Nicole Martinelli to GeoHipster: “The map you need but don’t have is the most compelling.”

Nicole Martinelli is a tech journalist turned community organizer because she needed a map to navigate earthquake-prone San Francisco, California. She founded Resiliency Maps and now spends time making maps for community responders on that cutting-edge medium, paper.
Nicole was interviewed for GeoHipster by Mike Dolbow.

Q: You and I met at State of the Map US in Minneapolis this past fall. Did you enjoy the conference and your trip to Minnesota?

A: Yeah, we met at the cool kid table with Ana Leticia Ma, I think. Loved the conference, but still can’t believe there weren’t more people there. We’re talking about maps, after all, not some arcane tech. 

Rant aside, there are three sessions I keep sending people links to:

Q: Tell our readers how you got into mapping, GIS, and/or OSM.

A: I was looking to do more with data journalism, and the first awkward project I took on involved scraping Craigslist to figure out where and when people most often got parted with their iPhones. Usually, when I’m trying to learn something, I like to layer different aspects of it, so I went out in the field as a GIS volunteer at the San Francisco Botanical gardens, waving the Trimble around in the misty fog. And from there, MOOCs, a GIS certificate and a lot of trial and error. I still think (and work) way more like a journalist than someone with a traditional GIS background, for better but often worse.  

Q: How was the idea of Resiliency Maps inspired?

A: The map you need but don’t have is probably the most compelling one to make, right? A couple of years ago, I moved to South of Market, a part of San Francisco that I’d never lived in and didn’t know that well. 

I’d recently renewed my Neighborhood Emergency Response Team (yes, NERT!) training so all the teaching about how to spot soft-story buildings and potential hazards was fresh in my mind. I realized that I had no idea where to go and how to get there if an earthquake hit. The map in my go-bag was from the tourist board. At the time, it wasn’t to scale and didn’t cover the whole city!

The basic idea is to create a neighborhood map, built with all open-source tools, that can be downloaded, used offline and printed for emergency prep. It shows assets and hazards, so you can navigate your surroundings safely.

I’ve volunteered and worked in open source and felt strongly that OpenStreetMap and open-source tools were the way forward. My first approach to OSM was a mapathon after the 2015 Nepal earthquake, so I knew how powerful it is post-disaster. But talking to people, some skepticism bubbled up about how easy OSM was to use, “were there mobile apps?”, “could you use paper?”, things like that. 

I wrote a tutorial for every question people had to show that it was viable, and then thought, “Wait, I should do something with this.”

Q: What do potential users need to know about it?

We’re still in the early stages and looking for contributors, especially cartographers with OSM knowledge. The next step for Resiliency Maps (RM) is to create a template to represent the most common features necessary during an emergency. We have some promising visualizations already but we’d love to get more tests and more communities to try them and give us feedback.

Q: You grew up in the Bay Area, right? Does that factor into your interest in maps?

A: Disaster maps, for sure. I’ve spent about half my life in San Francisco, the other half in Italy. Both places are pretty complicated, seismically, so it’s always hovering in the background. This old Red Cross poster comes to mind:

Or maybe it’s the disaster mentality that travels with you? In any case, the differences in approach to preparedness in the two countries is fascinating.

The Civil Protection in Tuscany developed a free app (with OSM as basemap!) to show you where to go in a flood or landslide for the entire region. It shows things like which school might serve as a shelter and what its amenities are (number of beds, showers, defibrillator, etc.) and whether the building is suitable for shelter in an earthquake.

The app pushes weather alerts and will eventually have a navigation feature to route you while avoiding hazards like flood-prone underpasses. The datasets are available in an open data portal, too. We don’t have free, public resources like that for San Francisco, let alone regionally.

However, I’ve convinced exactly none of my friends or relatives in Italy to get a go-bag together. Outside the capillary network of Civil Protection volunteers and local associations, the average Italian feels much less impetus to prepare. There’s a faint superstition that preparing somehow invites disaster? 

That doesn’t deter me, though. Let’s say that they all know exactly what they’re getting every birthday, or holiday. Who wouldn’t want a length of rope, a few bandanas and a handful of carabiner clips for Christmas? And there will definitely be Resiliency Maps in those bags!

Q: Tell me about your latest adventure, becoming a licensed Ham radio operator.

A: Getting the HAM license early in 2019 felt like crossing some kind of nerd Rubicon, but I did it because in a disaster the tech we use everyday can’t be trusted to see us through. 

It’s late 19th-century tech that still plays a powerful role, because when everything else fails you have a dedicated network of FCC-licensed volunteers who come to the rescue. During 9/11, the Amateur Radio Service kept New York City agencies in touch after their command center was destroyed, and it was also used in Hurricane Katrina, etc.  

You hear of folks managing to use WhatsApp or messenger or similar during an event, but you can’t count on that. Redundancy matters!

Q: It’s possible that you’re a geohipster. What would you say the chances are?

A: Mmmm. Very low. Unless it’s more about shunning hoodies than the maps you make? What we’re doing at RM is deeply uncool, and I haven’t gotten over the embarrassment of being a San Francisco native promoting downloaded, static and/or paper maps. It’s so retro! And not in a hip-to-be-square kind of way.

We recently produced three neighborhood maps for NERT that work in 11×17 and larger formats using QGIS. What sold them on the maps was that they were really, really simple: building outlines, street names, fire stations and battalion boundaries. (The battalions are the only fire stations in a neighborhood open after a major event.) And they have to work in black and white. That’s it! The neighborhood NERTS now have a tool that they can mark up however they want, use for planning and also post-event.

Making maps that simple is harder than it looks, as you’d probably expect. Also, print maps are an unruly beast. But that doesn’t make it geo hip, for sure.

Our cartographer Andrew Middleton would probably qualify as a GeoHipster – both for the hair and his open dive site project – but might bristle at the term. You’d have to ask him!

Q: Any words of advice for our readers?

A:  The secret to a good risotto: Mantecare. It’s an Italian verb that’s basically only ever used to remind you to fold in grated parmesan and generous dollops of butter right before serving. It’s the difference between novice and maestro in terms of the result, but can’t be more idiot-proof to pull off.

Frankly, I’m too new to GIS to offer any pearls of wisdom in that area.

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