Harel Dan: “There’s no reason not to share your work and ideas with the geo community”

Harel Dan
Harel Dan

Harel Dan is a GIS and Remote Sensing analyst based in Israel, and the GIS Coordinator at HaMaarag – Israel’s National Nature Assessment Program. Twitter / Website

Harel was interviewed for GeoHipster by Amy Smith.
 

Q: You’re the GIS Coordinator at HaMaarag, Israel’s National Nature Assessment Program. What is HaMaarag, and how does GIS factor into the program?

A: HaMaarag is a consortium of organizations that manage open landscapes, that was set up to provide evidence-based knowledge to managers and decision makers. We run several long-term projects that take place all over the country, in varying biomes and their ecotones, from evergreen Sclerophyllous woodlands to hyper-arid shrubs, monitoring several classes like Mammals, Birds, Reptiles, as well as vegetation. As such, the entire process of planning out, sampling and analysing the data is dependent on locations. Be it precise measurement of monitoring plot corner pegs with GPS, or creating spatially-balanced sampling methods. My job also entails collecting and processing spatial data from other organizations, with their peculiarities and errors.

Q: You do a mix of technical work, coordination with other agencies, and field work. That sounds like an interesting mix – could you describe a typical day in the life?

A: 6:00 AM, Phone rings, ornithologist on the line, asks me to explain to him how to load the background layer to the Fulcrum monitoring app. 8:30 AM, Log on computer, answer email from chief scientist of the nature and parks authority. 10:00 AM, Run the script that scrapes data from that website. 11:45 AM, Finish that map and send it to graphic design. 13:37 PM, Coffee. 14:03 PM, Back in office after wandering around the labs in the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, where our offices are. 15:00 PM, Finish a call with the Open Landscapes head at ministry of environmental protection. 16:00 PM, Send drone orthos segmentation results to the botanist for assessment. 17:30 PM, Put kids to sleep. 19:00 PM, Goof around on whatever personal project distracts me these days.

Q: Based on your Twitter account and website, it seems you also take on a good amount of personal projects. What do you look for in a personal project? Any favorites you’d be willing to share?

A: My personal projects are a mix of disciplines and topics that on the one hand interest me, and on the other can be used as an excuse or reason to delve into something new; a concept, a programming language, a tool, etc. Furthermore, as a Geographer, I think I can bridge the gap between the analytical aspect and the human story it tells. For instance, over the summer I’ve made and published a constantly-updated map of fire damage in the south. I saw that there was a lack of connection between news reports and the scale of the damage that was creating misconceptions and lack of understanding. So telling this story was a chance to try out new internet tools to help streamline the work and be easy to read and comprehend for the general public.

Q: What inspired you to publish your analysis of SAR data to identify military radars? Were you nervous at all about the sensitivity of the subject matter?

A: I was intrigued by a peculiar image artifact when I was trying to incorporate Sentinel-1 data in my landcover classification mapping, which happened to appear mostly over broad-leaves and coniferous forests. After tweaking a Google Earth Engine script I’ve noticed that these artifacts converged over a single constant source, so I’ve figured out what these were. After a year or so of hesitance, asking around what should be the preferred action, and actually getting in touch with the Army, I had a job interview for a company that does SAR analysis, so I knew this would be a perfect time to publish the story. So with a tongue-in-cheek image alluding to some issues publicising the location of the radars in my country (It was a PNG image I made in MS Paint that read [REDACTED], you won’t believe how many people over-analysed this), I posted my findings on social media.

I got the job btw, but declined to take it as the conditions weren’t manageable from my perspective.

Q: You’ve successfully had your work featured in multiple publications. What advice do you have for other geohipsters out there looking to get more exposure?

A: Hustle. Made something interesting? Think you’re onto something? Post it on social media. If your career is not dependent on the number of publications in peer-reviewed journals, there’s no reason not to share your work and ideas with the geo community, no matter how half-baked they are.

Q: What do you do in your spare time? Any hobbies?

A: I have a garden with some fruit trees that I tend to when it’s not too hot, but other than that, I’m wholly immersed in being a full time parent to two small kids. Whatever spare time I have, it’s used to wind down and relax with techie reading material, or go on twitter and see what others are up to and engage in the war on Shapefile and banter on that other GIS software.

Q: Are you a geohipster? Why or why not?

A: I tick about a dozen or so results in the GeoHipster poll tally, so I guess I’m on the geohipster spectrum, even though I never got into the laptop stickers and pin badges fad. Besides, the backside of my laptop screen has velcro strips which I use to firmly attach dongles, chargers and an external drive full of hoarded geodata to reduce desktop clutter, this way I have room to place old printed atlases, a working sextante, PostGIS cheatsheet… OY MY GOD I’ve just realised I’m a geohipster.

Q: Any final words of wisdom for our global readership?

A: Don’t use Twitter’s Bing-based translation tool, it’s horrendous.

Maps and mappers of the 2019 calendar: Kenneth Field, Cover

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: I’m Ken, I’m a bit of a cartonerd. For the last 8 years I’ve allowed Esri to pay me to work for them. Technically I’m a ‘Senior Software Product Engineer’ but more informally I make maps, write about maps, talk about maps, teach about making maps and generally make myself a nuisance wherever there’s an opinion to be shared about, you guessed it, maps. Prior to working for the California-based Geogoliathon I spent around 20 years as an academic in UK universities teaching cartography, GIS, and geography. I’ve recently had a book published called (wait for it) Cartography. And developed a free Massive Open Online Course (#cartoMOOC) on the same subject which we’ve taught to 70,000 people and counting. My passion and profession align in my geo-lifestyle. I blog at cartonerd, and the ICA Commission on Map Design, and tweet @kennethfield. I play the drums (badly), like riding my snowboard in the mountains (with map-themed helmet, goggles and jacket of course), and for my sins I am an avid supporter of Nottingham Forest FC.

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: I’m always looking for interesting mapping themes. Normally these would involve the search for digital data that has to be persuaded and cajoled into some sort of map. I like to show people how to make great maps, sometimes just solid techniques done well, other times something a bit weird and wonderful to push the envelope, break a few rules and get creative. But I also like to use different mediums for making a map whether using Lego, pen and ink or…cheese. And these sort of maps are the ones that tend to stick in the memory because they’re different. They don’t conform. I was inspired by a map of English biscuits made by Chris Wesson a couple of years ago. It was a map of the UK with pictures of all sorts of tasty biscuits, where they were from and a little of their history. It was a great map but I couldn’t help think Chris might have actually made a large map as some sort of tablecloth and put real biscuits on top. And that’s when I thought of taking the basic idea and applying the concept to the UK cheese. Cartography is often about stealing ideas and then fashioning something new or interesting out of them and, so, I set about thinking through the map. It was an obvious approach really – I’d need a cheese board. I’d need it in the shape of the UK. And on top I’d place a selection of fine, rare, important or bizarre cheese. I’d take a picture and then people will eat the map…and the map would disappear. It’d be a one-time edible map. I researched the history of UK cheese production. I sought to identify a good geographical mix and from a list of around 400 cheeses I whittled it down to around 30 which would fit on a map.

Q: Tell us about the tools, data, etc., you used to make the map.

A: The map was fairly simple in design – just ceremonial counties of the UK. I made it in ArcGIS Pro and exported it as an svg file. By now I’d realised that I didn’t have the tools or experience to whittle the wood myself. I found a great craftsman called Andrew Abbott who had a CNC router and laser engraver. He took my design and made the map out of laminated blocks of Maple. We discussed all sorts of design aspects. He advised on what would work typographically at the scale of the final board. I was also planning on making the Isle of Man into a hole in the board but he suggested bits of cheese would simply fall through and get stuck…so I adapted the design accordingly. I also needed to do some really hefty generalisation on the coastline and internal boundaries so the laser engraver would work well – there simply wasn’t the space for overly complicated linework. It was a really good process to work together to ensure the design would work in the medium he was crafting.

I ended up with a cheese board around a metre tall and nearly as wide. Space for around 30-40 pieces of cheese. Sourcing the cheese wasn’t as simple as nipping to the local supermarket. The selection simply isn’t broad enough and some of the hard to get cheeses had to be sourced from niche artisanal suppliers. Some cheese was out of production (being seasonal), some impossible to source and some just not available in a quantity that would work. I eventually used a series of suppliers, had the cheese sent to my brother’s house in the UK as close to its eventual use as possible. I boarded a flight to the UK with my cheese board well packaged as excess baggage. It arrived in the UK undamaged. My brother drove the cheese to London from his home in Lincolnshire the day before it was to be displayed and I got the board and cheese across London to the Geovation hub one evening in September 2018 to display at the #geomob event. Cheese unwrapped, positioned according to a geographical list I’d prepared to ensure I didn’t make a mess of locating each piece, added a few labels and some context and sat back to watch a hungry crowd devour it. I wrote up a more extensive blog about the map here and there’s a bit on the GeoHipster blog here.

What next? Well, I quite like craft beer and there’s definitely geo in that. And someone suggested whiskey, except I can’t stand the stuff. Never have been able to drink it after a very unfortunate incident in my younger days. That’s another story entirely.