Sahana Murthy to GeoHipster: “GIS is a very large umbrella, brimming with opportunities”

Picure of Sahana Murthy


Sahana Murthy is the General Manager of Loveland Technologies, where she manages the team, the product, and the overall corporate & marketing strategy. Prior to Loveland, Sahana had extensive experience working with software companies and startups of all sizes across USA & India. Over the years, she has worn multiple hats with roles ranging from a software developer, developer evangelist, product manager, and product marketer to most recently leading a startup as its COO.

Sahana was interviewed for GeoHipster by Mike Dolbow.

Q: I’m told your current job is your first in the geospatial area. Tell us about your journey to get here and what drew you to this gig.

A: I have been in tech for over 10 years now. Started off as a techie working on proprietary software for a large tech conglomerate. I was lost in a sea of employees and techies, never fully knowing what value my work was adding to the larger scheme of things at the company. There was very little creativity and very little autonomy to my work. And then, one fine day, I discovered the magical work of open source and tech startups. That totally changed the trajectory of my career path and interests, in general. I haven’t looked back since. I have been working with tech startups in different industries and technologies from AI/ML to SaaS/PaaS to now a GIS software & data company. With every new gig, I have looked for a different technology and product suite and that’s what drew me to Loveland. The world of GIS and an incredible team that has tirelessly put together a comprehensive dataset of 143 million parcels across the US. No small feat!

Q: Loveland aims to be the place that all sorts of folks seek out for information on land parcels, and you’ve pieced together a nationwide dataset with pretty amazing coverage. Did you know how much of a “holy grail” this was for geospatial folks before you joined Loveland? What kinds of reactions have you gotten from new users?

A: Yes, we are the “Go-To-Source” for all things parcel data. 🙂
I sort of knew how important and valuable this dataset was before I joined the company. But I think I now truly understand how hard it is to :
acquire and collect this data
Standardize it across the board. Every county’s data is so different from another. So normalizing it – cleaning up the data for easier consumption – is easier said than done.
provide it in 5 file formats to ensure customers get what they want
cut through the bureaucracy to obtain the data from counties
find and integrate valuable datasets that can augment our already valuable data – like the USPS vacancy dataset and buildings footprints data.

The reactions we receive from users have mostly been about the quality and coverage of our data, the price, and our transparency. We are the most affordable parcel data vendor with high quality coverage. We communicate all of our data updates to customers on a monthly basis. So they are always aware of what we are adding, updating and improving. Our origins lie in “democratizing data” and we believe we are doing that well.

Q: I myself know what kind of an immense task this is, since I’ve been in charge of compiling similar data for Minnesota’s 87 counties for years. What’s the hardest part to automate?

A: Well, we’ve built a state-of-the-art ML model that lets us clean parcel data to perfection in a matter of seconds! 😉
No, but seriously, the hardest part to automate is normalizing and cleaning the data! We do rely on a very robust set of open source geo tools like PostGIS, QGIS, and GDAL. There’s still a lot of manual work backed by the judgement and experience of our parcel team.

Nearly every one of the 3,200 counties in the US manages its data independently. There’s very little consistency from place to place even for basic columns like “owner”: it could be “deedholder, “firstname”, “fname”, “propow”, or pretty much anything else. And you’d think that a field called “Parcel ID” might be unique — but it rarely is.

Generally, counties within states are more like each other than counties outside of those states, but not necessarily. Also, cleaning the data can be quite tricky at times. Working with this data makes it apparent how much human error can be involved, especially when it comes to casting columns that should be integers or double precision from text. Date field conversion can also be quite tricky at times, depending on the formatting used by a place. A lot of rules built up over time plus the keen eyes of our data team help us keep quality high.

Q: I know there are a lot of counties in the US that sell their parcel data in an attempt to recover costs. Do you think these counties are aware that you’re repackaging their data and selling it yourself? If so, have you faced any opposition from local government officials?

A: Some counties have been slower or more reluctant to openly share their parcel data than others, but the overwhelming trend we see is towards more data accessibility. Over the last five years, many more counties and entire states have moved towards open parcel data, and we haven’t had any problems in displaying, sharing, and providing services around it. It’s not uncommon for us to have cities and counties as customers and they all want easy access to the data.

As time goes on, we anticipate that the public facts contained in parcel data will be ubiquitous, and the value that we add to the base data through organizing, standardizing, and adding additional data from other sources, including machine learning, will be where a lot of the value is. This is also a value add that we can provide back to counties, so it’s a win win.

A few years ago the team did some research to see how much county assessors who do still sell parcel data are making from it, and who they are selling it to. The numbers were very low and the people they are selling it to are often resellers who mark it up and resell it. We’re definitely not alone in the space of selling parcel data, and we work hard to be good, positive actors who are helpful to local governments and the public.

At the end of the day, parcel data is made of public record facts about how the country is subdivided, owned, taxed, and used. The public nature of the subdivision of land in the US stretches back to the earliest days of the country and big public programs like the US Public Land Survey which started in 1785. We see ourselves as providing a missing service by bringing all these local datasets together into a big picture of how we own, use, and inhabit the country. The reaction to that has been positive.

Q: Are you scraping any REST endpoints like OpenAddresses, or are you more frequently downloading from open data sites and then loading into your database?

A: The nationwide trend towards making parcel data open to the public has been important to us. We do download data from data portals and scrape from public REST APIs. Our team of parcel prospectors is both incredibly nice and incredibly talented at collecting the data. We haven’t yet gone to digitize counties that are still paper-based — maybe someday.

Q: How does the team decide what attributes to standardize on across the country? I’ve seen parcel datasets with some 90+ columns in them, but you seem to be flexing what you serve based on the sources. Is that hard to stay on top of?

A: We roughly based our schema around what the State of North Carolina uses to standardize their parcel data. We try to use columns that are broad, but also relatively unambiguous. There are occasional movements towards a federal standard, and that would be amazing.
Most places don’t have that depth of data as North Carolina has been working on their statewide dataset for a while, and helping local assessors get up to that level of detail. If a place doesn’t have as many fields, that’s what we work with.

As far as custom columns, we generally try and take a maximalist approach. For clients working exclusively within a very local scope, you never know what column is a must-have. The benefit of having the schema is that at a larger scope it allows one to be pretty flexible in data exporting without porting over a ton of custom fields aggregated from various counties.

Q: Congrats on getting your data into Carto’s Data Observatory. What does that mean for your company?

A: Thank you. We are thrilled about our partnership with Carto. We love Carto and everything they have done and built in such a short span of time. They are a benchmark in the GIS world and to get our data into their product suite is absolutely amazing! What this means for us, I guess, is it’s a testament to the quality of our data and coverage. We have always known that, but when we have trusted members of the GIS world like Carto and Mapbox believing in our data, it’s great validation for all of our work! Our lean team of 14 works tenaciously to improve our product every single day and now everybody is starting to see that.

Q: I guess you can tell I love talking about parcel data. Let’s diverge, though: what kinds of things do you like to do in your free time? Any hobbies?

A: I’m guilty of varied interests! Although as a mom to a hyperactive 2 year old, I guess I don’t get to indulge in hobbies as much as I used to. 🙂
I love to cook, sing, and read. I’m sort of an amateur food blogger on Instagram right now.
Travel has always been a passion. Growing up, I maintained a travel log and dreamed of a career in travel some day. Of course, those days are behind me, but the passion for travel still continues.

Growing up in India, I had made a vow to travel to every state in India. I think I am at a 95% completion rate. It’s not so much about checking off the bucket list but more about discovering the rich cultural heritage and differences in every place. India is so diverse. People speak and write a different language, just 50 kilometers apart. And the only way to truly experience that is by traveling to every nook and corner. And of course, discovering the range of local foods is absolute heaven for a foodie like me. The hope is to do the same here in the US, and eventually worldwide.

Q: Since you’re new to geo, you probably haven’t read a lot of GeoHipster interviews. What comes to mind when you hear the term ‘geohipster’?

A: I actually have read some since I started with Loveland. I love the work that many of your featured geohipsters are doing. Although when I read those, the irony is all too evident to me. I’m an imposter GIS person at best right now (that will change in a few months I reckon). 🙂 My team however is GIS through and through.

The term ‘geohipster’ to me is someone, anyone – techie, non techie, GIS or non-GIS who’s passionate about their local geography and land grid! It could be an urban planner, a surveyor, a cartographer or someone like our CEO – Jerry Paffendorf who’s dedicated the past ten years of his life to change the property landscape of Detroit and continues to do that still, in his own way, outside of his work at Loveland.

Q: What kinds of advice would you give to folks in startups and SAAS looking to diversify into a field like geo? What advice would you give yourself the day before you started?

A: As someone who comes from a long line of tech startups and SaaS, the one thing I can guarantee is that working in geo would bring in just the same amount of challenge and excitement as any other industry. Typically, that’s what most folks who prefer working in startups are drawn to – an exciting, fast paced industry. Geo has not disappointed in that regard. Also, GIS is a very large umbrella, brimming with opportunities. The surveying and mapping market in the US is about $9.3 billion and growing, as of 2019. The sky’s the limit. Cooler things are happening and being built as we speak with droning technologies and use of AI & ML on aerial imagery. It’s an exciting time to switch over to Geo.

For me personally, since we are the “parcel/cadastral kind” in GIS, the advice I would have given myself is to prepare for working with the public sector. Until now, I’ve only worked in the private sector and managed customers in private sector verticals. So working with counties and the public sector is a different experience that I’m now learning to navigate. But, the exciting part about my job is that I get to straddle both sectors.

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.

Welcome to our new site…

A picture of the GeoHipster sticker in Southern California
Our #geohipster stickers get around, even to sunny Southern California. Photo Credit: Jason J. Benedict.

Hello GeoHipster fans! It’s Mike D. here, checking in from Minnesota. Whether it’s hot or cold here, I like to think of this photo Jason Benedict shared with us via Twitter! I’m always excited to see our stickers making their way around the world.

But enough about the weather! In case you missed it in our post this past weekend, we’ve officially migrated all of our content here to this brand-spanking new WordPress site, complete with a new header image, mobile-friendlier design, and a spiffy SSL cert that hopefully keeps your network admins from blocking us.

Why now? Well, when I incorporated GeoHipster as an independent business back in 2017, the “OG” Atanas Entchev transferred most of the GeoHipster assets and operational responsibilities to me. One of the things that was left behind was the WordPress site he started (way back in 2013!) on the geohipster.com domain. To be frank, I just wasn’t ready to take over that part of the GeoHipster enterprise.

But now that I’ve got a few good years under my belt running the business, it seemed like the right time to make a transfer. Atanas and I have settled into our respective roles along with chief designer Jonah Adkins, and we’ve got all kinds of ways for you to support our work, including of course our 2020 Calendar. And we’ll continue publishing long-form, in-depth interviews with the most interesting characters in the geospatial world. To me, it’s amazing to see how far we’ve come since late 2013, when Will Skora transferred the @geohipster Twitter account to Atanas and Glenn Latham suggested the poll about what defines the GeoHipster.

We hope you like our new design and the benefits that come along with it! See you out there in the interwebs, or on Null Island…

Celebrating six years with a new site, and a new poll

On December 7, 2013, the “OG” Atanas Entchev posted a poll on geohipster.com entitled “What defines the GeoHipster?” Little did he know at the time that he would be launching a movement (or something) that would be filled with hundreds of interviews, opinion pieces, stickers, calendars, and t-shirts. Well, six years in, we’re still going strong, with more volunteers, a brand new 2020 calendar, and now, this newly designed website. So what better way to celebrate our six-year anniversary than with a reboot of the poll that started it all?

Update on the 2020 calendar

On November 26th, we at GeoHipster were informed of a dispute regarding potentially incomplete credits for one of the maps in our 2020 calendar. In the following days, we entered into discussions with the involved parties in an attempt to reach a satisfactory resolution. As a result of these discussions, on December 2nd we created a Second Edition of the 2020 calendar by substituting a map from Miguel Marques. Miguel’s map ranked highly among the original submissions, and will be included in all calendars ordered after our update. The Second Edition also includes an updated cover with Miguel’s name listed among the authors.

Please join us in congratulating Miguel for becoming part of this amazing product!

On #PostGIS Day, We Unveil Our 2020 Calendar

2020 GeoHipster Calendar

Let us here at GeoHipster be some of the first to wish all of you GeoJSON lovers out there a happy #PostGIS Day, just in case you don’t have our 2019 calendar to give you a handy reminder. And this year, we’ve actually had our act together well enough to be able to release our 2020 calendar to mark the occasion!

Support GeoHipster and independent publishers: Buy our calendar on Lulu.

If you absolutely can’t wait to get your own, the button above will take you to the calendar on Lulu. (Order by December 10 in the US if you want it by Christmas with regular shipping.) But, some of you are also wondering who the lucky map authors are! So without further ado, here are the amazing cartographers that have been selected for our 2020 calendar:

Congratulations to all the map authors! And, special thanks to everyone who submitted a map for our competition; you all made the voting very difficult! We’d also like to thank Bill Dollins for leading the charge on this effort, Jonah Adkins for the finishing touches, our Editorial Board for judging, and this year’s guest judges: Eben Dennis, Daniel Huffman, and Sophia Parafina.

Irish commutes map

Call for Maps: the 2020 GeoHipster Calendar

Could your map be on the cover of our 2020 calendar?

Hello GeoHipster fans, cartographers, and map geeks around the world! While we’ve put out teasers over the last few weeks, today we’re making it official: we’ve set a deadline of October 25 for you to submit your map for the 2020 GeoHipster Calendar. We’re trying to move a bit quicker this year so we can have the calendar ready to order for Black Friday. But 10/25 is over a month away, so we know you’re all going to get us some amazing maps to consider!

More details are on our 2020 calendar page. Check it out, and get mapping!

David Haynes to GeoHipster: “Learn the back end…you’ll be viable forever.”

David Haynes
David Haynes

David Haynes II is an Assistant Professor with the Institute for Health Informatics at University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, and a health geographer who uses cutting-edge spatial analysis methods to advance knowledge of health and cancer disparities. 

David was interviewed for GeoHipster by Mike Dolbow.

Q: You got your undergrad degree in Biology, then a Master’s in GIS shortly after. I’ve met people who have taken all kinds of different roads to discover GIS, but I think a biology degree is a new one. So tell our readers, how did you get started in geospatial?

A: I went to a small liberal arts college in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, (Coe College). When I originally went to school I thought I was going to be a medical doctor, so I took a lot of biology courses. I was generally interested in human and environmental biology. It was in an environmental biology course that a professor offered me a summer research position. She had heard that I was good with computers and needed some help analyzing GPS locations. That was my first real experience with “GIS and Geography”. We were running Arc 3.1 and I started playing with AML / Avenue. It was a very cool experience and led to me going to St. Mary’s in Winona, MN for my master’s in GIS.

Q: You and I crossed paths by working with some mutual colleagues in the Health disciplines. We both know that where someone lives, commutes, and works can have huge impacts on their health, but sometimes I’ve found the area to be relatively slow to adopt spatial technologies. Have you found the same, and if so, do you feel like you’re constantly selling the business case?

A: So the medical field like every field goes in waves. 20+ years ago there was the idea of the environment being a factor for causing negative health outcomes. However, GIS was just at its beginning for the broader community and much of that literature showed that the scale of analysis was critical for determining that. So health went away from that to personal behaviors and thinking that was the main cause. We are at a point now, we know that if we control for many of these personal demographic characteristics (age, race, sex), we still see large gaps or disparities. We hypothesize that the environment could explain the disparities. However, the environment now needs to be more specifically defined which is causing a headache for everyone. Most researchers approach this from the traditional epi point of view and try to add spatial on at the end. So I spend much of my time on studies that want to add spatial to them. Not many studies start with spatial as the primary focus.

Q: It does seem like the field of ‘health geography’ is growing. Can you tell us what it’s like, in your experience?

A: Yes, I think the ability to use smart devices is going to make Geography extremely important in designing interventions. I am thinking of designing a study for smoking cessation that would send you SMS notifications if you are in a business that sells tobacco. 

Q: How would you describe “health geo-informatics”? Is this just another way to say spatial (or GIS)?

A: Yeah, pretty much. I think my focus is to make health spatial and to integrate more sophisticated spatial analyses that most researchers wouldn’t. 

Q: You were once a rugby player. I don’t know much about the sport, but it appears to me to be a lot like soccer and American football: where an awareness of space, angles, and boundaries is an advantage. Did you ever think of it like that? Ever map your games?

A: Funny, Yes. I want to teach a class one day call the “Geography of Sport”. Actually all sports are about Geography. You have a limited defined extent in which you have to operate. In many classic team sports (i.e., football, basketball, hockey, etc.), the goal for the defense is to limit the space and time for different players. If a QB is throwing the football they need time and the receivers make the pass easier by creating distance between themselves and the defenders. Staying with football, every defense seeks to limit potential areas of the field while leaving other areas open. The offense tries to exploit these areas. I could go on all day about this as I really enjoy watching sports from a geographic perspective. One last thing, this is why the prevent defense in football gets no credit. The prevent defense is to prevent a touchdown on the hail mary pass not prevent the Tom Brady 5-10 yard passes. Defensive Coordinators need to develop new defenses that use a mixture of man to man with zone to be more effective in the 2 minutes offense.

Q: In Minnesota, we have a saying that there are only two seasons: winter, and construction. But you’re into aquaponics and sustainable gardening. Isn’t there a gardening analogy to that, like, “weeding and canning”?

A: Yeah, aquaponics is a labor of annoyance. It always starts out great and then something breaks two weeks later. But mostly I’m dreaming farmer. I read the book “5 Acres & a Dream” and was hooked. One day, that’s what I want to do. I’d be more of a hobby farmer in the day and do some serious programming at night.

Q: What do you think of some of the indoor, urban, industrial agriculture systems that are cropping up, sometimes as CSAs? Given the rising environmental costs of shipping, and unpredictable climate we’re facing, this seems to me like something we need to invest in more as a society. But can aquaponics really save the world?

A: Realistically, I think it’s a part of the solution. It won’t save the world, but it would improve some things like the food supply chain. Every year there are 10 e-coli outbreaks related to vegetables. This isn’t going to change. But this might be an area where aquaponics could help. I have grand ideas of how aquaponics could be used to provide benefits to society. Mostly, I do it to help my kids understand where food comes from and what waste is. I like aquaponics because it recycles the water and is kind of a closed-loop system, although I feed the fish. But I think getting people familiar with the idea of how an ideal nature system could operate would help us. It is an opportunity to learn more about ecosystems and how plants, animals, and people can all interact in a sustainable way.

Q: I’m not sure how much you know about GeoHipster, but you’re a big PostGIS user in a nascent field – which makes you different than a lot of people I know, but more like some of the “geohipsters” I’ve met. So what do you think, might you be a geohipster?

A: After re-reading your definition, I would definitely be a geohipster. Geography and using GIS in the broader health world isn’t new, but it is really in demand right now and this trend will likely continue for at least 5-10 years. I’d also say, like many of the geohipsters you have interviewed that I am a big advocate for spatial and try to help people understand why spatial is important. 

I’d say I’m a big spatial database advocate. I tend to use a variety of tools that fit the need of the project. Which I think is the mantra of your GeoHipster definition poll. I think industries and the medical world tend to be OK with the installation of a validated commercial software. However, that can take weeks or months. They always seem to have a database around and if you can move data into that they seem to roll with it. Databases just seem safe. Plus I think the ability to scale analyses out in databases is easier than programming. But you need to know how to program if you’re working with big data.

Q: You’ve got a year or more of teaching under your belt. What career advice would you give to your students – or to our readers?

A: If you are into Geography that is great, and if you are just coming into GIS I feel sorry and excited for you. The GIS field is really changing, which can be daunting at first. When I came into Geography there was a general feeling that you could learn ArcGIS and get a job. You could learn a second proprietary software and be set for life. Programming was something you could do, but wasn’t necessary. That has all changed for me and any future students.

Google Maps, MapBox, OpenStreet Map, Uber, Lyft. etc have all changed this. We are truly embracing the big data and computational science revolution. This means that you need to have mid-level understanding of computer science. You need to know how to program in an Object Oriented Language for either front end or back end. I would tend to recommend students or new people to the field to learn the back-end over the front-end. Because there are a million web designers out there that can make a map better than you. They won’t know what they are doing. They won’t know what a coordinate system is and how it matters, but they can stick it together fast. The benefit of the back-end is that you will be viable forever if you apply your spatial analysis skill within a programming framework. Be flexible and adaptable to the programming platform. I write code in R, Python, SQL (PostGIS) and Scala. Some language may be your favorite, but keep your eyes open. One resource, I’ll point people to is Packt. They have a lot of good books that I’ve purchased online.

Chris Whong to GeoHipster: “How we build is as important as what we build.”

Chris Whong is an NYC-based civic hacker, urbanist, mapmaker, and data junkie. He most recently worked as the founder and director of NYC Planning Labs, promoting the use of agile methods, human-centered design, and open technology to build impactful tools at the NYC Department of City Planning. He’s perpetually tinkering with open source geospatial technology, open data, and web projects, sharing his work via tweets, blog posts and speaking events. He teaches graduate level technology courses for Urban Planners at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service, promoting the use of open source tools for mapping, data analysis, and visualization.

Chris was interviewed for GeoHipster by Mike Dolbow.

Q: Whong’s law states that “Every government agency, everywhere is working on a ‘new system’; It will solve all of their data problems and will be ready to use in 18-24 months.” My 20+ years in government have taught me that you’re 100% right on this, and I can’t believe I didn’t think of it myself. Please tell me this will be the subject of your first TED talk.

A: I actually came up with this a few years ago when I was in sales, and was speaking to different state and local governments several times a week. There was always a huge amount of faith everyone had that the “new system” would solve all of their data woes in the near future, but it never seemed to actually arrive. I’d love to do more research on this front, as every government technologist I’ve encountered has some version of this story for “new systems” large and small.

Q: Even after all the gigantic government IT failures, I still can’t believe how many ginormous contracts I see being awarded. (Despite their past success, I’m still looking at this $26 million award with side eye.) But they can’t all be failures, right? Maybe just the billion dollar ones?

A: I think the ones you hear about are the BIG ones… there are probably hundreds of little ones that are just as bad but not big enough to show up on anyone’s radar. There has been some reporting recently in NYC about ballooning construction costs for what should be simple projects like park restrooms. I think you’ll find a lot of the same incentives and poor practices at play in both construction and IT projects. My hunch is that it’s the bigness of NYC that allows for these kinds of things to slip through the cracks. A $14M bathroom is peanuts in a $11B capital budget… and you can’t really inspect that budget unless you’re willing to slog through hundreds of pages of screen printouts published as a PDF.

Q: You recently left your post at NYC Planning Labs. What was your favorite project to work on in that job?

A: That would be ZAP Search. It’s a frontend search tool for looking up information on land use applications in NYC. Basically, anyone who wants to change zoning (including the city) has to go through a governmental process, and there’s an information system that tracks each action. I love this project because we were able to seamlessly integrate spatial data into a non-spatial database. You and I know it’s just a simple join to add geometries to a row in a table, but this has eluded everyone and been a huge excuse for years. In government, spatial is still the realm of “GIS people”, who tend to not be the same thing as app developers.

When you’re dealing with a city that’s the size of New York, the map becomes a critical part of the search UI for making individual projects discoverable. Adding geometries and displaying them on a map goes a long way towards making the data instantly relatable to people. Nobody knows obscure project names or even addresses of things being built near them, but everyone knows where they live and can relate to things happening nearby.

I should add that the GeoSearch API comes in at a close second. (GeoSearch is the autocomplete geocoder API that powers address search in all of our apps) We didn’t even build it, the heavy lift for us was transforming the city’s official address database into a format that would work with the Open Source Pelias geocoder built at Mapzen. It’s a wonderful open source story, and I like to think a contract to build a highly-available autocomplete geocoder in government would have taken years and millions of dollars. We did it in a few weeks, basically for free, by leveraging open source.  We also made it publicly available and wrote a nice little documentation site to help people get started using it.

Q: Can you tell us what’s coming next for you? And whether or not you’ll need to add a corollary to Whong’s law?

A: I’m planning to write a book about my 3-year stint in local government (but I know I’ll just get consumed with side projects during my time off!) I want it to be a relatable easy read full of anecdotes and things I’ve learned being a solo open source developer and building a small (but highly effective) digital team. I’ve accepted a position at Qri (qri.io), an open source startup building technology for distributed data collaboration, discovery, and version control. It touches on a lot of the pain points I’ve experienced working with, publishing, and sharing data over the years. I’ll be exploring use cases, building tooling around the core platform, and trying to grow the Qri user community.

Q: Do you think every government organization needs “an 18F” to show the way towards better IT, better user experiences, better designs in government apps?

A: Yes, and it’s important to remember that the culture change is the most important thing these teams bring. The tech tooling is just a fraction of the overall environment. Openness, collaboration, good design practices, continuous learning, introspection/retrospection, sharing, focusing on the user, iterating and shipping code continuously, etc. are what lead to better products. These things require culture change way beyond just saying “use open source software”.

I’ve also described all of the above characteristics as values that are at odds with the way government is usually structured when it comes to tech delivery.

It’s important to think about the long-term sustainability of these progressive values. How do you get them out of the 18F-style team and into the regular standing operating procedure of an agency? How to you make the myriad controls and requirements codified into tech policy support this new way of working? These are things I didn’t stick around NYC Planning Labs long enough to tackle, but they remain issues that my former colleagues are faced with every day.

Q: Have you always been a New Yorker? What do you like – or dislike – about the city?

A: I came here in 2011 to study Urban Planning at NYU. Someone once told me that it takes 7 years to finally call yourself a New Yorker, so I guess I’ve passed that milestone. I always say that once I started getting involved in civic tech, I began bumping into the same people at meetups and events all over the city, and found “my scene”. After that, the big, busy, hectic city got a lot smaller and really felt more like home.

I love that there is so much opportunity here. Whatever you’re interested in, the best and brightest people on the planet who do that thing are either already here or will be passing through regularly. There’s always a meetup or conference, there’s always someone who wants to grab a coffee or a drink, and there’s always someone who knows someone who wants to chat about their bold idea or passion project.

Q: I’m an old school jQuery guy. But I know you’re more impressed with the modern frameworks. What’s your preference and why?

A: My lead developer and I had a healthy React vs Ember debate when I first stood up Planning Labs, and he won because he had better arguments for why Ember was a better fit for a small scrappy team. It’s opinionated, but it brings everything you need for building single-page apps so you can prototype quickly and not have to worry about the myriad parts of the app architecture you would if you were assembling things from scratch. I am still a fan of React, if only because I don’t have to have 3 files open to manage the same component, and I actually like JSX (don’t hate, congratulate!). I was able to squeeze a little React into our portfolio via gatsby.js, the static site generator that powers planninglabs.nyc. Everything else is made with Ember, which we’ve built some powerful mapping integrations with and has served us well.

Q: As a former Carto employee, your GeoHipster cred is already well established, as far as I’m concerned. Now’s your chance to embrace the label, or provide evidence to the contrary.

A: I’m proud of the progressive spatial stack we put together at Planning Labs. We were pulling vector tiles out of the carto maps API before they were officially released (you know, “before it was cool”), and figured out how to consume them with MapboxGL. We even got to play with the new PostGIS ST_AsMVT() function to produce vector tile protobufs right from the database. We pioneered print-friendly web map layouts using paper.css, and even got to automate print map creation for New York Land Use Applications, effectively building GIS on the web with automated data and a custom UI. So yeah, I’m a geohipster and proud! I’m bummed to miss JSGeo this year 😦

Q: As a geographer, does it bug you that so many “New York” teams actually play in New Jersey?

A: I care so little about professional sports that I didn’t even know New York teams play in New Jersey. I didn’t care before and I still don’t care.

Q: What are the merits of a saltwater reef aquarium, and do you provide treasure maps to the inhabitants?

A: A reef tank was something I really wanted to do back in 2010, but I was about to move to NYC and it wasn’t a good time to start the hobby. My wife finally gave permission last year and I’ve been obsessive over starting up the tank. We’ve got a nice 34-gallon reef set up in our apartment with a few fish, some corals, a shrimp, and a crab. It’s high-maintenance, and requires a lot of water production, saltwater mixing, water chemistry testing, cleaning, etc. The payout is worth it, my kid loves to help with feeding and water changes, and the critters all have their own little habits and personalities. The tank is a big stress-reliever, and it’s just fun to nurture a little ecosystem and look to the community for advice and support. I have not integrated mapping or open source technology or into my fish tank yet.

Q: I’m sure our readers in between jobs, or considering a change, would appreciate any final words of wisdom.

A: We were successful at Planning Labs because I refused to compromise on the really important things. I always said “how we build is as important as what we build”, and that meant not doing things the way government IT is comfortable doing them. We still had lots of government cruft in our way over the years, but the basics of modern technology-building were not up for debate, and that made all the difference. By the way, sharing is a BIG part of what I consider to be part of the basics, and is probably our most progressive trait. Half the fun of working on something is sharing the achievements and lessons learned (and the finished product) with others in your community. In my experience, talking openly about what you are working on in government is either discouraged or flat out forbidden.

In summary, figure out what your values are, and apply them to every decision, every project, etc. If your personal values don’t align with your organization’s you will need to fight, defend, and evangelize them at every turn (or go find another organization whose values match yours). The former is preferable if you’re in public service.

Maps and Mappers of the 2019 GeoHipster calendar — Team Bright Rain, April

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: I was surprised that we were the only collaboration to submit an entry, we are a team of two strong here at Team Bright Rain:

David Puckett

Bright Rain Solutions’ owner, operator, geospatial developer, data wrangler and self professed Grand Poobah. I’ve been part of the Geo Community for over twenty years and still get fantastically excited about all things geo. I’ve been known to run a workshop or two and have taught a class on web mapping. I consider myself a ‘bridger’ between the proprietary and open source worlds. And some of my best friends are “proprietarians”.

Andrew Lindley

Bright Rain’s Dynamic Technologist with an earnest mission to change the way you put boots and hats on maps. Drew has been with Bright Rain for two years and earned a degree in Geography from the University of British Columbia. He was also the star student in my GIS programming class, from which I promptly drafted him.

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: When it hit me, I literally jumped out of my chair and hollered, “Hexes in Texas!,” with a rousing “Yes! Divorce Rates in Texas!” and All My Hexes Live in Texas was born. It could have been the boots… I happened to be wearing cowboy boots that day… It could have been the H3 hexagon project we had going. But it was definitely cosmic inspiration.

The map is honest to goodness tongue-in-cheek grit but it also brought several interests together for us and that’s why we were excited (and committed enough) to create and submit it. It’s funny yet not so silly that we couldn’t actually wrangle some real data and present it in, dare I say, a (geo)hip way. We love the slight clash between the slick, modern feel of the web map and the old timey western feel of the title text, hat and boot.

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

A: We are web (map) developers so our toolset in making this map definitely embodies that. The map was created as a web map and later exported and enhanced in Adobe Illustrator to create the final image output. Mapbox GL was used to display and extrude counties as hexagons based on the divorce rate within the county. The hexagons themselves were generated using Uber Engineering’s H3 Hexagonal Hierarchical Spatial Index (Javascript) library (at scale level 5).

DATA

Data was gathered from the state of Texas (population per county and divorces per county) and the US Census Bureau (us states: Tennessee).

Texas 2012 Population Estimates by County

https://www.dshs.texas.gov/chs/popdat/ST2012e.shtm

Texas 2012 Marriage and Divorce by County

http://www.dshs.state.tx.us/chs/vstat/vs12/t39.shtm

Texas County Boundaries (shapefile, SHAPEFILE!)

http://gis-txdot.opendata.arcgis.com/datasets/9b2eb7d232584572ad53bad41c76b04d_0

ANALYSIS

Analysis was conducted in QGIS where the divorce rate per thousand was calculated and the hexagons were assigned a value for extrusion (based on divorce rate calculation). The resulting hexagons with divorce rates assigned were exported as geojson for direct use in the web application.

AND

An interactive, web map version is here:

http://dev.brightrain.com/hexes-in-texas/