Lyzi Diamond is a 2014 Code for America Fellow with the city of Lexington, KY. She has spent much of her career in government GIS, but is now tinkering in the land of open source geospatial technologies. She spends her free time organizing geo meetups, writing tutorials, making silly web maps, riding bikes, and playing handbells. She lives in Oakland, California.
Q: How old are you?
A: Twenty-four, although I’ll be turning twenty-five in April. April Fools’ Day, actually. So I might just be messing with you.
Q: How did you get into maps/GIS?
A: I kind of fell backwards into GIS in college through my original degree program, and I loved it so much that I added a geography major and stayed for another year. While in school, I worked at the University of Oregon InfoGraphics Lab as a Student GIS Technician and interned with the GIS group at the City of Eugene Planning and Development Department.
Not too long after, I got a GIS Technician job at the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries in Portland. This is when I started pursuing extracurricular activities in the geospatial tech world, through attending my friend Michelle’s Women’s Python Workshop and attending the 2012 State of the Map conference. I became lonely without other folks to hack on map stuff with me, which is how MaptimePDX came to be.
Q: Your website runs on GitHub Pages and uses Jekyll. This is some serious geek cred. Do you consider yourself a mapper, a coder, a geek, or something else? Do such classifications even make sense?
A: Why should we limit ourselves with a one-word definition? We all do so many things! I would say I’m a map geek, but I think that is just because I have a hefty interest in maps. I’m also a college football geek and a government geek. We’re all geeks about something! But as far as “mapper” or “coder” are concerned, not so much. I’m just a lady who enjoys doing a bunch of different things.
Impostor syndrome is a real thing in the tech community. There are a lot of people in tech who have learned and are learning through a variety of online resources strung together in their free time. There’s no graduation, no certification, no person affirming that you’ve achieved a certain status. I know many developers who would never call themselves a developer. I don’t even consider myself to be a developer. But the truth is, if you write any code, you are a developer. We have so much anxiety around these terms, but in truth, they don’t mean anything. Doing things is the most important part. Everything else is secondary.
As far as the Jekyll/GitHub Pages thing, I started reading about Jekyll one day and it seemed pretty cool, so I tried it. The documentation isn’t great; it was kind of hard to pick up. But like anything else, if you chip away at it enough, it works out pretty well. And I get to have complete control over my site, which is a nice added bonus.
Q: I know (of) you from Twitter, where your blog posts and presentations on open source tools get a lot of traction. Your posts are very well written, and you manage to bring clarity to complex concepts. (Your blog post about GitHub prompted me to create a GitHub account.) Have you considered a career in education?
A: Aw, thanks. And yes, I have been toying with the education idea for a long time. I have some thoughts on tech education, and my friends know I can get really ranty about this stuff, so I’ll try to keep it short.
Basically, effective education (at least in tech with adults who want to learn) is about a combination of accessibility and empowerment. The problem with many resources out there is that they’re written by folks who are very well versed in their field. It is great to have knowledgeable people passing that knowledge forward, but most of them haven’t been beginners in a long time. This can make it harder to remember what it was like before they knew anything about the field, which means they don’t know how to write in a way that beginners will understand.
This is important. If you’re a beginner, and you’re looking at a tool that is marketed to you, and there’s a term in the first sentence that you’ve never heard before and don’t understand, you’re not very likely to continue. You’re going to give up. The only environment in which we can get people excited about learning is one where we meet them where they’re at, provide resources that they can understand, and do as much as we can to make them feel good about where they are in the process.
Q: You are a Code for America Fellow, which is awesome. What are you working on there? What are you getting out of it?
A: I’m a fellow this year with the city of Lexington, KY, where I’m living until the end of February (after which point we’ll head back to the Bay Area). There are 30 fellows, with teams of three working in ten different local governments (mostly cities, but one state and one territory), and our goal is to work with the local government and citizens to identify some challenges the city is facing and work to implement new solutions using technology. We are currently in the research phase of the project, actually living in Lexington, having meetings with government officials and journalists and neighborhood associations and really anyone who wants to talk to us. We want to learn as much as we can about Lexington in order to build something that’s actually going to be useful, and then we will compile our research and start building when we get back to SF in March.
Q: There is a certain quirkiness to open source geo geeks. You play handbells, which is definitely quirky. Do you think geo/open source begets quirkiness, or vice versa?
A: Geographic pursuits on their own require the ability to simultaneously exercise the highly technical and highly creative parts of your brain. Open source only compounds this, because there are so many different people working on a project that are thinking about it in so many different ways. You have to be able to work creatively inside the confines of the rules, which can be difficult. There are not a ton of activities in the world that fit this mold, but handbells are certainly one of them.
For those who don’t know, handbells are typically rung in a choir of 10-15 individuals who each are responsible for somewhere between two and four notes of a five-octave set. Unlike other types of ensembles, where everyone is playing a different instrument and has the full chromatic scale at their disposal, handbells require you to work as a team to play a piece without any notes missing. In addition to just playing the right notes at the right time, there are a ton of different sounds you can get from a bell depending on how you move it. (This piece is a really nice example of all the different things you can do with a bell.)
There are lots of complications and moving parts. You have to adapt to what other people are doing. You have to remember the physics of what you’re doing and the constraints you have, while thinking creatively about how to make it work. Maps are just like that. And I think the people who are really great in this field are involved in other “quirky” activities that exercise those same mental processes.
Q: We define hipsters as people who think outside the box and often shun the mainstream (see visitor poll with 1106 responses). Would you consider yourself a hipster? How do you feel about the term hipster?
A: If I’m going to be really real, I don’t think I’m particularly hip. To be honest, I haven’t heard the word “hipster” used in a really long time, except to make fun of something. I’m not sure I know what it means, but if we’re going with the poll results: the fact that we are interested in the nuances and technical elements of maps and geography makes us inherent outside-the-box thinkers inherently. Most people don’t care about this stuff. They don’t consider it. When you tell someone that a Mercator map isn’t an “accurate” world map, and indeed there’s no such thing as an accurate map, they’re most likely surprised, but ultimately don’t care very much. The fact that we care so much about the way maps are constructed and the science behind them puts us outside the mainstream, I guess. I don’t know if that really answered the question.
Q: Is there a mainstream of geospatial data handling/representation? Who/what is part of it?
A: I don’t know about a “mainstream” per se, but I definitely divide the geo world into two camps in my head: the folks who came to it through a traditional geography/GIS curriculum, probably through a university or an Esri training program through work, and those who came to it through the developer/programming world. The ways these two groups think about geospatial technology are very different. The first group are largely desktop mappers, or at least learned about geospatial using the term “GIS,” and worked inside a desktop application doing spatial analysis and cartography. They tend to use proprietary software (ArcGIS or MapInfo, typically). The second group are largely web mappers and developers, don’t really use the term “GIS” very often, and work on the web trying to display information adequately. There are some who are doing so through the Esri ecosystem, but more often than not they’re using Google products or open-source products.
These two groups tend to… argue. A lot. About a lot of things. And I think it can be damaging to beginners, because they aren’t coming to geo from anywhere. They just want to learn. And walking into a fight about what should be taught when can be strange and alienating to people who are new to the field. They don’t know what’s going on, they don’t know where to start, and it sucks.
So why are these groups arguing? What can we do about it? I think the fact that the trajectory of learning is so different underscores a lot of the issue. A nice example of this is the value of teaching about projections. In desktop GIS, projections are very important. You learn them first because in the analysis and static map visualization world, a projection will make or break your project. In the web mapping world, everything is in the Pseudo (Web) Mercator projection (unless you’re using D3). Any projection issues that come up have to do with massaging projected data to get it back to an unprojected state, which you don’t really need to know how to do when you’re first learning. Knowledge of projections can come later when you’re learning through the web mapping lens.
Both routes are valuable. Both skills are valuable. The developer side is certainly newer, but the ubiquity of mapping applications and the fact that most people think of geography in terms of Google Maps leads me to believe that the “mainstream” sits in that camp. I think most people would disagree with me there. But it doesn’t matter, because the landscape of geospatial technology needs both sides, regardless of which one is in the “mainstream.”
Q: You call yourself an “an ambitious perfectionist”. According to David Foster Wallace, “Perfectionism is very dangerous because if your fidelity to perfectionism is too high you never do anything.” How do you find the right balance between fidelity to perfectionism and getting stuff done?
A: Short answer: I haven’t yet. When I write something and put it on the internet, it’s because for some reason I got a spurt of focus and banged it out without taking any breaks. That or I’m working under the gun. It really is a massive struggle. I think for those who are like me, who hold themselves to impossibly high standards and get frustrated when they don’t meet them, it can be really hard to step back and recognize the fact that they’re actually doing something worthwhile.
But therein lies the answer. The truth is, there aren’t a lot of people out there who are taking the time to do things they care about. I tend to remind myself of this when I’m dissatisfied with something I’ve done, and that helps me just put it out there. The nice thing about the internet, too, is that if I messed something up or it’s not to my liking, I can always go back and change it. 🙂
Q: Is there anything else you would like to share with the Geohipster readers?
A: I get a lot of emails from folks who just graduated from school with a GIS degree or certificate and are having trouble getting jobs. My advice is always the same, and I’d like to write it here as well:
1. Make things.
2. Put those things on the internet.
3. Make more things.
4. Write about those things and how you made them.
5. Put that on the internet.
6. Write about something you want to make.
7. Put that on the internet.
8. Make another thing.
9. Put it on the internet.
… I think you can see where this is going. Put your stuff out there! Even if it’s not groundbreaking, even if you don’t even think it’s that cool, even if you messed up and it doesn’t work correctly. Write about that. Write about what was hard for you and what you learned. Get yourself out there. That’s the #1 way to make a name for yourself.
And just to prove I practice what I preach, here is a Leaflet map of places to buy cupcakes in Portland. It is not that cool. But it is a web map that I made, and I am proud of it. Put stuff on the internet! I promise it’ll yield at least some positive result, even if that result is simply you feeling accomplished.
Also, one of the links above goes to a Youtube video of my handbell choir performing in Portland this past December. See if you can pick me out. 😉