetry data in the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta

 One of the great things about GIS is that it’s applicable in many different industries. Transportation planning has a lot of great uses for GIS too. One of the more recent projects I worked on focused on improving cyclist and pedestrian access to transit stations. The project had a large data organization component that involved gathering available spatial data and organizing it in a consistent way so that we could use it in a series of network analyses. We looked at some of the ways that a well-connected network might help improve access to transit, making it easier for people to walk and bike to stations. I’m currently working on a project, also transit-related, that involves improving transit in an area that doesn’t have a lot of existing transit. It can be a challenge to anticipate how new facilities will affect travel in an area if you don’t have many observations on how people are currently using transit. In this case, we’re identifying places that have developed transit networks and that share similar characteristics with the study area that’s considering improving or expanding their transit system. Both of these projects are very much rooted in spatial analysis, but also require local knowledge. Another fun part of my job is getting to know new areas and talking with people to learn about qualities specific to their region that might not be obvious from just looking at the data.

Q: If people are looking to check out some of your cool stuff, where can you be found online?

A: I tweet about spatial topics, transportation, and my endless appetite for spinach @wolfmapper.

Q: Geohipster Amy Smith is awesome! How do you feel about being part of spreading the geohipster gospel?

A: I’m a big fan of GeoHipster! I was trying to disguise myself a bit by using a seriffed font, but I think you found me out anyway. 🙂

Q: Speaking of transportation, I’ve got to wrap this interview up so I can cycle to work. Is there anything else you would like to share with #geohipster readers?

A: I recently learned about a spatial data format called topoJSON that’s one of my new favorite things. I found out about it at a recent Maptime on D3 and have been reading more about it on Mike Bostock’s wiki. Also, I’ll be helping host a webinar on transit planning with Code for America next month. Tune in if you’re interested!

Happy cycling!