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
A: I’m a geologist by training and turned to computer mapping and GIS 30 years ago in Canada. Why? I took eight years high school Latin in France, and while I cannot write code I sure can fix it… Handy on Unix then Java scripts when you’re posted from Bako thru BK to Baku (that’s Bakersfield CA, Bangkok and Azerbaijan). So I’ve been in the petroleum service sector all my life, crossing over to remote sensing, geodata management and web services as GIS is apt to do. After hours, I do VGI (volunteered geographic information) to help academics and agencies find free data and publish (almost) free maps, and thus promote better citizen engagement.
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: Oil & gas has a fantastic array of 3D subsurface data currently locked up in expensive and bespoke software and services. Using Esri for Personal Use for VGI work in England, working with US and Norwegian business partners Eagle Info Mapping and Geodata, and pulling basic data from Esri and US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, helped conflate all the relevant data in one simple 3D stack in the US Gulf of Mexico. Posting on WebScene displays a vast array of data in an easily-accessible form, to help engage agencies, operators and the public around complex geo-science. This is critical in matters ranging from smart fields (like smart cities, only in oil & gas) thru emergency response to environmental protection and beyond.
Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.
– Esri ArcGIS Pro and Web Scene, and Geodata Seismic extension.
– Seafloor bathymetry: Esri data.
– Oilwell polylines, surface block and subsurface strata polygons, and salt dome multi-patch: US BOEM open data and courtesy Eagle Info Mapping.